Gavin Schmidt explains why the Earth needs to see a doctor… today.

A Balancing Act

Gavin Schmidt throws things in the air and catches them!

30 Second Science with Gavin Schmidt

We give Gavin Schmidt 30 seconds to describe his science and he takes a bow.

10 Questions for Gavin Schmidt

We ask Gavin Schmidt 10 questions and he tells us about beer and Carl Sagan.

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Juggler's Apprentice

By: Laura Willcox

Let me just state this right out: I have absolutely no hand-eye coordination. And when we went to film Gavin and his juggling compatriots, I was of the understanding that I’d be able to remain safely in the shadows—no juggling, just producing.

Well, I was wrong!

It turns out that Gavin loves to teach and soon I was clumsily throwing and dropping three small beanbags in front of a roomful of amazing performers. There was a woman lying on her side while she nonchalantly spun a hula-hoop around her ankle; a man spinning a heavy red ball up one arm and down the other; and an energetic team of four tossing what seemed like 20 pins to each other in perfect harmony.

What was even cooler was discovering how many of these jugglers were actually scientists! There was a psychologist who studies depression, a mathematician, and a physicist, to name just a few. It seems that juggling tends to draw the kind of crowd that likes to let loose while also mastering an art form that is heavily based in, you guessed it, physics!

Unfortunately for me, physics was never my strong point and this became all too apparent during my juggling lesson with Gavin. Check out this video to see why I’m going to stick to my day job.

Just Do What It Is That You Like

So we’ve talked with a lot of scientists while producing “Secret Life.” And one thing we’ve learned is that great scientists love what they do. They have a passion for their science that helps them transcend the inevitable obstacles. Without that passion, science—just like any other field—isn’t particularly exciting or dynamic. Without that passion, science is a job.

What triggered the SLoS team to reflect so deeply today? It was a story Gavin Schmidt told us about how his father helped to turn his own disappointments into an opportunity—and ultimately, a life’s work—for his son:

“My father had interests very similar to mine—he was very sharp. He liked doing mathematical problems—and we’d share that when I was a kid. When he was younger, he wasn’t allowed to do what he wanted. His father told him that he had to go and do a chemistry degree, which he hated, and he spent his entire degree, I think, playing pool and goofing off. He ended up being an engineer and he hated being an engineer.

“When I was growing up, I said to him, ‘I don’t really know what it is that I want to do, but I really like doing math.’ And he said, ‘Just do what it is that you like.’ And I think that’s a great attitude. My parents were always supportive of the idea that I should do what it is that I’m good at and that I like. There’s a phrase—I can’t remember who said it—but it says, ‘Do what it is that you love to do and contrive to get paid for it.’ And that’s exactly what I’ve managed to do.”

The SLoS team—and Gavin’s dad—all hope you’ll do what it is that you like, most especially if that includes watching Gavin’s videos, following his links and asking him questions in the post below this one.

Ask Gavin your questions

Q: Do you incorporate ARGO data about the Ocean’s properties into your climate model?

Gavin Schmidt (GS): The Argo floats, for those that don’t know, are a network of over 3000 sensors that drift in the ocean and report back via satellite how warm or cold the ocean is. They provide data that can be used together with more historical measurements to see how the ocean temperatures are changing. Our climate models don’t use the data directly, but the changes in temperature that the models produce do get compared to this network over short and long time scales.

Q: Are we responsible for our own ozone degradation problems?

GS: Stratospheric ozone depletion is a separate environmental problem than climate change – though there are connections. The main ozone depleting chemicals (CFCs) are also greenhouse gases, and the chemical reactions that these chemicals catalyze are also affected by temperatures (which are also changing). Wobbles in the Earth’s orbit (because of the tug of the other planets mainly) do cause climate change – but these changes are very slow (10s of the thousands of years to happen) and are not related to what we are seeing at the moment.

Q: Do you have a standard (short) response to the people that state that global warming is not scientifically proven? And, how do you respond to those that bring up the climate change e-mail fiasco?

GS: Well, there’s no doubt that the planet is warming up – you get that from weather stations, ocean observations, reducing sea ice, retreating mountain glaciers, the earlier onset of spring etc. However, your question is probably more related to whether humans have had a role in this. That is a harder thing to demonstrate – but just like in a trial, you have to look at the balance of evidence.

The main suspects – human caused increases in greenhouse gases like CO2 and CH4 – have their fingerprints all over the climate, while other factors – like the sun, or volcanoes, or the oceans – all seem to have alibis. We can explain most of what has happened over the last century (and for many times in the deeper past too) using our current knowledge about climate (including the role of greenhouse gases), and when we project that forward using the accelerating rise in CO2, it looks like the planet will warm a lot more.

So the issue is not really whether we can prove absolutely that humans are causing this (since absolute proof doesn’t exist outside of pure mathematics in any case), but rather how we deal with what the science strongly suggests might happen in the future.

Q: What was the one thing that you had to do over and over again until you were satisfied with the result? What made it harder to succeed in that goal?

GS: Juggling is full of efforts like this. Some of which I succeeded at (5 balls), some of which I’m still pursuing (4 balls mill’s mess). But these things are appreciated by others precisely because they are hard. So it is the goal itself that makes it hard to succeed. What would be the challenge otherwise?

Q: Do you include orbital variations and axial tilt as part of climate predictions? If they are important, why don’t I hear about them?

GS: Good question! The answer is yes. However, these changes in the orbit are quite slow (thankfully!). To give you an example, the date at which the planet is closest to the sun is around Jan 3 right now (during the northern hemisphere winter). Around 6000 years ago, it was in August. That led to northern hemisphere summers then being warmer than they are now with all sorts of implications for rainfall patterns, glaciers and the Arctic. Other parts of the world reacted but in different ways – for instance the tropical areas cooled a little. So when we are trying to simulate climate changes during that period, the orbital shift is important. However, for climate changes in more recent periods (say the last few decades or the next century), these orbital changes are too small to have much of an effect.

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