Earth Science Week 2012 (Outreach)

I submitted a blog post and a soundbite for Earth Science Week 2012. The theme was “Discovering Careers in Earth Science.”

Here’s the original version of my post:

Before college, I answered the phone for an internet service provider. Every day, my boss told me when to work and what to do. I could be easily replaced because my job only required two weeks of training.

Then I graduated and got a job at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Now I set my own hours, and I decide what projects to work on. Because scientists need years of specialized training, we’re not easily replaced. My boss listens to what I say, and we work together to study the Earth. I also get paid to travel the world. For example, I’m writing this post on a train to Berlin because I gave a presentation at the GRACE science team meeting last week.

The Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites measure the Earth’s changing gravity field. Gravity is stronger in places with more mass, like on top of a mountain. Water also has mass, so gravity is temporarily stronger after a heavy rain storm. Each month, GRACE measures the strength of gravity at every point on Earth. These observations reveal the movement of mass (mainly water) on the Earth’s surface.

Right now, I’m using GRACE data to study changes in gravity due to ocean tides. Last week, I suggested that some Antarctic ice streams (fast-moving glaciers) are affected by ocean tides farther inland than we’d previously thought. The ocean tides are effectively shaking loose the ice streams, hastening their slide into the sea.

Greenland’s ice sheet is melting so rapidly that the gravity over Greenland is getting weaker every year. GRACE also sees similar melting in the glaciers and ice sheets of West Antarctica, Patagonia, Alaska, the Himalayas, etc.

GRACE observed the lack of rainfall in the Amazon during 2005, which was regarded as the worst drought in over a century. They don’t make centuries like they used to, though: the 2010 Amazon drought might have been even worse.

Watching these tragic events unfold through GRACE has been profoundly unsettling. On one hand, I’m glad that we have so many satellites observing climate change, because ignoring this problem won’t make it go away. On the other hand, it’s depressing that even though the scientific community has known for over a century that our CO2 emissions would warm the planet, we’ve failed to communicate this fact to the general public.

Our communications failures might be related to the fact that scientists are trained to be our own worst critics. Also, we tend to emphasize what we don’t know because that’s where new discoveries emerge, but this often means we do a lousy job of repeating what we do know.

Here’s my advice to anyone who’s thinking about becoming a scientist. Admitting ignorance is the first step on the path to knowledge. If you don’t feel dumb, you’re probably not asking interesting questions. (I think this point is so important that I’ve started calling myself the Dumb Scientist.) If you do ask interesting questions, you’re going to make mistakes. The true test of a scientist is whether you can admit those mistakes and move on; to keep struggling through layers of simplification in order to reach the frontiers of knowledge.

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