Category: October 11 (Page 2 of 3)

Curiosity and Climate

Revolutions come in in many different forms as a way to bring about some type of change to the current system. The driving forces behind each revolution differ depending on the type of revolution and the circumstances. We have heard many lectures about scientific revolutions this semester. Keri Emanuel’s lecture this week summed up the motivating forces behind revolutions in climate science. The most important motivator for research in climate science has been curiosity. Without curiosity, what we know about the world and its climate would be very different.

Advances in climate research did not happen due to general curiosity about all aspects of the climate. Vital discoveries about our climate have come from very specific questions that scientists wanted to answer. For example, important discoveries about what determines the surface temperature of the Earth were driven by evidence found for large sheets of ice that once covered the earth. Scientists were driven to research climate as a way to explain strange geological occurrences for which they had no answer. These included boulders, or “erratics,” that seemed to have come from somewhere else and scratch marks on sheets of rock. Without the curiosity about these occurrences, we may have never been aware of the multiple ice ages that have happened in the past.

Interest in the Earth’s surface temperature has been around since at least the 19th century. Many scientists used their curiosity about this to drive their research and help to understand what exactly was going on with the Earth’s surface temperature. Scientists built up on the discoveries made before them to come up with the answer. This collaboration of sorts laid out the groundwork for theories about the Earth’s surface temperature, which were in turn tested. This collaboration of curiosities has helped to explain the Earth’s climate as we know it today.

Curiosities are not always popular with members of society. Many people were hesitant to believe that Earth could evolve geologically or that the climate could have changed over time. Following a curiosity and asking questions is generally not met with the support it deserves. However, the ability to overcome this disapproval and find undiscovered information about the world shows the resilience of climate scientists. This was true in the 19th century and is true today. There will always be people denying one’s curiosities, but it is important to follow them anyway.

Curiosity drove research about climate in the past, but now it seems like climate research is driven by necessity. Past research and curiosities have laid down the groundwork for future research and curiosities. Revolutions in geology, physics, and chemistry also made these discoveries possible. We do not know everything there is to know about the Earth’s climate, which means climate sciences will remain an important field of study that will be driven by curiosity. Climate research will also remain and important field of study due to climate change concerns. Without this curiosity, life on our planet as we know it is going to be altered forever.

Curiosity and Climate Science

Kerry Emanuel spoke about how the discoveries in geography, physics and chemistry contributed to what we know about our climate and how it works. He argued that the revolutions in climate science all built off one another. There was no single discovery that revolutionized science, but rather each scientists’’ discoveries were built off of each other’s idea and gradually progressed our understanding of modern climate science. He said that one of the greatest revolutions of climate science was the technological revolution. It is so hard to measure our global climate without accurate tools that can retrieve vast amounts of data over large areas of our world. This is extremely important in understanding general climate processes and changes because the data that is collected must be representative of the larger areas, however weather and affects vary so greatly over small distances that, as technology improves, so do the ways and quality of the data we collect. However, with the technological revolution came the mass consumption of fossil fuels, which exacerbated global warming, the very thing they were studying.

Emanuel argues that what makes the study of climatology unique is that it is completely driven by curiosity. Dating as far back as the 19th century, scientists started noticing that temperatures were rising. And from this interest is global warming, came the research and discoveries that lead us to understand how our weather and climate processes work. This sense of curiosity led us to discover why there were large ice sheets that covered the globe, or in other words, why the Earth’s surface temperature changes. And these intrinsic wonders are still the driving forces for scientists today.

However, this idea of curiosity is absent from our schools these days. With the national trend towards standardized testing, instilling a general sense of wonderment about the environment around us is sacrificed. So often, rote memorization is practiced in science class, rather than critical thinking that allows them to explore and research questions they have about the natural processes of our world. For example, the scientific method is taught nationally, and an accepted practice in our schools. However, the first two steps are making an observation and developing a hypothesis. I argue that there should be a step about wondering or taking time to explore scientific principles that can capture a student’s attention. However, factoring in the time it takes to allow children to each wonder about different scientific processes is time consuming, as well as creates the opportunity for students to each study different facets of the subject. This is in tension with the idea of having one lab experience for a class, and having them write the same report, which is arguably easier for a teacher to execute. However, what this does not take into account is that we are creating the next generation of scientists. The students of today are going to have to figure out how to create clean energy, slow the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and slow the rise of global temperatures. And Emanuel argues that this is impossible without creativity. Therefore, we are doing a disservice to our students, as well as our global population by not promoting children’s curiosities.

The Genius of Darwin

Charles Darwin, to me, can be compared to a hard working, ingenious artist. He provided a second look into a world that religion thought to have discovered, filled with interpretations of the deep natural beauty of the world around him, and the value of his contribution was not totally understood during his time. Today, Darwin’s studies are crucial in understanding our place as humans in the world. The question is, were Darwin’s findings truly revolutionary, and not just ‘evolutionary (mind the pun)? I say Yes.

Revolution refers to an overthrow of the standing order of things. Was Darwin’s trip to the Galapagos islands and the 35 pages of sketches on its face revolutionary? No – but the challenges (perhaps even unintentional challenges) that these sketches made to the status quo were revolutionary and not just intriguing. At some level, the Darwinian revolution destroyed forever the notion of humans as somehow miraculously special, symbolically and literally the greatest species on earth, risen above the rest on the basis of some religious mandate. This occurs on two levels.

Religion promotes the idea that humans were created by God himself, in his perfect form. The idea that we evolved from apes pretty much blows that to pieces. Obviously, that is why Darwin was so hated by the churches during his time, but religion always has trouble accepting real foundational discoveries in science and this is no different. The one interesting branch to cling to, from the religious perspective, is the idea of consciousness, and where that comes from – something Darwin and other scientists have yet to discover. I expect scientists and neurologists especially will develop a greater understanding of our origins of a unique consciousness and religion will have to adjust yet again, but for the moment that is an area of question that makes some people believe our species lives by a moral code that makes us better than apes, for example.

The second level is a more tangential outcrop of Darwin’s discoveries. The idea of Natural selection, that the best of a species survives and adapts to their environment, has been morphed from a purely scientific argument to a more political/ideological argument – but I’ll get back to that in a moment. One of the core basis of the church is the idea of the ‘weak’ being meant to inherit the earth. Natural selection destroys that notion as well. Unfortunately, Darwin’s correct ideas have been used to promote an agenda of certain humans being more valuable than others, culturally, genealogically, and intellectually, and that has led in the past to dangerous ideas of eugenics and genocides such as in Rwanda or Germany during world war 2. Hopefully, Darwin’s ideas moving forward will be expanded upon in a positive way, and not used as a shield to defend the evil actions of individuals who don’t understand the purpose of them.


One of the key things that Dr. Emanuel mentioned was that while a series of revolutions are very notable and important, equally important is the gradualism in between. After all, some build up, slow as it may be, must be in place to spark a revolution. Unfortunately, this sounds kind of like global warming. Global average temperatures have risen slowly but surely yet there has not been any revolutionary action by us. Yes, there has been slow but useful response to climate. Things like the Paris Climate Agreement are steps in the right direction. Hopefully past and future solutions will be enough to prevent any revolution inducing natural disaster.

The first manifestations of climate science began in observations of glacial erratics, glaciers, and ice sheets. It is incredible to think of the massive continental ice sheets carving out the lands that we know today. Human caused climate change is a widely accepted phenomenon (even if a major political party in the United States refuses to make it a part of their platform). The widespread evidence of an anthropogenic effect on climate seems relatively recently, but its idea was born near the end of the nineteenth century. As an EcoRep at Colby, I appreciate that we have gotten to the point of having positions everywhere to promote more sustainable and environmentally friendly activity.

All over the world greener energy production be it wind, solar, or nuclear is being implemented. A very interesting ongoing debate is over how much nuclear energy we should use. It is an incredible efficient source that many were very excited about in the 20th century, but following disasters in the USSR and more recently in Japan, interest in some places has cooled. Obviously nuclear fusion power plants have the potential to be extremely dangerous, and they generate dangerous waste (though arguably less harmful than the waste created by traditional power plants). Nuclear energy is also never going to run out, while something like coal will. But think, just creating a nuclear power plant itself is an amazing feat and took a series of revolutions and gradualism on its own.

All this said, with developing countries like China and India consuming more and more energy – often clean non-renewable energy – is putting your plastic bottle in the recycling bin rather than the trash going to cut it?

The question becomes (since stopping global climate change from human pollution seems near impossible) can technology solve our problems? It won’t be easy but I think/hope so. The main barrier to do so would be economic, but outcomes of things like sea level rise would be much more expensive. We can scrub carbon dioxide out of the air, cloud seed, artificially adjust the temperature of the planet. However, any of the things humans decide to try could have unintended consequences on a global scale. We will see, but solving this problem will also take a series of revolutions complemented by that ever-important gradualism.

Coastal Living

It’s not often you read a short biography on a man whose interests include meteorology, climate, and hurricane physics, and whose lecture intro also includes a story of his participation in beer pong while visiting Colby. However, Kerry Emanuel is not your average climate scientist. One of the most renowned and prominent in his field, Emanuel takes particular interest in hurricanes and their patterns, with a faculty position at MIT and countless scientific paper publications and several books. However Emanuel’s skills are not limited to his impressive knowledge of climate science and hurricanes – he also maintains an engaging ability for public speaking, laced with humor and personal anecdotes. One anecdote included his vivid descriptions of flying into the eyes of hurricanes and the tranquility associated with such an unforgiving beast. Such an environmental paradox remains beautiful yet confusing, much like another point Professor Emanuel spoke on – the constant rebuilding of coastal destruction.

Having touched on the coastal havoc which hurricanes wreak, Emanuel received the following question from a student. “Why do we keep building in coastal regions such as New Orleans and Florida for them to be consequently destroyed?”. Emanuel shared that “culture subsides on coasts, which thus leads to lots of dangerous and risky building,” a vicious, unavoidable cycle of “death” and “rebirth” with no room for growth. But having experienced the unthinkable damage caused by hurricanes and natural disasters, why haven’t we developed more reactive and responsive infrastructure, able to withstand the perils of natural disasters? Stuck in the constant cycle of destruction and rebuilding, there lacks a growth factor due to the consistency of Mother Nature’s damage. Is our inability to respond appropriately due to the sheer strength and magnitude of hurricanes and necessity for coastal access?

In part, this is dependent on the strength of forecasting, another topic of discussion for Professor Emanuel. Coincidentally, Professor Emanuel was able to use Hurricane Matthew as an example, with Matthew’s unpredictability being such a defining mark of its pattern. While some hurricanes are much more difficult to predict, some (like Matthew) deviate from any preconceived path, or follow as they “are expected to” on one of any number of routes. A true scientific revolution would be increased storm forecasting, which would at least allow for more ample preparation if not more responsive and appropriate infrastructure. With an increase in natural disasters as a result of human contribution to unstable weather and climate, we will hopefully be able to gather a more comprehensive and predictive understanding of dangerous weather patterns, though unfortunately at the likely expense of extreme damage. Hopefully, this occurs before the threat of Emanuel’s hypothesized ‘hypercane’ becomes legitimate!

Some “Erratic” Thoughts on Revolutions in Climate Science

In Professor Kerry Emmanuel’s talk, we were introduced to some of the revolutions within the field of climate science during the last 300 or so years. The occurrences mentioned during this talk support the idea that revolutionary ideas are those that are monumental in importance, but also are a significant change from what was held to be true before the introduction of said idea. I have come to the realization, through listening to these talks, that many revolutionary ideas come about when people decide to think differently. People abandon what they know and have been taught is true, and begin to explore. Professor Emmanuel also spoke about how one revolution can spark another, even in a different discipline. This idea is fundamental in the idea of a revolution. Often times, discovering new information about one specific subject can reveal related information about another. However, sometimes, even when the two subjects aren’t related, success due to a change in thinking can inspire other people to approach problems within their field differently. Revolutions can create a type of intellectual momentum that is incredible.

Professor Emmanuel mentioned two specific revolutionary events that occurred in the field of climate science in the last 300 years. The first of these was the discovery that much of the Earth was covered in enormous ice sheets at points in its history. The retreating of these large glaciers explained many natural phenomena such as “erratics,” terminal moraines, etc. More support was given to this hypothesis in 1875 when orbital variations were discovered. The orbital cycle of Earth, where over a given period of time the shape of this orbit would stretch and then shrink, bringing Earth generally farther away and closer to the sun, was determined to by 100,000 years by Milanković. The obliquity cycle was also found to by 41,000 years. These findings as well as the experiments conducted by Urey and Emiliani determined that there had by 14 glacial cycles in Earth’s history. This is also an excellent example of physics and climate science coming together to contribute to a common idea.

The second major even Emmanuel Spoke about was the curiosity some climate scientists had about the Earth’s surface temperature. It was observed that heat from the sun could travel to Earth easily but that once it was here, it became almost trapped. In 1859, Tyndall discovered that although the atmosphere consists almost entirely of N2, O2 and Ar (99%), that the trace molecules like H2O, CO2, N2O, etc. are what keep the Earth warmer. The ideas here inspired physicists like Stefan and his student Boltzmann to study black body curves, and they eventually created an equation to express the emission of radiant energy from a black body. Planck was then inspired to study black body curves in 1900 where he eventually determined that radiant energy must be quantized into packets. This became the basic idea behind quantum physics.

Professor Emmanuel spoke about two major revolutionary events in climate science that he feels have helped to shape the field today. However, he also included how these events led to revolutions in other scientific fields. Revolutionary thinking is contagious, whether the revolution be social, political, scientific, etc. This idea has been proven throughout history and without it, we may not have made the advancements that we have up to this point.


The Evolution of Climate Science

Given the endless heated discussions of global warming and climate change today, it is of little surprise that we should be informed of the field of climate science before making judgments. This understanding includes understanding the development of the field of climate science. In this series of lectures, we have already heard from Dr. Gillen D’Arcy Wood’s talk on the Tambora eruption, which sparked the curiosity of European and American scientists, and, in a sense, was the beginning of the discipline. This time, we were lucky to have Dr. Kerry Emanuel from Massachusetts Institute of Technology to talk about the evolution of climate science. Having had a basic idea of the history of climate science, I realized that the development of this field was largely driven by curiosity and advances in other, more fundamental sciences such as Physics and Chemistry. In addition, this observation of the revolutions in climate science might shed light on our general understanding of revolutions: rather than independent events, revolutions are usually integrated processes.

The public’s interest in climate science started in early 19th century, when amateur scientists found geological phenomena that they could not explain with existing theories. With the climate data they had collected in the unstable first half of the 19th century, James Croll proposed the theory of long term climate change based on Earth’s orbital variation. This theory is currently known as the theory of Ice Ages. Though this theory seems self-evident today, it was considered a breakthrough, especially at the time when climate and astronomy data were sparse. It’s also noteworthy that the scientists that contributed to the theory were driven by their own curiosity of the world.

As scientists started to realized that the temperature of the Earth could endure fluctuations, with their curious minds, they started to question why the surface temperature of the Earth was the way it was. This can be said to be the origin of the study of the greenhouse effect. However, this process is not simple nor independent: climate science at the time depended on the discoveries made by physicists, such as Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier, Gustav Kirchhoff, Ludwig Eduard Boltzmann, and Max Planck. Their endeavor in the understanding of radiation, in addition to John Tyndall’s study on the physical property of air, finally allowed people to understand the dynamic equilibrium of Earth’s surface temperature.

Although climate science has become an increasingly independent discipline, revolutionary changes in the field have never been completely independent. Recent revolutionary methods in climate science such as geochemistry and robotics involve integration of multiple disciplines.

To conclude, throughout the history of climate science, the revolutions have been driven by scientists’ curiosity and their interdisciplinary perspective.

Curiosity Killed the Cat

But satisfaction brought him back.

Kerry Emanuel explored the history of climate science and listed many contributors to the development of this discipline. Throughout his talk, what really stood out to me was that curiosity is a driving principle for the advancement of climate science. I venture far as to say that curiosity is a driving principle for ANY science. Curiosity opens up the conceptual space for exploring new ideas not available before, and allows for experimentation, both theoretical and practical.

According to Emanuel, curiosity about why the Earth’s temperature was what it was, why the old ice sheets behaved the way they behaved, and what determines the nature of the surface of the Earth is what guided many scientist’s experiments in climate science. This desire to know guides not only climate science, but also any other scientific endeavors; it reflects an awareness, want, and need to fill in a knowledge gap. It is also a source of personal satisfaction and of aliveness: according to Ian McEwan, “the standard measure of how alive you are is your curiosity.”

Taking curiosity as a guiding principle in science leads to many paths that are not necessarily useful at first glance. Endeavors led by curiosity are often thought of as useless because they do not have any immediate practical applications, and are waved off as daydreams or delusions. Those who follow their scientific curiosity, and dare to ask the “what if…” question (or any other questions), are often the ones that make significant contributions. In these types of experiments, utility is not the primary purpose, the motivation to realize them is not utilitarian.

This does not mean, however, that any inquiry based on curiosity will result in something useful. “Fooling around” with an idea does not make it automatically better, but it does offer conceptual freedom and “shackles off the human mind” (Flexner, 546) and sets it free for adventure. According to Flexner, curiosity is the “outstanding characteristic of modern thinking. It is not new. It goes back to Galileo, Bacon, and to Sir Isaac Newton, and it must be absolutely unhampered” (Flexner, 545).

Emanuel made it clear that the revolution in climate science, just like any revolution, has a long and intricate history. Each scientist finds bits and pieces of a theory and then the pieces are organized in a systematic way to make a real contribution to science. All of these experiments enrich our world view and aid in the pursuit of science and truth.  “The mere fact that [experiments] bring satisfaction to an individual soul-bent upon its own purification and elevation is all the justification that they need” (Flexner, 549).


Flexner, Abraham. “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.” Harpers, vol. 179, 1939, pp. 544-552,

Curiosity: The Driving Force for Revolutions?

Professor Kerry Emanuel discussed the history of climate science’s revolutionizers and the path taken that has led climate science to be what it is today. Some of the major themes Emanuel emphasized include the duration of this path, its dependence on technological advancements, and the vastness of knowledge that has yet to be learned. However, during this discussion, one driving force was subtly spreadheading every part of the process: People’s curiosity in climate science. This leads one to wonder: Is curiosity the driving force for revolutions, and, or are other factors in play?


The origin of revolutions is a complex matter. Every revolution is unique, context-specific, and requires different resources to guarantee its success. Could curiosity be the sole driving force? Looking at the climate change revolution, specifically, Emanuel pointed to several early researchers. Each one of them was genuinely curious in how the world functioned. Whenever a finding arose, their curiosity only grew and prompted additional exploration, like the geologists noticing scratch marks on arctic rocks. Other major scientific revolutions originate from the power of curiosity, like the concept of evolution and even the expansion of technology.


However, did curiosity drive other revolutions’ success? One could argue curiosity for a better life and society drove the French Revolution, or curiosity of complete independence drove the American Revolution; but did other factors dominate these revolutions? I would argue for societal-changing revolutions, there are other overarching factors, such as anger, passion, and dissatisfaction. General curiosity is not bound to push for grand changes like these revolutions achieved; stronger, more pressing feelings and emotions seem to push these revolutions over the edge.


Albeit curiosity may not be the significant contributor to every revolution, it seems to be important in exploratory-revolutions, whether that be improving science and/or technology. This is intriguing, and makes one wonder about whether these fields of work foster this likely necessary curiosity.



The Evolution of Climate Science

Dr. Kerry Emanuel is a professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and he came to Colby to talk to us about his focuses on tropical meteorology and climate, and hurricane physics. Throughout his talk he made three general points: climate science being around for a very long time, the many advances in science that helped the develop the field of climate science, and how climate science continues to be a pressing study. Thus, Kerry Emmanuel’s talk exposes the evolution of climate science and from this I understood the value in expanding the exposure of this field in order to learn what is going on in our atmosphere and ultimately prevent the already fast rate of green house gases effect.

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