Summer vacation is either a lie or a memory

When I was a kid, I got used to the idea that summers were my own. That’s thanks to the way the U.S. school system works, starting in August and ending in June of the next year.  Summers were a time for play in my youth, yard work and play in my teens, a job and music in early college, physics research and music in late college, and then physics research in graduate school. The progression from play to steady employment was slow enough that I didn’t notice. By the time I became a post-doc, summers were the crunch time, all prep-work for conferences and no play. Of course, the lack of play led to stress-related health issues that I am still learning to tackle. The lesson: play is important.

As a faculty member, I am first struck by the perception that many students have about what a faculty member does during the summer. Their first instinct is to assume that you have the summer off. The second instinct is to recognize that you’re doing research (or teaching, depending on your track), but to fail to understand how draining that is. For instance, many students don’t seem to realize that to work on the LHC you have to spend time at CERN . . . away from your spouse . . . and home. It’s stressful, but necessary, and certainly not different from what hundreds of other physicists are doing at CERN this summer.

I’ve realized how non-existent my summer is, to the point where I can’t even plan for a summer side project this year. As soon as classes ended, I had a week to recover before the SMU Society of Physics Students trip to California, which I chaperoned (c.f. [1]). That drained me. It was fun – a LOT of fun, actually – but the irregular sleep schedule, plus constant driving and walking and planning . . . it took its toll. I had a few days with family, and one day with Jodi, before my latest travel: to Brookhaven National Lab for the Brookhaven Forum 2010 [2]. I’m speaking here, and while writing a talk for an invited parallel session presentation is a piece of cake at my age, it’s still time away from Jodi and home.

All of this is in the context of the next few months. In mid-June, I’ll be relocating to CERN until Aug. 1. Thanks to the generosity of my friends at CERN, I have a few places to call home for the summer (so as not to burden any one person). In addition, I’ll be starting my own effort on ATLAS with a post-doctoral researcher, also moving to CERN in June, and with a summer graduate student who will accompany me to CERN for the summer.

August will bring a few weeks of down time, including a MUCH NEEDED vacation (I haven’t even started the major summer work and yet I already know in my heart that I desperately need a vacation). It will also bring the need to prep for teaching next semester, which will be MUCH different than teaching was this past semester (pre-med students instead of engineers and physics majors/minors). I’ll be sneaking class prep work into the summer, so as to relieve the burden in August. But it’s a lot to think about.

Nobody said being faculty was easy, and it’s not. But it’s a metric shit-ton of fun, even if it’s exhausting. I just hope I survive to my vacation in August, and I hope I can get my batteries back to where they need to be in preparation for my 50 pre-meds, my post-doc, and my research students.



Seen and Unseen

The oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico is an immediate crisis, getting immediate attention. It poses long-term effects for sea life, coastal life, and human economics (fishing, tourism, etc.). That oil leak represents a major release of carbon into the Gulf; oil in its crude form is a thick and viscous material, rich in carbon and hydrogen. That oil was on its way to a surface platform. Before it exploded, that platform was to raise the oil from the deep and pump it into oil tankers for shipping to coastal refineries. Hydrocarbon, in liquid form, was on its way to being burned in cars and households across the United States. That burning releases the carbon, primarily in the form of carbon dioxide. A potent greenhouse gas, that CO2 is then free to become part of the growing blanket of CO2 covering the entire earth. That blanket continues to affect changes in the global climate.

While the research demonstrating a causal link between human fossil fuel activity and global climate change (e.g. global temperature) is clear beyond any doubt, the United States has been slow in responding to the challenge of addressing the problem: the burning of fossil fuels. Part of that failure is simply due to the politics of fossil fuels, and the challenge of transforming a carbon-based economy to something more diverse. Another part is in American science education, wherein we have failed to educate the general public in the scientific method. This leaves America vulnerable to the false dichotomy of “both sides get equal time” and the belief that science is a democratic process, rather than one of elimination of bad hypotheses. The final problem, I opine, is the invisibility of CO2.

CO2 is colorless and odorless, and while necessary for the functioning of plant life it is lethal to humans in large enough quantities (e.g. in an enclosed space). However, when it’s not directly affecting human respiration it might as well not exist; it’s unseen. A blanket of CO2 surrounds the earth. In partnership with water vapor, it helps keep the earth’s surface at a comfortable temperature. But the size of that CO2 blanket has increased by 50% since the industrial revolution. We know that this extra CO2 is due to the burning of fossil fuels because oil and coal, long sequestered in the earth (millions of years), are free of the radioisotope Carbon-14 [1]. Historical studies of C-14/C-12 ratios in the atmosphere, as through tree ring research, shows that the declining C-14 content in the atmosphere tracks exactly with the increase in CO2, all since the industrial revolution.

The problem is that we cannot see it. CO2 is not like smog; it doesn’t hang on our cities, induce asthma attacks in our children, lead to “spare the air” days, etc. Rather, it rises into the atmosphere, thickening the blanket and affecting average temperatures world-wide. We are fooled by seasonal variations in weather – witness the snow in Dallas this past winter – into thinking climate change is a joke, but meanwhile the CO2 blanket thickens as we warm (or cool) our houses and ignore the problem. In contrast, the Gulf of Mexico oil leak – no less a carbon-based disaster – will coat wildlife in crude, starve sea life of oxygen and sunlight, ruin beaches and choke fisheries. It will stir anger from Congress and from the American people that too little is being done too late to save us. Pictures of the slicks, of tarballs, of sick and dying wildlife, of fisherman and children affected by contaminated food or water, will dance across our TV screens. We will react. There will be no debate about whether the oil spill is real, or whether the devastation of wildlife will have a causal connection to oil. There will be nothing but the intent to act, and a frustration when action doesn’t lead to immediate relief. Anger will rule policy, lawsuits will fly, and no doubt coastal communities will be affected for years, if not decades.

Imagine this level of emotion and dedication was brought to the CO2 problem. Imagine if CO2 could make you sick, hurt your kids, lead to widespread death of wildlife. Imagine if all the false skeptics were silenced by images of CO2 wreaking widespread devastation.

Of course, this is not too realistic. CO2 takes a long time to have its impacts, as we have seen. Those changes are gradual, spreading over generations so that no one generation feels compelled to act. CO2 is truly invisible, and in being so has become conveniently ignorable. The dichotomy in our world is between how we act against things seen (the oil spill) and unseen (the incredible thickening of the CO2 blanket). Ironically, both of these problems have the same cause – our insatiable need for energy combined with a hesitation to change the fundamentals of our energy economy.

Humans are ignorant creatures, by evolution. We are sensitive to only a tiny portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, making us long blind to radio and UV light. It is science that lights a candle in the dark, and makes us aware of the unseen and its daily impacts on those things seen. We know that UV is bad for us, because each of us can get sunburn; as a result, we accept the benefits of sunscreen against an invisible enemy. We know that viruses (polio, measles, smallpox) cannot be seen, but are devastating to us in less than a generation; we accept that vaccination can save us from crippling diseases. We fight the unseen, in the hopes of preventing the seen.

The challenge of CO2 is a cross-generational problem, one which has not been addressed. The oil spill in the Gulf is real opportunity, much as the recognition that viruses (unseen) are connected to disease (seen). The oil spill is the seen, the disease; the energy demand, the need to separate hydrogen from carbon by burning the product is the cause. We have an opportunity to tackle the disease and develop a cure, by diversifying our energy portfolio and minimizing our dependence on old carbon-based fuels. Let the devastation in the Gulf be the face of the invisible CO2 blanket in the atmosphere, and let the devastation wrought by this disaster be a proxy for all the devastation to come from climate change. Maybe, if we recognize THIS as the face of our enemy, we will be compelled to act.