If you are worried that your children will grow up to become scientists, you need to do everything in your power to keep them away from Dr. Richard Alley. He casts spells on young minds. He can make science seem wonderful, interesting and exciting. I’ve watched him testify before Congress, I’ve listened to him lecture and last week I ate a grilled cheese sandwich at lunch with him.
I am now seriously considering becoming a scientist. I want to be like Richard Alley when I grow up.
He was invited to the Science Museum of Minnesota and the University of St. Thomas to speak to students and faculty for the school’s sustainability week events. The National Science Foundation (NSF) paid for the visit. The NSF is also sponsoring Dr. Alley’s new television series on PBS titled “Earth: The Operators’ Manual (ETOM).” It is the closest PBS has come to putting science within the reach of the average person as Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos.” “ETOM” is a direct descendant of “Cosmos” and the bloodline can be traced to Sagan’s senior producer, Geoffrey Haines-Stiles, who is now teamed with Alley.
Populizers of science have not always been welcomed warmly by fellow scientists. Sagan was denied membership in the National Academy of Scientists despite the fact that he had done more to make science accessible than anyone else in a century. Not a problem for Dr. Alley, who is already a member of that exclusive club. He is a climate scientist, a geologist and the Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences at Penn State University.
He is slight of frame, but plays soccer on weekends. When he’s not bungee-jumping in New Zealand or climbing mountains or traversing glaciers, he teaches and conducts experiments and publishes peer-reviewed papers. Dr. Alley knows more about Earth’s historical climate than just about anyone around. He has measured the ancient bubbles of air trapped in ice cores taken from Greenland and Antarctica, some dating back 400,000 years. What the ice core chemistry and data reveal, he tells students and politicians, is that the planet is warming and humans are causing it.
Jumps, runs and bursts into laughter
Dr. Alley never seems to stay put for very long, even when he is delivering a lecture. He jumps up and down, runs, crouches, bursts into laughter and tells his audience the painful truth. Alley says: “What’s really bizarre is that there are people in this world who don’t seem to like what we are discovering. Rather than us sharing and helping, they’d rather we just shut up and go away.”
Sometimes it is worse than that. “One man looked at the ice core data curves we produced and said I hadn’t interpreted them right and called the president of my university and demanded I be fired,” Alley said.
But it got uglier. “Another gentleman decided that we showed the right curves, but hadn’t emphasized one element sufficiently. Then, he said, because you didn’t, you should be damned to hell.'”
The saddest part of the tale is that Alley’s work, in fact, detailed exactly what his critics said he’d failed to do.
He gets more than his share of that kind of reaction, especially from politicians and their staffs. Alley said: “I was speaking to a young staffer who said, ‘I didn’t take science in college. I don’t like science. I don’t know anything about science, but I know your science is wrong.'”
One of the most frequently stated positions on why the planet is warming is that it is being brought on by natural causes. No science exists to support such a hypothesis, but politicians, like former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, choose to cling to that forlorn and misguided hope. Alley says: “In just 250 years, we have blown past the natural change limits…far more than anything in the last 400,000 years. Forty times longer than the oldest human civilization.
“There is really no question we are far outracing what nature has done in the past,” Alley adds. “We are burning fossil fuels about a million times faster than nature put them aside.”
Part of Dr. Alley’s charm is his frankness. Another threadbare argument is that scientists in the 1970s predicted global cooling. Detailed research into the published record shows that those who suggested the planet may cool were not only wrong, but represented the tiniest of minorities. Nevertheless, journalists looking for a story out of the ordinary (which is rather ordinary itself) picked the cooling story to tell, even though the bulk of the science pointed to warming.
“The idea that scientists have flip-flopped on this is complete blithering idiocy,” Alley says. Then he reminds his audience, “You would be amazed at how many people still want to argue about gravity.”
Studies are showing that by mid-century most of the world’s scientists will be working in Asia. And since about half of America’s economic growth over the past half century has come from science and technology, it might not be a bad idea to let your kids hang around Dr. Alley after all.
As he comes to the conclusion of his talk, Dr. Alley looks out on the fresh-faced students who have come to hear him and says: “If any of you are thinking about careers in science, my job description is to get with some really great people, go to the most beautiful places on the planet, help discover what nobody knows and share it with senators and students and other citizens, and help them use it in good ways.”
I’m sold. I wish I had run into somebody like Dr. Richard Alley about 50 years ago.
Maybe it is his enthusiasm, or maybe it is his optimism that so attracts students. “We are finding that if you combine environmental science with what we know how to build, and combine that with what we believe is right, there is a way forward,” he says. “That way will get us a more sustainable future, a better environment, a stronger economy, which gets us more jobs and greater security…and it is truly a wonderful vision to get a world where this works.”
Scientists who have shown that the burning of fossil fuels by humans is the cause of global warming are often cast by conservative media as godless leftists bent on the destruction of the American way of life. Alley has a surprising response to that attack, too.
He says: “I want you to know that I’m a registered Republican, and I go to church every Sunday.”
I finish my grilled cheese sandwich, bid Dr. Alley goodbye and drive home for a nap. I have had enough amazement for one day.