Friday, April 5, 2013

Arctic Mixed Phase Clouds and a Melting Greenland

Last night, Dave Turner from the National Severe Storms Laboratory presented some brand new research just published in Nature.  The research involves a particular type of clouds that occur in the Arctic called mixed phase clouds, because they contain both ice and water particles.  The various processes that occur to create and sustain these clouds are complex, and difficult to model accurately.  To improve the understanding of high latitude clouds, Turner and collaborators installed a measurement facility at the peak of the Greenland ice sheet, called Summit Station.  The instruments there measure quantities such as air temperature, moisture, wind speeds and cloud properties, and using many instruments together, the team was able to deduce that mixed phase clouds in the Arctic played a critical role in a historic melting event on July 12, 2011, when nearly all of the ice sheet experienced some melting.  The last time this occurred in the ice record was in the 1890s.  Through measurements and model experiments, Turner and collaborators were able to determine that if the clouds had been thicker or thinner, this melting event would almost certainly not have happened, earning them the name "Goldilocks Clouds".  Using other data sets and models, Turner's group is able to predict that the Goldilocks setup occurs a significant fraction of the time all over the Arctic, which means more extreme melting events like this one could occur as heatwaves like the summer of 2011 become more prevalent on a warming world.  Turner cautioned that there is little understanding of how these clouds themselves will respond to a warmer world, and that increased warming could cause the clouds to be thicker, or not exist at all, which would short circuit the effects seen last summer.

Friday, November 4, 2011

"Gross National Happiness" Highlights

Here are some of the highlights of Dr. Michael Givel's presentation last night at Science Cafe.

First, he discussed Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which was invented by Simon Kuznets in the 1930s as a measure of total economic production. GDP is calculated as the sum of consumer spending, gross investment, government spending, and the net trade (exports minus imports) of a nation. He pointed out that Kuznets himself warned that GDP should not be used as a measure of the success or failure of a socioeconomic program. Another economist, Easterlin, in 1974 pointed out that the correlation between happiness and income exists only in the short term, and that all previous studies on the subject had been short term studies, rather than longitudinal studies. His work suggested that happiness rests on more complex factors, such as family, work, and spiritual matters. Based on his work, several other indices were developed that incorporate GDP and other quantities such as infant mortality, longevity, literacy, etc. A few examples of the diverse set of indices that exist are the UN Human Development Index, the Genuine Progress Indicator, and the Happy Planet Index. Givel plans to detail these indices in his forthcoming book.

Next, Givel gave some background on Bhutan, which was formed in 1616 AD by the Tibetan monk Shabdrung, after he was driven from Tibet by a political rival. Bhutan was a Buddhist theocracy until 1907, when a hereditary monarchy was formed, with the first king being elected by religious and secular leaders. In 1972, the fourth king declared that "Gross National Happiness" was more important than GDP for the Bhutanese people, as a means of making progress, but also keeping with cultural (Buddhist) values. In 2008, Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy, with an elected Parliament and Prime Minister. In the past, Bhutan has been criticized for human rights violations, which took the form of expelling a large minority of Hindus from the country into refugee camps in the mountains. Several nations have taken these refugees in, though Bhutan remains unrecognized by the US government officially.

Gross National Happiness has evolved from a vague concept to something more rigorously defined that is currently being measured by the Bhutanese government. Originally there were four "pillars": sustainable growth, cultural preservation, ecological protection, and good governance. These were expanded into nine "domains", and are currently being measured by 72 unweighted survey questions. The results of the 2007 - 2008 polling yielded a GNH score of .805. I've been looking around trying to understand what that number means, but the best I can do is to say that it's some standardized measure of what percentage of the population is "happy", according the standards in the questions. An important sidenote is that the GNH score for the "education" portion of the questions is much lower, only 0.5 or so.

There was a lot of vigorous discussion about how meaningful these subjective measures are, compared to other measures that have more objective components. On some level, this is a philosophical argument, because one could say that a person who "doesn't know what they're missing" might be happier than someone who has lots of stuff. Historically, though, it definitely seems that consumerism doesn't ultimately lead to a happier culture, as measured by rates of depression, suicide, violent crime, drug abuse, and the like. As human beings, it seems that we need basic needs met, which include material needs, but also needs for less tangible things like community, purpose, and family.

Monday, October 31, 2011

"Gross National Happiness" with Dr. Michael Givel

How do we know our government is doing a good job? How do we measure the success or failure of a nation? This very old question has many answers, and the modern Western metric is largely based in the concepts of macroeconomics. This means that a nation is doing well if measures of economic health, such as Gross Domestic Product, are favorable. These economic measures tend to ignore modern societal ills, such as drug abuse, illiteracy, mental health issues, and the like. As a response to this, the country of Bhutan created a different measure of societal success, which they call "Gross National Happiness." This Thursday, Dr. Michael Givel of OU's Political Science department will discuss his research on this concept, and how it is rooted in the philosophical beliefs of the founders of Bhutan as a country several hundred years ago. He will give first hand details of his visit to Bhutan, and his observations of the society that places a premium on happiness, rather than production and consumption. Don't miss it!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

"What is Science, Anyway?" Highlights

We got together on September 1, with our distinguished panel of scientists, which included Dr. Kelvin Droegemeier (KD), Vice President for Research and Professor of Meteorology at OU, Dr. Joe Rodgers (JR), Professor of Psychology at OU, and Dr. Douglas Gaffin (DG), Dean of University College and Professor of Zoology at OU. These three represented the different perspectives of physical, social and life sciences, and their answers to our group's questions were diverse and interesting. I'll do my best to indicate what questions were asked and give a sense of how the different panelists answered the questions, though there will be NO DIRECT QUOTES, only because I didn't get any.

Question: What is your background, and how did you get interested in science?

KD got interested in learning more about the weather due to all of the severe storms he experienced growing up in Kansas. Over the years he has focused on developing mathematical models of the atmosphere, with the goal of better understanding severe storms.
JR was a math major, and got interested in behavioral science after taking a psychology course. He develops mathematical models of adolescent behavior in order to better predict and prevent behaviors such as smoking and STD transmission.
DG was never sure what he wanted to do, but always loved nature, and considered a career in forestry. His brother worked on a project with bees that got his mind working on science related to organisms and their behaviors, and he was introduced to scorpions, his lifelong research topic, in college shortly afterwards.

Question: How has science changed since the early period of alchemy and astronomy?

DG felt that science is not all that different from early science for the individual scientist. He recounted experiences of having to "do it all", much as the early astronomers had to, in the sense of taking measurements, building models to interpret those measurements, reporting findings, illustrating findings with technical drawings and artwork, and pretty much being one of a very small handful of people that thought deeply about his particular topic.
JR stated that he believes the major way that science has changed is that we no longer are searching for "the Truth", but rather building models of how very specific phenomena behave. This is different than researchers like Newton, who believed there might be and elegant model that describes everything. KD described science as the way that we explore our curiosities, and in that way as not having changed much, other than now those explorations are now required to somehow help achieve the common good.

Question: How much faith should we place in the scientific method?

KD stated that the scientific method is a human construct, which means that it is limited by human beings. It's neither right nor wrong, but is useful as a way of answering questions.

Question: How does peer review work? Is it the same across different disciplines? Is it harder to get published in one field than in another?

DG noted that peer review is actually changing, with much faster turnaround times, but that it remains a very "schizophrenic" process.
JR edits a journal, and is continually amazed that the peer review and editing process is completely volunteerism based, meaning that no money changes hands at any point in the publication process. It's all done out of service to the discipline and the community.
KD felt that the peer review process is inherently conservative, and can fail us at times by refusing to publish truly revolutionary ideas, simply because the reviewers are human beings and may not recognize it as such.

Question: As a scientist ages, does their ability to publish good work decrease?

KD said that the average scientist's age had definitely increased, making the field top heavy, and that many scientists continue to publish good work all the way until they retire.
JR asserted that even though a lot of elder scientists might feel that their best work is behind them, there are other ways to contribute to the field, such as by mentoring graduate students, organizing conferences, and editing journals. This work is also very important to the continuation of science, and requires the experience of an elder scholar.

Question: Does the current climate of limited funding inhibit collaboration?

KD felt as though the opposite was happening, because to do good work on complex problems, large teams are sometimes necessary. In addition, the competition for funding has led the University to a "portfolio approach", where work by individuals is funded, but also work by interdisciplinary teams and research centers play an important role.

Question: It's sometimes said that Walmart can predict a coming disaster by the sales of some particular item, say strawberry pop-tarts, merely by looking at trends in the data. What is your take on this idea?

JR said that even if this anecdote had substance to it, that Walmart wasn't really doing science, because they weren't looking for fundamental relationships and causes, but rather simple statistical trends. When a scientist develops a predictive model, they're really drawing on what they believe the fundamental causes are.

Question: How do scientists conceptualize and tackle uncertainty when they make predictions?

DG said that he tried to minimize uncertainty by looking for features that were robust over many experiments, and by having a deep understanding of the statistical tests that he uses in his work.
JR stated that in behavioral science, uncertainty and modeling constitute a large part of graduate school education, so that when research is done, the chances of the scientist not understanding what the assumptions are is minimized.
KD pointed out that in meteorology, scientists and forecasters use an ensemble of models to try to capture the essence of uncertainty, and utilize an area called "risk decision theory" to minimize the chances of catastrophe for severe weather events.

So these are my notes from our most recent Science Cafe. Please don't hesitate to contact me with questions!

Monday, August 22, 2011

"What is Science, Anway?" Featuring Three Distinguished Scientists

What is science all about? What do scientists do? What impact does the work of scientists have on society? These questions and more will be addressed at the Science Cafe on September 1 at 7pm at the Norman Public Library. The panel discussing these questions will include the University of Oklahoma Vice President for Research, Dr. Kelvin Droegemeier, the Dean of University College, Dr. Douglas Gaffin, and Dr. Joseph Rodgers, Professor of Psychology. These three will represent the traditionally distinct areas of physical, life and social sciences. The entire community is invited to take part, and there is no charge for admission. In addition, participants can submit their own questions to be answered by the panel of scientists.

Science Cafe Norman meets the first Thursday of each month, at the Norman Public Library. Coffee is provided by Gray Owl Coffee, and snacks and other drinks are provided by the Friends of the Norman Public Library. Questions and suggestions are always welcome, and should be submitted to Sean Crowell at

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Extended Season Gardening with Matt Collier

Thursday night's Science Café Norman was a hit with the crowd. Adjunct
Professor Matt Collier based his talk "Fall Gardening, Winter Harvest" on
his lifelong experience with organic gardening and the university course he
teaches titled, "Gardening, Community, & the Environment."

In his talk, Professor Collier provided ideas on how to grow and harvest
vegetables through the winter months. First, he described how to "read" your
space and to locate your garden beds in the ideal spot. When considering
the bed location he said to consider things such as the direction of the
wind, angle to the sun and neighboring slopes which will positively and
negatively impact your winter garden. In addition, he discussed things we
can do to add to the success of our beds such as building garden walls and
creating cold frames. He described several ways to make inexpensive, simple
and effective cold frames. Throughout his talk, Professor Collier included
pictures from his local garden to emphasize points and highlight concepts.
The night wrapped up with a discussion of the importance of compost,
vermicompost and aquaponics. Finally he handed out bookmarks with the
following recommended sources:

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Extended Seasonal Gardening with Matt Collier (August 4)

The extreme heat this summer has made growing plants especially difficult. On August 4, Science Cafe will host Matthew Collier, Instructor for Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Environment at the University of Oklahoma, who will speak about "Fall Gardening and Winter Harvest." Matthew is currently a doctoral student in Geography, and draws on his own gardening experiences in his own 700 square foot backyard organic garden, and teaching experiences for the online course "Gardening, Community and the Environment." He will share ideas for growing and harvesting vegetables through the winter months, and explain why the approaching seasons are actually the best times to garden. A Seed and Perennial Plant Exchange will follow the Science Café Program. Please bring seeds you saved, excess seeds you purchased, cuttings or perennials to swap with other local gardeners.

Science Cafe Norman meets the first Thursday of each month at 7pm, and will gather this month at the Norman Public Library in the Lowry room. Meetings are open to the general public, and everyone is encouraged to attend. Coffee and snacks will be provided by the Friends of the Norman Public Library. Science Cafe Norman is on Facebook, and keeps a blog at Questions can be directed to librarian Theresa Tittle at