Two Communities

Like a typical scientist, I gave Aaron a small set of questions to answer in my last post, and he opted to kind of, sort of, answer one of them in incredible detail.  That's ok though, Aaron.  I really appreciate your tree analogy and think it works very well in describing the way that science works.  We do understand the forest pretty well now!  This idea is a big reason why I was excited to begin working on Mars science after I finished up my degree in 2009.  Oddly enough, to talk about that, I should probably start with CEDAR.

The timing of his post is somewhat interesting, as I know Aaron is having a fun time at the yearly Coupling of Energetics and Dynamics of Atmospheric Regions (CEDAR) conference as I write this.  CEDAR is one of the main regular meetings for people that study Earth's upper atmosphere. As a graduate student, I attended CEDAR every summer and always looked forward to heading out west to attend the meeting and hear first hand what other people were working on.  But over the four or so years that I attended those meetings, I thought that I noticed a bit of a trend.  Lots of people (including me) were working on and presenting pretty much the same thing that they were last year.  On top of that, it seemed like every year I would observe a conversation between some of the older guys in the field on what the current direction of the upper atmospheric (UA) community was and why, whatever it was, it wasn't great and it needed to change.  The thing was, even that conversation was the same every year.  It seemed like no matter who was leading the CEDAR community, they all felt that the community as a whole needed to decide on the research priorities, and yet those priorities never really seemed to evolve either at the individual or the community level.  

This is the mindset that I had when I was presented with the opportunity to join the Mars atmospheric community.  Truthfully, the work that I started doing at Mars wasn't all that different from the stuff that I was doing at Earth.  But the Mars community was in a completely different stage in the scientific community evolutionary process.  The database of observations of the Mars atmosphere was, and still is, immensely smaller than that at Earth and observations of the neutral upper atmosphere, the part of the system that I am most interested in, were basically non-existent (seriously- we would run our Mars model and compare temperature results to 5 or so individual data points obtained a few decades ago).  On top of that, there is an extremely compelling reason to know about the Mars upper atmosphere; you need to know the temperatures and densities up there if you want to be able to figure out how fast Mars's atmosphere is escaping.  The loss of Mars's atmosphere is one of the biggest open questions in the planetary science community.  AND, On top of all that, when I joined the Mars community, NASA was getting ready to launch the first mission dedicated to studying Mars's upper atmosphere, MAVEN, specifically to address this question.  Needless to say, when I started pointing my computer at Mars, we were really in the "Wow! A forest!" phase.  

It's been interesting to compare the state of the two communities as someone that has their feet in both.  There are many people that study both Earth and Mars.  The two systems behave very similarly, so it makes sense to do so.  I wonder if they see the Earth upper atmosphere community in the same way as I do: maybe a little bit lost in the forest but continuing to identify interesting trees to study.  I took a few years off from attending CEDAR when I finished grad school, but I did go back to a meeting in 2014.  I left that meeting feeling like things hadn't really changed in the community in the few years that I stopped paying close attention.  


The other thing that struck me as interesting in Aaron's discussion was his reference to predicting the weather in space.  I think we agree here.  Today in 2017 there is already a lot of vested interest in understanding and knowing the current and near-future conditions in near-Earth space.  Corporate, governmental, and individual dependence on spaceborne technology that is susceptible to bad space weather is only going to grow.  Concerns about the interconnectedness of the electrical grid, especially in North America, and how it would fair during a major geomagnetic storm are large enough to have caught the eye of President Obama.  If we ever want to have a truly permanent human presence off planet on even a small scale (I mean, I guess the ISS is permanently manned, but three or four people in low Earth orbit out of seven and a half billion doesn't really even quality as small scale), we absolutely have to better understand and and be able to better predict space weather.

There are many people working on this problem, and I think it is the problem in the upper atmosphere and geospace community.  Still, while being able to forecast bad space weather does require improved understanding of the underlying physical processes that actually cause the weather, I think the biggest issues preventing us from having good forecast models have nothing to do with physics.  Instead, they are technological ones: lack of data and insufficient predictive models.  Addressing these two issues doesn't necessarily require the services of a space physicist.  What we really need is an expert computer scientist and a billionaire that wants to launch a bunch of stuff to space.  What's Elon Musk doing right now?

Anyway, Aaron, you've transitioned a bit over the years from being an upper atmospheric physicist to more of a Renaissance man: building satellites, studying hurricanes, now you are even dipping your toes in the Mars and Venus waters.  What did you see in the UA community that made you want to explore other areas?  Are you just interested in all the things?  Where you chasing funding?  I'm interested to hear more of the story about why you went in the direction that you did and how important you think it was for you, or anyone for that matter, to not just focus on one or two things in their research or professional life.  I think about this question constantly as I make decisions, almost on a daily basis, on how much of my time I want to spend doing research vs. how much time I want to spend trying to make my Department, College, and University a better place for the students that go there.  But, that's a different part of the story.


Hello World, er Aaron

I want to start with a story.  In May 2017 I was sitting in a medium sized room with 60 quite bright people that all had a vested interest in teaching university students how to be good writers.  We were all there to attend a workshop entitled "Writing Across the Curriculum" which was designed to get university faculty to think about how to be more effective writing teachers.  I had decided to attend this workshop because I teach the "Writing Intensive" course in the Physics Department; our undergraduate capstone course in which senior physics students spend a semester working on a long term, generally open-ended project.  Someone several years ago felt that this course was the appropriate place for our students to spend a lot of time perfecting, or at least improving, their writing, a reasonable enough idea since presumably, students weren't necessarily supposed to spend all of their time in this course solving typical physics problems. Instead, they were supposed to learn about life as a real life physicist or engineer, and a real life physicist or engineer spends much more time in their normal life writing articles, reports, or proposals than they do solving problems from their University Physics book.

I took this course on some years ago as I was quite interested in working with students on these semester long projects.  The fact that the course was meant to involve a great deal of writing was fine, but not particularly compelling to me.  It was a requirement and I would fulfill it.  End of story.  For the first few years of teaching the course, I was quite happy with the success the students were having with their projects.  My approach towards teaching writing in Capstone was to use the course, and the project that the students were working on, to expose the students to the breadth of writing that they might encounter once they were finished with their undergraduate career.  Depending on the year, students were asked to write literature research reports, white papers, technical reports and memos, proposals, and scientific articles.  As far as I was concerned, the students had learned how to write via the myriad writing classes that they had taken throughout their careers as students and we didn't need to spend time in class to further talk about writing.  All they needed was practice.  And with practice, by the time they were finished with Capstone, they would be strong writers capable of articulating their complex ideas, analysis and results like a seasoned pro.

Until recently, I had never spent much time considering the things that make good writing.  Instead, so I thought, there were two levels of writers: those that wrote, and those that were learning to write.  Yes, I realize that this is quite insane.  Why should it be that there are many levels of competency for every other thing that one might do with their time, but when it came to writing it was simply black or white?  You can probably guess that it didn't take many years of teaching a writing intensive course for physics students for me to realize that good writing wasn't something that students could just turn on by spending more time in front of a computer.  To be sure, practice is part of the recipe, but it wasn't enough.  They needed me to actually teach them about good writing, and in particular, good science writing.

Luckily, it just so happened that around the time that I started to realize this I was devouring material from people that I considered to be good science writers (largely from blogs such as Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy and The Planetary Society).  Unluckily, I was fairly certain that I was not one of these people, and I had, therefore better do something about that right away.  Thus, I found myself signing up to take part in a four-day Writing Across the Curriculum workshop (or WAC for short) put on by Eastern's University Writing Center during the break between the Winter and Spring semesters.  On day one I learned something very important: I wasn't only there for my students, I was also there to learn how to be a better writer myself.

That brings me to this particular project.  There are many steps that one can take to improve their writing, but an important one is to find avenues for practice.  During WAC, I had an idea on how to do this right away: why not take the idea that Aaron and I had for a podcast, which is in sort of a cryogenic state, and apply it to text.  I had become incredibly interested in written Science Communication (for reasons I will save for a different entry) and I knew that you had an interest in this sort of thing as well, mainly because you were doing this sort of thing anyway.  Still, it seemed like there was room for somewhat of a back and forth between two scientists in which they discuss sciency type things, right?

So, here we are.  The general idea that I had was we could use this platform to pose questions to each other.  The format ensures that we take the time to consider our response and, at least attempt, to articulate it well.  I'm going to start this by posing a question with a couple parts.  Aaron, you are a space physicist, but more generally a scientist.  So I want to start big and ask you some questions that I hope you will address as both of those things.  First, in order to survive in our field, we are supposed to spend a lot of time thinking about how to solve the biggest issues and answering the biggest questions in space physics.  I'm curious to know if you think that we, as a community are doing a great job of doing that.  How much momentum does the community have with regards to continuing to uncover the next level of detail?  How easy is it for the community to pivot when observations or model results turn up something new?  How does funding affect the problems that scientists pursue?  What do you personally think are the most important questions in the field?

Finally, forget about space physics for a second.  As a scientist that is living on Earth, right now, what are the most important problems that we should be trying to figure out?

Simple enough?