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.