The Columbia Observer: Part Five

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And, now after endless coquetry, we give you what you’ve been so patiently waiting for: the last installment of Addison Anderson’s exploration of the Lamont-Doherty Observatory. In this final edition: expansion, Land’s End Catalog, Bollinger, Sachs, undergraduate interest, more explosions, Frontiers of Science, Tibetan villagers, a suspicious Pakistani customs official, poignancy, and no, they don’t have a telescope!

The parking lot across from the current Geochemistry shed is being torn up in preparation for construction of the new Geochemistry lab, a sparkling two-floor facility which Mr. Brusa predicts will be the best environmental chemistry laboratory in the world.  It’s being paid for in part by a large donation from the recently deceased millionaire Gary Comer, who made his fortune from Land’s End Catalog.  Yachting around the Arctic, Comer was surprised at how frighteningly easy it had become to sail the Northwest Passage, and this concern with climate change inspired an $18 million gift.  It is now apparent that much of modern environmental science has been influenced by rich salesmen and yachts.

Much of the rest of the building fund came from the University, and Purdy is very pleased with his higher-ups’ view of Lamont.  “President Bollinger is one of our greatest supporters… The money doesn’t lie.”  He calls Lamont’s relationship with the Earth Institute, for which Lamont serves as the main research component, “extremely healthy, especially under the leadership of Jeffrey Sachs.”

Aside from administrators and star professors, however, Purdy knows the Observatory has work to do to get more Columbians intrigued about – or even just aware of – its existence: “There’s far too little contact with the student body.  Remoteness is the obvious problem.  I believe the undergraduate [earth and environmental sciences] major has an enrollment on the order of ten.  We need to grow that.  The need to produce highly qualified graduates is clear given the planet’s challenges…Think of all the fields Columbia graduates enter.  All of them will be impacted by the coming changes in life on this planet.”

Regarding the relationship with Morningside, Carbotte notes matter-of-factly, “We’re a research institute.  It’s only natural that we’re a bit separate.”  She sees the summer intern program – participants are called the Earth Interns – as an adequate and popular connection.  Indeed, glowing student testimonials on Lamont’s website boast of working face-to-face with researchers and blowing up rocks on Staten Island.

Purdy wants more: “In working to build more robust links with Morningside, Frontiers of Science is one of our most exciting developments.  It is tremendously important.”  He believes Lamont scientists’ contribution of a quarter to a third of the new science requirement’s curriculum will help pull in more majors.

I had the pre-Frontiers experience.  I took the very best of the old two-course sequences: Dinosaurs & the History of Life, followed by Introduction to Earth Science with then-new arrival Dr. Peter Kelemen.  In the Seismology building, Kelemen speeds down a hall past a colleague with a question I barely catch: “…ductal strain?”  Over his shoulder, he yells, “Uh…fractal!”

Later Kelemen tells me he’s unsure of Frontiers’ potential to snag more undergrads for the earth sciences.  “People don’t necessarily go to Columbia to study natural science.  With Frontiers of Science now, it reduces the enrollment in Intro to Earth Science…It’d be great to move this whole research enterprise downtown [i.e. from the Palisades to 116th Street].”

Like Purdy and Doc Ewing, Kelemen came to Columbia after working at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts.  He arrived a specialist in how rock melts and how that melt moves – often fractally!  “Now I’m doing work on earthquakes and carbon sequestration.  I came here and heard people talking about it.”  He’s looking for ways that the rates at which sequestration happens naturally might be accelerated, to possibly lock up carbon dioxide along volcanic ridges underwater using natural chemical disparity to power the process.  “I heard someone around here” – he gestures around the cafeteria with his soup spoon – “saying the [natural] process was too slow, and that was a negative trigger for me – I thought, ‘Somehow that seems wrong.’ 

“Lamont’s spark-y, in that all of a sudden you get an idea, and you have the ability to put together a team for something you never thought of before.”

As I finish my free lunch (Thanks, Dr. Kelemen), he tells of how his college mountaineering hobby led a grant for studying weathering in the mountains of Peru: “It was pretty mercenary.  I just really wanted to go Peru, then I figured out a way to do it.”  Then there was the time he and a friend had to prove they were geologists and not spies to a suspicious official at the India-Pakistan border.  This was so they could get crates of rocks through customs without a permit, rocks they’d gotten from the Himalayas by riding around on rented horses “19th-century style” while local guides routinely abandoned them.  I remember Kelemen put a lot of climbing pictures in his lectures.

As Purdy puts it, “The people here, we’re explorers.”  There is increasing pressure, however, not to explore in obscurity: “The public profile is way too low.  We have a responsibility to better communicate the hard facts about the coming problems.  We don’t get funded to do that.  There is a need for what we call ‘education’ funding.”

Lamont’s current media interview set-up is off to one side of a conference room, where two seismographs scribble the Palisades’ bedrock tremors on slowly turning cylinders.  “This is where we do TV interviews,” says Brusa.  “The scientist stands in front of the seismographs, the reporter stands here, the camera guy over here.  Tourists love this kind of thing, too.”  To him, part of the image problem is very simple: “First off, it’s a long name, Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory.  And people get fooled by the name, because it has ‘Observatory.’  They want to see the telescope.  We don’t have one.  They ask me ‘Do you have to work at night?’”  For would-be stargazers, Brusa keeps a small telescope, “the only one at Lamont,” under his desk.

One might doubt whether Lamont’s traditionally unstructured way of doing things can generate the attention and support its leadership feels is necessary for its – and the planet’s – survival.  But if Lamonters can somehow better inform popular consciousness not just of the coming planetary problems’ newest threatening factoid, but of the vast potential of their own collaborative ethic, they’ll find many new eager partners.  After all, who wouldn’t want to work with a ragtag team of creative explorer-heroes in a re-purposed mansion out in the woods, seeking to know not only what we don’t know yet, but what we really need to know very soon?  Who wouldn’t want to join Columbia’s closest approximation to the X-Men?

As the tour bus pulls out of the parking lot and heads back to Morningside, I’m again surrounded by dozens of people smarter and more effectively altruistic than myself.  But it’s just slightly ennobling for the average Joedison to consider that many Lamonters agonize over popular disinterest and misconception precisely because they have such faith in an informed public’s capacity for good.  If we exercise that capacity, we may just make it through the coming problems alive, and hopefully in Lamont fashion, flying by the seat of our pants, hanging on to each other for dear life, and finding it all very intriguing.

Here’s the bus schedule.

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  1. fuck you bwog  

    get the bwog feed working.

  2. I like the pictures

    I love the pictures, tours of unknown CU spots. Keep up the good work Bwogsters!

  3. Fact-Checker

    Great series, BWOG. Well done.

    But I'll bet the correct spelling is "ductile", not "ductal".

  4. CML  

    Great series!
    I can't believe someone as obviously intelligent as that guy actually believes that Frontiers will compel more people to take earth sciences. Then again, that's less surprising than the fact that Frontiers was conceived of, created, and implemented in the first place. I want to transfer to dinos instead!!!

  5. lies  

    universal timekeeper was by far the best two-semester sequence

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