Scientists in the Wild: Dr. Julie Libarkin, Geologist
Oh, that’s a good question. So I’m a geologist and for many years I studied mountains and high plateaus like the Tibetan Plateau or the Colorado Plateau and how they formed. And now I study what I call Geocognition which is the intersection between cognitive science, how the brain works, and geological sciences. So really how people perceive, understand and interact with the planet. So a geologist is someone who studies the earth. And you can actually think a little more broadly about an earth scientist. So a geologist would be someone who studies the solid earth. Sort of the the ground beneath your feet; that’s very traditional. But an earth scientist is someone who studies the planet in a broader sense. So somebody who studies the atmosphere or the oceans, the interior of the planet, the way people interact with the surface of the planet or even there are planetary geologists; who study planets that aren’t this planet.
Yes it’s really interesting actually, I’ve tried to trace back to what it is that made me what to become a geologist. And I actually have a graduate student, Nicole LaDue, who has done some research on what it is that people experience that encourages them to become geologists. So it’s an interesting research question. But for me personally I think it started, well I’ve always been an outdoorsy person, but I think it started when I was in high school. So I went to a science high school and so I had a marine biology course my sophomore year in high school and this was back in late 80’s so we were just studying in person what happens at the bottom of the ocean. And so there is something at the bottom of the ocean called a black smoker.
And that’s a place where actually new oceanic rock is being formed and biologists were really interested in that fact that these waters are really toxic but there’s lots of life that can live there. And so there’s the question of how can these organisms survive in what we would have considered to be toxic waters. I wasn’t, I was interested in the biology but I was really fascinated by the black smokers. What causes these columns of churned up dark water; with this stuff coming out of the inside of the earth. What causes that? So I thought that was really cool. And then my last year in high school I had a geology course. Which really as a class wasn’t like the best class ever but we had to do a paper on plate tectonics and I went and did a bunch of my own research and I was fascinated by the concept So I actually went to college to double major in physics and geology.
So I have a degree that’s in physics and one in geology. Physics because it’s really hard and geology because I thought that it was so much fun. Yeah, right, I find physics very difficult, I’m a geophysicists you could say, by training but physics is a very difficult subject, i find it very hard. I always have to think about it again and again and again. Every time I think about anything physical, I have to really check myself. I’m not an intuitive physicist but that doesn’t mean i can’t be doing that kind of science. It’s interesting I have this conversation with my students a lot. I work in a very interdisciplinary field and so I have to read things that are written by people who are speaking the language of physics or biology or geology or chemistry or communications science or sociology or psychology or even english.
And I don’t know those languages and so I recognize that it all about language. That everyone has a different way of speaking. And that with the internet it’s wonderful because you can look things up. So if you don’t understand something it’s not that you’re stupid it’s just that you weren’t exposed to it. So Google is great for looking up words and so i spend a lot of time looking up the meaning of words. Even now as someone who has been a research scientist for fifteen years I look up words almost everyday. Even as an undergraduate I was fascinated with how we teach and what we teach and why we teach what we teach.
And I was fascinated with that as a grad student but didn’t do a lot of work on it. But then for a few years the national science foundation had a fellowship for scientists or mathematicians or engineers who were interested in doing or learning about science education research. And so I wrote for and got funded for that and for about ten years I did both tectonics, that’s the high elevation plateau research I did, and science education research.
I did both of those. And then I would say that evolved into Geocognition; that’s that I would call it. And slowly I became much more interested in how people understand earth. then what happened in earth’s past. I still find it interesting but it’s not what I want to study. And so that’s how my career evolved into this. And I think of Geocognition as being geoscience but it’s just interdisciplinary geoscience.
In the same way biophysics is interdisciplinary physics. Why is it important that you understand how people think about the Earth? Wow! So, I always say that one of the reasons that I’m geocognition more than tectonics is that it has a more immediate impact on peoples. So if someone is going to buy a house and they need to make a decision about whether or not to buy a house they need to understand if that house is going to flood We’ve just had a bunch of rain in Michigan everyone and their uncle is talking about the flooding in their basements and if you buy your house in the right place and if you understand how water moves into soil you could put in structures to keep your basement from flooding or you could put your house somewhere where it would never flood the first place.
And that’s a really important thing to know how to do. Or even to know how to ask the right questions. And so I think that if we as scientists can learn how to effectively communicate to the general public we’ll have a general public that’s more informed and more able to make effective decisions. Both for themselves, buying a house, but also for the world, what do we do about climate change? I think the mystery comes from the fact that scientists and I would say this is true let me step back, this is true for any discipline. So historians really know how to communicate with other historians. Scientists really know how to communicate with other scientists. And so the problem is that we try to take the way we communicate with each other the word to use, the visuals we use the sentences, the way we put words together.
We take that mode of communication that is effective for talking to other experts and we just try to change it a little bit and use it to communicate with novices. And one of the reasons for example that this course I think has the speak like the scientist component component is that we recognize that the course recognizes that scientists speak in a different way. And in many ways science the language of science is like a foreign language. So while immersion is nice and I think second language acquisition researchers would say that immersion is the best way to learn a new language unless you’re being immersed in science in the same way it’s not effective to have a fifty minute course, three times a week, where these brand new words are being thrown at you. That’s probably not an effective way to teach. And so science seems a lot harder than it is because experts aren’t realizing that they’re talking in a different language or drawing pictures in a different way than people are used to seeing.
I think that’s an individual sort of ethical question. So to what extent is it my responsibility as a citizen of this planet, as a citizen in my country, in my state, in my community. To what extent is it my responsibility to understand the issues facing that community. I think being literate in social issues is important and so my personal perspective is we should be open to learning about new things. So scientists are also citizens of the world and so we have the same obligations as a non scientist has.
The non scientist has an obligation to learn about the science that could impact their community, like Michigan and flooding or Michigan and tornados. But a scientist has the same obligation to learn about their community they already know about the science of the community but there are other things the governmental structures, It’s our responsibility as citizens to learn about those things. To what ever level is required for us to be participants in the decision making process. Scientific literacy is one component of that. i think that’s an individual sort of ethical question to what extent my responsibility as a citizen of this planet as a citizen in my country, in my state, in my community.
To what extent is it my responsibility to understand the issues facing that community. I think being literate in social issues is important. And so my personal perspective is we should be open to learning about new things. So scientists are also citizens of the world. And so we have the same obligation a non scientist has. The non scientist has an obligation to learn about the science that can impact their community, like Michigan and flooding or Michigan and tornados. But a scientist has the same obligation to learn about their community. They already know maybe about the science of the community but there are other things, like governmental structures. It’s our responsibility as citizens to learn about those things. To what ever level is required for us to be participants in the decision making process. Scientific literacy is one component of that. So this happens to me at parties, at funerals and on airplanes. Where people will learn I’m a geologist and they will say that climate change isn’t real and that scientists have agendas. Those are the two things that I’ve heard.
I always find both of those things fascinating. Scientists have an agenda fascinating to me because scientists sometimes do want your pet ideas to be proven, right. But generally speaking we’re fallible just like any other person but generally speaking scientists are some of the most open minded people. In that they look for evidence and would like evidence to help them understand how the world works. So in my daily life I look for evidence of things and I try to recognize when I’m biased. So I try to recognize when I have a preconceived notion about a person, or a process, or an idea and I try to step away from that bias and just evaluate the idea on it’s own merits.
So that’s interesting to me. The whole idea that scientists have an agenda. My question is, what’s the agenda? The agenda would be to think critically and i don’t think that’s a bad thing. But I’m not sure what’s meant by scientists have an agenda. But we’re certainly not making a lot of money, we’re not ruling the world and there are all sorts of things. So I think that interesting idea which I’ve never quite understood. The other thing about climate change is always interesting because I just teach people the simple facts of the greenhouse effect. And generally speaking once they know the simple facts of the greenhouse effect they can acknowledge that climate change just is.
It’s a process that’s happened on this planet since the planet first had a climate billions of years ago. And it’s a process that’s happening today. How much of it is caused by humans, you might question, although some of it is. And really it’s not whether or not climate change exists or doesn’t exists is the question, that’s not a question. It’s we as a society what can we afford to respond to, what do we want to do, what lengths are we going to go to both monetarily and in terms of energy and time and manpower. To respond to the fact that the climate is changing and some of it is human caused. That’s a very different thing then the argument that climate change isn’t a real process. The basics you need to know to really understand the greenhouse effect. So there’s two things I’ll teach you: one is the greenhouse effect this is the sun, and the sunshine and this is earth’s surface. Now the energy that comes from the sun and then and then we can say that the earth has an atmosphere. So this is the planetary surface and then there’s an atmosphere.
The energy from the sun that gets through the atmosphere and reaches the earth’s surface we know what kind of energy that is and we can reason about what it is. It turns out that it’s all, well it’s not all, but a lot of it is visible energy. It’s in the form of visible energy and we know its visible energy because we see visible energy, we don’t see inferred with our eyes. we don’t see ultraviolet with our eyes like we see in the visible spectrum. All that means is that the energy has a certain energy. This energy has a certain amount of energy. it has a certain wavelength a certain frequency but that part doesn’t matter. It’s just a kind of energy. And it makes sense almost every organism on the planet that lives on the surface sees in the a visible spectrum it doesn’t see in other spectrum’s.
respects And that’s a good piece of evidence that that’s the kind of energy that’s coming to the earths surface. Some of this energy bounces off the earths surface and just as the energy from the sun penetrated the atmosphere the energy that bounces off the earths surface also penetrates the atmosphere and escapes into space. If all of the energy from the sun bounces of the surface and escapes into space, if it can get through the atmosphere, it can get out of the atmosphere then the earth is going to be completely cold. It’s never going to warm up because this energy doesn’t stay anywhere near the planet. Some of the energy is absorbed and when it gets absorbed, we don’t have to worry about the process, it’s converted into a different type of energy and that type of energy is called inferred energy or heat. Not exactly the same thing but close enough. And then that heat energy is readmitted from the earths surface because it’s a different kind of energy. Now let’s look at the atmosphere if we zero in, if we sort of take a little snapshot of the atmosphere the atmosphere has filled with all different kinds of gases right oxygen, mostly nitrogen.
The atmosphere is mostly nitrogen. Some oxygen, carbon-dioxide, water, lots of other things. And you’ve heard about carbon-dioxide, water and greenhouse gases. So this inferred energy that gets emitted, some of it is going to escape into space, right. But some of it is going to encounter greenhouse gases. It turns out that greenhouse gases don’t absorb visible energy very well. But they do absorb infrared energy really well and when they adsorb the inferred energy they just get more energetic. And then that inferred energy that’s absorbed get’s emitted by the greenhouse gases in all directions some of that energy goes out to space Some of it goes back to the earth’s surface where it’s reabsorbed and re-emitted and it either escapes into space or if it encounters a greenhouse gas it’s absorbed and re-emitted in all directions.
That’s it, that’s the greenhouse effect. Now if you increase the number of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, you increase the probability that some of this inferred energy is going to encounter greenhouse gas. And so what happens if you have a higher likelihood of encountering a greenhouse gas? Then you have a higher likelihood of that energy not escaping into space and if it doesn’t escape into space then there is more heat in the atmosphere. The more greenhouse gases the hotter the atmosphere. And that’s a process that’s happened on this planet almost since the beginning. If we didn’t have a greenhouse effect then the earth would be so cold that there would be no life on it.
And in fact the only reason we care about the greenhouse effect today is because of this. So we start out an earth that’s very cold. the greenhouse effect allows it to be really warm. So we can have life All we are talking about a climate change today is temperature differences like this; little tiny fluctuations like this, tiny tiny. tiny Why does that matter? It doesn’t really matter for the planet; it matters for the organisms that live on the planet.
l And especially for humans. If we just look at humans, we live on coastlines. So if the sea level changes, our coastline might get flooded. And for instance we have agricultural systems tied to climate. So our economy is our tied to climate. Not just agricultural, all sorts of things. And so we care because climate is going to impact us as people. We also care because climate is going to impact organisms that live on the planet. But for the planet as a thing, ehh it’s just a a little bit of temperature change; it’s not really for the planet a big-deal.
But it’s a big deal for human beings. So the planet will keep doing what it’s been doing for billions of years? Absolutely But we have not been here for billions of years? No. So for the time that we’ve been here we have effectively increased the amount of basically greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And now we are going to suffer the consequences; we and every other organisms. So plants and animals and everything are going to suffer the consequences and the earth is just going to keep doing what it has always been doing? Exactly. So we really need to take responsibility. You’re saying that if we’re going to be concerned about this we need to look at the piece of climate change that we are responsible for? The extra fluctuation that would not have been happening had we not been polluting.
Had we not been putting carbon-dioxide into the atmosphere and it’s not just carbon dioxide, it’s other greenhouse gases. We breath answer aftermath anxiety cafe we create that’s absolutely right. And plants I’m not going to call it breathing but they take in carbon-dioxide. And so it’s really just we have impacted our environment and of course we have. Every organism impacts it’s environment. Whether it’s with a footprint or waste products or taking food from the environment, we impact our environment. And so really the question about climate change is not is it happening, did people causing it.
Of course we did. You add one extra molecule of carbon-dioxide to the atmosphere or greenhouse gas to the atmosphere and you’re going to change the atmosphere’s temperature. The same thing would be true if we had pulled carbon-dioxide out of the atmosphere for some reason. We know were doing this. And it’s not a question of whether we’re doing it, it’s a question of what is it’s future impact going to be, is that impact important to us, is it going to change the way we live and is that change enough for us to decide we need to act, to make that change not happen, or lessen cause we’re not going to make it not happen. And really it all comes down to what do we as a society value and how do we as a society want to live.