I’m the first member of my family to go into science, so it wasn’t surprising that my parents have had a lot of questions about what I do (paleoclimatology), especially since they want to try to brag about me explain my work to their friends and colleagues. Eventually, we got past the usual responses:
“Oh, that’s like weather, right?”
“So… global warming? Are we doomed?”
And now, when my parents ask me what I do, I can go into more detail than ‘old climate.’ Back when I was doing my Masters’ in New York, I was creating a 2000-year record of Atlantic tropical sea surface temperatures. Upon hearing the words ‘two thousand years’, my parents were astonished.
“Wow, that’s a long time!”
My father was very confused about why it was important for us to know whether or not dinosaurs needed umbrellas. I explained to him, “No, Dad, this is long after the dinosaurs went extinct. This is information relevant to human society.”
My current PhD research is a 15,000-year record of Indonesian rainfall.
“So now you’re looking at dinosaur weather?”
“No, Dad, still no dinosaurs. This is thousands of years ago. Dinosaurs were millions of years ago.”
There’s still a skeptical tone in his voice as if saying, “Thousands? Millions? What’s the difference?”
And it becomes apparent that it’s all just big numbers to him. How do I make him (and the rest of the world) understand the difference between a thousand or a million or a billion?
In retrospect, I wish I’d had the following popular figure on hand. It’s the Earth’s geologic history compressed into an hour. I could have told my dad, “Look, if the Earth was created an hour ago, dinosaurs came and went minutes ago, modern man appeared in the last second, and the period I’m working with is sometime between a second ago and now. I’m a scientist who studies fractions of seconds of Earth’s history. But there are scientists who study what happens in seconds, and in fractions of minutes, and in minutes and so on.” Forget just telling my dad – I think sometimes it helps me understand my science better to have this type of analogy.
In general, analogies and comparisons with everyday things are a powerful tool that scientists should make use of when faced with questions about their science.
How thick was the Laurentide Ice Sheet during the Last Glacial Maximum? Never mind the American fear of the metric system. Instead, skip the kilometers and tell them that the tallest building in Chicago would have been covered twice over by ice. And it was relatively thin there.
How fast is the speed of light? You could say 300,000 km/s but what does that really mean? It means a traveller moving at the speed of light could circum-navigate the equator 7.5 times in one second. By comparison, a standard commercial jet (assuming it didn’t need to refuel) takes 40-50 hours to circle the world once.
The point is that it can be hard for people (scientists and general public, alike) to understand numbers and magnitude without any context. So the next time you’re explaining your science to someone, think about what the numbers mean and try putting it into perspective. It may be a rewarding experience for both you and your listener.
To wrap up, I’d like to share my inspiration for this post, a video I discovered a couple of days ago, which combines two of my favourite things (cello and climate science) in order to send a powerful message about climate change.
Caption: Climate change data transformed into a cello soundtrack. Each note corresponds to a year and the pitch to the temperature in that year, based on NASA weather data.