Gabe Vecchi

Gabe Vecchi is a world-famous atmospheric scientist with a pretty simple attitude to making progress: In order to do something, you need to do it. And Gabe’s done a lot!

Gabe Vecchi. Credit Igor Heifetz.

He was born in Boston but grew up in Venezuela, and witnessed the country’s dissolution from an intellectual magnet for South America into a dystopian nightmare. Going into the interview, I wondered about Gabe’s perspective on the anti-science, inward-looking trends we’re now seeing in the US. Are we headed for the same fate?

At this point, it’s impossible to say. But what I can say is that Gabe’s enthusiasm for science is undiminished by current politics. It was, in fact, kind of refreshing to talk to someone outside of the Bay Area echo chamber in which I live. It’s good to see science (and home renovations and new jobs) remaining at the forefront.

Gabe’s grandparents immigrated to Venezuela from Italy, and he lived there until his early teens. Ending up as a scientists might have been inevitable:

I think having [an] engineer and artist [as parents] … the only natural outcome is to be a scientist

And even though Gabe began knowing, as he says, just about nothing, he went on to make some of the major advances in atmospheric dynamics, tropical cyclones and seasonal prediction over the past couple of decades, including the now-famous modeling of a reduced zonal circulation in the equatorial Pacific.

Working in the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, with brilliant colleagues like Isaac Held and Suki Manabe, played a part in Gabe’s success. But still, and as so often seems to be the case, some of the big findings arose almost by accident.

By working on the still-not-fully-cracked nut of estimating changes in hurricane frequency and intensity in a warming climate, Gabe and his colleagues ended up with a modeling system with seasonal skill in regional hurricane prediction. The field is now able to resolve the small scale interactions between hurricanes and the large scale environment. Probably, as Gabe says, they wouldn’t have gotten to seasonal hurricane prediction if they’d been trying to do so:

You can’t see things if you look at them directly

As always with forecasting/prediction, it is easy to get carried away. But Gabe has a healthy skepticism for all sorts of modeling, prediction included:

Skill when applied to the past tends to be higher than skill going forward

Most importantly, one should keep a careful eye out for wild-eyed optimism or irrational exuberance:

The better you feel about it the worse it behaves … the probability of misleading yourself can be very high

Now in a multi-disciplinary department at Princeton, Gabe is looking both forwards and backwards. Forwards, to a closer collaboration with the geochemical proxy community, to unravel some of the many competing hypotheses for modern processes. Backwards, to hopefully develop a state-of-the-art yet simple climate model that could be run in a desktop machine by any interested academic, rather than at a super-computing facility.

Either way, there is endless scope for peeking under the mossy rocks of science, or looking for the structural members that we still need to install:

The things that we already know are much less interesting … if I can find something that we don’t know or that is kind of broken, then that’s great


Today’s music is from the album Anthropomorphic by Sister Sadie’s Foundry. Vocals and acoustic guitar are by geochemist Mark Pagani, who passed away in November 2016. I knew Mark just a little bit, but enough to know that he had a raging passion for science and life. At the time, I didn’t know about his wild musical chops, but they’re impressive for sure. In some ways, Gabe reminds me of Mark, and I thought the music would be a great match for today’s interview. Clips are used with the kind permission of Teresa Pagani and Michael Powers. Songs are Coming up for Air, Dry Land, and Skull and Bones. I encourage you to check out the album — it’s great!

Noah Diffenbaugh

I like doing Forecast for a lot of reasons. I get my fingers into the entrails of science in a way that isn’t really possible from reading submissions. I hear some appalling stories, off the record. I’m caught up in the enthusiasm of scientists for what they’re dreaming of discovering in the next decade. But, maybe most of all, I get to ask all kinds of impertinent questions that would rouse the ghost of John Maddox if done during the course of normal editor-scientist interactions.

Noah Diffenbaugh. Credit: Linda Cicero, Stanford University.

And so it is with my interview with Noah Diffenbaugh, one of the leading investigators of extreme events in a changing climate, and a friend for over 10 years. Getting to know someone in science, especially after grad school, is weird, as huge chunks of their being remain out of view. Indeed I am often reminded of the blind men and an elephant. Perhaps before I only saw Noah’s enormous feet and extravagant tail, without realizing his true self. I am not at all sure that I do now, but at least it is clear he is a pachyderm.

Noah grew up at the Mount Madonna Center, one of the intentional communities that erupted like mushrooms from the rains of the 1960s’ spiritual and yoga movements. Most withered under divisiveness, absolutism, and isolationism. Mount Madonna, though, continues to thrive. Yes, it was, and is, a yoga and communal life center. But it is not a cult. Instead, it is open to the outside world, and has grown to support a renowned school and series of cultural events.

Mount Madonna’s sense of openness and inquiry are a clear feature of Noah’s work and collaborations. Our work together, on topics like wine and climate, grew from a short chat in an elevator during an NCAR young scientist boot camp. In general, because it’s impossible to tell which collaborations are going to work out, Noah’s default is yes.

Saying yes has clearly worked for Noah. He spent time at Purdue and is now tenured at Stanford, one of the premier universities in the world (and a very tough place to get tenure). Noah’s involved in the IPCC, regularly consults with a huge range of public and private interests, and publishes in Science and Nature. The path to the top was clear, and swift.

Except, no. Noah was an undergrad premed at Stanford. Until he failed, spectacularly, Chem 31. Then it was, almost, a degree in religious studies. But, no. Earth Systems 10 proved riveting and, fortunately for the field (and my own academic career!), Noah turned to science.

At least for a while. Upon graduation, Noah returned to Mount Madonna. He taught at the center’s school but a broader direction eluded; restlessness grew; the benefits and costs of communal life came into sharper focus.

I essentially didn’t go through adolescence and didn’t really leave home until my mid 20s when I was already married and already had a kid

For a lot of us, grad school attracts because it is something to do that seems potentially valuable, interesting and fun, without having to make an absolute choice about what, exactly, you’re committing to. So it was for Noah.

I went to grad school, and I made my grad school decision, for all the wrong reasons … if I ever said out loud my motivation and what I was thinking … I don’t think I would ever get admitted

And leaving home, surprisingly, only meant moving a few miles from Mount Madonna to UC Santa Cruz. Noah eventually settled on paleoclimate research with Lisa Sloan, but only after considering other — and wildly unrelated — options.

Since then, I think the path has been clearer, and Noah has made major contributions to our understanding of extreme heat, among many other topics. Most of our conversation, however, had a decidedly philosophical bent to it, and we wrapped up with a discussion of how the US presidential election at least had the useful outcome of prompting Noah to think about how scientists communicate statistics.

We talked for almost two hours, and still did not get to a lot of topics I wanted to cover (being the chief editor for GRL, life as an academic in Silicon Valley, gender balance in science, non-governmental funding). Editing the interview down to something reasonable took me forever, but I wanted to keep as much as possible. I think the story of Noah’s path through life and science could prove useful, especially for young scientists starting out and wondering if any of your role models also wondered … what am I doing in grad school, why did I pick this advisor, why am I studying this topic, am I really this bad at lab work. Yes. Yes they did. You too might come out the other side.


Music: Solitude, by Broke For Free. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

 

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