NEWS From physics to environmental science: a natural evolution?


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Physics and envi­ron­men­tal research are more com­pat­i­ble than you might first think. Kate Rav­il­ious talks to three lead­ing physicists-​​turned-​​environmental researchers, to find out about their jour­ney.  For the orig­i­nal arti­cle, click here.

How many peo­ple study physics and then go on to forge a career in envi­ron­men­tal sci­ences? Per­haps not a huge num­ber, but those who have a “physics mind­set” often bring a fresh per­spec­tive to envi­ron­men­tal research. Today an increas­ing num­ber of physi­cists are help­ing to tackle some of the world’s most press­ing envi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges. For Daniel Kam­men, a self-​​confessed Star Trek fan and direc­tor of the Renew­able and Appro­pri­ate Energy Lab­o­ra­tory at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, US, the migra­tion from physics to envi­ron­men­tal sci­ence was serendipitous.

My path was very ran­dom, dri­ven by a love of physics and way too many inter­ests,” he says. Ini­tially, Kammen’s dream was to be an astro­naut. “I learned to fly planes, took acro­batic and sea-​​plane land­ing lessons, but I was ulti­mately screened out of the NASA astro­naut qual­i­fi­ca­tion on the basis of vision,” he explains. How­ever, Kammen’s infec­tious enthu­si­asm for under­stand­ing the world around him soon opened many other doors.

While study­ing physics at Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity, Kam­men learned about astron­omy and cos­mol­ogy, worked in the low-​​temperature physics lab­o­ra­to­ries and in solid-​​state physics, where he pub­lished his first papers on solid-​​state masers, and eagerly absorbed courses on elec­tro­dy­nam­ics, quan­tum mechan­ics and quan­tum field the­ory. Then at grad­u­ate school, first at Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity and then at Har­vard Uni­ver­sity, he was drawn towards cos­mol­ogy, com­pu­ta­tional physics and neural networks.

How do we ditch fos­sil fuels?

But it was while doing a post­doc in neural com­put­ing at Cal­tech that Kam­men real­ized he could apply his tal­ents to envi­ron­men­tal prob­lems. “Dur­ing my sum­mers I vol­un­teered on an energy project, intro­duc­ing solar ovens to com­mu­ni­ties in Nicaragua (the US was blockad­ing the coun­try at the time), and as a result I pub­lished my first paper on energy in Nature,” he says.

Access­ing all energy

That chance vol­un­teer work set Kammen’s career on the path of both aca­d­e­mic and activist. For the last 25 years his focus has been find­ing solu­tions to the energy needs of devel­op­ing coun­tries. Today his pas­sion is “energy access” and he works largely with com­mu­ni­ties in East Africa, Cen­tral Amer­ica – includ­ing the coun­try that orig­i­nally inspired him, Nicaragua – and on Native Amer­i­can lands in the US. “Physics has pro­vided me with the most amaz­ing train­ing, and I con­sis­tently use it today in work on solar cells, net­work stud­ies of energy grids, and in dynam­i­cal sys­tems meth­ods applied to all sorts of things,” he says.

- “Physics has pro­vided me with the most amaz­ing training”

Dan Kam­men

Step­ping side­ways from physics into envi­ron­men­tal sci­ences has required a flex­i­ble and open-​​minded approach, but Kam­men rel­ishes the chal­lenge of learn­ing new things. “I am keen to keep work­ing in ana­lyt­i­cal meth­ods and I always want to learn more in the human­i­ties and social sci­ences, where I am just a baby,” says Kam­men, who is editor-​​in-​​chief of the open-​​access jour­nal Envi­ron­men­tal Research Let­ters (pro­duced by IOP Pub­lish­ing, which also pub­lishes Physics World).

Kammen’s unusual career tra­jec­tory led him to con­tribute to the Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Panel on Cli­mate Change (IPCC) in its early days; work which was rewarded in 2007 when the IPCC shared the Nobel Peace Prize. These days his goal is to “de-​​carbonize” soci­ety. Last year he joined a list of emi­nent sci­en­tists, busi­ness lead­ers, econ­o­mists, ana­lysts, influ­encers and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of non-​​governmental orga­ni­za­tions to set up Mis­sion 2020 – a col­lab­o­ra­tive cam­paign that aims “to bend the greenhouse-​​gas emis­sions curve down­wards” by 2020. Over time Kammen’s research inter­ests have taken many twists and turns, but his enthu­si­asm for Star Trek is one thing that hasn’t changed. “I still own Spock ears and gen­er­ally win the game ‘iden­tify the Star Trek episode with the short­est quote’,” he laughs.

Down to Earth

For Anny Cazenave – direc­tor for earth sci­ences at the Inter­na­tional Space Sci­ence Insti­tute in Bern, Switzer­land and senior sci­en­tist at the Lab­o­ra­toire d’Etudes en Géo­physique et Océanogra­phie Spa­tiales at the French space cen­tre (CNES) in Toulouse, France – the jour­ney to envi­ron­men­tal sci­ence began with an inter­est in what lies beyond Earth. While doing her first degree in math­e­mat­ics and physics, Cazenave, like Kam­men, was fas­ci­nated by space, and had ambi­tions of becom­ing an astronomer. Grad­u­ally her inter­ests evolved towards geo­physics, and she did a PhD at the Uni­ver­sity of Toulouse on the rota­tion of the Earth. This led to a per­ma­nent posi­tion at CNES to develop satel­lite geo­desy – the use of satel­lites to study the shape of the Earth, its grav­ity field and its rota­tion, solid Earth tides and so on.

environments illustration

When Cazenave accepted the posi­tion, she had no inkling of how her work might trans­form envi­ron­men­tal research. “At that time [the 1970s] envi­ron­men­tal sci­ence was not at the fore­front of space activ­i­ties,” she explains.

It wasn’t until the mid-​​1990s, when satel­lite tech­nol­ogy was far more advanced, that sci­en­tists began to fully explore the use of satel­lites for envi­ron­men­tal appli­ca­tions. In par­tic­u­lar altime­ter satel­lites – which send a microwave pulse down to Earth and mea­sure alti­tude from the time it takes the pulse to return – started employ­ing two dif­fer­ent wave­lengths, mas­sively increas­ing the res­o­lu­tion at which they could map the Earth’s surface.

Sci­en­tists, includ­ing Cazenave, spot­ted the poten­tial of high-​​resolution satel­lites for map­ping the peaks and troughs of the sea sur­face, and real­ized that they rep­re­sented a new way of mon­i­tor­ing sea level changes and ocean cir­cu­la­tion. “Although I was not an oceanog­ra­pher, I learned about it while work­ing,” says Cazenave. “At the begin­ning of the 2000s, I also started to develop hydrol­ogy from space – the study of ter­res­trial waters using space techniques.”

- “Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research needs hard work but it is highly moti­vat­ing too, and I’m pas­sion­ate about learn­ing new things”

Anny Cazenave

Today Cazenave’s focus is using satel­lite data to mon­i­tor cli­mate change, for exam­ple, sea level rise, land ice melt, ocean ther­mal expan­sion and changes in the global water cycle. She feels that her orig­i­nal back­ground in maths and physics has been a use­ful tool, but flex­i­bil­ity and will­ing­ness to learn have also been key to enabling her to move into a new field. “Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research needs hard work, to gain expe­ri­ence in the field in which we are a new­comer, but it is highly moti­vat­ing too, and I’m pas­sion­ate about learn­ing new things,” she says.

Nat­u­rally outdoors

Unlike Kam­men and Cazenave who came to envi­ron­men­tal sci­ence via curios­ity about space, Jen­nifer Bur­ney of the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, San Diego, US, found her enthu­si­asm for the envi­ron­ment to be a con­sis­tent thread through­out her life. “I’ve always been an out­doorsy per­son, and grow­ing up in New Mex­ico always had a strong inter­est in the nat­ural world,” she explains.

How hur­ri­canes replen­ish their vast sup­ply of rainwater

Fol­low­ing a degree in his­tory and sci­ence, Bur­ney began a physics PhD at Stan­ford, devel­op­ing a super­con­duct­ing cam­era that cap­tures images of cos­mic bod­ies such as pul­sars or exo­plan­ets. Part­way through her stud­ies, Bur­ney decided to defer for a year, so that she could vol­un­teer with rebuild­ing efforts in Nicaragua after 1998’s Hur­ri­cane Mitch. “It was excit­ing to be in the field devis­ing cre­ative solu­tions,” she says.

After fin­ish­ing her PhD, Burney’s desire to bring pos­i­tive change to other people’s lives resur­faced and she fol­lowed a non-​​academic route, work­ing for non-​​governmental orga­ni­za­tion the Solar Elec­tric Light Fund on rural elec­tri­fi­ca­tion around the world. “One project was solar-​​powered drip irri­ga­tion in West Africa,” she says. “They needed some­body to fig­ure out how to eval­u­ate the tech­nol­ogy. That required assess­ing the design and how to make it cost-​​effective and sustainable.”

Over time Bur­ney became intrigued by how energy and cli­mate affect food secu­rity, water avail­abil­ity and agri­cul­ture, and in 2008 she tran­si­tioned back into acad­e­mia via a post­doc at Stan­ford on food secu­rity and the envi­ron­ment. Her research has con­tin­ued in this vein ever since. These days Bur­ney inves­ti­gates the cou­plings between human activ­ity and the envi­ron­ment. How­ever, her physics mind­set is still at the fore­front of every­thing she does.

- “I fun­da­men­tally see the world as a physi­cist, and ulti­mately most of my projects have that kind of ‘flavour’”

Jen­nifer Burney

I fun­da­men­tally see the world as a physi­cist, and ulti­mately most of my projects have that kind of ‘flavour’ – for exam­ple, in our projects try­ing to under­stand what role air pol­lu­tants play in impact­ing both cli­mate and humans, I tend to think about how they change the radia­tive prop­er­ties of the atmos­phere and much less about the bio­log­i­cal or chem­i­cal processes for exam­ple,” she says.

But Bur­ney rel­ishes the cross-​​disciplinary nature of her work. “You learn to see the world in a new way,” she says. And it is this will­ing­ness to see things from other people’s point of view, com­bined with a thirst for knowl­edge, that seems to have enabled Bur­ney, Cazenave and Kam­men to slide smoothly between physics and the envi­ron­men­tal sci­ences. “Physics pro­vides a fan­tas­tic toolkit, but envi­ron­men­tal prob­lems are the biggest chal­lenge we have,” says Bur­ney. “It will take all hands on deck.”

  • Enjoy the rest of the March 2018 issue of Physics World in our dig­i­tal mag­a­zine or via the Physics World app for any iOS or Android smart­phone or tablet. Mem­ber­ship of the Insti­tute of Physics required

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