In the eye of the storm
MIT hurricane researcher Kerry Emanuel talks about how Hurricane Katrina inadvertently made him a public figure, the perils of dealing with the media, and what the field of earth science needs now.
It's a story of fateful coincidences. In early August of last year, atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel of MIT had a short paper published in Nature suggesting that hurricanes and tropical storms were growing more destructive and that rising tropical sea surface temperatures may have something to do with this trend. Four weeks later, Hurricane Katrina hit. Emanuel was flooded with phone calls and e-mails from the press and the public asking him questions like whether global warming was causing more hurricanes. He became so well known that Time named him one of this year's 100 "people who shape our world."
Now, with the 2006 hurricane season underway, Emanuel spoke with Nature Network Boston editor Corie Lok about his year in the spotlight.
What was life like for you before Hurricane Katrina?
My life was fairly typical of someone in my profession and someone teaching at MIT. My direct contact with the public and the media was fairly limited. Once or twice a year I would be asked a question or two.
Then what happened after Katrina?
All hell broke loose. I was caught a little off guard. It has been very, very difficult. Professionally, there are all sorts of things we [scientists] are, in principle, supposed to do. The obvious things are teaching and research. But we do have a duty, where we can, to more directly educate the public if the opportunity arises.
For me, the difficulties were along two lines. One was time management, which was already difficult. After Katrina, it got to be almost impossible. There were a lot of very late nights and early mornings. Trying to decide whose e-mail to answer and whose to ignore was a practical matter. I couldn't handle it all. Ditto with phone calls.
How bad did it get?
It got to the point where I simply wouldn't answer the phone. I would let the answering machine answer it and use that as a filter. I got something like 50 e-mails a day from the press and other people. It was crazy. My research certainly got delayed six months by all of this. I just couldn't find time.
What was the other difficulty you experienced?
The second was the problem, which a lot of scientists face, of how to communicate. We're used to communicating with our colleagues and students, but the press is a strong and a very irregular filter. There's a great danger of accidentally misinforming the public by having the message get so distorted that it means something quite unlike what it was supposed to mean.
For me, it was a learning experience. I became wary of talking to members of the press who had absolutely no science background and who made it clear they had no interest in the science. They were more interested in things like personalities of scientists. They were trying to manufacture soap operas. I have nothing against soap operas, but when applied to science, you end up misinforming people. That's the opposite of what you want to do, and it's painful when that happens.
Did that happen a lot?
Yes, I think it did happen a fair bit. Things I said didn't come out quite right or they were distorted and when they came out [in print or on air], I looked at them or heard them and was horrified that they got out the way they did.
Were there some reporters who did a good job?
Yes, there were. It's all about knowing who the good reporters are out there.
What was it like dealing with the public?
My insight is that there is a large segment of the public that is genuinely interested in the scientific problem. They are curious. On the few occasions where I talked directly with members of the public, I found that I could get some of the basic points across, because their curiosity sees them through.
What's the most bizarre question you've been asked?
Oh, there were some doozies. I got the odd question like: Wouldn't we be able to control a hurricane with nuclear bombs? That came up quite a bit actually: What can we do to control hurricanes?
So given this heightened public interest, where do you think the field of earth science needs to go now?
My discipline is rate limited by the supply of talent. The main problem is a disconnect between the kinds of students we really need and the kinds of students who apply to earth science departments. That disconnect happens because of a very grave misapprehension of what it takes to do climate science.
Climate science is a very hard physical, chemical, mathematical, and now, to some extent, biological problem, and it requires people who are very talented in these areas. It's a hard science but it's perceived as being soft. We get a lot of applications from people with good intentions, but without anything like the background necessary to attack the problems. The people we'd like to see don't apply because they have no idea of the intellectual content of our field. Pretty much everyone [in our field] agrees that this is a problem, but we don't have any solutions yet.
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