The world is small.
Following my last blog, about climate change, I got to thinking that I wanted to know a bit more about James Hansen. His name comes up a lot. Hansen is head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and a professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University. He was one of the first climate scientists to present scientific evidence about human-made (anthropocentric) climate changes. In 1988 he made a presentation to a committee of the United States Senate on this. That would have been a huge deal at the time.
Hansen did not begin speaking as what would be termed an ‘activist’ until the last ten years, however. A new book he has out traces his story. Storms of My Grandchildren: the truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity.
I started reading. In the Preface, Hansen talks about his earliest entry into the sciences. In 1963 he was a 22 year old sciences student and observed a lunar eclipse. He and his fellows noted that predicted light levels did not occur; they had been changed by a huge volcanic eruption 9 months previously. Hansen went on to graduate school, studying planetary atmospheres. In 1978 he was well established in this field and preparing technical stuff to go on NASA's Pioneer space probe to Venus. In 1978, he was also becoming interested in the ways in which the atmosphere of Earth seemed to be having changes as the result of human activity (transportation and manufacturing that release gases and particles into the air).
Venus? Planetary atmospheres? Wait a minute! Isn’t my friend Janet’s brother Donald a prof, well known in that field?
I went to the index: Donald Hunten. Page 97.
In 2004, James Hansen was readying a paper to present at the University of Iowa. It would be critical of the George Bush government’s lack of policy to do with climate change. Hansen didn’t like public speaking. He was thinking a lot about implications for himself and his work as a climatologist and just about everything. He had to decide whether to go ahead with this talk, and – very likely – change his life to a much more public one. In Hansen’s own words from Storms of My Grandchildren:
‘It would be nice, for the sake of this book, if I had thought of my grandchildren at that moment. Instead, I thought of a cryptic four-word enigma that had stuck with me for decades. It was advice from Donald Hunten, who, along with Richard Goody, had been the father of the Pioneer mission to Venus. Hunten is small in stature but very authoritative. He speaks with a gravelly voice, seeming to push the words out from deep within his throat. I presumed Hunten had been responsible, at least in part, for the selection of our experiment to measure the Venus clouds as part of the Pioneer mission. Thus in 1978, when I wanted to resign as a principal investigator on Pioneer Venus so I could study Earth’s climate full-time, I felt that I should seek Hunten’s approval. I remember his advice as four gruff words: “Be true to yourself.” What did that mean? Venus or Earth? I was not about to query him further.’
Hansen gave the talk. Hansen wrote the book. I got the book out of the library on Tuesday, December 14/10 and read the anecdote above.
On Wednesday, I was speaking to my good friend Janet and she told me her brother Donald had died the day before.
I did tell her Hansen’s recollection, just as I’d intended to.
And wondered at how small the world is, and how connected we all are.
Best regards, as always. I hope you have a conversation today with someone you've not met before. Who knows how your world will be small and when you'll find out connections you have.