S.10 E.7: “Pick Up a Bucket and Get to Work”

Learning for Life @ Gustavus podcast host Greg Kaster interviews Gustavus alumnus and climate scientist Jason Smerdon, PhD.
Posted on October 19th, 2021 by

Physicist and leading climate scientist Dr. Jason Smerdon ’98 of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Earth Institute at Columbia University, on #WhyGustavus from Pullman, Washington, his paths to science and academia, his undergraduate and graduate school experiences (featuring haikus, luck, contingency, and potassium cyanide), his scholarship with historians and the influence of English courses on his career, the reality, evidence, and politicization of human-influenced climate change, doable technologies and our agency in response to the crisis, and the case for physics and the liberal arts.

Season 10, Episode 7: “Pick Up a Bucket and Get to Work”

Greg Kaster:

Hello and welcome to Learning for Life @ Gustavus, the podcast about people teaching and learning at Gustavus Adolphus College, and the myriad ways that Gustavus liberal arts education provides a lasting foundation for lives of fulfillment and purpose. I’m your host, Greg Kaster. A faculty member in the department of history.

Why speak of climate change in the present crisis of our democracy in the same breath? Here’s why, “The fact is that many of the structural issues straining our democracy are also limiting our ability to respond to climate change. Addressing problems like the erosion of voting rights, gerrymandering, weakened regulatory agencies and the influence of money in politics is perhaps also the most important means of making progress toward addressing the climate crisis.”

So observed my guest today, physicist and climate scientists, Dr. Jason Smerdon, in 2018. His trench and insight is reason enough to speak with him, add to that this summer’s record heat and drought. And the fact that Dr. Smerdon is a Gustavus graduate, Class of ’98. And you understand why I’ve been so looking forward to our conversation. Professor Smerdon, Jason majored in physics at Gustavus and went on to earn a PhD in applied physics from the University of Michigan. Since 2017, he has been a Lamont research professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, where he is also an Earth Institute faculty member and co-director of the undergraduate program in sustainable development.

An expert in paleoclimate and modern and future climate, as well as atmospheric science, he has co-authored, authored and presented a long list of publications and presentations including with Edmond Mathez. The highly regarded second edition of the textbook, Climate Change: The Science of Global Warming and Our Energy Future, published by Columbia in 2018. Of note also, is his involvement in the work of the intergovernmental panel on climate change and his ongoing public outreach through media interviews and other efforts. He is in short, a leading climate researcher and educator, and I’m delighted he can join me on the podcast. Jason, welcome. It’s really great to have you on.

Jason Smerdon:

Hi, Greg. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. And we were saying before we started recording, we didn’t cross paths at Gustavus, but I’m glad we’re crossing paths now. I’ll tell you, I’m in Minneapolis and it’s been as I’m sure you know, it’s been hot and dry. What’s it been like out in your area, in New York?

Jason Smerdon:

It’s been hot and wet. The humidity out here has really been through the roof. In fact, Portland was getting all the press for having temperatures over 110 degrees. But when you combine the heat and humidity that we were having out here, our wet-bulb temperature was actually higher than what Portland was experiencing during their heat wave.

Greg Kaster:

Wow. We’ll get into climate change and all of its aspects. Are you in New York City, where do you live?

Jason Smerdon:

Yeah, I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and my office is actually across the street. So that’s where I am.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, that’s great. Gosh, I think I mentioned in an email, my wife Kate, she grew up mostly in Brooklyn Heights. Parents moved there when it was not fashionable. We both love the Upper West Side and I don’t know, if you ever get to Zabar’s or heard of Zabar’s. I love Zabar’s. I ordered from Zabar’s And a Gustavus alum for a time was the executive chef there. I’m trying to interview him too for the podcast.

Jason Smerdon:

That I did not know, but I have spent my share of time at Zabar’s.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Yeah. Andrew Raniere, I think his name was. He was a psych major at Gustavus and we ran into him. We actually ran into with a friend whose son was wearing a T-shirt, Gustavus T-shirt. Ran into him on the streets of New York, he shouted out to us, didn’t know who he was and I’m such a fan of Zabar’s. I sometimes joke, I want my ashes scattered there, but I knelt, when he said, “I’m the executive chef.” I said, “Oh, my God, are you kidding?” Anyway, it’s cool. That sounds great.

Jason Smerdon:

[crosstalk 00:04:02].

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, exactly. Anyway, it’s great to talk with you. Thanks so much. Why don’t we start, tell us a little bit about the Lamont-Doherty Observatory and Earth Institute that you’re involved in. What’s their mission?

Jason Smerdon:

Well, they have overlapping missions, but Lamont itself is one of the largest premier earth science institutes in the country and in the world, really. We have, well pre-COVID on any given day, we have 5 to 700 people on campus. That includes faculty, students, post-doc staff, our outreach folks. And the primary mission of Lamont is to pursue an understanding of the earth sciences across all areas. So we have people working on seismology and earthquake hazards. We have oceanographers working to map the ocean floor, lots of climate scientists like myself. A lot of people doing paleoclimate, studying sediment cores, core records, et cetera.

So it’s really the full spectrum of our science that’s done here. And our history is actually quite extensive as well. So it was established in the late ’40s and many of the discoveries that contributed to plate tectonics and our understanding thereof, were done at Lamont. Much of the early climate work was done there, in-part through their management of a series of ships. So Columbia actually has owned and operated ships, since Lamont’s inception. And those ships have traveled all over the world to collect sediment cores, map the ocean floor do lots of different things. And part of that history through the work to collect cores was to understand Earth’s climate history over thousands to millions of years into the past. So that’s Lamont.

Greg Kaster:

That’s neat. Go ahead, keep going. Yeah.

Jason Smerdon:

And then Lamont is part of the Earth Institute, which is becoming, I should mention the climate school here at Columbia. So we are also setting up the first school at Columbia in more than half a century is being established as a climate school here.

Greg Kaster:

Wow.

Jason Smerdon:

And that school and the Earth Institute’s mission has largely been focused on sustainability. So Earth science is part of that, but when we look at sustainability through a broader lens, we of course involve the physical sciences, but the social sciences, the humanities, the fundamental pillars of sustainability or the environment, social equity and economic equity. And so all of those facets are considered across our research and educational initiatives within the Earth Institute and ultimately will be reflected in what we develop within the climate school.

Greg Kaster:

That’s really exciting. The climate school it sounds like is in process. When does it officially open or begin?

Jason Smerdon:

That process is just as complicated as addressing climate change itself at a large bureaucracy like Columbia. It is well underway and I think the expectation is that final approval will happen at the end of this year, but we are developing the educational curricula, thinking about how all the research initiatives are going to go together. There’ve been lots of folks hired to oversee this spin up. So it’s well underway, but I think that the expectation is the official establishment of the school will be at the end of this year.

Greg Kaster:

Congratulations though, that’s exciting. And of course, it appeals to me the interdisciplinary, the emphasis on humanities, as well as everything else. And the other thing about what you were saying, of course, is your work. I mean, you’re sort of a historian. You can’t understand the present climate crisis without understanding the past, I guess. I mean, the paleoclimatology, which is much, much earlier than the history I study, but still.

Jason Smerdon:

Greg, that’s actually … You’d be very happy to know that I actually work with historians because the area of paleoclimate that I study is over … It’s high resolution paleoclimatology over the last several thousand years. So we can reconstruct seasonal or annual climate conditions that are valuable for interpreting past historical events. In fact, we just recently wrote a paper on the hydro climatic context. So the great famine in the early 1300s, and I’m spinning up several projects with a historian that works on pre-colonial history in East Africa. And we’re working to reconstruct some of the droughts that are thought to have been important over Kenya and Uganda in the 17 and 1800s hundreds. You’re right generally, but actually a lot of the work that I do is in partnership and collaborations with historians.

Greg Kaster:

That is really cool. Fantastic, and my head is already spinning about how to hook you up with some … Well, with the Africanists in our department and get you to come maybe to our virtually, if not in-person, a history methods course. Yeah, exactly. I’m just thinking about my own teaching of the US survey and how much work I’ve … Well, especially since the pandemic, how I’ve had to think about much more the role of disease in history, not to mention climate. Yeah. That’s fantastic. That’s wonderful. So let’s go back in time, since we’re talking about the past. Tell us a little bit about your own background, where you grew up, when you became interested in science, when, why, how, and also when, why, how Gustavus? What brought you to Gustavus?

Jason Smerdon:

Yeah. That’s going to take the the whole hour, Greg.

Greg Kaster:

That’s fine.

Jason Smerdon:

I think my connection starts with my dad, who’s a scientist and a professor of biochemistry and biophysics. And so I was actually born in Corvallis, Oregon, when he was completing his PhD there and then moved shortly thereafter to St. Louis where he did his PhD, or I’m sorry, his postdoc in the pathology department at Washington University.

Greg Kaster:

Fantastic.

Jason Smerdon:

And so I was there for the first four years of my life. That’s where my earliest memories arise and then we moved in 1980 to Pullman, Washington, which is in Eastern Washington almost right against the Idaho border. But he took a position at Washington State University, where he spent his whole career. And that’s where I grew up and spent my formative years before leaving for Gustavus.

Greg Kaster:

Do you have memories of … For example, my parents were hairdressers and we worked … My brother and I were there. I just have one sibling, younger brother. We were the cleanup boys in these different salons. In a way, it was a great experience. It didn’t make me want to become a hairdresser. Were you ever going with your dad to his lab or in his lab or watching him work?

Jason Smerdon:

Yeah, he would take us in and we would do some experiments. He would let us … I can remember early, when he would let us put different things, like milk into the centrifuge. We had experiences like that. And later on, I actually worked as a dishwasher in his lab, which probably did more to dissuade me from going into science than anything. It’s a pretty laborious process, but he likes to point out that, at some point, I don’t know, it must have been when I was in high school that I told him that. I never wanted to do what he did, which was probably more specific than the more general exposure that he gave us to science and the interest there. I think, I was definitely encouraged to pursue science through my exposures through my dad, but maybe more importantly early, I think I had an interest in just being a professor.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah.

Jason Smerdon:

I think I gained an appreciation for that. I can remember watching … This puts you maybe in my head space at that time, but I can remember being really influenced by Dead Poet’s Society and the Robin Williams character in that film. I just imagined myself standing up on desks and telling people to rip up their text books.

Greg Kaster:

Have you done that yet?

Jason Smerdon:

You don’t have that many opportunities for that in the sciences.

Greg Kaster:

Jump up on the lab table or something.

Jason Smerdon:

Maybe I should encourage my graduate students to rip up the occasional paper, which is [crosstalk 00:12:37].

Greg Kaster:

That movie … Yeah. Great movie.

Jason Smerdon:

It was, it was the time. And William’s character in that movie, I think just spoke to something about what I wanted to pursue in an academic career. I’m not one of these people that from an early age, knew that I want to do X, Y, or Z. But I do think over the course of my time growing up, I gained an appreciation and an interest in becoming a professor sort of generally defined. And I’ve filled in since then.

Greg Kaster:

What about your mom, was she working when you were younger?

Jason Smerdon:

She didn’t work full-time when we were younger, but she was trained as an elementary school teacher, specifically a special education teacher and did that a fair amount when we were quite young, but actually had trouble keeping up her licenses. My dad’s career took us to several different states and so she didn’t get back to teaching until later. But I think, ultimately I grew up with two educators in the house.

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Jason Smerdon:

So education was very important, but it was also not something that was overbearing. I think that they taught us about how fun learning could be and how important it was. But I also feel like they were quite well-rounded, we were encouraged to pursue music and sports as well. And my folks actually, we can get into this, but grew up in Minnesota, which is part of the connection that I ultimately fall into Gustavus.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I wondered if there was a Minnesota connection and by the way, so it sounds like you have siblings, are any of them in the sciences at all?

Jason Smerdon:

So my sister is a nurse and my younger brother is somebody you should interview. He didn’t go to Gustavus, but he has a more interesting life story than me. He started out sort of rejecting, I think the educational paths that my dad and I took. By the time he graduated, I was going into graduate school and he was a mechanic for over 10 years. And then just kind of took a mulligan, went back to school, through community college, and then went back to Washington State. Ultimately, did his PhD here at Columbia in neuroscience and is now in the [crosstalk 00:14:53] office of research here at Columbia. Yeah, it’s quite a story, neither of us would have ever predicted that we would have both ended up here in New York, let alone at the same institution, but here we are.

Greg Kaster:

That’s fantastic. I think I just might interview him, if he’s willing. Oh, that’s great. That’s terrific. I love that story. So how Gustavus, why Gustavus? There’s the Minnesota connection. Sure. But I mean, did you know about it growing up or what put it on your radar?

Jason Smerdon:

It was not on my radar. After going through high school in Pullman, Pullman was an amazing place to grow up. I spent a lot of time hiking in the mountains, skiing, really appreciating a lot of the outdoor recreation that’s in abundance there and in the surrounding area. But was ready to spread my wings. A lot of the kids who I went to school with in high school end up at Washington State University or some of the areas schools. And for me, I wanted to go farther a field. And so I applied to a lot of different places across the country, but applied to a lot of Minnesota schools because my grandparents were still in the Twin Cities. Some of my extended family was still there as well.

So for me, it was a chance to spread my wings, but still have a support network that was close. And so that’s how I remember thinking about it when I was applying and I applied to tons of my ex-schools. To tell you the truth, when I went out to visit many different schools in Minnesota, St. John’s was kind of at the top of my list, just by virtue of multiple things. I was also thinking D3, because I wanted to play baseball.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, yeah. I was going to ask you, if you were applying to just D3 schools. Yeah.

Jason Smerdon:

Not exclusively, but I wanted to try and play baseball in college. And so D3 schools were a good option, allow me to continue to play, but also get really good liberal arts education. And so I was looking at a lot of the Minnesota schools and it came down to my visit, when I came out with my family to visit all these schools and Gustavus, to be honest, it had this weird name and Christ Chapel was on the cover of all its promotional materials. It had this Swedish Lutheran heritage that I have no connection to. I wasn’t wild about the religious affiliation. And so it really wasn’t high on my list, but I think multiple things conspired to really help me have an amazing visit there. First of all, my dad actually knew someone who was in the biology department at the time Ellis Bell.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, sure. Yeah.

Jason Smerdon:

He gave a lecture as part of our visit and we stayed in one of the guest houses, when we came and visited specifically, Gustavus. So we were there I think for one or two nights. And that was longer than I spent at a lot of the other schools. And I was interested in both physics and literature. And so I was put in a literature class and ended up meeting a student in that class, who invited me to an off-campus party that night, which was great. There were some things about the visit. I’m not sure, if that student was a plant by the way, but it turned out to be just a magical visit. I had great experiences with the physics department and the people I interacted with, while I was there. And it completely changed my mind. And after the visit, Gustavus was it. I decided that was where I was going and the rest is history.

Greg Kaster:

Great story, in so many ways. I remember Ellis Bell. I think Ellis Bell came after Kate and I, but I certainly remember him. Regular listeners of the podcast know … So many people comment on what you just said, it’s the visit. I felt it myself as a visiting … When I came for my interview to campus, I interviewed … I guess I just had one other on-campus interview, but still there was something about the place that I thought, “My, God.” Like you, I thought, “What’s ELC?” I didn’t know how to pronounce [sinned 00:19:22]. I thought it was sinned. I didn’t know what I was … I had a slight connection in Minnesota. My dad is a hairdresser, who worked for a company then based in the Foshay Tower down … When I was really young in Minneapolis. Anyway, but the visit was, wow. I mean, I love the students, the faculty. I mean everything about it. So there’s something about the visit. Gustavus, really nails it and still does.

Jason Smerdon:

It’s a special place.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah.

Jason Smerdon:

So much about the Gustavus experiences, the community and what it’s like to be there. And it’s hard to put that on paper.

Greg Kaster:

It is. I have to admit, or acknowledge, I guess is a better way to say that. I was always kind of skeptical about that, but it’s real. I’ve learned over the years and certainly in hearing so many people, all different major backgrounds, talk about that. It’s real. So I guess, if you could just get everyone to visit Gustavus, other schools would have to go out of business, maybe. I don’t know. Anyway, that’s a great story. So when you came to Gustavus, it sounds like you certainly knew you were interested in physics as well as literature. When did you decide to major in physics? Was that right off the bat sort of or?

Jason Smerdon:

Yeah, I mean, I don’t think that I decided immediately, but the way that physics has sequenced, you really have to start … Certainly the way that it’s sequenced at Gustavus. You have to start in that fall semester. You need to take Physics 1 and then you’ve got to take two and three and there’s no space for really taking a semester off, if you’re going to get all of the classes in.

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Jason Smerdon:

You really buckle up and settle in right from day one. But of course, with the liberal arts requirements and education at Gustavus, you take a lot of other classes. So what I was happy to do actually, was I think I was still uncertain in that first year, but I almost was able to continue without making a choice in the sense that I still took a lot of English classes over my time there And was really able to continue to pursue that in interest, in addition to doing physics. Frankly, I think my career has continued in that way. I mean, I do physics, I do climate science, but one of the things I love about it is the writing. I love writing papers.FI like writing popular pieces. And so I’ve been able to maintain that as part of what I do. I like to think I didn’t necessarily make a choice that I continued my interest in literature and writing, but of course, ultimately just majored in physics.

Greg Kaster:

Right. Just having read some of what you’ve written for popular audiences. Yeah. Your writing is terrific. It’s clear. And how important that is to being able to communicate as a scientist. I mean, we historians have some of the same issues. Are we writing just for one another or for a broader audience and how much is that the latter valued by our professional peers? I’m curious about … Excuse me, about your kind of more specific experiences in the classroom and out of the classroom at Gustavus. For example, did you play baseball there? Did you?

Jason Smerdon:

So I tried out, I played fall ball, when I first got there, but ultimately didn’t make the team, which was hard at the time. But I think in retrospect it was a mercy killing in the sense that I don’t think I would have been able to continue playing baseball with the requirements on my time from physics.

Greg Kaster:

Yes.

Jason Smerdon:

I mean, it was a very intensive major and was something that would have been hard to maintain the additional extracurricular commitments like baseball, if I had stayed on.

Greg Kaster:

That’s funny, a mercy killing. And especially, because of your own position now, you’re at a major research university. Thinking back on your experience at Gustavus and thinking about your current experience now as a professor at Columbia, physics professor. What are the differences or the pros and cons between studying physics as an undergraduate at liberal arts college like Gustavus versus a major research university like Columbia? I mean, obviously I guess resources would be one difference, but what else?

Jason Smerdon:

Resources, of course. So there’s not necessarily ready labs to step into and have hands-on experience. We do some of that at Gustavus, but it’s not as widely available as an R1, like Columbia. So the pros are that it was an incredibly supportive environment, speaking about community, the community within the physics department was just so profound and supportive. Those of us who had work study in the physics department were given offices in Olin. We could talk for a long time about stories of mischief and insanity while we were all there working on our problem sets and doing grading and everything that was part of our work study. Students slept there, it was really a full-time dormitory in many ways, as we all worked through our classes and that support, it extended to all levels.

I can remember going down to Chuck Neiderriter’s house to do impromptu tutoring sessions for classes he wasn’t even teaching. It’s that kind of support that you get from Gustavus that’s so important. It was so important for me in getting through the program. Where I think it’s harder to get exposure is to the interdisciplinary fields, where a lot of the cutting edge research is being done. So the research that I’m doing right now, I had no real clue that I could do what I’m doing now with a physics degree. And we can talk more about how I got onto my path, but it was really through luck and happenstance that I ended up doing what I’m doing.

And actually my experience at Gustavus speaks to this. So I actually wanted to do a joint physics and geology major. I was interested in geology coming from the Pacific Northwest. I really was engaged by geology and wanted to pursue that at Gustavus and took quite a few geology classes. But my impression of what geophysics was at the time was seismology. And I enjoyed that. I was really interested in what was done with seismology. When my parents were on sabbatical in Switzerland, I went for one of my J-Terms and the internship that I did at the ETH in Zurich, where my father was doing his sabbatical, was working with a geophysicist going out and fixing seismometers in the field. But then I also built a seismometer while I was there, brought that prototype back and then worked on different seismometer designs as one of my research projects at Gustavus.

But I took this geology class, where I was really interested in these active source seismology applications. In other words, you use a truck or dynamite to make sound waves that go down into the subsurface, reflect off of different layers in the subsurface, come back up to an array of seismometers and you can actually map the stratigraphic layers underneath the surface, just using the seismic wave. So you can get these high resolution images of the subsurface. But I did this project and paper for this class that I was taking at the time and it was being taught by a field geologist. She was a visiting field geologists. So nobody on faculty right now. And I can’t even remember her name, but she hated my project.

She didn’t think that you could do this and that it was an untrustworthy method, et cetera. And it really discouraged me and it kind of turned me off from what I thought was my only chance to do geophysics, which was seismology at the time. And so that was actually an experience that motivated me to kind of put that interest down and focus more specifically on physics while I was at the Gustavus. And it was only like I said, through luck and happenstance that in graduate school, I rediscovered this path and was able to re-engage it. But I think that, if students aren’t proactive about seeking out research internships or other independent studies outside of Gustavus, they really don’t get that exposure to those interdisciplinary cutting edge fields that don’t fit neatly into these kind of siloed departments that we have in a lot of places.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. That’s an important point and great advice for anyone, even current students or prospective students listening. So I’m trying to think who is … Well, Steve Mellema, Chuck Niederriter, you mentioned they were profs in the physics department, when you were there, still are. And they’re great, both say hi. What about … Richard Fuller is still there, Dennis Henry.

Jason Smerdon:

Richard Fuller was just transitioning out when I was there. I never took a class with Richard. DC Henry, the infamous DC Henry was there. And I’ve got lots of scars to show for the classes I took from him.

Greg Kaster:

Dennis was a force. Oh, Tom Huber. Right.

Jason Smerdon:

Tom Huber and Paul Saulnier had just gotten there.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. They’re still there. Going strong. Yeah. I’m biased, I guess, I teach at Gustavus. I’ve been there for a long time, but wow, the physics department, it seems like one of the best of small liberal arts colleges, it’s certainly in the upper Midwest. It’s just amazing the people who have come out of there, but I take your point. I think it’s an important point about the … And that’s true really in our field too, about the interdisciplinary. Just in general, I wish … My wife was an American studies major. So the interdisciplinary, it just came sort of naturally to her. She got a PhD in American studies, but I still wish we could do more of that as departments. We’re still kind of siloed in our departments. It’s better. It’s more interdisciplinary even than when you were there, but we have a ways to go.

So I want to hear more about the luck and happenstance part of your journey, develop that a little bit. First of all, why Michigan? What led you to the University of Michigan from Gustavus?

Jason Smerdon:

This is one of the main luck and happenstance things. I graduated the year that the tornado hit, so 1998.

Greg Kaster:

Right, the infamous tornado.

Jason Smerdon:

The infamous tornado. And I really wanted to get back to the Northwest. So most of the schools I applied to were all in the Pacific Northwest, California, et cetera, but I applied to a few schools that had good programs in the Midwest and Michigan was one of them. I had the chance to visit Michigan early, had a great experience, was really impressed by the visit, but it still was fighting these headwinds given the fact that it was still in the Midwest. And so I was planning on visiting all these West Coast schools during my spring break and then ultimately flew back and had this whole itinerary for visiting all these schools on the West Coast during my spring break. But of course, the tornado hit the first Sunday of that spring break and I turned right around to come back and volunteer and pick … I was living off campus, pick our things up out of the yard.

Greg Kaster:

Thank you.

Jason Smerdon:

You’re welcome and never ultimately visited the schools on the West Coast that I was interested in. And I don’t know how things would have shaken out, maybe after visiting Michigan would have still risen to the top. But I think that had a huge impact on the schools that I looked at and given everything that happened and everything that I was able to evaluate, Michigan became the clear winner. And so I ended up going there.

Greg Kaster:

Who did you work with at Michigan, was there a particular individual, mentor?

Jason Smerdon:

One of the things, that was a selling point for Michigan was that it was an applied physics department, which meant that, it was a program that you could work in lots of different departments doing applied physics applications. So people in the program work in ultra-fast optics, they work in biophysics labs, they work in geophysics labs, et cetera. And so I liked the idea of the flexibility because as we talked earlier, I knew that I wanted to get my PhD and ultimately become a professor. I thought that I wanted to go into biophysics and go into optics. So that was kind of what I was thinking about at that point, but I also knew that I didn’t really know exactly what I wanted to do. So the flexibility of the applied physics program. I also was on a three-year fellowship, where I wasn’t tied to any specific professors funding when I got there, was also a real bonus.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, no kidding. I can imagine. That’s fantastic.

Jason Smerdon:

So it was great. Again, it was a fantastic program and it was a great experience, but I got on an NIH training grant. I started in a lab where, I was shooting proteins with lasers, which sounds really cool, but it wasn’t. I had very little wet-lab experience. And of course, the first thing they made me do as part of my project was work with potassium cyanide. We had to remove copper from the active site of this protein that we were studying with these lasers. And I can remember one of the senior graduate students advising me that, if I smelled almond, it was probably too late. But to leave the room, if that happened. It’s really dangerous process of adding acid to this potassium cyanide concentration, and you couldn’t do it too fast because it would vaporize. If you inhaled the potassium cyanide vapor, things were bad.

So this is [crosstalk 00:33:52], who was not somebody that was particularly comfortable in a wet-lab started doing. But the biggest challenge was that, this optical process of trying to observe the kinetics of these proteins with what was ultimately a phosphorescent process. Took tons of time tinkering with an optics table. And so you spent 90% of your time tinkering with these experimental apparatus and very little time collecting the data and I was kind of miserable. I really was not that connected to the project. I rotated through a couple of other labs, but I guess the other thing that I was missing was sort of big picture connection.

It was kind of at that point, where I was coming into my awareness of environmental activism. I started working with the League of Conservation Voters. I always had these interests, but I kind of assumed that they would be separate from my professional path. It was kind of coming to a head that I was really going to have to put these things together.

Greg Kaster:

Yes.

Jason Smerdon:

Just a quick story. I was involved in different environmental activism on campus, but I was also influenced by people on the Gustavus campus. And one of my favorite stories was there was a group at the time, one of my close friends from physics Sedge Freeman was part of it. It was called the Juggling Socialists. And one of the things that-

Greg Kaster:

Oh, I know them well, yes.

Jason Smerdon:

I don’t know if they still do this, but what they would do when we were there was they would pull up chairs along the conveyor belt in the old cafeteria. I don’t know, if you can actually do this in the new one. And they would eat the wasted food on the plate as it went by.

Greg Kaster:

I remember that.

Jason Smerdon:

It was such a great food waste awareness thing. Sedge bring back full whole apples and cookies to the physics office after they did this. But there were things sort of toward the end of my time at Gustavus, where I was sort of grappling with this and engaging in discussions. And so it really came to a head when I was in graduate school and miserable in these labs and thinking about what I really wanted to do with my career. And I was actually thinking about finishing up with a masters and then maybe going into policy and pursuing another path. And it was one of these, we all have them, it was one of these sort of existential moments. I failed my first qualifying exam. My second year was just a mess, but I was still on fellowship. And I decided that I would take some classes that I found interesting.

And so I took this class called, The Science and Politics of Global Warming. And it was taught by a professor of geophysics, Henry Pollack and it was team taught. The other teacher was his wife, who was the president of the Michigan Environmental Council at the time, Lana Pollack. So very active in Michigan state politics. This was in the late ’90s, taught this great course on the physical science aspects of global warming and the political aspects of it. And not only was I hooked by this experience, but it turns out that Henry was a geophysicist who late in his career, he did a lot of work on global heat flow, but late in his career was using method related to what he had done for most of his career, but was allowing him to reconstruct ground surface temperatures over the last 5 to a 1,000 years.

So it was this paleoclimate application he was doing. And I asked him at some point over the course of the semester, if I could work for him. I told him I still had a year of fellowship. And he said, “Yes.”

Greg Kaster:

That’s great.

Jason Smerdon:

It was this serendipitous, really lucky experience that drove me ultimately into what I would do. When I talk to students about this, I tell them about this experience. It’s that sort of combined luck with that voice that’s telling you to follow a certain path. So it’s part your values and what you want to do, and sort of taking the initiative to take a jump in a certain direction but there’s also a lot of luck and contingency involved.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, you use the word exactly. I mean, in so many of these stories, a lot of historians are, I don’t know, obsessed. We care a lot about contingency in the past and history. Yeah, exactly. That’s what it is. And it’s another great story, it’s instructive for students, even in your case, where at least you knew you were going to be in physics in some way. There’s all kind of twists and turns though, from that to what you’re doing now, and that you can fail something like an exam and still succeed. Some people have said failure is necessary to success, as painful as that can be. That’s just a great story. And it answers my question, of how you got into climate science and also what a great course that must’ve been, because I’m super interested in history and policy. I’m interested as just a lay person in science and policy as well.

And in fact, let’s use that as a transition to … So a couple of years ago, as you know, the annual Nobel conference at Gustavus focused on the climate change. We can stipulate, that human influenced climate change is real, it’s here. I mean, there’s no debate about that, except maybe monks. I don’t know, people who think the earth is flat. When I hear people, “Well, we don’t know.” Really, I mean, we can stipulate that it’s real, correct?

Jason Smerdon:

There’s no scientific debate about it, the Earth is warming and we’re causing it. There have been studies on this, that have looked at the consensus within science and over 90% of scientists agree with the statement, that the Earth is warming and we’re causing it as you get closer and closer to climate scientists as specialists, it goes closer and closer to a 100%. So scientifically, there’s no debate, it’s as close to consensus science as you get in the sciences. I mean, as you probably know, scientists are a curmudgeonly lot. We don’t like to agree. We like to point out holes in each other’s theories. So it’s hard to get that [crosstalk 00:40:20].

Greg Kaster:

Exactly, which is how knowledge advances, historians too. You’re a revisionist. Yeah. I know I’m a historian. I have to revise a little. Yeah. That said, what’s … I know this could be a whole podcast, but just briefly, what’s some of the strongest evidence for human caused climate change? It seemed a crisis that we’re in right now, you’ve written for example, or spoken also about mega droughts, but what would you point to as some of the really key pieces of evidence for it?

Jason Smerdon:

I mean, we know CO2 is going up. We have direct observations of CO2 in the atmosphere since the late 1950s. We know temperatures have been increasing, they’ve increased by over a degree C, since the mid 1800s. And we know that those two things are connected. If we look back in Earth history, we see temperatures in CO2 have marched in lock-step. We have climate models and other basic theoretical arguments that show us and point to the fact that as you increase CO2 in the atmosphere, you trap more heat toward the surface and increase surface temperatures and increase the amount of energy within the climate system as a whole. So you don’t have to think just about surface temperatures, we’re seeing atmosphere water vapor increase. We’re seeing ice melt all over the planet. We’re seeing the oceans warm up, all these things that are consistent with the idea that the Earth is warming. There’s more energy in the climate system and that the cause is increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

And I’ll also say, Greg, you’ll appreciate this from a historian’s perspective. This didn’t happen last year because George Soros gave us a [crosstalk 00:42:00]. This is built on over 150 years of climate research. So there were folks like Joseph Fourier, Svante Arrhenius writing in the 1800s about the connection between Earth’s temperature and atmosphere constituents. So this is work that has been built over a century of scientific thought discovery that has led us to the understanding that we have now about how we’re changing our planet.

Greg Kaster:

That’s also an important point. I mean, there’s a history not only to climate change and to the climate crisis, but a history to research about it. Yeah. Not just a bunch of liberal, crazy people. There’s this idea about tipping points, I guess, coming out of Malcolm Gladwell’s … Some of his writing but anyway, are there other tipping … I mean, is that valid when you think about climate change, are there tipping points? Are there surprises? Has climate change come more, it’s kind of my own lay feeling, suddenly. I used to think, “Oh, well. I believe it, it’s happening, but I’ll be dead before it really affects me.” And I no longer feel that way.

Jason Smerdon:

Right? Well, so tipping points, there are multiple terms that we associate with complex systems. So that’s really at the heart of this. The Earth’s system is a complex system, and as a result, it has feedbacks and it has tipping points. The problem is, is that it’s very difficult to identify, when you cross those tipping points. So one of the more famous examples is the melting of the polar ice caps in Greenland and Antarctica.

Greg Kaster:

Yes.

Jason Smerdon:

For a long time, we’ve said, it’s really difficult to identify where these tipping points are, but we know they exist. Because when we look back in Earth history, we see evidence of very rapid climatic changes that can only happen through accelerating feedbacks that ultimately contribute to these tipping points. But one of the interesting things specifically, about the ice caps that has been eye-popping for me as a scientist working in the field, is that we actually … Scientists have actually identified the fact that we’ve likely crossed tipping points for the way that those ice caps are melting. Some real just eye-popping studies over the last couple of years, suggesting that for instance, West Antarctica, which has four to five meters of sea level rise wrapped up into it, has crossed the tipping point.

The only question is, will it melt over the next several 100 years, or will it melt over the next say to 900 to a 1,000 years? But the way that the dynamics work specifically, in that West Antarctic ice sheet suggest that it has crossed the tipping point that it’s melting due to exposure of warmer temperatures underneath the ice sheet and the glaciers that drain the ice sheet, and that we’ve likely crossed that tipping point. And we’re seeing more examples like that as we move forward, where, we can with more and more certainty, suggest that we have crossed some tipping points. And so those are really, daunting things to keep in mind and recognize. But there are other aspects of the way that the climate system works that are chronic threats and happen over longer timescales. I guess the challenge with thinking about tipping points is the idea that, if we’ve crossed a tipping point, then what’s the point of doing anything about that.

Greg Kaster:

Right, exactly.

Jason Smerdon:

That’s a argument that we have to be very careful about. So as we continue to increase greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we expose ourselves to the likelihood that we will cross more and more tipping points. So we’re increasing the risk, but there’s also value in working as urgently and as quickly as we can to try to keep as many greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere as possible. And if we end up at two degrees Celsius, or 2.2 degrees Celsius, or 1.8 degrees Celsius, that’s a lot better than three or four degrees Celsius.

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Jason Smerdon:

So when, you hear the discussions around this, people often point to a degree and a half or two degrees C as a point that we don’t want to pass, which is true. But if we do pass them by a marginal amount, that’s a heck of a lot better than, if we blow past them and warm another degree or more. And so every effort counts, every everything that we do counts. These thresholds don’t exist, where if we pass them, all as loss and we can’t do anything.

Greg Kaster:

Right. Yeah. So let’s just do more of what we’ve been doing. That’s a really super important point. And it leads me to ask you about, I know you’ve thought a lot about this, spoken about it, written about it, but the whole politicization of science generally, but specifically climate change. How do you feel about that? How do you explain it, if you can’t explain it and what is it like to be a scientist knowing what’s happening, knowing the data, knowing the evidence, knowing what could be done and then facing this incredible partisan, polarized atmosphere around climate change?

Jason Smerdon:

Well, how do I feel about it? I think it sucks. It’s an incredibly disappointing development. I think the important thing to understand is that the politicization came after the effort by a lot of corporate interests to delay action on climate change. These discussions about the danger of greenhouse gases started in the 1970s and go back even a little bit before that. But there were reports that go back to the Johnson administration about the danger of increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And that was something that concerned Republicans and Democrats, people on both sides of the aisle. But over time, what happened is a lot of invested interest. And I’m not making this up. This is not my tinfoil hat theory. This is the product of a lot of academic research and historical work to look at this.

But basically, the people whose bottom line would be affected by decarbonizing our economy really began to spread a lot of disinformation, kick up a lot of dust about what we know, what we don’t know. Really use the uncertainties that were larger back 30, 40 years ago, to spread a lot of doubt about whether or not we could definitively say humans were impacting the climate. And it was all for the sake of a greasy buck. It’s hard to comprehend how reckless that approach has been in terms of how it’s imperiled the future of our planet, of our societies. The challenges that we face now because of the delayed action on decarbonizing our economy and addressing the climate crisis, put us in a much more difficult position now than we would’ve been, if we had worked to address this 30, 40 years ago, when it would have been a much more attractable problem.

So now, the urgency is extreme, and we have a much harder lift to really prevent the most serious risk of climate change. And it’s because of those early attempts to really spread a lot of doubt about this issue. The politicization came because those efforts essentially got spun into an ideology that connects to a lot of other things. And we can talk about this [crosstalk 00:50:14].

Greg Kaster:

Right. It connects to the attack on democracy among other things.

Jason Smerdon:

Yeah, you opened with a quote about the structural deficiencies in our democracy right now, but also thoughts about regulation. Essentially, free market capitalism versus regulation and addressing some of these issues. And so it became this, just like issues of abortion and gun control. It became this issue that’s become politicized, but also connected to specific ideologies and that’s disastrous because now you have an entire political party and a whole range of talking heads that essentially argue that, if you think climate change is real, you’re not a card carrying member of our party.

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Jason Smerdon:

It’s really just disastrous because we need everyone’s help addressing this crisis and it’s going to affect everybody.

Greg Kaster:

Yes, that’s the part. I mean, you, you used the word reckless, which I think about that all the time. I mean, they really think it’s not going to affect them, or I sometimes think it’s like the person … At least I have this image of the person who’s dying of emphysema, but is still smoking. I don’t get it. This idea that somehow we can keep doing, what we’re doing is a fossil fuel company or whatever. It’s maddening to me. It sucks. It sucks for all of us. I would agree, whether people know it or not. Go ahead.

Jason Smerdon:

It’s dangerous to put these folks on the couch, but I do think there’s two essentially classes of people. It’s the people who I think have cynically approached this doubt strategy and known all along. You look at Exxon for instance, and they were doing research on climate change and internally acknowledging the threats of climate change decades ago. So it’s clear. Corporations like Exxon, we’re talking out of two sides of their mouths on this issue. I do think then there is a whole class of folks who have digested these talking points and have been exposed to these political spin campaigns that probably do seriously questioned the science. Think that all of the different things that have been done to spread doubt about this are legitimate.

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Jason Smerdon:

I think that, that is something that we absolutely have to take very seriously. And it is the people that we need to be reaching out to and convincing one way or another, that the opportunities presented by pursuing decarbonization and renewable energies and all these amazing things that could be part of this energy revolution and decarbonization process, that there’s a lot of benefits to it. And that there’s a lot of good reasons to pursue this, independent of whether or not you independent of whether or not you think climate change is caused by human beings.

Greg Kaster:

Right. Exactly. Yeah. I agree.  The quote, I kind of led with in the introduction, I think is incredibly important because even in my own mind. I sometimes think, “Well. Yeah, there’s climate change, there’s the crisis, but what about suppression of voting or what about real stealing of the election by laws allowing state legislatures to do that?” Maybe in the future. But anyway, I really liked how in that quote, you put the two together, that it’s not an either or, and I think about this so often. The science is there and it’s just like with COVID, it’s happened earlier in certainly in our country’s history, but what we lack is the political will and the political power. And until it seems, we get people in office and to do that you need to vote and your votes need to count. We need good candidates. We’re doomed. I mean, I hate to think that way. I don’t like thinking that way, but it’s about policy.

Let me kind of put you on the spot, wave a magic wand. You’re now in charge of climate change, at least for the United States of America, what do you do? What are your top priorities?

Jason Smerdon:

Well, I think the recipe is fairly straight forward. We have to transition to renewable energy, specifically within the energy sector. And that is something that’s accelerating incredibly, rapidly because of the fact that wind and solar energy are the cheapest forms of energy production now, that we have. So 2020 for all of its … The reasons it was significant, it was the first year that solar beat out wind and became the cheapest form of electricity generation in the world.

Greg Kaster:

I’ve read that. A lot of people don’t know that. That’s important. Yeah.

Jason Smerdon:

Right. So we have to transition to renewable energies in the way that we produce electricity. We have to transition to electrifying many different areas of our economy and our infrastructure, so that we’re using electricity to power those sectors as opposed to say, fossil fuel, natural gas or otherwise. So for instance, here at Columbia, our heating and cooling system is all driven by natural gas. We have to electrify that system. And that goes hand in hand with cleaning our grid and improving the amount of renewable energy that we have on our grid.

But there’s a lot of things that you can’t electrify and are more difficult to decarbonize. So there’s lots of different industrial sectors. Metallurgy for instance, is one, production of fertilizer, cement. These technologies are all reliant on fossil fuels in a way that are harder to transition to. So that’s an area where we really have to do a lot more R&D, to actually develop fossil free or carbon neutral means of performing those industrial tasks. Then we also have to address transportation, which in a lot of different ways needs to have mobile fuels. So fuels that … We certainly can get around with electric cars and that’s great, but what do we do about aviation and transport?

And I think that’s an area where we have to think about things like green hydrogen, where we have to improve battery storage, is another important area for these kinds of things. We have those technologies. We just have to make them cheaper and scale them up.

Greg Kaster:

You’re taking the words … I was just going to say, “Dude, they’re doable.” Sorry, to interrupt. They’re doable. This is not pie in the sky sort of stuff. Yeah.

Jason Smerdon:

So Greg, that’s exactly … You earlier said that it’s a lack of political will, it is. In so many ways we have the technologies, they exist. We just have to figure out how to deploy them at scale and build a political motivation and the political will to do it and I think that’s empowering. I mean, these things exist. These aren’t unsolvable problems. We have the technologies to make this happen. We just have to find the motivation to really accelerate this at the urgent rate that’s necessarily.

Greg Kaster:

Right. And … Go ahead.

Jason Smerdon:

The last thing that I was going to say on technology. Sorry, is the other side of the coin is we have to sequester carbon and figure out what to do with it. And that’s another area, where we have a lot of active technologies for removing selectively carbon from the atmosphere. So we can actually passively remove CO2 from the atmosphere with various technologies. There’s of course, land use changes and things that we can do as far as tree planting and so on. But there are lots of existing technologies for taking carbon out of the atmosphere directly, taking carbon out of smokestack emissions. And then there are technologies for what to do with that carbon, once we’ve removed it. Which is, we have to put it somewhere, where we can trust that it’s going to stay there.

Greg Kaster:

Right. I want to ask you about that actually. Yeah. I sometimes think about nuclear waste, the same sort of thing, but go ahead. Where would we put it? Where should we put it?

Jason Smerdon:

Carbon is a little different than nuclear waste in the sense that, if it leaks back out, it’s not going to have immediate ramifications on the people who are exposed to it, but it’ll have huge climate implications. I’m of two minds about this. One, we have to put a lot of it and we’re talking gigatons of it in the ground. There are different ways that you can do this. You can store it in old energy and gas wells. The problem with those, is that there’s lots of holes in them where they’ve drilled [crosstalk 00:59:04]. And so you really have to make sure that it’s not going to come back up. There are also other technologies for pumping it through specific kinds of geologic formations, where it actually mineralizes, as it goes through geologic formation. And so you lock it up as a mineral, which is one of the best ways to do it.  It’s rock, it’s stuck in the ground and-

Greg Kaster:

I did not know about that, that’s cool.

Jason Smerdon:

Here’s the sort of science fiction angle that I also think about with this. I think we need to save some of it in the event that we need to deploy some of it back into the atmosphere. As much as this is an urgent problem that we need to remove carbon from the atmosphere, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what level of carbon dioxide is needed in the atmosphere for humans to maintain our way of life on the planet. And this is getting very much into science fiction and sort of terraforming our planet. But when you think about it, the climate changes on its own over many different timescales. And it may be that at some point we want to put a little carbon back into the atmosphere.

And so I think that keeping some of it in a way that allows us to deploy it in the future might be wise. That said, that’s sort of a luxury to think about way down line. Right now, we’ve got way more of it than we need. And we’ve simply got to keep more of it from going into the atmosphere, take a lot of it out of the atmosphere and figure out a way to safely store it.

Greg Kaster:

That is all so interesting. I never thought about, we might need to put it back someday. We’ll be long gone, I guess, but I’m still worth pondering, even if it’s only sort of science fiction. Wow. Also, fascinating. As we wind down here, as we conclude, I want to ask you. Come back to your liberal arts education and Steve Mellema. You took courses with Steve. Well, I know you did. Of course, you did it at Gustavus. He mentioned a J-Term, a January term he taught that you were in, and he said to me that I should ask you about the project you did for that J-Term. Because it’s illustrative of how the liberal arts can inform science and your own liberal arts education. So take it away.

Jason Smerdon:

Yeah, I love J-Term. The J-Terms I did, I traveled abroad in Switzerland and built a seismometer. I took Don Quixote one J-Term, and then I took this programming class with Steve Mellema and at the end of the class, we had to develop our own programming projects. And so the project I completed was, I wrote a program to randomly generate haikus and it was a lot of fun. You basically, pressed a button and this program would spit out an infinite number of haikus. What was fun about it was … There’s a liberal arts angle to this. What is art?

Greg Kaster:

Right. That’s right.

Jason Smerdon:

It was completely randomly generated and some looked like complete gobbledygook and others looked like Dylan handwritten them. And the only reason why they looked like Dylan had written them is because of the consciousness that I, as an observer, had placed on those words as they were generated on the paper, but it was a great project and it was fun in the sense that, it was a confluence of my interest in physics and my liberal arts interests.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I mean, interdisciplinary. It’s great. Love it. What about, make the case for … I know you can, obviously. Make the case for studying physics as an undergraduate and for a liberal arts college like Gustavus and feel free to make the case for Lamont-Doherty Observatory as well.

Jason Smerdon:

Well, physics ultimately, it gives you this knowledge base for how to approach physical problems, but I think what’s so valuable about it, and I’m a perfect example of somebody who did physics and has ended up very far from the tree in terms of what I do. But in some ways, the reason why I was able to do it, and the reason why I was even given the opportunity to do it is, because as a physicist there’s a certain logic and approach to problem solving that you have, and a certain assumed degree of quantitative skills that are necessary everywhere. The way that the world has evolved and it’s changing. I’ll tell you Greg, working with historians were sort of … I’ve been working with a colleague who I’m teaching how to work with these graded digitized data sets as a way of understanding drought in East Africa. Those skills are applicable across the board, in finance, in history, in the Earth sciences. The world is just becoming more and more digitized and we’re swimming in more and more data.

Greg Kaster:

Yes.

Jason Smerdon:

And there’s lots of different disciplines that will teach you how to work with that. But physics is a great first principle’s exposure to the thinking that goes into it, whether it’s, how to work with those data, how to think about those data and apply them to different problems. And so I just think that the tools that you gain through a physics education have limitless applications, even more so in the modern world in which we live.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah.

Jason Smerdon:

Your question about the liberal arts more generally. I have this seminar that I teach and one of the things that I ask my students in a survey is, true or false, the purpose of college is to get you a job? And it motivates a lot of interesting discussion. I think that answer has changed as education in the United States in particular has gotten more and more expensive. One of the things that we talk about is skills and what constitutes skills, and of course, there’s skills like learning how to program or learning how to solve a differential equation. But there’s a lot of these skills that you learn within the liberal arts that make you become a lifelong learner.

Greg Kaster:

Right.

Jason Smerdon:

Allow you to sift through information, to get to, “Truth,” at least as objectively as we can, which of course, is more and more important in an age where disinformation is rampant. It teaches you how to be a leader. It teaches you to be well-rounded and draw from so many different disciplines to become a real well-rounded citizen, who participates in democracy and the communities in which we live. And I can’t think of a better training. If I had learned just physics, I would have been a boat unmoored. I could’ve done a lot of things, but as a person and how I thought about applying what I learned in physics, I really needed the much more broad exposure that I got through the liberal arts to be able to apply that in a way that was consistent with my values, in the way that I understand those values, in a way that’s consistent with the bigger picture concerns that I have. So I think all of those things go together in a liberal arts education in the most important and profound ways.

Greg Kaster:

Agree. And it’s funny, you mentioned that about the survey you use with your students. I have them read an article … It’s by a former college or university president, and it’s something like colleges … College is not a commodity or something, so stop treating it like one. And the difference between here’s your credential, go home. You want to credential? Here you go. And an education and learning how to be a lifelong learner. Even apart from the applications of it, just the incredible satisfaction, that one derives, as a human being from that. There’s no way to put a number on that or a value number on that. It’s incredible. One educator said something like, the point of a college education is to make your mind an interesting place to live the rest of your life, which I think, yeah that makes a lot of sense. And also to solve climate change. Go ahead, yeah.

Jason Smerdon:

It even happens in real time and this is an important story for me. I was taking a TS Eliot class from Anne Brady in the English department. [crosstalk 01:07:39].

Greg Kaster:

Oh, she’s wonderful.

Jason Smerdon:

Amazing. I took modern poetry from her. I mean, she was phenomenal. But I was taking that class during the tornado. And we were reading the Four Quartets and discussing present, past, and future. It was such a powerful class to be taking in the midst of this tragedy that we experienced at Gustavus. When I think back on that experience, that’s how I understand what that experience meant for me. It was really the lens of TS Eliot and what we were talking about in that class. And I can remember, I still have the essay, because I wrote this really sort of profound essay for me, about just where I was in life at the time and the choices that I was making and what I was doing after graduation and how, the tornado had influenced my thinking about that. And how Eliot had influenced my thinking about that. I think that’s just such a good example of how the liberal arts, it impacts our life in real-time and it’s meaningful and allows us to understand the world around us in a way that is very hard, if you don’t have that context.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, exactly. Couldn’t agree more. We need to get you to send that essay, if you haven’t already to the archives at Gustavus, because they’re collecting all kinds of stuff around the tornado. Yeah. This has been an absolute pleasure. From speaking with someone like you, a climate scientist, I’m always sort of left feeling a little down, but also hopeful. Man, there’s so much brain power in this world, if we could just get the politics under control. Anyway, it’s been a real pleasure. I know you’re busy. Thank you so much for taking time. Are you traveling this summer for research?

Jason Smerdon:

Not for research, but ultimately for a long deserved vacation.

Greg Kaster:

Good.

Jason Smerdon:

But Greg, I can’t let you leave on a depressing note with regard to climate change. So I’m going to tell you my pitch about it, very quickly. I get asked a lot, if I have hope, et cetera, and I don’t think that’s the approach we need to take. The analogy I always make is, if you’re on a ship being thrown about by the waves, it’s taking on water. You don’t have the captain, if he has hope that you’re going to survive, you pick up a bucket and get to work. And we all have to pick up a bucket. We all have different skills and abilities. So it’s not about one specific silver bullet. Everybody has to pick up the tool that’s their own to use and their own to pursue and get to work on this problem. And that’s what we ultimately have to do and we have a lot of agency. The way that the world turns out over the next 100 years is up to us.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Yeah.

Jason Smerdon:

It’s a much [crosstalk 01:10:22].

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, yeah. And the point about agency, I couldn’t agree more with it. It’s a major theme of all my courses. The ways in which we all face constraints, but we also no matter what the constraints have some agency. That’s a good note to end on. So get to work, all of us and you’re already at work.

Jason Smerdon:

Yes.

Greg Kaster:

Thank you so much, Jason. It’s been a real pleasure, best of luck with the research. Maybe we check in again about the drought. I don’t know what’s going …

Jason Smerdon:

Yeah, maybe [crosstalk 01:10:54].

Greg Kaster:

That’s your old neck of the woods, the Northwest is really, boy, getting clobbered.

Jason Smerdon:

Yeah, yeah. Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. An absolute pleasure, next time I’m in New York too, maybe we can hook up for coffee or something.

Jason Smerdon:

We’ll go to Zabar’s.

Greg Kaster:

Take good care. That’d be great. There we go. Yeah, we can meet there. Yeah. That sounds good. Thanks so much.

Jason Smerdon:

[crosstalk 01:11:11]. It was a pleasure.

Greg Kaster:

Bye-bye.

Learning for Life @ Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of the Gustavus Office of Marketing. Gustavus graduate Will Clark, Class of ’20, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast and me. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

 

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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