Lamont Weekly Report, November 22, 2013


    Fifty years ago today, at lunchtime, I was walking to the student houses on my campus after a sophomore physics lecture when my TA from Geology 1, his face wreathed in pain, gave me the news of the day. He was searching for his students to tell them that our afternoon lab had been cancelled. That moment, and millions like it, marked the beginning of the decline in my generation’s faith and trust in government, from levels nearly unimaginable today, to a full reversal before the end of that decade.

    But half a century is an eon, in science as well as in politics.
    On Monday, Lamont welcomed a visit by Congresswoman Nita Lowey, the Ranking Member of the House Committee on Appropriations and a long-time advocate for federal investment in science, to receive the “Champion of Science” award from The Science Coalition ( Congresswoman Lowey’s 17th New York district has included Lamont only since 2012, and this was her first visit to our campus. We’ve extended an open invitation for her to return for a tour and additional opportunities to meet with our staff and students.
    Andreas Thurnherr and Kevin McLain returned this week from a cruise to the Southern Ocean on the R/V Nathaniel Palmer that was part of the U.S.-British Diapycnal and Isopycnal Mixing Experiment in the Southern Ocean (DIMES) ( The focus of the cruise was mixing in the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, and Andreas led the collection of four-dozen full-depth hydrographic profiles in the Drake Passage.
    On Tuesday, Lamont’s Strategic Planning Committee met to go over the latest version of the strategic plan for the Observatory. The plan is in a near-final state that will be circulated soon to the full campus community for feedback and polishing.
    On Tuesday evening, a meeting was held of a joint committee of representatives from Lamont and the village of Piermont on the future use of the Observatory’s facility near the end of the Piermont Pier. Participants included Wade McGillis, Pat O’Reilly, Mo Raymo, Pete Sobel, Marc Spiegelman, and Margie Turrin, as well as others from the village. The next steps include developing a detailed plan for the use of the building, deciding whether it makes more sense to renovate or replace that building, and seeking funds to complete the needed work.
    Lamont’s Advisory Board met on Wednesday afternoon in the Kennedy Board Room of the Comer Building. The meeting, the first to be led by new Board chair Sarah Johnson, began to focus on the major scientific initiatives identified in Lamont’s draft strategic plan and the resources needed to bring those initiatives to maturity. Peter deMenocal gave the Board a presentation on the Climate and Life initiative, the most mature of the five initiatives described in the plan. Each of the other initiatives will be featured at one of the next four Board meetings.
    Following the Board meeting, a ceremony to dedicate Lamont’s new Ultra Clean Laboratory was held in the Comer Building. Participating in the ceremony were Executive Vice President for Research Mike Purdy; James Whetstone, Special Assistant to the Director for Greenhouse Gas Measurements at the National Institute of Standards and Technology; and Board chair Sarah Johnson. Conny Class, Bess Koffman, Terry Plank, and Yaakov Weiss gave persuasive talks on a few of the many scientific questions that can now be pursued because of the capabilities of the new laboratory. The ceremony was followed by a festive reception in the Comer Atrium.
    On Thursday, Lamont hosted a visit by Joel Widder and Meg Thompson, attorneys and lobbyists who represent Columbia University’s interests in Washington, D.C. The visit was scheduled to provide an opportunity for all of us at Lamont to learn from Joel and Meg about budgetary prospects this year and next for the federal science agencies, to engage more of the scientists on the Lamont Campus in paying visits and providing objective advice to decision makers in Washington, and to raise the visibility of Columbia University as a source of such advice. Joel and Meg met first with Lamont’s Associate Directors, and a lunchtime meeting was held with Robin Bell, Peter deMenocal, Yochanan Kushnir, Kerstin Lehnert, Mo Raymo, Paul Richards, Lex van Geen, Bob Chen from CIESIN, Lisa Goddard from IRI, and Alison Rose from the Agriculture and Food Security Center. A Town Hall meeting in the Monell Auditorium gave everyone on the campus a chance to hear Joel and Meg speak on federal science agency budgets and to ask questions on how the Lamont community can become more engaged in the budget preparation process.
    Underway at the National Research Council is a decadal survey of the ocean sciences, a prioritization of research objectives and facilities for the coming 10 years being conducted at the request of the National Science Foundation. The survey committee established a Virtual Town Hall this week to solicit community input (  The site provides detailed information on the committee’s charge as well as a complete list of committee members. Please contribute your suggestions for the top priorities in ocean science for the coming decade.
    In a News and Views piece in this week’s issue of Nature, Jonathan Overpeck of the University of Arizona commented on a recent article in the Journal of Climate by Ben and Ed Cook, Jason Smerdon, and Richard Seager that documented the 1000-year history of droughts recorded by tree-ring observations in North America. Notwithstanding the recent drought in the American southwest that produced huge losses in agricultural yields, unusually widespread wildfires, and more than 200 fatalities, the millennial record includes periods of natural drought that were far worse in their duration and extent, conditions that will presumably recur in the future.
    Today, Adam Maloof from Princeton University’s Department of Geosciences ( will give today’s Earth Science Colloquium on an even longer-term perspective. A geologist, paleobiologist, and paleoclimatologist, Adam will speak on the question “Did Earth lose its balance before the first animals evolved?” I hope that your afternoon is in sufficient balance, despite today’s semicentennial, that you can join me for the answer.