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A pioneer in computer climate modeling, Warren Washington has served as an adviser to presidents from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama, and he has earned numerous accolades for his achievements. Inspired by the humble beginnings of scientists who came before him, Washington was the second African American to earn a doctorate in atmospheric sciences. We talk with him about his work, his roots and why he thinks science is a good field for students to consider in a bad economy.
- Warren Washington Senior Scientist, Climate & Global Dynamics Division of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR); recipient, National Medal of Science; 2007 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate (shared)
2009 National Medal of Science Laureate for his development and use of global climate models. Produced by Evolving Communications for the National Science & Technology Medals Foundation.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, soccermania in the Washington area, the European Championship World Cup qualifiers, Olympics all coming up, as will be that conversation. But first, if Warren Washington had listened to his high school guidance counselor, we might not be talking to him today. Said counselor suggested he skip college and become a businessman. But Washington had developed a passion for science and was determined to turn that enthusiasm and curiosity into a career.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd washing dishes for a dollar an hour to pay his way through college turned out to be the right choice because he's gone on to have a ground-breaking career in climate science, advising half a dozen presidents and earning numerous accolades along the way. Warren Washington joins us in studio. He is a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. He's a recipient of the National Medal of Honor and shared in the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Warren Washington, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. WARREN WASHINGTONThank you. Can I just make one minor...
NNAMDIPlease make a minor correction.
WASHINGTON...correction on that?
NNAMDIIt's probably major.
WASHINGTONPresident Obama gave me the National Medal of Science.
NNAMDIAh, the National Medal of Science is what you got. What did I say?
NNAMDIOh, I’m sorry. It is the National Medal of Science.
NNAMDIYou were a big reader when you were a child. What was it about science books that spoke to you?
WASHINGTONI don't know. I had a curiosity about how things worked. And I had a library card. And it was a very proud possession for a kid that was about 10 years old or so. And I would go to the library and read about famous people, George Washington Carver, Albert Einstein, people like that. And I went a little bit further and I read books about famous people. And the thing that I discovered was that they came from ordinary family situations. And that made a big difference to me because, you know, being a scientist wasn't something that our family did or that sort of thing.
WASHINGTONBut sort of reading those kinds of biographies, you know, made it sound like to me, hey, I can do that, too.
NNAMDIWell, both of your parents were college educated. Your father fled the South, eventually settling in Oregon where segregation still had an effect on your family. How did early experiences of inequality help to shape your life?
WASHINGTONWell, I was actually taken into it very early in the sense that one of my best friends were of the Rutherfords in Portland, Ore. And at that time in the early '50s, you know, blacks could not go to restaurants or hotels. You know, if you were going on a long trip you would, you know, bake the fried chicken or cook it and, you know, take that and hope that you could stop at a restroom along the way.
WASHINGTONAnd the NAACP was very active in trying to get a public accommodations law in Oregon. And I was vice chair of the Junior NAACP. I was like 14 -- no, I was about 15, I guess, 15 or 16. And we all worked with legislators who were sympathetic to this issue. And in 1953, the legislature passed a public accommodations law. So I was involved in that. You know, I didn't do much, other than act as a help to the senior NAACP, but it was important that they wanted the youth to be involved in it and to live through that experience.
NNAMDIDespite your aptitude, despite your intelligence you were discouraged from applying to college, but you continued to be concerned about the quality of math and science education and about the number of students pursuing these fields in this country. Do you think leaders in the field are doing enough to attract students?
WASHINGTONI think that they're starting to. And the way that I kinda know that -- now just keep in mind, I went to Oregon State University. At that time it was a college. And there were, like, roughly ten black students on campus. Eight of them were on the football team. There were a couple of us who were taking subjects. I was taking physics. I don’t remember what the other one took. And we lived in a town where there was only one black family. And so I won't say it was tough or anything like that. It wasn't. I think most people accepted me and the others on campus, but it wasn't the normal kind of place.
WASHINGTONIn fact, the first African-American to ever graduate from the college and university, graduated six years before I attended. And that school had been there since 1870.
WASHINGTONYeah and in fact, it reminded me of my mother who went to the University of Oregon in the early 1930s. And they did not allow blacks to live in the dormitories. And so she had to work as a nanny because she couldn't live in the dormitory. And she put up with it for about a year and a half and then she just couldn't deal with it anymore.
NNAMDIWhen you were attending undergraduate school, you worked as a dishwasher making the princely sum of a dollar an hour.
NNAMDII was saying that when I was in college I had a roommate who was making 65 cents an hour washing dishes. So you weren't doing that badly and it could pay your tuition 'cause your tuition was all of what, $47?
WASHINGTON$47. In fact, we had student protests when it went up to $51.
NNAMDIOh, yeah. Objections, $51. That's way too expensive, but why were you encouraged not to go to college and to turn to business?
WASHINGTONI think it was just stereotyping, you know. Here I was interested in physics and chemistry and mathematics. And I think my high school counselor thought, oh, well, you know, I don't think it's a good idea for you to go into those hard subjects. And yet I did quite well. And, you know, I think when I told my parents that the counselor felt I shouldn't go into physics, you know, they firmly told me to ignore him.
NNAMDIYou have been both a mentor and a mentee.
NNAMDIHow important are those relationships in building a career? How important should such relationships be if we're trying to get more and more young people involved in science?
WASHINGTONWell, first of all, I think most scientists realize that they were mentored by somebody and that they need to pass it along, that trait to their students. So I think in science, mentoring is just part of the educational experience. And in my case, since I'm the first African-American to have gotten the National Medal of Science award in the areas of the physical sciences and biological sciences, that I just take out some time out of my work to sort of do that thing. And what's changed, Kojo, a lot was now I get invited to give lectures to like the Black Chemist Society.
WASHINGTONAnd to sit in front of that group, which is roughly 600 African-American students, you know, in chemistry at various colleges throughout the country, that is really heartwarming because I think the issue of diversity in science is considered important. Even though when we bring in a lot of scientists from abroad, I think the National Science Foundation and other organizations feel it's important that we reach out to underrepresented students who are capable of contributing to the science and technology of our society. And …
NNAMDIWe're talking with Warren Washington. He's a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. He's a recipient of the National Medal of Science and shared in the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. I'm glad you mentioned that you were talking to a group of young people and that many of them were studying chemistry because you credit a solid understanding of physics as being the groundwork for your further education. How did that field prepare you for what came later?
WASHINGTONWell, I think if you understand physics you really understand how nature works. In other words, all of the things that are fundamental really come from the basic knowledge of physics. Even the elements of chemistry and biology, there's always some foundation that has to do with physics. So I liked that because my interests were so broad that when it came to trying to computer model on the climate system, I was able to kind of use my knowledge to not only mathematically solve the very complicated equations, but also to understand things like clouds, precipitation, hydrology, all of these things that go on in the weather and the climate system. So I think I had a good foundation.
NNAMDIMeteorology is what appealed to you. Climate change now has become a politically-charged topic. You've advised presidents of both parties from Carter to Obama. Does politics enter into this issue at all for you?
WASHINGTONI think so, unfortunately. Because science is not really supposed to be partisan. But I think the way that elections are held nowadays, where large amounts of money are given to candidates to represent views in the political process, for example I have to say I'm not happy with very wealthy people or corporations contributing money in, at least I think, obscene amounts to represent them in educating on the public because they miseducate the public in many ways. And I think that that's having a bad effect on our political process.
NNAMDIYou've said that scientists are generally an optimistic group, but much of the reports that we hear about climate change are fairly dire. How do you maintain your optimism?
WASHINGTONWell, I'm just an optimistic person, I guess. Cleary, and I talked about this yesterday a bit, when you burn a molecule of fossil fuel it puts into the atmosphere a carbon dioxide molecule. And that molecule stays in the atmosphere for somewhere around 90 years on average. Now, so that if we do something about emissions of carbon dioxide, just keep in mind it's gonna stay in the atmosphere for a long time.
WASHINGTONSo this is different than water pollution or air pollution where if you take steps to mitigate on that pollution things improve almost immediately.
WASHINGTONBut if we stop the emitting right now the climate would continue to warm up for sort of decades to a century time scale. And so -- and the reason scientists are so concerned is if we don't start taking steps now it's going to be more and more difficult to deal with this problem when we get more concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
NNAMDIDo you see any legitimacy in arguments that are made against climate change, some of the arguments being fueled by the billions of dollars that you're talking about?
WASHINGTONWell, I think that the amount of effort being exerted by the oil and gas and the fossil fuel industry is misleading the public. I think that's the bottom line.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number here if you'd like to join the conversation with Warren Washington. He's a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. He's a recipient of the National Medal of Science and shared in the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. If you're considering a career in science or have a child in your life who is doing that give us a call, 800-433-8850, or if you have questions about the science of climate change. You can also join the conversation by going to our website kojoshow.org. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or shooting us a Tweet at kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Warren Washington. He is a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. He's a recipient of the National Medal of Science and shared in the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think we have achieved greater diversity in the scientific fields or how do you think we could better our record, do a better job of achieving diversity in the scientific field? 800-433-8850. When you started at the National Center for Atmospheric Research you had the ability to spend half of your time on an assigned project and the other half on one of your own choosing. What did you choose?
WASHINGTONWell, I chose to work on building a computer model of the atmosphere and then later on the climate system. And it turned out on those two objectives were met as one. And I worked with a very close colleague. His name is Acura Kasahara. (sp?) He's a Japanese scientist. And we started that in 1963 so I'm coming up on 50 years now of working on that project.
NNAMDIAnd technology has changed incredibly over the course of that time. What did early computer forecasts look like?
WASHINGTONI mentioned this in my talk yesterday -- or the interview at the National Academy of Sciences. My -- the earliest computers I ran on had less computer power than your iPhone. And now we run on computers at various places in the U.S. that have hundreds of thousands and up to a million processors. And we use something of the order of 200 million hours of computer time. And, you know, these are computers almost half the size of this building, you know.
NNAMDIAnd had less power than today's iPhone.
WASHINGTONThat's right. Well, no, in the early days they were all vacuum tube.
WASHINGTONYeah, they were all vacuum tube. And the vacuum tubes failed all the time, I might add.
NNAMDIYou know, we had one of your colleagues, Michael Mann, on this show some time ago. He's one of those with whom you shared the...
WASHINGTONOh, I -- yeah, right.
NNAMDI...2007 Nobel Peace Prize. And we talked about the controversy that he has had to deal with. You seem to have maintained a slightly lower profile despite your controversy work. But the controversy has also touched you, though, has it not?
WASHINGTONNo, it's touched me too. You know, there are people who consider climate change as a hoax. And I won't mention the radio talk show person who brings that up all the time.
WASHINGTONBut I think everybody knows who that is. And he's misinformed people. There's no question about it. Now I'm not saying that there isn't some areas of controversy and concern for us scientists even about do we have everything right to the nth degree. I mean, are there uncertainties? Well, we're very clear about what the uncertainties are. And there's a lot of research going into to sort of lower those uncertainties.
WASHINGTONFor example, you know, on the details of how clouds work and how to put them into our models properly is still a area of additional research. But if I look at the early models that we had in the '60s versus the models now where we have hundreds of scientists involved in trying to improve various aspects of our models they're much better. And they compare very favorably with trying to understand how climate has changed from say 1850 to the present. And we can test our models in various ways, you know, whether or not the seasons are changing properly, and the day night cycles are proper.
WASHINGTONAnd there's a myriad of tests that we do all the time to test our models to see if they're as accurate as we can make them. So on the research based upon is there global warming or not isn't based just on the models like I've been working on, but it's also based on the observations, satellite observations, other types of observations. All of that story fits together now and we have a much better sense of how the climate system works and how it responds to increased greenhouse gases.
NNAMDISpeaking of which, let's go to the phones and talk with Dean in Washington, D.C. Dean, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Dean, can you hear me?
DEANYes, I can.
NNAMDIGo right ahead, Dean.
DEANYeah, my question is given that carbon is a building block for human life, why is carbon dioxide so problematic?
WASHINGTONWell, that's a good question. As we understand our planet, our planet is made up of a whole bunch of gases. And one of the gases is carbon dioxide. We have water vapor and other greenhouse gases. Now when you increase the greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide it traps more of the infrared radiation in terms of it getting out to space. In other words -- and we have a balance of energy coming in from the sun and radiation going out to space.
WASHINGTONNow if you look at Mars, it has very little in the way of greenhouse gases and so the temperatures are in the range of minus 50 or so. If you have Venus, which has lots of greenhouse gases, its temperature is several hundred degrees. And so we understand that for the planet earth there's a delegate balance in between how much greenhouse gases we have. Now what complicates it a bit is if the planet warms up and you get more water vapor being evaporated, water vapor is also a strong greenhouse gas and it helps amplify the small amount of heating by increasing carbon dioxide.
WASHINGTONSo -- and these mechanisms are fairly well understood in our science and we're able to model it reasonably well as well as observe it.
NNAMDIDean, thank you very much for your call. We move on to Eve in Silver Spring, Md. Eve, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
EVEYeah, hi. My question is I have two elementary school-age children, a boy and a girl. And I wanted to get some suggestions for encouraging their interest in science. We don't have a lot of money for fancy camps so what would you suggest?
WASHINGTONWell, clearly taking advantages of the science programs -- are you living in the Washington area?
EVEYes, Montgomery County, Md.
WASHINGTONYeah, so there's -- you can visit on the Science Museums here in Washington, D.C. or in -- you know, actually Baltimore also has a very nice science museum. I think that's how to get them started. And then there's many great books in the library which can, you know, introduce science to kids at various education levels. And I think that's one way to do it. And also even -- I don't know whether you have an iPad or iPhone or that sort of thing -- you can get kind of fun applications on these sort of devices, and also on the computer if you've got a PC or an Apple. So there's lots of things out there. You just have to search a little bit.
NNAMDIEve, thank you very much for your call. One would forgive you if you decided to retire, enjoy a life of leisure but you're still working. Is there a particular issue or problem that you'd like to see resolved or addressed before you retire? Do you think we're eventually going to reach some sort of tipping point at which the evidence of climate change is so overwhelming that even the staunchest skeptic will have to accept the science?
WASHINGTONWell, first of all, I'm 75...
NNAMDIYou're a young man.
WASHINGTON...and I'm still going strong. In fact, my problem is I need to slow down a bit, but I'm not and my wife will tell you that. But clearly at some point, I'll have to slow down. Now on the -- I'm not sure that we think there's a real tipping point in the theory. I mean, some scientists, you know, talk about tipping points. But if it is -- if a tipping point sort of does happen it isn't that suddenly that this will go into a runaway effect and it'll cause us to, you know, not be able to inhabit this planet.
WASHINGTONI think on the tipping point is this, if we increase the greenhouse gases significantly that we're going to see heat waves and droughts and some places floods that are going to be a much higher magnitude. And that's going to have enormous impacts on our society. I mean, if we had stronger hurricanes as we think are likely to happen or if we get more tornadoes or other bad affects than that's going to -- as we populate this planet even more, people are going to be affected. And we're seeing many signs of that through -- and the thing that really scares us are two other effects that I haven't mentioned.
WASHINGTONOne is the rising sea level and that's going to force, you know, people in Bangladesh for example to say, we can't live here anymore. I've got to go into China, I've got to go into India. Or if you're on an island state, that island's going to disappear and you have to go someplace else. Or as we increase the carbon dioxide, more of the carbon dioxide goes into the ocean and the oceans become acidic. And things like lobsters and other skeleton type marine life cannot live there anymore. And we're seeing signs around the world that the coral is dying off. So there are a lot of things that are happening that are going to affect all of us in the future.
NNAMDIThat's why we refuse to have you retire at any point. Warren Washington is a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. He's a recipient of the National Medal of Science. He also shared in the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Warren Washington, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, soccermania hits the Washington area and the United States. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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