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Dr. William Lau - Advancing the Understanding of Earth Systems - Part Two
June 24, 2014

Part Two of Two

[image-51]Name: William Lau
Title: Deputy Director for Atmospheres
Formal Job Classification: Earth Scientist
Organization: Code 610, Earth Science, Science Division

A man of three continents, climate scientist William Lau sees Earth as one.

Why did you become an atmospheric scientist?

When I was in high school in Hong Kong, I was very much inspired after hearing a lecture from the first two Chinese-American Nobel Prize winners in physics, Drs. Yang Chen-Ning, and Lee Tsung-Dao. I remember standing in line waiting to listen to their public lecture on “Parity Conservation of Elementary Particles.” I didn’t understand a thing, but I was fascinated. I thought winning a Nobel Prize was very cool.

I was interested in how things work; that’s the realm of physics. I am theoretically-oriented; I like to think a lot about how things work.

I got my undergraduate degree in physics and mathematics at Hong Kong University and majored in physics in my first year of graduate school at the University of Washington. In Hong Kong, I was at the top of my class in physics and mathematics. But when I came to Seattle, I quickly found out that I was out of my depth in theoretical physics. I realized that I was never going to win a Nobel Prize. Most importantly, the job market for theoretical physics was really bad. The University of Washington’s physics program required, on average, about seven years to get a Ph.D. That was too much for me. I began looking for another field in my second year of graduate school.

By accident, someone told me that the university was starting a top-notch department of atmospheric science. I didn’t know what atmospheric science was and certainly was not aware that the everyday weather can be described quantitatively by the laws of physics. In any case, the subject of intrigued me. In my second year, I switched from hard-core physics to the relatively new area of atmospheric sciences. It was pure serendipity that I entered the field of atmospheric sciences. I’ve never looked back. I love climate science, which is the discipline I specialize in within atmospheric science.

What did you learn from changing your goals?

You should always have a goal, but you may need to reestablish your goal depending on changing circumstances. If something doesn’t fit, change your goal to something that fits you better and that you enjoy more. The Nobel Prize in physics inspired me, but that goal was unreachable. I’m much happier as a climate scientist. My work is not only intellectually challenging, but also is directly relevant to society.

Why did you specialize in the subdiscipline of climate science and what changes have you seen in the field?

The field has a global reach. Everyone is interested in how climate change may affect his or her life. Rainfall affects everybody. It’s an instant conversation starter. Our work involves the use of sophisticated tools, computers and satellites, but the end results are usually explainable to an average person.

When I started over 30 years ago, the atmospheric science field was divided into isolated subfields, such as atmospheric dynamics, radiation, cloud physics and atmospheric chemistry. Scientists within the different subfields of atmospheric science seldom talked to each other.

Nowadays, Earth scientists talk about Earth system science and how everything is connected in Earth’s system. As a climate scientist, you don’t just study one subject, say clouds, you need to study how clouds are related to the rest of Earth. Clouds are generated and driven by atmospheric motions. Cloud droplets are formed from microscopic suspended particles in the atmosphere called aerosols. Both clouds and aerosols can affect the amount of sunlight reaching Earth, which drives atmospheric winds. Winds transport water vapor in the atmosphere and drive ocean currents and sea surface temperatures, which, in turn, modulate Earth’s climate. Vegetation on land depends on sunlight and rainfall to grow. Changing vegetation due to deforestation and agricultural land use can change evaporation and alter rainfall pattern, which can upset the ecosystem balance.

Everything exists on Earth for a reason. It’s all connected. Earth is one system.

What is most intriguing about climate science?

Earth’s responses to climate forcing are very nonlinear. This means that the magnitude of the response is not necessarily proportional to the forcing imposed. Through feedback processes, small initial perturbations can be amplified to a great extent and evolve into something totally unrecognizable from the initial conditions and unexpected from the forcing.

We actually have a name for such a phenomenon: the “butterfly effect,” first coined by the famous atmospheric scientist Edward Lorenz. He also discovered chaos theory, a branch of mathematics that deals with sensitivity on initial conditions in nonlinear systems. He once said that the flutter of a butterfly wing in the Amazon may be responsible for the formation of a hurricane over the Atlantic Ocean several weeks later. Something very small initially could react within a connected environment leading to a big change that no one thought was possible. It’s the interconnectivity that’s so fascinating. That’s what makes Earth science so interesting and challenging.

Turns out, atmospheric science is just as complex as any branch of physics. It’s just more down to Earth.

What makes Goddard unique?

Goddard is a great place to work. We have a unique teaming of scientists and engineers who do big things. A Goddard scientist can get involved in the end-to-end process of conceiving and formulating scientific ideas or hypotheses, designing and building instruments in the lab to make the necessary measurements, working with engineers to build the hardware needed to launch the instrument into space and finally analyzing the resultant data to test the original hypotheses. There is no other place that integrates science and technology in the way that is being done at Goddard.

Is there something surprising about your hobbies outside of work that people do not generally know?

I played competitive table tennis, or ping pong, in college. I am also a pretty good badminton and tennis player. I stopped playing now, because I developed some neck and back problems. I taught my kids to play ping pong, but they were not interested. They were born in the U.S. and prefer to play baseball, softball and golf.

Ping Pong is a big part of the Chinese culture. Chinese are among the best in the world in ping pong. At a high level, ping pong requires very fast reaction and a lot of stamina. It’s very vigorous sport. We wear special shoes to make us move faster. It’s not the sort of ping pong played by the side of a swimming pool. We can return and attack a ball that was sent ten feet beyond the edge of the table. Can you imagine that? 

Since I cannot play fast sports, I took up Tai Chi recently and practice it during my spare time. The slower pace suits me. I am now an assistant instructor for a local Tai Chi group.

I’m also member of a choir, which is another slower-paced hobby. We’re a group of Chinese-Americans, mostly retired, all of whom (except me) have had good musical training. We sing all kinds of music: Chinese, Italian, American, classical and pop. The choir didn’t require formal training, but I am learning a lot about vocal science and music. We perform locally and sometimes the group even performs overseas.

Who, living or dead, would you like to meet and what would be the first thing you would ask them?

I would like to meet my paternal grandfather, whom I never met. I have documents showing that he was an officer and government official of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the last dynasty in China. Under his command, his battalion squelched an uprising in southern China. He received a certificate of commendation from the emperor for his bravery, inscribed in classical Chinese and in Manchurian. The certificate is a museum piece that is hanging in my brother’s living room. I’d love to personally meet my paternal grandfather and ask him what he did during the Qing dynasty.

My maternal grandfather is also someone I’d like to meet. I never met him either. According to my mother, her father worked for Dr. Sun Yat-San, the founding father of modern China, the equivalent of George Washington. Dr. Sun led the revolution that overthrew the Qing Dynasty in 1911. Both of my parents were from the village where Dr. Sun was born.

As the leader of the revolution, Dr. Sun was wanted by the Chinese government. He fled to Hawaii, where he formed the China Reform Society. In the late1800s to early1900s, many villagers in southern China, including my maternal grandfather went to Hawaii to work and later settled there. Later, he joined the Society and helped overthrow the Qing Dynasty. My mother told me that her father used to carry Dr. Sun’s briefcase. When the dynasty was overthrown, my maternal grandfather returned to China. I’d like to ask him what he did to help Dr. Sun overthrow the Qing Dynasty.

By the way, it took China more than 50 years after the revolution to find a workable system of government. That system is still evolving today.

As a descendant of revolutionaries on both your mother’s and father’s side, are you a rebel?

Well, in some senses, I am. My rebellious spirit is ingrained in my inquisitive nature.

Science is not about authority. You have to be very curious and challenge authority. An important quality of being a good scientist is that you cannot be a conformist. Science is not done by consensus. You must always be aware that the consensus could be wrong. Scientists have to back up their findings and statements with solid evidences.

Read Part One of this two-part interview.

Elizabeth M. Jarrell
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

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Dr. William Lau
Dr. William Lau
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NASA/W. Hrybyk
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