As a passionate scientist, the thing I’m least able to do is contain my excitement about the world around me. I see awesomeness everywhere, and when I lived in South Africa, I used to share that joy by teaching in workshops called How to Build a Habitable Planet (http://africaclimatescience.org/education.php?pageid=45&catid=30)
We run these four times per year – mainly in Cape Town but also in the Eastern Cape, Gauteng, Limpopo and once even in Namibia!
The very first thing I tell students is that science isn’t scary or exclusive. In the broadest sense, science merely seeks to answer questions that arise out of our innate curiosity… but there is perhaps a misconception that one has to be a crazy old white dude to join the ranks. As teachers, we sought to dispel that myth by captivating postgrad students from all over Southern Africa, then simply reminding them what it feels like to be enchanted.
All it takes to be a novice earth system scientist is the inclination to wonder about “why”, “how” and “what if”. That, and heaps of passion.
Elegance is so often embodied by the simplest of designs, and we patterned ourselves on this. We had 10 whole days with our students, and we spent most of it outdoors. The point? To reawaken their scientific minds. Not the ones beaten into submission during schooling days, but the ones that first hunted for answers to why the sky is blue, why it’s colder on the top of a mountain and whether there really is life on Mars.
One fact that continually blows my mind is that Earth used to be so hot there was no ice anywhere. Palm trees and crocodiles thrived near the polar ice caps! Thanks to the drifting of continents, gradual global cooling took place and the evolution of large mammals was favoured. At first the oceans remained warm, but about 3 million years ago cold surface waters started appearing along the western coast of southern Africa. This accelerated the global cooling process, introduced dramatic global climate changes, and led to the evolution of primates. In due course, hey presto: Homo sapiens.
At first, our forefather species developed pretty slowly. Not surprising when you factor in how they had to struggle with climate shifts that included recurrent Ice Ages. Fortunately, a pocket of hardy survivors managed to weather these changes – and they did so in my homeland, the Western Cape! At the end of the last Ice Age (just a few thousand years ago, believe it or not) our species took full advantage of favourable conditions to make advances that included the invention of agriculture AND an industrial revolution. Our recent progress has been so remarkable and has made us so powerful that we now are geologic agents, capable of meddling with the very processes that make our planet habitable.
So how does this affect me? As a scientist, an African and a card-holding member of Homo sapiens? How does this affect YOU? And how does it affect the cradle of humankind?
In my mind, Africa’s most powerful asset is her people and I see her standing on a precipice today. The next Einstein may be living in dire rural poverty right now and unless we reach him or her – unless we pave the road to empowerment through education – we lose on a global scale. By promoting education, I was given a remarkable opportunity to accelerate transformation. These students are going to be the next generation of policy makers and they’ll also be the leaders turning polarized disputes about climate change into constructive discussions.
It was Einstein who said, “I have no special talent, I am only passionately curious”. You don’t have to have a degree to make positive and powerful change – you don’t even have to have a crazy afro. As a start, visit How to Build a Habitable Planet on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/groups/accesshpw/) and don’t be shy! Ask questions, make suggestions and maybe even sign up for the next workshop. I’ll definitely be back at least once a year to teach!