No matter what your job is, it’s usually very difficult to explain what you do to someone who doesn’t work in your field. And oddly enough, the more you like what you do, the harder it gets to explain your job and your enthusiasm to outsiders. As an undergraduate in Geology, I lost track of the number of times someone asked some skeptical variation of “You study rocks, huh?” Through repetition I got pretty good at answering the question, usually something along the lines of, “I study the earth and how it works, and rocks are one way we do that.”
In grad school, at the Center for the Study of Earth from Space (now known as ESOC), it didn’t get any easier. “Why would you go all the way to space just to look at where you live every day?” I could usually get some traction explaining that understanding one system meant knowing how it connected to everything else. The view rapidly grows to a continental or global scale, which you just can’t get from the ground or even from planes. You can launch a satellite once and collect data for years without getting mired in scheduling pilots, instruments, and flights every time you need new information. There are amazing things to study like volcanoes and glaciers which are difficult to get to or dangerous to be near. It has become a little easier to convince people using Google Earth and GIS applications that are making geospatial knowledge ubiquitous in the cloud. But I still feel like there are too many half-hearted reactions like “Well, I guess so… how ‘bout that local sports team?”, and the shortcoming is at equally lies in my explaining as in anyone else’s understanding.
If you really want something done right, it can be very hard to beat a professional. For explaining science and why it’s important, PBS and NOVA are absolute pros. They aired a new, 2 hour episode last Wednesday, Earth from Space (stream it here). I wish I could have referred people to this program in the past. It’s got the right blend of jaw-dropping stats to get people’s attention: 40 lightning strikes on earth every second, over 3 million per day, each one could power a city like Denver for 10 hours. It plainly states the significance of the system to people: global ocean temperature, which drives our weather and agriculture, has been stable within one degree and critically depends on the ice and atmosphere of Antarctica for its circulation. And of course it’s got beautiful, eye-popping imagery straight from geospatial data. The sources and researchers that support and present the information in the program read like a who’s who of the earth sciences. The important instruments in this web of data get named and their importance is made quite clear.
If you can spare the time at all, go and watch it, preferably on a good display. If you work in the earth sciences, it’s great encouragement to keep up the good work! If you don’t, it’s a clear, beautiful snapshot of why some of us nerds study rocks, or ice, or water. I’m going to watch it again. I always try to keep getting better at doing science, but I think I have more to learn on how to explain it, and that’s often just as important. It could be worse. I could have been an accountant. “You study how to count money?” I don’t think NOVA’s done a program on finance yet.