GFDL - Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory

Paul Ginoux Brings Sense of Wonder to Climate Modeling

Paul Ginoux

All things being equal, Paul Ginoux prefers to break ground. The research physical scientist, who has evaluated climate models and observed aerosols at GFDL since 2004, says he likes making discoveries but enjoys correcting mistakes within those findings even more. The Belgian says much of his work-related pleasure comes from uncovering why models underperform and then refining their errors for future use.

This sense of discovery grew in Ginoux during his time at the Free University of Brussels in Belgium, where he earned undergraduate and advanced degrees in Civil Engineering (with an emphasis in Architecture) and Applied Sciences. Ginoux then worked as a visiting scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Co., from 1992 to 1997 before pursuing a postdoctoral fellowship at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. After completing his fellowship in 2001, he accepted an assistant research scientist job at NASA. In 2003, Ginoux worked as a project scientist, dividing his time between the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) and Princeton University.

Since moving to GFDL in 2003, Ginoux has won several awards, including the 2007 Department of the Interior and NASA William T. Pecora award. He also lectures about aerosol observations, modeling, and cloud and climate change at the university?teaching, he says, is one of the greatest contributions any scientist can make.

In the following interview, Ginoux discusses why climate modeling matters and reveals an early interest in the visual arts. Art and science, he notes, are not always strange bedfellows.

Why does your research matter?

My research matters because it’s affecting climate. Climate can affect our health and the future of our children and grandchildren.I’m not sure the public is hungry for that information. There are still a lot of doubts. Climate change is more of a 20-year or more change and not on a yearly basis. And people look more short term.I am not interested in convincing people that climate is important. If they don’t want to believe it, then that’s their choice. I think it’s more the politicians’ job to do that. Some scientists would say, ?Yes, we should try to convince and inform people,’ but this type of debate doesn’t interest me at all. I would like, and I do, to pass along this information and experience to students. I think scientists should teach.

What do you enjoy the most about your work?

I enjoy discovery. I do modeling. You have to test your model. It’s like science. You have a theory, you apply it and it’s valid until it collapses. That’s interesting because when the model fails, or there is a discrepancy with  the observation, it means you’ve missed something important. I like being the first to discover the importance of elements previously overlooked. I get very excited about that, and say, “Yes, I found it!”

Where do you do most of your work? In a lab? In field studies?

In the lab with computers.

What in your lab could you not live without?

Computers of course. But data are also essential. Models are representation of physical processes and mathematics is their language. As computers and numerical techniques evolve, it is possible to model very complex processes. But generally these processes contain parameters with poorly known values. Data are then used to constrain their values by performing sensitivity analysis. So, once you have developed a model, you need to compare it with observations and go back to your equation if it failed.

When did you know you wanted to pursue science?

I wasn’t excited by science as a child. I wanted to be an artist, but it was too difficult for me. In modern painting, everything is open. It is like creating a new mathematical theory from scratch and using it to develop a model which has no application, and therefore no data to determine if it is right or not. It is very hard. In addition, you don’t know where to start and which way to go. I am very impressed by modern artists. I realized that I needed landmarks, so I went to science and decided to mix it with the visual arts and became an architect. But life made a twist and instead I am a research scientist.

What’s at the top of your recommended reading list for someone wanting to explore a career in science?

I don’t really read books from scientists. I read books from artists. I think the best cross between an artist and scientist is Leonardo DaVinci. I like making connections. Because I have this different track, I have a different vision on scientific problems. It’s important to have this diversity of vision. If everybody followed the same track, went to the same school as their teachers, and had the same vision, we’d never make progress.Leonardo DaVinci was amazing because he could create connection between visual art, architecture and sculpture. The creative mind, for me, is very important and Leonardo DaVinci is the best example of that.

What is your personal favorite book?

I love art books. I have been building my library since I was a teenager. I particularly enjoy reading about paintings from the Abstract Expressionist painters such as Mark Rothko or Cy Twonmbly and the Chinese monk-painters of the 17 and 18th Century.The monk-painter Chu Ta is absolutely amazing. You can place his work next to a Jackson Pollock or Sam Francis. I cannot stop admiring his paintings. And to my enjoyment, Princeton University has one of the largest collection of his work.

What part of your job as a NOAA scientist did you least expect to be doing?

I can’t control everything, so I keep an open mind. In this lab, we are relatively free and independent to develop personal research. It’s an amazing environment. We have discussions with people in different fields coming in with new ideas. Again, it’s about discovery and finding something new.

Do you have an outside hobby?

I paint, draw and remodel my home.

What would you be doing if you had not become a scientist?

I’d be an architect because it combines the constraint of functionality with the freedom of creativity.

Who is your favorite historical scientist and why?

Leonardo DaVinci is fantastic. He was able to combine everything I love.