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Projecting Climate Variations with Gabriel Lau

Gabriel LauGFDL scientist and Princeton University lecturer Gabriel Lau has always been intrigued by the origin of atmospheric variability. His research interests include observational and modeling studies of the atmospheric general circulation, the impact of large-scale air sea-interaction on atmospheric variability, and properties of tropical circulation systems.

One chief focus of his work is to perform data analysis with the goal of understanding the climate system’s behavior and evaluating model projections of future climate variations.

A graduate of the St. Francis Xavier’s High School in Hong Kong (1970), Chinese University of Hong Kong (B.Sc. in Physics, 1974) and the University of Washington (Ph.D. in Atmospheric Sciences, 1978), Lau taught as a guest professor at Peking University in 2008 and was elected as an American Meteorological Society fellow in 1991. In the following interview, Lau explains why understanding climate projections matters and how much he values the freedom his work environment provides.

Why do you feel that your research matters?

I have been doing this job at GFDL for 33 years now. I have been working closely with data based on actual observations of mother nature, and also data generated by our models at GFDL. I think my main contribution is to find common ground between two types of approaches – measurements of the real climate system on one hand, and simulations by our models on the other. I try to make sure that these two approaches are complementary to each other, and I also make use of models to experiment and test ideas. My research matters because it leads to some increased understanding of how our climate system works. If we are concerned about changes in the climate system in the future, we must first make sure that the models are doing the right things, and then we have to gain a better understanding of the processes involved in climate changes. The knowledge gained from doing this kind of research allows us to put the model findings on a firm physical grounding. It gives us a deeper understanding of why the models behave the way they do and hopefully lends some credibility to the climate projections.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

I enjoy the freedom to pursue my research interests. My superiors give me a lot of flexibility to do whatever interests me at a given time. They are willing to give me a long lead time to complete my work, rather than expecting immediate results. They are patient enough to wait for the fruition of my various projects. I also enjoy collaborations with my colleagues, who I respect and admire. The human interactions and the freedom in this research atmosphere is what I truly enjoy most.

Where do you do most of your research?

I do most of my research in my office. The data I analyze are fed into our computer system. I really don’t need to go outside the office to do my work. So, most of my work involves diagnosis of lots of data sets, interactions with my colleagues and writing up results from my studies in the form of journal articles. My work environment is my office. I don’t do much field work at all. Although I look at a lot of data collected from the field, I don’t do those measurements myself. They are done by other people.

What in your lab could you not live without?

I could not live without all my colleagues – both people who work directly with me and people that I consult with on a broader basis. Up to the present day, I still continue to learn from my peers and students – these human resources are most critical to me.

If you could invent any instrument to advance your research and cost were no
object. What would it be and why?

My dream instrument for helping with my research is a very comprehensive and user-friendly set of statistical and software tools that allow me to gain access to a lot of data sets both inside and outside the lab, so that I can grab pieces of information very quickly, subject them to different types of analysis procedures in a very convenient way, and then finally display the results in fancy graphics, so I could look at different aspects of the data sets from multiple perspectives without doing too many programming manipulations by myself. So, my dream tools are actually software packages, and not an actual machine. Of course, we also need high-speed computers to process the data and conduct experiments, but from the standpoint of a data analyst, software tools would be very helpful to me.

When did you know you wanted to pursue science?

From very early on, maybe when I was an elementary school student. Growing up in Hong Kong, I was always fascinated by natural phenomena that I could actually see – I always wondered why it rains, why typhoons attack Hong Kong occasionally, and how thunderstorms and rainbows form. So, I was very intrigued by various types of weather events at an early age. I was curious about the causes of these weather systems.

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

From personal experience, I find the biographies of famous scientists, both in the contemporary age and also those who lived hundreds of years ago, a very interesting read. These books allow me to learn about their individual life experiences, why they pick certain scientific problems and how they treat others as human beings, not just as scientists. There are lots of scientists whom I admire. I like reading the biographies of these people, even if I don’t understand the science they do. From these books, I gain some understanding of their background, how they received their education and pursued their careers, and how some of them eventually decided to contribute their knowledge to society and so on. They are very good examples or role models to follow. So, I would encourage young people who want to consider a career in science to read some of these biographies. They could be very inspiring.

What’s your personal favorite book?

It’s hard for me to think of just one. As a junior high school student, I started reading English literature, particularly novels by Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. I’ve read Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities” a couple of times. That novel, which was written during the age of the French Revolution, also gave me some insight into what actually happened during that period. I like historical novels.

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

I enjoy the freedom to pursue my main research of interest without worrying too much about where the financial support is coming from. The good thing about working at GFDL is the core financial support given to the scientific staff. I hope I can continue to concentrate on my research work, without having to seek specific funding for my projects. I feel confident that our leadership in GFDL is taking care of the financial health of this lab.

Do you have an outside hobby?

From high school onward, I have been very interested in photography. Photography itself has evolved through the years, from black and white to color, and from film to digital. Early on, I did most of the basic chores, including darkroom work with various chemicals. I also enjoy stamp collecting and reading.

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

That’s something I always ask myself. Given a chance for starting a totally new career, I think I would like to be an urban planner. I would want to plan cities and neighborhoods. I imagine that this must be very interesting work and really affects many people’s lives. If you’re given a one-mile by one-mile block area in the middle of a city like New York or Hong Kong, how would you design what’s in it? Where would you put places where people live, work and go to school and have recreation? How are all these places linked with transportation networks and how to make sure the environment is clean and nice? Urban planning or architecture would therefore be a very satisfying profession for me.

Who is your favorite historical scientist and why?

There are many, but if I had to pick one, it would be Richard Feynman. He is a theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate. I was a Physics major in college. The first exposure I had to the field was a series of lectures that he gave, which was recorded in a three-volume book called Feynman’s Lectures on Physics. He taught a class of about 200 students at Caltech for two years on all aspects of physics from classical mechanics to electricity and magnetism and quantum physics. Through reading those three books, I was really captivated by his charisma and the enthusiasm he holds for the subject, as well as his deep understanding of the field. Like, he would describe in one chapter the concept of time. He looks at it from a physicist’s eye. It’s a very deep concept. He also talks about the concepts of space and force. These are things you would read about in an ordinary physics textbook, but it’s not the same coming from a master.