Making Science Fun

October 1, 2008

 

Science can sometimes be intimidating. William Chameides, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment, hopes to change that.

Earlier this year, he launched a blog, hosted by the Nicholas School's website, where he discusses current environmental-policy news, shares fun facts, and offers tips for living a greener lifestyle.

The blog's title, The Green Grok, will be familiar to science-fiction fans; the word "grok" is borrowed from Robert Heinlein's 1961 sci-fi novel, Stranger in a Strange Land. In the book, Heinlein defines the word as "to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes part of the observed."

The blog's creators—Chameides is aided by an editor, a researcher, and a tech specialist—explain: "As a species we are pursuing an unsustainable course. While world populations are rising and consumption is increasing, resources are diminishing. At the same time global warming is threatening our natural, industrial and social infrastructures. We must find a sustainable path. An important first step is understanding—or grokking."

The tone of the blog is conversational and full of curiosity. In one entry, Chameides takes the reader along as he searches for information about a yellow "goo" that appears in his backyard—photo provided. While reading up on fungi, he discovers news accounts of a new fungus that is threatening major wheat suppliers in Africa and Asia. He pauses to muse on the potential effects and solutions before getting back to identifying his backyard goo, which turns out to be a "slime mold" known as Dog Vomit Slime.

In another entry, he considers reports that only a third of "Denver Daisies," a new flower variety developed and planted to celebrate the eponymous city's 150th birthday, actually bloomed. Despite claims on the city's website that the daisy is "perfectly suited for Colorado's arid climate," he concludes that water restrictions probably had a lot to do with the sparse yield.

In other posts, Chameides and "guest grokkers" recruited from the Nicholas School faculty explore the environmental impact of summer lawn care, presenting statistics to show the adverse effects of watering, fertilizing, and spraying pesticides; critique Bush administration environmental policy; and present scientifically proven tips for cutting household carbon emissions.

Putting complicated science in layman's terms comes naturally to Chameides. Before coming to Duke in 2007, the atmospheric chemist worked as chief scientist for the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund. In addition to overseeing research, he wrote about global warming for the organization's blog and hosted a question-and-answer series called "Ask Dr. Bill" aimed at providing practical advice to individuals wanting to combat global warming.