Thursday, May 8, 2014

Triton's Ray

According to Greek mythology (well, Wikipedia), Triton is the messenger of the sea, a herald to Poseidon, god of the sea.

I couldn't imagine a more appropriate mascot for UC San Diego, the university where I'm getting my Ph.D. in oceanography, and the university co-founded by Roger Revelle, a famous director (not to mention scientist & explorer) of Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

And I couldn't think of a more appropriate week to celebrate our mascot than this one, a week sandwiched in between Earth Day (April 22) and World Oceans Day (June 8), a week when arguably the most important ocean health message of our time was delivered to our nation (as part of the National Climate Assessment). Check out all the ocean, coastline, water, hurricane, glacier, ecosystem (the list goes on) shout-outs just in the White House's abbreviated fact sheet! If this isn't a message from Triton, I don't know what is!

But Triton's message isn't just a story of doom and gloom; it is a ray of hope, a story that says we have at our fingertips an opportunity to shift the momentum of planetary change in a positive direction. We now have the unique ability to say, "Hey, I'm not going to leave behind oceans that are worse off than they were when I was born. No way! I hear your message, Triton [it's good to be on good terms with the guy; he has a trident!], and I'm gonna do something about it. I'm going to be a force for change."

This is my attempt. What's yours?

Friday, April 4, 2014

Comfort in thermodynamics

My previous roommate (and great friend), Cael, and I ate dinner together almost every night. He was the first member of my now large and amazing San Diego network, my West Coast family. Both of us having been trained in mathematics & engineering and being natural visual learners, many of our conversations turned into attempts to represent whatever worldly phenomenon we were discussing as simple formulas and graphs. Everything was an oversimplification, obviously, but I think we did a decent job of convincing ourselves that our ideas could be communicated without needing too many words. Maybe we just have poor vocabularies.

I'm writing today as I try to recall the mathematical details of one of the most memorable conversations--a conversation about life and death. We were talking about the passing of a close friend, the same friend who inspired me to start this blog, the same friend from whose memorial bench I took the photo shown in my first post.

Our conversation centered around the word "potential." When someone leaves this world too early, we always talk about how much potential they had, how much they could have accomplished. We decided that night that talking about potential really only covers half of the issue. Or in our terms, half of the First Law of Thermodynamics: the law of conservation of energy. The other half, of course, is kinetic. When someone who is such a positive influence on our lives, on the world, is taken from us, that potential isn't buried; it's converted. What was potential is now kinetic. It's our responsibility to ensure that the conversion is complete, that the energy is conserved. I strive to do my part to convert Tim's potential into kinetic energy, into positive action, a force for good. I don't think of the conversion as a burden. In fact, it's a privilege to know that there is so much potential energy out there and all we have to do is learn how to harness it for good.

The project I've written about in this blog, SUP, Science, is my attempt at converting potential into kinetic. SUP, Science was born during conversations with Tim just over three years ago. It is probably not exactly the course of action he would have chosen, but this is my attempt to obey the law of conservation of energy. I'd always choose to keep all of my friends and family around forever but I'm comforted by my belief that their potential isn't lost when these loved ones move on.

This is a sad week for my Scripps Oceanography family. Almost three years since Tim's passing, we lost another classmate, another friend. I'm glad that I had the good fortune of meeting Rachel but sad that I never got to know her better. My heart goes out to her close friends & family.

From everything I've heard over the past couple days, Rachel had a tremendous amount of potential. She and Tim were on pretty similar paths, both members of Scripps' most prestigious conservation cohort. Tim studied how low-lying island nations would be affected by human-caused climate change through changing precipitation patterns (that is, changing flood/drought cycles). Rachel's research was in the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation, focused on protecting valuable marine ecosystems. They were both passionate science communicators, perhaps one of the most valuable skills & interests in our time of rapid change.

I wish only to honor the memories of our close friends in this emotional time. I hope to do the best I can to ensure that their potential is appropriately converted so that it can have the most positive, energetic impact on the planet possible, the impact that I think they wanted to have. I don't wish to oversimplify anyone's life or the positive impact that they had on us, I only strive to ensure that their legacies live on. Rest in peace, Rachel.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

On water

“We are not like blocks of ice, conducting ourselves as solid individuals as we move from place to place. We are like water flowing freely.” 
~ Soko Morinaga, Novice to Master

Many people hold water in a special place in their cultural beliefs and rituals, from baptized Christians to surfers. This statement is almost too obvious to be worth writing, but there's no other way to start. There's a reason for water's high regard that extends deeper than the anatomical fact that we consist mostly of water. Water has a tremendous amount to offer us, in essentially every aspect of our lives.

Morinaga's analogy highlighted above encapsulates the essence of Zen Buddhism as I understand it (and that's a far-from-perfect understanding, to be fair). Many of the repeated lessons throughout his work can be distilled to the name of the corresponding chapter: We are like water. In fact, a further simplified version – we are water – could (to the best of my limited understanding) serve as a complement to the popular Zen koans: “What is your original face?” or “Where did you come from when you were born and where will you go when you die?” From a deeper appreciation for life and understanding of death to an increased respect for our bodies and surroundings to an improved ability to confront the difficulties of life, Morinaga’s plainly powerful metaphor gives us a strong foundation for our understanding of Zen.

​With respect to our environment (in this case meaning all of our surroundings, material possessions, and humanity itself), the metaphor serves the purpose of pointing out the fact that all is one. Morinaga wants us to realize that there is no way to harm something other than our ‘self’ because there is no individual self separate from the whole. To expand upon his metaphor, it is as if our bodies of water are streams whose source and destination is one ocean. It is impossible to pollute a distinct stream without affecting the ocean and ourselves in the process. There are many instances in which this metaphor applies to our daily lives: throwing a piece of litter on the ground, saying hurtful words, getting involved in a physical fight. This lesson seems to be growing in importance every day, as humans continue to destroy our physical environment and engage in wars while neglecting to look beyond the immediate gains to see the imminent consequences.

Even worse, in some cases, people understand the eventual results of their actions but choose to consider themselves to be separate from those consequences. For example, it is common to overhear people who choose not to recycle or opt to purchase a Hummer saying that it won’t make a difference to them or they just don’t care. It is hard to imagine that there would be nearly as much violence (physical, verbal, destruction of environments/ecosystems, etc.) if everyone realized that there is no distinction between self and other. Morinaga’s words not only agree with, but also give an easily comprehensible rationale to the well known saying, “Do unto others as you wish to have done unto yourself.” Namely, we must obey this rule because by polluting the water, we are polluting our own ‘self.’

Keep the water clean, my friends.