Thursday, September 22, 2022

The Earth Mother

Here's a Q&A I did for Yale with Diana √úrge-Vorsatz, an IPCC co-chair, Hungarian scientist, athlete, and mother of seven.

https://e360.yale.edu/features/diana-urge-vorsatz-climate-change

Friday, September 9, 2022

Abortion ban poses risk to science conference attendees

Would you attend a science conference, as a pregnant woman, in a state that bans abortions (with knock-on impacts for some emergency medical procedures associated with pregnancy)??? Many wouldn't. 

Such concerns have prompted a petition from some AGU members to move their 2025 meeting (and future meetings) out of New Orleans.

My story for Nature Careers.

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-022-02904-4 

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Bye bye bomb carbon

Here's a quirky story for Nature about how our burning of fossil fuels has 'cancelled out' the spike in C-14 from nuclear weapons testing in the 50s and 60s. That might sound like a good thing, but it's actually causing havoc for a couple of valuable carbon dating techniques used to date everything from poached ivory to forged antiques to murder victim remains.

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-022-02057-4

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Thursday, June 23, 2022

More La Nina years?

La Nina has brought a particularly cool and wet early summer to my part of the world this year; the west coast of Canada has hardly seen summer yet. Looks like La Nina may be sticking around, unusually, for a third year running. More importantly, some researchers are forecasting a lot more La-Nina-like conditions in the future, thanks to climate change impacts in both the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans. That could mean more floods in Australia, more drought in the southern US, and more cool temps for me.

My story in Nature:

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-022-01668-1

 

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Carbon storage

Is it a good idea to capture emissions and lock them up underground?

Carbon capture and storage is a vital part of most IPCC scenarios that get us to "net zero" emissions, and there are new customers from hard-to-abate industries like cement production getting on board. But it has some people worried it will just prolong our addiction to fossil fuels.

https://e360.yale.edu/features/solution-or-band-aid-carbon-capture-projects-are-moving-ahead

Thursday, June 2, 2022

How the giraffe got its neck

There's a debate over whether giraffes evolved long necks to reach high-up leaves, or as a display of sexiness for the ladies (like a peacock's tail). Now a new fossil of an ancient giraffe ancestor (from 17 million years ago in China) could help to shed some light on this puzzle. My story in Nature!

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-022-01565-7

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Sub(ti)tle Interview

I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed for a new French fashion/beauty/writing magazine (thankfully, in English) about the practice of science journalism.

http://subtitle-magazine.com/issue-n2/

The full text isn't online, but the magazine gave me permission to publish it here:

STORYTELLERS - NICOLA JONES
Interview by Jessica Gordon Braye

As published in Sub(ti)tle Magazine, issue 2

After graduating highschool, Nicola Jones studied for a major in chemistry and physics, however, she soon found herself swapping physics for oceanography so that she would have to live near the ocean for the rest of her life. A fact that’s ironic now that she lives in the mountains…

Eventually, though, and in a typically non-linear fashion, oceanography would lead her to journalism. After spending time on a research ship as an undergraduate (a rare opportunity for someone at her level), working alongside scientists, sharing the excitement of scientific exploration, Nicola found herself back in a lab, pressing the same button over and over, taking measurements for the study. It was an important part of the research, but not exactly thrilling…

While in the lab her mind would wander back to a journalist who had been on the ship with the scientists recording their experience. That is when she realised he had a more exciting job than she did. He was able to go on adventures and then translate his observations into a piece of storytelling before moving on to the next one. Nicola left the button-pushing lab work behind and now writes and edits for SAPIENS, Yale E360, Nature, Haikai magazine, the Pique newspaper and the New York Times (among others).    

 

Could you introduce yourself and tell us how you would describe your work?

I am a freelance science journalist, so I guess it means I am part storyteller, part fact finder, part geeky explainer! I write and edit stories across all the sciences from anthropology to quantum physics with an emphasis on environmental and climate stories. The majority of the time I am helping academics to write commentary pieces for the general public which is often something they are not comfortable or familiar with. It's really important to get the messages from experts across to the public in regards to things like climate change. It's especially crucial in our modern world where everyone is blogging and tweeting and the mediation of information is disappearing a little bit. Everyone has access to speak directly to the public but sometimes they need a little help or training in how to do that effectively. Scientists are the ones who have the information, the first hand experience and the knowledge but they are often less comfortable about conveying it to the public.  

 

So would you say the role of a journalist regarding climate change is information mediation?

In the 90s when I was in journalism school, the main discussion was about how journalists need to appreciate the value of data and consensus. Stuff was presented as debatable matter and matters of opinion. It was such a strong tradition in journalism at the time. The thought was that you had to do science journalism as you would do political journalism, saying ‘so-and-so believes this’ and ‘so-and-so is of the opinion of that…’ But when it comes to climate change our job as journalists is to say, ‘actually a vast majority thinks this’ and ‘a tiny number of people, who often have some kind of conflict-of-interest, postulate that’. So the whole discussion became about evaluating expertise. The role of journalists is part getting the information across in an understandable way, not just for the general public but also so policymakers can make evidence-based decisions. And it is part storytelling. It's trying to elevate the voices of the marginalised, of the people who have not been heard before, both to understand the motivations for behaviour, but also to let the stories drive policy.  

 

I discovered your work through a TED Talk you did in 2019 called The dangers of a noisy ocean-and how we can quiet it down, why did you choose that subject in particular?

Because of the research I was doing at the time, I had met some interesting scientists including Rob Williams. He describes himself as an acoustic prospector - which is just so lovely. His work consists of going around the ocean looking for these quiet patches as if he was a gold miner looking for jewels. I just loved how he spoke about it. We are so used to thinking about pollution in terms of plastics or maybe ocean acidification. But we don't often think about how all the ships in the ocean (and the numbers are increasing constantly) are adding to the background level of noise. And how that is creating problems, whales and even plankton are affected. We are such visual creatures, we live above the water and rely on our eyes so much. I had this personal experience as a child, my family and I went to Hawaii for the humpback migration season, and we sat on the beach looking for whales. When we couldn't see anything, we decided we might as well go for a swim. And when we put our heads under the water, all we could hear was the whale song. It was so loud and pervasive. You expect to see them and you just can't, it is such a new way of thinking about the world.  

 

You come from what you call a "hard" science background, but recently you have been editing SAPIENS, an anthropology magazine focused on archeology, biology, culture and language (3). What are the links between “hard” sciences and social sciences?

This is really fascinating. I come from chemistry, physics and oceanography and a lot of scientists, or western scientists who are trained in the physical sciences can be a bit sniffy about social sciences. It is more quantitative than qualitative in its nature, less data-driven. But social sciences are so important and really go hand-in-hand with "hard" science. For example, when it comes to research on climate change, in the 1990s and early 2000s it was all about finding the data to support the fact that the carbon dioxide is going out in the atmosphere. It was about proving the connection between industry, human activity and changing weather patterns. Now we are in a different world, this has been very firmly established, so the question is more how do we alter our behaviour to change the trajectory of our future? That's all about social science: why do people behave the way they do and how do we make them behave otherwise? Social science has a huge part to play in climate change.  

 

To alter behaviours you have to understand them but also communicate with people in a way that they will feel involved. You wrote a piece for SAPIENS called Why ‘we’ isn't for everyone, how does representation - whom we include in our discourse and in ‘we’ - affect the messaging as a science journalist?

First I would like to explain that that piece around ‘we’ wasn't my idea. The editors of SAPIENS, in particular Christine Weeber and Chip Colwell, who are both trained anthropologists and great writers, came up with the concept. Chris was our sub and copy editor and she was always encouraging us to not use the word ‘we’. My first reaction to that was, “what's the problem? It's just a word!” But then we had these conversations and I realised she's entirely right. If you say ‘we’, who are you talking about? Often people use that word to mean the subgroup they are part of. It automatically excludes other worldviews in quite a damaging way, and often excludes the people who are already marginalised and don't have a voice in the first place. So I volunteered to write a piece that would express that idea.

There's this thing called the “deficit model” of science communication. It is the assumption that the only thing holding people back from having the same beliefs as you, is knowledge. As in: "If you only knew what I knew, then you'd agree with me. If you don't agree with me, it's because you're stupid or don't have the right information". According to this theory, fill the gaps and your job is done! A lot of people think this way, but people don't believe something purely on the basis of facts. I can hand you all the facts in the world but if you don't trust me, or if they don't fit into your world model, then you won't change your mind. This, again, is why social science is so important to the fields of climate change and pandemic response. Journalists don't just fill knowledge gaps. They build trust. They tell stories that make things relatable. They bridge gaps in understanding between people with different worldviews.  

 

How important is it for more minority voices to be present within the fields of science and science journalism? And what would it change?

It is extremely important. Science is just another human endeavour. Who is doing it makes a difference to the questions asked, the evidence found and to how the data is analysed. A lot of people don't appreciate that, including scientists themselves. They say that what they're doing is extremely objective and it's all about data, numbers and has nothing to do with who they are. It is just not true, it has everything to do with who is doing it. There is a classic example of this that comes to mind. Archaeology was for a very long time male dominated, but in recent decades feminist archaeology (1) has become a wave and it has really blown apart old assumptions. For example, around the division of work between men and women in prehistory. In paleo times, women were warriors, they were hunters. However, if you go to a Natural History Museum, you will often see images of women holding a baby or tending to a fire, whilst the men are out hunting with spears. That's not necessarily the way it was. It took different people asking the questions, looking at the same evidence to come up with alternative theories. That means there is a disparity in the amount of knowledge we have and the way in which questions are asked, answered and interpreted.  

 

Another example could be drawn from the piece you wrote about the role of Indigenous leaders regarding climate change (2). Did it change in any way your work or how you look at science?

I live in a part of Canada that has a very large Indigenous demographic, so I have been thinking about these issues for a very long time. But often science journalism stories, which include or incorporate Indigenous knowledge and voices, take the perspective that the western scientists are in charge, they take the lead and ask the questions. The Indigenous expertise kind of slots in and gets used to support the western view. That is a very biased way of looking at knowledge and human interaction. The story I wrote shows how Indigenous communities are taking the lead on climate change and how in fact they have done more, and taken more concrete actions than other groups. Many Indigenous cultures are actually better suited to the challenges of climate change, they have this tradition of considering seven generations ahead and seven generations behind: how ancestors dealt with issues and how our children's children's children will be living in this world. That is not the way that the westernised world is set up to think. We are attached to political cycles, it's a very different perspective. The generational thinking is far better suited to the larger questions we are facing.  

 

Do you have any examples of when western scientists and Indigenous communities have worked together in a positive and more collaborative way?

In Canada we're in a real cultural moment of reckoning with our past. We had residential schools here for more than 150 years where Indigenous children were forced into forgetting their language and their culture. And the abuse ran riot. A lot of these children died from disease and ill-treatment. This last summer there was a big moment in the Canadian press, it went worldwide, archeologists were helping Indigenous communities to uncover unmarked graves of children in the school sites. The world really woke up to this issue, which was interesting from two perspectives. First, it's not like this wasn't known. There were Truth and Reconciliation Commissions and accounts of thousands of children dying in the schools. Indigenous communities knew about this, and have known about this for a very long time. The second thing is that somehow the addition of “hard” science – the archaeologists with their machines and the images they produced – made it real for a lot of people. It is sad that it took western science to get there but it was also very impactful and a huge moment in our history. The studies are done very carefully. All the archeologists I have met who have worked on these projects are really dedicated. They are investing the necessary time to understand what those communities need and want. It's always the Indigenous communities who take the lead; the archaeologists are working for them and with them not the other way round. There is so much trauma involved. They need to be in charge of what questions are being asked and how we answer them. There is definitely a growing appreciation in archeology and anthropology around working with the affected communities. And there is a lot more to gain than to lose.  

 

This seems to be another thread in your work, questioning our worldviews and how they impact the way we look at things. You wrote, for example, on the concepts of universalism versus relativism (3), could you tell us a bit more?

I don't have an academic background in social science so it was very eye-opening for me to look through the anthropological lens when I started writing and editing for SAPIENS. A recurring theme is that the things you think are fixed, solid and “as they must be”, are actually not in so many ways. For example, the nuclear family model that we have in North America and in the West, is not the only way of raising children. And it is not the normal way. Historically it wasn't the prevalent way and it may not be the best way of raising children! Schools are another example. One adult standing in front of a room, teaching a class of 20 kids all around the same age, is not the way that the majority of people have been taught across history. And is not necessarily the best way. We don't need GDP to be the measure of a nation's success, all of these things we might consider as being a given are not. We don't need dishwashers and cars, kids don't need plastic toys. A lot of the things that have become standard ways of life, in particular in the wealthy parts of the world, are not sustainable, but are also not necessary, not common and not the only way. It's really important to recognise that when you're facing challenges such as pandemics and climate change. These events shape society and force us to think differently and learn from each other. It's so important to remember that the way you personally believe things have to be done is not the only way things can be done, nor is it always the best way.  

 

Notes:

(1)The Untold Stories of Archeology’s Women, by Brenna Hassett, Suzanne Pilaar Birch, Rebecca Wragg Sykes and Tori Herridge, Sapiens.org, March 2021.

(2) How Native Tribes Are Taking the Lead on Planning for Climate Change, by Nicola Jones, Yales E360, February 2020.

(3) Do You See What I See?, by Nicola Jones, Sapiens.org, February 2017.

Saturday, May 14, 2022

OpEds in Knowable Magazine

Here are the pieces I commissioned, edited and published so far this year for Knowable magazine

The creative way to pay for wildlife recovery

Make electric vehicles affordable for the rest of us

Don’t let climate change take all the blame

The next evolution of digital money? It’s happening now

Pandemic psychology: Nothing new under the Sun

The science of placebos is fuelling quackery

How to short-circuit short-term thinking

The vicious cycle of food and sleep

and... this one too, though it ended up in Nature

The perils of machine learning in designing new chemicals and materials

Cement, Steel, Coal, Solar and more...

I have been doing a lot of editing for Nature this year. Here are a few pieces that I helped to develop and publish:

Cement and Steel: nine steps to zero 

    This piece lays out the best ways to whittle down emissions from some of our dirtiest (and most vital) industries.

Stop squandering data: make units of measurement machine readable

    Many research papers and data tables are sloppy with their units or don't include units at all, leaving people, computers and AI baffled by what they mean.

Floating solar power could help fight climate change — let’s get it right

Are we running out of room to put solar panels, and are reservoirs the best spot to put them? Maybe. But more research is needed on the environmental side-effects.

60 Years--a lifetime--of climate change

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed 30 years ago this June. Three decades ago. Yet humanity still has not bent the curve of our greenhouse gas emissions. 

It can be hard to remember the history of humanity's struggle with climate change: when did rising CO2 and temperatures become apparent? When did action start? And why, after all this time, are we so far from hitting the targets we need to prevent dramatic warming? 

Knowable magazine had the idea to track this history against something more familiar: one person's life. Arun Agrawal, born in 1962 when Silent Spring was published and climate change wasn't yet on the agenda, has seen 3 decades before the UNFCCC and 3 decades since, living in India and the United States, working on issues of climate and sustainability. Have a look at the history of climate change through his eyes.  

https://knowablemagazine.org/article/food-environment/2022/lifetime-climate-change

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Covering Climate Change: award shortlist

Gratefully received this email today, letting me know I'm in fabulous company on a long list of potential award winners. Amazing stories in the mix from around the world.


Congratulations!  You are a Finalist in the Covering Climate Now Journalism Awards! Thank you for outstanding work that is helping to raise awareness and educate the public about the defining story of our time.


In this our second year of the awards, we had a remarkable response from the world over with 900 entries in 18 categories, a 50% increase from the inaugural year. After a rigorous judging process by a distinguished international jury, 68 Finalists have been selected covering all dimensions of the climate story.  


A complete list of Finalists with a blurb on each — as well as links to all the journalism — is now live at coveringclimatenow.org/awards. We have also produced a 60-second promo video that introduces the awards and finalists. See it here


The press release with the full announcement is here, and we are rolling out a social media campaign to celebrate you and all the other Finalists. Join us! RT or repost the promo video on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. We'll have it pinned to our profile (Twitter, IG, Facebook) at 1 PM ET today.