Before They Were Scientists: Peter Bijl

My second installment in a series of interviews from the Netherlands is with geoscientist and climate change expert, Dr. Peter Bijl. He recalls constantly observing his surroundings as a child and questioning why he didn’t get to use his ice skates as much as his parents. This childhood curiosity translated to a career trying to understand how the Earth works. Read on to learn about how being a scientist is more than just being the smartest person in class, the role of chance in science, and how Peter’s dad is his toughest critic.

Lea: You went to middle school in the Netherlands, did you have a major that you had to decide on when you were in middle school?

In the Netherlands you don’t really get “earth sciences;” you only get a little bit about plate tectonics. Earth science in the Netherlands is particularly about physical geography and social geography, urbanization and suburbanization – How did cities evolve? and How did nature shape its surface with rivers? I liked biology, chemistry and physics — but I wanted to know how nature worked, how the earth actually worked.

What made you want to learn about the Earth?

I wanted to know why my parents could ice skate over the rivers in the Netherlands and I couldn’t — it was always too warm in the winter for me. I wanted to know why there were mountains, the Alps, in France and yet the Netherlands were very flat. I was constantly aware of my surroundings and constantly questioning what was happening. How come I see this here and that there? I was constantly scanning my surroundings and trying to understand it.

I wanted to know why my parents could ice skate over the rivers in the Netherlands and I couldn’t — it was always too warm in the winter for me.
What did your parents want you to be when you grew up? What did they do?

My mother was a lab assistant in a hospital but quit her job when she had kids and my dad worked at construction sites managing safety. My dad was really the applied person; he was very proud that I had “good brains” to go off and study. When I was deciding what to study he said I had to study something that is of use to society and mankind. “What’s the use?” he’d ask. For his job it was clear: keep the worksite safe and make sure the safety protocols were being followed. When I wanted to study earth sciences he had big questions about what could I do with that. His questions went beyond “What kind of job can you get with that?” to “What is the benefit to society?” My brother also went off to study physical therapy — the “use” to society with that was very clear. For me, my dad was very doubtful that I could contribute to mankind and thought I was just doing a fancy hobby study. Later I would make clear to him that this was not the case.

When I was deciding what to study he said I had to study something that is of use to society and mankind.
So how did you answer your dad’s question — how is what you do “of use” to society?

By showing him specific case studies and showing him the news. I can point to a specific news story and say, “See? This is what I do. This is what I can do — this is what I contribute.” The research that we do here is really about climate change, which is critically relevant to society. You can relate to that: you can explain to people why there is a hurricane in New York. That’s where it becomes relevant to society.

You’re doing some work with schools now? Tell me about that.

We do a lot of research here on climate change, but learned that climate change was not being taught in middle schools. The curriculum was set up in a way that it was too hard to teach it in any one class. Earth sciences was way too science-focused and for chemistry, physics and math, climate change was way too applied and multidisciplinary to be taught in those classes.

So we set up a class module to be superimposed on all of these core classes. Educators could use climate change examples in lessons about geologic time scales, the carbon cycle and the greenhouse effect. We made film clips about these subjects with a professional film team and set a prize competition for middle school classes to make movies about how they would see their environment 500 years from now. We also made a website about the project and I give about five or six hour-long guest lectures about climate change to middle schools every year, usually in the wintertime.

How did you get into science in the first place?

I just wanted to know how this world works; that’s the basic question for me. I can only remember 20 years of the Earth’s climate, which is not even long enough of a time period for making an average climate measurement. We see such a short time in the world. In studying climate change, we consider long time periods, looking both at the past and what’s currently happening today, so that we can better predict what will happen in the future. It brings it all into perspective and becomes much more valuable to validate what you see in the news. Right now it’s six degrees Celsius below average in the Netherlands

[gestures out his window to a cool, breezy day which warranted a light jacket and an umbrella] – sure, it’s extremely cold. That doesn’t mean that the long-term trend is that it’s getting colder and colder. A few weeks ago it was five degrees Celsius above the average. By considering the long-term perspective as we do in studying climate change, you can put things in perspective much better, and that’s what I really like.

There are things that are already happening and we expect them to keep happening in one direction. Sea level rise, particularly, warming can be different in different seasons, but over the time period of 30 years it will get warmer. That’s no doubt. There’s no scientist that will contradict that. That’s the most interesting statement, right? There are no scientists that disagree with this.

What do you think your middle school self would be most surprised about considering your life?

When I was that age I was nowhere near the top of my class; I was actually in the lower part. There were so many things being taught that I found uninteresting. When people would have said to me that at the age of 30 I would be a successful scientist, I would have laughed at them and said, “You have to be smart for that, you have to be the most brilliant guy in the class!

When I speak to classes, I tell them It’s not about being the smartest, it’s about being the most motivated and the most sparked by something. All of a sudden you have an interest in something and you really want to go to the depth of it. It’s only about one subject that I know a lot about.

It’s almost like a hobby. When you are a trainspotter, you know everything about trains — you don’t need to be smart to know everything about trains, you just need to have a kick for it, a spark for it. It doesn’t matter how smart you are in class, you can still become a scientist. That’s always the thing that I say to my students because no one taught me that in school. I thought there was a line: the top 5% will become the scientists and the rest will become normal people, but that’s totally not the case.

When I was that age I was nowhere near the top of my class… I thought there was a line: the top 5% will become the scientists and the rest will become normal people, but that’s totally not the case.
If you could give your middle school self some advice, what would it be?

Just do whatever you like, whatever you find interesting, just follow that and you can become the smartest person on that particular subject. It’s not about being intelligent in everything, it’s about doing what you like. Scientists are no more special than anyone else, they just have a strange kind of spark for something. They’re always a bit crazy [gestures to his head], but funny crazy.

How much of your successful discoveries were due to chance?

I think every scientific discovery is a matter of doing the right thing at the right place at the right time with the right people. I think science is the ultimate example of where chance is important. There’s this quote that says that, The most fundamental discoveries didn’t come with “Yes we have it!” but with “Hey, that’s funny…” You always have to do something out of the ordinary to make a scientific discovery.

Chance is everything with these kind of things. It doesn’t mean success or failure, but it means a breakthrough. Science can succeed or fail, but that doesn’t mean that you succeed or fail as a scientist because every good scientist has most of their attempts fail. If you don’t try, you’ll never win. Most of the attempts will be unsuccessful.

There’s a quote that says that the most fundamental discoveries didn’t come with “Yes we have it!” but with “Hey, that’s funny…” You always have to do something out of the ordinary to do a scientific discovery.
How often did someone tell you that you were wrong? Any particular memorable occasions?

Not that I’m always right… but that’s not how you communicate as a scientist. You may have a different opinion, stand, or viewpoint, but “wrong” is something that doesn’t happen that often, I think. It’s not how you talk about science; it’s not “right” or “wrong”… just different viewpoints coming together.

Did you ever get into trouble when you were in school.

[immediately] No.

No?

Well… sometimes. Actually on the first day, but that was the only time. [I raise my eyebrows and wait; there’s got to be more to that story. Sure enough…] I think I was in the seventh freshman class that the teacher had and he just had enough of newbies in the school. But that was the only time. I was always very gentle, very docile.

What happened on the first day?

We were playing with the table… and the table fell and we were out [flips wrist and forefinger pointing towards the door]. He said, “I’ve already had enough of you, go away!”

What did you do? Did you go home?

No… I had to go out of that one hour class and then the other hour another teacher comes in. That afternoon I had to pick rubbish from the street… that’s what happens.

What is a discovery that you have made that you think your middle school self would find interesting?

If someone in my class would have come in and given a guest lecture about the material in the climate change videos that we made, I would have been totally blown away and I would directly go there. I knew that from the start; when we made the films I really thought, “OK, if I had this in my school I would have known exactly what I wanted to do.” I knew what I wanted to do, but with this I would have been for sure. That story about how different the Earth was in the past and how different it could be and how different from today it could become in the very near future. I also think focusing on how scientists do research, I think that’s the first step to increasing scientific literacy.

A lot of the science that is done in the classroom we already know the answer to — but to be able to say, “We don’t know,” and have it be alright to have that experiment fail… [he excitedly interrupts me]

Basically in middle school “We don’t know” is not an answer; it’s not allowed. That is something that sparked me a lot — when I had a few teachers that would say, “Well, we just don’t know this yet, but we really want to know this.” I thought that was cool. Sometimes students bring in specimens for the botanists here in Utrecht to look at and so they get to see a little bit of how the process of science works. We also make films of what we’re doing — whenever we write a research grant we dedicate 2-5% to outreach so we can keep making these films to reach out to the community. We’ve started to understand that the outreach is just as important as the research itself.

We’ve started to understand that the outreach is just as important as the research itself.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be, what would you do with it and why would you want it?

That’s funny. So… geologists always dream about a time machine. As students we have had this question amongst ourselves, like a thought experiment. If we had a time machine and we could go back once for five minutes to a certain place in a certain time in the past and you only could bring one measuring device…. Where would you go? What time period? What would you do in order to solve the most important question in the world? These kind of things I’ve asked myself a lot. I don’t know exactly where I want to go. Geologists are always saying, “If I had a time machine and could check once there…” or “At that time was there ice on Antarctica or not?” These kind of questions. “What did the African interior look like?” Stupid questions like that. My superpower would be a time machine.

[after a reflective pause]

But… actually we have a time machine, right? That’s what we do: we reconstruct the climate of the past and in doing so we make a virtual time machine. We can go back in the past and see what the Earth looked like in order to know more about the future.

Dr. Peter Bijl is a postdoctoral fellow in  at Utrecht University in Utrecht, Netherlands. Read his blog about drilling ocean floor core samples in Antarctica and follow him on Twitter @peterbijlWilkes 

By | 2016-11-22T13:46:56+00:00 August 29th, 2014|

About the Author:

Lea Shell
Lea Shell is an entomologist and educator who devotes her time convincing others just how wonderfully important insects and microbes are to our lives. She enjoys playing with slime mold, ants, GPS units, climate loggers and interviewing scientists about their middle school experiences.

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