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