The Future of American Exceptionalism

As our nation continues to go deeper and deeper into debt, it is easy to forget that the reason our nation rose to greatness – that brought us to the world stage, that gave us the voice to lead – was science, technology, and innovation… with creativity and ingenuity that far surpassed the dreams of tomorrow, because of investments in STEM education but even more importantly, because of a burning desire within each American, to build a better tomorrow through a better understanding of nature and our place within it.

But today, we’re seeing that desire eclipsed by complacency and ideology, on both ends of the political spectrum. Congress is in gridlock, and our population has become just as politically polarized, with Congress being nothing more than a reflection of our general mindset. We let talking heads on the news and radio dictate our beliefs. We let other opinions sway us to think a certain way.

We have taken our American exceptionalism for granted, thinking it was merely given to us or bestowed upon us, and that the very continuation of it needs nothing more than our belief that we are exceptional! Nothing could be further from the truth. Our previous generations labored long and hard to get us to where we were in the 20th Century. Without that discipline, without that effort, without that individual desire for innovation, we would not have reaped the rewards of global leadership.

Today, through “government shutdowns,” “fiscal cliffs,” “sequestrations,” and political infighting, we all lose. And yet, the world continues to grow and advance in science, technology, and innovation. Will we maintain our lead? Will we rediscover that inspiration to lead us forward?

Posted in National Affairs | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

New Year’s Resolution – An Invitation for Unity

Religious hegemony. Political gridlock. National uncertainty. International conflict.

news_logosAs we begin this new year, we need to go no further than a click of the remote control to see that we live in an era of increasing personal, interpersonal, national, and international struggle. A day does not go by without some negative or disheartening news breaking the airwaves, punctured only by political commentary that prey on our emotions, inciting more frustration and anger. We now live in a world where problems are magnified, where reason gives way to the loudest voices, where division and the “me vs. you” mentality is in vogue. And sadly, this division feeds on itself, fueled by the anger that it itself creates.

Religious freedom, racial & gender equality, gun rights, immigration, health care, taxes, and entitlements… just those words alone can incite the most animated and passionate responses from our fellow citizens. Surely, a democratic republic hinges on the healthy debate of these issues, and we as people should be encouraged to engage with each other. But, if discussion and debate turn into bias, anger, and hatred, then the only way to solve our big problems is to address the small ones first – by taking a good, hard look in the mirror. So today, in this public forum, I would like to make a New Year’s Resolution, and I invite you to join me…

Today, exactly one year ago, I lost one of my closest friends, Kevin Ballantine. It was a long and painful struggle for an innocent soul who wanted nothing more than to make the world a better place. Before he bid us farewell, he left us with this final request:

Kevin_headshotRemember that life is fleeting, and there are more important things than grudges or ill wishes. Underneath our different skin colors, yarmulkes, head scarves, or crucifix necklaces, we’re still the same people. We still want the same thing – for people to be nice to us. All I ask of those who want to help me is this – treat your strangers as you would your best friends... We are all forced to share the same planet, like it or not. And we are ALL responsible for that planet, for the sake of ourselves and our children… So if you want to do something for me, here’s what you can do. Be nice to those you encounter, don’t hold grudges, and please – hold your government accountable. Get involved, make your voice heard… don’t just believe something because you’re told to, research it yourself and come to your own conclusions. Independent thought is the backbone of an intelligent society, and is what separates us from the mob mentality…

Frankly, it has taken no less than a year for me to muster enough courage to purposely reflect back upon that day – those brief, poignant hours – when Kevin’s family and friends gathered to celebrate his short but honorable life in his hometown of DeKalb, IL. Kevin’s funeral service was packed with scores upon scores of people, all to bid him farewell on that cold, snowy Illinois day. I knelt by Kevin’s side to offer a silent prayer while he slept peacefully, knowing that although we must part ways, his noble legacy and unique talent for uniting people of all religious and political persuasions would never, never die.

As I joined the processional to the familiar, sweeping tunes of “Here I Am Lord,” I realized with utmost clarity that humanity speaks not in languages, but in shared spirit. We are defined not by our religious affiliations, but by our ability to come together in the face of life and death. That day, in one room, gathered people of all races, sects, and kind. Kevin had that ability to unite them all, and because of that, his voice and impact on peoples’ lives grew exponentially. No late-night talk show host or political media pundit could even come close to touching the hearts of those of us in that room in the way that Kevin did. Four priests guided the funeral ceremonies that day, and they all could not say enough good things about Kevin. To witness seasoned religious leaders uncontrollably break down in tears while thanking a 23-year old for the lessons of love that he has taught them speaks volumes about Kevin’s integrity and wisdom.

I was given the dubious honor of serving as one of the pallbearers, alongside Kevin’s siblings and closest friends. With Kevin’s parents and the rest of the crowd waiting patiently inside the church, I stood at the door, attempting to digest the magnitude of the responsibility bestowed upon me to give Kevin the final sendoff. It was all I could do to keep from breaking down. As we lifted his casket out the door, I glanced over my right shoulder and noticed the four priests standing there, serenely, with palms together, and with eyes filling with tears. “Our job here is done,” their look seemed to say. “It is now your responsibility, as Kevin’s best friends, to join him on the final leg of his earthly journey.”

IMG_1648As we proceeded down the sidewalk, a brief but gentle burst of snow flurries filled the air – the perfect scene for Kevin’s final farewell. “See ya, Kev,” I heard coming from ahead of me. Kevin’s childhood friend was doing his best to keep it together, but with those words, we both broke down in tears.

“Take care, buddy… we love you.”


Photo and caption/annotation posted by Carol DeMers Aguayo.

Few moments in life are as viscerally gut-wrenching as carrying the remains of your close friend – who is younger than you – and having to send him off at the age of 23. It is a moment that shakes you to the very core of your being. As Kevin drove away amidst the snowflakes, these questions swirled in my head: How would I ever make sense of this? What will I do with the reminder of my own life? How can I make this world a better place, so that I can fulfill a part of my friend’s will, however small my part may be?

IMG_1668Trust me. A moment like that forever changes you… but for the better. I realized that even in the silence of that dark hour, there is a calm serenity and a sense of beauty in knowing that we did in fact make the best out of the time that we shared here on earth, and that is a source of happiness for all of our human relationships – strangers and loved ones alike.

Am I making the most out of my time? Am I working to unite those around me, or am I making life more difficult by dividing others for those ultimately petty differences? Whether we like it or not, we all share the same fate of being leveled on the plane of time. Sooner or later, we too must accept the mysteries of the great beyond. With courage, Kevin taught us that there is nothing to fear and that our limited amount of time is best spent on uniting others, because to spend time dwelling on divisive emotions would be foolish.

With this realization, I returned to the church, wiping away tears of no longer sadness but of a subtle, delicate peace. The four priests were still standing there, with their palms together, waiting for our return. At that moment, it did not matter that I was not Catholic. It did not matter that I did not know them personally. It did not matter what religion or faith divided us. All of that fell away. Their sincerity while performing the ritual, while speaking, and while simply smiling, conveyed the greatest lesson of life – that of our shared humanity. I went to each of them and thanked them individually for all that they had done for Kevin and their congregations. “Thank you so much for all that you do.”

Meanwhile, the sweet melody of the second movement of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Sonata graced the air, bringing me back to my childhood on the piano bench, where I spent hours learning this same exact piece of music. Little did I know that someday, this musical masterpiece would serve as the final eulogy for my friend – gone but never forgotten.

So today, in memory of my friend Kevin, I would like to make this New Year’s Resolution:

snowflake_panoWhen given the opportunity, I will purposely go out of my way to reach out to a friend whose political or religious beliefs may differ from mine. Although I acknowledge that the alternative is often easier, I will purposely open dialogue with those whom I may disagree. While in discussion, I will avoid the temptation to inject negative emotions into the debate that serve to divide, rather than unite. Like snowflakes on a cold winter day, I acknowledge that each person is unique. But rather than focus on the different characteristics that divide us, I will see that what lies underneath each unique snowflake is the pure water that is often neglected but is equal and shared by all. By accepting this challenge, I can make this world a better place.

Will you join me in this New Year’s Resolution?

Posted in Events, National Affairs, Philosophy | 1 Comment

Benjamin Franklin’s Final Words

As our 2012 U.S. Presidential election draws near, and as differing political opinions continue to amplify to deafening levels, please allow me to share these words of wisdom from Benjamin Franklin. Although the single-phrase maxims of our Founding Fathers are oft quoted, many of us are not familiar with perhaps the most important speech ever composed by one of the greatest leaders our country has ever known.

During the summer of 1787, the Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia to draft a governing document for our fledgling nation. Given all the differing opinions among the Framers of the Constitution during that tumultuous time, the process was plagued with painful, heated debates, consisting of political arguments to the likes of which we may never be able to fully comprehend. And yet, after months of deliberation, on 17 September 1787, after the final draft of the Constitution was read, Benjamin Franklin rose from his seat and offered these final words of wisdom, humbly acknowledging the importance of compromise as our guiding principle upon which all political discourse should be rooted.

The following video is a reading of this speech, the transcript of which is reproduced below. Today, as political gridlock continues to plague our nation, please take a few minutes to listen and to reflect on these long-lost words. Imagine for a moment this weary voice of desperation, rising from the ashes of debate, in the heat and dust of the day…

Mr. President,

I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others.

Most men indeed as well as most sects in Religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far error. Steele, a Protestant in a Dedication tells the Pope, that the only difference between our Churches in their opinions of the certainty of their doctrines is, the Church of Rome is infallible and the Church of England is never in the wrong. But though many private persons think almost as highly of their own infallibility as of that of their sect, few express it so naturally as a certain french lady, who in a dispute with her sister, said ‘I don’t know how it happens, Sister but I meet with no body but myself, that’s always in the right’ –Il n’y a que moi qui a toujours raison.

In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other.

I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an Assembly can a perfect production be expected?

It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded like those of the Builders of Babel; and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another’s throats.

Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good — I have never whispered a syllable of them abroad — Within these walls they were born, and here they shall die — If every one of us in returning to our Constituents were to report the objections he has had to it, and endeavor to gain partizans in support of them, we might prevent its being generally received, and thereby lose all the salutary effects & great advantages resulting naturally in our favor among foreign Nations as well as among ourselves, from our real or apparent unanimity.

Much of the strength & efficiency of any Government in procuring and securing happiness to the people, depends on opinion, on the general opinion of the goodness of the Government, as well as well as of the wisdom and integrity of its Governors. I hope therefore that for our own sakes as a part of the people, and for the sake of posterity, we shall act heartily and unanimously in recommending this Constitution (if approved by Congress & confirmed by the Conventions) wherever our influence may extend, and turn our future thoughts & endeavors to the means of having it well administered.

On the whole, Sir, I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibilityand to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.

~Benjamin Franklin
Philadelphia, 1787

After these words were spoken, on 17 September 1787, the Framers set aside their differences for a moment, and the motion to sign the Constitution prevailed.

Thus, our great Republic was born.

My friends, let us vow to never forget the lasting impact of these words. Let us resolve to fulfill our duty as citizens of this great country by not only going to the polls to vote on Election Day, but by also actively participating in a political discourse that is based on humility and compromise – because compromise is that noble principle that has the power to transcend even the most bitter of political foes. And so, as Americans, in these coming days and beyond, let us remember that principle of compromise – that as from it we arose, so by it must we continue to sail our magnificent Ship of State.

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Happy 24th Birthday, Kevin!

Dear Kevin,

Happy 24th Birthday!!

I know I’m one day late with sending you this birthday message, but that’s because I was traveling. Why am I not surprised that I was coincidentally traveling by plane to Chicago on your birthday…

Remember that time I was stranded at Chicago O’Hare on Christmas Eve of 2008? The night you rescued me so that I wouldn’t be waiting for Santa Claus in an airport terminal? On our way to DeKalb, remember how Keerti was hungry so we stopped at the O’Hare Oasis rest area for food? Well, for old times’ sake, I paid another visit to that same rest area a couple hours ago… just to briefly relive that moment.

I’m here in town for the weekend to serve as the pianist for a fellow Cornellian’s wedding. I was looking forward to someday playing piano at your wedding as well. But it’s okay, the bells across the heavens are being rung on this day in your honor for the huge impact that you’ve made on countless peoples’ lives. No ceremony on earth could possibly do that any justice!

After your “life celebration” in January, I promised Pooja and Keerti that the next time I came to the Chicago area, I would go visit them and your Mom and Dad. Unfortunately for me, they are not here right now. But they are currently having a great time visiting your favorite vacation spot in New Hampshire! I remember how much you used to rave about that state! You would be happy to know that yesterday, your whole family climbed your favorite Sugarloaf Mountain. They did it for you!

The last time I saw you, you were resting peacefully on a snowy day in January. Hundreds of people came to visit and to celebrate your amazing life. Family, friends, neighbors, classmates – even those who were just mere acquaintances – all showed up! Hundreds of people lined up for hours just to see you! The energy of the crowd and their strength in numbers proved just how many peoples’ lives you touched. I wish you could’ve been there to see it!! But then again, you were there… You couldn’t talk to us or interject with your characteristically witty comments, but you were there. You were there in our smiles. You were there in our tears. You were there in our hearts. You were present whenever a kind deed was done in your honor – and there have been many since that day… trust me!

Right now, you live in each and every one of us, so my birthday e-mail to you is rightly posted here for all whose lives you have touched.

Did you know that your Facebook profile is still active? Yeah, people have continued to write on your wall ever since the last day I saw you! You still continue to pop up on my newsfeed fairly regularly, either from someone sharing a life lesson that you inspired, or someone thanking you for indirectly helping him or her cope with a particular life challenge. It’s absolutely remarkable! I bet you never thought you would keep on inspiring long after you left this world behind, did you? Remember how, at one point, you were concerned that maybe you would not have enough time to accomplish your goal of inspiring people? Well, I am happy to report that you were wrong.    😛    You are truly a legacy, my friend!

Here are some examples of the flood of Facebook wall posts you’ve gotten in just the last couple of days:

I love seeing your name on my wall… it reminds me that you are watching us from above… I feel blessed to have known you… forever my teacher and inspiration.  ~Bonniejean

Happy Birthday Kevin – I wish you could read this so I could tell you in person how much your story has influenced my most recent life path – your legacy will truly live on.  ~Greg

Love you and miss you… you will never be forgotten.  ~Mom
P.S. Do you have FB in heaven?

Happy birthday my man. We all miss our fearless leader. Thanks for looking over us, buddy.  ~Keith

Happy Birthday Kevin!! I am thinking of you today and all the lives you have touched with your amazing character and loving spirit! As I work on my nonprofit and carry your motto for change in the world… it strengthens me! Thank you! Sending love up to you and out to your beautiful family!  ~Jackie

Hey, buddy… I need your help with something. I’ve got a good friend from kindergarten with a bad brain tumor, and he’s going to be joining you in a month or so… his name’s Gary. He’s a lot like you… spunky, brave, funny, incredibly kind, really good at video games, curly hair (although his is blonde)… When he shows up, help him settle in and show him around. I’ll miss him, but I’ll feel a lot better about saying goodbye to him if I know you’ve got his back. Also, he plays guitar, so you could probably start a band together. Love you. And happy early birthday. I bet the angel food cake up there is probably awesome.  ~Marybeth

As if these didn’t already speak volumes, you would be happy to know that I’ve received countless e-mails and messages outside of Facebook – some from total strangers – who simply wanted to express how much of an impact you and your story have made in their lives. I even received this one:

I am glad to learn that there is a scholarship fund at Cornell in Kevin’s memory…  ~President Skorton, Cornell University

Needless to say, Kev, you’ve done us all proud!

Another one of your friends (Moira) posted this anonymous poem on your Facebook wall, as if on your behalf. In fact, I can hear you saying these words right now, through the breeze that is currently rolling through the Illinois landscape outside my window:

Today is my birthday
Be happy for me
I lived short, but full
I had the pleasure of love
And the joy of my family.
Do not be sad
Look up towards the stars
And catch each twinkle
In your heart.
For I am there with you

Today is my birthday
My legacy is not wealth
Or mighty belongings,
My legacy is you and your life.
Spend it wisely and carefully
Guard it always
Do not be sad
Feel the wind on your face
And in your hair
And know that I loved you
For I am there with you in your laughter
And in your hearts.

Today is my birthday
Learn to live again without me,
Take my strength with you
For you are not alone.
Do not be sad
Feel the rain on your face
Feel all life’s treasures and
Know that you are alive!
At each step of the way
I will help you
For I am with you always
Until we meet again.

Today is my birthday…

So today, as you celebrate your 24th earthly birthday from above, know that a bunch of your friends are still thinking about you every day. Whenever we meet some challenge or find ourselves facing a difficult life decision, we remember many of the wise words that you shared with us while you were down here. Whether you knew it or not, you led by example. You taught us the wisdom of the ages through your simple acts of kindness. You contributed much more than just the words; your actions spoke so much louder.

But, as inspirational as you were for all of us, we will also never forget those moments of wit and humor that you were able to bring into our lives. You simply brightened up the room wherever you were. You were able to turn even the most mundane moments into memories with random fits of laughter. There was never a dull moment when you were around. Remember this night two summers ago? Even a year and a half into your treatment, your level of energy was still ridiculous.

Good times, good times…

Your family, friends, and I will continue to strive to do the work that you had wanted to complete here on earth. I know how much you wanted to be a teacher and to help kids get a good education. So sometime this coming school year, I’m planning to give some guest lectures to middle school kids in Hawaii to help inspire them to pursue careers in science and technology, because that is what built this country of opportunity a century ago. I will do this in your honor, and I will be sure to share this quote that we created and agreed to live by that one night we stayed up really late in your living room:

An insurmountable object, emotion, or thought is nothing more than our reluctance to take up the challenge of trying to understand it.

Anyway, I need to get going. It’s time to head over to the church for rehearsal. It’s too bad I wasn’t able to hitch a ride with you from Chicago O’Hare this morning. I had to rent a car instead. But no worries… thankfully, there aren’t piles of snow on the road this time around, so I think I’ll manage. I’ll be sure to say a little prayer for you by the altar. I’m sure you don’t need it, but hey, memories are timeless, and thoughts are priceless.

Hope all is well, Kev. Happy birthday! We are all very proud of you. Keep on drummin’!

Miss ya buddy,


Posted in Random Musings | 2 Comments

“7 Minutes of Terror” – MISSION ACCOMPLISHED

Today, in America, we have returned to the age-old thrill of stepping foot into an unknown frontier. Today, we re-ignite the pioneering spirit that has defined us since the dawn of our nation. Today, we have pushed the frontiers of scientific knowledge and human progress. Today – just hours ago – we successfully landed the largest, most advanced vehicle ever deployed to another planet… onto the surface of Mars!

This is not the first time we have sent rovers to Mars, so what makes this one so special?  Well, let this NASA video speak for itself…


Yeah, even Hollywood could not have made this up.

Here’s the scene from Mission Control within the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at Cal Tech during the last few minutes leading up to the touchdown of the rover, aptly named “Curiosity.” You can taste the raw anticipation of emotional triumph pervading the air! It was one of those rare moments when science superseded the excitement of watching a Super Bowl touchdown.

I could not help but get goosebumps from watching this! After having participated in several scientific field experiments, I know how nearly impossible it is for something like this to go off without a hitch!

Today is a proud moment not just for Americans, but for the world. Once again, humans have conquered the odds and have done the impossible. As a scientist myself, I can envision the countless hours of sweat, tears, and sleepless nights that countless men and women had to experience in the years leading up to this very moment. And yet, this is the type of dedication and creativity that the entire world looks up to, regardless of politics and national interests.

This is an accomplishment we do not need to defend with weapons, for it was an intellectual war won with human ingenuity that nobody can take away. Back in June, I had the opportunity to speak with the Science Advisor to Secretary Clinton in the Department of State, and he emphasized the reality of science as a tool for diplomacy. Here now is an example of extraterrestrial innovation being one such tool of inspiration at home and abroad.

There is nothing more inspiring than to see tangible proof that the sky is no longer the limit – only our imagination is.

So congratulations, NASA! Once again, you have elevated the bar to which the human spirit can reach. You have inspired us all.

Yet, this is only the beginning, summed up by the monotone voice in the JPL Mission Control room who left us with these final words amid the din of celebration:

“Now, to see where our Curiosity will take us…!”

Posted in Events, National Affairs, World Affairs | Leave a comment

Go watch Spider-Man… Seriously.

I am certainly not one who regularly follows comics or superhero movies, but I watched the newly-released “The Amazing Spider-Man” last night and was extremely impressed… enough so that I have decided to take some time to write my first-ever movie critique (no worries, there are no spoilers here).

Unlike what most professional movie critics do, I am not here to review this movie on the nitty gritty details of the acting or the plot line or the special effects. I would simply like to discuss the message of this movie and why I would strongly recommend everyone watch this film, even if superhero movies aren’t your thing… trust me!

As hugely popular as the previous Spider-Man movies were, this one digs deeper into the story of how Peter Parker (Spider-Man) wrestles with his childhood memories of the mysterious occupation of his father and the disappearance of his parents. Without going into details, this movie quickly evolves into a science fiction thriller, although it should not be merely dismissed as nothing more than science fiction. The story is one strongly grounded in human emotion and the pressing issues of scientific advancement. Questions that plague legitimate, real-world scientists formed the primary themes of this movie:

How do we make the biggest impact on the world for the greater good?

What are the limits to scientific progress – if any – and how does it relate to human happiness?

Is more scientific research – regardless of application – necessarily better for society?

What is the role of ethics and morality within the realm of science?

Are the risks caused by human ego and imperfection too great to safely pursue certain avenues of science?

These questions certainly are not science fiction! After having recently returned from a national science policy colloquium in Washington, D.C., these questions weigh on my mind routinely. Little did I know that of all things, Spider-Man would be the “person” to help bring these issues to light!

Good intentions, when amplified in the presence of selfish ego, can be a dangerous, powerful combination. As the former increases, the latter must simultaneously decrease or else there could be dire consequences.

Dr. Curtis Connors, the villain in this movie, is a perfect example of a good-intentioned scientist with a human flaw that we all posses – a desire for perfection that is beyond our control in the face of adversity. Rather than accepting our flaws and adapting, we often go to great lengths to force something to happen without fully understanding the unintended consequences. We all have those moments, and this movie vividly points that out to us. Combined with the raw human realities of Peter Parker, from his awkward high school moments to extremely well-placed humor throughout the film, we are left with a movie that graphically taps into our own internal struggles in order to teach us a lesson. In the words of Rhys Ifans, the actor who portrays Dr. Connors in the movie:

Curtis Connors is a great man who makes a bad decision… [T]hat’s the whole magic of the Spider-Man idea. These people are the embodiment of our flaws and our desires that lead to tragedy… He’s a geneticist who wants to help people, like him, who are limbless. In his eagerness to advance that science, he makes a mistake and that’s an occurrence we’ve seen throughout time, sometimes to our benefit, sometimes to our detriment… He is a broken man who wants to fix himself… I’m not portraying a villain in any sense. Connors does feel cheated by God, and he’s looking for answers in science.

As I prepare for my Ph.D. comprehensive exam in meteorology this fall, I must endure months of re-deriving and memorizing the most complicated differential equations of atmospheric physics and fluid dynamics – not unlike the complexity of the “equations” featured in the movie. Although I won’t be trying to biologically engineer myself a new limb, there will be “mad scientist” moments as I stare at my whiteboard filled with nothing but Greek letters and symbols. “The Amazing Spider-Man” takes this elusiveness and romance of science and distills it down to a heart-wrenching tale of how the “Ivory Tower” can have enormous implications for society – both good and bad.

Science has been the source of everything from light bulbs to computers, from machine guns to nuclear bombs. Now, we stand at the threshold of the ever-growing, controversial topics of geoengineering and biological engineering. Together with the global threat of climate change, how are we to navigate the increasingly fuzzy area between objective science and subjective humanity? Between the pursuit of basic knowledge and its moral implications?

Overall, this movie is spectacular – both exciting and intellectually stimulating. This has honestly been the only time a movie has ever left me totally breathless. Literally. I had to consciously realize that I was not breathing during the climax of the movie and to quickly remind myself to inhale.

Near the end of the film, the most hard-hitting, profound life lessons were conveyed in a way that deeply struck a chord with me. I’m not gonna lie… I teared up at the end. No, it was not because it was sad. It was not because of a dramatic, mushy-gushy ending. It was simply because the closing words were some of the most profound, philosophical statements I have ever heard so neatly packaged into such a tangible, human message to which we can all relate. They will resonate with every single person who has ever suffered any difficulty in life: Obstacles are nothing more than gifts in disguise. It is up to us to discover and unwrap them.

For those who have not yet seen this movie, please… please do yourself a favor and go see it. But go into it with a different mindset than perhaps the other times you’ve gone to the theater. Sure, it is an action movie filled with intense moments of drama, suspense, and thrill, but watch “The Amazing Spider-Man” for more than just entertainment. Watch it and pay attention to all the life lessons that are so intricately conveyed throughout. Don’t just see the movie for its “acting quality” or for the “plot twists.” Think of it as an adventure, jam-packed with life lessons waiting to be discovered – as long as you are able to make the connections. Reflect on this simple yet profound question:

“Who am I?”

When you walk away from the theater, you may actually bring with you a new idea to approach some challenge in your life right now. I especially recommend every scientist, science educator, and policy maker watch this movie and seriously ponder the questions posted at the beginning of this blog entry. Our world would be better for it.

So hats off to you, Spider-Man! Thank you for teaching me an important lesson about science, humanity, and the future of science policy. I would not be surprised if years later, I find myself attempting to apply this somehow to my career… thanks to a comic book superhero.

Wow.  I never thought I would ever say such a thing.


(Psst… be sure to stay through the first part of the credits at the end…)

Posted in Philosophy, Random Musings | Leave a comment

E Pluribus Unum

We just celebrated the 236th birthday of the United States of America. Across this great nation, the night sky lit with fireworks, as originally instructed by John Adams in a letter to his wife just prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence:

[Independence Day] ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with… illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.

Last night, I went to view the fireworks from a hill overlooking Pearl Harbor with several of my Navy buddies. As I spent those few minutes deeply immersed in a connection with history, I could not help but reflect on our current state of affairs as a nation. And so, I am compelled to write this article on a serious matter of state:

Our ability to communicate as citizens of one of the greatest countries on earth is being severely challenged.

Gone are the days when turning on the evening news guaranteed a virtually unbiased view of current events. Objective reporting has gone by the wayside, with the national media appealing to our passions, emotions, and anger by fueling our pre-existing biases and leanings, often under the guise of “fair” reporting. While this is a great marketing strategy, it does little to promote the ability of our citizens to work in concert to address the problems of our generation.

We now live in an era where the loudest person is rewarded, where facts are replaced with emotion, where logic gives way to passion. Congressional polarization is quickly approaching its worst level in the history of the United States, including the post-Civil War era! The most fundamental responsibility of the government – to pass a budget on time – has not been met in the last three years. Yet, as tempting as it is to point the finger at our politicians, we as citizens are just as guilty for that polarization. We blame each other for the wrongs of the world. We hold steadfast to our personal views. We refuse to compromise.

The rise of social media has brought into our lives a flurry of Facebook posts, Twitter updates, and YouTube video messages. Our ability to think for ourselves has all-too-often been reduced to hitting “share” on an oversimplification of political realities, perhaps out of fear of having our own beliefs challenged. We have all become pundits of our own, often passing on the one-liners of others rather than thinking for ourselves. Nowadays, I frequently hear someone regurgitating a particular talking point as heard on television, without considering the bigger picture. We are being conditioned to think in two dimensions: liberal vs. conservative, left vs. right, Democrat vs. Republican, or worse… subversive vs. patriot. But in reality, our human nature – and politics itself – is multidimensional.

As Americans, we live in the most culturally and ethnically diverse nation on earth. No other country of this size can claim to have such a diverse demographic. And yet, as a nation, we have forged the unlikely success of the world’s largest economy through the spirit of cooperation.

Our great country was built on teamwork, on the ideal that people from all walks of life with absolutely nothing in common can come together and participate in the same grand pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. Our great country was built on the principle that as a whole, our value is greater than the sum of our parts – that nothing is impossible when we work together. So what does it mean to be an American? It is our acceptance of the obligation to do just that – to acknowledge that we have the right and the responsibility to shape the course of this nation alongside our fellow brothers and sisters regardless of our differences.

The West was uncovered by Lewis and Clark. Human flight began with Orville and Wilbur Wright. Our Republic is governed by state and federal policies. As a nation, our pioneering spirit, our sense of discovery, and our modus operandi is to work together in balance to get things done.

When the King of England abused our rights, we united in the face of tyranny. When Pearl Harbor was attacked during World War II, we united against the global threat of dictatorial imperialism. When the attacks of September 11th occurred, we united to confront our vulnerability to terrorism. We have seen time and time again that as a nation, we can overcome the toughest of odds when we work together. But must it take a disaster for us to stand united?

The Framers of our Constitution certainly did not agree on everything. In fact, with all the challenges they faced, we really have little to complain with regard to our problems now. But you know what? They still worked together. They realized the dire need to cooperate, to dialogue, and to make concessions for the sake of the greater good and their common survival. Thanks to them, we can have this discussion now.

No doubt, we live in a culture that thrives on individuality, on the promise that we can build a better world for ourselves if we simply worked hard enough. Although this mindset inspired our Founding Fathers to build a country “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” the key word here is PEOPLE.

Our Constitution begins with these three great words: “We the People.”

…not “We the Individuals (Who Think We’re Better Than Our Neighbor).”

Yet, we incessantly voice the discontent of how “our country is going down the wrong path,” or “if only this didn’t happen, all would be well.” Both liberals and conservatives are guilty of this. As times grow tougher, the voices of the extremes are becoming ever more extreme. We must remember that a harmonious society is not one based solely on the survival of the loudest. It is one based on the people’s ability to work together.

We must say to ourselves: “What benefits others, also benefits me.” This does not imply giving up our individuality. It is merely accepting that we can preserve our own individuality while respecting and supporting those of others. If you don’t believe this, just ask any athlete who plays a team sport. As with baseball, basketball, football, or soccer, what benefits the team also benefits the player. Even in a “free market” system, it ain’t all just about the individual.

We often hear the phrase, “freedom is not free,” and that our countless brave men and women in uniform throughout history have given the ultimate sacrifice to protect our liberties and freedoms. Those statements have become so trite that they have almost become trivial one-liners, so I would like to take them one step further. Our soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen – a multicultural military force comprised of many nationalities and even citizenships – have died not just for our supposed freedoms; they have died for our common future. Sure, we may disagree on the foreign policy decisions of our Presidents or on the proper use of military power. But one thing is undeniable: Our service men and women swore an oath to defend our Constitution and the ideals contained therein – not to any individual person or mission. They gave up their own future for the sake of ours – not for their own benefit. They died in the hopes of preserving our potential and influence as a nation – not for any partisan, political, or ideological gain. Whether or not we feel a particular mission was morally or politically justified is beside the point. The bottom line is: Someone had the intention to give his or her life for our collective future, so how do we live ours so that we can be worthy of that sacrifice? Politics and justification aside, how do we return that level of devotion and service? It is up to you and I to continue the American tradition of cooperation, or else we risk losing the future that the generations before us had hoped to preserve.

Patriotism is not merely a steadfast loyalty to our country, but rather an undying commitment to help our fellow citizens fulfill their piece of the American Dream – regardless of how we wish to define our own version of the “American Dream.” There is no act of patriotism more profound, more uniquely American than the commitment to work together against all odds.

During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a woman waited anxiously outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia for the final result of the deliberations. When the delegates emerged, she asked, “Well… what have a we got – a Republic or a Monarchy?”

Benjamin Franklin replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it!”

While guns may give us short-term protection and guard us against physical tyranny, the single greatest and most effective long-term weapon against intolerance and injustice is your human intellect. Guard it. Protect it. Use it. Never let anyone take it away! The most prized possession of despots in history has been the ignorance of the masses, so always research the facts yourself and come to your own conclusions. As Thomas Jefferson acknowledged in a letter to Colonel Charles Yancey:

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves; nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.

Do not let biased television or radio pundits take away your most valuable possession as an American – your ability to think critically. It may require more effort on our part to research the facts, but that is exactly the work that is required for us to live up to Benjamin Franklin’s challenge to keep our Republic. It is not enough to vote. We all must be well educated and informed about the issues at hand. To be well-informed is an obligation that we all have for our Constitution, regardless of our professions.

So the next time you visit a vending machine, pause for a second. Take a look at the quarter in your palm and reflect on those three powerful Latin words inscribed upon it:



Regardless of where you stand on the hot-button issues of religion, foreign policy, health care, abortion, marriage, or taxes, remember this: You are an American. And you are as different to your fellow citizens who disagree with you as they are to you.

So I challenge you. Find someone on your Facebook friends list who may disagree with you, whether it be politics, religion, or even what flavor of ice cream tastes better. Reach out to him or her. Grab lunch together, go out for some coffee, or simply start a conversation on Facebook. Why? Because it is patriotic to do so. I am proud to be an American. I am proud to be one of many, in a country where out of many, there is but one.

As the 2012 Presidential election season kicks into high gear, our tasks at hand become all the more urgent. Let us discuss, rather than alienate. Let us acknowledge and conquer our own misgivings, rather than only noticing those of others. Let us unite, rather than divide.

In support of this mission, as did our Founding Fathers, let us “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

E pluribus unum.

Posted in National Affairs, Philosophy, Random Musings | 5 Comments

In Memoriam – Kevin Ballantine

PHOTO CREDITS: Please mouse-over the photos for corresponding image credits.

August 9, 1988 — January 15, 2012

There are certain moments that stand out as turned-down pages in the book of life. There are moments when we are met with inconceivable challenges, but are reminded of the reasons we must forge on. There are moments when we pause to reflect on our blessings – not of material wealth or fame – but of our fortune of sharing a portion of our life journey with a true friend who has always served as a beacon of hope in the midst of doubt and confusion. Today, I take that moment – that blessed opportunity – to reflect on a voice of inspiration and a life well lived.

I first met Kevin when we were both students at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York and members of the Big Red Marching Band. Although my fellow trumpet players and I would regularly assert musical dominance on the football field and in parades, the truth was undeniable – the ensemble would have been nothing without the drumline. The drummers were the heartbeat of the band, the pulse of the music, and it was no surprise that Kevin was there, leading the charge. I clearly remember the countless rehearsals and performances when Kevin was the most visible and energetic member of the drumline, standing in the middle of the band with his characteristic curly hair and unsinkable spirit. We jammed to Pinball Wizard, Carry On My Wayward Son, Call Me Al, and other classical rock favorites. As the band’s drill instructor my senior year, I came to associate Kevin with the cornerstone of the freshman class. Nothing could stop his steady rhythm on the quads. No amount of torrential rain, wind-driven snow, or bitter cold could dampen his mood as the band sloshed through the fields and sidewalks throughout the Ivy League. His smile was infectious. His enthusiasm was contagious.

At the end of the football season, Kevin performed at the band’s traditional “Non-Sectarian” closing ceremony, not on the drums, but with his voice. He was the lead singer in our rendition of “Time of Your Life” by Green Day:

Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road
Time grabs you by the wrist, directs you where to go
So make the best of this test, and don’t ask why
It’s not a question, but a lesson learned in time…
It’s something unpredictable, but in the end it’s right…
For what it’s worth it was worth all the while…

Over a year before time directed Kevin to his life’s major turning point, he had already embraced the ideal of making the best of each test that life presented him. He never asked why, because it was never a question to him. Each challenge was only a lesson to be learned in time. No matter how unpredictable life became, Kevin always cherished every moment and lived as if each day would be his last. Each day was worth all the while. As he sang this often-played but rarely-understood song, Kevin’s voice carried across the room, and his fellow band members gathered to sing along, some shedding tears of joy:

In addition to Kevin’s passion for music, I will never forget his love for severe storms and winter weather. His interest motivated him to consider switching majors from engineering to meteorology, and he enrolled in a weather analysis and forecasting class that I TA’ed in the spring of 2007. His favorite type of weather was snow, and nothing could get him more excited than to wake up to several inches of snow on the ground with flakes drifting through the air. We had our fair share of snow-related adventures, which usually involved a combination of flight delays and driving each other to and from some airport. I remember accompanying Kevin to the Elmira regional airport to catch his flight home one winter while attempting to beat a developing snowstorm, only to discover that his flight was canceled. On our way back, we became nearly stranded in the rapidly rising snow drifts and had to push my Toyota Corolla up a hill in order to make it back home.

After moving to Oklahoma for grad school in the summer of 2007, I returned to Cornell for homecoming the following year. At the end of the weekend’s festivities, Kevin drove me to Syracuse to catch my return flight to Oklahoma. Of course, the flight was delayed, and Kevin spontaneously offered to wait patiently – for hours – at a nearby pizza parlor to make sure I would be okay. We joked that we were destined to forever provide each other ground transportation to and from airports. Sure enough, later that year, on my way back to Florida to visit my family, I was stranded at Chicago O’Hare on Christmas Eve due to a major snowstorm… and guess who came to my rescue? As frustrating as it was to be stuck halfway across the country from home on Christmas Eve, the situation was a complete blessing in disguise. I not only spent quality time with Kevin but also met his wonderful family: Dave, Diane, Pooja, and Keerti. They took care of me like family that Christmas Eve. That night, Kevin and I stayed up and discussed our goals and thoughts about life until 4 am. In the midst of the good conversation, we mutually invented a quote to live by:

An insurmountable object, emotion, or thought is nothing more than our reluctance to take up the challenge of trying to understand it.

There are no impossibilities… just things we don’t understand. There are no obstacles… just challenges that are meant to test our resolve. Everything happens for a reason.

Two months later, in February 2009, Kevin was diagnosed with leukemia.

The night I found out about the diagnosis was also the night before a major atmospheric dynamics exam. Let’s just say that I did not do very well on that exam the next day. The shock that came from the news was stunning for all of Kevin’s friends, yet Kevin took it with great courage. In the months that followed, he diligently kept a blog titled, “An Uphill Climb – Confessions of a Leukemic Optimist.” Through his characteristic humor and talent for writing, he made us laugh, smile, and cry. He taught us the greatest lessons of life by living as an example of fortitude in the face of impossible odds. Nothing could bring him down mentally, not even one of the worst diseases that man has ever known.

After struggling for a full year, Kevin went into remission and returned to Cornell to resume his studies in the spring of 2010. He renamed his blog, “A Different Point of View – The Voice of a Philosophical Minority.” He conveyed his message of hope by inspiring others through his own story. But, as fate would have it, his leukemia returned later that summer. He was not able to complete his final semester at Cornell. In a heartfelt message on his blog on July 6, 2010, he addressed his many friends and family who had repeatedly asked him the sacred question, “Is there anything I can do for you?” Kevin responded with these words of wisdom:

Remember that life is fleeting, and there are more important things than grudges or ill wishes. Underneath our different skin colors, yarmulkes, head scarves, or crucifix necklaces, we’re still the same people. We still want the same thing – for people to be nice to us. All I ask of those who want to help me is this – treat your strangers as you would your best friends... We are all forced to share the same planet, like it or not. And we are ALL responsible for that planet, for the sake of ourselves and our children.

So if you want to do something for me, here’s what you can do. Be nice to those you encounter, don’t hold grudges, and please – hold your government accountable. Get involved, make your voice heard…. don’t just believe something because you’re told to, research it yourself and come to your own conclusions. Independent thought is the backbone of an intelligent society, and is what separates us from the mob mentality…

Kevin’s arduous journey lasted for nearly three years, all while making the best out of each moment. Everywhere he went, his positive attitude and enthusiasm permeated the air like a beam of light from a lighthouse, piercing through the fog of uncertainty. He inspired all those around him to be the best that they could possibly be. Kevin’s Delta Phi fraternity brothers established an event at Cornell called, “Shave a Brother to Save a Brother,” where students – many who never met Kevin – shaved their heads to champion the cause of cancer research. They raised over $1,300 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. In that same season, on May 2, 2009, a girl from Kevin’s high school approached him to say that his story in the local newspaper inspired her to continuing fighting, after she had attempted suicide.

As Kevin’s disease progressed, chemotherapy after chemotherapy, his physical body gradually decreased in strength, but his mental resolve to persevere and make a difference grew exponentially. His favorite quote has always been these words spoken by Mohandas Gandhi, which hung on the wall of his bedroom to remind him of his life’s mission:

Be the change you wish to see in the world.

This was his mantra. This was the principle to which he devoted every remaining ounce of his energy to championing.

I visited Kevin at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas during Labor Day weekend of 2011. He was in residence for a clinical trial that did not prove to be fruitful. As I laid next to his bed for two nights, I was struck by how motivated he still was to help others and to devote the remainder of his life to service. He admitted that his strength was not perfect, that he was “not superman.” However, he never uttered a single complaint, nor did he ever say, “this is not fair.” Even as he laid in bed, his words spoke to my heart as a voice of reason, cutting through the darkness of night. “I want to inspire people,” he said calmly but firmly, with his eyes closed. His only fear was that he did not know whether he would have enough time to accomplish his goals of making the world a better place. He expressed his sorrow at this unfortunate possibility as he painstakingly dragged his rolling IV stand across the floor to go to the bathroom.

On September 19, 2011, in his struggles to come to terms with his predicament and after a conversation with his Dad, Kevin shared the following realization with me via Skype:

There is a difference between giving up and admitting defeat. Giving up, you have options left [and have a conscious choice]; admitting defeat is saying you have no options left [and accepting that]. At this point, I don’t have any options left. So I’m not giving up. I will never give up. I will fight to the end, till the last breath, but I will not give up.

Kevin receiving communion.

A few days later, on September 23, Kevin was released from M.D. Anderson. The clinical trial had failed, and it was time to go home to spend his remaining precious moments with family and friends. Over the course of several weeks, Kevin received over 200 letters from his friends, describing how he had inspired them. Cornell University set up a scholarship fund in his name, to continue his vision of supporting education. DeKalb High School, where Kevin first established his talent in marching band, dedicated their new percussion practice room in his honor, naming it “The Kevin Ballantine Percussion Studio.” On the night of Saturday, December 17, his high school choir showed up at his front yard to sing Christmas carols with white candles in hand – the perfect treat for someone whose favorite holiday was Christmas.

On January 12, 2012, after losing his last bit of energy and not being able to go to the hospital for another blood transfusion, Kevin admitted defeat and said:

I have accomplished all of my goals; I am done, Mom.

Not many of us, even if given 80 years, would be able to say, “I have accomplished all of my goals.” Through the outpouring of love and support from all the people he had inspired, he had finally put to rest his doubts and become convinced that he did in fact make the most of his time on earth. Yet, in that bittersweet moment, Kevin did not give up. He may have admitted defeat, but he still did not give up. At only 23 years old, he had faced intense suffering and had walked through the vale of tears with unparalleled confidence and courage. Kevin’s last wish was for some snow, and he was treated to approximately 4 inches on the ground this past weekend, with snowflakes drifting through the air. Yesterday, after three long years of torture, his painful struggle came to an end.

Kevin passed away peacefully on Sunday morning, January 15, 2012, at around 9:40 am, surrounded by family at home. I would like to ask all who believe in the goodness and strength of the human spirit to offer a silent prayer for the most kind-hearted, positive-thinking, and inspirational friend I could have ever hoped to meet in my lifetime. Kevin is surrounded by the immeasurable love of all those whom he has inspired. As he walks through the valley of the shadow of death, he is not alone. He has nothing to fear.

Today, while we mourn, we also celebrate a life well lived – an example of the best that humanity has to offer. By staying so positive and being so uplifting over the course of several years, even as he faced the biggest life challenges, Kevin has helped countless numbers of people. He thought not of himself, but only of how he could give back to others. He has shown us the value of unity and of overcoming petty human differences. He has shown us the strength of perseverance. He has shown us the art of finding value in even the most difficult of circumstances:

Life is not measured in days or months, but rather in laughter and love.

Through adversity, Kevin’s voice of inspiration did not diminish, but magnified. Through pain, his spirit of fortitude did not wane, but spread. Through life, the temporal manifestation of his desire to help the world did not shorten, but will remain timeless:

If it’s worth the emotion tomorrow, then it’s worth it now. Conversely, if it won’t bother me tomorrow, why let it get to me now? Spread the love, not the hatred or sadness.

Kevin, you have contributed so much to who I am as a person, and I am infinitely grateful that our paths crossed so many years ago, far above Cayuga’s waters. May you truly rest in peace, knowing that the human race is better because you were among us. But your work on earth is not yet finished. On behalf of all of your friends, rest assured that your spirit and motivation will live on as we do our best to be the change that you wished to see in the world. As I promised while holding your hand on the last moment before I left your hospital room at M.D. Anderson, I will do everything in my power to help you fulfill your dream of inspiring people. Somehow, somewhere, sometime, I will follow through with that promise to completion. And when at last, my wearied hands too must lay down the working tools of life, I will hear your drum cadence from above and know thy will is done.

…and when we meet again, just let me know if you need a ride to the airport.

“The best kind of friend is the one you could sit on a porch with, never saying a word, and walk away feeling like that was the best conversation you’ve had.” ~ Unknown Author

Kevin’s wish has always been to contribute to the education of future generations. To help fulfill his wish in a small way, Cornell University has established a scholarship fund in his name. Please consider making a contribution, in Kevin’s memory.

1. Go to
2. Choose “College of Arts and Sciences” in the “Designation” box
3. In the second drop-down menu, select “Other”
4. In the “Other designation” box, type: “Kevin Ballantine Scholarship Fund #0008243”
5. Fill out the rest of the form however you would like


Check payable to:
Kevin Ballantine Scholarship Fund
Fund number: 1845255

Send to:
Cornell University
P.O. Box 223623
Pittsburg, PA 15251-2623

To see more photos from Beck Diefenbach’s Photo Journal of Kevin Ballantine, please visit the following links: Original, Part 1, Part 2, 75 Days

Posted in Events, Philosophy, Random Musings | 28 Comments

Life at Sea – Finale!

12 Dec
1630 UTC

After logging over 840 hours at sea and traveling over 3,500 nautical miles (over 4,000 statute miles) across open ocean, we safely returned to the port of Phuket, Thailand on the morning of 11 December… 35 days after we first left the lush green land of this tropical Southeast Asian country.

A few days prior to our arrival, we had to turn off the TOGA C-Band Doppler radar and end all scientific data collection because we had left international waters and entered the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as 200 nautical miles from shore, where a state has territorial rights to ocean resources. We also had a rendezvous with a fuel barge that met us at sea on 10 December to deliver more diesel for the upcoming cruise 4 of the R/V Roger Revelle for the DYNAMO field experiment. That night, many of the scientists gathered on the bow to watch the total lunar eclipse that occurred right over our heads! Since it was our last night at sea, we soaked in the nostalgic moment of feeling the wind on our faces and hearing the splash of the waves below. Our Research Technician (ResTech) brought out his guitar and strummed a few tunes as we gazed lazily at the gorgeous eclipse of the moon.

Our port arrival on the following day was not without its challenges. We did not have the usual convenience of docking the ship and stepping off onto a pier. Instead, our reservation was deferred to a cruise ship that needed the dock, so we were left with no other options but to anchor offshore and to take a Thai “water taxi” boat to shore. This “water taxi” was nothing more than a rusted metal container with a propeller. If there were a Thai boat equivalent to an old, beat-up Ford pickup truck from Oklahoma, this would have been it.

After the Thai customs and immigration officials climbed aboard our ship and cleared our passports, we each put on a life vest, handed our baggage to the 3rd Mate, and slowly climbed down a rope ladder into the metal hold of the Thai boat that was being madly tossed around by the waves. When it was my turn, the 3rd Mate dropped my Marine Corps sea bag into the boat, and I strapped on my life vest. After shaking hands with the Captain and the 3rd Mate, I descended the rope ladder and jumped into the boat right as it temporarily swung away from the hull of our ship. As you could imagine, transferring all of our baggage from the ship to the boat that was struggling to remain steady against the swells and waves many feet below was a chore. But with some effort and special attention to safety, we were able to fit most of the scientists in the rusted bed of the “water taxi.” As we pulled away from the R/V Roger Revelle, we could see the entirety of the ship for the first time since we left port over a month ago. The immediate change in perspective was surreal. As we pulled away from the starboard side of the ship, the crew stood on deck and waved. We bid them a final farewell and headed to shore.

My 35 days at sea have been nothing short of an adventure. Between the diverse people, the exotic setting, the extreme isolation, and the random humor of life at sea, I have tasted the essence and the thrill of life as a sailor. In fact, I and fellow scientists were properly inducted into the “Solemn Mysteries of the Ancient Order of the Deep,” by Neptunus Rex, Imperium Neptuni Regis (King Neptune, Ruler of the Raging Main). This was part of an ancient Naval tradition that originated in the Middle Ages and is still observed today by the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and other navies around the world, whereby new sailors (polliwogs) must pass through several initiation rites organized by the experienced sailors (shellbacks) upon crossing the equator. These activities were originally meant to test new sailors for their ability to handle the rigors of life at sea, but now, they have become mostly traditional and much less severe than the activities that took place aboard ships in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Nevertheless, they preserve some standard elements that contribute to camaraderie among all who have participated. The international nature of this tradition is captured in this recent news article from aboard the USS New Orleans. I was presented with an official identification card and a certificate, signed by the Captain and Chief Scientist (who played the role of King Neptune). These will prove my identity as a “shellback” the next time I am aboard a U.S. Navy ship.

Now, back on land, I can fully relate to the yearning for adventure on the high seas that is characterized by sailors and maritime lore. So goes the slogan of the R/V Roger Revelle and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography:

Ocean exploration is our business. The world is our office.

Conventional thought and habitual ideas are challenged while living aboard a vessel thousands of miles away from civilization. Life at sea is at once an educational and a humbling experience, knowing that few human beings have experienced life in that setting for such a lengthy period of time. Whether it was waking to the calm morning sunrise peering through the horizon or braving the gale-force winds and rough seas during a developing tropical cyclone, there was always something to learn and some question to ponder. In the words of Saint Augustine:

Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering.

This underlies my personal fascination with nature and the pursuit of scientific adventure. Whether I am climbing the largest volcano in the world, snorkeling with sea turtles, hiking through alpine meadows, or living on a ship in the middle of the ocean, there is always something to learn – not just about the world – but also about myself.

Perhaps the best moments on the ship were spent standing on deck and watching the wide expanse of the ocean reach far into the distant horizon. When the weather was quiet, the seas were tranquil, with waves no larger than tiny ripples along the water surface. The gentle swells of the ocean passed underneath the ripples, completely unaffected. These subtle undulations of the sea surface can never be seen from land, as the laws of physics dictate that swells must break into waves near shore. The ocean as seen from a beach and the ocean as seen from its heart are entirely different experiences. The gentle swells formed the perfect canvas for spectacular sunrises and sunsets, with beauty that far surpassed anything that the human tongue could express. I composed this poem in an attempt to capture the spirit of the sea:


The Sea, mother of humanity
Giver of life across the lands
Your voice reaches no ear in vain
Full of wisdom, hidden ‘neath your ceaseless waves
Your calm can sooth the roughest soul
Yet your force can crush the sturdiest of ships
Your glistening waters inspire peace
Yet your storm-swept waves inject fear
You humble the most conceited among us
Yet you empower those who seek your source
You command the respect of all the elements
Yet you are part of each living thing
You are in all
And all are in one.

In conclusion, I am very happy to say that that this field experiment at sea was a huge success. Although the DYNAMO project continues for the next few months, we have already collected vast amounts of oceanic and atmospheric data that will be analyzed for many years in universities and government laboratories throughout the world. The Madden-Julian Oscillation (MJO) remains an enigma in the realm of tropical meteorology, and yet, its effects reach across the globe and affect weather and climate on every continent. The large equatorial Indian Ocean thunderstorms associated with the MJO generate atmospheric waves, like ripples on the water surface that form in response to a pebble being dropped. These waves can affect global weather patterns, from floods in Pakistan to droughts in Africa and even to snowstorms in the northeast United States. Yet, we do not know exactly why the MJO develops and what determines its amplitude. Links to other large-scale climate factors such as the El Niño – Southern Oscillation are still hot topics of research today. Furthermore, how all of these seasonal and intraseasonal events relate to the increasingly pressing concerns of global climate change remain a question.

There is little doubt in the scientific community that climate change is occurring, and there is overwhelming evidence that humanity will soon be faced with economic challenges that are directly related to rapid changes in regional climate. Exactly how global climate change will affect local events such as tornadoes in Oklahoma and hurricanes in Florida are still a topic of intense debate, and science is only beginning to shine a light on these topics. At this time, Cornell University, my alma mater, is performing a faculty search to identify a new professor who would be willing to develop a new research program to address this very question: How will climate change affect extreme weather events? There has been evidence that if the average temperature of the globe warms, local regions may experience more extreme fluctuations between seasons. So a warmer earth may not necessarily result in warmer temperatures at a particular location. Correlations are not simplistic. Much more research must be done to bridge the gap between global causes and local effects.

In this time of uncertainty, we would be wise to pursue renewable energy sources to cut down on our artificial effects on the earth’s climate system. Both solar and wind energy are growing markets, but solar may have a greater potential as an untapped energy reserve. The sun is always there. While wind magnitude and direction both change with time, the energy of the sun is primarily affected by the presence of clouds. Cloud distributions are modulated by geography and follow patterns on the seasonal timescale that are usually more predictable than wind, which allows a greater ease for the energy markets to estimate the amount of energy that can be extracted from the sun on any given day for a particular location. However, engineers are faced with the task of developing ways to store the energy that is collected from the sun and the wind. Until we are able to do that efficiently, we will still be at the mercy of the changing weather patterns.

With such deep economic roots in weather and climate, we cannot escape the fact that we must understand the MJO in order to build a complete picture of global weather patterns and climate change. The MJO has been a missing link in our understanding of the physics of the global climate system. Someday, somewhere, the valuable data that we collected at sea will come together as pieces of the puzzle to shed light on the mystery of the MJO.

At the end of the day, science – as it always has been – remains “to be continued…”

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Remember Pearl Harbor (Life at Sea – Day 32)

07 Dec 2011
1830 UTC

Seventy years ago, at exactly this time (1830 UTC, 8:30 am Hawaii local time), the tranquil morning over the calm waters of Pearl Harbor were brutally shattered by the second wave of 170 Japanese aircraft, following another 183 at 7:51 am when the Empire of Japan launched its initial attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet. The second wave of aircraft sank 9 U.S. Navy ships and severely damaged 21 others.

On that fateful morning, thousands of American men and women serving their country both in uniform and as civilians arose to face the imminent reality and brutality of war. On that fateful morning, 2,403 lives were lost, of which 1,177 were aboard the USS Arizona, which sank within seconds after an armor-piercing bomb detonated a forward ammunition compartment. Seventy years ago, our nation and our world faced a mounting crisis of epic proportions, one that would cost more human lives than mankind could bear to witness. Seventy years ago, men and women the world over were challenged to dig into the deepest recesses of their souls while shedding tears that could not fill the void left by the loved ones that were lost.
Tonight, as I looked across the waves from aboard this U.S. Navy ship, I could not help but feel the anguish of the sailors as they rushed to save their fellow brothers in uniform. Tonight, as I stood on the bow under the shadows of the bright moonlit sky, I could not help but hear the cries of the injured. Tonight, as I smelled the characteristic scent of the ship’s quarters that is identical to that of the USS Missouri still on guard in Pearl Harbor, I could not help but feel especially close to the officers who awoke to the madness around them. Tonight, as Old Glory waived proudly on the mast above my head, I could not help but think of the sacrifices that fellow American citizens – both military and civilian alike – offer each day to preserve the sanctity of the U.S. Constitution and the Republic for which it stands. The soldier defending the front lines, the student educating himself at school, the doctor attending to patients, the scientist making discoveries, the teacher assuring the continuation of our generations, the protester fighting for a cause, the police officer enforcing laws, and the civil servant upholding the respect of our institutions – all of these men and women – have each contributed equally to this dynamic place that we call home.

Only seventy years since that awful day, the Japanese Navy flag can often be seen flying on ships docked right next to the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor. How times have changed. How ephemeral are even the most poignant events of passion. Time is the chisel of change. Time washes away the ills of history. Yet, time teaches us an important lesson about anger. Anger is futile, because all things change like the clouds in the wind. Even feelings as strong as the passions of war come and go with the sands of time. Objects of anger also change with time. As atrocious as events such as Pearl Harbor are in the history of this great country, and as deserving as we are to feel frustrated and angry, let us turn our anger not into hatred for any particular person or group because those change with time, but into a steady resolve to unite in the face of challenges. Let us remember the most brutal events in order to honor the sacrifices that others have made so that we can have liberty and be inspired to become better. Let us use these difficult moments to reflect on our common bond as we the people. Only then can we declare victory over the greatest war of all: the war against hatred.

Throughout World War II, the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt kept these words on a piece of paper in her pocket, which are now inscribed on a plaque at the shore of Pearl Harbor:

Dear Lord, Lest I continue, My complacent way, Help me to remember, Somehow out there, A man died for me today. As long as there be war, I then must, Ask and answer, Am I worth dying for?

Each day, as I walk to work at the Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Pearl Harbor, I am solemnly reminded of that infamous day seventy years ago. Even the outer walls of the Air Force’s 17th Operational Weather Squadron still remain scarred by bullet holes from the Japanese aircraft strafing of Hickam Air Force Base. How harrowing the experience must have been, and how sudden the face of mortality and hatred reared its ugly head.

So today, take a few minutes out of your busy schedule. Pause. And offer a silent prayer for those who have given the ultimate sacrifice so that we may be afforded the opportunity to pursue justice over vengeance, freedom over suppression, and tolerance over hatred.

And ask yourself this sacred question…

“Am I worth dying for?”

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