March 2016 Archives

My inner nerd speaks

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I just arrived home from another great Ocean Sciences meeting (#OSM16). The plenary speakers were impressive and inspiring, and I've come away with lots of new ideas. One of the slides that caught the attention of my inner nerd was this one, in a talk by Carl Wunsch (thanks to @TOSOceanography for the image):


The slide has a quote by oceanography legend Walter Munk expressing his concern about the rise of computers in ocean science at the expense of field work. 

"But Nick," my inner nerd said, "All you do is computer experiments. You never go to sea anymore." It's true, inner nerd. I started my career much in the spirit of Dr. Munk's quote--clambering at every chance to go to sea, working day and night aboard boats, and shunning my office. Yet as time went on, I spent less and less time at sea, and more time at a computer. This is clear in this figure I put together showing days at sea through the end of my Ph.D. program (the numbers since 2012 are all in the single digits). In a way, I'm a poster child for Dr. Munk's concerns.


"If I may respond," my inner nerd ventured, "what Dr. Munk sees as a concern is actually part of a revolution, not just in science, but in every part of our lives." 

Interesting. Please continue, inner nerd.

"I'm talking about the Compute Revolution. You don't need to look far to see how computation has revolutionized almost every field and reinvented the world we live in, from medicine to politics to literature. As far as the ocean goes, it's enormous and complex, and we're reading in immense amounts of data every second. Without computational experts--people who understand mathematics, code, and big data (nerds like you, Nick)--our science will fall behind. If we really want to understand the ocean, we need to compute."

Bold point, inner nerd, but what about Dr. Munk's argument about losing our seagoing edge?

"If we're losing our edge at sea, then yes, we should work on getting it back. But not at the expense of our computational edge. And besides, think about how much more information we have on the ocean now that we use floats, gliders, buoys, and satellites. It has been like turning on a light in a dark room. We are good at going to sea--we just do it differently, and in a way that requires lots of computing."

Wow, inner nerd. When did you get so preachy?

"Hey, there's nothing wrong with enjoying writing code. It can be interesting, valuable, and even beautiful. And by the way, it's where your best talents are. You can haul CTDs if you want, but you'll make more of a contribution by tapping into your strengths."

I reflected on my inner nerd's comments as I sipped my fifth cup of coffee. I do enjoy going to sea, and it will hopefully remain a part of my work, however it diminishes. Yet Nerdy is right--computational science is what I do best, and it's rewarding. For some people, their strength is harpooning whales with satellite tags and not puking in 10 meter seas. But for those of us who find our home within the Compute Revolution, we shouldn't feel guilty about not going to sea. We have an important contribution too.

Nick Record, signing off

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