20 April 2012

Geoscientist Richard Alley presents newest films on Earth Day

Posted by kramsayer

Professor and AGU Fellow Richard Alley presents "Earth: The Operator's Manual" at a 19 April screening at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Joining him on stage were writer-producer Geoff Haines-Stiles, left, and Cliff Etheredge. (Credit: Sasha Haines-Stiles)

Geologist, glaciologist and AGU Fellow Richard Alley came to Washington, D.C., on Thursday, 19 April, to preview the newest segments of his PBS series “Earth: The Operator’s Manual.” AGU Public Information Manager Peter Weiss attended the screening to see the new programs and speak to Alley about what it’s like to be a scientist taking on television and book-writing on such a grand scale.

It’s nothing new for Richard Alley to be “out there” when he communicates about science – just take a look this video parody of Johnny Cash he performed to illustrate subduction and the Pacific Ring of Fire.

But in recent years, Alley, a professor at Pennsylvania State University in State College, took on a public communication role on a massive scale with the launch of a project called “Earth: The Operator’s Manual.” As part of the new effort, Alley stars in the PBS series of the same name that focuses on climate change and how people can deal with it.

With two new segments of the series about to launch on Sunday, 22 April—which, by no coincidence, is Earth Day – Alley came to Washington, D.C., April 19 to preview the programs for a live audience and to fire up interest, screening the shows at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). To find out when the “Earth: The Operator’s Manual” programs will air Sunday in your local area, you can look up the times here.

One of the two new segments, called “Powering the Planet,” tells of successful development of wind power in two contrasting places – a verdant Danish island popular with tourists and a parched brown West Texas farming community. The other segment, “Energy Quest USA,” looks at grassroots energy conservation initiatives in five different communities across the United States.

PBS aired the first segment in the series a year ago, presenting the scientific evidence that human-generated greenhouse gases are warming the planet. Alley also wrote an accompanying 479-page book as part of the “EARTH: The Operator’s Manual” project.

Going public in such a major way has had its costs, Alley told me when I spoke briefly with him after the screening.  He recalled a period of intense work on the book, and waking up repeatedly at 2 a.m. too agitated to sleep or do anything but write. To avoid distressing his wife, Alley ended up moving temporarily into their guest bedroom.

And his academic job can’t be neglected. “I have a whole briefcase full of term papers that I brought with me to grade,” Alley remarked with a laugh — and a groan.

But the rewards of this massive communication project have been great, Alley said. While it’s not like doing scientific research, “it’s more engaging than you’d figure,” he noted.

And, because of the project, he’s gotten to know many people who are passionate about addressing climate change, but from very different walks of life than himself. A couple of them, who are also both subjects of the films – Cliff Etheredge, a cowboy hat-wearing Texas farmer who promotes wind-energy development in his region of Texas, and Robbyn Lewis, who goes door-to-door encouraging energy conservation in her Baltimore neighborhood—spoke at yesterday’s event.

As if this project is not enough, Alley is also active on other communications channels. One timely example: An op-ed piece he penned about severe weather ran in USA Today the day of the screening.  Alley is also a contributor to The Huffington Post.

Reaching out the way as he has, Alley noted, “you learn amazing things, and meet amazing people.  … It’s been hugely empowering for me.”

– Peter Weiss is AGU’s Public Information Manager