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December 20, 2016

Free lecture examines global warming

As astronomers go, Dr. David Helfand is about as down-to-earth as they come.

So when it comes to the polarizing, red-hot topic of global warming, the world-renowned scientist — a man who has spent four decades on the faculty of Columbia University and was part of a team that created an innovative Canadian university from scratch — offers this advice: step back, listen to and analyze the facts, then draw your own conclusions.

Helfand will help a Florida Gulf Coast University audience navigate global-warming facts from fiction when he appears in Edwards Hall 112 on Friday, Jan. 13, as part of the free College of Arts & Sciences Lecture Series. “Global Warming: What We Know and Don’t Know” is made possible by a generous donation from the Seidler family, and begins with registration and refreshments at 6 p.m., followed by Helfand’s presentation at 6:30.

David Helfand
David Helfand

While he made his reputation as chair of Columbia’s astronomy department for about half of his 39 years as a faculty member, authored close to 200 scientific publications, mentored 22 doctoral students and helped create Quest University Canada — where he served as president and vice chancellor from 2008 to 2015 and is now president emeritus — Helfand’s passion is teaching science to non-science majors.

In that vein, he instituted the first change in Columbia’s core curriculum in 60 years by introducing science to all first-year students. He currently serves on the executive committee of Science Counts, an organization formed to educate the general public on the importance and impact of scientific research. And his recently published — and critically acclaimed — book, “A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age: Scientific Habits of Mind” (Columbia University Press), is specifically aimed to help nonscientists come to their own conclusions about scientific research.

No such research is more timely than that on global warming, about which Helfand writes that “few public debates are carried out with so much misinformation and irrational exuberance.”

“So now for something completely different: a dispassionate analysis of what we actually know and what we don’t yet know about climate change,” said Helfand, who recently concluded a four-year term as president of the American Astronomical Society. “My approach is to distinguish facts from fictions, and physics certainties from feedback uncertainties.

“Every planet’s temperature is controlled by a simple balance between the energy it receives and the energy it radiates back into space, and we examine each of the factors affecting this balance in turn: astronomical phenomena, reflectivity of the Earth, composition of the atmosphere and the state of the oceans,” Helfand said. “Past climates are reconstructed to test our understanding, and models are developed to predict what lies ahead. The goal is to provide a basis for the construction of a rational public-policy response to Earth’s changing climate.”