In honour of World Space Week, which took place from the 4th – 10th October last week, Asian Voice spoke to Dr Manoj Joshi, a Senior Lecturer at the University of East Anglia, specialising in Climate Dynamics. Joshi moved to the area of theoretical modelling of climates and climate change after extensive work into the circulation of planetary atmospheres, such as that of Mars and the very topical phenomenon of exoplanets – planets which closely resemble Earth’s atmosphere, and could thus potentially possess life forms. Of his time under the world-class institute, NASA, at the Ames Research Centre near Silicon Valley, the friendly lecturer shared with us: “going to the research centre on a fellowship was of course very exciting. Especially at a time when the Mars Global Surveyor had just landed. We were using feeds from satellites with a delay so there was a point at which we weren’t even sure whether the surveyor had actually landed or crashed. It’s interesting how the work of hundreds of people, from engineers to the researchers, hinges on that one, deciding moment: whether this equipment will function or not. It’s nerve-wracking and thrilling all at the same time.”
Joshi has also spent time as a scientist at the SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute as a research scientist before moving to the Met Office in the UK and gravitating closer towards his current earthly post. He commented that there are many similarities between the atmospheres of Earth and Mars which are mutually enlightening: “A fundamental fact with climate dynamics is that a planet spins on its axis so there are certain rules that apply to both weather systems and features, which their climates will tend to obey; this gives us a better physical idea of how the planets’ climate features exist comparatively as well as our understanding of climate generally." Featured in several high-profile publications by this point, including the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society and Nature Climate Change, Joshi then effectively demonstrates how intellectual curiosity can be a powerful motivator in success. “Academia is an incredibly demanding lifestyle, but the reward of having your passionate and meticulous findings corroborated by journals and other people’s papers is wonderful,” he aptly added. As Corollary to this, although the discipline is not known for being the most lucrative, “let’s not underestimate the liberation of flexible hours and not having to wear a suit!” he said. Thus, though assisting in the prediction of weather and the external by profession, Joshi champions the challenges of the unpredictable and an active inner life.
What’s been one of your most exciting breakthroughs?
It underpinned my research into exoplanets: there are potentially planets that orbit a star which is not The Sun. 4 out of 5 stars are not yellow like the sun but rather red and small. As a result, for the planet to get as much radiation as the Earth and have the same temperature, they have to be very close and what we call ‘tidally locked’; one side always faces the star while the other is turned away. Some people have suggested that this face is boiling during the day time while completely frozen at night. Earth’s equivalent would be the Tropics and the Polar regions. However, we used an
atmospheric model to show that a lot of heat is transferred from dayside
to nightside and the initial prediction turns out not to be true.
Pop Culture has become increasingly obsessed with Mars being the miracle cure for our environmental problems; to what extent do you think that’s true – and do please take the question with the pinch of salt - or rock dust - that it is?
Terraforming – the question of finding planets that can be habitable like Earth – is still speculative but carries profound importance. It is certainly an exciting time. Since the discovery of the first exoplanet in 1995, hundreds have been found. Of course, this tremendous discovery and spending our efforts on fixing the mess we’ve made on Earth are not mutually exclusive. We can effectively tackle environmental issues while continuing space exploration.
What is a significant step we can take to help preserve the environment, in your opinion?
Looking at planet modelling, this is a big issue. I think everyone doing simple yet significant everyday things will have the impact.
Was it your concern for the planet that drew you closer to environmental studies?
It was a mix of motivations. I have a PhD in the area of planetary
and climate modelling , and as I said there is a lot of overlap between Earth’s atmosphere and that of other planets. It was my scientific experience as well as the hope to do something useful which drove me.
What is your advice to young people considering an academic career?
You’ve got to really love it as you won’t be doing it for the money. Do your higher studies; a MA or a PhD can also be a route into the research industry. That can be very different from academia, sometimes demanding more practical applications as well as the theory.
What’s one thing about being a scientist that people might have a misconception about?
People tend to think you’re locked away in a little, dark room, but you do have to have the people skills too!