Archive for October, 2005

Keeling

Tuesday, October 11th, 2005

Keeling
This past Saturday, in one of those cosmic accidents, I was able to attend the memorial for Charles David Keeling at Scripps in La Jolla.

When we were first notified of winning the contract to tell the climate science story, our request to be introduced to ‘characters’ was answered by “you have to talk to David Keeling”. Unfortunately, goverment regulations prevented us from starting work until we got the actual paperwork, which couldn’t be delivered until the start of the fiscal year. Keeling died in late June. But thanks to his family, and Scripps, and my father being ill in San Diego at the right time, I got to hear about many of the rich human elements of Keeling the man.
His obsessive attention to detail, which helped make his long term observations of carbon dioxide “the single most important environmental data set taken in the 20th century” clearly carried into all of his life. But hearing about it from family and friends let us know that he was able to laugh about himself and this very characteristic.

Equally significant, I learned that he was an accomplished musician as a child, carrying music with him throughout his life, and into all his communities. I learned that he applied himself so diligently to everything. His efforts at community planning in Del Mar extended to his insistance that numbers and dates be given to the planning elements, so that his obsessive behavior meant that standards were created to give measurable meaning to ideas like “small village” and “sustainable”. He helped defeat developers in the valley where he had bought and was rehabilitating the homestead his grandfather had worked in the 19th century.

These examples of personal actions, as well as many others both gave me lament for having missed the opportunity to meet him, and a sense of inadequacy as a human. Not only was he able to convert persistance and obsessive attention to details into world changing information, he was a fun guy who had actual humility and patience with others.

One of the many great stories told was an anecdote a Del Mar neighbor shared about how Keelingsaw himself. At some point in the Del Mar planning battles, a developer had taken the extreme measure of calling the Scripps administrator and suggested he had better check into ‘this Keeling fellow’. The man expressed how Keeling couldn’t possibly be doing his work as he was so effective in frustrating the developers. The pay off of the story is how Keeling took his National Science Medal award as proof he had been doing his job too, and hoped the news got back to his underhanded foe.

Other great moments included his sons singing “Edelwiess” with alternate lyrics suggesting that the plant make associations with succulants and cactus, his daughter playing piano, and his Montana neighbors talking about his losing control of his ‘controlled’ burns.

Everything reinforced the impressions I have from meeting other climate scientists that it is an extraordinary set of people who are attracted to the subject. Competitive in their curiosity, pasionate in desire to understand nature, and do excellent work, the most consistent attribute is their sense of connection to the whole of society. They define a way of service to their communities, their disciplines, society and species, yet remain remarkably human in foibles and faults.

I was able thank one of his sons for the presentation. I can only hope to thank Keeling and his fellow pioneers by making what they have established as fact known to a wider part of the public.