Celebrating a Curious and Open-minded Spirit


“Inquiry continues to be vibrant throughout Charlie’s career.” 

These were the opening remarks at a science and social event dubbed “Charlie Fest” to mark the 75th birthday of Charles Kennel, retired director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. An international who’s who of physicists, environmental and social scientists, and earth and ocean researchers who have made an impact on Kennel’s career convened at Scripps for a two-day science symposium to contemplate the major challenges facing many science disciplines on the cusp of change. Discussions bounced from when confined fusion may become a reality to advances in exploration and technology and from the challenges facing the oceans to the future outlook for public universities.

Kennel, who turned 75 on Aug. 20, received a bachelor’s degree in astronomy from Harvard College in 1959 and a Ph.D. in astrophysical sciences from Princeton University in 1964. He has spent his career at the intersection of science, administration, and education. He is a member of the prestigious U.S. National Academy of Sciences. The words used most frequently to describe him are “naturally curious.”

“Charlie’s interests range from deepest space to the depths of the oceans,” said Margaret Leinen, director of Scripps Oceanography, in her welcome that officially launched Charlie Fest 2014. “Above all, he has been a champion for  sustainability, and he continues to teach a broad community of interested learners.”

From Yearning to Learning

Bruno Coppi, an Italian-American physicist specializing in plasma physics at MIT and a colleague since Kennel’s days as a Princeton graduate student, led the science sessions by describing Kennel as “an open-minded spirit” as he praised the “variety and level of people gathered here.” 

Coppi kicked off a lively discussion about the challenges at the intersection of physics and technology. He and fellow panelists debated the successes and struggles of the long and winding road to controlled fusion, a future science achievement that could prove a cheap and abundant source of household energy.

“There is a critical role for fusion in sustainability,” said Kennel. “After the exhaustion of fossil fuels, there will still be a need for clean power.”

Across the Universe

The study of the universe and all its mysteries provide knowledge and unexpected discovery, leading to new opportunities and challenges for scientists across disciplines.

Kennel was lauded for his legacy in the field of astrophysics, with a research specialty in collisionless shocks during the 1970s and 80s. Although shock waves are common in astrophysical environments, most astronomical shocks are collisionless and accelerate extremely high-energy particles.  

“Charlie’s work on collisionless shocks and nonlinear plasma physics continues to make tremendous impacts on the efforts to resolve the century-old problem of the origin of cosmic rays,” said Mikhail Malkov, research scientist in the UC San Diego Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences. 

UCLA physicist Ferd Coroniti added, “Two theoretical astrophysics papers coauthored by Charlie, one in 1984, remain very important in the field.” 

Scripps Oceanography’s down-to-earth scientists and students were fascinated to hear from Astronomer Royal Lord Martin Rees, professor of cosmology and astrophysics at the University of Cambridge and former president of the Royal Society, who expressed thoughts that there may be multiple universes that our instruments will never see.

Kennel is the outgoing chair of the National Academy of Sciences Space Studies Board (SSB), having served that role from 2008 to 2014. A panel of distinguished scientists speaking at Charlie Fest, including new SSB chair David Spergel, professor of astronomy and chair of the Department of Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton University, deliberated the challenges NASA faces in developing operational capacity to conduct long-term operations in space and how to sustain public interest in space exploration.

“The most challenging part of science is the intersection of physics and technology,” said Kennel.

“Looking at the earth as an integrated system has grown over the past 20 years,” said Jeff Dozier, professor and founding dean of the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at UC Santa Barbara. “Earth system science has been transformed by remote sensing, the use of satellites to view large swaths of the earth from space.”

The speakers reiterated a strong need for continued observation and monitoring of the earth, especially at a time critical for all inhabitants of the planet.  While at NASA Kennel oversaw the design of the Earth Observing System (EOS), a coordinated series of satellites for long-term global observations of the land surface, biosphere, solid Earth, atmosphere, and oceans. Its flagship Terra satellite, launched 15 years ago, continues contributing data that is vital to understanding the changing climate on Earth.

“Impediments [to observing Earth from space] include access to space, rising costs of missions, funding, and the sustainability of interest,” said Bill Townsend, former deputy director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and associate administrator during Kennel’s 1994-96 tenure as director of NASA’s Mission to Planet Earth, the world’s largest earth science program. And yet, looking forward, he added, international space missions are still planned to enhance unprecedented records of uninterrupted long-term data collection from space. 

The State of the Planet

Coming back down to Earth to address Kennel’s curiosity for things closer to home, the speakers dissected the study of the planet from ocean life and its future outlook to the science and technology that will determine the outcome of the quality of life for the planet’s expected nine billion human inhabitants by the year 2035.

The oceans play a crucial role in regulating climate, and sustained observations are critical for monitoring and understanding changes that impact life and property. 

From the top of the world to the very bottom, from shrinking sea ice in the Arctic to ocean warming near Antarctica, the earth’s polar regions are far from being well understood.

“Most regions of the deep ocean are warming,” said seagoing oceanographer Lynne Talley, professor of physical oceanography at Scripps Oceanography. “And much of that warming is concentrated in the tremendously under-sampled Southern Ocean and southern hemisphere.”

Ecological oceanography and community ecology are relatively new terms in ocean science because “humans are now a keystone species in marine ecosystems,” according to Lisa Levin, distinguished professor and director of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation (CMBC) at Scripps. “We’re taking out energy and minerals from the deep ocean and we’re putting in waste and contaminants.”  

Training across science disciplines and partnerships in law, management, and social sciences are educational directions under way now to train the next generation of science leaders to steer a course for the benefit of society and the environment. Bob Dynes, former president of the University of California and past chancellor of UC San Diego, stressed the importance of public research universities in creating new knowledge at many levels. Above all, Kennel added, “humans are part of all the systems on Earth.”

“The human footprint is having an impact,” said Stuart Sandin, Scripps associate professor in CMBC. “It’s been a gradual trend that’s having a noticeable impact and the human dimension can no longer be ignored.”

The Way Forward

Time was devoted to analyses of climate change and its impacts going forward.

The real problems are consumption and the lack of technology, according to David Victor, professor of international relations at UC San Diego.  Lively discussions focused on the challenges and benefits of alternative energy sources, such as wind, solar, and nuclear. Science and technology were spotlighted as crucial for the future and centered on the need for innovation. Above all, the message from this band of international science heavyweights was clear: It’s time to start seriously considering adapting to a changing world.

“Technology provides greater power and promise,” said Lord Rees of the Royal Society. “IT and biotech have transformed the way we live.”

As Charlie Fest drew to a close, Ray Weiss, distinguished research professor of geochemistry at Scripps, summed up the sentiment that resonated most throughout the symposium, “We need to change our attitude toward each other and toward nature.”

To experience the highlights of the Charlie Fest science symposium, view all the talks here.

Related Image Gallery: Charlie Fest

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