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Gidon Eshel — Career Narrative

Cattle farm work in an Israeli Kibutz was among my childhood's most meaningful experiences. As a young adult I spent several subsequent years tending my own beef cattle herd.

After my mandatory military service, and travelling the world—alternating between ships and a bike—for several years, at age 28 I started my higher education. Initially I studied animal nutrition at the Hebrew University, readying myself for a life of cattle ranching. I quickly found out, however, that I was actually pretty good at math physics, and switched to physics and earth sciences, jointly enrolled at Haifa University and the Technion, Israel's premiere technical university.

Having graduated with honors, in '91 I started graduate school at Columbia, studying applied mathematics-based physical oceanography.

My graduate adviser, Mark Cane, has been extremely influential on my career. While not surprising for my main geophysical fluid dynamics thesis work, this influence took an unusual, career-shaping, turn in '93, when Mark and I worked on a side project, to be published in Nature in '94, addressing the use of a geophysical model to help African corn production.

The experience of working with Mark on this paper was formative. There was obviously the thrill of learning experientially from the game's grand master. Most powerful and lasting, however, was the confluence of geophysics and agriculture. It freed me from what I previously perceived as necessary, keeping entirely separated the two main pillars of my intellectual life—geophysics and applied mathematics on the one hand, and agriculture and food production on the other—and choosing one.

Retrospectively central though the geophysics‒agriculture connection has proven, it remained dormant for about a decade, as I established myself in geophysics, but then resurfaced anew around '05.

This decade started with my finishing my Ph.D. in '96 and being awarded climate science's most coveted junior opportunity, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Global and Climate Change Postdoctoral Fellowship. Since I had my own funding and could write my own ticket, I chose to expand my rotating fluids repertoire from the ocean to the atmosphere. To do so, I could think of no better mentor than Brian F. Farrell at Harvard's Center for Earth and Planetary Physics. Brian and I worked on an atmospheric aspect of the same agriculture‒geophysical fluids confluence, Mediterranean droughts (this paper summarizes this research least technically). In '97, I was offered a staff scientist position at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, on Cape Cod. While I took that position at the end of my two years at Harvard, shortly thereafter I was offered an Assistant Professorship at the University of Chicago's Geophysics department, which I assumed in '99.

In my first few years at Chicago I continued to do mainstream climate work of the observational and theoretical varieties. Traditional applied mathematics is still on my docket, albeit with less prominence, and is the topic of my expansive technical survey of Spatiotemporal Data Analysis, published on December '11 by Princeton University Press.

A lunch with colleagues at a University of Chicago's cafeteria—in which my plant-based lunch choices steered the conversation toward the putative greenhouse gas emission savings of plant-based diets—proved a game changer. The challenge of numerically substantiating those asserted but previously not rigorously demonstrated savings produced my first paper on the new science—which I now call Geophysics of Agriculture—whose development I have been spearheading ever since.

Since then, and through leaving Chicago, where this line of work was a complete misfit, and establishing an autonomous, independent research program, Geophysics of Agriculture is a key thrust of my scientific and outreach work.

While other scientists have emphasized such large scale geophysical impacts of agriculture as hydrological perturbations or nutrient laden runoff, my work is unique in emphasizing the quantitative import of personal dietary choices to the scope of food related environmental burdens. In other words, this line of work has taught me, and my readers, the huge impact individual choices can make.

Over recent years, as I got a better chance to intellectually digest the broader perspective of my new work, I began to wonder: Is this power of personal choices unique to the environmental impacts of diet, or do other aspects of one's environmental footprint follow a similar pattern? The wider environmental net I cast, the clearer it became: because when it comes to the environment, governments' favored action is most often inaction, individual choices are crucially important.

The obvious logial corollary question is then: is the average person up for the job?! Can most people weigh logically and rigorously their options at a typical environmental decision juncture, and reach the right conclusions? This was not a hard question: the geophysical, mathematical and technical complexity of most environmntal decisions easily exceeds most people's technical skills. They need a professional. Addressing this need is my latest professional quest, and what environmentalCalculations.com is designed to answer.

Last modified on GMT by Gidon Eshel