Nye Lecture, 2011

Dr. W. Tad Pfeffer

2011 Nye Lecturer

Dr. W. Tad Pfeffer (biography)

Fellow of INSTAAR – Department of Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO.

Presented at 5:00 pm, Tuesday Evening, December 6, 2011Meeting Room 104

We Are All Engineers Now: Delivering Useful Projections Of Sea Level Rise


       Sea level rise is among the most tangible and potentially costly global changes facing society in the near future. Much of the uncertainty in future sea level rise lies in the determination of glacier and ice sheet contributions through melting of ice and through the discharge of icebergs directly into the ocean. As a consequence, many aspects of modern glaciological research have come to be motivated wholly or in part by the need to solve societally relevant problems involving future changes in sea level. To this extent, glaciology has become – temporarily – an applied science, in which the motivating questions are not purely scientific but practical in nature, and entail goals, deadlines and constraints that may or may not mesh comfortably with the skills, resources, and interests of the glaciological research community. This shift in motivation has subtle but important effects on how the glaciological community conducts research: we are no longer fully at liberty to explore only those problems that we judge to be the most intellectually stimulating and novel, or even the most likely to produce immediate results. We are obliged, at least if we are going to claim to be serving a critical societal need, to take on the entire spectrum of problems pertinent to sea level rise: the exciting with the mundane, the low-hanging fruit with the high-hanging, the tractable with the intractable. And in those intractable cases, and in other situations where the path to a solution is unclear, we must explore alternatives to our conventional approaches, and seek the means, if not to actually obtain solutions, to at least constrain the outcome and reduce the uncertainty of future knowledge. This broadening of methods is very much an engineer’s approach to problem solving, but it also fits the philosopher/physicist P.W. Bridgman’s definition of the scientific method as “Doing your damnedest, no holds barred.”