Chair of the Environmental Studies Program and Director of the College of the Environment Barry Chernoff is really into folk music and Harry Potter. Perhaps more importantly, he specializes in ecology, the evolution and biogeography of freshwater fishes, morphological evolution, and the conservation of aquatic ecosystems. The ponytailed Chernoff sat down with The Argus to discuss detective novels, poetry, and next year’s College of the Environment think tank. He also answered the question that’s been on everyone’s mind: what is up with the weather?
The Argus: What’s on your bookshelf? What do you read for pleasure?
Barry Chernoff: I like to flip around between serious books and what I call fun books or even trash. I never read too much of one thing at any time. I often flip. On the more serious side, I like biographies, popular science books, and some history, especially if it’s associated with environmental topics. I recently finished Neil Young’s autobiography, and last year I read Keith Richards’ autobiography. I like to read stuff about music. It’s older, but over spring break, I finished “The Mayor of MacDougal Street,” a biography/autobiography of Dave Van Ronk, who was a very influential acoustic folk and blues guitarist and singer.
For fun, I love certain types of detective novels. Right now, I’m reading the Karla series by John le Carré. This is stimulated by a movie that came out last year called “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” I decided to read the book. I love the Stieg Larsson trilogy, which you’ll know by the first book, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” I’ve reread that trilogy three or four times. A prime space on my bookshelf that I go to and re-read more times than I’m willing to admit is the Harry Potter series. I’m a Potter scholar. About every other year, I reread the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Those are sort of the big ones.
I like environmental philosophy writings and have a good number of books on that. I also enjoy lots of poetry, more modern-era poetry than classic. I read and reread Leonard Cohen all the time. Pablo Neruda is one of my favorites. Our very own [Professor of English] Elizabeth Willis is on my bookshelf. I enjoy reading her stuff. Also, one of my favorite poets is Kenneth Rexroth. I love haiku. He has these collected shorter poems, and he’s also known for his translations of Japanese and Chinese haiku, which are really fabulous. So you can say, “I spoke to a science guy, and he pulled out a book of poetry.” And I didn’t set this up.
A: You have a very well-organized bookshelf.
BC: Well this is only one room. Next door, I have a bigger library. More of the philosophical works are over there. Here, I have some really amazing books though. This book about the fishes of Guyana is from 1841. It’s got wonderful wood plates. The color plates in the back are kind of fun. You can see just how brilliant the colors are.
A: What books do you enjoy teaching?
BC: Oh, god. Unfortunately, I don’t teach the types of courses here, with one exception, where I can teach from my favorite books. In my Introduction to Environmental Studies course, I’ve actually stopped using textbooks because I hate them all. I just found them distracting. They’re too encyclopedic. I teach this course, Quantitative Methods, and I use this very wonderful statistics book [for that]. But no one’s going to sit up at night reading these types of books and saying they’re lovely. I don’t teach those types of courses, which is a shame in the sense that I haven’t had a chance to teach some books I really like.
But if I could design a course, more of a natural history course, I think a brilliant book is “Through the Brazilian Wilderness” by Theodore Roosevelt. Imagine that a president of ours wrote his own book, by himself. If it was a course on natural history philosophy, there’s a really great book by Wendell Berry called “The Unsettling of America.” That’s a really interesting book about our ties to the land.
Actually, you know what would be a great book to teach from? Darwin’s book. Seriously, because very few of our students ever have sat and read Charles Darwin, and yet it’s so modern, and what he wrote was so wonderful. The word “evolution” actually appears in the book only on the very last page even though the book’s about the evolutionary transformation of species. So, I don’t teach the types of courses where I find the books to be really fun. I don’t know. So much good stuff, so little time.
A: What’s your take on the weather lately?
BC: There are two issues: climate and weather. Weather is today. Climate is measured over 30- or 50-year time periods. Climate is kind of the average over time. If you look at, say, March, we had such late snowstorms. There’s no doubt, if you look at the real data, that the climate is not just changing now. It’s been changing constantly since the 1860s. People ask if this is the new normal. Well, if it’s always changing, there never was a normal, but it’s true that a high number of the hottest years of this and the last century were in the last decade. That shows that our summers are getting warmer.
And what about our winter times? Well, as global temperatures heat up and atmospheric temperatures heat up on average, sea temperatures heat up. You’ve gotten in trouble as a kid, I’m sure, for taking milk out of the refrigerator and leaving it on the countertop. After some period of time, it’s going to be the same temperature as the air in the room. The same is true for the oceans and the atmosphere. The surface waters eventually move toward temperature equilibrium with the atmosphere. They warm up because the air above them is warmer. As air warms up, more moisture evaporates into the atmosphere. You know this because if you go out on really cold days and the wind is blowing, what happens to your skin?
A: Uh, it gets cold?
BC: What else happens to your skin?
A: It gets dry.
BC: Yes, it gets dry. Your lips get chapped. That’s because there’s more moisture in your skin than there is in the air. But in the summer, it’s muggy, and that’s because there’s a lot of moisture in the atmosphere. So as air temperatures rise, more water goes into the atmosphere as moisture. If you have more moisture in the atmosphere because ocean temperatures are warmer, when that moisture hits cold air, it comes down as rain or snow.
What we’ve been seeing is a lot more big snow events on the East Coast than we have seen in a very long time. It used to be that our snow came out of the Midwest, but now it’s coming up the coast. And that’s exactly what you would expect with rising sea level temperatures.
The other thing is that, as climates warm up, there are hotter hots and colder colds. The variation between them also increases. Climate is a multi-year average, but the weather is being driven in part by that. So there are more high-intensity storms, and the high-intensity hurricanes are being caused because cyclonic storms are born around the equators and then they spin up north. What happens is that as the air has more moisture and gets whipped around by the wind, it gains more momentum because momentum is mass times velocity. So air with water has a higher mass than air without water. So actually, these storms have a bigger impact. They have more power. So there you go.
A: What has the College of the Environment been up to lately?
BC: We are graduating this semester 26 wonderful Wesleyan students who’ve earned the major. The major is only in its fourth year of existence. This is only the third year of the College. So currently, as of today, with all three classes, we have 86 majors, which is pretty solid. We have a lot of majors graduating, and they’ve done tremendous research.
We’re looking forward to a great think tank next year. This year’s think tank has been a tremendous success. The campus has really benefitted from having [Visiting] Professor [of Environmental Studies] Michael Dorsey on campus for the entire academic year. Students love his course. I think he was looking for 18 students, and something like 60 tried to get in. I think he moved it up to 25 or so students.
Next year’s think tank is about the commons (common resources) and protecting them with special soils. The think tank contains Wesleyan faculty members like Professor Gillian Goslinga from Anthropology, Professor Nicole Stanton from Dance, and Professor Paul Erickson from History and Science in Society Program.
We have two wonderful visitors to serve as external scholars in residence for fellows of the COE next year, [one of whom is] Professor Frédérique Apffel-Marglin. She’s a recently retired professor from Wellesley. Her specialty is what she calls bio-cultural regeneration. That’s the relationship between humans, soils, and cultivation systems and the regeneration of that relationship.
We’ll be doing a lot of work with the farm. Our support of the farming group continues, and they’ve been doing outstanding things. We’ve got lots of cool stuff going on.