Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Journey back

[Taking advantage of my new laptop, this post was written on the move]

Well, the meeting was something of a mixed experience. My first surprise was the attendance – I’d gone expecting a handful of people, but the medium-sized conference room was pretty healthily stocked by the time I arrived. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of these turned out to be Met Office staff who just dipped in and out of the meeting randomly, but it was initially something of a shock. The presentations before mine were mixed layer focused (as they were meant to be), and a mixture of review and “normal” work. Needless to say, I immediately panicked that my generic “thoughts on biophysical interactions” presentation wouldn’t fit in. Probably correctly, although my presentation came off well enough to solicit questions from the audience. But given how different my presentation was to those before it, I suspect there was an element of them just being polite. Still, I shouldn’t be too hard on myself – there were a pair of total stinkers in the afternoon.

What did I learn? Well, mostly that model physics, which I always take as being well-understood and a fixed star in my life, has all sorts of problems and issues associated with it. One of the big names in attendance, the appropriately-named Bill Large, even got all sociological on the failings of the community to consistently apply model schemes and to adopt the best ones. Coming from the not-dissimilarly burdened marine ecosystem community, it was a relief in a way to know that our problems, although more serious in different ways, have analogues in other fields. I also learned that my frequent complaint, that I can’t get a straight answer as to whether my modelled mixed layers are any good, also runs in this community. I mean, if they don’t know …

I had a long chat with RW about the future of marine ecosystem models. Because the Met Office is in the business of running large numbers standardised experiments (weather forecasts for instance), he’s keen that something sensible is done to thin the plethora of existing models down to a more manageable field. He seemed very interested in the Follows work, and asked what my take on it was. I think that it’s great “blue skies” stuff, and I love the motivation behind it, but I suspect it’s not going to be a big part of the (near) future. Not least because it’d be a huge pain to run so many tracers (most of which go effectively extinct), but also because the parameter trade-offs that underlie it still needs a lot of work on them. Of course, I said all this while managing to conveniently forget my own failed fellowship bid that aimed to do something not a million miles removed. Anyway, it sounds like there’s pressure building to settle on some representation of the ocean’s ecology. And probably not good old HadOCC.

I was also questioned over coffee by a student (from Reading I think) who’s trying to model the Arabian Sea (in 1D) with a view to examining the bio-optical feedbacks there. From what he said, it sounds like he’s coming unstuck on a number of fronts. First, he’s trimmed the ecosystem model to remove chlorophyll as a dynamic state variable. Probably not the best idea for a project in which light absorption is a key aspect. He’s also having trouble getting his phytoplankton to bloom, they prefer to hover around at low values. He thinks this may stem from issues related to upwelling fluxes of nutrients, but this isn’t going to be fun to simulate in 1D. Anyway, I’m not sure if my advice helped or hurt, but I gave him my details and I’ll see if he calls back.

Anyway, though much of the meeting was a bit over my head, there were a few interesting results presented, and the “sociological” stuff was worth attending for. It was also nice to finally visit Met Office Exeter. Having visited their cramped former residence in Bracknell many times, I was curious to know what they’d do with a bit more space. And I wasn’t disappointed. I don’t know what it’s like to work in, but it’s quite a departure from traditional institutional designs, in particular through its centring around an impressive central space, the “Street”. This houses shops, a gym and even a spa, and has plenty of viewing points including a number of walkways spanning it. A definite step-up from the old Hadley Centre digs. My abiding memories of that building were the corridors that were barely wide enough for two people, the veal crate offices, and the fact that the plaque noting the building’s opening by Margaret Thatcher was matter-of-factly hidden in a pokey coffee room.

Returning to earlier random thoughts, train journeys in darkness don't inspire anything like the same mental meandering in me. Perhaps it's because the external world is black with occasional lights, and that this focuses my attention into the carriage interior and my fellow train inhabitants. Night-time return journeys like this one mostly find me speculating about the lives of other passengers. This is entirely rank speculation based on gross extrapolation from trivial details: what they're doing; what they're reading; what they're talking about too loud on their mobile phones. Anyway, it all sort of points to my morning randomness being as much to do with having something outside to look at as anything else.

Right, changing train soon. Better get ready.

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