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Consider a Spherical Cow, 2nd ed

John Harte University of California, Berkeley

An Interview with Author John Harte

John Harte has just released his newest book, the second edition of Consider a Spherical Cow: A Course in Environmental Problem Solving, published by University Science Books. Praised by reviewers for its accessibility to both scientists and non-scientists, this text teaches basic mathematical modeling skills that are widely applicable to a huge range of environmental problems facing the world today. Harte, an award-winning professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has authored over 250 scientific journal publications and eight books.

In the interview below, we asked him to tell us more about environmental modeling and what motivated him to write this book.

How has our understanding of environmental modeling changed since you started teaching that topic?

Arguably the biggest change is not new modeling tools but, rather, the huge increase in the quantity of available data as a result of satellites and novel remote sensing equipment. The mathematical tools used in environmental modeling today are pretty much the same as they were 50 years ago; calculus is still the primary mathematical tool used to model how complex systems change over time or space.

One new development is the use of new methods of analysis that have spun off from Shannon’s 1940s work on information theory. There is also growing speculation about the use of AI to extract insight from big data . . . time will tell.

What do you predict is the next big step in environmental science?

I think we will see major advances in our understanding of how food, air, and water contaminants affect our biochemistry and how altered biochemistry affects our health.

For students, what is the prime motivation for studying this field?

Learning how to combine data and basic quantitative reasoning tools to answer practical and urgent questions is an essential skill in an age in which human activity has so hugely altered our life support system (i.e., the environment).

What made you want to revise this book now? What have you learned from this revision?

My initial motivation for a revision was updating all the out-of-date (by 40 years!) information in the first edition. But then I realized it would be also useful to add major new topics, including probability, toxic chemicals, radiation and radioactivity, and the spread of disease, along with 101 new homework problems.

I think I have further honed my ability to provide understandable explanations of quantitative methods, but readers will have to decide that.

What will be the measure by which you gauge this new book’s success?

I would be most gratified if readers who were formerly terrified of math, or even just doubted their ability to apply math, discovered, upon working with this book, that they derived pleasure and a sense of accomplishment from exercising their math muscles.

Your epilogue gives readers some concrete steps to inspire them to be scientist-activists. Do you feel that one of these steps is the most important? Are there other actions you’ve thought of since writing the manuscript?

Perhaps two of the steps will be most helpful. Number 2 [“Avoid dangerous dichotomies”] because dangerous dichotomies corrupt clear thinking in many spheres of life, not just the environmental, and finding perspectives that reconcile seemingly incompatible choices can be a liberating activity. Number 8 [“Heed the elderly astronomer”] because what we do not cherish, we will not save.

Eight steps was enough for the Buddha . . . and for my readers.