Musings from astrophysics to ecology

Conversations & conservation

Bancs de nuages dans le vent accrochant les pyrenees ariegeoises enneigées, au premier plan une colline de bois et d'arbres aux couleurs automnales

Today I would like to talk a bit about the importance of conversations and new encounters. A key ingredient to successfully getting into something very new, at least for me, is to talk to competent people, to get solid advice from both reliable friends and experts, to find mentors, to carefully listen with humility to what these people have to say, and to use their guidance. Finding mentors has been a constant through my life, not just in my research but also in my musical practice, and has always served me well.

Seeking guidance

When I first contacted researchers in ecology in Ariège back in March, I made sure I arrived with a few ideas and things to talk about after looking at some of their own publications, to avoid making an amateurish impression. I thought it would already feel weird enough for them to be contacted by a settled, mid-career geek astrophysicist seeking to get into an a priori very different field, and I wanted to make sure I projected seriousness, competence and maturity from day one, to start such conversations on a good footing. As a theoretician, I first targeted some of the theory work conducted there, but I also made it clear I would be open to try entirely new things, starting from scratch, like training as a regular student to take part in experiments and field work. In my first visits in Moulis, I met theoreticians, colleagues at the interface between modelling and experiments, but also the lab director, Camille Parmesan, who is an evolutionary ecologist (a specialist of checker butterflies and how they are affected by climate change) who is also very much into conservation policy (I am only now starting to engage into conversations with the more biology-oriented part of the lab).

Overall, for me task 1 with these first visits at the SETE was to get a rough picture of the field, to learn about what was being done there more specifically, to find out who could provide the guidance I needed, and to see if a match looked possible. I did not really take that for granted, and still don’t, although we are now starting to make good progress on finding common ground with a few colleagues. But I am still far from having a bird eye’s view on everything that’s done in the field and at the station: work in progress.

Finding common theoretical ground

First contact 🖖 with theoretical ecologists was unsurprisingly very natural. I immediately felt at home on questions of population and ecosystem dynamics and stability, the mathematical structure of the problems at hand and some key problems they are trying to address. We speak essentially the same language, and of course this is comforting. After all, Robert May, the godfather of theoretical ecology, was a physicist. Two years ago, I actually bumped into good old Bob’s portrait in a staircase at Merton College in Oxford, where I was a visiting one of my long-time plasma physics buddies. I have also worked a lot on problems in astrophysics involving chaos, maps, Feigenbaum sequences of period-doublings, symbolic dynamics and all that stuff that May’s pioneering work helped uncover in connection to population dynamics. So it became clear quite quickly that I could at least set one foot on a bit of solid, known territory on the bank to explore the full depth of the river with the other.

As a short digression, it is only now that I start to realize how inconsciously close my heart & mind have actually been to these subjects for years. For instance, in recent years, I gave outreach talks on chaos and turbulence several times, more or less consciously mixing math, physics and astronomy with illustrations of chaos and dynamical concepts in nature, such as population dynamics, flows of Pyrenean torrents and mixing of pollen…one of these talks (in French) has been recorded, if you are interested into the maths of planetary orbits, fluid flows, solar magnetic activity, but also into making chocolate mousse, confining heat in nuclear fusion tokamaks, the dynamics of plant communities and Lagrangian transport of phytoplankton in oceans !

A female Eurasian cap (Sylvia atricapilla), an unusual bird visiting my garden today while I was writing this post on new encounters.

More exotism

Back to our conversations… the experimental and field work side of ecology I discovered was, as I expected, more difficult to grasp. I say as I expected because I thought beforehand it would probably be much like talking to some of my fellow astronomers who, despite major technological and instrumental advances, still for the most part struggle to understand complicated, unresolved (in both space and time) systems with just a few datapoints and big error bars. Well, it indeed looks the same in ecology, uncertainties and experimental / probing limitations galore ! Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of impressively high-tech stuff going on, for the genetic and microbiology analyses done in the lab are quite amazing, compared to what was available just twenty years ago. The experimental infrastructures at the SETE, like the terrestrial and aquatic metatrons, are also state-of-the-art, unique and novel facilities, very much like some plasma physics experiments I know well and are motivated by the study of astrophysical phenomena in the lab — for instance this big thing called LAPD (for Los Angeles Plasma Device) at UCLA. I actually find many interesting parallels between experimental ecology and laboratory astrophysics, and will likely talk about this more in a future post.

Finally, I was also a bit afraid of my first meeting with the SETE director, as Camille is a true biologist and phenomenologist: our research cultures look so different and we do not really speak the same scientific jargon at this stage. In fact, at first, I looked at her papers (and not just hers to be honest) and very naïvely thought, stupid theoretical physicist that I am, “where are the equations ?” I suspect I will come to deride even more this naivety in the future when I start to more fully grasp the landscape of ecological complexity, and what motivates its scientific explorers to reason, work, and document things in different ways from mathematicians and physicists. I actually find the epistemological aspects of this transition quite fascinating and intringuing too.

That discussion with Camille ended up being more surprising and thought-provoking than I would have thought (considering that the initial plan was to meet her essentially in her capacity of director to discuss my plans), as she made a point of explaining to me in some detail what she was doing in the field of species conservation policy & research after I explained I would be open to many research ideas. She is also a very positive and encouraging person, and her warm welcome as director did not go unnoticed to me. A few well-chosen supporting words can be important to someone looking for new directions, even experienced researchers, and it might say something about my own current research field and community that I immediately noticed the markedly different tone.

Anyways, this whole conversation, and its ramifications on conservation research, actually keeps turning in my head now that I start to set shop in the field of ecology, for Camille’s idea to discuss this particular aspect of her work with me on our first meeting brought home the point that there could indeed be more to my future in Moulis than just doing pure theoretical ecology modelling. And, although the latter remains the most natural pathway for me to integrate the field on the short term, this longer (hopefully not too long) term perspective actually gave me a big boost of motivation to get started because, as I wrote in previous posts, in doing this transition I am also interested in doing stuff that could ultimately make a small difference for the natural world. So, if that was ever needed, another life confirmation that serendipity, being exposed to fresh problems, views and new people is essential to keep doing enthusiastic, creative research.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *