An Interview with Prof. Anand Gnanadesikan
Anand Gnanadesikan is a professor in the Earth & Planetary Sciences department at Johns Hopkins University. Trained as an oceanographer, his primary expertise is in how the ocean circulates and influences marine life, climate, and atmospheric chemistry. He has been teaching at the university since 2011.
Briefly share with us what your research is about.
I think about how the planet works as a system and how the different parts of it work together. Since my training is in physical oceanography, I think about how the ocean circulates, how that circulation then affects the biosphere (for example, how many plants grow, atmospheric chemistry, and how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere), and how changes in the ocean circulation can affect atmospheric carbon dioxide, biological productivity, and ultimately changes in climate. I am really interested in questions of “If I change one thing, how does that change ripple through the system?” If the planet was an organism, I would be the internal medical specialist. Rather than focusing on a single organ system, I would be a generalist.
Has your research and profession encouraged or impacted your faith in any way?
Yes, in a couple of ways. First, dealing with uncertain environmental problems, where we only see part of the system, has helped me appreciate what we do in a faith sense. We do not perceive all of God. In my field we have to make decisions based on what is imperfect information about the system that we have, which is very much how we face faith decisions. In the modern world, we have this idea that we should believe only what is provable, in a testable sense. We believe that we should be able to reduce everything almost to a mathematical or formulae description and then apply the formula, but that does not work with most of our systems. We can use physical laws to make short term predictions, but some decisions involve other factors. For example, decisions such as “Should I buy a house on the shore?” is one that involves a balancing between risk tolerance, uncertain risks, and personal values. Climate problems fit into that sphere. So I would say that on one hand my work gives me a greater tolerance for the uncertainty that is a natural part of faith. On the other hand, my faith helps me to deal with that uncertainty in science and with applying science more broadly. I do not have all of the answers. Also, my faith helps me to understand that dealing with climate change is not merely a matter of science, but a matter of values. That is okay. That is a world that I want to live in as well. Simply being an expert in science does not tell you what to do. Simply being a religious person does not tell you what to do. There is a balance and interaction between fact and values.
So it is then not a matter of juggling your research and your faith, but of intersecting them?
Yes, very much. Another thing is that Christianity emphasises the virtue of humility, which is a challenge, but is important to have when dealing with complex systems. If I have a model that describes some aspects of the system, that is great! I should be proud of having described some aspects of the system, but I should not get so attached to that model that I lose the sense that the real world is much bigger than my model. My model is useful because it helps me understand the real world. The goal is to understand the real world; the goal is not to get a tenure professorship because of my model. But that is a personal challenge. We would all rather be right that lucky, but that is another way where my faith has impacted how I think about my science.
Just to clarify, when you say humility do you mean being able to accept that what you come up with is not the entirety of it?
Exactly. I have a Anand’s eye view. I do not have a God’s eye view, but that is okay. We are meant to have is a personal view, but this also means that we need to be cautious and remember to look for other perspectives. Also, when your models and perspective apply broadly, you need to be careful not to make a mistake and apply it too far. Einstein used to say “Models should be as simple as necessary, but no simpler.”
Does your faith at all inspire your research?
To some extent. There are three things that play into how we choose our vocation. One is that it should contribute to a greater good. The greater good that my research is contributing to is understanding how the planet works and understanding where it is vulnerable. It takes the problem of climate change and making it the right size. So that is one of the ways I choose what to work on. The things I work on should have a greater purpose. They should not be purely intellectual. On the other hand, it should be things that I am good at. It has to be things that I enjoy doing even when it does not work. That is where the passion comes in.
Do you mind sharing with us how you became a Christian?
I trace my faith back to an experience that was had by a young lawyer in England in the late 1880s or 1890s. He was interested in social justice and was looking around when he started interacting with Christians and ended up realizing that the teachings of Jesus were amazing. That young lawyer was Mohandas Gandhi, the man who became Mahatma Gandhi. My father actually spent a few weeks at Gandhi’s ashram where he had a picture of Jesus on his wall. He had no other material possessions other than a spinning wheel and a cot, but this photo of Jesus was the only thing that was not useful. And so, I was raised with the idea that to be a good person you should be like Jesus or Gandhi. This was a really high standard! Later in college, my roommate was my best friend from high school who was a strong Christian and a member of the Christian fellowship. During that year, I started asking questions like “What does it mean to live a good life?”, “How easy is it to live a good life?”, and “How easy is it to be a person like Jesus or Gandhi?”. Well, it is not very easy. Well then, do we just lie to ourselves and define our standards low? Do we lie to ourselves and say “We are actually just like Jesus or Gandhi, well in our hearts.”? Or do we instead say “Okay we cannot live like this. I do not have this in myself. Is there an external source of love or power?” We as Christians call this the power of the Holy Spirit. I concluded that if there was such a source of love and power, Jesus was the likely place to find it. As a result, I became a Christian as a freshman in college. That moment was the start of my journey. Since then I have been involved with church traditions across the spectrum – Baptist, Church of the Nazarene, Assembly of God, and now the Anglican tradition. I have found things to value in all of those, and weaknesses in all of them. That has also influenced my perspective of faith, in terms of thinking of them as different models of what it means to follow Jesus. And, when you look at the Jesus of the bible, they tend to be incomplete, but they also tend to do things very well. So I do not need to agree with everything that every one of these traditions do to still be blessed by them.
What would you say to students who typically do not think about the relevance of religion during college?
That is a really good question. At some level, it comes down to the idea that life is not simply about algorithms. It is not simply about laying out different sets of facts and choosing between them. Ultimately life is about values. Elite schools tend to stress the question of “What do you want to be when you grow up?”. What if instead we asked the question “Who do you want to be when you grow up?”? This is a different question, but it is a very important question. If you ignore it when thinking about what you want to be when you grow up, you face consequences. Personally speaking, I did not come into college as a Christian. I became a Christian my freshman year and that is because I was wrestling with these questions of “Who do I want to be?”, “What kind of person do I want to be?”, “What is it to live a just and good life?”, “Who is the type of person I want to model myself after?”. When I looked around campus, there was this crazy Christian guy and he said he got his answer from following Jesus. Because of this I read the bible and said “Hmm that kind of makes sense. If you think God is like this, then yes that makes a lot of sense!”. And so, if you are not thinking about religion as an undergraduate, then you are probably asking the wrong questions. You are limiting the questions you are asking to a mere subset of what you should be asking. It is sad to do this in college when you actually have the time to explore and interact with people who may have very different perspectives than you have. After all, maybe some of those people have something to offer you.Tags: academia, Anand Gnanadesikan, church, climate change, college, Einstein, environment, Gandhi, Johns Hopkins University, love, science, social justice, university