Hanover — When word got out that the Trump administration, as part of its climate change denial efforts, planned to eliminate critical science data from federal government websites, Dartmouth math whiz Dan Rockmore mobilized.
He joined an international crusade by scholars and scientists to download massive volumes of valuable data on everything from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to satellite images of polar ice. The data is being stored safely on publicly available nongovernmental sites such as Climate Mirror (http://climatemirror.org), as well as in colleges and universities, including Dartmouth. He also persuaded Dartmouth administrators to finance additional data storage capacity.
The data rescue operations took on new urgency Thursday when the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, said in a television interview that he does not believe carbon dioxide, generated by human activity, is a major contributor to accelerated climate change, a statement at odds with mainstream scientific consensus, in addition to the EPA itself.
Pruitt’s statement, coming after recent reports that the administration will propose deep budget cuts for government agencies such as the EPA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, deepened fears of databases being jeopardized. Although it is illegal to destroy government data, agencies can modify websites to make access to science data more difficult if not impossible. This is already happening on several federal science agency websites, according to the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, a new international entity that monitors data.
Rockmore is a soft-spoken, laid-back professor of both mathematics and computer science. A renaissance faculty member, he is the William H. Neukom 1964 Distinguished Professor of Computational Science, director of the Neukom Institute for Computational Science and a member of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience — but he doesn’t own a smartphone. He is a prolific author and blogger on a range of subjects besides math, a documentary filmmaker, a curator of a well-received math-art exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, a commentator for Vermont Public Radio, a hiker, tennis and squash player, a member of the Dresden School Board and father of three children in Hanover schools (his wife, Ellen, teaches writing at Dartmouth). He comes from New Jersey, is in his mid-50s, and has a penchant for sneakers, jeans and golden retrievers.
Rockmore gets fired up over the threat to scientific data. He discussed the implications in an interview in his disheveled campus office — make that Teddy’s office, since the bowls, cups, Frisbee and plastic balloon scattered about suggest that the golden retriever runs the place. (Teddy he insisted on interrupting the interview by high-fiving with his right paw.)
Following is a condensed, edited version of the interview, which was supplemented by an email exchange.
Valley News: How serious is this threat to science data?
Dan Rockmore: Extremely serious. This data is essential for the nation’s scientific research work. We condemn the Islamic State in Syria for destroying ancient cultural heritage sites and yet we are doing the same thing with our scientific heritage. How insane is that?
VN: How did you get involved?
DR: A colleague, Carolyn Gordon (another Dartmouth math professor), alerted me. I immediately got involved and am leading a partnership with Internet Archive (a nonprofit digital library) to protect at risk data. The University of New Hampshire is also doing this, as are many others.
VN: How do you decide on priorities ... which federal agencies to target for downloading?
DR: The climate data was listed on the Climate Mirror website … graded by priority by the climate research community. We simply went after the data we thought we could fit (into our server), then copied or “mirrored” it. (The data is found on many federal agency sites).
VN: Do you have enough storage capacity?
DR: We started with about 8 terabytes but clearly needed more. Fortunately, the college came up with money to purchase an additional 36 terabytes. The server is in the math department.
VN: Can you describe graphically for the average reader what 36 terabytes might look like?
DR: Well, a terabyte is 1,000 gigabytes and a standard DVD has about 3 gigabytes of data ... so this is roughly 10,000 DVDs, but well-indexed and easier, faster to search.
VN: Will the data be shared with other colleges or entities?
DR: That hasn’t come up, but generally we’re happy to help make sure that data at risk doesn’t disappear. It’s crazy to think that the president might actually try to remove scientific research or simply scientific measurements, but he might. (A math department colleague explained that data from government addresses are “mirrored” and then shared with coordinators at Climate Mirror).
VN: When do you expect to complete the downloading?
DR: I would guess over the next few months. It’s a question of determining what to mirror. After we decide, the actual process is quite fast.
VN: How did you get involved with that math-art exhibit at the Met? (The “Picturing Math” exhibit consists of prints showing formulas and equations by eminent mathematicians.)
DR: I was sitting next to an interesting guy on a long flight. He turned out to be the famous art publisher Robert Feldman. We hit it off and decided there and then to do the exhibit.
VN: Why no smartphone?
DR: Too distracting.
VN: What about the children? Don’t they want smartphones?
DR: Yes, but we want them to learn to enjoy reading. My son is pressuring. ... Maybe when he gets a bit older.