At Nano Towers we’re adding the finishing touches to our Science Educator Residency programme, and we will be sharing the whole programme with you shortly. But we have a little treat for you whilst you anticipate the rest of the line up, we’d like to introduce you to one of our speakers at the event David Glowacki, Royal Society Research Fellow and founder of Interactive Scientific.

One subject we’re really interested in is climate and our changing world, so much so we are creating a Climate Change app featuring Nano Simbox allowing students to investigate greenhouse gases on a molecular level and connect the science to the day-to-day reality of climate change. Last Autumn David embarked on a global lecture tour, and climate chemistry was very much on his mind, in his insightful blog below he gives an account of his trip with a climate slant!

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If you’d like to be part of the Science Educator Residency, where you will have the opportunity to discuss the links between climate change, science and education with David please apply now.

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During the autumn of 2015, I had the opportunity to make several science-related trips through Asia, visiting China (Chengdu, for the international conference on molecular energy transfer), Thailand (Bangkok, for a Joint Thailand-UK Symposium on Computational Chemistry sponsored by the RSC), and Indonesia (Bandung, for a Joint Indonesia-UK Symposium on Computational Chemistry, again sponsored by the RSC).

Prior to my visit, Chengdu was a city that I had vaguely heard of, but didn’t really know anything about. On arrival, locals told me that the metro area has about 20 million people. Bigger than London or New York. One of my Chinese hosts told me that she was from a “small town”. By “small town” she meant a population of a mere 2.5 million. Bangkok and Jakarta both have populations close to 10 million, depending on how exactly you count.

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Chengdu is the capital of southwestern China’s Sichuan province. Via www.lostlaowai.com

The pace of development in these Asian megacities is staggering. It’s hard to miss the effects of western-style consumption and the tensions brought on by rapid globalization. For example, even a “small” Indonesian town like Yogyakarta (with a modest metro population close to 2.5 million) has roads that (like many of the cities in Asia) are full to what seems like capacity, and governed by a chaos that’s very different from what we’re accustomed to in the west. A Yogyakarta native told me that the amount of traffic is relatively new phenomenon. 10 years ago, the streets were a more manageable combination of horse-carts, bicycles, and the odd car or truck – and not nearly so congested. The abundance of cheap credit since 2008 has made it possible for most Indonesians to purchase a motorbike, with relatively cheap monthly payments. As a result, a city like Yogyakarta has hundreds of thousands of motorbikes that vie with cars on streets whose congestion is seemingly endless. The chaotic logic of the traffic might be entertaining, but the urban air pollution is no joke.

In Indonesia, emissions standards are not heavily enforced. Several tailpipes puff thick black residue, and heaps of burning trash at the roadside are not an uncommon sight. As a consequence, many of the motobikers wear masks. Some are made-for-purpose motorbike masks; others simply don surgical masks.

In Chengdu, it was largely the same. The entire city was shrouded in a thick gray smog which damped out colours. The sun struggled to get through the shroud of pollution, even on days with little cloud cover.

Near the end of my Chengdu trip, I made a trip to hike the summit of Mt. Emei, one of China’s four holy Buddhist mountains, situated in the Himalayan foothills west of Chengdu. Struggling to navigate, I made friends with four friendly teenagers, one of whom spoke English. His friend wore a surgical mask, even in the relatively clean air near Mt. Emei. When I asked why he wore the mask, I was told that he started because of the air pollution in Chengdu. Eventually he grew to like the style, so now he wears it all the time. It’s a fashion inspired by urban air pollution.

A motorcyclist wearing a mask crosses a bridge over the Siak river shrouded in haze. Photographer: Dimas Ardian/Bloomberg.

Our species recently reached an important milestone in our evolution: over half of the world’s populations now lives in cities. In the developed world, this is leading to dramatic increases in urban living costs. “Gentrification” (the urban displacement of poor people by wealthier people) is a hot topic in pretty much every city. Whereas the affluent previously sought to leave cities owing to pollution, poverty and crime, that’s no longer the case. With industry long since gone, cities are cleaner and safer. Keen to access an urban playground with a range of cultural offerings, affluent people are returning to cities, displacing populations in historically poorer neighborhoods, and causing seismic shifts in the cultural landscape.

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Mt. Emei, situated in the Himalayan foothills west of Chengdu. Via China Trek Tours.

Cities are not yet so hygienic in much of the developing world. My experience in Asia suggested that the consumption which drives modern lifestyles is outpacing the means of controlling the resulting pollution. Very recently, Beijing made the international news for some of the most severe air pollution episodes in its history. Schools were cancelled to avoid children going outside and breathing the air. These measures made international headlines, but in fact indoor air quality is tightly linked to outdoor air quality, so it’s a good bet that many of those children were exposed anyway. I hired a motorbike and carried out my own experiments with megacity traffic in Indonesia. Each evening, when I was falling asleep, I noticed that my breath was stained with persistent taste of urban air pollution, enough that I could taste the accumulation within my lungs from the day’s riding. In the Himalayan foothills of Emei Shan, I saw signs advertising the air quality of the mountain compared to Chengdu. This was echoed by many of my Chinese hosts: “the air is good in Mt. Emei.”

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The Nobel-Prize winning chemist Paul Crutzen has christened our modern era “The Anthropocene”. Photo credit Teemu Rajala

The modern global industrial complex which creates and produces the objects that we consume is powerful. It’s responsible for unprecedented improvements in our quality of life, and it also contains within it the potential for unprecedented destruction. This is no surprise: power always contains both creative and destructive elements, and as it grows, so do its simultaneous capacities for creation and destruction.

The Nobel-Prize winning chemist Paul Crutzen has christened our modern era “The Anthropocene”, owing to the fact that we have reached a point in our development where our footprint will be geologically visible in generations beyond. We now live in a global garden, with few places that remain untouched by humans.

The way in which our power is manifest is evolving. Earlier manifestations included a great deal of visible spectacle. For example, atomic technology offered massive explosions and iconic mushroom cloud photos. While there’s still plenty of spectacle around, newer manifestations of human power are more subtle, less visible, and more pervasive. The recent Paris climate summit provided a stark reminder of this fact, with the leaders of our species gathering to discuss the molecular reality of CO2, an invisible force distributed across the globe which impacts the state of our garden. Globalization is not only dissolving borders when it comes to things like markets, communication, language, information; the same is also true of pollution.

At the age of 34, the years that I have spent on the planet are still few. Nevertheless – at least amongst my peers – I have detected a discernible change in attitudes toward the power that we wield over the planet. It seems that we have moved beyond arguing whether or not we possess the invisible capacity to impact our global garden. We’ve acknowledged that we do indeed hold this capacity, and we’re now wondering how best to tend to the garden. What to do, and how to manage it both remain difficult questions.

However, one thing is sure: education is key. To be good stewards of our planet, we need to get to work within both the developed and the developing world to cultivate a generation of minds that – from a very young age – are profoundly conscious how invisible and pervasive molecular realities impact our garden planet.

David Glowacki

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David Glowacki will discuss his experiences as an educator, scientist and global citizen at the Science Educator Residency, to join us apply now.