Hold the Mustard

At CERN, standing in the warehouse looking over the CLOUD chamber.

Last September, in the lunch line at the University of Helsinki, I found myself staring into a bowl of what can only be called “lunch” in my childhood nightmares. In Finnish, it’s called hernekeitto. It looked like a thoroughly smithereened grey-green mush.

“What is this?” I blurted to my Finnish friend.

“It’s Thursday,” she said, bubbling with pea soup enthusiasm, “Thursday is split pea soup day in Finland. They serve it everywhere for lunch, even in the army.”

“It’s better if you add onions, and squeeze in some of this mustard, too” she said, and with a nice squlaaaaat a cringe-worthy dollop of mustard plopped into my bowl before I had time to intercept it.

This particular lunch felt like a dark moment in my introduction to Finland. I questioned the pea soup, and myself. “Oh, no. This is going to be a tough year,” I thought, “What am I doing here again?” 

In the U.S., you’d probably only see hernekeitto on St. Patrick’s Day (because it’s green). In Finland, you’d probably only see an American journalist on St. Patrick’s Day if they didn’t manage to make it to Lapland (because, I’m told, “Americans like reindeer”).

Since I got here, people have questioned me in much the same way that I questioned my pea soup on that first of many Thursday lunches. The questions tend to be slight variations of “Who the hell are you?” and “What the hell are you doing here?” (Though my personal favorite question came from an antsy graduate student: “You’re here to steal my data, aren’t you?”).

Fresh out of college, I landed here in Finland as a science journalist interested in what I consider to be the biggest question facing our species: climate change. I’m interested in how to measure it, how to deal with it, how it gets politicized, and most importantly, how much we as a human community actually understand about it.

When I first arrived, I thought I’d write a series of stories on the progress of climate science and climate adaption strategies. But something else has snagged my attention these past few months. The most interesting stories aren’t the ones that tell how much we know about the climate. They’re the stories that reveal just how little we know.

A series of unexpected and somewhat disturbing realizations sucked me into thinking about the limitations of scientific knowledge, and also into thinking of the globe less as a groomed terrarium and more as a Rube Goldberg device put through a washing machine.

The first surprise came while I was sitting around a fire with some physicists at a forestry field site in Hyytiälä, Finland. That bunch of physicists, our conversation revealed, is bent on answering a question that seems absurdly simple: How are clouds formed?

(“What do you mean, scientists don’t know how clouds are formed?” you may be thinking, “Didn’t the scientists go to kindergarten like the rest of us?”).

Well, it turns out the process is really fast, really complicated, and it happens everywhere, all the time (and yes, the scientists went to kindergarten). Dozens of interviews and piles of reading later, my first assignment brought me to CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. There, a research group composed largely of Finns is artificially growing clouds, molecule by molecule. It all happens inside a super-clean metal chamber the size of a minivan, housed in a warehouse outfitted with a bunch of high-tech equipment, a team of vigilant students, and, of course, a cosmic ray beam.

Then came some more realizations. Talking to a geologist, I learned that gravity isn’t constant—we’re heavier here in Finland than we would be in Ecuador. Then there was the conversation with a measurements expert about how the kilogram isn’t a unit—it’s a solid object, a chunk of platinum and iridium housed in Sèvres, France. And then came a whole series of conversations with all sorts of people about how the solid ground beneath us is rising out of the Baltic Sea fast enough to spring scraggly new islands every couple decades.

With each successive realization followed a slew of more readings and interviews, topped by the crowning uncertainty of them all: If we as a community can’t even figure out how to define the kilogram in terms of natural constants, and we can’t figure out how clouds are formed, and we don’t even know how to measure the gravity perfectly, then what do we know?

If we can’t even figure out what a kilogram of sugar weighs today, how could we possibly think we could measure something as complicated as global carbon emissions? How can we regulate them? Heck, how can predict anything about the future?

The truth is, we can’t.

But with this fragile-moment-bordering-on-existential-crisis came another realization. This very hole in our communal knowledge is why science, and science journalism, exists. If scientists could measure everything perfectly, everything would be predictable. And if everything were predictable—if there were no big questions to answer—the world would probably be pretty boring.

So, with that insight, I set off on the final few months here in Finland to pursue some more stories about how little we as a scientific and human community know, how much there is to learn, and how pockets of clever men and women here are going about tackling them.

My first radio show at LähiRadio 100,3 interviewing some cloud physicists!
I started with a focus on the immediate climate concerns knocking at Finland’s door. But I’ll conclude my grant with a focus more on the future. I have gained immense respect for the Finnish ability to think ahead, from following the Kyoto Protocol guidelines when practically no other member signatories did, to sprouting municipalities with ambitious promises to reduce their carbon emissions. Not to mention the plans for underground nuclear waste storage facility, which (though a little freaky) should be commended for its incredibly deep foresight, which no other nuclear-fueled country has managed to scrabble together.

I’ve also developed mad respect for the people I’ve met here. Like the atmospheric scientists who are using snow blowers and volcanic ash from Iceland to test some ideas about snow and pollution. Like my teammates on the Finnish Meteorological Institute’s floorball team. Like the brave men and women of Kuusijarvi Public Sauna, who explained one icy night to some hesitant and shivering Americans that the key to ice swimming is to “Just be Zen.” And like the members of my student organization, the Student Nation of Central Finland, who have introduced me to all sorts of medieval traditions involving formal waltzes, metal swords, lots of singing, and even the occasional flaming bucket of alcohol. I have even developed a taste for split pea soup, which I learned has been a weekly fixture in Finland since medieval times.

As a journalist focused on advances in climate science and adaptation, Finland has been a fascinating place to be. And although I’m headed back to the U.S. after my grant concludes, I will certainly be keeping an eye on what people are up to in this part of the world.

Many thanks to the Fulbright Center for making this year of “curiosity freelancing” possible. I will miss this country, with 3-D printers at its public library and a language that calls a computer a “knowledge machine” (tietokone) and makes no distinction “he” and “she.” I will miss the special moments of wondering how many Finns can hear me cursing on live radio as I fiddle with a soundboard labeled entirely in Finnish.

And, of course, I will miss the steadfast regularity of Thursday’s split pea soup. Bring on the mustard.


Rae Ellen Bichell
Fulbright-University of Helsinki Graduate Award 2012-2013


Rae Ellen Bichell hosts, edits, and produces a biweekly science talk show, “Hot Air,” Tune in Tuesdays at 10 a.m. on LähiRadio 100,3, or listen to past episodes at http://raeellenbichell.wordpress.com/.

Web article of the Fulbright Center News 1/2013