Through his teaching, Carnegie Mellon University Professor Peter Adams wants to be sure his students learn first and foremost the importance of life-long learning.
A professor of civil and environmental engineering, Adams underscores the importance of learning beyond the classroom and is not afraid to admit when he has just learned something new.
"There is sometimes a feeling among students that professors know everything, but if I manage to impress them at all, it's usually because of a few extra years of experience," he said. "I got to where I am by an ongoing investment of time and effort in learning and that they can get there too, but they need to keep learning even when their formal classroom education ends."
And Adams' research is teaching him — and us — new things about the world we live in.
While the U.S. Congress considers regulations on greenhouse gases, Adams and Jeff Pierce — from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada — have recently dispelled a myth about climate change.
The hypothesis they tested was that increased solar activity reduces cloudiness by changing cosmic rays.
When clouds decrease, more sunlight is let in, causing the earth to warm. But some climate change skeptics have tried to use this hypothesis to suggest that greenhouse gases may not be the global warming culprits that most scientists agree they are.
In research published in Geophysical Research Letters, and highlighted in the May 1 edition of Science Magazine, Adams and Pierce report the first atmospheric simulations of changes in atmospheric ions and particle formation resulting from variations in the sun and cosmic rays. They found that changes in the concentration of particles that affect clouds are 100 times too small to affect the climate.
"Until now, proponents of this hypothesis could assert that the sun may be causing global warming because no one had a computer model to really test the claims," he said. "The basic problem with the hypothesis is that solar variations probably change new particle formation rates by less than 30 percent in the atmosphere. Also, these particles are extremely small and need to grow before they can affect clouds. Most do not survive to do so."
While he hopes to make an impact on climate change, Adams cares most about the human aspect of his work.
"For the climate change problem, the only impact I hope for is the only one that really matters: that we — humanity in general, but the U.S. in particular right now — will take climate change seriously and act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," he said.
"More generally, I care a lot about the human health impacts of air pollution and hope my work helps policy-makers find effective ways to reduce these impacts."