February 16, 2012

Professors Teach Climate Change for Darwin’s 203rd Birthday

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Correction appended

In celebration of Charles Darwin’s 203rd birthday, the Cornell-affiliated Paleontological Research Institution arranged a series of events –– including discussions, lectures and a beer tasting –– on campus this week. This year’s Darwin Days focused on raising awareness in the Cornell community about evolution and climate change, according to Prof. Warren Allmon, earth and atmospheric sciences and director of the PRI.

“This is not only about science,” Allmon said. “It’s about getting people interested in evolution in ways that people are not used to.”

Beginning on Monday, the day after Darwin’s birthday, Feb. 12, Darwin Days is dedicated to celebrating Darwin’s life achievements. Celebrated on Cornell’s campus since 2006, the novelty of the events initially drew student attention, according to Allmon.

Over the years, however, “excitement died down,” he said. This year, Allmon said organizers planned the week’s events with the hope of attracting a larger and broader crowd.

In pursuit of this goal, organizers arranged a lecture Thursday on the effects of climate change on the production of hops –– a flavoring agent in beer –– followed by a free beer tasting at the Big Red Barn. The PRI also hosted a costume party at the Big Red Barn on Friday night with the theme, “Adapt Your Tail Off!” Party guests were encouraged to dress up as an evolutionary adaptation, such as “a pair of wings, antlers, claws or a tail,” according to the PRI’s website.

Darwin Days also featured discussions and lectures throughout the week with faculty from departments including atmospheric biology, evolutionary biology, horticulture and natural resources, according to Allmon.

Prof. Rob Ross, earth and atmospheric sciences and associate director of outreach for the PRI, said that this year’s theme is of great importance.

“Climate change is maybe the most important challenge of the 21st century, so I think that, of course, thinking about the relationship between evolution and climate change is both academically interesting and potentially of great significance,” he said.

Prof. David Wolfe, horticulture, chaired a panel discussion on Tuesday entitled, “Climate Change and Our Gardens, Farms and Natural Landscapes.” He said that the evidence of climate change is already visible through observation of living organisms.

“We looked at historical dates [of blooming] of apples, grapes and lilacs going back to the 1960s and indeed, they’re blooming four-to-eight days earlier now,” he said.

By presenting these findings, Wolfe said he hopes to inform people about climate change, the magnitude of which he said is daunting.

Informing the public about the consequences of climate change “helps people recognize the immediacy of the problem,” he said. “We hope to make people more prone to thinking [about climate change] and encourage policymakers to do something about it.”

Allmon added that he hopes Darwin Days provides an opportunity for people from different fields across campus to start discussions about a pertinent issue.

“Cornell is a very big and diverse campus and Ithaca is even more diverse,” he said. “So another goal for us is to get people who wouldn’t normally talk to each other to talk to each other.”

Allmon also said that people are often not aware of the role that evolution plays in their everyday lives.

“Even people who spend their careers on domestic animals, trying to guide evolution … don’t think about evolution until somebody like me asks them,” he said.

Wolfe said he believes Darwin Days is an effective way to convey an important message.

“I think the Darwin theme just really works and it’s amazing to me how his ideas still have such relevance,” he said.

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the dates of the Darwin Days events. In fact, the lecture on hops was held Thursday and the costume party was held Friday.

Original Author: Jinjoo Lee