Episode 25: Dissolving the Boundaries Between Specializations

Episode 25: Dissolving the boundaries between specializations

25 years ago Drs. John Norman and Gaylon Campbell co-authored An Introduction to Environmental Biophysics, the preeminent environmental biology textbook still internationally used in classrooms today. Their ability to work across disciplinary lines brought new understanding to countless scientists and taught us how to conduct better research through collaboration. Join us as we discuss the past, present, and future of Environmental Biophysics.


Dr. John Norman, currently Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was Professor of Soil Science and also Atmospheric and Oceanic Science. He is a Fellow in the American Society of Agronomy, the Crop Science Society of America, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Dr. Norman has received the American Meteorology Society award for Outstanding Biometeorologist, was the appointed Rothermel Bascom Professor of Soil Science at the University of Wisconsin, and was awarded the University of Wisconsin College of Agricultural and Life Sciences Spitze Land Grant Award for Faculty Excellence. He advises graduate students and postdocs and has hundreds of refereed publications to his name. In 2008 the American Meteorological Society and the American Society of Agronomy sponsored symposia in his honor, and in 2016 the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, awarded him an Honorary Doctorate of Science.

Dr. Gaylon Campbell has been a research scientist and engineer at METER for over 20 years following nearly 30 years on faculty at Washington State University. His first experience with environmental measurement came in the lab of Sterling Taylor at Utah State University making water potential measurements to understand plant water status. Dr. Campbell is one of the world’s foremost authorities on physical measurements in the soil-plant-atmosphere continuum. His book written with Dr. John Norman on environmental biophysics provides a critical foundation for anyone interested in understanding the physics of the natural world. He’s written three books, over 100 refereed journal articles, various book chapters, and has several patents.

Links to learn more about Dr. John Norman

Links to learn more about Dr. Gaylon Campbell


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Hello everybody, and welcome to We Measure the World, a podcast produced by scientists, for scientists.

Nobody in these disciplines tends to study the interface. And the interface is everything. All the things that happened go through that interface. So if we’re going to try to understand our environment, we need not to recognize this interface yet. Trying to work with other people to learn more about the boundary, bounding disciplines to what we want to do. You constantly running into this limitation that their understanding of the medium stops at the edge of their discipline. And so, I’ve always found that very challenging to cross those disciplinary boundaries.

That’s a small taste of what we have in store for you today. We Measure the World explores interesting environmental research trends, how scientists are solving research issues, and what tools are helping them better understand measurements across the entire soil plant atmosphere continuum. Today’s guests are doctors John Norman and Galen Campbell. DR. John Norman, currently professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin Madison was Professor of soil science and also atmospheric and oceanic science. He is a fellow in the American Society of Agronomy, the Crop Science Society of America and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Dr. Norman has received the American meteorology Society Award for Outstanding bio meteorologist was appointed Rothermel Bascom, Professor of Soil Science at the University of Wisconsin and was awarded the University of Wisconsin College of Agricultural and Life Sciences spritzy land grant award for Faculty Excellence. He advises graduate students and postdocs and has hundreds of refereed publications to his name. In 2008, the American Meteorological Society and the American Society of Agronomy sponsored symposia in his honor, and in 2016, the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada awarded him an honorary doctorate of science. Dr. Gaylon Campbell has been a research scientist and engineer at meter for over 20 years following nearly 30 years on faculty at Washington State University. His first experience with environmental measurement came in the lab of sterling Taylor at Utah State University, making water potential measurements to understand plant water status. Dr. Campbell is one of the world’s foremost authorities on physical measurements in the soil plant atmosphere continuum. His book written with Dr. John Norman, which we will discuss later on, on environmental biophysics provides a critical foundation for anyone interested in understanding the physics of the natural world. He’s written three books over 100 refereed journal articles, various book chapters and has several patents. And today, both John and Galen are here to talk about their widely used co authored book, An Introduction to Environmental biophysics on its 25 year anniversary. And we wanted to celebrate a few of their many contributions to the field of environmental science. So thank you, John, and Gaylon, so much for being here. First off, we do want to cover a little bit of your backgrounds. Can you tell us a little bit of how you became involved in the sciences in general, and in environmental and climate studies, specifically, and, John, we’ll start with you first.

That’s a long story. But I guess I’ll try to make it short. But I was a really young child, I like to take things apart. So I would always find something in the garbage or something my family didn’t want anymore. And I take it apart to see how it worked. So I’ve always been curious about how things work. When I was in the sixth grade, I had a really good man, teacher, my first man teacher in elementary school, he did a nice job with science. And I was fascinated by it. And I would bring things home and my older sister, who was six years older than me, so here I am, 12. And she’s 18. And, you know, siblings that are that far apart at that age, don’t have much to do with each other. She happened to see one of these science things that was doing and encouraged me in a really strong way. And I think from that point on, I thought about science as something to do when I really had never thought about that before. And then a spectacular eighth grade math teacher who became my biology teacher, and my chemistry teacher, really took me under his wing and science really became my pursuit through his tutelage. And I started in mechanical engineering because I knew identical things. Well, that didn’t last long because I found out what engineers did and I knew I didn’t want to do that. because I wanted to spend time outside, I grew up in the woods, north woods in Minnesota. And I wanted to be outside to do my science. Through a number of serendipitous events, I, I ended up at the University of Minnesota, got my master’s degree there and then a PhD in Madison and went off to Scotland for the first postdoc, then to Penn State and Nebraska and finally finished up my career in Wisconsin.

And Gaylon, for you. I know we’ve heard your story, I think on a previous episode, could you give us a recap of how you came to be in environmental science?

You know, I grew up on a farm in southern Idaho. Like John, I had some really good teachers, and in our high school, math and physics and chemistry teachers were really outstanding. When it was time to go to college, I actually started in engineering to, like John decided that wasn’t the right place. So I switched to physics then the physics curriculum that there was time to explore and experiment, some and so since I had grown up on a farm, I wanted to take a class in soils. And so I took the soils class, and that was taught by Sterling Taylor, one of the really outstanding soil physicists at the time, and he invited me to work in his laboratory. Really, he was the one who influenced me strongly in that direction. Finally, I got a bachelor’s in physics, Utah State, got a master’s with Sterling and came to Washington State University for a PhD. After time in the army, this is where I spent my career. I retired from the university almost 25 years ago and went to work for METER.

And so how did the two of you become introduced? How did you begin this collaboration that has spanned over 25 years?

That’s one of the real gifts in my career is that invitation is very powerful effect, because I learned so much from from Gaylon and I heard so much about him from my advisor, particularly champ Tanner, an awful lot of Gaylon’s work, I used his earlier version, the first edition of environmental biophysics, love that book. And I used I taught out of it, the invitation was a real joy to me. Highlight in my career.

I think I knew John from things that he published even in those early years of his career, they were just mind blowing to me. And what a brave young man Uh, yes. I’m glad I could teach him something because he stopped me an awful lot. We collaborated on some modeling projects and published a number of papers together. And I would say that of all of the people that have influenced me in my career that John is one of the most important.

So how did you decide that creating this collaboration and working on this book together was something that could be meaningful that you could do together?

As John said, there was a first edition of the book, the book came out of the course that I taught there at Washington State University. And when it was written, I think the approach I took was the one that was in vogue or in place, but by the late 80s, early 90s, why it was clear that things had taken a bit different direction, and there was a lot that needed to be updated in the book, the approach to calculating conductances the use of mole fluxes rather than mass fluxes or things like that, number of things had to be done. And a lot of the progress in a lot of those areas had come because of John’s work and publications and research, particularly in plant canopies in modeling all of the above ground things and so it just seemed like a no brainer to see if John would be willing to join me in bringing a lot of those things up to date

in the 80s again, and helped me in a really sticky problem, probably one of the most difficult problems I confronted in for the fact that I worked on it for nine months, trying to solve it myself and I couldn’t I knew a lot about the canopy and the atmosphere part of this problem, but I knew less about the soil But I knew nothing about how to connect the two together. Because the soil surface is a tough place to deal with. It’s a boundary disciplinary wise in our pursuits. And it’s also a boundary between a fluid and a solid or a porous solid. I just could not get the differential equations for the canopy in the atmosphere aside, to merge with the soil side. I tried everything I could do. And I finally I contacted Gaylon. And then Gaylon gave me a solution for this problem to solve it. I mean, it wasn’t trivial to do it. It took reprogramming and things, some effort. And then finally, it took a few weeks to do. But after nine months of struggling, it was it was a godsend to me. And it’s it’s a very powerful idea for how to link things that are very different than science in general. Boy that sealed my respect for Gaylon. And when the invitation came, I jumped at it.

Where did this field originate from? And how would you break it down? For those who might just be hearing about it for the first time? How does it apply to not only the sciences, but also their daily lives.

The course that I taught here at WSU is still taught now and it’s taught by my son, Colin who’s employed by METER, but as an adjunct appointment at the university and teaches that course each year that he let me give the first lecture this year. In that lecture, I said that environmental biophysics deals with heat and mass exchange between organisms and their environment, but I’m not sure that description does anything to help anybody that doesn’t already know what environmental biophysics is. If you think about us as living organisms, our job is to capture resources from the environment. That’s how we stay alive. That’s how we thrive is by capturing resources and environmental biophysics, his mathematical description or physical description of how that resource capture occurs, quantifying how quickly or how much resource we can capture.

Anything to add to that, John?

The irony of this field of study though, is that in science, we really don’t deal well with living systems. We deal principally with a nonliving physical constraints, the living system, the things that limit us environmentally, but the essence of what we are and how we function and our creativity and our resourcefulness and our versatility and adaptability, self organized nature of life itself, which is really non quantifiable for us. That that part, science kind of leaves uncertain, and I think doesn’t really deal with it. I think in environmental biophysics, the thing that attracted me to the field was this connection between human essence and the physical world around us. It’s a mystery to me and studying it has been really fun for 50 years.

The man that I worked with at Utah State University, Sterling Taylor was in a field called soil physics. The one that John worked at at Wisconsin, worked with Wisconsin was champ Tanner, they were two of the giants in that field of soil physics, but they saw that as a broader thing than soils that also involve the above ground environment. Both of them work pretty hard to understand both the above ground environment of plants and the below ground environment, plants and so it. It’s always seemed kind of funny to me that environmental biophysics would come out of soil physics, but it was because of the vision and ability of people like Champ and Stirling that it did

with environmental biophysics being such a complex field and it integrates studies from many other disciplines, from mechanical and electrical engineering to plant physiology. We’re dealing with atmospheric sciences and others. How challenging was that? Then to put all of this together all in one place and be able to make sense of it all.

That pursuit of wholeness trying to deal with the whole environment that we humans have To confront and face one way or another, directly or indirectly, our physical survival depends entirely on how we relate to this world around us. I don’t see the boundaries between these different disciplines. In terms of the work in terms of what we’re doing. The disciplinary boundaries do exist. And they’re very sharp, and they’re very strong. One that’s really obvious for us for both Galen and I, because of working with vegetation and the atmosphere on one side of it. And working with the depth of the soil on the other side, is this soil interface. That soil interface is not only physical phenomena, it’s not only a physical interface that really exists. But it’s also a disciplinary interface. So you have disciplines like geology, soil physics, chemistry, soil biology, hydrogeology, beneath that surface, dealing with that medium as a whole. But you also have atmospheric science, you have crop science, you have plant physiology, you have a host of these disciplines, civil engineering hydrology, that are on the upper half, and the disciplines on each side, put their boundary conditions at the surface. So really, nobody in these disciplines tends to study the interface, the interface is everything. All the things that happen go through that interface. So if we’re going to try to understand our environment, we need not to recognize this interface yet. Trying to work with other people to learn more about the bounding disciplines to what we want to do. You constantly running into this limitation that their understanding of the medium stops at the edge of their discipline, I’ve always found it very challenging to cross those disciplinary boundaries. At the same time, it’s it’s a big challenge. And it’s fun to do. Because it’s a wild and wooly territory, the biggest problems I encountered in my whole career, were the formal issues like grant proposals with grant proposals, you submit a integrated project like that, the grant monitors don’t know who to send it to. So they send it to a lot of specialists in different disciplines. And they all come back and say, well, this isn’t particularly novel in my discipline. I mean, which it isn’t. In all fairness, it isn’t but putting them all together is really novel issue. But who do you send the proposal to do that? And so proposal rejections, you know, are just something that I had to get used to, which is frustration, but the on the other end on the publication end the reviewers for the journals would do the same thing. And then you would have to deal with the editors and hope that the editor was more forgiving for crossing these boundaries, then the disciplinary specialists were who were reviewing it. And I have lots of discussions with journal editors. And some of them would bend their rules, and some of them wouldn’t. So you had to deal with that rejection, too. So it was mostly personal, I suppose. The problems that I ran into,

I suppose I ran into some of that too. But think about some of the pioneers in the area like Sterling and like Champ Tanner, and other one of the giants was John Monti. He published a book called Environmental physics. Little before I published my first addition. And I was already teaching that class and struggling to find a way to teach something that covered the whole area. And a student one day brought that book in and showed it to me. And I said, Oh, hey, can I borrow this? He said, Well, you can have it overnight. And, I took it home. And I read it all night. That’s the only science book I have ever been able to read through the night and finally finished it by morning. He did such a beautiful job in that book of showing how to do exactly what you’re talking about here of bringing those things together.

I think that the conciseness of the book is Gaylon gift I’ve never been noted for that talent, particularly as people have made clear as so many of my publications are opaque to him. But I learned a lot from reading those chapters that were in the original book and trying to absorb the conciseness. Trying to absorb how Gaylon did that, and then try to imitate it, you’ll probably notice that there’s a little less conciseness, in the later chapters make it a little bit more than that, at least that’s what I’m told by the students. So I don’t think I entirely succeeded. But I did try. I think that’s something that’s very hard to learn.

The story goes that the first copies of your book were handed out looseleaf, to your classes that you were teaching at at the time, did did having on the fly reader, read reviews like that help make the book better? Or did it just create a bunch of chaos, as you’re trying to get it published?

Working with students has been one of the greatest gifts for me, was really good to have that kind of review and feedback from students helped a lot helped me a lot, at least in putting the things in that needed to be there.

Do you remember any specific feedback or themes or patterns in general?

Well I think one of the things that students did, that certainly was important to me, in terms of fitting into the book better. And that was the array of problems at the end of the chapters. I mean, there weren’t endless problems, there were only a few half dozen, maybe or even less sometimes. But they were thinking kinds of problems, they had to think hard about what they were doing and translate the ideas in the chapter into something of their own. The examples in the chapter were indispensable, even though they the problems at the end were different. The examples were a really, really important part. And that was a strong feedback. And like Gaylon, and I would say, the best part of my academic career was the time I spent with students, particularly graduate students. They’re brilliant, they have so much potential. I mean, most of the students I’ve worked with were a lot smarter than I was, but they didn’t know it. And they didn’t have as much experience. And so it was a best kept secret, from my point of view for 50 years.

Was there a fear in any way that you’re leaving out a lot of really, really good and interesting discussion of environmental science,

the changes that were made between the first and second edition were pretty clearly needed by the things that were being published, by the time that we got out the second edition, my feeling is that things have not changed that much since we published the second edition that that it’s still pretty well up to date.

This is the 25 year anniversary of its publication. It’s still used widely internationally as well. How does something like this stay so relevant for so long?

Was Galen spagett, and sort of the basics of how you do this? I mean, science is mostly about knowledge, and a little bit about understanding. There’s not a lot of wisdom in science. And Gaylon is a very wise person, he has a lot of wisdom. I think that someone with a lot of wisdom sees more than what’s surrounding them. They see what’s surrounding them, the interrelationships of everything. But they also see the past in the future to in in ways that mentally we we can’t begin to appreciate, I think one of galas gifts is that his wisdom is powerful. And it’s demonstrated in this book. I mean, one of the biggest challenges we face are the scaling issues of going from plot scale to continental scale. But the basics for doing that are in that book.

Well I’d give some different interpretations of that. For one thing, I think the fundamentals aren’t going to change very much. And they’re the applications are the important part now and a lot of people have focused on that in the year since and discovered some wonderful things, but I think another part that that maybe is a little more cynical. Tanner published with one of his colleagues published papers like water, use efficiency in crops, research or re search, when you’ve lived as long as John and I have why you’ve seen an awful lot of re search that people don’t learn the things that they cut out of a book or out of the literature, they go back and redo it again. And there seems to be a kind of a cycle in that it’s about the length of a career. And so when one generation dies off, why the next generation starts over again. And so I think that environmental biophysics was a pretty hot topic. 25 years ago, it’s probably less of a hot topic now. And at some point, somebody’s going to come out with a whole new field. That really is environmental biophysics. But they think they’ve discovered it all again.

Any thoughts on making a new revision? If not, or if so, what areas would you want to update or which areas would remain foundational and timeless?

A young scientist approached me some years ago and wanted to do a third edition. And so I had him write what he thought he wanted to change. And he sent it to me and I sent it to Gaylon, and we decided, well, give it a shot, see what you can do? Well, that was the last I heard og him! He never presented anything concrete beyond this, his first speculations about what he would like to change. I talked to him a few times since then. He’s never brought it up. So I would guess that he might have realized it’s a more daunting task than he thought, at first, not easy to put together a book, especially a book like that. No one else has ever approached me about doing a revision, there are certainly some things that we could adjust in it. And what would be nice would just be to do a third printing, because that’s the first printing of the second edition had about 150 typos in it, then those got corrected in the second printing by the publisher. And then the second printing, I think there’s at least another 50 titles, which we didn’t get the first time around. And the students tend to find the mistakes, they’re pretty good at that. And they really enjoy being able to rub it in a little bit. You know, to get the teachers stuck. Something so so that’s a really a good system for debugging the book. But it shows you how incredibly difficult it is to write a book the only book I’ve seen that I’ve never that I’ve studied quite carefully that I’ve never found a typo in was will brutes arts book on boundary layer phenomena. That book I’ve never found a typo in it’s probably the only technical book that I never found a typo in it.

Do you have any stories on how the the material of the book itself has impacted the research efforts of colleagues or students that you’ve mentored?

One of the really enjoyable collaborations that I had at the university was with the Professor Jim King in zoology department. And he had students who were working on organism environment interaction with animals. He started sending his students to my class and understanding the environmental physics, the hand of organism environment interaction, really had a big effect on the work that they were able to do. And that was one of the some of the most enjoyable collaboration I had students working on snakes, that behavior and how it related to the environment, things that another student working on coat color and birds find black galds in places where you think they should be white, worked through the energy exchange with him and determined that the gold’s actually knew something about their environmental physics. That would have been a stupid thing to have. I don’t know why we thought they should.

We do see fewer environmental biophysics positions at the university level than during the heart of your career. Do you have any thoughts on why you think that is? Is there a legitimate decline in this specific discipline? Is it just rebranding is it semantics where the positions are there, but we call them something else.

That’s an example. I mean, one of my students who was actually in meteorology, he’s now Chair of the Department of Agronomy, the students who go through these curricula, or through that book, in particular, I think it’s important element can come from all kinds of disciplines and do their graduate work with using that book, or even just take a course or two that way, and then it gives them a versatility allows them in their career, more mobility, I think it can be invisible, I think the power of working across disciplines like this, it’s possible for people to be able to be skilled in multiple disciplines, by tapping their creative resource within that they can be creative, and they don’t have to be on the cutting edge of the center of that discipline, they can be changing that discipline and expanding it and growing it into past its traditional boundaries, the fact that the book hasn’t stopped being published, and then the publisher must be selling books for the book still be out there because they’re in the business of making money, which means that it’s getting used in places that don’t have the label of environmental biophysics. I think it’s still relevant. And the whole biophysical field is still important. But it’s not visible in the same way as the traditional disciplines are visible. Because those disciplines are our academic fossils, so to speak, all right, I mean, they’re rigid. These boundaries across disciplines are not easy to change. They have real staying power, because their political and social as much as they are a scientific and so they’re really imprinted on there. But when you’re crossing the disciplines, which environmental biophysics does, by its very nature, I think people who had appeals to it gives them options that they would never have otherwise.

Along with that, how do you think that we could keep growing environmental biophysics or at least being able to generate excitement for this particular discipline?

One time I had a class of 30 students, and it came from the students came from 19 different departments, that tells me that these ideas of trying to understand the connections between things, because often the connections are more important than bulk of the information between the connections, these feedback systems that run across disciplinary boundaries and physical boundaries, those elaborate feedback systems in the living existence, I guess I have faith that this is going to keep happening. One of the Achilles heels of science right now is boundaries, boundaries are everywhere in science, all these disciplinary boundaries I mean social boundaries, political boundaries, boundaries in the Academy are a serious, serious limitation and their limitation and how we do our science as well. I think there’s a growing appreciation of that, across all the different disciplines of science.

I mean, you see a lot of classes that disappear because students quit taking him. But that hasn’t been the case with environmental biophysics, that the number of students that Colin teaches now are pretty similar to the number of students that I taught when I taught there. It continues to be relevant to the students. If he quit teaching it, I suspect that it would disappear, because I don’t know who else would teach it there. But as long as the course is well taught, I think there continue to be students who won’t need it and will continue to take it.

I think we will finish with this question here. What advice would you give to young researchers it can be either in environmental biophysics or elsewhere who are just starting out their program.

A real hazard in science is to allow our personal biases to enter into what we’re doing. How do you minimize that? This is a question I never asked myself until 80% of the way through my career. I can’t claim to have minimized biases in my own career. But I think that the thing that helped me most to not serve my biases was to have my primary motivation, you know, the center of my being, is what was important to me, my assets, this inner strength that you possess, that’s a gift of life itself, that’s really undefinable words, just never really touch it. With that kind of a central internal motivation, you have the best possibility of limiting your biases in the pursuit of the science that you’re working in, because to do the science in a way that we all like to think it’s being done, but often is not being done. You can’t have your primary motivation to be the science itself. If it is, the possibility that you’re resisting, your biases gets smaller and smaller and smaller, the more important that pursuit is to you. So in other words, if your total survival depends on your success in your pursuit, in this case, science as a scientist, then you’re not going to be able to resist those things that are less than honorable or less than with integrity. When they cross paths with your sense of survival, in this mental process, we’re going to do what we have to do to survive. And bias plays a big role in that and it’s damaging, highly destructive to science. Find a way to be motivated by your essence, by your heart by this mystery of what life is about. And then you’ll be able to do the extraordinarily challenging business of unbiased science.

That was really good John. And I’ve you know had some similar ideas and thoughts. Seems to me that good advice would be to take the time to get a good set of tools, and not avoid the work of that. And then I would say, to work on real problems. John said back at the beginning of our discussion today that he that he liked the outdoors. And so that helped him through his career to get out and look at real problems. And that was valuable to him. I grew up as a farmer, and so I didn’t have any trouble enjoying being out where the real problems were. And throughout my career, it’s always worked best to find out what the real problems were by going to the field and then coming back to the lab or the computer and working on those problems.

Well, I think our time is up for today. We really do appreciate you both John and Gaylon, for stopping by to have this conversation with us. And it’s been fascinating. It’s been an amazing discussion, especially in the light of again, the 25 year anniversary of an introduction to environmental biophysics, a wonderful text that I’m sure we’ll be used for many more years in the future. So again, thank you very much for this discussion. Stay safe, and we’ll see you next time on We Measure the World!

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