Thursday, March 12, 2015

A memorial tribute to my friend and mentor, Yoshi Sasaki

I took this photo in his old office in the Engineering Laboratory across from the Union on the OU main campus.  This was in 1973, but he looked very much the same right up to the time of his death.

Today, I was informed that my friend and mentor, Yoshi K. Sasaki, died sometime this morning.  Many younger people at the OU School of Meteorology (OU-SoM) have little idea what a great meteorologist and person he was and how influential he has been.  He certainly was the advisor for the majority of doctoral students graduating from the OU-SoM during his active tenure there.  He won many OU and international awards for his work, including promoting US-Japan business collaboration, bringing Japanese companies to Norman.  He helped Walt Saucier found the Department of Meteorology when he came to OU with Walt from Texas A&M in the late 1950s.  I did an earlier tribute to Yoshi when he was still alive.

My first interactions with him were during my first days at OU as a beginning grad student in 1967.  In a stroke of stupendous good fortune, I was "assigned" to his care as my advisor.  I didn't know him at all, then.  Yet, shortly after I arrived, Dr. Ed Kessler (then Director of the National Severe Storms Laboratory [NSSL]) called Yoshi while I was in his office, and I heard Yoshi describing me to Dr. Kessler in glowing terms as an outstanding student!  That left me flabbergasted and determined that I would do whatever it took never to let him down.  He clearly had more confidence in me than I had in myself at the time.

This was at a time before Yoshi became famed for his work with variational data assimilation.  He had the time to be a great advisor and to do some excellent work as a classroom teacher.  It was in his graduate dynamics class that I began to gain some inkling of what the atmosphere was all about.  What soaring excitement there was in his classes, where putting in extra effort paid big dividends in terms of understanding.

It was clear that between us was a considerable cultural divide, but I never felt that it damaged our interactions.  He slapped me down when I was cocky, and he picked up my spirits when I felt overwhelmed and beaten down by the challenges.  In fact, he challenged me more than anyone to become what I wanted so much to be.  He looked at my lousy math grades when I first came to grad school and announced that I would minor in mathematics!  By colossal good luck, I took courses from some great math teachers as a result, flushing my math phobia down the toilet and replacing it with huge enthusiasm for a subject that had been so brutal for me.  He recommended I take rigorous courses in fluid dynamics from the School of Engineering, which again put me in classes with some outstanding teachers.  As a result of this, I went from being a so-so student to the point where I was "setting the curve" in most of my courses.

Following my sabbatical in the military, I returned to my graduate studies more determined to complete my doctorate than ever and, although Yoshi was now much busier than he had been owing to his rising fame, I was ready to become more independent - something Yoshi let happen.  He supported me with his grants as I flopped and floundered, trying to figure out a topic for my dissertation research.  When he went on a sabbatical to Monterey in 1974, he told me either I had to find a new advisor or find a way to support myself.  In no way did I want anyone else's signature on my dissertation, so I found employment at NSSL.  That turned out to be the change of venue I needed, and I eventually found my topic and completed my doctorate, with his signature on it!!

All that I have accomplished is in no small measure a tribute to this wonderful man, who did just whatever I needed, when I needed it.  He was a master at giving me just the help I required and not a bit more.  I graduated with a clear vision of what I wanted to do and how to do it.  That's worth considerably more than a piece of paper!!

I could go on and on about his accomplishments, and the friendship he has offered to me after graduation.  I'm reminded today of his comments to me at the time when his university mentor, the late Shigekata Syono (who was also the advisor of the late T. Theodore Fujita) had died:  he told me that Syono told him the best way to thank your advisor for what he did for you was to become successful in your field, and to pass on what you have learned to others.  Yoshi was trying to honor that advice, and  I've tried to honor it, as well.  It was so typical of him to have deep human insight as well as a great intellect - no cultural barrier could inhibit that!

As we mourn the loss of this honored individual, we can take solace that he's left behind a huge legacy:  I can mention a few names of his doctoral students from around the time when I was a student - Dr. E. W. (Joe) Friday [a National Weather Service Director], Dr. Robert Sheets [a Hurricane Center Director], Dr. Stanley L. Barnes [NOAA research scientist], Dr. Jerome P. Charba [NWS research scientist], Dr. John McGinley [NOAA research scientist], Dr. John M. Lewis [NOAA research scientist], and many others.  Obviously, this list leaves out many who were influenced by Yoshi, including many of my storm chase friends (e.g., Al Moller).  He will not be forgotten and can never be replaced.  We will miss him, but are proud to have been a part of his legacy.  My deepest condolences to Koko, his wife, and sons Larry, James, and Okko, and daughter Anna.

Monday, March 9, 2015

A First Take on the OU Fraternity's Racist Video

It just happened yesterday that a video showing the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity doing an overtly racist chant went viral.  The reaction by the University of Oklahoma (OU) and the national administration of SAE has been to suspend the organization.  That's great and sends the right message that such behavior is unacceptable.  But that's not the end of the story, here.  Racism has not been eradicated at OU as a result and I don't expect that to happen any time soon, actually.  The roots of racism go much deeper than that, so eradicating it will take more time:  likely many generations.  Although racism tends to be more overt in 'southern' states, it is comparably pervasive in the north.  No region has a stranglehold on bigotry, unfortunately.

My personal story is relevant here, in explaining my reaction to all of this.  I was raised in a family that was not overtly racist, but in looking back, I see some tell-tale signs of a racist undercurrent.  We lived in the lily-white western suburbs of Chicago, where I was 'protected' from other races by hidden, but very effective barriers to integration.  We were segregated in a state where segregation as codified in law did not exist, but was just as entrenched as in Dixie.  To know a Catholic or a Jew was about as diverse as it got.  Hence, I grew up knowing little or nothing about races other than mine.

When I was drafted into the military during the Vietnam era, I was immersed suddenly in a racially and culturally diverse group with no prior experience in dealing with that.  For me, it turned out we all had a common enemy (the military - most of us didn't want to be there) so we had grounds on which we could build a personal relationship.  And we did.  It was easy to get along with people unlike myself  simply because we shared one very important characteristic:  we were human.  I didn't like everyone I was in contact with, but there was no clear reason to dislike any particular racial/cultural group just because of that factor.  All races and cultures produce both people I like, and those I dislike.  After the military, my scientific career put me in contact with some very smart and talented people who put the stereotypes to the test.  This revealed that those stereotypes are bankrupt notions.  I know of no racial or cultural reason that prevents individuals from becoming whatever they want to be - some of my friends/colleagues were not of my race or cultural background.  Imagine that!!  The ratio of nonwhite to white meteorologists was small and remains so, begging the question:  is that because of some racial/cultural disposition to not do well in my profession, or is that because of racial and cultural barriers (of various sorts) keeping many individuals out for reasons other than their abilities?  My conclusion was that the stereotypes are horseshit, and there's no reason to conclude that, on the basis of race alone, an individual of a nonwhite race or a different culture automatically is incapable of being successful in my profession.  Logically, then, this likely extends to any other profession.  Race alone provides nothing useful in the way of information to conclude anything concerning the value and potential of an individual.  Race represents real differences among people, but those differences aren't universal and, therefore, aren't significant.  Cultural differences are even more obviously irrelevant.

Martin Luther King's dream is a living reality to me:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

What I've learned is that humans evolved in a hostile world by banding together in tribes for the mutual benefit of tribe members.  This gave us humans an evolutionary survival advantage, so tribalism is deeply embedded in our very core.  But tribalism has a dark side:  distrust of and contempt for other tribes.  Tribalism is the source of racism (and cultural conflict) - it's a meaningless distinction that some people cling to in hopes of having an important place in the world, I suppose.  Science tells us that all humans are the same in the vast majority of their characteristics, but they have some superficial differences that evolved because they were isolated from each other in different parts of the world, where things like skin coloration gave certain individuals an evolutionary advantage.  The acid test is that we different 'races' can still interbreed.  We can have sex with a monkey (a distasteful thought) but we can't interbreed with them, any more than we could interbreed with a rabbit, or a tree.  There are enough differences in our DNA compared to that of a monkey that offspring of such a physical union aren't possible.  Tribalism makes us resist interbreeding with other races, even though virtually all of us have at least some DNA from other races (that resistance has not always been effective!).  Many African Americans have white bloodlines, and vice-versa.  I know of many black Americans with the Doswell surname (many of whom I'd be proud to know personally), and I'm pretty sure that name didn't come to America from Africa.

If we accept that racism is simply an atavistic holdover from tribalism and represents a concept that has absolutely no meaningful (scientific) basis, then perhaps eventually we can overcome the detestable scourge on humanity of racism.  But racism dies hard:  too many people find too much comfort for their insecurities in thinking themselves superior to those of a different race.  Whether hidden or overt, racism is simply inconsistent with reality.  There is no important distinction among the different races, although there are likely slight differences (on average) among the races with regard to characteristics like athletic or intellectual prowess.  Any such differences say nothing about individuals!  Racial and cultural bigotry are manifestations of ignorance, and it's ignorant people who inculcate their children with such bigotry.  Deep-seated racist attitudes are prevalent today, despite the species having made progress.  Most humans now recognize that overt expression of racist and cultural bias is unacceptable - even if they still believe in such things.  To believe that racism is dead is to perpetuate it.  We much acknowledge the widespread persistence of bigotry if we are to be successful some day in making Martin Luther King's dream a reality.

If you find yourself uncomfortable with those of other races, my advice is to work at developing more diverse interactions.  When you know people as individuals, not stereotypes, their racial characteristics fade away, and you know them as a person - not as a member of a particular race.  You may or may not like them at a personal level, but you may now have good reasons for that like/dislike.