Michigan Tech Research Forum

Fall 2019 Distinguished Professor - Dr. Raymond Shaw

|Thursday, December 5, 2019|Theme: Cloud Chambers


Lecture presented by  Distinguished Professor Raymond Shaw: The Michigan Tech cloud chamber – how does it work and what have we learned?

Research Statement
: : Michigan Tech is home to a unique chamber used for investigating aerosol and cloud processes relevant to weather and climate. To make a cloud, the environment has to have a relative humidity above 100%. In the laboratory that’s a tricky thing to achieve because water condenses on any available surfaces; the MTU chamber gets around that by generating clouds through turbulent mixing. The cloud chamber allows us to study a wide variety of research questions: For example, how do clouds respond to clean versus polluted conditions? Cloud chamber experiments reveal how clean clouds may produce rain more easily

Six Questions with Distinguished Professor Raymond Shaw

Q1. You have a strong focus in your work on understanding the Earth’s atmosphere, and in particular on studying clouds. How did you come to choose this path? Or, did it choose you? 
I remember earning my weather badge as a cub scout, and really disliking all the memorization of cloud types, like stratocumulus and cirrus. But I was fortunate to grow up around people who were interested in ideas rather than nomenclature, and eventually I became fascinated with what makes ice crystals grow in different shapes. I loved physics as an undergrad, and the ice crystal question was enough of a nudge to search for a graduate program in which I could combine physics with the atmosphere.

Q2. How do your research and teaching complement each other?
Teaching keeps my mind focused on the fundamentals. And it continuously challenges me to improve my communication skills, which is also highly valuable in communicating research. At the same time, exciting research stimulates the teaching environment in compelling ways.

Q3. What has changed the most in your field over the past decade (or two)? 
The MTU cloud chamber is one thing that has changed. It’s broadly recognized that in the US we allowed laboratory investigation of cloud processes to fall behind computational and field-based research. So there’s quite a bit of enthusiasm for the research we are conducting. 

Q4. What is the biggest challenge in your fields of expertise? 
In my opinion the biggest challenge is to find ways to ask and answer simple questions, even with the increasing complexity and size of data sets and computational tools. The level of detail available from simulations and from high-data-rate instruments can be overwhelming, and has a tendency to encourage purely empirical work. Finding ways to distill and synthesize results by asking simple questions is crucial to gaining a deep understanding of nature.

Q5. How does Michigan Tech work for you as a home base? 
Michigan Tech provides a supportive environment for research. I value the colleagues I’ve had the opportunity to interact with, including my fellow physics faculty and the great group of faculty and staff across campus who are engaged in atmospheric research. Besides the people, one of the best things about Michigan Tech is its location. Mountain biking and skiing within five minutes from my house? Who can argue with that? I pay the price when traveling --- air service from Houghton is the biggest drawback for MTU.

 Q6. What's next in your research?
We’re starting to dream about the next step in cloud chamber research. We’re holding a workshop with about 60 scientists from all over the world to discuss what could be accomplished with an even bigger chamber. So many questions, from rain formation to ice multiplication to optical transmission, could benefit from a much larger facility for cloud studies.