When Shang-Ping Xie entered middle school in his home town about 300 miles southwest of Shanghai, China had just come out of the Cultural Revolution, the tumultuous political movement launched by Mao Zedong that had dominated Chinese life for a decade in the 1960s and 70s. That was lucky timing and a big turning point for Shang-Ping: If he had been a few years older, he might have been sent to the countryside after graduating from high school, to work on farms and learn about the rural life. But after the end of the Cultural Revolution, the universities reopened and a merit-based admission system was introduced, which allowed Shang-Ping to go to college to study oceanography (without ever having seen the ocean before!).
From there he went to grad school in Japan, then to the US, then back to Japan for his first faculty position, then back to the US, eventually taking on his current position as a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California.
Shang-Ping's research covers a broad range of topics centered around atmosphere-ocean interactions and their role in climate formation, variability, and change. Some highlights of his incredibly prolific scientific career include the work that led to the formulation of the wind-evaporation-sea surface temperature feedback mechanism in the 1990s, and later his contributions to the discovery of the Indian Ocean capacitor effect, and to the development of the "warmer-get-wetter" idea for how rainfall will change with global warming.
The driving force behind Shang-Ping's impressive scientific output is his deep curiosity and (to quote Richard Feynman) the "pleasure of finding things out", which have remained unaffected by the "daily grind" of academic life. How he has managed to do that is part of this conversation as well, along with his thoughts on climate change, and how his perception of it has evolved over the years.
"For a period of time I was asking myself what’s beyond what I have done so far. Because at some point, I felt, I know a few things, I just couldn’t see what’s ahead. But I think somehow I was able to overcome this feeling now. Because [...] there are still a lot of puzzles. I feel like I know what I want to do for the next few years."
The interview with Shang-Ping Xie was recorded in March 2021. Image credit: Nelvin C. Cepeda
Shang-Ping's website at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography
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