U. graduate student links science with mystery


Person of the week | Author combines his passion for writing with meterology to teach kids


Michael Erb enjoys mystery. He enjoys Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot series. And he enjoys science.

“Science kind of is a mystery,” said Erb, who is studying for his doctorate in atmospheric science at University. “There are lots of things we don’t know about the world, and the job of science is to make sense of it the same way a detective might unravel a mystery.”

Fictional mystery is a great analogy to science, said Erb, who recently published a young adult story called “Kelvin McCloud and the Seaside Storm.”

Set at the Jersey Shore, the book focuses on an uncle-nephew detective team that goes to the coastal town to investigate a man’s death after a hailstorm. The characters learn about the weather while investigating the incident, which leads them to uncover a mystery.

He said kids are the ideal audience to generate interest in science because they are naturally curious. As they get older, he said children could get interested and pursue science themselves.

“If they can get a genuine interest in these topics, they’re going to start liking to look into these things,” he said.

Erb said scientists sometimes get a lot of data that is difficult to understand and fit together.

“Sometimes you do have to come up with theories that are a little outside the box,” he said.

Erb said a scientist’s job is to make connections and develop a hypothesis.

The graduate student was always interested in weather as a child. He remembers a couple of tornado warnings in his area, and recalled a time his dad brought his family to the basement so that they would be safe.

He said weather fascinates him because it has such an impact in people’s lives.

“Climate does impact people all over the world,” he said. “The weather can bring rains and droughts.”

Although he has other interests, Erb became interested in meteorology in college after taking “Intro to Atmospheric Science,” a core-requirement class at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, said Mary Erb, his mother.

“It just clicked with him,” she said. “He always had an interest in clouds. I think most children do, though. They’re fascinating to look at.”

Michael Erb began writing in elementary school, she said. He wrote a series called “Night Creeps” based on his love of Goosebumps before moving on to fantasy, she said.

Sketches he drew with precision and detail accompanied his stories. He gave up drawing in college as he became busier, she said.

Michael Erb said he chose New Jersey as a setting for his story because he has lived in the state for five years.

“It seemed like a good setting for it,” he said. “It’s a nice place.”

Michael Erb grew up taking summer vacations at the shore in Ocean City, N.J. where the family spent time on the beach and the boardwalk, said Scott Erb, his father.

“We used to sit on the front deck and watch the storms come in because you could see lightning in the ocean,” Scott Erb said. “You could see the waves and the swells in the ocean at night time.”

Michael Erb said he came up with the idea for his story as an undergraduate after his friend suggested he write a story about a detective who solved crimes using the weather like the main character of the TV show “Numb3rs,” which featured a crime-solving mathematician.

He found time to flesh the idea out to incorporate science in an interesting way that would catch the attention of an otherwise uninterested student, Mary Erb said.

After applying to a number of graduate schools, Michael Erb emailed Anthony Broccoli, a professor at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, who was interested in his work.

The two began emailing back and forth about research, eventually getting the chance to meet in person when Michael Erb was accepted into the University’s graduate program.

Now the two work together trying to understand what makes the variations in the Earth’s climate possible, Broccoli said.

Earth has gone through periodic ice ages, he said. While 20,000 years ago, glaciers covered most of North America, Europe and Asia, glaciers are still found in Greenland and Antarctica, Broccoli said.

The ice sheets came and went based on small variations in the Earth’s orbit that changed how much sunlight hit the Earth and at what time of year, he said.

“The results were very dramatic,” Broccoli said.

Michael Erb said he was interested in climatology before graduate school because he found the long-term changes in the past or in the future interesting. He said he was interested in how past climate change affects the future and thinking about what the climate was like when the dinosaurs were around.

“One of the things that makes Michael natural for being a scientist is he has a great deal of curiosity for how the world works,” Broccoli said, adding that it is one of the most important traits a scientist could have.

When hearing about the scientific method — the idea that science is about testing hypotheses and seeing whether evidence fits in — he said not many people think about how to come up with the hypothesis.

Broccoli said scientific questions like ‘Why does the tilt of the Earth’s axis change things?’ help create hypotheses that lead to the scientific research he and Michael Erb do.

“I know many scientists who are very good musicians [or] have written about other topics that don’t involve their scientific specialty,” he said.

Broccoli said science is inherently creative, but it is creative in a different way and is often a demanding profession that does not leave scientists time to indulge in other creative outlets.

It is more unusual when an advanced-degree student has the energy and time to harness that creativity in a different way, Broccoli said.

Michael Erb said writing scientific papers and novels are different. While scientific papers need an introduction and ability to keep people on the same page, the actual process of writing is different, he said.

“What Michael has done involves a little bit of both because one of his motivations for writing fiction was to convey science, specific about the weather, in a very easy way for younger kids to digest,” Broccoli said.

He said important differences are trying to lay out direction and narrative because scientists usually do not write about people. Thinking about the narrative is important in both cases, he said.

“When we write an article, we are trying to tell the story of what we learned,” he said.

The writing process links pieces of evidence to make it easy for people to understand the science, he said.

“The idea is to make [it] as easy to read as possible,” Broccoli said. “We don’t want other scientists to put down our papers because they think it’s boring.”

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