Physical Sciences Division

Investigating the planet with a child’s sense of wonder

“I knew from an early age that I wanted to work in physics or earth science,” says Assistant Professor Dorian Abbot, who recently joined the Department of Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago. Perhaps it’s no surprise that his explorations appeal to younger generations, including his investigations into the “Snowball Earth,” (PDF) a period of global glaciation roughly 600 million years ago which Abbot first read about as a senior in high school.

The idea of discovering what climate changes created a “cosmic snowball, hurtling through space,” inspired Abbot to work with an interdisciplinary team in the Physical Sciences Division. They’re questioning how complex animal life could have survived such a deep freeze. “There’s no question that there was ice on land at the equator, but the big debate right now is whether the entire ocean was frozen over or whether there was a region at the equator that wasn’t.”

As Abbot’s team tried different ways to explain these glaciations, their work with the National Center for Atmospheric Research Community Atmosphere Model (CAM) produced a climate state with ice covering the entire sea down to latitudes 5-15° – with an area of open ocean forming a snake-like band around the world’s equator. Dubbed the Jormungand Global Climate State (PDF) after the sea serpent in Norse Mythology that stretched around the globe, Abbot’s proposed compromise might show a more accurate picture of the great global glaciations. "The jury's still out on whether this is the correct solution," says Abbot, "but it's a whole lot of fun to participate in such an exciting debate, and I think we made a real contribution."

Abbot has also collaborated on research revealing how huge, capsizing glaciers could cause tsunamis, and even written about “Lone Wolf” planets not orbiting a star which could have all the elements needed to sustain life.

“I haven’t met anyone yet who isn’t excited when I tell them about this kind of science,” says Abbot. He studies questions that are deeply important, even if their practical implications are not immediately obvious. This is the free investigative atmosphere he finds at the University of Chicago. “I love the attitude here of getting to the very bottom of intellectual issues, and being very rigorous.”

Dorian Abbot’s scientific research couldn’t happen without peers across departments in the Physical Sciences including Math, Physics, Astronomy and Geophysical Sciences.

The faculty and graduate students in each one of these disciplines rely on gifts like yours towards the Graduate Fund for the Physical Sciences, which could have far-reaching implications for our future understanding of the world we live in.


Theresa Ebenhoeh
Assistant Director

Physical Sciences Division