Fifteen graduate students, researchers and junior faculty from across the country participated in a workshop on campus to examine societal resilience to environmental stress and change by extracting pieces of tree cores.
The workshop took place last month as part of a three-year project led by history professor John Haldon andthe Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies’ Climate Change and History Research Initiative.
“The idea behind this whole initiative is to look at environmental studies, sciences and history, and try to think about ways that the former environment influenced [human societies] over the last 2,000 years,” Lee Mordechai GS, a Ph.D. student in the history program and Haldon’s assistant, said.
The project seeks to draw together experts from various social science and natural science fields.Haldon explained that the project involves three strands: research, public information in the form of a series of lectures, with two lectures every semester, and teaching.
There will be one workshop every year and the second workshop will involve palynology, Haldon added.Palynology is the study of plant pollen and spores to gain more insight into past environments.
The workshop last month involved dendroclimatology, which is the science of determining past climates from trees, especially tree rings.
“I wouldn’t claim that we’re doing something that nobody’s thought of before, and I wouldn’t claim that we’re doing something that nobody’s started to do before,” Haldon said."But we’re doing it differently and better because we’ve got more up-to-date information and we’re more ‘joined up’ in terms of project structure."
Haldon explained thatnew technology is revolutionizing the way his team conducts this research, and by bringing so many engaged and committed people together to work on one project, historians may finally be able to answer the big open questions about past societies.
“There’s this whole new movement with collaboration between the humanities and sciences, and I think that this might be the moment where the way people write history might change,” saidMateusz Falkowski, a current graduate student in the history department at New York University who participated in the workshop.
He added that the experience changed him as a scholar by showing him it is often indispensable for historians to seek assistance from scientists.
Haldon said the project was inspired by an archaeological expedition in Turkey in 2006.
“We had collected a lot of environmental data to do with the way in which land was used in the early medieval world and the impact on climate on the way in which the land was used, but we didn’t have the resources … to do much with that information,” he said.
He explained that the information and data his team had collected back then, put in the context of other scholars’ works in the Eastern Mediterranean, seemed enough to start a new project.
Participants in the workshop were mainly postdoctoral or graduate students, along with junior faculty members in the field of humanities.
The workshop was a learning experience for these social scientists as expert climate scientists showed them how to extract samples from trees and then study these samples, Mordechai noted.
“It’s important to say that we weren’t turned into experts. The climate scientists were experts,” Mordechai explained. “We learned how to do this, but it’s more for us to realize how scientists on our research teams will do that in the future, rather than us going out and coring trees and analyzing the structure of the rings.”
Haldon said the initiative will educate social scientists on the necessity of properly handling information.
“Obviously, particularly with social scientists, you can imagine that they can misunderstand or misapply scientific data in their scientific results,” he noted."We need to explain how not to misappropriate the scientific data and what you can and can’t do with it, what its limitations are."
Haldon explained that the project was very well-structured.
“Everything complemented each other and it all worked together," Haldon said. "Everyone was there because they wanted to be there and it was such an exciting experience.”