Rutgers Doctoral Student Jazzes up Weather Lesson in Murder Mystery for Young Adults
Michael Erb believes the best time to get people interested in the world around them and the scientific method is when they are young
Michael Erb grew up in central North Carolina, where he spent his time riding his bike, doing arts and crafts projects, and wondering about the world. Why, he wondered, is the sky blue? How do planes fly? How do radio waves work?
He recalls the day in 1993 when a tornado warning was issued near his hometown. “My dad got everyone into the basement to be safe,” said the 27-year-old doctoral candidate and research/teaching assistant of atmospheric science in Rutgers’ School of Environmental and Biological Sciences.
The storm, which caused significant damage across the region, sparked a lifelong fascination with weather and climate, most recently leading to the publication of his first book, Kelvin McCloud and the Seaside Storm (Tumblehome Learning 2012), a murder mystery for young adult audiences.
In it, a wealthy banker dies in a hailstorm and “weather detective” Kelvin McCloud and his 12-year-old nephew Henry Alabaster are called in to investigate. Along the way, readers learn a lot about weather. And nothing – not strong winds, lightening, thunder, hailstones, or suspicious neighbors can stop them.
“It’s mostly for middle school and upper elementary grades, but adults will also enjoy and learn from the story,” says Erb, who has recently launched a website, www.kelvinmccloud.com, with a section, “Ask a Weather Detective,” for those who share his zeal for weather mysteries.
Erb believes that the best time to get people interested in the world around them and the scientific method is when they’re young.
“Too many people think of science as something that is done in laboratories by stuffy researchers in lab coats,” says Erb, whose doctoral thesis focuses on “paleoclimate modeling.” Specifically, he uses computer models to investigate how slow changes in the shape of the Earth’s orbit may have affected climate in the past.
His goal is to bring the world of science and climatology further into the mainstream, showing its intrigue and relevance to everyday existence.
In the aftermath of the recent storm, Erb’s words have added meaning. “Hurricane Sandy has been a stark reminder of just how much weather can impact our lives,” he says. “Sandy has left millions of people without power, and many who lost more than just electricity.” But weather, he says, also impacts us in other ways. “Temperatures and rains dictate where farmers grow crops and can bring life to parched lands. Weather is capable of great destruction as we have seen with Hurricane Sandy, but it is capable of wonderful things as well.”
The idea to teach kids about weather via mystery was hatched when Erb was an undergraduate studying atmospheric sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, from which he graduated in 2007. One of Erb’s friends had just watched the television show “Numb3rs,” in which a mathematician helps the FBI solve crimes.
“We were sitting at a cafeteria table and Sam, a mathematician, said, ‘You should create a character that solves crimes using weather.’ ” The idea was an instant hit with Erb’s friends.
Soon after, Kelvin McCloud was formed, affectionately named for his captivation with weather.
“Michael's book is a sign of his creativity and his desire to share his knowledge of the atmosphere with young people,” says Anthony J. Broccoli, professor of atmospheric science and Erb’s advisor. “Curiosity is a hallmark of a good scientist and Michael has it in abundance.”
Erb described his move to Rutgers-New Brunswick five years ago as a natural progression in his education. While visiting the area, he was impressed with faculty. “I started a conversation with Dr. Broccoli and liked the research he was doing,” says Erb. “I felt at home here.”