Campus & Community

Once upon an epoch …

7 min read
Dan Schrag is a geochemist – he studies the history of the climate and the oceans, over geologic time. But it is his instinct for story, his sixth sense for narrative, that may distinguish him from other scientists. (Staff photo by Kris Snibbe)

The facts: Dan Schrag

  • Born: Jan. 25, 1966, New York City, N.Y.
  • Education:
    Yale University, B.S. 1988, Geology and Geophysics and Political Science; University of California at Berkeley, Ph.D. 1993, Geology
  • Career highlights:
    1993: Visiting Researcher, Indiana University
    1994-1997: Assistant Professor, Princeton University
    1997-present: John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Natural Sciences, Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Harvard University

Dan Schrag tells a good story.

“The Namibian desert is one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen,” he says in his low, intent voice. “There are the world’s tallest sand dunes, 400 meters high – it’s called Great Sand Sea. There’s also rocky desert and river valleys – huge river valleys where there’s no water because the water flows only three days over 10 years. Some places, there’s no vegetation except for these extremely strange, primitive plants, these ancient angiosperms – they have two leaves, and the leaves can be very broad, and they grow in opposite directions for the whole life of the plant. They get all withered and old – they can be 2,000 years old – and they just keep growing, these two leaves.”

He’s thrilled, reliving the experience. But there’s nothing flashy about his recounting. He doesn’t claim the corner of the world he’s describing; he makes room for his listener.

“There are gazelles of all different types, and elephants,” he continues. “The rock is so beautiful. Hiking up these cliffs and ridges and looking out at the desert is an amazing sight.”

Schrag is a geochemist – he studies the history of the climate and the oceans, over geologic time. But it is his instinct for story, his sixth sense for narrative, that may distinguish him from other scientists.

“It’s important that science is rigorous, and that our measurements are very precise, and our interpretations are correct, our arguments are logical and consistent, and that’s not at all to be underestimated in any way,” he says. “However, another big part of what good science is, is telling a good story. There are fabulous stories to be told, great events that happened in our history, and some of them are so different from the world we live in today, that they really do capture people’s imagination.”

Stories your mother never told you:

“The whole Earth froze over for tens of millions of years,” Schrag says of his “snowball Earth” hypothesis, formed with Paul Hoffman, the Sturgis Hooper Professor of Geology, and generated from research on the Namibian rocks – uplifted ocean sediments whose chemistry reveals the history of ocean temperatures. “Total catastrophe! And then, when it melted back, it flipped and became one of the warmest climates Earth has ever experienced. We think these incredible climatic fluctuations led to the origin of multicellular animals. After more than 3 billion years of Earth history, all of a sudden, these animals show up.”

Or this story: Coral reefs, too, serve as archives of chemical information – and offer clues to the history of the climate over thousands of years. Schrag describes walking pristine white beaches in Indonesia or on the Sinai Peninsula, donning scuba gear and extra weights, diving 60 feet down to coral heads, and engaging in the arduous task of drilling underwater for samples.

“A healthy reef is a magnificent thing to see,” he says. “The colors tend to be somewhat muted – blues, greens, reds – whereas the fish are extremely colorful and very, very bright and wonderful. On the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, you see schools of 40 or 50 fish – 3 or 4 feet long, each of them – incredibly colorful, teeming with life. And in certain parts of Indonesia, you see big walls of coral with waterfalls of fish going off the sides, a spectacular sight. I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to see that.”

Variations in the oxygen-isotope composition of corals, Schrag found, seem to correspond to occurrences of El Nino, the lashing of wind and rain that results when warm ocean water moves in uncharacteristic directions, altering air and water currents around the globe. The increasing frequency of El Ninos over the past 100,000 years may be connected to global warming.

“Right now we are facing an incredible challenge,” he says. “The destruction of the environment in a variety of different ways is going to be one of the great legacies of humanity.” Dynamite-fishing, for instance, is reducing Indonesian reefs to a “pile of rubble.” “It’s not my job to make decisions for society, but I can help people understand what happened so that we as a global society can make better choices about the environment.”

A strong sense of social mission, in fact, has accompanied Schrag all his life. He double-majored in geology and political science at Yale, and went to graduate school in geology at Berkeley, thinking that he would then move to Washington, D.C., to help shape environmental policy. At Yale, he wrote his senior thesis not on rocks, but on theories of justice. Lover of stories that he is, he read Robin Hood narratives from the 15th century to the present, tracing how political theories changed over time, and how popular notions of justice compared to the theories of canonical philosophers.

His parents, with whom he’s “very close,” helped nurture this social conscience. Schrag’s mother was a prosecuting attorney in the Yugoslavian war crimes tribunal; she remains interested in issues of international criminal justice. Schrag’s father and sister are physicians; his brother is a graduate student in Mexican history at Harvard. “I was the only member of my family not to get a Harvard degree. I was the black sheep, I guess,” he says.

Comes the MacArthur Fellowship. Not bad for a black sheep. Schrag is a “genius,” the MacArthur Foundation decided last June, and they gave him a half million dollars to stress this point.

“I wanted to do something consistent with the spirit in which it was given,” Schrag says. “And that is, to stimulate creativity.”

“For me, science is a very social process. I work closely with people, and I like to talk about ideas. And as far as questions of policy and environmental politics, a lot of good can be done just by bringing people together from different disciplines, sitting down, and talking.”

He has bought some land on Cape Cod, looking out on a freshwater lake. He is working with some local architects, including a professor at the Graduate School of Design. He envisions a retreat center, a place for colleagues to meet, talk, hatch new ideas. And when he visits on his own, it’ll be a place for him to sail, to cook, to read, to write, to take walks with his big dog, Max.

“Very simple things,” he says.

Meanwhile, he reads the landscape like text. Call him a semiotician of sediments, a redactor of reefs, an interpreter of isotopes in the fluids of pores of rocks.

He would laugh, himself, at such florid descriptions.

“Max, you’re really smelly this morning,” he chides his dog, who pants beneath his desk during an interview. Schrag leans over to open a window, looks back up with untroubled eyes.