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George Philander

Professor and atmospheric scientist S. George Philander was born on August 25, 1942 in Calendon, Republic of South Africa. His father was the noted Afrikaans poet and the headmaster of the Belgravia High School in Athlone. Philander received his B.S. degree in applied mathematics and physics from the University of Cape Town in 1962. When apartheid laws were sanctioned in South Africa, his family decided to move to New York City. He went on to attend Harvard University and graduated in 1980 with his Ph.D. degree in applied mathematics.

Following graduation, Philander was awarded a post-doctoral fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the department of meteorology. He then became a research associate in the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Program at Princeton University, and was promoted in 1978 to senior research oceanographer of the program. Philander held the position for eleven years until he was appointed as a full professor of geosciences and director of the program in atmospheric and oceanic studies at Princeton University in 1990. He served as chair of the Department of Geosciences at Princeton University from 1994 to 2001 and was then named the Knox Taylor Professor of Geosciences at Princeton University in 2005. Throughout his career, Philander has served as a consultant to the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva, Switzerland and as a visiting professor at the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, France. His research on oceanic and meteorological changes have resulted in the publication of over one hundred academic papers, nine chapters in books, and three books on such topics as El Niño, the Southern Oscillation, and global warming. In 2007, he finally returned to South Africa and joined the University of Cape Town as a research professor.

Philander was elected as a Fellow into the American Meteorological Society in 1986, the American Geophysical Union in 1991, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 2004. The University of Cape Town bestowed upon Philander an Honorary Doctorate of Science degree in 2007.

S. George Philander was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on March 8, 2013.

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University of Cape Town

Harvard University

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Fall, Spring

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Southwestern United States

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South Africa

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Atmospheric scientist George Philander (1942 - ) , former Knox Taylor Professor of Geosciences at Princeton University, is a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


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Princeton University

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Timing Pairs

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of George Philander's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - George Philander lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - George Philander describes his mother's family background, her growing up, and her education

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - George Philander describes his father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - George Philander talks about his father's experience as a teacher in South Africa and his interest in poetry

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - George Philander talks about the ethnic groups in South Africa and historical background of South Africa's race relations

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - George Philander talks about his likeness to his parents

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - George Philander talks about the institution of Apartheid in South Africa

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - George Philander talks about his brothers, South Africa's education system, and his father's appreciation of America

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - George Philander talks about his family, reflects on graduating high school, and describes his earliest childhood memory

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - George Philander talks about leaving South Africa and his father's reaction, and his appreciation for Afrikaans

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - George Philander talks about recently being contacted by one of his peers from high school

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - George Philander talks about his academic performance in high school, his teachers, his attitude towards the future, and his preparation for college

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - George Philander talks about the quality of his high school education and his science courses

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - George Philander talks about his appreciation of Beethoven and Bach and his music teacher's influence

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - George Philander talks about his decision to attend the University of Cape Town in South Africa

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - George Philander talks about his studies at the University of Cape Town

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - George Philander talks about his impression of the U.S. higher education system and his decision to study there

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - George Philander talks about his experience living under Apartheid in South Africa

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - George Philander talks about the University of Cape Town's reputation as the "Moscow on the Hill"

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - George Philander talks about his reaction to Apartheid ending and Nelson Mandela's peaceful political methods

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - George Philander talks about his experience at Harvard University

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - George Philander talks about Harvard's reputation and his affinity towards Indian people

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - George Philander talks about the importance of encouraging self-confidence in students and the limitations of the South African education system

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - George Philander talks about the declining appreciation of science in the U.S.

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - George Philander talks about his introduction to applied mathematics and his welcoming acceptance into the scientific community

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - George Philander talks about the field of atmospheric science

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - George Philander talks about the equator and people's fascination with it

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - George Philander talks about the issues with communicating science to the public

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - George Philander talks about fluid dynamics and the equatorial undercurrent

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - George Philander talks about his experience as a post-doctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technoogy

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - George Philander talks about John von Neumann and his contributions to weather forecasting and computer science

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - George Philander talks about how he received his job opportunities and his research

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - George Philander talks about meeting his wife and his experience living in England

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - George Philander explains El Nino and La Nina and their role in climate patterns

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - George Philander talks about Warren Washington and the progress of weather prediction

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - George Philander talks about Nelson Mandela, science development in South Africa, and the themes in the movie, "Invictus"

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - George Philander talks about the political discourse regarding global warming

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - George Philander talks about why he named his article 'Where are you from? Why are you here? An African Perspective on Global Warming'

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - George Philander talks about the geography of Cape Town, South Africa

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - George Philander talks about science's limitations and natural phenomena

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - George Philander talks about why he became a scientist

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - George Philander talks about his educational outreach efforts in South Africa

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - George Philander reflects on his legacy and life choices

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - George Philander talks about his hopes and concerns for the African American community

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - George Philander talks about his family

Tape: 6 Story: 9 - George Philander talks about how he would like to be remembered

Tape: 6 Story: 10 - George Philander describes his photos







George Philander talks about the geography of Cape Town, South Africa
George Philander talks about the ethnic groups in South Africa and historical background of South Africa's race relations
What are some of the--just as somebody in the atmospheric science of, what are some of the problems in Africa in terms of the--well, I know I've always read about the spread of the desert, you know, and knew that Sahara was a place you could graze animals shortly before--(simultaneous)--$$(Unclear)--$$--the, you know, the time of Christ or whatever, you know.$$Ten thousand years ago.$$Yeah, yeah, and so what are the dynamics of that--(unclear), (simultaneous)--$$Yeah, it's, it's, again, an open question. We don't actually have answers. Cape Town [South Africa], well, one of the things I did when I was there is try to make the students aware that (unclear) a very unusual place. And the evidence for Cape Town being unusual is actually quite straightforward. The plants in the world, all the plants are divided into six kingdoms. And some of them are big, the Boreal Forest is one. And it stretches from North America to Europe and there're a few others. There're only six. One of those six is in Cape Town. So there's a most peculiar set of plans that have evolved there. And so the question is, why is Cape Town--so you need many micro-climates to accommodate this great diversity of species. Why does this, why is this place favored with all this diversity? And the answer is quite fascinating. If you take Miami [Florida], which is humid, wet, lots of rain. It's next to a warm ocean. It's perfectly flat, and you take Los Angeles [California], which is arid, it has mountains. It's next to a very cold ocean. Now, suppose through plate tectonics you would deform the continent and you put Miami next to Los Angeles. The result would be Cape Town. So Cape Town's the only city with a warm beach and a cold beach. The Atlantic side is cold and it has a mountain in the middle, depending which way the wind blows, one side of the mountain is arid. The other side is, has forests. You have enormous diversity of climatic zones.$$Is it because it's right there at the tip of Africa?$$Exactly, so, and it's--so, for example, you could say Peru and Brazil are similarly different. But you'd have to have cut up the continent and put, put Peru next to Brazil to get the same the same. So it's, and then you have to go back in time. So how long has this been the case and how did the spot evolve? It becomes a fascinating scientific study. And so it, there's all sorts of problems unique to that place. And then if you go South from there to Antarctica, it's basically, almost unexplored ocean. And most of the CO2 we put into the atmosphere, goes into that ocean, the plants there. So there's lots of opportunities for scientific research there. And the, you can't divorce it from the past, going back thousands of years. Earlier, you asked about Milankovitch cycles. So climate, as we've had ice ages, we have climate. All of that suddenly becomes part of the story, and what I told the students, they're not only in a very special place, they're in a special place at a special time, that the present is actually an unusual moment in the history of the plant. We humans showed up some time ago, but it's just the last few thousand years that we suddenly took off. And most of the time, there were ice ages. We had the moment in between. So we had this very--that's why I'm saying the global warming thing is very dangerous. We have lots of evidence, things change. We have ice ages. We go out of ice age. And we don't understand why, and we decide to interfere with the system. And that's why I think we're bound to be surprised by what's gonna happen. We understand it so poorly. We can't, at the moment, can't explain to you why there were ice ages. We just, embarrassing, and I pretend I can tell you what's going to happen fifty years from now. You know, it all comes back to being a more modest, there's a lot more we don't know than we know.$$Okay, so being involved in oceanography or geosciences at this point in time is it like being a pioneer--you're a pioneer?$$Exactly, a very exciting time, yeah. The, and it still goes back to that Alexander Pope, "it's dangerous--little learning is a dangerous thing." You discover there's more and more things to discover.$Now, is there on your mother's [Alice Harker] side and your father's [Peter Philander] side or either, or, a keen sense of their history? Do they really understand their history, that they were brought from Malaysia in what--by the Dutch in 1650 or '60' [1560] or so to work--$$Not really, no, no. The only people in South African I know of who would have strong ties to the background would be the Malays. Many are Muslims, and they will actually go to Mecca [Saudi Arabia]. And even though they're living in the Southern tip of Africa. And so that would really be the only group that kept a connection.$$Oh, these are Malays, you said?$$Yeah.$$Who are Muslims?$$Who are Muslim, yeah.$$Okay, and now, your parents would be--what would they call them? Did they have a specific group that they associated themselves with, historically, or--$$No.$$--so they're basically a product of South Africa life, you know, after the--$$That's correct. There's a, there, yeah, it's come together, the very first people to get to South Africa were actually Portuguese. And then the Dutch, and then the British. And a little digression, it's been noted that (unclear) Brazil has relatively little racial tension in comparison with British colonies. The Portuguese colonies is less. And the reason people think, is the Portuguese were far more conservative than the British. So the British let women go to the colonies. When they got there, they kept themselves in a privileged position by ostracizing any man who associates with non-British women. And see, (unclear) we have trouble in the South here or wherever the British went. The Portuguese, there were no women (laughter). So they had far more intermarriage (laughter), far more. And so race relations are actually much more relaxed in the Portuguese colonies.$$And they would actually create families?$$Yeah, yeah, but in the case of the British, the women quickly realized you ostracize any man who does that. And so you have far more racial--anyway, it's a complicated--$$Okay, Vasco da Gama was there first, I think--$$Diaz, yeah.$$Or Bartholomew Diaz, yeah.$$Yeah.$$Yeah, now, 1480s, I think, right, 1480-something?$$Yeah, it was before Columbus [Christopher Columbus] came this way. They would--only recently I discovered why the--I thought they were looking for an easy route to the spices and so on. It turns out it was really part of the last Crusades. They repeatedly failed to conquer the Holy Land, going across land. So they thought they'd go the back way (laughter). And so these trips around the tip of Africa were actually to get to (laughter), to liberate the Holy Land from infidels.