Doubly talented prize winner

Markus Grimmer, top of his class at the Graduate School of Climate Sciences, has been awarded the "2019 Oeschger Young Scientist's Prize" for his achievements. He is now working as a doctoral student at the University of Bern.

Physics? History? Or both? In Markus Grimmer's life, there has never been a clear answer to these questions — but that doesn't bother him. Why should it? He has always found ways to pursue his two main fields of interest in parallel or even in combination. His bachelor's degree in history with a minor in physics proved quite useful for all the natural science courses he took while earning his master's in climate science. "It gave me a solid foundation. Without this prior knowledge, you understand the climatic processes, but you can't see behind the formulas you learn to apply."

In retrospect, the multidisciplinary climate master's seems to have been tailor-made for the double talent. Markus Grimmer had already chosen physics and mathematics as his main subjects in high school, and history as a supplement. In the first years of his studies he quenched his thirst for knowledge in both areas, but something was missing. "For a long time I didn't see a connecting pole. I found elementary particles exciting and ancient history fascinating — but it was only when I started attending lectures in climate and environmental history that I realized that these two interests could be combined in a climate master's degree."

Transcribing weather diaries with iron discipline

The Oeschger Young Scientist Prize winner focused on climate history for his degree. For his master's thesis, he worked with historical sources that had hardly ever been used: the meteorological diaries of an 18th century patrician from Graubünden in eastern Switzerland. "From the point of view of his influential family, Johann Rudolf von Salis-Marschlins was probably a failure," the climate historian supposes. "He didn't seek worldly fame; instead he looked after the family's estate and monitored nature." But he was very meticulous. Over a period of 40 years, von Salis recorded measurement data and personal weather observations day after day, filling thousands of pages in a script that today's readers need to decipher first. "Even when I was photographing it, I realized that I couldn't read it at all," says Markus Grimmer.

With iron discipline, he transcribed 20 years' worth of these records as part of his master's thesis — 40 pages a day for eight months. Then he mined this material for temperature and pressure measurement data, and corrected it in comparison to other measurement series. Markus Grimmer has plenty of other ideas for how to evaluate this wealth of data, but for the moment he has put climate history on ice — in the truest sense of the word.

He has just started a doctorate in the research group for paleoclimatic and biogeochemical investigations on ice cores at the Oeschger Centre. His research project: to generate new knowledge with samples from the legendary ice core used at the University of Bern to reconstruct the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere over the past 800,000 years. Over the next three years Markus Grimmer will extract noble gases from the ice and use them to reconstruct the average ocean temperature for particularly informative phases of climate history. "For a change," he says with a laugh, "I'm going to concentrate entirely on physics, but history will certainly come into play again later."

(February 2020)