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Poet, musician, scientist

Rob Jackson turns to music and poetry when he needs a mental recharge from his main research focus, which is the study of how humans are affecting the Earth. His research on the extraction and use of natural gas provides the basis for the development of sound policy for resource development that protects people and the environment.


Ker Than
April 2, 2015
Credit: Stacy Geiken

Rob Jackson occasionally picks up the guitar that sits in the corner of his office and strums it to help organize his thoughts. It also helps him get through particularly long teleconferences.

“There can be 25 people on a telecon and you might speak once in an hour. So occasionally I put my phone on mute and play my guitar. It’s like knitting. You can knit and still pay attention,” said Jackson, the Michelle and Kevin Douglas Provostial Professor, who arrived from Duke University last year.

Occasionally, he plays his music before audiences, and sometimes teams up with his son, David, an undergraduate at Stanford and a gifted piano player. “David is the real musician in the family, “Jackson said. “We write songs together occasionally – Sometimes I’ll send him some lyrics, and he writes music to them.”

Rob Jackson sings the lyrics to "Gone to Texas", a song that Jackson and his son, David, wrote about Jackson's father-in-law, John Graves.

Poetry, both the reading and writing of it, is another frequent release for Jackson. “I’m always reading something that’s not peer-reviewed. Science and art satisfy different parts of me,” said Jackson, whose appointment is in the Department of Earth System Science. Jackson is also a senior fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy and the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

He has published poems in journals such as Southwest Review and Avocet, and has read his poetry on National Public Radio. “Poetry helps me see the world differently,” he said. Jackson is also the author of two books of children’s poems, Animal Mischief and Weekend Mischief. Some of the poems can be traced back a decade, when he was traveling through Argentina during a sabbatical with his wife and three young children. “I would work in Buenos Aires for a couple of weeks, then we would leave for the field. In Patagonia we wouldn’t see anybody for days at a time. I began writing children’s poems for my kids as a way to pass the time,” Jackson said.

How people affect Earth

Jackson is best known, however, as a leading expert on the different ways that people affect the planet. “I’m particularly interested in the relationships between the living part of the Earth, or the biosphere, and the more physical part that is underground. That includes studies of where plants get their water and nutrients, the effects of deforestation, and other land uses,” Jackson said.

Lately, his research has focused on topics related to energy, including the extraction and use of natural gas. One of his most recent studies concluded that leaky pipes and seals in natural gas wells, and not the hydraulic fracturing process itself, are to blame for reports of methane-tainted drinking water in Pennsylvania and Texas.

I believe in human ingenuity. Ultimately, I believe in the human spirit—that people will care about the Earth around them and about the generations to come.

A common theme in Jackson’s research is the use of advanced technologies or the applications of existing tech in novel ways. To estimate the number of leaks from aging natural gas pipelines under the streets of Washington D.C., his team installed a new spectrometer that detects the chemical fingerprint of methane and ethane in a GPS-equipped car and then drove each block of the nation’s capital, mapping almost 6,000 leaks across the city. “I’m interested in developing new tools to measure what we weren’t able to before,” Jackson said.

More recently, Jackson teamed up with Adam Brandt, an assistant professor in the Department of Resources Engineering, on a project to remotely monitor the leakage of methane and other gases that can negatively impact air quality at well sites using infrared cameras and other tools. One goal is to eventually develop instruments that can be installed on a drone that can automatically monitor wells and storage tanks for leaks on a routine basis. Current techniques for measuring leakage at these sites are expensive and as a result surveys are not conducted systematically.

“Cheaper, more automated sampling will provide companies and researchers with a clearer picture of where and how frequently leaks occur and how to fix them,” Jackson said.

One of the factors that swayed Jackson to move to Stanford was the university’s proximity to major technology and instrumentation companies. Jackson is currently working with some of them to build a laser analysis facility at Stanford that will be able to precisely measure the ratio of different chemicals and isotopes in samples.

“Isotopes vary in the environment depending on where they come from. Water from deep underground has a different hydrogen and oxygen isotope signature than rain water. Or if you’re interested in methane, you can use carbon 13 isotopes to tell whether methane comes from a microbe in a wetland or from a fossil fuel source deep underground,” Jackson said. The instrument—tentatively named CARDINAL, short for Cavity Ringdown Analysis Laboratory–is expected to be operational later this year.

Jackson is also currently teaching two classes: a graduate course on climate change (EESS 305), and an undergraduate course (EarthSys 107) that uses a mix of science fiction and real science news to explore topics ranging from cloning extinct creatures to geoengineering.

Policy-relevant science

For his research, Jackson frequently chooses projects that he thinks will have implications for policy. His work on leaky natural gas wells and pipes, for example, could lead to updated regulations in the affected states. “A perfect research project for me is one that has a basic science component and policy relevance,” Jackson said. “That’s what excites me the most.”

In line with that goal, Jackson also co-chairs the Global Carbon Project, an independent international organization that releases an annual carbon dioxide and methane budget to quantify carbon emissions and their causes. “The project is science-based, and it provides really useful information to the public and policymakers,” Jackson said.

An optimist at heart, Jackson conveyed his hope of finding solutions to deal with climate change and other environmental problems in his 2002 book The Earth Remains Forever.  

“I believe in human ingenuity,” Jackson wrote.  “Ultimately, I believe in the human spirit—that people will care about the Earth around them and about the generations to come.”

Ker Than is associate director of communications for the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences.