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Researcher of the Month

January 2014

Daniel Caputi 

Atmospheric Science major, Dec '13 graduate 
URECA Grant Recipient (April 2012; December 2013) 

Research Mentors: Dr. Brian Colle, School of Marine & Atmospheric Sciences; Dr. Harvey Cormier, Philosophy


Danny Caputi"As a kid, I was very afraid of loud, sudden noises. I would hate thunderstorms so much. Then my dad showed me how to track thunderstorms using radar and I thought that was the coolest thing in the world. So that’s how I got into weather..., explains Danny Caputi, who graduated magna cum laudethis past December with a bachelor's degree in Atmospheric Sciences.

At SB, Danny has done meteorology research under the mentorship of Prof. Brian Colle of SoMAS — most recently on an independent research project (ATM 487) using observational rainfall and wind data to model predictions for damage. As Vice President of the Meteorology Club for the past two years, he has also been actively involved in an array of weather-related trips/events and activities (including posting weather alerts and providing weather-related educational data for SBUWeather on Facebook; and TVSTORMWATCH, a website he designed to predict school closings). Up on the roofMost notably, Danny initiated and was instrumental in bringing to light— together with a team of people from HSC, SoMAS & the Meteorology Club— the “Top of the Brook” project : installing a web camera and weather station on the rooftop of the Stony Brook Health Sciences Center, the tallest building in central Long Island (360 feet) [see also facebookpage]. Danny reflects: " It’s really cool: we can actually look at time lapses of the sky; we can look at approaching storms, wind speeds and temperature readings which can be completely different from what we’re seeing on the ground." Danny was also active in the summer 2013 Doppler Radar for Education and Mesoscale Studies (DREAMS)Project, a week-long series of research missions with a Doppler On Wheels on Long Island.

In addition to a longtime fascination with the chaotic and unpredictable nature of the atmosphere, a central topic that intrigues Danny is consciousness and the philosophy of the mind. As Danny puts it, We all think about the meaning of life. We all ponder all these mysteries..”  In April 2012, As a sophomore, Danny presented a research paper at the Undergraduate Philosophy Conference in SUNY Oneonta on “The Extraordinary Nature of Consciousness”—a paper that developed out of a philosophy class with Prof. Brian Irwin. Danny has since expanded on the project by doing independent study this past year, working with Prof. Harvey Cormier, particularly on such questions as: “If you upload your brain onto a computer, would it be you?” Danny plans to present the outcome of this work, “The Essence of the Self: A Mathematical Model to help us Cheat Death,” at an upcoming interdisciplinary meeting, Toward a Science of Consciousness, in Tucson Arizona, in April 2014. Danny’s philosophy conference presentations have been supported through URECA funding.

Danny Caputi grew up in the Stony Brook environs, and is a graduate of Ward Melville HS, '10 (Three Village School District) where he was known for doing weather announcements on the PA. He is also a certified merit badge counselor for music, weather and aviation; and a certified SKYWARN spotter. At Stony Brook, Danny received the Petra M. Udelhofen Scholarship, awarded annually to an undergraduate in atmospheric sciences/meteorology; and the Timothy Magnussen Memorial Scholarship given annually to a senior in atmospheric sciences with exceptional academic performance. Danny plans to pursue a Ph.D. in atmospheric sciences. His hobbies include music (he has been teaching piano for 4 years); and aviation (he is a student pilot who flies gliders with the Long Island Soaring Assocation). Below are excerpts of his conversation with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.

Photo (right): courtesy of John Griffin, Communications 
Photo (left): 
Michael Colbert and Danny Caputi, Up on the Roof of the HSC 

Interview excerpts

Karen. Tell me about your research. What is the general gist of the philosophy project you’ve been working on?
Danny. I’ve been doing independent study with Prof. Harvey Cormier, and recently sent in my abstract, “The Essence of the Self: A Mathematical Model to help us Cheat Death” for Towards a Science of Consciousness, an interdisciplinary conference taking place in Tucson, Arizona this coming April. I’m interested in questions about consciousness: what causes consciousness? … Why do we feel an irreducible self that all of our perceptions are linked to? … If you upload your brain onto a computer, would it be you? Can we create immortality by uploading your brain onto a computer? And as I came to try to make sense of all of it – I drew out and mapped out my ideas of how think some of these mysteries could work out. Then what I realized there was a gap in the current philosophical explanations and proposals that were out there — this specific idea that I had was not really in the literature—that pushed me further because I realized how important this topic is. Because consciousness is our existence.

So we are conscious, meaning we are aware of our own existence.  Basically figuring out why some things can be conscious (like a human brain) and why some things cannot be conscious (like a computer) is the underlying mystery that we’ve been pondering for millennia. And when we focus in on this topic, one of the major mysteries is: why do we feel that we have an irreducible, core “self” that inhabits our subjective experience, that is, a “self” that our conscious experience is linked to?  There are a lot of people that are skeptical of the idea of the self, the idea that there is an irreducible subject of experience in your mind. First, I argue against that skeptical position with some thought experiments, and then I bring a new idea to the table which is a distinction between a potential subject (a “self” that is unconscious) and an active subject (a “self” that is conscious). What I argue is that there are really an infinite amount of potential subjects — an infinite amount of possible selves. So consider this: you did not have to be you.  In other words, your body could still exist, but you as a subject of conscious experience might have either inhabited a different body, or it might not exist at all.  A different subject of conscious experience could inhabit your body instead.  So the ultimate mystery is: when you were conceived, out of the infinite amount of possible subjects of consciousness your body could have chosen, why was yours chosen?  I draw on some of the latest research on consciousness and discuss the idea that, in order to preserve identity when (and if) we upload our brains onto computers, we need a story; we need a science explaining how these potential subjects become active subjects.

Can you describe the process of doing research & independent study in philosophy?
It’s a combination of both your own thinking and looking at what other people have come up with. Over the past few years I’ve delved into the literature to see what other philosophers have come up with on the idea of consciousness. So it’s a matter of looking at their arguments, seeing where I agree, where I disagree. The other part is just making sense of it yourself and trying to map it all out.
Consciousness is a multidisciplinary topic. It’s philosophy; it’s science; it’s mathematics; it’s spirituality; it’s really everything. And the conference that I’m looking to present this paper at in April is multidisciplinary. That’s their theme— people coming from all different angles to address these questions. Together, all of these unique perspectives work to enhance each other.  They co-exist quite beautifully.

As an atmospheric science major, how did you first get involved in philosophy research? 
I had this paper that I wanted to develop more from a class I took two years ago. I had actually presented it as a paper at a philosophy conference in Oneonta in 2012. I had met Professor Cormier and had previous discussions with him, so I figured I’d email him, and it ended up working out where he allowed me to pursue an independent research course with him. It’s been really great to work with him. He was a good professor to work with especially because he initially did not agree with a lot of my conclusions. So that actually helped me really try to structure my arguments in such a way that would make more sense to everyone – and anticipate where my critiques would be.  It’s very rare, perhaps almost unheard of, where two people working in philosophy will completely agree on everything.

That sounds helpful to get that kind of dialogue & discussion going.
He still disagrees with me on a couple of things... but I feel that a lot of the initial objections he had and that we talked about when we first met went away. And I feel that may be partially because I just formulated my arguments better. The previous philosophy conference I presented at also helped me with getting good discussions & feedback. Since I wrote the first version of the paper, I’ve gotten a lot of feedback, looked into the literature more in depth, and basically reformulated and expanded on the way I express my ideas.

When people have different (or perhaps opposing) ideas about the self, or consciousness, how do you respond to these challenges?
It does get frustrating when you think: are they disagreeing with me because they fundamentally disagree with me? Or is it just that because I ‘m not explaining it in the way I really want to. Actually, that’s the biggest challenge of doing philosophy research — trying to formulate your arguments in such a way that the maximum number of people that could agree with you — will agree with you. With philosophy it’s very hard to organize and structure your logic as perfectly as it is in your head. It’s sometimes so hard to communicate what your ultimate idea is. There’s that nagging sensation you get that you’re not doing a good enough job of explaining yourself. That’s the challenge of philosophy.

Let's talk about the research you are doing in Atmospheric Sciences.
So I’m really interested in the chaotic and unpredictable nature of the atmosphere, specifically in turbulence and wind. My ultimate goal is to create some kind of formula that will take into account how wind varies with time and be able to predict damage.  Is damage more dependent on wind gusts or on average wind over a longer period of time? What I’ve preliminarily focused on this semester is one specific factor — rainfall— and specifically, rainfall ahead of frontal systems. Rainfall can basically drag down stronger winds from aloft. The problem I’m focusing in on: trying to create a specific function for rainfall intensity vs how much stronger those winds are going to get. I’m looking at observations from airports that collect both rainfall and wind data.  You may think it’s a simple correlation analysis, but it’s more complicated because we want to get a really good sense of how rainfall perturbations are affecting wind speeds on very short time scales (~10 minutes) as opposed to the entire duration of a storm.  

How do you go about doing this? What are the biggest challenges in this project? 
I needed to learn statistics that were a little more advanced than what an intro to statistics course teaches. So I’d say the main challenge is: finding the type of statistical analysis you want to perform on your data, and then using that to really figure out the mechanism behind what you’re studying. With meteorology especially, since our experiments are generally not laboratory-controlled, we have to try to sort out many different variables and factors that could explain our results. 

Some of my research ideas have been based on things I’ve learned in the more intensive courses, while some ideas came more out of the blue. I personally think that just having good insight can give you really good ideas even when you’re a beginner to the field.  Sometimes too much knowledge might occlude you from seeing where the gaps are—because you might take some kind of knowledge for granted. 

Tell me about the Meteorology club: is your involvement research related?
The Meteorology Club, which I’ve served as vice president for the past 2.5 years, is a place where we can have fun with weather. We do weather discussions every week. We organize trips to conferences and some other fun events. And we also outreach to the public. Our recent big project which I helped to initiate and plan was: we put a weather station and web camera on top of Stony Brook Hospital. It’s really cool: we can actually look at time lapses of the sky; allowing us to see approaching storms, changing tree colors, snow cover, developing clouds, really anything.  In terms of weather data, we can look at wind speeds and temperature readings from this unique vantage point, which can be completely different just a few hundred feet up from what what’s happening on the ground.  So it’s an educational tool, it’s a forecasting tool, and it’s good for research too.  I had the idea to put a weather station up there for a while but I became more motivated to work on it after Tropical Storm Irene. And I was very happy that we were able to carry it out—it was a joint effort between HSC building management, SoMAS, and the Meteorology Club. It was really wonderful to see this come to life.

What do you do with all the data?
One of the major differences we see from weather on the ground at street level and weather 360 feet up is wind and temperature. We’ve had this launched since June 12th –and so far the highest gust up there was 69 miles per hour (as of this date - 12/8/2013) , but at the time we were seeing gusts at ground level of only around 40 miles per hour. What that’s useful for is that tells us what the stronger winds are doing aloft. And this ties into my research a bit. It will help forecasters better-because it will help them by knowing what the winds are doing up there; we can predict what kind of gusts are going to make it down to the ground and possibly do some damage. Wind power is another possible application. There have been investments for off shore wind power. The turbines locally would go off the coast of LI-and would be up pretty high. The more wind data we have of winds at that height will give us some applications for figuring out if that’s a useful investment or not.  Also, knowing the difference between the temperature on the ground and the temperature up there can give us a sense of atmospheric stability, which can give us an idea of how likely it is for storms to develop.

Did you come to SB knowing you wanted to do atmospheric sciences?
Yes, I've been interested for a long time. When I was young, I was very afraid of loud, sudden noises. I would hate thunderstorms so much. Then my dad showed me how to track thunderstorms using radar and I thought that was the coolest thing in the world. So that’s how I got into weather and it progressed from there. Since then, that’s really opened my mind to the beauty of the atmosphere.

What do you enjoy about the atmospheric sciences research and work you do?
I definitely like working with other people, sharing ideas, collaborating, working as a team. And I like independent research—where you yourself are finding a gap, and trying to close a gap in knowledge. I really get more gratification out of a project when I came up with the idea, when I’m not just carrying it out-but am actually playing a part in coming up with the project myself.  
I definitely enjoy the investigation. Ultimately, I learn more from that –from investigating something yourself than from classes. I always get ideas for research topics – it’s a never-ending flood; these topics just kind of come to me. What’s difficult to do is to pick one or two things to focus in on. That’s the issue with this science research. You always overestimate how many topics you can fit into a short amount of time... I’m probably going to have a mile long list of projects by the time I enter graduate school. My hope is that there will be some way to tie it all together. 

So you’ll be doing a Ph.D. in Atmospheric Sciences?
Yes I’m applying to graduate school now.  

You talked a little about communicating philosophical concepts that may be hard to grasp initially. Have you had much practice with presenting your science-related research as well?
With my current SoMAS project, I haven’t done much presenting yet. But I’ve had lots of other experience with talking about weather-related work, connecting what I think the importance of it is to the general public. Though the Meteorology club facebook page —for example,  I’ve posted some fun weather lessons that often baffle people (such why we had a thunderstorm with extremely high lightning rates). In high school I did weather announcements on the PA. I have taught weather lessons to elementary classes before. If you can take an idea that’s complex and break it down in a way that anyone can understand, even young children, that’s golden.

What has been valuable for improving your communication skills?
Being a music teacher (I teach piano) has improved my communication skills a lot. But some of my inspiration also came from teachers. When I got into college, I had a couple of really amazing professors that could teach concepts so well. That made me realize that there is a way to communicate your ideas so effectively and it motivated me to learn how to do this better myself.  And ultimately, the way I learned was by observing how they do it. …..For example, Prof. Hemmick, a physics professor, is really good at that. I was really amazed at how good he was at explaining physics. It made so much sense the way he taught it. And I’ve had some other great professors since that first semester too. 

Do you have any advice for other students regarding research?
Pick something you want to live and breathe. Just find something you’re interested in and pursue it. For me, there’s nothing more gratifying than carving out a new path. For me, there’s nothing more exciting than that: finding something you’re passionate about. And if it will make a good contribution to the world, that’s a bonus. Ultimately your research may uncover more questions than answers, but that’s part of the excitement of it.