Q&A with John Kelmelis

International Affairs professor and geographer John Kelmelis has advised the White House and the State Department and managed a host of projects including undersea mapping, remote sensing, disaster planning, and international relations. He joined the Penn State School of International Affairs in 2008 and teaches classes on science, geography, and environmental issues. He recently explained his approach to research and teaching and how one act of science can reverberate across time, space, and the globe.

What kinds of questions do you ask through your research?
I ask: how will a particular scientific event in one place play through to an international activity such as a policy or an agreement? Scientific activity in one part of the world no doubt reverberates to another. Whether it’s mining of rare earth elements, decisions about water use, or the discovery of e=mc2, my research asks: How did a scientific activity in one place lead to an international agreement, negotiation, or treaty in another? How will science and technology affect international affairs in the future?
Take Einstein. In 1905, he wrote four papers and had some minor papers published prior to that. In one of those papers was this theory of relativity, which was named by somebody else. As an appendix to that paper of 30-something pages, he added a short appendix that included e=mc2. And he was surprised by that because he did not expect that energy and mass were the same thing when they started out the research. In 1904, no one would have ever guessed that a patent clerk who was not doing very well as a patent clerk would be able to would come up with this tremendous theory that affects our lives in unbelievable ways. Televisions, the old-style TVs, could not operate without knowing e=mc2.
The particle beam that is shot from the particle gun to the cathode ray tube surface has to be focused, and the particles are flying at near light speed. And so relativistic physics affects the ability to focus them and so you have to design with magnets that focus those particle beams taking relativistic velocities to account. Without Einstein, we probably would have never had televisions like that, and we might never have ended up with the televisions we have today. Apart from being used in televisions, those cathode ray tubes were also the things that electronics engineers used when they were designing more and more sophisticated technologies.
So e=mc2 translates to a lot of technologies that we have today, including your GPS in your car. GPS cannot operate without understanding e=mc2 because the satellites are flying around and they’re in communication with each other. Part of e=mc2 is understanding the relationship of time and space and velocity, and it’s all done at relativist speeds. The satellites are in communication with each other, at the speed of light and they’re also in motion, so you have to know e=mc2 to understand differential motion and that drives the information about the exact location on the surface of the earth that you are using in your GPS in your car.
What makes Penn State's School of International Affairs unique?
What makes the School of International Affairs so special is Penn State. Penn State’s Colleges of Science, Engineering, Agricultural Sciences and Communications are world-class. Students in the School of International Affairs have the opportunity to pursue advanced study in the sciences that will shape development, innovation, and technology in the twenty-first century.
In the 21st Century, we are going to need to know more about how scientists and policy makers can communicate and integrate information that is being developed into policy decisions.
What is it like to teach in an interdisciplinary environment?
I taught an environmental negotiations in international affairs course recently, and my students come from everywhere. I had three international affairs students and three lawyers—the rest were geographers, engineers, and architects. In one word, I would describe our conversations as rich. And getting all of these people in the same room is exactly the kind of dialogue we need to have as international affairs professionals. We need to understand the breadth of culture and the breadth of science, and technology and feel comfortable with economics. Knowledge of all of these fields and the way they work together—whether it’s operational activities or negotiating or policy making or implementing policy—it’s this breadth that makes someone a very suitable candidate for a career in international affairs.