In Room 100 of the classic Christopher Wren-inspired Towne Building, Robert Giegengack seems much less than worried. The 67-year-old professor is preparing to give one of the semester’s final lectures to his 150-student class in environmental analysis, a popular science elective among Penn’s arts and sciences undergrads.
For decades, Giegengack was content to be a relatively obscure geologist who taught more than he published. Recently, though, he’s stepped into the swirling tempest surrounding global warming, in part because he says it’s not even one of the top 10 environmental problems we face. To make that point, he occasionally joins in a panel discussion, or gives a quote to a science writer. He’s thinking about writing something for one of the smarty-pants magazines. “I’ve always been interested in this question,” he says, “but when I first started working, no one cared — you couldn’t get an article published if you wanted to.” Now, though, “The public appetite for all this crap seems to be insatiable.”
Giegengack is a slim man of medium height, with a prominent nose and a very high forehead. “I traded my hair for eyeglasses,” he’s been known to say. In this weird late-fall weather, he’s dressed as if he might run off for a round of golf or a sail — khaki pants, striped dress shirt (short-sleeved) and boat shoes. His name is pronounced “GEEG-in-gack,” and over the nearly four decades he has taught at Penn, students have developed the habit of simply calling him “Gieg.”
Gieg is situated at a lectern in the pit of an amphitheater classroom. As the seats fill, he fiddles with his Mac laptop, where he has stored a PowerPoint presentation that covers today’s lecture. Before that, though, he runs a short clip from a Simpsons episode in which Bart and Lisa argue over whether water drains in different directions in the Southern and Northern hemispheres. Though Gieg has long been known as an entertaining lecturer, he’s not The Simpsons. The students laugh out loud at the clip, as does their professor. When the lights come back on, the professor assures them: “Bart will probably not be on the final.”
The class is a typical-seeming group, heavy on girls, some of whom wear ripped jeans and do-rags, others of whom are carefully made up and snappily dressed, pulling their notebooks from designer bags. Midway through the class, Gieg says, “Now it’s time for us to talk about the number one political/environmental issue of our time.” He reads a snippet from a New York Times editorial about the Supreme Court global-warming case.
“What I’m going to try to do the rest of today and also probably on Tuesday is bring you up to date on this. I’ll try to avoid editorializing or politicking. I’ll just tell you some stuff. Give you information. There’s lot’s of stuff, and it’s very complicated.”
Gieg gazes upward toward his young charges. “Every single one of you knows more about this than Al Gore,” he tells the undergrads. “And vastly more than anyone in this present administration.”