Sherwood Rowland Showed Naysayers, Won Nobel

His warnings of aerosol danger met deaf ears, even at Nature

Classic case of realist in science ostracized

Vindicated, he understood disdain and why

The case of F. Sherwood Rowland, who died on March 10, Saturday, of Parkinsons, is a tutorial in how valid novelty in science reliably meets the same reflex rejection as crackpot notions peddled by amateur researchers.

The Times obituary, F. Sherwood Rowland, 84, Dies; Cited Aerosols’ Danger has the theme in a nutshell: A discovery met with disdain, but later rewarded with a Nobel Prize.

SAN FRANCISCO — F. Sherwood Rowland, whose discovery in 1974 of the danger that aerosols posed to the ozone layer was initially met with disdain but who was ultimately vindicated with the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, died on Saturday at his home in Corona del Mar, Calif. He was 84.

Perhaps computers should be employed to assess new ideas in science, since they can presumably be shorn of the oh-so-human responses of scientists at the top of a field (and its middle and lower rungs too, of course) to an idea which they didn’t think of, which shows that their own ideas are up the creek, and that they missed a key notion:

Industry representatives at first disputed Dr. Rowland’s findings, and many skeptical colleagues in the field avoided him. But his findings, achieved in laboratory experiments, were supported 11 years later when British scientists discovered that the stratospheric ozone layer, which blocks harmful ultraviolet rays, had developed a hole over Antarctica.

The discovery led to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, a landmark international environmental treaty to stop the production of the aerosol compounds known as chlorofluorocarbons, or CFC’s, and other ozone-depleting chemicals and to eliminate inventories of them.

Along with a colleague, Mario Molina, Dr. Rowland found that chlorinated fluorocarbons, the supposedly inert building blocks of aerosol sprays that were then common in deodorants, hair care products and grocery freezers had the potential to deplete the ozone layer to dangerous levels.

In a paper published in the journal Nature in 1974, the two scientists showed that when CFC’s rise into the stratosphere, they are bombarded by powerful doses of ultraviolet rays. A single chlorine atom knocked free, they found, can absorb more than 100,000 ozone molecules. More disturbing, the atoms could linger in the stratosphere for up to a century.

“The clarity and startling nature of what Molina and Rowland came up with — the notion that something you could hold in your hand could affect the entire global environment, not just the room in which you were standing — was extraordinary,” Ralph Cicerone, the president of the National Academy of Sciences and a longtime colleague of Dr. Rowland, said in an interview.

But Rowland was a realist in sociology as well as science, and he survived the trial by fire unscathed.

“Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s — I call it the cold war period for ozone depletion — there were a lot of potshots taken at Sherry,” said Dr. Donald Blake, a colleague of Dr. Rowland’s at Irvine, “and I don’t think his pulse went up by a beat.”

He added: “How could he remain so calm? Because he believed what he did was right.”….

“He mentioned to me that he had not been invited to any chemistry department to give a lecture” from about 1975 to 1985, Dr. Blake recalled. Dr. Cicerone said, “You could probably name any top chemistry department in the country and say, ‘Did they invite Rowland to lecture in that period?’ And the answer would be no.”

But the resistance was understandable in many ways, and Rowland forgave it.

Dr. Cicerone, whose own work established the possibility of a chlorine chain reaction, said “the situation 30, 35, even 40 years ago was so different.”

“The territory they stepped into and defined were so new that most scientists felt they didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “They didn’t feel prepared — or they felt the linkage with an ongoing human activity was too big a step.” ….

When Dr. Rowland was asked around the time of the Nobel ceremony if he considered himself a hero, he said, Not really. As Dr. Cicerone paraphrased his reply: When you make a big discovery, you either show that everybody else was wrong, or that they missed something important. How do you think that makes them feel?

Here’s a description of how his discovery came about in the University of Chicago Magazine. It describes not only how it was made but how the reaction was much more resistant than the Times politely suggests.

Graduate students vanished, for example, knowing on which side their bread was buttered. The industry speculated darkly that he was an agent of the KGB and mounted the usual snow job against an “unproven” claim.

Shades of Peter Duesberg of Berkeley and his ostracism after he reviewed HIV/AIDS in 1987 and found it was a false description of AIDS, without any basis in evidence, and that HIV was an inert retrovirus that did not cause any illness whatsoever.

Of course if reason is blocked physical evidence for a negative as in notHIV is almost impossible to find so the physical evidence for Rowland and Melino’s fears which changed everything after eleven years of rejection was not repeated in Duesberg’s case, so his professional ostracism has burdened him now for 25 years and withheld from society much of the potential benefits of his pioneering research in cancer which is so promising:

In the early 1970s, Rowland, alreadyan expert in the chemical reactions of radioactive isotopes and their useas tracers of chemical and biological processes, was stepping down as chair of the Irvine chemistry department and looking for a new avenue of investigation. As a graduate student at Chicago–where he was best known as a standout varsity basketball and baseball player–he had studied under Willard Libby. Libby would later win a Nobel for developing the carbon-14 dating technique, which uses the formation, by cosmic rays, of a long-lived radioisotope incorporated into carbon dioxide to date plants and animal tissues up to 45,000 years old. Much of the carbon-14 chemistry takes place in the lowerstratosphere, and Rowland now found himself drawn to environmental applications of radioactivity.

Attending a chemistry-meteorology workshop in early 1972,he learned that James Lovelock, a British biospheric scientist, had developed a highly sensitive instrument to measure trace organic compounds in the atmosphere. Taking air samples from shipboard in the North and South Atlantic, Lovelock had detected one particular CFC throughout the troposphere, the 6-to-10-mile-high layer of the atmosphere between the earth’s surface andthe stratosphere. Lovelock was enthusiastic about the finding: He thoughtthe CFC molecule would prove an excellent tag for air-mass movements and wind direction, since its chemical stability would prevent its removal from the atmosphere. Rowland, however, saw the matter differently.

“I knew that such a molecule could not remain inert in the atmosphere forever,” Rowland says, “if only because solar photochemistry at high altitudes would break it down.” The next year, when he submitted his regular yearly proposal to the Atomic Energy Commission, which had supported his research for 17 years, Rowland posed a new question: What would eventually become of CFC molecules in the atmosphere?

With Molina, a photochemist from Mexico City who had just joined his lab, Rowland began investigating the atmospheric fate of CFCs.The two knew that, like all molecular gases, the CFCs could be broken down into their constituent atoms by short-wavelength ultraviolet radiation from the sun once they reached the stratosphere, from 12 to 23 miles up,where the sunlight is unshielded by the ozone layer.

After careful study, Rowland and Molina ruled out any chance that the CFCs might be rinsed out of the atmosphere by rainfall, as these organic compounds are insoluble in water. Nor was there any other known mechanism for the removal of the inert CFCs from the troposphere. Moreover, Lovelock’s measurements suggested that the total amount of a particular CFC in the troposphere was, in fact, equal to the total amount of it ever manufactured–which by that time, for all CFCs combined, totaled several million tons.

Although heavier than air, the CFC molecules would eventually bounce up to the stratosphere, Rowland and Molina figured, and get zapped by the high-energy ultraviolet light, which would break off an atom of chlorine. Each free chlorine atom would immediately react with a molecule of ozone, a highly unstable form of molecular oxygen that contains three atoms rather than the usual two. This would initiate a lengthy and complex chain reaction, destroying many thousands of ozone molecules for every chlorine atom unleashed in the stratosphere.

Rowland and Molina shared a chilling realization: A major, possibly irreversible, catastrophe had already been set in motion. Working from rough calculations, they estimated that an eventual loss of approximately 20 to 40 percent of the ozone was possible. This was a few days before Christmas of 1973.

“It was like staring into a pit and not being able to see the bottom,” Rowland recalls. “Molina and I had discussed the overall calculations, and we were looking for flaws, and each of us would sort of realize that as far as we could tell, there were no flaws.

“I’d come home at the end of the day,” Rowland continues, “and my wife would ask me how the work was going. ‘Good,’I’d say, ‘but it might mean the end of the world.'” Her reaction, Rowland says, was to immediately throw out every aerosol can in the house.

“Fifteen down,” he says, “six billion to go.”

Initially, Joan Lundberg Rowland, PhB’46, was one of very few people to act quickly on the news. There was no urgent phone call to Washington. “I didn’t know anybody,” her husband explains. “Not anybody in power, not anybody in the press.”

In January 1974, convinced of the veracity and gravity of their findings, Rowland and Molina submitted an article to the British journal Nature–where it languished for eight months. Even after publication, the news media paid little attention until the two chemists presented their findings at a September meeting of the American Chemical Society in Atlantic City.

By that time, they had calculated that if CFC production continued at the then current (peak) rate of about a million tons per year, between 7 and 13 percent of the ultraviolet-blocking ozone would be destroyed within a century. They told the meeting that society could expect a significant rise in skin cancer, crop damage, and perhaps even changes in global weather patterns.

Within a few weeks, their calculations for ozone loss were confirmed by Crutzen, a meteorologist then working at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colorado, and by other groups as well. Still others produced numbers that suggested even more rapid destruction of the ozone layer.

Now the press took notice, as did the environmentalists, who called for an immediate ban on the purchase of CFC aerosol sprays. The National Academy of Sciences announced it would mount a full-scale investigation, and congressional hearings were soon under way.

Nor did the CFC industry remain inert. Its response was to insist that ozone destruction was just a hypothesis, based on computer projections–and that there was no proof the molecules would ever reach the stratosphere, let alone behave so malevolently if they did. The industry position was that CFCs should be regarded as innocent until proven guilty–prompting one government official to retort: “We cannot afford to give chemicals the same constitutional rights that we enjoy under the law.” But government action was not forthcoming; it was not until 1978 that the U.S. unilaterally banned the use of CFCs in aerosol sprays. Other countries did not follow suit until the Antarctic ozone hole was found in 1984.

The 40-percent ozone depletion and the 10-percent increase in ultraviolet penetration discovered at the British Antarctic Survey’s Halley Bay station would lead to the landmark Montreal Protocol of 1987,in which many of the world’s developed nations quickly agreed to halve CFC production by 1999. In 1990, as evidence of ozone loss continued to mount, delegates took the protocol a step further, agreeing to a total phaseout by the year 2000. The catastrophic loss of ozone also quieted Rowland’s aerosol-industry detractors, who had mounted a withering attackon him since 1974.

“One of the people in the industry in an interview suggested that [Molina and I] were probably agents of the KGB,” Rowlandre calls. He had spent much of that 11-year period testifying at congressional hearings and speaking at universities and scientific conferences around the world. He had been elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and he received the American Physical Society’s Leo Szilard Award for physics in the public interest. But he was also shunned by the chemistry community. From the time he and Molina published in 1974 until DuPont agreed to halt production of CFCs in 1988, he says, he did not get any applications from American graduate students or postdocs from outside the California system. “American grad students are pretty cagey,” he says. Most of his university speaking invitations during that time came from toxicology or atmospheric-science departments.

Still, Rowland–a man well known for his patience–is magnanimous even to the point of defending his erstwhile industry adversaries.”Every young person I ever knew getting into chemistry or physics really thought that they were on the good side and were trying to make life better for people,” he explains. “So it came as a disturbing shock to them that people were saying that some things that they had done weren’t actually making life better, but worse.”

Rowland says that in a world polarized between tree huggers on one extreme and midnight dumpers on the other, he is closer to being an environmentalist. But his natural home is with academic scientists;the 1974 Nature paper, he notes, was his 171st publication. In 1971 he even drew the ire of environmentalists by showing that levels of mercuryfound in tuna were in fact no higher than those in specimens preserved decades earlier…..

(Continued on this page at the University of Chicago Magazine, continuing with this well written biography Clean UP Hitter: Long before F. Sherwood Rowland began to study chlorofluorocarbons,the man-made gases were a household force. His work in atmospheric chemistry made CFCs a household word–and halting their production a global issue, by William Burton)

A fine outcome to a classic case study of what happens to a fine scientist who discovers something that disturbs the status quo, but because he has character, integrity and further research bears him out can overcome the resistance of those who do not think before they think, which large, perhaps overwhelming portion of the human race we are sorry to say includes most scientists, whose brains reject new ideas with the same alacrity as the rest of us.

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