When science was science


ONCE , IT ACTUALLY worked. About 30 years ago, science pointed its solvent-stained finger at something that humans were doing wrong, something that would kill us if we kept it up. And the politicians listened and said: Whoa -- let’s stop doing that.

It’s 1973. A pair of UC Irvine scientists discover that the chemicals putting the spritz into deodorant and hairspray and the chill into air conditioning are chewing away the pancake-thin ozone layer that protects the planet from radiation. A year later they publish their findings. A year after that, Oregon bans the stuff, then the rest of the nation and Canada follow suit.

Bada boom, bada bing. Chlorofluorocarbons, RIP.

The slowest group to act turned out to be the Nobel Prize committee, which took 20 years to summon F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina (and another ozone scientist, Paul Crutzen) to Stockholm for the 1995 Nobel Prize in chemistry. Their work, the committee noted, may have “saved the world from catastrophe.”

It’s 2006. Rowland is still a research professor at UC Irvine, working out of a building that now bears his name. And science is regarded in some quarters not as a white-coat, white-hat savior but as just another whining special interest to be appeased or squelched. On a few blogs and blowhard broadcasts, science gets slagged as “opinion.” We’ve strayed disastrously from the Pat Moynihan reality rule: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”


The young Rowland studied at the University of Chicago under the man who discovered carbon-14 dating, another scientific technique now getting hammered. For Rowland, a tall, lanky fellow who has an inch on Abe Lincoln, being the messenger of man-made apocalypse in the 1970s only meant an attack from a trade mag called Aerosol Age and, puzzlingly, getting picketed in Stockholm by Lyndon Larouchies. “I wouldn’t say that ... there wasn’t organized opposition, but it was more from industries than political parties,” Rowland said.

Today, there’s the example of NASA’s James Hansen, another veteran atmospheric scientist, who was warned of “dire consequences” if he kept talking about the dire consequences of global warming. A 24-year-old college dropout with a PR job at NASA tried to keep reporters away from Hansen and changed the science content on the NASA website. The flunky finally quit -- not because he censored scientists but for the lame reason of lying on his resume. When politics trumps science like that, “you know something’s out of hand,” Rowland said.

Rowland was the Cassandra whom people believed. The day he went home with his findings, his wife threw out every spray can in the house. “The work is going well,” he had told her, “but it looks like it might be the end of the world.”

Of course, finding substitutes for CFCs has been a lot easier than replacing fossil fuel in the world’s gas tanks. And there’s a far bigger constituency for keeping your house warm than for keeping your hair motionless, unless you’re Donald Trump.

When it comes to “sky is falling” science, though, there’s just no pleasing the public. It gets mad when scientists engage in the debate; the administration has disciplined and overruled some of its own career researchers because their findings contradicted the White House’s agenda. And people get mad when scientists detach themselves from the “real world.” Rowland remembers a 1950s sci-fi story about a comet destroying Earth’s ozone. Outside the lab window, radiation is frying people right in their shoes, and inside, scientists are clamoring to look through a spectroscope at a solar radiation wavelength they’ve never seen before.

It’s not really a fair question to put to anyone -- are you optimistic or pessimistic? -- but it’s worth asking a man like Rowland, who deals in microns, to hear a calibrated answer:


“By inclination, I’m an optimist.”

Back in the day -- the 1970s -- “the advantages of science became apparent much more rapidly than the disadvantages. [The first] Earth Day was only in 1970; that represented people realizing there were adverse consequences to a lot of activities. That wasn’t the general view people had before.”

The long-term hope for countering climate change -- if we have enough future left -- is finding practical scientific answers to act on, as opposed to, in Rowland’s words, “sweeping it under the rug.” That’s the optimistic part.

“The planet is in for a rough century,” Rowland said, “as we try to put together substitutes for the energy that we need in order to prevent very substantial climate change coming from rapidly rising temperatures.”

Saturday, Earth Day 2006, will find Rowland and his wife in New York, with tickets to the Metropolitan Opera. It’s “Tosca,” about jealousy, knifings, Napoleon, cross-dressing, torture and suicide. So much more restful than science and politics.


PATT MORRISON’s e-mail is