Interview with Professor F. Sherwood Rowland by freelance journalist Marika Griehsel at the 55th meeting of Nobel Laureates in Lindau, Germany, June 2005.
Professor Rowland talks about the discovery that turned out to be so important; his interest in environmental issues (2:58); the problem of global warming (9:31); his reaction to receiving the Nobel Prize (11:04); how his wife came to be a working partner (13:23); and what made him interested in science (16:36).
Thank you, Professor, for coming to this interview today.
Sherwood Rowland: I’m pleased to be here.
When I was briefed about you and your work from one of the people at the Nobel Museum in Stockholm, they said there are a number of people who have done great jobs who have received a prize, but one of them who has made the most outstanding contribution is Professor Rowland. And it was in the work that you have done regarding the environmental issues. How do you feel when people are saying something like that?
Sherwood Rowland: I do think that the question of the chlorofluorocarbons in stratospheric ozone turned out to be a very important problem. We didn’t plan it that way but that’s how it turned out. And so it has for many people become a symbol of what the environmental movement can do and I agree with that. The Montreal Protocol is an agreement among many countries and it’s actually working.
But do you feel it’s a burden almost or is it an excitement to carry that, you have been part of something so big?
Sherwood Rowland: I think it’s more that that was part of my life and I certainly don’t regret it. I enjoyed it while we were doing it because it was very exciting science. And to have it work out that we have, the Montreal Protocol was added to it, that it was recognised and acted upon.
Do you, afterwards, when you realised what you were finding out, your findings, how did you react when you and your colleague …
Sherwood Rowland: The initial reaction, the first reaction was we have made some big mistake in our calculation because this looks like it’s important. And that hadn’t been, we hadn’t said when we started out we’re going to see what’s happening to the ozone layer. We had said what’s going to happen to chlorofluorocarbons. And then when we found out what was happening to them, then followed a little bit further, we realised it would have a major effect on stratospheric ozone layer and therefore was a very, was a major global environmental problem. So that was the realisation that this had suddenly turned from being an interesting scientific exercise into a global problem, was very eye opening and worrying.
Were you already then interested in environmental issues?
Sherwood Rowland: I’d been interested, I wouldn’t say, in one sense I don’t think that I came into this from the environmental camp. I came into it from the scientific side of an interesting scientific problem of what would happen to these compounds which … they’re man made, they hadn’t been in the atmosphere before, they are very useful technologically and one of their major technological advantages is they don’t react with very many things, in fact almost nothing that they react with. And that’s a technological advantage and it’s the fatal flaw in the earth’s atmosphere is that the only thing that happens to them is up in the stratosphere, relieves chlorine atoms, chlorine atoms attack ozone and you have a problem. And so you can’t go on doing that. You have to quite manufacturing and using these compounds. So there was beyond the science there was political and environmental questions that had to be faced and over a period of time they were.
But have you become more interested in environmental issues? Are you being …
Sherwood Rowland: Once we got into this then we began … the laboratory that I set up … I was an experimental chemist so you have a laboratory, and we set up a laboratory to measure chlorofluorocarbons and other molecules in the atmosphere. And if I may say so we have a very good laboratory, and as a result if you collected air sample in Southern Chile and you bring it back and you analyse it, we can find out how much of chlorofluorocarbon-11 is in it. We can find out how much of 200 other molecules are there. And you’ve already collected the sample, you’ve already analysed it, and that takes you into studying of other things that are going on in the atmosphere.
We began to measure for example methane, which is also influenced by man but it is not an industrial product in the general sense. It’s a product of molecules that are released in rice paddies, they’re released by cattle, many other uses. And that becomes … and methane is an important greenhouse gas and so we’ve been measuring that now on a global basis for about 25 years. And then you keep on looking and there are other interesting molecules in the atmosphere relative to what’s going on in Chicago or Oklahoma City or Beijing or Tokyo. And so we have become clearly working on the environment but working on the atmosphere as it exists in various places. And that makes you aware, frequently this turns out to be an environmental problem on a local basis or maybe a regional basis or global. And so you start worrying about how you cut off these problems before they become something that takes effect in cities all over the world.
Of course what we see by the thinning of the ozone layer is that it’s a man-made problem to a large extent. Can we as human beings reverse that? Can we repair it? Can we do something? What would you like to …
Sherwood Rowland: In terms of reversing it, nature will take care of that, and I don’t see any way to do it faster. And nature will not take care of it rapidly. They major molecule that’s involved, there are two major molecules, but the longer lived of these two is dichlorodifluoromethane or fluorocarbon-12. Its life time in the atmosphere is about 100 years.
And just to make sure what life time means, it means that at the end, about 1% goes away every year, but what that means is that at the end of a century then 37% of it is still left. And at the end of two centuries there’s 15% and at the end of three centuries there are about 6%. So we’re not going to be free of dichlorodifluoromethane for several hundred years. But we will have rapidly, not rapidly, but progressively less as we go through the coming centuries. Fluorocarbon-11, the other major molecule, has a life time of about half a century. And so it will go away somewhat faster, but will still easily measurable quantities for hundreds of years into the future.
Would you advise young students to get into this field? I read somewhere that we only know very little yet about the atmospheric field.
Sherwood Rowland: I would encourage young students to get into something that they find very interesting, whatever that is. And there are a lot of interesting environmental problems. There are some where you can, if you clean up the air in your own city you can see the result fairly quickly. In India for instance, in Delhi, in the last several years they’ve made a remarkable improvement because they have switched away from diesel fuel for trucks and taxis and three wheeled vehicles. So the people in India that are working in Delhi can look up and see blue sky where they didn’t have it before, and they can certainly get a feeling of satisfaction out of that, as well as having solved the scientific problem along the way.
But do you think we as human beings on this earth could have changed quicker, we could have other kinds of use energies, different kinds of cars, if there was not enough pressure?
Sherwood Rowland: No, on the question of the stratospheric ozone question has been treated a reasonably satisfactory solution about the best that we could has been reached. And we know that this Montreal Protocol is working. Global warming on the other hand is a continuing problem and it’s one that not everyone is facing. Most countries are not really facing the real magnitude of what that problem is.
The Kyoto Protocol that was agreed, negotiated in 1997 and has gone into effect eight years later, meaning this year, and not everybody clearly in the United States has not agreed to it. But the Kyoto Protocol is just a bare start. In order to reduce the effects of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we need not to get rid of six or seven percent of the carbon dioxide, but more like sixty of seventy percent. And since carbon dioxide comes from burning coal, gas and oil, that means that we have to be working very hard on all of the opportunities to find energy substitutes from burning the carbon fuels.
When you received the prize, were you surprised? Had you expected it?
Sherwood Rowland: The answer to that is no, I hadn’t expected it. One is sort of aware that it might be considered but the Nobel Prize is rarely given for someone that does work that’s outside the laboratory, amidst physics and chemistry. And whether the destruction of the ozone layer was counted as chemistry or physics or geophysics. If it were geophysics then it probably wouldn’t be eligible. So for much of the time when we knew that it was getting a lot of attention, wasn’t it at all clear that it would qualify for Nobel consideration.
Did it in any way change your working life?
Sherwood Rowland: Changed it in some ways. I think for many Nobel Prize winners the change in their life is that they become a public scientist and that happened for Crutzen and Molina and myself back in the middle seventies when the destruction of stratospheric ozone became a front page topic. Then we started doing things like this, of doing television interviews or talking with newspaper and magazine people. So that aspect hit very hard in the middle seventies and again in the middle eighties when the Antarctic ozone hole appeared. So having been a public scientist for a couple of decades certain things weren’t so different. But clearly the Nobel Prize is widely recognised and honoured and it’s sort of as though your name has just been changed. It’s not Sherwood Rowland, it’s Sherwood Rowland Nobel Prize winner. And that certainly is a difference.
I believe you have worked in partnership with your wife as well. After the mid-seventies she came along and also became very involved in the public work.
Sherwood Rowland: She was a partner in the sense that she was very interested in it. She is a very shrewd judge of people and a very … having a concerned observer present who is reacting to circumstances, it means that you have a very well informed adviser who is there, who is present and has comments to make about people, about what she thinks they’re trying to do and so on. So it was very, very useful to have her along. And this happened very early. At one point I had a schedule that had me, I think, in seven cities in seven days and so that’s when I said this is crazy. But if you come along then you’ll at least be, I won’t have to tell you about it, you’ll see it. And she accepted that and then became very interested and knowledgeable in the way of having an informed lay person there on the scene and evaluating people, which is very useful.
Because I’m sure at times having done such important work and there are so many people who are interested in environmental issues today, that they will also like to use your comments and your expertise for their own purpose.
Sherwood Rowland: I think that certainly happens I think with any Nobel Prize winner, that they want to use … there are a lot of people that want to use your name for things that they would like to see happen. And my own reaction to that is I don’t like to have my name used generally. If it’s not something that I know quite a bit about, if it’s a problem in the atmosphere then I think it’s quite all right to get involved. If it is something, a biological issue, I generally do not want to sign petitions for those because that’s not my expertise and I’m essentially, they want my name and designation there to show, implying scientific knowledge. If I don’t have that scientific knowledge I don’t think the implication should be there. So I turn down a lot of, well many times I don’t agree with them anyhow, but I turn down many that I think are good ideas, probably correct, but I don’t have any expertise and I shouldn’t be implying that I have it.
If you look back to your childhood, I just want to end way back. What was it in your life that made you want to become a scientist?
Sherwood Rowland: I was always good at mathematics and science, but I don’t think, I really don’t think that if one went back to when I was a college student, I majored in chemistry. But I could have imagined if something had come up one might have gone off toward journalism or something of this sort. But I did work for the college newspaper. Maybe if somebody had come to me then and said we want you to do this I would have been side tracked in that direction and who knows? But I went to graduate school in chemistry and found that I was fortunate at the University of Chicago to have been dropped into the middle of a hotbed of outstanding science from people that had come out of World War II with scientific projects to work on, now that they were no longer working on military projects. And that was a very stimulating time period. It became not at all difficult to say this looks like this would be a good career.
Here in Lindau there are many young people who would like to talk to you, who are here because they are outstanding in their own fields. How do you feel about meeting these people? Is it exciting?
Sherwood Rowland: I think it is interesting to tell them and to listen to them … when I was in their position that was 50 years ago and a lot of things are different. So that some of the things which if I describe my early years as after I had my PhD it’s like coming from an alien world for them because it is so different from the way science was organised in the time period, 1940s, 1950s.
The driving point I would imagine is to be curious, if I want to end on that note. I mean that must have been what’s driven you and what drives a lot of young students today.
Sherwood Rowland: The question of if you have a problem that you would like to work on where the answer is not known, all of us go through undergraduate school, high school, undergraduate school being asked to solve problems where the answers are known, and where as often as not they’re in the back of the book. That’s different from being, from posing a problem and knowing that no one knows the answer to it. And so if you think you have the right answer then you’re the only person that can judge it and you have to decide that you know enough now, have you thought of everything that’s involved. And that’s just an entirely different kind of intellectual challenge. And if you like that challenge then it’s a very favourable kind of employment for a career.
Thank you very much.
Sherwood Rowland: Thank you.
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