World-saving chemistF. Sherwood Rowland

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A chemist, Rowland studied atmospheric chemistry and chemical kinetics (how, and how fast, chemical reactions occur) at the University of California in Irvine. In the early 1970s, Rowland, working with Mario Molina, found something disturbing. When his wife asked him how his research was going, he replied, “The work is going well. But it looks like the end of the world.” The results were published in the journal Nature in 1974. In 1995, Rowland and Molina, along with Paul J. Crutzen, won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work, which explained “how chlorofluorocarbons, ubiquitous substances once used in an array of products from spray deodorant to industrial solvents, could destroy the ozone layer, the protective atmospheric blanket that screens out many of the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays.” Or, as the Los Angeles Times put it, “It’s not often you can say that someone saved the world — and mean it literally. But that’s the case with F. Sherwood Rowland.”

Yet their research was initially met with skepticism. But study after study proved them right, and aerosol CFCs were banned in the U.S. in 1978; manufacturers phased them out in general by the end of the 1980s — which Rowland considered his greatest lifetime achievement. Rowland’s work “was about more than just stratospheric ozone,” said Prof. Donald Blake, who worked with Rowland at UC Irvine. “It was about the whole environment and the realization that something we can do in California could have effects somewhere else in the world. It was the start of the global era of the environment.” Rowland “was the perfect spokesperson for this issue,” Blake said. “He was austere, well-spoken and had a lot of confidence” — and, when challenged by skeptics, “he didn’t get emotional.” Dr. Rowland only fully retired earlier this year, and died March 10 from Parkinson’s disease. He was 85.

From This is True for 11 March 2012