A special evening with an intimate of the atmosphere
A warm and appreciative audience that spilled into the aisles caught the spirit of joy and adventure when Joach Kuettner gave this year’s Walter Orr Roberts Distinguished Lecture at the Boulder Public Library auditorium on 19 February.
Joach Kuettner at the controls of a sailplane in 1955
Joach’s colleague Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a world authority on radiation and aerosols at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, introduced him by expressing gratitude that Joach, after first obtaining a doctorate in law, forsook its practice “to pursue the laws of nature.” Ram outlined Joach’s six-decade career, highlighting his work on the Mercury and Apollo space programs and his leadership of GATE, the massive Global Atmospheric Research Program Atlantic Tropical Experiment (for more of Joach’s extensive curriculum vita, see “On the Web”).
Ram recalled meeting Joach in 1991, when they engaged in spirited debate on whether tropical clouds over the oceans serve as a thermostat regulating and limiting maximum sea-surface temperature. Those conversations led to the Central Equatorial Pacific Experiment, which brought the two to the Fiji Islands in 1993 to direct a number of aircraft and ships. After luring Ram into the field project, “Joach mentored me there in ingenious ways,” Ram recalled. It was the first field experiment for Ram, till then a theoretician, and he found the hands-on work “seductive.”
“What really still mesmerizes me is Joach’s incredible curiosity,”
Ram concluded. “And
also his capability to ask the right questions.”
In his talk at the public library, Joach used dramatic photography to illustrate several aspects of his scientific interests, such as “surfing the atmosphere” in unmotorized aircraft. He also described with eloquence a few more personal experiences that shaped a young explorer-scientist.
Joach grew up in Germany, where, during World War II, he served as an aeronautical engineer and test pilot for the German aircraft industry. He took the audience back to those days, a time of despair for the young test pilot. “I made up my mind that as soon as we have a cease fire I would try to get to the top of a mountain, try to be alone, think about everything and put things in perspective,” he recalled. His retreat was to the weather observatory on top of Zugspitze, Germany’s tallest peak at 9,718 feet (2,962 meters). When he entered the spartan cabin and saw a 100-year-old photo on the wall of the first observer he thought, “This is my place. I stay here.”
It was on cold clear nights atop the observatory roof that Joach found what he was looking for. Alone on the mountain, he recalled, “I felt suddenly completely at home in nature. It was as if all these mountains couldn’t care less what had happened to us—what man did to man. And I was happy.”
Already an accomplished pilot, Joach turned his attention to Zugspitze’s mountain birds and published a paper on their unusual aerobatics.
For the rest of the lecture, Joach swooped from the consolations of solitary observation of lightning and other phenomena to the exhilaration of soaring in gliders. He touched on the personal hazards of that work and on the excitement of grand collaborations, including space flight and large field undertakings to study the atmosphere.
At one point Joach asked how much time he had left in the one-hour talk. A rapt member of the audience called out, “Two more hours.” It was easy to imagine listening to Joach’s stories into the wee hours, but he closed with a short film made by two French soaring colleagues of a sailplane gliding through the highest Alps, accompanied by music composed by one of the pilots. Walter Orr Roberts’s granddaughter Kimberly McCarthy McKeen presented Joach with a commemorative vase, after which the gathering adjourned for refreshments—and a few more stories—in the library lobby.
Joach’s talk, organized by Cindy Schmidt, Laura Curtis, and Gloria Kelly (ODGA) was the fifth Walter Orr Roberts Distinguished Lecture. UCAR sponsors the lectures to honor outstanding researchers for their scientific achievements. Previous honorees are Warren Washington, John Firor, and Tim Brown of NCAR, and Susan Solomon of NOAA. •Zhenya Gallon