UCAR > Communications > Staff Notes > February 1996 Search

John Firor Prepares for a Busman's Retirement

John Firor. (Photo by Bob Bumpas.)
On 15 February, John Firor attended the regular meeting of the UCAR/NCAR Management Committee and the NCAR Director's Committee. The meeting in itself was not exceptional, but for John it was a watershed. It was the last time he'd sit at the table with a group that he'd been part of since its inception--a year after NCAR was founded. "I have been a continuous member of the directors' committee for over 34 years," John notes, adding with a chuckle, "This is a record that probably should never be broken."

Behind the genial manner of this Renaissance man, scientist, and author is a deeply felt commitment to NCAR that has included 12 years of service as its director or executive director. John's devotion to the institution and its science takes a new path with his formal retirement as director of the Advanced Study Program (ASP) on 1 March. After a three-month sabbatical in Washington, D.C., he'll return to become a senior research associate housed in the Foothills Lab. He plans to work closely with the Environmental and Societal Impacts Group.

"I'm officially retiring," he says, "but not retiring from the fun part of my job."

John's new position falls in the footsteps of other long-time scientists, such as Wil Kellogg and Harry Van Loon, who have stayed active in NCAR research past the end of their regular appointments. "It's a healthy tradition for NCAR," says John, "to continue to get scholarly output from people who are stepping out of high administrative posts, such as Peter Gilman or Warren Washington, or who are ready to retire."

In his 15 years as the head of ASP, John has helped many promising graduate and postgraduate researchers to become influential scientists. The program's alumni (some of them preceding John's tenure) include NCAR division directors Maurice Blackmon and Susan Solomon, Steve Schneider (Stanford University), Bob Dickinson (University of Arizona), and Eric Barron (Pennsylvania State University). NCAR staff who were originally in ASP include Byron Boville, Al Cooper, Peggy LeMone, Joe Tribbia, Ray Roble, and many others.

Each year, around 10 to 12 recent Ph.D's are chosen for two-year appointments in ASP from an international applicant pool of about a hundred. ASP's parallel program for graduate students was suspended in 1994 due to budget constraints. However, the ASP Summer Colloquium, cosponsored with a different division each year, continues to draw hundreds of students to NCAR to study a single topic in depth over several weeks. Next summer's colloquium, to be led by Dave Schimel, will focus on terrestrial ecosystems and the atmosphere.

"Somebody once said the ASP program is the bone marrow of the organization," says John. "It provides NCAR with a large fraction of its new scientific staff appointments. With the large budget uncertainties lately, division directors haven't been filling many regular scientific positions, but you still find recent ASP people scattered throughout the organization in visitor slots. I'm impressed with what a smart thing it was for NCAR, mostly in the person of Phil Thompson, to set up this program in the early 1960s."

A native of Athens, Georgia, John received his bachelor's degree from the Georgia Institute of Technology and completed his doctorate in physics in 1954 at the University of Chicago. The latter work led to his first contact with the High Altitude Observatory and NCAR director-to-be Walt Roberts. For his dissertation, John was studying cosmic rays from the sun and building a neutron monitor. "We needed a high-altitude location and access to roads and power. We contacted this fellow in Colorado, Walter Orr Roberts, and he agreed to let us build the monitor at the Climax Observatory.

"I'd seen Walt give a talk at Northwestern University, where he showed the film Explosions on the Sun [featuring solar prominences and other phenomena recorded at Climax]. I saw this movie again a few weeks later when a professor at Chicago heard of the film and borrowed a copy. That time, I sat in a room which included three Nobel laureates, including Enrico Fermi, and four future laureates. They were all oohing and aahing and speculating what the beautiful motions of prominences were all about. I believe that film did more than anything in the early days to bring national and international attention to HAO and eventually to NCAR."

John's stint at Climax led to his appointment as an HAO visitor in the late 1950s. (The new HAO building above Fiske Planetarium on the University of Colorado's Boulder campus was then under construction.) In 1961, shortly after NCAR was established, John was asked to be the HAO director, and a few months later he presided over the merger of HAO and UCAR.

One reason he was tapped for the directorship of HAO, John believes, was his experience in the mid-1950s as a staff member of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. "Being endowed with private funds, it had almost no rules or regulations. Walt hoped I would bring the attitude of informality and small groups working together from Carnegie. I did my best, including trying to keep our policy book down to a few pages by insisting that every new policy adopted should be accompanied by the removal of an older one, but as all can see, I failed. There is a vast difference between a small, completely endowed organization and a large one that must listen to the U.S. government.

"Walt also did not want anyone who came from the traditional disciplines of meteorology or astronomy, because he believed the future would be shaped by those who could see the connections between disciplines. He was far ahead of his time on that one."

Three leaders: John Firor, Francis Bretherton, and Walt Roberts.
In 1968, Walt's positions as both UCAR president and NCAR director were separated. Walt took the former and John the latter. Six years later, Francis Bretherton took the helm of UCAR and reinstituted the dual role Walt had held: "Francis told the trustees that his colleagues back east knew NCAR well but had never heard of UCAR, so he felt uncomfortable having only the title of UCAR president. The trustees agreed to the double title for Francis, but then faced the problem that he wanted me to continue the director's job as before. So my title was changed to executive director." John and Francis shared many of the day-to-day duties of running the center through 1980, when John came to ASP.

"I think the greatest pleasure I ever had in the management of NCAR/UCAR was the six years working with Francis. We had different backgrounds, different skills, and yet we worked very well together. Francis once described how we worked together as, 'We're interchangeable. Either of us could attend an important meeting and know that the results would be OK.' "

One of John's greatest satisfactions in directing ASP has been the chance to nurture new branches of the NCAR family tree. "We felt ASP should be a place where people endeavor to look ahead and work on subjects that are likely to become important down the line."

For example, Lisa Wells arrived from Stanford as a postdoc with a Ph.D. in geology. "Her plan was to find out if there were ancient El Ninos detectable in the geologic record. She wanted to go to Peru and find the age of gravel beds near dry rivers. Her support request was for a plane ticket and a tent." By using carbon dating to analyze shells and sticks embedded in the gravel, Wells constructed a record of El Nino events going back some 500 years.

Another unusual ASP request from a postdoc came from Lee Klinger (Atmospheric Chemistry Division). In 1989 he requested funds to rent a seagoing kayak in order to get himself to islands off the Alaskan coast to test his hypothesis involving the successional sequence from forest to peat bogs. His theories have since proven influential and gained attention in Discover magazine and other national media as well as in the scientific literature.

In March, John will begin his retirement with a springtime visit to Washington, D.C. "I have an invitation to work with a group of economists at Resources for the Future." The group, which brings economic theory to bear on public-policy planning relevant to resources, was set up by the Ford Foundation around 1960. John was invited to visit the group in 1980 to bring an atmospheric science perspective to some of their work. "They felt they needed another scientific shot in the arm and so invited me for another extended visit. It's a very effective place for interchange."

After three months in D.C., John will return to Boulder and start his new NCAR life at the Foothills Lab. "In recent years, I've spent a good deal of time thinking and writing on how our work in atmospheric science fits into broader studies of global change and into international and national policy. That, of course, overlaps with what ESIG does in looking at the context of atmospheric science." High on his agenda is a new book he hopes to write jointly with his wife, Judy Jacobsen, a faculty member at the University of Denver and specialist in population issues.

John's 1990 book Our Changing Atmosphere, which covered the basics of acid rain, ozone depletion, climate change, and related policy for a lay audience, received the Louis Battan Award from the American Meteorological Society in 1992. "The Yale [University] Press came to me recently and asked if I wanted to do a second edition of Our Changing Atmosphere," says John. "The whole sulfate aerosol business is new in the climate change arena and there have been major policy decisions in some countries to cut emissions that cause acid rain. But on the whole, what is presented in the book stands up rather well." Instead of a revision, John and his wife are working on a proposal for a new, larger book tentatively titled The Crowded Greenhouse. It will explore the interrelationships between climate change and population. "Each kind of ecological or economic damage that climate change might do, we're already doing by direct human impacts, driven by simultaneous increases in population and per capita consumption. We want to draw some logical lines through this exceedingly complex tapestry of events.

"People don't like to talk about population growth--it carries too much related baggage--but you must think clearly about it if you are to discuss environmental policy options. My wife is the clearest thinker I know on the subject, and it's also very convenient (and fun) to work with her." --BH

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Edited by Bob Henson, bhenson@ucar.edu
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Last revised: Thu Mar 30 11:43:05 MST 2000