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UCAR at 25
The Grand Experiment
A Cathedral for Science
Tools of the Trade
Atmospheric Chemistry
Sun and Earth
Global Change


The Grand Experiment: A Close and Productive Partnership

The founders of UCAR created the new organization as a grand experiment based on a simple hypothesis: university atmospheric science could be more effective through collaborative efforts.

John A. Dutton
The Pennsylvania State University

"UCAR is its 55 member institutions, acting in concert to help the nation accomplish goals that otherwise would be difficult or impossible to attain," says Clifford Murino, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR). "The corporation was created to enhance the capabilities of the individual universities, and it serves as an instrument that the university community uses to ensure that the atmospheric sciences are sufficiently strong and vital to respond effectively to critical national and international needs."

The UCAR "grand experiment" has produced sizable and significant results. Remarkable progress has been made in scientific understanding of the atmosphere in the 25 years since UCAR was created, and the U.S. university atmospheric science community has played a major role in that progress. Werner Baum, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Florida State University, was one of UCAR's founders and remains actively involved in the work of the corporation today. Baum says: "I don't think any of us had any conception in 1960 of what would happen in 25 years. Our understanding of the atmosphere has increased enormously; it has exceeded our wildest expectations."

The UCAR experiment was designed by a small group of farsighted and innovative scientists, most of them university faculty members, as a creative response to a major challenge that faced the nation in the late 1950s. Departments of meteorology had been established at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Chicago, and other U.S. universities in the 1930s, a time when it was becoming increasingly clear that it should be possible to define the behavior of the atmosphere in terms of physical principles susceptible to scientific investigation. These fledgling departments were small and struggling by comparison with their counterparts in more traditional academic disciplines, and meteorologists sometimes had to fight for professional respect from their colleagues in other branches of the scientific establishment. But their knowledge of the atmosphere turned out to be a valuable national asset when the United States found itself embroiled in global conflict in 1941.

The Second World War brought military operations unlike those of any previous wars—massive land, sea, and air assaults that were highly dependent on weather conditions over vast regions from the North Atlantic to the South Pacific, from the poles to the tropics. University meteorology departments grew explosively as the military services sent cadets to them by the hundreds to be taught the fundamentals of meteorology so that they could serve as weather officers. Their assignments ranged from daily weather forecasting to strategic planning for military operations in arctic and tropical climates.

The first research project to probe the interiors of severe storms with instrumented aircraft was the 1947 Thunderstorm Project, which used a fleet of World War II Black Widow night fighters.

The military services supported meteorological research to improve scientific knowledge of weather and climate. Military pilots on long- range bombing missions discovered the fast-moving, high-altitude rivers of air that came to be known as jet streams and are now recognized as a key element in the large-scale circulation of the atmosphere. It was a heady time for the nation's meteorologists—they were gaining exciting new scientific knowledge and were making a valuable contribution to the struggle for victory.

When the war ended in 1945, meteorology seemed to be ready to make great scientific advances. The was had heightened awareness of the critical role of weather in human affairs, and the nation had a pool of veteran military meteorologists trained at leading universities. Radar, rockets, high-performance aircraft, electronic computers, and other new technological developments promised to become valuable tools for probing the atmosphere and analyzing its behavior. The military services continued to support meteorological research at universities and government laboratories.

A decade later, however, this promise had not been fulfilled. The need for better understanding of the atmosphere was greater than ever. The nation's farmers, the rapidly growing airlines, and other sectors of our industrial economy needed better weather forecasts. Pollution of the atmosphere was becoming a serious problem in urban areas. Cloud-seeding experiments suggested that it might someday be possible to control certain kinds of weather. But the U.S. atmospheric research community was not adequately meeting these challenges.

In 1956, Detlev Bronk, president of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), appointed a committee of distinguished scientists, some from the field of meteorology and some from other disciplines, and instructed them to "consider and recommend means by which to increase our understanding and control of the atmosphere."

The NAS Committee on Meteorology (later renamed the Committee on Atmospheric Sciences) consisted of Lloyd V. Berkner and Carl G. Rossby, cochairs, Horace R. Byers, Henry G. Booker, Jule G. Charney, Hugh L. Dryden, Carl Eckhart, Paul E. Klopsteg, Thomas F. Malone, John von Neumann, and Edward Teller. The Committee on Meteorology reported in early 1958 that it had identified several problems that were impeding progress:

The committee also concluded that many meteorologists did not have adequate scientific training. It noted that 90% of all working meteorologists in the United States were government employees and that a disproportionately high number were World War II veterans whose meteorological education had emphasized operational forecasting rather than basic science. Although some of these military veterans had gone on to supplement their wartime training with additional academic studies, many had not. The percentage of meteorologists with doctorates was the lowest of any major scientific group, while the percentage of people with no university degree at all who called themselves meteorologists was the highest of any major scientific group.

The Committee on Meteorology recommended an increase of 50 to 100% in support for basic meteorological research and the establishment of a National Institute for Atmospheric Research (NIAR), to be operated by a consortium of universities with federal support from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The university atmospheric science community responded promptly and enthusiastically to the committee's challenge. Within a matter of days after the committee released its findings and recommendations, 21 scientists, most of them from universities, held an informal planning conference to discuss the committee's report and the proposed National Institute for Atmospheric Research. This conference was followed in less than a month by a meeting of the chairs of the meteorology departments of ten universities across the United States. They discussed the need for more meteorologists with better scientific training, funding problems of meteorological research, and the proposal for a national institute.

Roscoe Braham, who heads the cloud physics research program at the University of Chicago, has served for many years on the UCAR Board of Trustees and was deeply involved in early discussions and planning for a national institute for atmospheric research.

"I think it was clear from the outset that the problems and opportunities in meteorology were so enormous that individual university departments could not cope with their magnitude," Braham says today. "In the late 1950s, many of us were dissatisfied with the slow progress that was being made in weather forecasting. Weather modification was viewed as a major opportunity area. The Thunderstorm Project (a joint research effort by several federal agencies based at the University of Chicago) in 1947 had shown how valuable aircraft and radar could be in studying the atmosphere, but the Air Force, which supplied these tools and other equipment for that project, could no longer provide that kind of large- scale support for basic research in the universities. Big computers existed, but nobody had them, practically speaking. There was a general feeling that if we—the universities—had access to resources bigger than ourselves, we could do a much better job of basic research on the atmosphere."

The ad hoc group of university representatives chose Henry G. Houghton of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as its chair and named itself the University Committee on Atmospheric Research. Working groups were formed for university research, manpower, and NIAR. The NIAR working group defined the purpose of the proposed institute as an attack on fundamental atmospheric problems on a scale commensurate with their global nature and importance. Its unique properties and functions would be to:

There was a good deal of discussion and debate in the early meetings about the possibility that a new institute might compete with the universities for research funding and drain scarce scientific talent from university meteorology departments. A consensus was reached that this risk would be outweighed by the institute's potential for gaining broader support by strengthening the whole field of atmospheric sciences and by its ability to attract scientists from other disciplines such as physics, mathematics, and chemistry into research on problems of the atmosphere.

Thomas Malone, then director of the Travelers Insurance Company Research Center, was a member of the NAS Committee on Meteorology. He says that Lloyd Berkner, chair of the committee, wanted to be absolutely certain that there was a consensus in the university community about the concept of a national institute. After the representatives of the 14 universities met, Berkner asked Malone and Jule Charney of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to visit all the universities and discuss the proposal with the meteorology faculties.

"We did this," Malone recalls. "We went to Madison and Chicago and Los Angeles and all the other places and met with the faculties, and the answer was yes, this should be done. Three elements are needed to make something like this happen: a vision, a rationale, and a plan. We had the first two, so we set out to produce a plan."

The university representatives asked Malone to chair a planning group that would also include Roscoe Braham and William von Arx of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. With support from a NSF planning grant made to MIT, they started working with the university community to develop a preliminary plan for an institute that would respond to the needs and desires of the universities.

"To try to get at the issues, we organized 17 three-day workshops," Braham recalls. "Each workshop included about eight or nine scientists from a single specialty. We asked them to think about the problems they were facing and what they would do about them if they had all the resources they needed. Then we distilled the plan from notes taken at the workshops."

Moving ahead with remarkable speed over the next several months, the university committee accepted the preliminary plan for the institute (which soon came to be known as the "Blue Book"), incorporated itself as the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, and held the first meeting of its board of trustees on 2 April 1959. A contract was signed under which UCAR would operate the institute with support from NSF. Walter Orr Roberts, a solar astronomer who headed the High Altitude Observatory at the University of Colorado in Boulder, was appointed director of NCAR and president of UCAR. The decision was made to call the institute the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

The first meeting of the original 14 university members of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research took place on 2 April 1959 at the University of Arizona, Tucson. Pictured, front row, left to right: Michael Farrell (Pennsylvania State University), Theodore Wright (Cornell University), P. Stewart Macaulay (John Hopkins University), J. Robert Stinson (St. Louis University), A.W. Peterson (University of Wisconsin), Morris Neiburger (University of California, Los Angeles), Henry Houghton (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Seymour Hess (Florida State University), Jerome Spar (New York University), Benjamin Nichols (Cornell University), Werner Baum (Florida State University), Horace Byers (University of Chicago), George Benton (Johns Hopkins University), A. Richard Kassander (University of Arizona), and Herbert Rhodes (University of Arizona).

Back row: Carl Floe (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Gilbert Lee Jr. (University of Michigan), Hans Neuberger (Pennsylvania State University), James Miller (University of California), Harold Work (New York University), Reid Bryson (University of Wisconsin), Dale Leipper (Texas A&M University), John Calhoun Jr. (Texas A&M University), Thomas Malone (Travelers Corp.), and E. Wendell Hewson (University of Michigan).

Here is how Roberts describes the goals that the universities, NSF, and NCAR's leaders set for the new center:

First in our purposes was for NCAR to be an intellectual center where basic science of the utmost quality would be cultivated both through the research of the permanent staff and through cooperative work with scientists from other research and educational institutions in the United States, Canada, and abroad.

The university community rallied behind the fledgling institution, giving us strong advice and lending strength and credibility. The aim we shared was to upgrade the image of atmospheric research as an exact science worthy of commitment by the most talented theoreticians and experimentalists, on a par with chemistry and physics.

Our second goal was to serve as a planning center where the world's leading atmospheric science experts could gather to determine the most promising strategies for attack on the larger problems of the atmospheric sciences, which are often characterized by the need for huge data banks, giant computers, and global-scale measuring systems. The atmosphere, in our concept, embraced the full span of phenomena from the depths of the oceans to the atmosphere of the sun and into the far reaches of space. The relevant time scales ranged from minutes to centuries.

The third goal was to provide and operate needed research facilities for atmospheric scientists at universities, other research institutions, and NCAR when those facilities were too large, expensive, or complicated for a single university or research institution to manage by itself. It would be our responsibility to plan these facilities, justify their costs, and manage them in close consultation with our users, and on terms that facilitate effective, trouble-free operation.

These early goals remain at the heart of NCAR's programs. Here is how the center's two principal missions are described today:

According to UCAR President Murino, "The corporation's management of the center continues to be its largest single responsibility. But as the relevance of atmospheric research to many critical national and international issues becomes increasingly evident, and atmospheric scientists face bigger and more complex challenges, UCAR's management role has broadened beyond NCAR to include a wide variety of other activities and projects.

"UCAR has an important role as a gateway through which research results developed by the universities and NCAR enter the arena where decision makers shape public policy. We are working to devise more effective mechanisms to transfer important information from developers to users," Murino explains. "And we are developing new ways to involve major private corporations in the nation's atmospheric research effort."

But as UCAR's role broadens, Murino emphasizes, "All our plans and programs continue to be structured around the idea that was central to the original conception of the UCAR founders: to work on behalf of the university community to foster a close, productive partnership among the universities, NCAR, and the federal government to serve the national interest." (For a more detailed description of UCAR's growth and current programs, see Chapter 6.)

The Fleischmann Building in Boulder, Colorado, is UCAR's corporate headquarters. It was designed by I.M. Pei to harmonize with the nearby NCAR Mesa Laboratory, which he also designed.

A Cathedral for Science

At the southwest edge of Boulder, Colorado, where the Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains, a mesa rises some 600 feet above the city, commanding a sweeping panorama of mountains and plains. To the north, the red tile roofs of the University of Colorado accent a checkerboard pattern of streets and neighborhoods. To the south and east, the high plains spread to a far horizon. To the west tower the sandstone cliffs known as the Flatirons. It is a spot of peace and beauty, a place where deer graze among the pine trees and hillside meadows.

On the mesa top stands a massive complex of red-brown concrete towers, courtyards, and bridges. Yet in spite of its bulk and its planes and angles, this building somehow joins with its site as a congruent element in the natural harmony of meadow, cliff, and canyon. The structure is the Mesa Laboratory, NCAR's headquarters and principal research facility. It embodies an innovative solution to a challenging architectural problem: How to bring modern science and technology into harmony with nature.

This creative achievement belongs to architect I.M. Pei, who is better known for his designs in urban settings such as New York, Boston, Beijing, and Hong Kong. Speaking at the dedication of the Mesa Laboratory in 1967, Pei said: "The site is, indeed, the most beautiful we've ever had to deal with. You would think that, being blessed with this kind of beauty, architecture would come easy. But it was not easy. We tried many buildings here, many, many designs, but they all fell apart. We didn't know why they fell apart until much later, when we discovered something we should have known all along, and that is that when you're confronted with nature—such power and beauty—you just don't try to compete with it. You try to join with it, and this is exactly what we tried to do."

Mesa Verde dwelling. Photo courtesy of National Park Service.

The fundamental problem was to create a design that would join with its environment and yet not be completely dominated by the power and beauty of its setting. Inspired by ancient Indian cliff dwellings in southwestern Colorado, Pei used elemental forms that offer few clues to their size. The most arresting feature of this solution is a pair of massive, hooded towers, one on the north and one on the east. They have the same austere simplicity and vertical thrust that mark the severe beauty of the Flatirons.

Why should a scientific research center be housed in a building like this on a site like this, instead of in a plain, purely functional structure set down in the bustling heart of a big city? Several scientists have answered this question in several ways. Philip Thompson, then associate director of the center, wrote the following description before an architect had even been selected for the laboratory: "The most impressive feature of any top-notch research center is an intangible air of ferment and intellectual coherence that does not depend on any formal mechanism of cohesion. A building that is most symbolic of this feature, and which is best designed to nurture it, is one that is clearly designed for sustained intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic life—and is not intended for the daily grind."

Speaking at the dedication of the Mesa Laboratory, Philip Handler, then president of the National Academy of Sciences and chair of the National Science Board, said: "To be sure, some of the greatest science has been accomplished in the hoary basements of ugly, barracks-like buildings, and men have been known to pray in modest chapels and abandoned warehouses. In this century, in our country, many clean, functional, but rather uninspiring laboratories have been built across the land. Yet science, too, should have its cathedrals, cathedral laboratories which convey the grandeur of its concepts, the bold imagination which has gained insight into the essential aspects of man as a human creature, into the nature of matter, and understanding of the universe in which we find ourselves."

Now, two decades after the Mesa Laboratory was completed, it joins it site as naturally as the boulders and pine trees, in a sort of organic unity with its surroundings. Even the mule deer have accepted the building and its occupants as a basic element of their habitat. And NCAR scientists can gaze out of their futuristic office windows and draw inspiration from scenes of unspoiled beauty rivaling any in the natural world they are studying.

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