Excerpts from John Firor's Lecture:

On his memories of Walter Orr Roberts...
On loving the earth...
On global climate change...
On seal level rising...
On new ideas...
On how I became a scientist...
On science in the twenty-first century...

 


  Walter Orr Roberts

On his Memories of Walter Orr Roberts...

"It is for me a special pleasure to be giving the Walter Orr Roberts Lecture. I worked with Walt Roberts in various situations from about 1959 until his death in 1990. He was a friend and mentor; he was also a special human, insightful, gentle, and always constructive in every situation, and great fun to pal around with.

As some of you know, the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research is planning celebrations of several anniversaries during the year 2000. It will be 60 years since the High Altitude Observatory (HAO), which is now a part of the National Center for Atmospheric research (NCAR), was created from a small beginning as a Harvard astronomy student’s thesis project at Climax, Colorado. It will be 50 years since the creation of the National Science Foundation, a present mainstay of support for American science, and in particular of NCAR. And it will be 40 years since NCAR began. Walt Roberts was the creator at both ends of that series of events—the HAO 60 years ago and NCAR a mere 40 years ago."

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Havasu Falls, Grand Canyon

On Loving the Earth...

"I had wished to attend a scientific meeting out west, in Boulder as it happens. So I asked Dr.Merle Tuve [former Director of the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, Carnegie Institute] for travel funds so I could go to the meeting. He said yes, I could have the money, but with one condition—I must skip some of the meeting and go visit Grand Canyon instead. His explanation was simple. To be a good scientist, he said, one must love this Earth, and viewing Grand Canyon was a good start in that direction. He seemed to me to be saying that admiring beautiful places on Earth might provide some daily inspiration for working hard on understanding some feature of Earth or other parts of the universe."

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On Global Climate Change...

"In the 1890s, [Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish research scientist and an early recipient of the Nobel Prize] tried to explain what made ice ages by calculating how the temperature of Earth’s surface might change if somehow the amount of carbon dioxide in the air were to decrease. It had been known for some time that carbon dioxide in the air trapped heat near the surface and hence kept the Earth much warmer than it might otherwise be. So, Arrhenius speculated if something ate up a lot of carbon dioxide, the earth should cool and perhaps initiate an ice age. He calculated that removing half the carbon dioxide would cool the earth by several degrees Celsius, perhaps enough to bring on the ice.

But he could see smokestacks from his office window, smokestacks, as he put it, "evaporating our coal mines into the sky," thereby adding carbon dioxide to the air. So while he was at it, he also calculated what would happen if we increased the carbon dioxide in the air. In one such calculation he estimated that doubling carbon dioxide would raise the average temperature by about 5 degrees Celsius, a large change in the average temperature of the whole earth. He did not foresee the rapid expansion of industrial societies that the twentieth century would bring, so he thought that a doubling of carbon dioxide in the air was centuries away, and besides, he thought it might be nice if winters were a bit warmer there in Stockholm.

Today we know a lot more. Other gases also trap heat, adding to the estimated warming; fossil fuels produce most of the carbon dioxide, and while they are warming the earth they are also creating urban smog, acid rain, oil spills, land degradation, restrictions to visibility, and tensions in the Middle East. And we know Earth has warmed in the past 140 years."

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Island in the Republic of Maldives

On Sea Level Rising...

"A gradual [global] warming does not sound threatening; people and cities can likely adapt to a slow change. But natural ecosystems, the same ecosystems with which we have evolved over millennia, cannot in general evolve as fast as the projected climate change, so some of them will vanish. Then too, there is sea level rise. In 1992, at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio, the so-called environmental summit, countries, including the United States, agreed that we should stabilize the composition of the atmosphere, which would mean we only emit greenhouse gases at the rate that earth could take them up in the oceans and swamps and soil and plants.

But the agreement left until later decisions on how we would make this major change in almost everything we do. The Rio group asked countries to arrange regional meetings to discuss this problem. Canada, which was I think the first country to responded to this request, arranged a climate change meeting in Toronto. People came from countries near and far. There were a few plenary sessions where we all met together. At one such session, where questions and comments were appropriate, a man rose and when recognized introduced himself—he was the environment minister of the Republic of the Maldives. Then he sat down. The other participants were puzzled. You could see wheels turning in their heads while they tried to figure out what that meant. Where the heck is the Maldives, they were thinking. Oh yeah, that’s that group of low islands in the Indian Ocean. Low islands. Oooh, low islands. It finally dawned on everyone that the minister stood to lose his whole country as the sea level rises. There was at that moment a good deal of uneasiness on the faces of the participants.

This touching event may have contributed to the recommendation that came from the meeting, the recommendation that the countries of the world begin the process of stabilizing the composition of the atmosphere by reducing their emissions of greenhouse gases by 20 percent by the year 2005. But touching moments do not always last—here seven years later, the world is bogged down with a milder agreement, for a smaller reduction, by a later date, having trouble getting ratified."

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On New Ideas...

"At the University of Chicago, Enrico Fermi, when teaching sometimes digressed to give the class advice on various topics. One day he admitted that the interpretation of quantum mechanics he was giving to the class was fairly new and disputed by some very famous physicists. He went on tell us that new ideas do not take over by means of famous experts changing their mind, but by their retirement."

Enrico Fermi – FermiLab
Credit: http://www.fnal.gov/pub/fermi_biography.html

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John Firor adjusts an antenna for a radio telescope while working for the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at The Carnegie Institution. 1958

On How I Became a Scientist...

"My own science career began…long ago…and like many other youngsters, by building things—model airplanes, telescopes, and in particular, simple radios. I think when I first heard something understandable coming out of the earphone of my first radio, well anyway, the first one that worked, I was as excited as Marconi must have been when he heard a message coming from across an ocean. My message only came from two miles away, from the only radio station in town, but still it whispered to me great visions of future fun I could have putting electrical things together. Later on high school science courses amplified this interest. Then I faced the question, what to study in college. I think, because of radios, electrical engineering won out, and I began college with that in mind.

The laboratory I joined [upon completing my doctorate at University of Chicago], the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institute]…turned out to be a very pleasant place to work. There were 14 scientists and a reasonable number of support staff, and no particular mission other than what had emerged from the department’s history and the current interests of the staff. There was a small group there looking at what modern physics techniques could tell us about living cells, biological processes, and the role of a possibly important chemical called DNA. Two scientists were studying the structure of atomic nuclei. A few members of the staff were trying to establish a geological dating system for Precambrian rocks, as well as wondering about the forces that hold up major mountain ranges. One staff member was studying cosmic rays, and two staff members, three after I got there, were studying radio waves from space—the new field of radio astronomy."

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On Science in the Twentieth-First Century...

"Joseph Wood Krutch, known to most of us as a nature writer specializing in Baja California, but who professionally was a drama critic in New York City, may have asked the right question and open the right door to finding the end that we seek. He wrote: 'Has anyone even raised the question of how populous, how mechanized, how complicated, and how abundant a society should be if what we want is not numbers, mechanization, complexity, and abundance for their own sake, but the best life possible for a creature who has the needs, the preferences, and the potential of the human being.'

His words—the best life possible—suggests there is an end we can seek. I think George Brown, were he still alive, would applaud any scientists who will, with philosophers, economists, political scientists, sociologists, and others, help us identify, even roughly and approximately, the nature of the "best life possible for humans" and choose their own work not just because it is interesting, but because their view of the world encompasses society’s goals and needs and helps them apply their scientific insight to moving us in new directions, towards that end that we seek."

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