John Firor

From a View of Grand Canyon
to a Vision of Science in the Twenty-First Century

John W. Firor

Walter Orr Roberts Distinguished Lecture
October 19, 1999

Boulder Public Library Auditorium, Boulder, Colorado

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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My own science career began almost as long ago as these organizations, 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. I got sidetracked, though, after a year. WWII was still underway, and I feared that it would be over before I got in. So at the end of my first year at Georgia Tech I volunteered for the army, was duly inducted, examined, trained, and assigned. Then any romantic visions of glory were shattered. I was assigned as a parts clerk for the army ordinance. So I volunteered to do something else, anything else, and was sent to a place out west that had just become famous for winning the war—Los Alamos, New Mexico. The war was just over, but they were still making A-bombs there. My one contact with a complete bomb, though, was helping get one ready to be sent to Bikini Atoll in the Pacific for the first, post-war bomb test. I was too far down the ladder to hear what the result of that test was; I did hear later that this test provided a name for a hot new bathing suit—rather out of keeping with the deadly seriousness of the event.

My job at Los Alamos was guarding uranium and plutonium. As a result I spent days sitting in laboratories with physicists who were doing tests and experiments on small, and sometimes not-so-small pieces of these substances. These physicists were a friendly lot, and they would stop their work to answer questions I had, such as "what’s that part for? or "what does that instrument measure?"

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Physics was fascinating and I had found what I wanted to be. I returned to Georgia Tech and changed my major to physics. I wonder sometimes whether accidents, like my being sent to Los Alamos, make dramatic changes in a career. Or, if you really know what you want to do, do accidents just change the details while the main course continues. I don’t know the answer. I have been very lucky, of course, and that may well be all one can say.

I finished at Georgia Tech and went on to graduate school at the University of Chicago, selected because of another accident. The team of physicists that had been assembled there for the early part of the Manhattan Project was mostly still in place and formed a superb physics department, maybe the best in the nation. Most of my professors and a two of my fellow students were either Nobel Laureates or soon would be. For my own work I studied cosmic rays coming from the sun and by what route they arrived at Earth. Cosmic rays, as you probably know, are fast particles that enter Earth’s atmosphere from every direction and from a variety of sources. As part of the group at Chicago studying many aspects of cosmic rays, I helped build large cosmic ray detectors to be placed on mountaintops. More messing around with electrical things, come to think of it. One mountaintop where I built our largest detector was the site of the High Altitude Observatory in Climax. But I did not meet Walt during that time. He had moved to Boulder earlier, and was building a broader based program of which the Climax observatory was just one part.

With my thesis finished it came time to look for a job. Two accidents, no I’m going to quit calling them accidents. Two random events led me to join the staff of a laboratory of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. This Institution is a privately endowed research organization, headquartered in the District of Columbia. Mr. Carnegie, as you probably know, as he got older, thought that it was shameful for a rich man to die still rich. He wrote quite an essay on that topic. So he gave away large sums, including enough to endow the Carnegie Institution, which at the time I joined, had six laboratories scattered around the country. The most famous at that time was the Mount Wilson Observatory in California where the 100 inch telescope was located. Nowadays the Genetics Research Unit in New York should claim that distinction since Barbara McClintock there was given the Nobel Prize for discovering that genes can move around in living material.

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The laboratory I joined, the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism or DTM, was in Washington DC and 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.

Walt Roberts told me, after I came to Boulder, that he had wanted me at NCAR in part because I was coming from a place that ran its affairs with a minimum of management and red tape, both of which he hoped to make invisible at NCAR. He especially liked a story I had told him about the DT M. I had reported that the only policy and procedures manual I had discovered there was a 3 by 5 card, yellow with age, thumbtacked to the bulletin board in the front hall. It said "We have two rules: 1. Don’t spend money we don’t have, and 2. Don’t work with high voltages if you are alone." I think the director there, who loved epigrammatic ways of getting ideas across, expected us to interpret these instructions wisely and broadly, as in "don’t get the Institution in trouble and don’t get yourself in trouble."

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This director, Merle Tuve, was a wise, vivid, and active man, sometimes eccentric but always drawing on much experience. I must tell one story about him.

I had wished to attend a scientific meeting out west, in Boulder as it happens. So I asked Dr.Tuve 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.

At that time, the president of the Carnegie Institution was Vannevar Bush. He was an engineering professor who had invented an early computer called the differential analyzer. But he was more famous as the head of US research effort during WWII..

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But the reason I bring his name up is a book he wrote shortly after the war ended, a book called, Science, the Endless Frontier. Doesn’t that title make you see scenes from old western movies, covered wagons trudging westward over limitless plains with rolling music in the background? It is a good book, and in it Bush discusses reasons that the country should continue in peacetime the generous federal support for scientific research that been the pattern in wartime. He made the case that peacetime basic science would bring many advantages to the country—new and better industries, a strong defense, better health and so on. Most people, remembering the pivotal role of scientific research in the recent war--radar, the proximity fuse, and the A-bomb-- tended to agree with Bush that science could continue to solve problems for us.

But in much of the book he discussed not whether to support scientific research but how this research was to be managed, and there he diverged from the wartime experiences. During the war, scientists were asked by the government to work on particular topics. One group of physicist was gathered at MIT to develop radar and to devise related devices, such as the IFF—identification friend or foe—so that a radar could tell the difference between our planes and those of the enemy. The DTM staff was asked to put aside their normal studies and find out if there were any way in which an antiaircraft shell could be made to explode as it passed near an enemy plane, since a direct hit was difficult to achieve. Others scientists went to Chicago and then Los Alamos for the biggest project of all.

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In his vision for postwar science, Vannevar Bush proposed something quite different from these concentrated attacks on specific problems.. Scientists themselves and their scientific colleagues should select to pursue, and the government should fund, problems the scientists found to be the most interesting and that in their judgment would advance the science best. That was his recommendation—government support for basic science studies selected by the scientists. Bush claimed that this process would lead to the best progress in scientific understanding, and that this progress would eventually lead to lots of good things for the country.

The book does not detail just how this scientific progress would lead to these things. He seems to have just assumed that the useful applications of the research findings would happen automatically, and also that these applications would be uniformly good for the country.

This book was widely read and discussed and gradually it became, for much of the next fifty years, the "social contract" between the government and the scientific community. It also led to the establishment of the National Science Foundation, a government agency with the mission of supporting basic research and the education for young scientists to pursue future basic research.

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"Social contract" is of course a metaphor, not literal—neither scientists nor the government negotiated with the other nor signed anything. But as for scientists, who wouldn’t agree to do just what you liked to do best and be generously supported in doing it. Who wouldn’t like to have no worry about whether you were doing the right thing, since doing what you wanted to do was defined as the right thing. Bush’s view makes studying what you want to not only the fun thing it already is but also a noble thing—helping your country remain strong and prosperous. It occurred to me while preparing this talk that there might be a useful or at least an interesting analogy between Vannevar Bush’s vision of science, wherein scientists are praised for having fun, and Adam Smith’s economics that makes it noble for each of us to be selfish.

Like many big ideas, Bush’s was mostly correct. We did make fantastic progress in understanding scientific questions; many applications of this increasing knowledge did emerge and some of them helped make life fuller and healthier for many people. I said it was mostly true, and in a few minutes I will talk about emerging realizations of the limits of this notion.

I learned a lot working at the Carnegie lab, and not only about radio waves from space. The scientific staff ate lunch together in an old laboratory building converted to a kitchen with a big table and a blackboard on one wall. Many days someone would be moved to tell the rest of us what they had learned, or what they had failed to learn in their recent work. The smallness of the scientific staff also meant we needed to help each other from time to time. The radio astronomy group once joined the geophysicists in an expedition they organized to Peru, Bolivia, and Chile to see what holds up the Andes Mountains. This meant living in panel trucks, moving the trucks every day, sometimes 100 miles on imaginary roads, to get seismic readings at different locations in order to deduce what was under the mountains. Another good way to appreciate the beauties and complexities of our Earth!

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Sometime later I came here to Boulder for a several month visit to HAO to learn something about the sun and to share with the HAO staff image tube equipment I had put together and which seemed able to allow some new observations to be made in near infrared wavelengths. And I finally got to know Walter Roberts. It was a very worthwhile five months. I did not know it at the time, but while I was there visiting a committee called upon Walt Roberts to ask him to consider becoming the first director of the NCAR they hoped to establish. After I returned home, Walt came to visit me in Washington and spent the evening trying to convince my wife that Boulder was a fine place to live. He was wasting his time, since she was already convinced from what she had seen during our visit that Boulder was a wonderful place. The only disadvantage to living there, she told me, was that in Boulder one was "eaten up with recreational opportunity." Walt asked me to join him in managing this new organization by directing the High Altitude Observatory and I accepted.

Once again I had the opportunity to learn scientific areas new to me. Also to bring what little I had learned about management of a small research organization to the problem of developing the rules and customs of this new one, destined to grow very large.

And I also began to see what a great racket solar astronomers had developed. They got to study interesting things in the sky; they did not have to stay up all night like other astronomers; their work was free of the kind of politics that affected, say, agricultural studies; and they went to far corners of the earth to observe total eclipses of the sun. I was happy to join in this aspect of my new position, and I went to three eclipses, in New Guinea, Kenya, and Brazil, over the next several years. For the second of these, the NSF asked NCAR to manage a site for all American scientists wishing to make observations. I was part of a small group of HAO scientists located at in northern Kenya, on a point of land out in Lake Rudolf (now, Lake Turkana).

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My wife and two of my children came with me as far as Nairobi to get a chance to see a bit of East Africa while I was helping set up equipment and get ready for the event. They covered a lot of ground--game parks, Lake Nakuru, Mount Kenya, and elsewhere. But while driving in northeast Kenya on a remote road across the Chalbi desert, they not only had a flat tire but the engine overheated as well. Drinking water was too scarce to permit using some of it to cool the engine. So the tire had to be changed and they had to wait for the radiator to cool. While this was happening, a boy, 12 or 13 maybe, came walking across the desert, leading a camel. He stopped when he was near to them and, after a time, spoke to them, perhaps in his tribal language. They tried English and a bit of Swahili they had learned just for the trip in return, but no communication seemed possible. So the boy waited, watching their activity. After a while it seems he needed to continue on his way. But before leaving, he felt he needed to tell them something, and he did so by means of a series of gestures. He pointed at the sun; then he made a circle with each hand and, while making three loud clicks with his mouth, brought the two circles slowly together until one overlapped the other. He then put his hands over his eyes. This message was clear. In three days, he was saying, we are going to have an eclipse of the sun here. But you need to be careful, it can hurt your eyes if you look at it.

Having done his duty to these foreigners, who might not know some important facts, he left, leading his camel on across the desert.

But I promised earlier to talk about the shift away from Science the Endless Frontier. Science and scientists have enjoyed a privileged position in our society for many decades. It is widely understood that our era—not just the 20th century, but several preceding it, too—is the era of science. Before then, except for a scholarly few who knew of Greek and Roman and maybe Arabic science, superstition and religion dominated people’s lives, how things were done, and what was understood. With the scientific revolution—from Galileo and his followers—came a new way of looking at the world. Careful observation yielded "discoveries," how things actually worked, and these discoveries were put to use improving people’s lives, from their health to how to grow food, how to do more work, and how to travel fast and easily. Though some argue that we are moving out of the scientific age, I don’t think that’s so. What is so, however, is that science is not seen as the objective, unassailable, value-free enterprise that it was when Vannevar Bush called it "the endless frontier."

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Social scientists have for some time challenged the notion that science just reports newly learned facts, objectively and neutrally discovered. On the contrary, if good or bad consequences follow scientific discoveries, physical scientists claim, they flow from the uses that other people—not scientists—make of them. Social scientists respond that scientists select the problems to study based on their cultural outlook—and some would argue, their economic and political outlook. Some go so far as to refer to scientists as "constructing" knowledge, rather than discovering it. This has led to an angry war of words, far from resolved.

But some parts of the accusations are rather easily documented. The medical research profession has realized that its understanding of diseases is based strongly on research only of men, not of women, and of diseases that affect men more than of diseases that affect women. Similar data come from agricultural research at some Land Grant colleges, where the major emphasis has gone into technology and plant breeding to make using large machines for planting and harvesting more profitable for owners of large farms, with little attention to making fruit or vegetables tastier or more nutritious, to growing them safely, or to helping small farmers.

Congressman George Brown, longtime chair of the House Committee on Science and Technology and a strong supporter of research appropriations and hence a critic worth listening to, contributed some skepticism about whether the most interesting problems selected by scientists were in fact the most important. He said that he had noted that a disproportional amount of government support went, with the advise of scientific committees, to high energy physicists, who though not doing more important science were still being rewarded as the discipline that brought WWII to an end.

Some scientists turn the accusation that science is not entirely neutral on its head a bit and argue that science should be framed to address important national problems. Neal Lane, when he was head of NSF, spoke of the need to focus some of the foundation’s funding on just such problems. Anticipating an outcry from all those wedded to the endless frontier, he pointed out that many major societal problems have science somewhere near their core. I can think of examples: species extinction, urban ozone pollution, deforestation, and soil erosion. He noted that getting the science right was essential to forming useful solutions. And it could still be fun because the complexity of the problems meant that much of the science at the root of solving them is quite basic and challenging.

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Lane’s views, and the more general movement among government funders toward additional accountability, will not be an easy sell to many scientists raised in the Vannevar Bush tradition. I know some scientists who even believe that working on a basic problem, of their own choosing, without interference from the funding agency, but with the funding labeled as an applied project, results in a diminution of effectiveness of the research and a loss in their own prestige. I should not be too surprised at this reaction; science is slow to change in some ways.

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.

When my family related to me the event in Kenya, where the boy told them about the eclipse, the admonition to "be careful, you can hurt your eyes looking at it," stuck in my mind and has come to have a wider meaning. At NCAR I began to learn that looking at some features of Earth can hurt your eyes in a different way. Atmospheric scientists had begun, around the time I joined NCAR, to take seriously the earlier work of Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish research scientist and an early recipient of the Nobel Prize. In the 1890s, Arrhenius 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.

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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.

There are many scientific complexities yet to be fully explored. For example, the same sulfur in the fossil fuels that when burned damages visibility and produces acid rain, also reflects a bit of sunlight away from Earth, causing regions downwind of major industrial areas to cool a bit while most of the earth warms.

A gradual 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.

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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. Scientists and environmentalists and some congressional staff came from the United States, but only one highly placed US official, one who gave an excellent talk, chose to show up—our own Tim Wirth. At the meeting there were working group sessions where we split up according to our special interest, lots of good arguments and discussions, and debates on whether reductions in fossil fuel use should come from efficiency improvements of from lots of new nuclear power plants.

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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Why are we resistant to doing what’s necessary? Some years ago, Harlan Cleveland, a wise person who was once one of the trustees in charge of NCAR, talked about this kind of environmental problem, which he described as "Earth’s newly diagnosed degenerative disease." The remedy for which, he said, "will require hundreds of millions of people to do something, or to stop doing something." The stop doing something seems to be the problem. The general exuberance of modern society does not favor stopping. "Stop" sounds like moving backwards, whereas we are moving forward with new possibilities being opened daily by the wondrous new things that come in part from scientific progress.

It is on this issue that the Vannevar Bush vision of the endless frontier is proving not quite complete. Congressman Brown, who as you know died recently, told scientists several years ago that the government could no longer support all the good science that we could think of—there are too many good scientists now with too many good ideas. But Brown seemed concerned more about a different part of the problem than just the mismatch between funding availability and the plans of scientists. The country needs you scientists to help solve the problems facing our society, he was saying. He was saying, in Harlan Cleveland’s word, let’s be part of the hundreds of millions of people doing something, figuring out better, more efficient ways of surmounting the problems that continue to grow: big fisheries nearing depletion, species disappearing, tropical forests vanishing, toxic chemicals found in every corner of the earth, and climate changing in ways that can compromise the very fabric of the planet. Congressman Brown made the task facing the scientific community even more profound and more difficult when he said, "Given that we can completely transform the world with our knowledge, we are morally compelled to answer the question, ‘What is the end that we seek?’"

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So what was missing from Science the Endless Frontier ? In the first place the word "endless" suggests that there is no goal, just a process. It is also hard to think how we could find an end to seek that would be acceptable to most people. 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.

If you go to see Grand Canyon these days, there is a reasonable probability that sulfate particles in the air from many pollution sources will prevent you from seeing very far, and the famous beauties will be invisible. So I have expanded my understanding of the admonition Dr.Tuve gave me long ago to love the earth in order to be a good scientist. From that love, I now believe, we all must not only gain inspiration to work hard on understanding the earth and universe, we should also accept the responsibility for protecting that earth as well.

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