Remembering F. Sherwood Rowland

I would like to take this opportunity to comment on something both personal and professional. We recently lost a champion of scientific research, and for me a good friend, in F. Sherwood Rowland, Nobel Laureate, who, along with his colleagues Mario Molina and Paul Crutzen, showed us how chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, damage the Earth’s protective ozone layer. This is not a commentary, however, on the magnitude of Sherry Rowland’s work (though monumental it was, indeed). Rather, I reflect on the courage of those scientists who are prepared to jettison conventional wisdom, swim upstream, challenge notions—and bear the scars of that effort wherever it may lead.

Sherry once said that, for nearly a decade after undertaking his groundbreaking research, he could not get invited into a college classroom to lecture, much less excel among his peers. He was challenged at every turn. And yet, through scientific rigor and sheer perseverance, his work was translated from the laboratory into policy in one of the most progressive international measures ever envisioned: the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.

A July 1990 Washington Post editorial noted, “Getting 92 governments to agree on anything, let alone on an environmental rule affecting dozens of industries, surely ranks as one of the more improbable feats of the season.” In my policy role at the time, I was charged with seeing these measures implemented, and I maintain that it was the irrepressible determination of the scientists, more than anything else, that underscored the actions taken by governments, businesses, and the general public to control CFCs—and on an accelerated schedule.

Sherry Rowland was not the only “lone messenger” of science to emerge from history. But, unlike the often referenced epic challenges to the theories of Copernicus or Galileo, Sherry defended himself not against vehement opposition, but rather perceived irrelevance. Copernicus challenged Ptolemy’s idea of a geocentric universe at the risk of death. Sherry challenged science and business, arguably preserving the planet, and yet would have been ignored and dismissed without review had he not doggedly persevered. He succeeded ultimately by his tenacity and performance as a scientist.

As science centers and museums, we are in the business of training young minds. I hope that, as we work to help whole groups of individuals—from visiting school groups to science clubs to youth program participants—better appreciate science in our world today, we will take special note of that one individual in each group who disregards, questions, or otherwise challenges group convention in order to test a personal hypothesis. That individual is in the company of greatness, inspired by the likes of F. Sherwood Rowland.