Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Joseph Farman, 1930-2013

Joe Farman, who is commonly described as the man who discovered the ozone hole, has died last Saturday aged 82. In comparison to other researchers in the field of ozone layer science, such as the nobel prize winning Rowland, Molina and Crutzen, he attracted far less attention. For example, his Wikipedia entry is still only a 'stub' to this day - even though his death has been duly acknowledged. The Daily Telegraph, from which the picture is taken had an obituary on Monday.

Farman did not seek the limelight, and did not give many media interviews. I interviewed him at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) in Cambridge when I was working on my book Transnational Environmental Policy. I met a man who was very thoughtful, polite, but also outspoken. I remember him smoking his pipe and humming melodies during our conversation, when pausing for an answer, making funny remarks, laughing and chuckling a lot.

When I say Farman discovered the ozone hole this is of course not entirely accurate. For one, he published the paper in Nature together with his co-authors Brian Gardiner and Jonathan Shanklin, two colleagues at the BAS (you can see a picture of all three in this obituary on the BBC). And the team did not use the term ozone hole to describe what they had discovered, which were abnormally low ozone concentration in Antarctic Spring. This metaphor was invented later, by Sherwood Rowland.

The Nature paper had an interesting history. First, the authors hesitated with the publication since they wanted to be absolutely sure they had reliable data. The data showed ozone values far below anything thought possible at the time. After they decided to send the paper to Nature, interested parties tried to intervene. Farman told me how the chemical firm ICI, a producer of ozone destroying CFCs, tried to block publication: "ICI rang me up, they had a copy of the paper long before it was published. And ICI said: You must not publish that, it is not science! And I said: No, it is not science. But I am going to publish it. It does not prove anything, of course it doesn’t. How can you prove such things at this stage? I feel that this is the first real effect of CFCs. You can see vaguely how it can happen." (p.95)

Alice Bell in the Guardian points to a Farman interview with the BBC, in their Oral History series. There are audio files of more than 13 hrs and there is also a full transcript available.

It appears that also his Head of division at BAS tried to block publication of the paper: "That’s where I learnt for the first time that my head of division had tried to suppress that paper. He’d written to the Met Office, a copy which still exists, saying he believed this paper shouldn’t be published ‘cause it’d be very embarrassing if my inferences were wrong".

Three years ago at the 25th anniversary of the discovery of the ozone hole, Farman was interviewed by the BBC. I had a comment on Klimazwiebel which you can read here.


Werner Krauss said...

Great science history and story. I push the "respect" and the "like" button.

ghost said...

I am not sure which button I should press, but this is a very interesting and very respectful post by Reiner Grundmann. Actually, I liked it.

IMHO, the ozone depletion problem and the following actions were a bit considered as a blueprint for the global warming problem for many people and organizations. However, the second problem is much, much more difficult, I think.

Martin Heimann said...

Nice post - and no doubt that Farman was a great scientist. But, was't there a Japanese scientist, Shigeru Chubachi, who reported on low ozone values already a year prior to the British group? These minor details get forgotten nowadays. Might be a nice case study on the history of scientific discoveries and how these are remembered later in the different cultures.

@ReinerGrundmann said...

Martin Heimann

Maureen Christie covers this aspect in her book The Ozone Layer: A philosophy of Science perspectve, p.49

The Japanese team had only year of data whereas the British had 25 years.

@ReinerGrundmann said...

*only one year of data*