Nobel Prize-winning chemist and UC Irvine founding faculty member F. Sherwood Rowland arguably saved the world from a global catastrophe when he discovered that certain chemicals found in popular consumer products could destroy the earth's ozone layer. The pioneer passed away on Saturday in his Corona Del Mar home at 84 years old from complications due to Parkinson's disease.
Nearly forty years ago, Professor Sherwood and post-doctoral student Mario Molina discovered that chloroflourocarbons-chemicals used in spray deodorant, aerosol hairsprays and other consumer products-could eat away at a stratospheric layer that shields us from the sun's disastrous, ultraviolet rays.
This finding shocked Sherwood, because he realized that Earth could lose its ozone layer, exposing humans, animals and plant life to solar radiation. He and Molina called for a ban on products containing CFCs, but chemical industry representatives, who annually racked in billions of dollars, tried to stymie Sherwood's efforts. And even fellow scientists considered his research absurd.
He and Molina continued to present their hypothesis at conferences and worked to convince government actors and media outlets of the environmental threat. After nearly two decades, the world eventually caught on. In 1987, the international community signed the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement to rid CFCs from manufactured goods. The road of challenges ended in triumph for Sherwood, who considered the treaty his most significant achievement.
UCI physical sciences dean Kenneth C. Janda said in an email to faculty that "[Sherwood] saved the world from a major catastrophe: never wavering in his commitment to science, truth and humanity, and did so with integrity and grace."
Rowland's impact extended beyond the lecture halls of UCI, including the one named after him, Rowland Hall. Yazeed Ibrahim can attest to that. When he was a freshmen at UCI, Ibrahim worked on research with Donald Blake, a chemistry professor and longtime laboratory partner of Rowland.
One day, Blake introduced Ibrahim to Rowland. The freshmen said he was excited to meet the Nobel Prize winner, and he was shocked by Rowland's amiable demeanor. Rowland asked the first-year student about his research, his interests and started advising him on his future.
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"Despite the greatness of his achievements, he was very humble and very approachable," Ibrahim said. "Most professors just don't want to deal with students but here's this guy who won the Nobel Prize and he's talking to you, asking personal questions and giving advice about what research to pursue."
Ibrahim said he admired Rowland for enduring the challenges he faced and continuing to teach and research, even after all of his accomplishments. But then again, it seemed like complacency never found itself near the professor.
"Is it enough for a scientist simply to publish a paper? Isn't it a responsibility of scientists, if you believe that you have found something that can affect the environment, isn't it your responsibility to actually do something about it, enough so that action actually takes place?" Rowland said in a climate change roundtable at the White House. "If not us, who? If not now, when?"