Mario J. Molina: Guardian of the Stratosphere

One November morning the phone rang. He was a good friend, Alfonso de Maria y Campos (RIP). “Would you like to meet our new Nobel Prize winner?” He told me. I did not hesitate for a moment. Sooner rather than later, I was already waiting for the moment of our first date in one of those guest houses near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), an institution where Mario worked at the time.

Since he had been invited as an adviser to President Bill Clinton, he had to travel to Washington whenever required. This extended my stay and made it difficult to continue the story in favor of the planet that Mario wanted to communicate, both to those who make decisions in industry and government, as well as to the new generations, who will have to bear the burden caused by looking nature as a big cake and war booty, without measuring the consequences. Even so, for several weeks Mario managed to receive me, sometimes at unexpected times: six in the morning, ten at night… Then I took advantage of the time and immersed myself in the magnificent libraries of the city. In this way I was able to document the exciting story of the fight of the ozone gladiators over half a century. The result was a book, Clouds in the Mexican sky. Mario J. Molina, pioneer of environmentalism (Santillana, loqueleo), which he greatly appreciated and has received numerous reprints over the years.

“Ours was not merely an intellectual matter,” he assured me, “when, in 1974, I finished doing the calculations on the chemical reactions that were taking place in the upper atmosphere of the Earth, Sherry and I understood the urgency. It was a matter that surpassed academic vanities.” The following year, the use of aerosols propelled by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) was banned in the United States, but the environmental regulations were more a list of good intentions than actual realities. This chemical compound, CFC, widely used in home refrigerators, turned out to be responsible for the thinning of the tropospheric ozone layer, especially at the South Pole. There was no shortage of disqualifications, biased retorts. Mario and his guardian, Sherwood “Sherry” Rowland, were criticized, threatened, some affected company tried to bribe them. The first person who understood the seriousness of the matter was the then journalist from New York Times, Al Gore. Now Mario had an ally for environmental causes in the White House.

The 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, also awarded to Sherry and Paul Crutzen, was a victory for society over the prevailing indolence regarding global environmental problems at the time, the turbulent 1970s. When confirmed, in 1986 , which, unfortunately, Mario’s calculations were correct, there was a crucial advance in the understanding of something apparently distant and immovable, such as the upper layers of the Earth’s atmosphere, so that we now know much more about the subtle changes and the consequences on the global climate.

As the days passed I could imagine the twisted paths, the crossroads and the obstacles that he and Sherry Rowland had to overcome three decades before obtaining the Nobel Prize. “I left UNAM because there was no pure chemistry, only applied chemistry,” Mario recalled. “I did a master’s degree in Freiburg, but I wasn’t satisfied either. I was a bit of a dilettante in Paris, although I audited university classes in mathematics and physics. It was at Berkeley that my life changed, for I met a chemistry legend, George C. Pimentel. Later I contacted Sherry; I maintained a deep, creative friendship with him”. Sherwood Rowland was a giant who had won the national basketball championship with the University of Chicago, good at his profession as a chemist, but nothing to write home about. The Harlem Globetrotters offered him a juicy contract, but despite the fact that he was still far from coming across the subject that would lead him to win the Nobel, he rejected the tempting offer to continue in scientific research.

The epic of environmentalism goes through the tireless work of Sherry and Mario. Shortly before the Paris Conference I was with the latter at the Foundation that bears his name. He was encouraged, because let’s not forget that it was his Nobel research that pushed the world’s governments to start doing something. Thus, the Montreal Conference was held in 1987 and, in 2015, the Paris Agreement was signed. Unfortunately, the World Climate Change Conference in November 2021, held in Glasgow, was a pale reflection of the legacy of Molina, Rowland and Crutzen.


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Mario J. Molina: Guardian of the Stratosphere