Home Columns Bob’s Meanderings: The Most Important Scientist You’ve Never Heard Of Part 2

Bob’s Meanderings: The Most Important Scientist You’ve Never Heard Of Part 2


Continued from Last Week’s Issue.

Leaded gasoline was plentiful, cheap and it didn’t smell. The group marketed the product as “Ethyl” gasoline deliberately omitting any mention of the word ‘lead’. General Motors, Standard Oil and a new company, the Ethyl Corporation began producing it.

Clair Patterson wondered why so much lead was fouling his beloved rocks. Patterson analyzed each step of his procedure to pinpoint the lead’s origins . He found contamination of every conceivable source that people had never thought about before.

Five years would pass before Patterson finally perfected his own ultraclean techniques. In 1951, he managed to prepare a totally uncontaminated lead sample and confirmed the age of a billion-year-old hunk of granite, an accomplishment that earned him a Ph.D. The next step was to use the same procedure to find the age of the Earth.

By 1953, the ultraclean lab was ready. Patterson prepared the sample that would help in establishing the earth’s age. He used a mass spectrometer at the Argonne National Laboratory. Late one night, the machine spat out numbers. Patterson plugged them into Brown’s old equation: The Earth was 4.54 billion years old. Discovering the age of the Earth was one of the greatest scientific accomplishments of the 20th century, yet Patterson couldn’t kick back and relish it.

From the fragments, scientists calculated the relative abundances of elements that formed as radioactive uranium decayed over billions of years miscalculating the age of the universe – less than the age of the earth no less. It was not until after the age of the earth was established by Patterson that unnerved scientists finally revised the age of the universe at 13.8 billion years and put safely beyond the age of the Earth, which had at last reached its true age, 4.54 billion years.

Patterson was drawn back to his investigation regarding lead contamination that was everywhere and nobody else seemed aware of it. He too, was oblivious as to where the lead originated. All he knew was that every scientist in the world studying the metal – from the lead in space rocks to the lead in a human body must be publishing bad numbers.

He knew that if he compared the lead levels in shallow versus deep water, he could calculate how oceanic lead has changed over time. Recently deposited water churning near the sea’s surface is younger than water that has sunk to the seafloor. The same strategy applied to sediment. Sand resting atop the seafloor is relatively new, but sediment buried 40 feet below is older. In geology circles, it’s called the Law of Superposition: the deeper the strata, the older.

Patterson collected samples from all depths and returned to his ultraclean lab. He found that the samples of young water contained about 20 times more lead. This was not normal. News about lead poisoning was gradually becoming more and more alarming to the public.

In 1972, the EPA erred on the side of caution and proposed regulations requiring the lead in gasoline be reduced, step by step, 60 to 65 percent by 1977.

Four years later, the results showed that lead had spiked along the food chain. Patterson’s team had found the fingerprint: 95 percent of the lead had drifted from car exhaust in San Francisco to Los Angeles, nearly 300 miles away.

Between 1940 and 1960, as public health experts wrote in Lead Wars, the amount of lead produced for American gas tanks increased eightfold. By 1963, nearly 83 million Americans owned a car. The consequences can be terrifying. Lead interferes with the body’s battalion of antioxidants, damaging DNA and killing neurons.

In 1986, the EPA called for a near ban of leaded gasoline. Four years later, the amended Clean Air Act required that any remaining leaded gasoline be removed from service stations by December 31, 1995.

A 2002 study in Environmental Health Perspectives found that, by the late 1990s, the IQ of the average preschooler had risen five points. The blood lead levels of today’s children are a testimony to Patterson’s brilliance and integrity.”

Patterson would never see that day. Born months after leaded gasoline was discovered, he would die three weeks before lead shared its last kiss with America’s gas tanks. He was 73.

He died without the recognition of preventing countless health problems attributed to leadless gasoline and validating the age of the earth. He still goes unrecognized to this very day.