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

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


Part 1

There was a scientist who helped build the atomic bomb, discovered the true age of the Earth – and took on a billion-dollar industry to save humanity from itself. If asked, there is probably only a handful of people who knew his name. So important to the world was his influences, he should be commemorated, maybe a statue erected in his honour.

During his lifetime, Claire Patterson nurtured a passion for science that would ultimately link his fate with saving our oceans, our air, and our minds from the brink of what is arguably the largest mass poisoning in human history.

In 1944, American scientists raced to finish the atomic bomb. Clair Patterson, then in his mid-20s and armed with a master’s degree in chemistry, was one of many scientists assigned to a secret nuclear production facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

In August 1945, the United States dropped some of that enriched uranium on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killing upwards of 100,000 people. Six days after a mushroom cloud swallowed Nagasaki, Japan surrendered. Patterson was horrified.

After the war, he returned to civilian life as a chemistry Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago. He’d continue working with mass spectrometers, but no longer would he use the technology to edge the planet closer to the End Times. Instead, he’d use it to discover the Beginning of Time. The age of Earth has conjured up speculation for millennia.

In the 3rd century, the first chronologies of world history by tallying the lifespans of Biblical patriarchs concluded the Earth was around 5720 years old, an estimate that stuck in the west for 15 centuries. In 1895, John Perry produced an age-of-Earth estimate of 2 to 3 billion years using a model of a convective mantle and thin crust. However his work was largely ignored. Kelvin stuck by his estimate of 100 million years, and later reduced it by about 20 million years.

Patterson’s supervisor at the university Harrison Brown pondered new uses for uranium isotopes. Over time, these isotopes disintegrate into atoms of lead. This radioactive decay takes millions of years, but it always occurs at a constant rate (703 million years for half of a uranium-235 isotope). If someone uncracked the ratio of uranium to lead inside an old rock, he could learn its age, including earth itself.

One day, he called in his protégé Patterson to teach how to measure the geologic ages of a common mineral that’s about the size of a head of a pin. “If you measure its isotopic composition and stick it into the equation you will have measured the age of the Earth.”

Patterson joined another graduate student, George Tilton, and together they analyzed rocks with a known age as a test run. First, they’d crush granite, then Tilton would measure the uranium as Patterson handled the lead.

A lightbulb moment rescued them when Tilton realized that the lab itself might be contaminating their samples. Uranium had been tested there previously, and perhaps tiny traces of the element lingered in the air, skewing their data. Tilton moved to a virgin lab, and when he tried again, his numbers emerged spotless.

Patterson figured he had the same problem. He tried to remove lead contamination from his samples. He scrubbed his glassware, used distilled water, even tested blank samples that, to his knowledge, contained no lead at all. Lead still showed up.

“There was lead there that didn’t belong,” Patterson recalled. “More than there was supposed to be. Where did it come from?”

Meanwhile, years before, there was a search underway to silence the knocking of an automobile engine. In 1921, when tetraethyl lead was introduced into an engine’s gasoline the knocking was silenced. In fact, the engine purred. The scientists rejoiced.

For 60 years, American drivers unknowingly poisoned themselves by pumping leaded gasoline into their tanks.

One expert, however, saw past the speculation and spin. The Chief of the Army Chemical Warfare Service knew all about tetraethyl lead. The military had shortlisted it for gas warfare. The killer was obvious – it was the lead. Nobody listened.

Bob’s story will continue next issue.