Notice: We are in the process of migrating Oral History Interview metadata to this new version of our website.
During this migration, the following fields associated with interviews may be incomplete: Institutions, Additional Persons, and Subjects. Our Browse Subjects feature is also affected by this migration.
Please contact [email protected] with any feedback.
This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the American Institute of Physics.
This transcript is based on a tape-recorded interview deposited at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. The AIP's interviews have generally been transcribed from tape, edited by the interviewer for clarity, and then further edited by the interviewee. If this interview is important to you, you should consult earlier versions of the transcript or listen to the original tape. For many interviews, the AIP retains substantial files with further information about the interviewee and the interview itself. Please contact us for information about accessing these materials.
Please bear in mind that: 1) This material is a transcript of the spoken word rather than a literary product; 2) An interview must be read with the awareness that different people's memories about an event will often differ, and that memories can change with time for many reasons including subsequent experiences, interactions with others, and one's feelings about an event. Disclaimer: This transcript was scanned from a typescript, introducing occasional spelling errors. The original typescript is available.
In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Joseph Farman by Keynyn Brysse on 2009 March 16,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
In this interview, Joe Farman discusses topics such as: ozone layer depletion; discovering the hole in the ozone over Antarctica; Mario Molina; F. S. Rowland; stratosphere; Montreal Protocol; chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs); International Geophysical Year (IGY) Antarctic expedition.
So, what were you working on before your Antarctic ozone hole paper?
You look in the book, you see! [Chuckles] I went down to the IGY. The IGY, how should we describe it, was the first scientific exploration of Antarctica. There was a big gap on the map. You could say anything about geomagnetism, ozone, all the rest of it, and no one could contradict because there wasn’t any information, apart from a few isolated pioneering bits of meteorology, but there was basically limited understanding of the whole thing. As indeed, almost of the tropics today. Some of this, I have to declare my interest, I think. I find an awful lot of this rehashing of history irritating because people don’t really get inside the world as it was, as I knew it, as it were. So sorry, I do tend to get a little irritated.
Well, I can understand that, and if you decide you have had enough, we can certainly stop at any point.
So, trying to think what I should start with. And you had discovered the results about the Antarctic ozone hole. You had discovered that there was a hole, but the paper…
No, no, no. This is the whole trouble. Once you get out of the mindset of the time, you say silly things like discovering the ozone hole. Well, the ozone hole as a terminology can actually be found in a German paper of 1937, but that is another story all together. [Laughs] The ozone hole, I think, was partly invented by Susan and partly by Sherry, between them at the Washington Post news conference in something or other. But you can look all that up; you will find it in the thing. So no one discovered the ozone hole. What we pointed out was that it would be to say the ozone ought to be being destroyed by chlorine, and although we couldn’t prove it at the time, here was a case where ozone had declined. The first one ever seen, or the first one ever justified as one, and then there was a very strong a priori case for saying it was due to chlorine, because we knew it wasn’t due to anything else, essentially. That’s not true either, you see, but it certainly wasn’t meteorology because we had as good a set of met records as we had of ozone records, and the fundamental fact was quite simple at that stage. There was no change in meteorology. There was one later which everyone described in their own way. If you take ozone out you actually stop the atmosphere warming up. You don’t cool it, as some people say, you stop it warming up.
Right, yes that is different.
Then this I think — I hope I am expressing my irritation that most of the things you do are actually misdescribed later on, and you’re attributed motives and all sorts of things just really can’t possibly be there from the sociology of the situation always.
Great. Well, and people like me we do try to get these right. But you’re right that we often fail.
Yes, I know, but it’s so difficult. And there are so many people now expressing opinions, and then there are only four or five people who are entitled to have an opinion about the ozone hole paper, and three of us wrote it and two others were helping us. [Chuckles]
That makes perfect sense to me.
If you want to tell the world something new and exciting, you jolly well have to make sure your facts are right. That’s why everyone says why did you take so long. Well, the answer was we had to check and double check. You can’t put that sort of thing in the world without being quite sure that you can stand up and defend it. It took another two to three years to prove the chlorine side of it. But on the other hand, there really was nothing else it could be, and it was as simple as that.
Was that frustrating?
Oh, it was very frustrating.
You said when you published the paper, you knew it couldn’t be due to dynamics, and yet a dynamic explanation was one of the three theories.
Oh sure, yes. There are lot of bits of this story which when you look back, you just realize with horror that there is an awful lot of bad thinking in the world. The trouble basically was this. I first went to the Antarctic in ’56, so if I knew nothing else, at least I think I can claim to have understood the way the atmosphere behaves in a very broad sense. But people like Sherry, unfortunately, and even Mario, much as they knew about chemistry, they didn’t have the slightest idea that you reach -90 in the Antarctic stratosphere, so all the chemistry done up to that stage was almost irrelevant. That’s why no one had all these bright ideas. People like the Germans [?] had modeling, but they were heavily involved with what was the real Antarctic atmosphere. They couldn’t because they were in 2D and you can’t get that low of temperatures in 2D models. So it’s not surprising the whole story took time to build up. And yes, it was rather irritating that when you stand up and say, “There’s no change in the temperatures and the winds, ergo, we don’t really think it can [inaudible],” that other people, Nobel laureates should press on really slowing down the rate at which consensus could be got.
Did you know about polar stratospheric clouds earlier than other people? I’ve heard that they were discovered in 1981-’82. You knew about them before that?
They were discovered by Scott’s expedition to McMurdo among others. Wilson has some beautiful watercolors of them, if you have time to go across to them.
I read Susan’s book.
I mean Polar Stratospheric clouds in a sense is almost a sense a misnomer. What you need to look at are the mother of pearl clouds. If you look in the literature, you’ll find the Norwegian Sturmat [?] did a lot of work on it. We observed them and we wrote papers on mother of pearl clouds in 1963. All we knew at that stage is they must contain sulfuric acid because of the low temperatures involved. So again, it was all simple facts staring you in the face. The real full chemists knew the story behind it, far, far from your capabilities of doing things at that stage, because most people who went to make observations didn’t really know about chemistry and so forth. We were in this little closed world. It was long before the days of the Internet. We only got ozone observations back in a sensible form after 18 months of hard work at home checking everything to make sure that calibrations were still in place and so forth. Now it’s completely different. I can sit in there and pull down yesterday’s ozone off the web, and occasionally get irritated and say, “Gosh, they’ve made a mistake again.” People by and large don’t bother and say do I believe them?
Where you thinking heterogeneous chemistry right away?
No, I didn’t know anything about heterogeneous chemistry. I mean I’d been starting to do a very simple 1D model. We had the insight that you couldn’t possibly do it in 2D anyhow, and 2D by definition has nothing to do with this world whatsoever. Either you do a 1D model that you can justify in very crude terms, or you have to go to the full 3D. But 2D has nothing to do with 3D or 1D. The odd dimensions, as it turns out, have very different…
Oh, I didn’t know that.
That’s a crude way of looking at it, because there are processes that either you have to parameterize in a 1D model or you can hope to put the full details in a 3D model if you have enough computing power. So we did some 1D stuff, and I learned about chemistry that way by asking Brian Thrash and my student what it was all about, and occasionally getting the feeling they didn’t really know what they were saying. [Chuckles]
Was that your entire involvement with heterogeneous, or did you work more on it?
No, we really didn’t have a chance to. I supposed the answer — well, I mean I pulled Bob’s leg forever afterwards about it. [Laughs] No, it was just a strange thing that the chemists had almost forgotten this sort of thing was possible. Although, as I say, we knew about clouds and stratospheric clouds, and as well called them, mother of pearl clouds. The other thing, which is always a neglected discussion of who did what, when, and why, very few people have actually realized that the ozone hole takes place at the worst possible occasion; i.e., you can only make very intimate ozone observations with the moon during the polar night, and everything is happening when you’ve got very low sun angles, just when you’re making your worst possible qualitative ozone measurements. So you have to be doubly careful. By the time it settled down, as it did after a few years, so there was very low ozone left through the end of October. But in the early stages when you’re just biting gently away at the ozone as the sun comes by, it’s almost at the time when you’re forbidden to measure it with any great accuracy. So it’s not unnatural you should search for some silly way of expressing it that might convince the [???].
That makes sense. It’s really interesting hearing what you say about the polar stratosphere clouds and the sulfate aerosols, because when I talked to Rowland, he said the reason he never really considered heterogeneous chemistry was that everyone knew there were no particles in the stratosphere.
It repeats, more or less, what I said earlier on, that in those days, we all lived in our little cocoons of our professional work. I knew about clouds in the Antarctic, but I wasn’t a chemist, and certainly the chemists had no idea what the real world was like. To them it was glass little tubes in laboratories, and that’s got nothing to do with the free atmosphere either, in a sense. I mean the number of times in the early stages we had people come along and say, “Here are the new rates,” and then later, well yes, their rates didn’t have anything to do with what goes on. It’s amazing how long that sort of thing takes to break down, all these built in things you require in your operating.
I can’t remember who wrote this paper, but someone wrote a paper that considered a heterogeneous reaction involved in ozone depletion.
Some Russians tried it.
This might have been Molina and Molina, I can’t remember. They tested this reaction to see if it would occur on ice. Maybe it was a reaction with HCl. And they found that it didn’t happen fast enough to matter, so they thought there wouldn’t be heterogeneous reactions happening on polar stratosphere cloud particles, but they were only looking at -5 to -20 Celsius, and of course as you said, that was not cold enough.
Right. It’s when nitric acid falls out of the…We had a wonderful meeting with ICI in Edinburgh early on, and I don't know whether it was deliberate or what they thought they were doing, but they persuaded a Russian to come across, and he told us very engagingly he’d just worked out at very low temperatures, ozone self-destructs. [Laughs]
Have you been involved with any assessments having to do with ozone depletion? Assessments like the Ozone Trends Report?
No. I have reviewed a few chapters for people, made comments. But basically we’ve published in the UK government a series of things, and all the inputs of things really went to that. I don’t like the — I mean the whole process is not science.
No it really isn’t, because it summarizing the science that’s already out there.
You are never going to discover anything new by all this review nonsense. You discover something new by some idiot like me getting a unique chance to see something before someone else, and then you either substantiate it or not. But you’re never going to get it by careful statistical analysis, all that’s nonsense. People ask what does statistics have to do with finding the ozone hole? The answer is there weren’t any. By that time, Grandmother would have told you you’d find something new. You didn’t need a statistical test; you didn’t need the word really. It’s just gone outside the previously seen envelope of observation — forget it! And it’s the same with climate change. The panels have done much more harm than good, in my opinion. And the Montreal Protocol did even more harm than good.
Yes, I’m sorry; I’m consistently of that view.
Can you please expand on that for me?
Well, it’s just like this financial crisis. Who does the government turn to for advice for how to put it right? It turns to the people who made it. What did the Montreal Protocol do? It got the governments asking the chemical firms, and naturally they said we want to know the high tech solution, and the answer was you don’t want a high tech solution. Greenpeace and others have shown that you do all the refrigeration you want. There are two wonderful refrigerants, they’re called air and water, and you don’t need anything more.
That’s fantastic. But I had actually heard about the Greenpeace refrigerator. But even if they’re doing these high tech solutions that are unnecessary and expensive, would you still agree that CFCs needed to be phased out, that we still needed to get rid of those chemicals?
Everyone seems to have curious views on this. Richard Benedict from the States, who was one of the chief negotiators, he really expects me to believe that they thought they were cutting down CFCs. What did they do? At the wretched last meeting of the — You know, we started negotiations in Vienna in 19 —Well, it doesn’t really matter when we started. The Vienna Convention was agreed in ’85, which more or less said, “Oh, there must be a problem. We’d better take some more through this… Now a protocol to control it, well we can’t do that. So we’ll have another meeting.” In ’86 they failed to agree, and in ’87 they were still arguing. They were approached by a deadline; a fortnight away was going to be the press release from the aircraft expedition, which most of us knew would show beyond any conceivable doubt that chlorine was involved. Not the precise details; the chemistry didn’t really matter. It was just going to be obvious that you would find the nature of chlorine and all the rest of it. So what did they do? They suddenly decided we can’t possibly get the press release out first. We’ll say something first. What did they do? They said well we must have a protocol, so we’ll meet again in 1990, and by that time we might have decided what we really want to do. It was just dishonest and extreme. And everyone knew that if you did that, you’d be up to quite a lot of chlorine. And what did the first meeting do in 1990? It put in things which said, “Oh well, you can have 11 parts per billion chlorine by 2000, if you leave it to go like we suggest.” It’s not science, it’s not common sense, it’s not even honesty. That was just such a dishonest process, and it’s never recovered. How are you actually going to get the thing to turn over? And what did they do, my goodness, we should be regretting it. They lean over backwards to be kind to the Chinese and the Indians and say, “Oh, you can make HCFCs without limits until…” what, 2030 it started like that?
I don’t remember, but something like that.
That’s what it did, anyhow. And what happened, the world — you know, carbon trading rights, and now completely messed up by getting rid of HCFC-23 for HCFC-22. They were asked only last year could they make some more HCFC-22 factories so they could make a little more money. I mean this after 20 years of the Protocol — can you really honestly say that’s a success? It’s been the most terrible muddle. Things have gone as slowly as they could. Any painful decision has been, “Oh well, we can’t do it now, but we’ll come back next year.” And agree, when they came back, they were always able to go a little bit faster. But I’ve never forgotten the Save the Ozone Layer conference in London, and Bob and Sherry were there and I was there, and the rest of them. We paid pretty well for everyone around the world to come. And they weren’t asked to sign anything at the meeting, so naturally when they got up and spoke, they all agreed, and that was quite hard. And then they came back the next year and were confronted with a piece of paper to sign, and they didn’t sign it. I just do not see the sense in this political junk. If you want it, then [???] of a man who makes it all appear nonsense, it’s all good and grand. He’s not happy to talk on anything unless he’s going to lead the world, and people don’t lead the world except by example. People have forgotten this. You’ve got to stand up and be counted. Forgive me, I’m an old man and I’m getting crotchety.
So you must really be not enjoying what’s going on with climate change.
No, I hate it. I claim that if you give me a good high school student in his last two or three years, leave me with him for about two hours, I think I can convince him that putting carbon dioxide into the air is taking a risk you don’t want to take. And I don’t want to say any more about the consequences and all the rest of it. It is just perturbing in a way that we’ve got no right to pass onto our children. That’s the important part. And no one will act on this at all. To me, I’m afraid it’s just too straightforward. Why should I be able to spell out the consequences and the time scale for it? That’s not what I’m interested in. The basic physics is just so simple. When you need to prove it, there are a few facts about carbon dioxide and the present temperature of the atmosphere, and a little bit of knowledge about how the winds go around, and that’s all there is to it. So why do we need all this junketing about people irritating each other. It’s almost become a closed shot, it’s almost become an industry, and you get people — There was a case with a Frenchman last year where he decided he had an opportunity and he wanted to withdraw from it, and they wouldn’t let him take his contribution out. They more or less said it would still be published, whether he wants to or not. I thought that was just ridiculous. In this free world, if we decide we don’t like something…
That’s how I feel about the Creationists’ argument against Darwinism. I’m trained as a historian of biology, paleontology, so I’ve taught classes about Darwinism. The Creationists simply choose not to believe science. They say science is written in books. The Bible is written in a book. The science books are written by people who are fallible. The Bible is written by God who is not, therefore I can believe the Bible, I don’t have to believe the science. And you can’t argue with that in a way that will compel them to listen to you. It’s frustrating.
And it doesn’t get anywhere, except a lot of bad feelings.
Can I ask what you did your Ph.D. on?
I’ve never done a Ph.D.
Oh you haven’t? So what’s your background, to get into the science of studying Antarctic chemistry?
I supposed basically — I’m not too sure I want to go into all that. I had a job for a time working on guided missiles, and I saw an advertisement, “Go to the Antarctic,” and I thought, Well, you’ve always wanted to go ever since you met the brother of my headmaster, and if you don’t go now you probably never will, so you’d better apply for it and see what happens. The survey was not so much — well, it was going to join in with the IGY, but it had the intention of having some many permanent stations there, even before IGY came along. The IGY, I supposed that was a success, yes. Anyhow, the powers that be while I was south did sort of say we do have to keep these going, and Benny Fukes [?] was kind enough to offer me the chance to stay on and organize things. So that was 37 years of hard work south. It’s funny, when you look at all these things. In many ways the IGY was a success. But on the other hand, all of us I suppose worked for hours and hours in those days to make microfilm permanent. It covers a hundred-year lifetime or something, and that meant washing many, many times, and so on and so forth, all this sort of thing. Then everything was written up and made Robert Maxwell his fortune, and there it all sits. I think it must be the most underused data set in history. Whenever something new and exciting turned up, it was always, “Oh, we must go and make some more observations.” Very few people bothered to look to see what we could deduce from the IGY. Another unsightly human affair. It’s usually easier for doing something new than looking back at what’s already there.
That’s was all the questions I have. Is there anything important about ozone or Antarctica that I haven’t asked?
Hmm. The answer is you’ve scarcely touched on the subject yet. The ozone split fairly rapidly into quite technical bits of chemistry. Since it was the first tracer you could get on satellite things, it also meant complete revision of the general dynamics of the atmosphere, and Michael McIntyre’s proof, and everything else has since towed us to this wonderful parameter called potential vorticity where you can actually see, you can look with modern technology, and you can take a satellite map and see an amazing amount happening before your very eyes, and you can see how it’s all —There are two distinct time scales, and the one which actually leads to meaningful change in the atmosphere is a very slow time scale. But on top of that, you’ve got this wretched thing called potential vorticity which determines its own future, and it does it in such a way, and because every other effect is so slow in the stratosphere, that all you have to do is solve VB equations and you know with 90% certainty what’s going to happen in the dynamics of the stratosphere for the next five days. You can’t go much beyond that. Then there is a period of uncertainty, then you get to the long-term future, which is in the hands of the other things and has nothing to do with VB at all. But it actually really rather wonderful to get to the stage where now you can forecast the stratosphere much more accurately than you can the troposphere. And yet, in a funny way, it’s what happens in the troposphere that comes through and eventually decides what’s going to disrupt VB in a way that the models won’t tell you. Ozone is the word that was used that was the trigger for all this, but it was the pressure to really understand the dynamics and in a sense disprove some of the ideas that it could possibly be a dynamic thing affecting ozone that had really led to the huge advances in the understanding of the ozone and the atmosphere. And it’s very, very important to understand where all the pollution goes to. It doesn’t really matter where it is emitted on the Earth’s surface, if it is going to get into the stratosphere it has to go up through the tropics, it’s as simple as that. It’s all just a silly little chimney there taking it up in its spare time. But there are wonderful lessons in some of this. You get idiots with the usual cries: “But we haven’t emitted CFCs in the Southern Hemisphere!” No you haven’t. Now you’ve learned something, if you think about it. [Laughs] But they won’t take it that way. They won’t think about what they just said and see there are some inferences which can be staring them in the face. There we are, I’m afraid, a very bad tempered old man who doesn’t like the way the world is run at all. It was very sad when I met Mrs. Thatcher eventually. She asked me a simple question, I gave her a truthful answer, and that was the end of it!
It had no influence on her?
Well, it probably did I suspect, but I don’t know. She had been talking to ICI, so she made a little speech by asking any advice, and I said go out and buy a new refrigerator. She said, “Oh, did I make a mistake this morning?” I said, “Yes ma'am, there won’t be any available for another three years. It was a prototype.” [Laughs] Once you end up with being dismissed by the Prime Minister, you see, you get pushed onto her husband, Dennis Thatcher. And the way these people go on is really quite funny. He was obviously completely floored and didn’t know anything about it, so he said, “And what are you going to turn your brilliant mind to now, Mr. Farman?” So I looked him in the eye, and I said, “Well, I believe you have some other problems in the country today. Let me see, there’s advance payments…” [Laughs] So we agreed to talk about rugby. At least he had the decency to grin. [Chuckles] That's what you’re up against all the time. There’s the Europe Environment Agency. I wrote an article for them: “Late Lessons of Early Warnings”. There’s the Europe Environment Agency, there’s a whole host of — there’s now been two of them. One is quite fascinating. One is the asbestos. You may think that ozone took one hell of a time to get anywhere. Asbestos took even longer. It was 60-70 years before anyone took notice. So there are lots of interesting things in there.
That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of comparing the two.
There are lots of bits of mythology that need to be shot down. I’ve tried my best several times. One of them is that Thomas Midgley invented CFCs.
Oh, and that’s wrong?
Completely and utterly wrong. They were invented by a Belgium called Schwartz in 1890-something. The joke of that is if they’d have been turned into the nasty aerosols and others things at the time — of course no one knew about aerosol principals and that sort of thing — when we first went to Antarctica we might have found an ozone layer. We didn’t know we had an ozone layer when Schwartz discovered these. Then there are little bits of history like that that need putting into place. I’m not sure I’ve got a copy of this thing. I think I wrote about it, and it’s in French! It was translated by a Jesuit friend of mine, who was also an Antarctic explorer. We had a very nice relationship. By the time he’d translated it, I’d put one or two ideas right. He wouldn’t put his name on it, unfortunately. He wrote a wonderful book on Galvani, finished on his work on geomagnetism. He spent a lot of his retirement working on relations and religion and science, and then he got involved with Galileo because of this because that was the [inaudible]. He wrote a very massive tome on Galileo and the inquisition and various things involved. It’s really good stuff. He looked up the membership of every meeting of the inquisition and got their histories.
Oh wow! That’s very exciting. [Work out getting pages scanned.] I do suspect part of my problem is having not figured out what questions I should ask of everyone.
It’s extremely difficult. At least half the fault is with the ozone reviewers and the climate change, is there are so many people involved. You get the lowest common denominator and not the cutting edge, and I suspect it’s partly a waste of time because you know no politician is going to read more than one side of a form.
That’s true. But if you can put accurate compelling information on that one page…
Oh yes, sure. Yes indeed. When I gave it, there was still a two-hour parliament. I can remember, I was taken along by the head of our organization and our own director, and they sort of said only speak when you’re spoken to, otherwise we’re here to do it. The chairman turned to me afterwards and invited me to…and I lost my temper at one stage, I’m ashamed to say. I banged my hand on the table and I said, “I’ve taken the trouble to give you one side of a form, I know that’s all you can read. But there is also one page of diagrams, so perhaps you would just look at it.” [Laughs] If you take these meetings at face value, you’d not go. Did we do any good — that’s the thing, I’m sure. I think the most irritating one was the German one we went to. Everything was there, we’d written it all out. We were told to stand up and read it. So this started, and I walked out and came back about five minutes later, and discovered everyone was standing up and looking around. “What’s wrong?” I asked. He said, “The chairman has decided she’s read all our evidence, and she doesn’t want to hear it again. She just wants to know what we think, and we’ve been given five minutes to find someone to stand up and say what we think. Would you like to do it?” “Oh. Well, thank you.” But that’s when Germany held the balance of power, although they didn’t have a majority. They held the balance of power in Germany for three years. Actually there was considerable movement in Germany. When they lost the balance of power, it went back to square one again. But it was a sign politicians can do things. Told what to do, and they actually want to.