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Mario Molina
Mario Molina
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Mario Molina Interview

Nobel Prize in Chemistry

June 29, 1996
Sun Valley, Idaho

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  Mario Molina

Professor Molina, you were honored with the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for your work dealing with the depletion of the ozone in the Earth's atmosphere. It appears you were always motivated by curiosity about nature, but how did you first become involved in this particular subject?

Mario Molina: When I finished my Ph.D., I moved to Irvine, one of the campuses of the University of California, working with Sherry Rowland. Professor Rowland had a group doing very basic science at that time. But as a postdoctoral student -- that's how I joined his group -- we decided to move into a new field for us, which was the chemistry of the atmosphere. And again, it was a question of originating just with curiosity. We knew that there were certain industrial compounds that were being released into the atmosphere. The type of chemicals that were being released were similar to those that we were studying from a very fundamental point of view -- chemical properties, and so on. How the reactions take place. But something new happened at that time that I had not done in my earlier stories, which is looking at the natural environment. Looking at the way the world functions as a whole. In other words, we became interested in environmental issues. So it was a new field for me at that time. But it was this basic drive, basic curiosity, to find out how things work. In this case, not how it works, but what is the consequence of society releasing something to the environment that wasn't there before. Could you do any damage? Perhaps not, but we thought it was important to find out anyhow. So that's how we got started in that problem, and of course eventually realized that there's not something we were expecting at the beginning, but we did realize that there were important consequences from this apparently harmless human activity of releasing these gases which are not toxic at all, but eventually they decompose and indeed can affect the ozone layer in very significant ways. So it's again, just that drive of understanding how things work -- in this case, what are the consequences of certain activities of society -- that motivated us to solve these problems.

Your findings were not immediately embraced by the rest of the world. You eventually succeeded, but what kind of obstacles did you meet along the road?

Mario Molina: In terms of this issue of these industrial gases affecting the environment, at the beginning the road was not easy, because we were suggesting that society had to change, that industries had to do something different than they were doing at that time. And of course, initially we did not meet with a good reception to these ideas from industry. And even from the scientific community -- even though our ideas were well received in the small group of specialists in what we were doing -- it was not necessarily well received by the scientific community at large. So we really had to continue doing as good a science as we could, and at the same time trying to well communicate our conviction that it was something important, something that had to change in the way society was functioning.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Once you made this discovery, did you feel a responsibility to get the word out that the world was endangered because of manmade chemicals?

Mario Molina: Yes, it was very important.

It's a conscious decision that Sherry Rowland and I did, not just to communicate our findings to other scientists, but to actually try to do something about it. In some sense that was taking a risk. Of course, the signs of the ozone layer and the effects of industrial chemicals was not nearly as well established at that time as it is now. We were just convinced that it was very important to find out. On the other hand, we were taking a risk, in that it's not a normal role expected of scientists. Our peers were perhaps questioning whether we were just seeking publicity or not. But again, we thought it was not important enough just to preserve our image in the scientific community, compared to what we really thought we had to do, which is to find out more about the problem and let the governments know more about it, so that eventually some action could be taken. And that's indeed what happened.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

Did you feel you needed to defend your integrity after receiving this criticism?

Mario Molina: Yes, that was a very important aspect.

It's easy to exaggerate problems as well, so we have to be very cautious. We have to always preserve our integrity as scientists. Even though we were advocates in terms of trying to get society to do something about it, we had to continue with honesty, in terms of how to express these fears, for example, to the news media. It's easy to try to exaggerate the problems just to get more attention. So for me, it was very clear that the best way to deal with that was to do the best science that I was capable of doing. Furthermore, to try to distinguish clearly when I was talking as a scientist, in contrast to talking just as a person with value judgments, in terms of thinking that society should do something about it, but that's not necessarily the scientific issue. That's more a conviction issue.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

Mario Molina Interview Photo

Did you ever have any doubts about your work or any worry about failing?

Mario Molina: Shortly after we realized the potential implications of our findings in terms of environmental effects, we were not entirely sure that we were right. We just thought that it was sufficiently important that we had to find out more about it. So that's the nature of scientific discoveries. When you first sort of get into a new problem, you're not sure what the outcome is going to be, so you're always taking risks. In this case, the risk was even larger, because we were suggesting that our findings had to lead to some changes in industry. So that was a big risk, but we thought it was certainly necessary to take it, and again, it was just a conviction of the problem was serious that led us to continue doing good science. And of course, I should point out it's very important that it's work that we did with the rest of the scientific community, a small group of scientists, all working in this field. We eventually all worked together, and this community really succeeded in -- to do first-rate science, and to establish very clearly that the problem indeed is a very serious one.

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