A Scientist’s Scientist

June 6, 2013 · 0 comments

Joseph Farman–the man who found the ozone hole–had a very straightforward, unglamorous way of describing the work of  a scientist:

Science is thinking you know how things work and so you make something work and it either works as you think it does or it doesn’t work as you think it does and now you move on.

Farman, who passed away last month at the age of 82, reported the existence of the ozone hole in a 1985 paper based on in situ measurements made with Brian Gardiner and Joe Shanklin in Antarctica.  Despite the renown that followed this discovery, Farman’s legacy will stand–as he wished–on a dogged ability to follow his simple model of research at the highest level.

An employee of the British Antarctic Survey from 1956 until his retirement in 1990, Farman ventured to Antarctica at the beginning of his career and studied the atmosphere over that continent for 25 years, assigning other scientists to continue measurements after he returned to Britain in 1959. His superiors questioned his indefatigable efforts to compile ground-based ozone readings–after all, NASA satellites were already monitoring the ozone over Antarctica. Farman told the BBC:

The long-term monitoring of the environment is a very difficult subject. There are so many things you can monitor. And basically it’s quite expensive to do it. And, when nothing much was happening in the environmental field, all the politicians and funding agencies completely lost interest in it. And there was a huge struggle to keep going. And in fact we could have been closed down with our ozone measurements the year before we actually published our paper.

But Farman was a strict proponent of the simple scientific act of collecting data–”just doing a little job, and persevering at it,” as described by Sharon Roan, author of Ozone Crises: The 15-Year Evolution of a Sudden Global Emergency. This commitment to scientific principles made him “a model scientist,” according to Roan.

Faithful dedication to the scientific process yielded momentous results. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work?

This New York Times obituary tells a more complete story of Farman’s achievements, and for those who really want to delve into his life and sometimes controversial views, there is this interview collected by the British Library (audio version available here).