00:00:00CARUSO: Today is the sixth of May, 2013. I'm David Caruso. I'm here with Jody
Roberts, my co-interviewer. This is our first interview session with Dr. Mario
Molina, here at the Mario Molina Center in Mexico City, [Mexico]. Thank you
again for agreeing to participate in this oral history interview. As I
mentioned, I'd like to start at the beginning and hear about growing up in . . .
I assume you grew up in Mexico City.
MOLINA: That's correct, yes.
CARUSO: You were born in 1943.
MOLINA: That's correct, yes. Where should I start? As a child, I had the normal
interests children have, except perhaps at that time it was more common to read
00:01:00and not just to watch TV. And so I remember, I must have been eight, nine years
old and liked to read pirate novels and things like that. Again, all normal.
But somehow or other [. . .] I ran across some biographies of scientists and
that was extremely attractive for me. Thinking back, I think it was important
and quite useful that at home we had lots of books. My father [Roberto Molina
Pasquel] was a lawyer. Although he had a private practice initially, he became
interested in academic work, and so he created an institute at the National
University [Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM)] for international
00:02:00law. So, he had academic interests, I guess, and as part of that we had a
library with all sorts of [books] to choose from.
Anyhow, that's how I became interested in science. And as a result of that, I
guess my parents did notice and gave me some toy chemistry sets or microscopes
as presents, which I enjoyed tremendously at that time.
CARUSO: Can you tell me a little bit more about where your family lived? I know
your father was a lawyer. What type of law was he practicing?
00:03:00MOLINA: Well, his private practice was connected with standard [law] issues. [He
worked] with several friends and, I think, running what here in Mexico is
routine legal advice [. . .]. But his university activities were on the side;
that was really just a hobby of his--this all happened in Mexico City.
I went to an elementary school, a very small one which had more personalized
teaching, but in spite of that I remember getting bored, very bored, in school.
I now understand very well what was wrong, and is still wrong, with many
00:04:00schools: [it's that] you only have to memorize things. I still remember a few
things I was taught, such as the seasons are there because sometimes our planet
is closer to the sun than others and that . . . . I was still very young when I
realized that my teachers were not very good scientists. [laughter]
ROBERTS: So you realized that early, that they weren't very good at this science
you were being taught?
MOLINA: Not while I was in elementary school. Of course, I started enjoying
chemistry, [but not in connection to school]. Eventually it became part of
school, but it [was after] secondary school. [. . .]
00:05:00My mother Leonor Henríquez de Molina] passed away when I was three years old or
so, but my father married again, and so I consider my mother--because I lived
with her so many years--not really my biological mother but the second wife of
my father, Luz Lara de Molina. She was actually also an elementary school
teacher and didn't work anymore after being married. Both parents at home, they
really supported [my interest in science].
Another point, perhaps, that was not all that common is that, again, for some
reason, we had classical music at home [playing regularly], so I became a fan of
classical music since I was very, very young.
00:06:00ROBERTS: What did you like to listen to?
MOLINA: Beethoven and other composers. We still had the plastic records in our
hands at that time. [. . .] I remember we were all very happy [that my father
bought a high fidelity system at that time]. [laughter]
But I remember later [. . .], I was already in high school, I had to make a
decision. I started playing the violin as well because I had one aunt [Maria
Eckart] who was actually German, but she came to live in Mexico, and she helped
me learn to play the violin. But at some point in high school my parents asked a
00:07:00friend of theirs [for] advice since I liked the violin, how should I pursue it,
and they got what I believe was terrible advice, which is--because I was so
interested in music and in science-- "Unless he plays at least eight hours a
day, forget it." [laughter]
I think that was terrible because I would have liked to [continue playing], and
I played a little bit afterwards, but I should have played more just for my own
pleasure and not necessarily to become a famous performer. But the reason I
remember it is because I was sufficiently seriously considering between music
and science that my parents might have asked me and I might have thought about
00:08:00it, but decided, no, I want to be a scientist. Because, by that time I had
already further developed my scientific taste.
CARUSO: I'm familiar with what things were like in the United States in the late
1940s and 1950s, right: there was a heavy investment in science and technology.
Was there anything parallel happening in Mexico at the time?
MOLINA: No, not really. I think one issue I would criticize, again, [about the
culture] in Mexico is the lack of interest and emphasis on science here, and
that's understandable. There has been a tradition of putting a lot of weight on
the arts and history, but it's mostly the humanities. And for some reason,
00:09:00science was not something highly regarded, which obviously was a mistake at that
time, given the importance that science has had historically, even for economic
development and human well-being. [. . .]. It's never been very relevant [in
Mexico], except in recent years [. . .]. The current decision-makers in
government are trying to change that. But, no, when I was a child that was
certainly not the case.
00:10:00But I can add a couple [more pieces] of information. [. . .] In high school,
there were physics and chemistry classes, but as is the case in the [United]
States, teaching chemistry in high school has a very bad name. Most people hate
it, because it's terribly boring and it's a matter [mostly] of memorizing
things. [. . .]. Since my chemistry teachers knew I liked it, I had a special
relation with them. But [. . .] the other two points: one is it was also quite
normal for children not to like school and sciences, so I didn't have friends
00:11:00with whom I shared this sort of affinity for science; except much later in high
school, I had one or two friends that liked science as well, and, of course,
much later [in college] the situation did change, so it was no longer a very
I did have one aunt, [Ester Molina], [. . .]--about the same age as my
father--who was a chemist. I did not develop my interest in chemistry because of
her, but after it was clear that I did like chemistry, she became interested and
then helped me enjoy chemistry more because we did more sophisticated
experiments together. She was familiar with chemistry experiments in college, so
00:12:00essentially we did many of the experiments that students do in first-year
college, and I remember we had to go to special stores to buy the chemicals. I
was no longer using toy sets. Some of the chemicals were poisonous, so they
wouldn't have been sold to children, but with her [help we were able to purchase
ROBERTS: Was she living in Mexico City as well?
MOLINA: Yes. Yes, that's what made it feasible. So at least once a week, we
would get together and do experiments. At some stage I was able to borrow a
bathroom at my house that was not in use, so I really converted that to a
laboratory. Fortunately, [the bathroom] was not needed, and so that's where I
did a lot of experiments.
ROBERTS: Did you have any famous incidents in that bathroom laboratory with your family?
00:13:00MOLINA: Well, bad smells I guess or . . . but nothing special.
CARUSO: No explosions?
MOLINA: No explosions. But anyhow, it was very fun because some of those were
really, as I mentioned, more sophisticated experiments. [. . .] But fortunately
I did not have any particular taste for explosions as some of my friends had . .
. [it is] the more glamorous part of it. But the other important thing that
happened when I was still very young--in fact, just finishing elementary
school--is that my parents had the idea of sending us abroad to learn another
language--I'm the fourth in my family--so my oldest sisters, [Leonor Molina
Henríquez and Marta Molina-Henríquez], they went to Canada, so they learned
00:14:00English. My older brother, [Roberto Molina Henríquez], who's also a lawyer,
they sent him to the United States to a school near Boston, [Massachusetts]. And
they thought, "Well, German is an important language for chemists." So they sent
me to Switzerland, which was nice. In Switzerland, they have good boarding
schools, except, of course, I was about eleven years old.
So at that age, it's not particularly nice to be abroad and be in a boarding
school, but it was fine. And there I had even more, if you want, affinity [for
chemistry]. I worked more closely with my chemistry and math teachers because
they did realize that it was something I enjoyed and it was the reason I had
00:15:00gone there, so I did manage to do also unusual experiments, but particularly to
work closely, I remember, in geometry and mathematics with [my math teacher]. I
had a very good connection with him, because we did things outside the regular
class, something that was feasible in a boarding school.
The thing, though, that was the same as here in Mexico is that none of my
friends had any affinity for science at all in this school in Switzerland.
Recently I've gone back to visit the school, [. . .], which is well-known
[Institut auf dem Rosenberg] and is in St. Gallen [Switzerland]. [It turns out
that] one of the classrooms which they have for children [was] dedicated to me.
00:16:00This happened after winning the Nobel Prize; but it was a nice surprise for me.
[. . .]
It was quite an experience, and I did learn German. I had learned a little bit
before with this aunt I was telling you [about] who taught me a bit of violin. I
did continue to play the violin. That was also nice in Europe. And then I just
returned here to continue with high school. But between that and the help from
my aunt, my chemist aunt, I had reinforced my love for science. I had remembered
already . . . decided if at all possible, I certainly would like to be a
scientist and do research. I wasn't quite sure whether it's something I could
00:17:00do. I remember when I was very young . . . I thought maybe I can do this at
least as a hobby, but I might have to earn my living doing some real work, and
so it was very [nice to learn] later that I could actually earn a living being a
research scientist. So that's all as a young kid.
CARUSO: I have a few questions.
MOLINA: Sure. Sure.
CARUSO: Just returning to your father's legal work, were you ever exposed to
what he was doing as a lawyer, either in private practice or in the academic
setting? Did you know what was going on?
MOLINA: Not when I was very young. Later, after I returned from Europe, I did,
because I remember . . . not in much detail, but it was international law and so
00:18:00on. I do remember celebrating [. . .] his doctorate. He received a PhD, which
was very unusual for lawyers in Mexico at that time; [he did it] through his
academic work at the National Autonomous University [of Mexico].
ROBERTS: What was his degree in?
MOLINA: His degree was in law. [. . .] And in his specialty, international law.
[. . .] My father became the head of the institute that he created--and again,
at that time it was still his hobby--but being the head, he was involved also in
00:19:00the university administration. [. . .] He had to go to some periodic meetings
that [the] university has to manage itself. But there were also some student
representatives and I became a student representative as well, [probably]
because of my grades, but I do remember that was fun. [I] went together with my
father to these gatherings with the rector of the university, which was quite
unusual, [being] in very different fields. But other than that, I had really no
direct involvement with [my father's profession].
CARUSO: When you say international law, I know there are lots of . . . are you
talking about relationships between corporations internationally? Are you
talking about . . . ?
00:20:00MOLINA: No; [. . .] one of his specialties was international trust funds. I
probably should know more about it, but [what I remember is that] these were
legal issues, probably connected with financing international institutions. And
to add a bit more, [. . .] he was still practicing as a lawyer when he was
invited by the Mexican government [to become an ambassador], because of his
interest in international law. He was by no means a career diplomat, and I was
already in college. I´m the fourth child, and my younger brothers and sisters
00:21:00[Luis Molina-Lara, Javier Molina-Lara and Lucero Molina-Lara], [travelled] with
the family and went to Ethiopia and to Australia and the Philippines. I was
already in college, so I didn't join them. , but again, this was a good example
for me of how something academic could lead to this sort of recognition. In a
very different field, of course.
CARUSO: So, just so that way I have the numbers correct, you have two older
sisters and one older brother?
MOLINA: That's right.
CARUSO: . . . and three younger brothers?
MOLINA: No. Two younger brothers and one younger sister.
CARUSO: Okay. And did the younger ones also do time abroad at different . . . ?
MOLINA: Well, they did, but that was traveling with the family, [not by
themselves]. My father was an ambassador already, so there was probably no need
00:22:00to send them abroad specifically. But, yes, in some sense, that's what they did.
CARUSO: I know that your older brother is a lawyer. Did anyone else in your
family pursue a specific profession?
MOLINA: The brother that is next to me, the younger one, is a physician, so he
became a cardiologist and, ironically, just last year he became, I think the
fourth or fifth cardiologist here in Mexico to receive a doctoral degree as
well. Most physicians don't have a PhD, but he does research as well, though he
still has a private practice--it's one of those things you can do here in
Mexico--but in the mornings he works in a public hospital and that's where he
carries out his research, and then in the afternoon he has his private practice
00:23:00as a cardiologist.
CARUSO: So it sounds like your family was very encouraging of children pursuing
whatever they would like to do.
MOLINA: I guess so, yes.
ROBERTS: What about your sisters?
MOLINA: The oldest sister passed away; she was devoted to her family. But the
next one did study architecture, but eventually she married, and at that time, I
guess, it was less common for women to pursue a professional career as it's
possible now. At that time, with a family, it was quite unusual for a married
woman to devote a lot of time to her job. Fortunately, these are the sort of
things that have changed a great deal.
ROBERTS: And did they all stay in Mexico?
00:24:00MOLINA: Yes, all of them stayed. My youngest sister went to college, and I guess
she likes and works with psychology as an advisor, and she lives in Morelia,
[Mexico], so she's the one member of the family that does not live in Mexico City.
CARUSO: So, I would assume then that . . . well, let me ask it this way: were
your parents involved in your academic career directly? Were they sitting you
down at night and making sure you did your homework? Or was it more up to you to
get things done?
MOLINA: It was more up to me. They were involved in giving me support to follow
[the] things that I didn't enjoy [doing], but, no, they never put any pressure
00:25:00in terms of doing well in school or in college. And again , what I do remember
is just the presents, like the chemistry sets, microscopes, or books,
occasionally. So they did pay attention to that. I also liked to build things,
and so that was part of the idea. I remember we had Erector Sets [and similar
toys], so I had very complicated things.
So that's the sort of thing that they, fortunately, did listen to. But not being
scientists themselves, I had very little direct help from them. Even my aunt who
was a chemist, it was for fun we did these experiments. She could be very
professional, but she did not get involved with my studies in any way.
ROBERTS: I'm interested to know more about this, because you talked about the
00:26:00culture of Mexico being more focused on arts and humanities. Your father's a
lawyer; it seems like a very traditional sort of professional family that way.
But somehow they were supporting you in becoming this budding scientist. And I'm
curious both how you discovered that idea and how you expressed that to them and
where they found support for this? I mean, they found chemistry sets and things
like that, but it doesn't seem like that's something that would have necessarily
been readily available.
MOLINA: That's . . . yeah. I guess.
GONZALEZ: There were the toys, you know.
MOLINA: Yeah, there were toys. So that was not an uncommon toy, and I remember
from my friends that these were not toys they particularly enjoyed. But it was
not that difficult, because, after all, the university was there. There were a
00:27:00small number of well-known Mexican scientists that were appreciated by society,
so it was not that science was completely neglected. It was acknowledged that it
was something important, but it was not really part of the culture. So I would
imagine that it's more through, perhaps, my father's academic interests, being
connected to the university, and my mother, perhaps, being a teacher that they
thought it was fine.
And my initial attraction for science, it might have been a little bit by
chance, but I do remember it did have a lot to do with my fascination with these
biographies. And not necessarily very well-known scientists, but [Antonie] van
Leeuwenhoek, just discovering the microscope and how he found another world out
00:28:00there. Because I remember I lived that experience myself. I was sick. [I got an]
infection most children get, and so I had to stay at home for days or weeks.
Maybe because I was sick I got this toy microscope and I remember looking at the
drop of very dirty water, which I had prepared just sort of letting some lettuce
rot. And the enormous fascination I had with a very simple microscope looking at
the drop and seeing it teeming with life. It's something you normally are not
even aware of, or if you have to do it as part of school homework, maybe it's a
way to remove your curiosity for things.
00:29:00But so it had nothing to do with school and it must have resonated with the
books I read. So those are things I remember, those types of experiences or
playing with the chemistry sets, crystallizing things in beautiful colors and
things, how things change. So it's just this natural curiosity that I now
realize, because my involvement more recently with science education, that most
children actually do have this curiosity, it's just that we manage in school,
normally, to fight it in some way. But I was lucky; somehow or other, I had
enough support to do it and then enjoy it.
CARUSO: So I still . . . I don't fully know why chemistry and not biology or
physics? Why was it . . . ?
MOLINA: Yes. Yes, that's a good question. Chemistry was perhaps related to
00:30:00[perhaps] chemistry sets and being able to do these sophisticated experiments,
but I was very interested in physics and mathematics as well; to the point that
when I went to college, to the university, I was questioning whether I should
actually study physics. Biology at that time was not modern biology that is more
sophisticated and more physics--or chemistry--oriented. So it was nice and I
tried [it], but it wasn't that challenging for me at that time because I did not
know about this new world of biology, which, of course, is enormously important
nowadays and it's very quantitative, very chemistry-oriented. When I was a
00:31:00child, I remember, however interesting it was, it was not mathematical enough
And ironically, because of all these connections, then I finally decided to
continue with chemistry; of all things, chemical engineering, because there were
no physical chemists here. At that time physical chemistry was not an option.
And I realized I had learned very clearly that that was the one topic where you
could do physics, mathematics, and chemistry simultaneously, and, in fact, that
was correct. I did the right thing there. And I could have studied just physics;
but, again, I did want to do chemistry.
So, [I´ll give you] one more piece of information here connected with biology:
I was also very interested in biology, but not to the extent of choosing that as
00:32:00a career. But one example: one of my friends, by the way, one with whom I then
later shared some of the chemistry experiments at home--marginally: he wasn't
that involved with it, but his father was part of this group of Spanish
intellectuals that migrated to Mexico that turned out to be very influential.
And so I went to a high school where I had a number of excellent teachers,
[professionals who migrated from Spain as refugees and probably wouldn't have
been teachers there], but they had a very important influence here in
mathematics, as well. Anyhow, this friend's father was an entomologist. And so I
was able--and I was very lucky--to participate several times, half a dozen times
at least, in field trips that were college field trips because he was a
00:33:00professor at the [National] Polytechnic Institute. So those for me were very
nice experiences, being able to make a professional field trip. And I realized,
"Well, that's interesting," but what was most satisfying for the biologists that
were in the field trips is to discover new species that they were able to name,
and so on. So that was all very interesting to me, but I thought, no, I like
more the mathematical, the physical part.
ROBERTS: How old were you when you went on these field trips?
MOLINA: I was in high school. That was after I returned from Switzerland, so
maybe fourteen, fifteen, something around that age. But it was still very
interesting, just the excitement of finding a new species, or even species that
were known, but very strange, these very large unusual insects. And we had to go
00:34:00very well prepared, because there were snakes that could bite. But the teachers
were professionals, of course, so we were doing everything the way it had to be
done with college students. It was another experience of becoming part of an
actual scientific research.
ROBERTS: Well, that's one of the things I was interested in, is you say from a
pretty early age you were setting out on this path; you wanted to be a
researcher; you wanted to do this chemistry. But I want to know what you thought
that meant since you didn't have a lot of models around you. You had a lot of
teachers, but you didn't have a lot of exposure, it seems like, to actual researchers.
MOLINA: That's right. When I was very young, that's why I told you I had this
misunderstanding that maybe that's just something to do for fun because it was
just too attractive, too nice, to be able to earn a living [from it]. I remember
00:35:00that quite clearly. The examples were from the biographies . So I read a bit
more, and these were scientists, obviously, and some of the biographies were not
necessarily science books. They taught about the people, what they did, and
their problems--[Louis] Pasteur, Madame [Marie] Curie, and so on. And so that's
probably where I got this image when I was younger. So I then realized how
chemists might do research, [and probably] that's where it came from. But the
actual experience, I only had it in biology.
ROBERTS: Do you remember any specific biographies that really stand out? You
MOLINA: Well, I've mentioned three now: van Leeuwenhoek, Madame Curie, Louis
Pasteur. Those were the three that I happen to remember. There were probably
00:36:00several others, which don't come to mind at the moment. But, yeah, maybe those
are the ones that happened to be at home for some reason.
CARUSO: So you've spoken about some of the limitations of, at least, what your
teachers were doing in terms of science [while] growing up. You had an
experience abroad, which I think was a bit better in terms of science, math,
going on at the same time. Did you ever consider not going to university in
Mexico for your undergraduate degree?
MOLINA: I did consider it, but it was not a real option I had. I guess the idea
00:37:00was that it was much easier to do that after college. And, again, it's not
something I probably considered very seriously, mostly because it's not an
option I thought I really had. So that was probably the reason.
CARUSO: And so going in as an undergraduate, you started off as a chemical
MOLINA: That's right. That's right.
CARUSO: Okay. How many students were in that discipline in your entering class,
would you estimate?
MOLINA: Well, there were . . . see, the National University is the largest one,
so there were . . . overall, twelve to fourteen thousand students at the
chemistry college, so larger than MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology].
But at the entering class, well, probably a couple of thousand or so.
CARUSO: So there were a lot of students going into that discipline. Can you tell
00:38:00us a little bit about how your training went for your undergraduate degree? I
know in the US. a lot of colleges, even if you're in a science or engineering
major, you're required to do a lot of humanities work. So I'm curious to know
MOLINA: Right. That's quite different here. Once you choose a career, it's
normally quite focused. If it's an engineering career, then you might take
physics, some math; and if it's chemistry, then chemistry courses, but no more
humanities. So that's something that's more unique in the US, where you have an
option to change fields later on. In Mexico, that would have been harder to do.
But that's perhaps one reason also that you have many dropouts.
So you start with a large class and then many students just don't make it. But
00:39:00in medicine it's even more [noticeable], the large fraction of dropouts that
they have. Anyhow, that, for me, that was not a problem. I remember doing well;
I, perhaps, was at the top of my class a number of times. But soon thereafter,
[I had] a similar experience to the one I told you in elementary school, because
I realized many of the classes were very boring and were not really run by
experts. I did have a handful of very good professors; again, one of them was
from this same Spanish group, [Francisco Giral], he was a very well-known
organic chemist, and so we had some [very good classes], even though [they were]
00:40:00very qualitative. I still had this physics and mathematics attachment, but
that's fine. Chemistry can be different things, and part of it is . . . like,
organic chemistry could just be very descriptive, in contrast to what we would
now consider physical chemistry. So that's one thing I didn't get in college,
which is a focus on issues like quantum chemistry and so on.
But the engineering component turned out to be quite useful because it was very
mathematical oriented, and it was geared to a problem-solving attitude, which
was quite useful. [. . .] Other than this handful of very good teachers, I lost
interest in the normal classes, and did them routinely. But one special thing,
00:41:00perhaps it's of interest: in college here, particularly in the engineering
school, in contrast, say, to physics and math, which are quite unusual because
there you have students that are already thinking [. . .] of academic work, [. .
.] normally students who study engineering or law or whatever, [have] in mind
the jobs that they would eventually get. So particularly at that time, and still
a bit the case, things are set up so that you can work almost full time while
you're a student, first point. Second point, which is also, again, something
quite unusual--it's fortunately no longer the case--the professors were
full-time engineers in industry, except this handful that I was telling you that
00:42:00were very good. So, they taught really as a hobby. And now, of course, I realize
why is it that they were not really professionals: they were not academics doing
research, they were just practicing engineers, and in hindsight, some of them
didn't quite understand what they were teaching. But, again, because the
emphasis on the molecular components was not there, and I can see now some of
the actual mistakes that we had to learn.
The point here is that we had a lot of free time, that many students had to earn
a living, so they were working [during] that free time, and that's why we had
classes very early [in the day] and then relatively late. And so, at the
beginning, since I didn't have to work, I was just fairly lazy, just enjoying
00:43:00life with friends. But then afterwards I had an interesting experience, because
I did get together with several friends and we said, "Well, instead of getting a
job somewhere, let's do something." So we created a business [. . .]. I could
tell you briefly what it's about.
I remember just a little bit by chance: some of my friends were working full
time [. . .] with plastic foam. And one of the things I realized [is that] you
have to use a catalyst to blow polyurethane foam. And Mexico had the peculiarity
at that time, which is no longer the case, [due to] trade laws that if you could
00:44:00manufacture something in Mexico, you could, what we called at that time, "close
the border": [companies in Mexico] had to buy [the product] from you. And so
this is just a connection. Then we realized, "Ah ha." Well, this catalyst, it
had to be imported. "Maybe we can make it." It was actually very tricky, but
with the experience I had doing so many experiments, I came up with a way to
synthesize it, and we closed the border, so ultimately we had all the foam
industry depending on these garage experiments that we were doing. But it was
great. It was a very good experience: first, with research, because we really
had to do something that worked; and second, just seeing how a business runs in
Mexico. Now, I remember these students getting very worried, but we were able to
show them that it worked and so it was a nice experience overall.
00:45:00My friends were more focused on the business part, and so I [focused on] the
chemistry aspect. [. . .] One of the raw products was ammonia, which, of course,
[has a strong] smell; we had some big tanks because, after all, we had to make
it in industrial proportions. Fortunately there were no big environmental laws,
so we could have this somewhere in a garage in the city, imagine with these
awful smells. But, anyhow, it all worked quite well, eventually. That's an
experience I had as a student. In some sense, it was a consequence of my
interest in doing experiments, and it was also a reflection of the time we had
[. . .] In connection with this, when I went to get a PhD at [University of
00:46:00California at] Berkeley, instead of having many [subjects], like in [college in]
Mexico, where ironically you had to take six or seven subjects simultaneously
[at the] PhD level, you [had to] take three or four classes at most, but really
[had to] spend a lot of time in them. So I could see just a very large contrast.
[In college] I did take a few classes in the physics department, math classes
particularly, when I was at the National University. And so that was already
like a different culture. But [for] the engineers and lawyers and so on [in
Mexico], it was the normal way universities were run, I guess, in Latin America,
and probably in many other countries in the developing world.
00:47:00But, anyhow, that's [. . .] my experience in college. We had to do experiments,
but they were more the routine experiments that [you find] in some experimental
courses. They were not particularly interesting, [and for me] it was much more
interesting to do something research oriented.
CARUSO: So I have, I think, a number of questions based on your descriptions
here. Were there any opportunities to do research with faculty beyond just what
happened in typical laboratory courses?
MOLINA: No, and that's another [thing] I forgot [to mention]--a slightly unusual
thing. You need a thesis [to graduate college in Mexico], and it's not just like
in the US for master's or PhD, but to actually get your engineering degree,
00:48:00which is a five-year college, not just four [. . .]. In chemical engineering,
say, they would involve more some business-chemistry-type connection and some
study or something that could be manufactured. But I did take that opportunity
to actually do some additional research, so the one place where research was
carried out in chemistry had nothing to do with engineering: that was in the
Chemistry Institute [at UNAM] and that was a group of organic chemists. That was
probably the best-known [group of] chemists in Mexico, certainly at that time,
working with natural products. You know, Mexico was actually quite important.
The [birth control] pill and a number of things were actually developed in
Mexico with a combination of American and Mexican scientists, but there are some
very well-known chemists from that school, which I had little contact with
00:49:00because that's one thing that was separated. In chemical engineering, except the
first few years, that was a different career, say, as an organic chemist. And,
again, more qualitative: it wouldn't be physical chemistry, or practically no
physical chemistry. Anyhow, I did find the professor working at this Institute
and was able to do some research, which wasn't physical chemistry research, [it
was] working with gas chromatography, but much more combining my engineering
background with chemistry research.
[When I was an undergraduate student at UNAM I didn´t do research work until I
had to do my thesis. After finishing school I traveled abroad and when I came
00:50:00back to Mexico I gave classes at UNAM and created the Master's in Chemical
Engineering for that institution. During my stay there, professors were not
full-time teachers like they are now. In my time we gave classes and conducted
CARUSO: So part of the reason I asked about that is I'm curious to know more
about how you did your research for the business that you developed. I mean . .
00:51:00MOLINA: Oh, I still had my . . . let me see, what did I do? Oh yeah. I'm not
sure I still had the bathroom available, but some of that I did in . . . one of
these friends with whom we collaborated was connected with some sort of
industry, I guess--family or whatever--so we were able to use some of those
labs. I did not need a very sophisticated lab, but I did require [using]
instruments, and so I was able to borrow much of [them].
CARUSO: Okay, because that's what I was curious about, because, I mean, you can
sit there and do the experiments all you want, but to verify products . . . .
MOLINA: That's right. Yes. Yes, so we had . . . fortunately, we did have these
industrial connections at that time. It was sort of a . . . we were able to . .
ROBERTS: So how were you able to convince a host to let you do some of your own experiments?
00:52:00MOLINA: Well, it was almost for fun. It was something that did not cause any
problem and they thought, "Oh, it's [. . .] an interesting idea. Let's see if
you can do something." But we did not take up much space or we didn't need much
resources, again, because it was very much the type of experiments I had done
before. You could just go and buy chemicals and we could borrow some analytical
instruments, in fact, from the college itself, that were used for the routine
experiments. So I did not require any unusual facilities, in other words. Of
course, the main point there was to, once we had the product and as we realized,
"Ah, yeah, this is it," because we were able to then do an actual
00:53:00commercial-scale experiment, [. . .] we knew we could close the border. So we
managed to do that. Once it worked, then it was fine.
CARUSO: But scaling up, I mean, just talking to chemical engineers and chemists
over the years, you know, scaling up from a bench reaction to an
industrial-sized reaction, there can be problems with it. I mean, if it's batch
reaction, if it's continuous flow . . .
MOLINA: Right. Well, that's why . . . perhaps I didn't explain. This was a
catalyst. So you needed very small amounts, as far as the large industry's
concerned, and so again, I did it laboratory-scale first and then it was not too
much problem to do it [on a larger scale] . . . what for us was the commercial
scale, just with very large vessels. Okay? In fact, that was a big investment.
We were able to--I remember, again--borrow money from these same connections we
00:54:00had because they realized this [would work], we were able to make enough to test
it, but they were relatively expensive reactors because they were large
stainless steel vessels. They were coated with glass because we had to dissolve
tin in hydrochloric acid, so there [were] fairly nasty chemicals. So the
reactors were expensive, but the rest [of the materials were] not particularly expensive.
So, yeah, there were some difficulties. I hadn't thought about these details for
a long time, but yeah, we did manage with our connections, I guess, to do that.
But you are right: normal scaling up, if you really do it industrial . . . in
some sense, that's what chemical engineers do, so that was closer to our main
00:55:00topic, but for a catalyst, we could get away with almost laboratory scale in
ROBERTS: So it's a group of friends, but you said that all of them are
business-minded and you're doing the technical research.
ROBERTS: So what gives you the confidence to think you can go in and borrow
somebody else's lab, do this research, start developing this catalyst, and then
scale it up?
MOLINA: Well, because . . .--
ROBERTS: As a college student?
MOLINA: I realized, okay, you have to make a chemical that had been identified,
with a certain standard weight; it's an organic chemical and there was, of
course, no literature on how to make it, so you had to come up with some ideas
and know organic chemistry . . . . So the trial experiments were not expensive,
doing it very small scale. So it was, "Okay, well, let's try it. If it works,
00:56:00fine; if not, we don't lose very much," but it was the sort of thing that I
thought I can tell if I have the right compound, because it would have these
properties and so on. It's an organic salt of a metal. Tin, of all things, which
is relatively expensive. So once I was able to make the organic compounds and
know that we had metal, then I thought, "Well, this must be it. Let's try it."
So, yeah, maybe it was an adventure, but I was lucky. It was a very interesting
experience, after all [. . .].
CARUSO: So another question I have is, again, you're going through a college
experience. You took on chemical engineering because you were interested in
MOLINA: That's right.
CARUSO: Chemical engineers, at least the ones that I know of, when they go out
00:57:00into industry, they're more about problem-solving and scaling things up. They
don't necessarily do the basic research to develop new things.
MOLINA: That's right, yes. But it's mixed. Okay, so it turns out, just to change
that a little bit, that the chemical engineers were sort of proud and they're,
"Now I'm going to MIT," because MIT's chemical engineering school is very
famous. They did some of the original work with unit operations and whatnot. So
a little bit of the culture of chemical engineers is that you have a very
well-grounded, basic education and then you can do all sorts of things, like
doing research or [something else], if you have the right education. That's the
only real thing I would qualify with what you said. So there are, certainly in
00:58:00academia, many chemical engineers doing research, some of it very scientific
oriented, some other more engineering oriented.
CARUSO: Part of the reason I'm asking that question is you did comment on the
fact that most of your chemical engineering professors were from industry.
MOLINA: That's right.
CARUSO: They didn't necessarily know how to teach.
MOLINA: That's right.
CARUSO: But there were some academic chemical engineers that you were learning
from, but you still wanted this route in research. And I'm curious what you're
thinking about as a student, in terms of, "Where do I actually go to become a
research physical chemist?"
MOLINA: Notice a big change. The experiences I was telling you about before, I
was in elementary school or just going back as still a very young kid, but in
high school, I learned a lot more and certainly by the time I got to college, I
was able to read literature and so on. So I was no longer very naive about that,
00:59:00so I knew where and how academic research was carried out and I knew at that
time, yes, [Mexico is] a little different, but in the well-known universities in
the US and in Europe, professors do research full time.
So I already had the correct picture and, being in Mexico studying chemical
engineering, had made up my mind: as soon as I finish, I'll try to get a
scholarship. I realized I was no longer going to be funded by my family, but
there were not that many students interested in these [. . .] things, and so I
knew there were probably scholarships available. So even towards the beginning
of college, I already had more or less clear the idea that [I would go study
abroad. To answer what you asked before on whether I] considered going to study
01:00:00in another country. Yes, almost from the very beginning, that was already a goal
I had set up.
And furthermore, just to clarify a bit more, realizing that I really wanted to
do research in fundamental physics and chemistry, that chemical engineering was
a little bit of a detour. That was already clear in my mind from the beginning,
and I was, in fact, not far from the truth. I could see that later at MIT, that
as a student you have to take fundamental physics and chemistry and even quantum
mechanics courses. , and so that helps.
CARUSO: Just a quick follow-up.
CARUSO: What were you reading that helped you understand what it was to be a
research scientist? Was it still biographies or were you . . . ?
MOLINA: No, no, no. That was only as a child. That was already textbooks and the
news and probably some magazines. I don't remember very specifically . . . .
01:01:00CARUSO: Were there any national journals for . . . ?
MOLINA: No. If at all [they] might have been international. At that time, it was
also quite clear that we had to master English, not necessarily speaking it, but
reading it because most of the [relevant] science literature was in English. So,
there were no national resources [. . .] that were particularly important.
[Perhaps in other] very specific fields, [but not in mine]. I did have some
connection with very academic professors because of the classes I took in the
01:02:00science department, which were not official. I just went for fun because I
realized that's where you could learn, particularly math. I was also interested
in math at that time.
And so somehow or other, I began to develop enough connections with the academic
world to know how it would work, but I don't remember specifically if there were
some reading materials that . . . in fact, many textbooks, I remember--not many
but at least some of them--had biographical notes and give you more general
overview and so that was quite useful as well, I guess.
01:03:00ROBERTS: So I was interested in a related question, and I think that was how did
you become aware of the fact that the people who were teaching you were not experts?
MOLINA: Okay, yeah.
ROBERTS: You know, how did you experience them and realize there's something
they're not telling me.
MOLINA: I realized by that time--to repeat what we were just talking about--I
realized that they were not academics, so I might have been a little suspicious.
By then I was able to read textbooks, to study on my own, basically. So it was
my own stories versus their interpretation, probably with the help of these few
really good professionals, one of them, and more in statistics. So there were
certainly some exceptions.
I was able even to find the errors [. . .] they were making [sometimes], but I
remember at that time, I might have brought it to [the professor] in class, but
01:04:00not very loudly, because the culture was still that the professor was the one
talking and the students were not prompted to ask questions--not much
interaction and even less to find errors, which is quite different, of course,
from academia now, but you could picture that type of story.
You know what comes to mind--this is on the side--but I remember much later
reading some of [Richard P.] Feynman's biographies, because he spent some time
in Brazil. [. . .] I do remember finding a few places where he criticized
Brazil's academic environment just along the same lines. They were sort of
routine, and students were not asking or apparently not interested, but that was
01:05:00a cultural thing. So, he went there anyhow. I thought it might have been a good
experience, but I was surprised at what [he did] . . . he learned more. In his
books [his life experience] is excellent, but the science was a letdown in some
sense. But it just reaffirmed my impression that it's not at all uncommon, and
probably even in the US, except, of course, in the very best universities, in
routine small colleges also where research or asking or questions also is not
[common]. So that was quite clear.
In fact, I was talking about Germany. It's in part true of Germany, as well,
which is something they try to change a lot because there you have . . . the
image of Herr Professor was a very well-known faculty and no student would dare
01:06:00to interrupt or ask any questions, so that was quite the opposite from . . . I'm
[. . .] here talking perhaps of my experience, already, after doing PhDs,
because I spent first some time in Germany. In the US, what is excellent--but
the Europeans are now changing that way also--is that you work with your mentor,
you use first names and so on. In Germany, you would use last names, even for
your schoolmates. So that was a different culture. But, I just noticed, because
first I told you . . . yeah, in Europe, that's the way academia worked, but the
human distance, if you want, is something that was more German-style than
U.S.-style in these universities here in Mexico, except in the science
department. There the classes were small and so you could approach your
professor a lot more.
ROBERTS: Did you have much experience with English at this point?
01:07:00MOLINA: [. . .] I knew what I called theoretical English, because in Mexico,
obviously, we had English courses starting almost in elementary school. But
again, looking in hindsight, very poor courses, okay, things we had to memorize
. . . enough, eventually, to be able to read, but not to speak, so they were not
geared to practical English. You had to memorize grammar rules, things of that
sort; not particularly useful. What I remember, because of my interest, I
somehow or other was able to read science in English. That was not a problem,
but, yes, I did not speak English.
01:08:00I remember when I, then much later, came to the States, I did have--oh, it
didn't take that long--but I did have to learn how to speak fluently and not
just how to read. But that's another story. In the US--that was in Berkeley--you
had to, at that time for a PhD, you had to take a language exam. And so I
remember, you had to translate from German to English and, of course, I had just
been in Germany, so for me the problem was to write it in English, not to
understand it in German. [laughter]
CARUSO: So I can sort of guess that you decided to do your post-baccalaureate
work in Germany because of your familiarity with the language.
MOLINA: That's right. That's right.
CARUSO: But how did you choose?
MOLINA: And because I thought it was academically also something that was close
01:09:00to the top.
CARUSO: Okay. How did you wind up choosing the University of Freiburg and did
your interest in polymerization kinetics, did that precede your time at the
university or did that develop during the time?
MOLINA: That developed, but it was connected with my interest in physical
chemistry and chemical kinetics is--since you study the rates of reactions--is
sort of a central part of chemical engineering in terms of the more complicated
parts of it, which is to design chemical reactors, okay? So you have to
understand very well how chemical reactions proceed and so on. So it was more or
less a natural extension of the influence I had from chemical engineering, but
01:10:00this time not with a goal of making it large scale. It was not the engineering
component, but just the more fundamental science how those chemical reactions
take place and so chemical kinetics is . . . you have to understand how
molecules change, how fast they do it. So in some sense, it was an opportunity
that I said, "Ah ha. Well, I can . . ." and plastics, of course, see that was
still part of my engineering interest, as I developed . . . and plastics are so
important for engineering. But it was a combination. I could do something
connected with a very applied field and yet very fundamental.
And I remember . . . well, in Freiburg, there's a very well-known polymer
01:11:00institute [Institute for Macromolecular Chemistry], [Hermann] Staudinger [Nobel
Prize in Chemistry, 1963] was . . . of course, I didn't get to know him anymore
because I think he had already passed away, but he was a Nobel Prize winner for
polymer chemistry. So it was something attractive to me.
CARUSO: So that's why the University of Freiburg?
MOLINA: That's right. That's right.
ROBERTS: Can we step back real quick, and I want to ask about the Chemistry Institute.
MOLINA: Oh yeah, in Mexico.
ROBERTS: When you were still an undergraduate, yes. So you spent some time over
there because you had some spare time built into the rest of your course load.
And I'm curious if you have any . . . if there are any names of specific people
that you recall encountering there or working with?
MOLINA: Yes, I can probably give you the names of . . . it's so many years ago,
01:12:00but if I think a little longer . . . . There were three or four professors that
I became particularly close to; I'll give you the names in a moment. Yeah.
There was one [in] physical chemistry--his name I do remember--[. . .] Javier
Garfias; [I remember] because there were practically no physical chemists. He
was one physical chemist, but I remember [. . .] I could not work with him
because he did not have a lab, he did not have equipment. He was thinking maybe
it will come here sometime, so he was not practical. [He was] the only physical
chemist. Raúl Cetina, was [a] physical chemist also, but very organic chemistry
oriented in this Institute.
01:13:00So, these were the two most closely connected with the physical chemistry field.
And Jose Luis--see, the name came back--Jose Luis Mateos . . . he's still alive,
by the way. I was very proud because [. . .] in the chemical society here in
Mexico they created a prize that used my name, [to recognize] life achievements.
[It was an honor for me that José Luis received this prize because] I was a
student [when he] was already a well-known researcher, [and years later he
received] this prize with my name, so that made me very proud. But he's one
example of somebody not in my field directly because he was really an organic
chemist, but with whom I did have connections and some advice, working in the
01:14:00lab. [. . .]
ROBERTS: Well, I'm thinking about this time, too, because, in terms of natural
product synthesis and organic chemistry, this time in the United States, at
least, there's a large shift in the practice of organic chemistry taking place,
mostly around the introduction of instrumentation. And you've already mentioned
very specifically some work with gas chromatography. Was this experience also
changing the work that was happening inside of the Chemistry Institute here?
MOLINA: I think so. Although at that time it was still very organic chemistry
oriented, doing synthesis, and it's still a practice, as you know, in organic
chemistry: a lot just to know how to make chemicals and to be able to come up
01:15:00with some complex chemical structure by a combination of synthesis and analysis,
which, you're right, has changed a lot. But they had at least the basic
machines, possibly NMR [nuclear magnetic resonance] and some others. But it was
relatively primitive [. . .] at that time from what I remember in the labs,
which is something that changed. I mean, the chemistry school bought the large
NMR and things of that sort, and more physical chemistry oriented, but they did
have the basic instrumentation.
I happened to remember as we were talking about names, the name of the U.S.
scientist that was, I believe, at Stanford [University]. It's Carl Djerassi and
he did some of this very important work in this company in Mexico [Laboratories
Syntex SA], which is where this . . . had this very strong connection with this
So that was just the example.
01:16:00But, again, it was not very sophisticated instrumental analysis, as far as I
remember at that time.
CARUSO: So I do want to hear more about your time in Freiburg and what you were
working on and your advisor, but I also noticed that during your postgraduate
work, I think, you also held an assistant professorship at the university here?
MOLINA: No, that was just before. See, I had sort of two waiting periods. The
reason is, it did take some time to get a scholarship, and I don't remember the
details, but it's much easier to get the scholarship once you have a degree. So
there was a catch. Okay, so I got the degree and then I applied for the
scholarship. I was able to--because I was obviously academically oriented
01:17:00also--I was able to work at the National University before I got the
scholarship. And I did a trip to Europe lecturing already, [. . .] essentially
creating one of the first graduate programs at that time, other than the organic
chemistry, one where you could, in principle, get a PhD, but even that was very rare.
But I did create a master's program in chemical engineering, so that's when the
experimental labs were received. They had some, because as chemical engineers we
had to do experiments, but they were not at all research oriented; they were
more teaching oriented. So, I was able to push for this and, of course, times
were changing, so that's when at that time, perhaps, it was a time when [the]
01:18:00university began to change to be more academic oriented, to have more full-time
professors. But it was just the very beginning of that time. So I was able to
contribute to that, but it was just the right time.
CARUSO: I mean, it sounds like there's probably more to it than you just
contributing. I mean, it's very nice of you to say it that way but, I mean,
establishing a graduate program when you're there waiting for a fellowship seems
like a relatively major event. I mean, what was your vision; or if there were
others working with you, what was the vision for what a graduate program, a
master's program, would be?
MOLINA: Yeah, the vision was a combination of these things we're talking about:
making the chemistry school--which had chemical engineering, pharmaceutical
chemistry, whatever--making all of it more academic; hiring--of course, at that
01:19:00time also, there was a problem with the salaries, but that all was part of the
change--hiring full-time professors and doing research. And so I remember just
pushing, "Well, you have to get people involved that are finding out new things
here at the university," just like, [. . .] for example: "Look, we do have these
organic chemistry centers," which by the way, this is also something fortunate
as change, but it was in my mind. That Chemistry Institute with these very
well-known chemists in connection, was completely separated from the university.
None of them taught any course, practically, or maybe they taught one or two. So
it was: what a waste having the potential to do research, but they had to . . .
01:20:00in some sense, I remember, they wanted to be sort of isolated from . . . .
ROBERTS: So what was its purpose?
MOLINA: To do research.
ROBERTS: Just to do research?
MOLINA: Right, because [there were] fourteen thousand students or so.
[Researchers] saw teaching more as a burden, because if you had so many students
you had to spend so much time: "We want to spend full time doing research."
Because it was so disconnected from teaching, there were practically no students
helping them. They were all individually doing their things in spite of the
fourteen thousand. So it was a very different image. You see how things . . . so
that was also part of my push together . . . "Well, let's see whether we can
change all that." And this Institute, by the way, is still there, but it's much
more closely connected with the university now. But yeah, those were different times.
01:21:00But I forget, you were asking me . . . .
ROBERTS: About the graduate degree.
MOLINA: Yes, okay. Yes. No, that is . . . again, this was also the beginning. It
was the right timing and I probably helped . . . .
ROBERTS: Well, the beginning, but, I think . . . like, what's your model? You're
building a graduate program and you're just finishing your bachelor's degree.
Where do you . . . one, what gives you the . . . what makes people in the
university administration believe that you can even do any of this since you're
. . . I can't imagine if I was graduating from college and pitching a graduate
program that they would have listened to me, they would have taken note and put
it aside after I left. But you're also . . . I assume you're looking for models
of how other graduate programs might work?
MOLINA: Right. I do remember two things, again, [about] people. There was one of
these teachers I was telling you, which was . . . in fact, he was not of Spanish
01:22:00origin. He was very closely connected with the Spanish community, Manuel Madrazo
was his name. He was very academic oriented and became the chairman of the
chemistry school and so he was a lot of help because [. . .] of his academic
interests, we shared that vision of how things had to change. So I had some
sympathetic ears, if you want, with some professors that fortunately had
sufficiently important positions. And, in fact, some others . . . the previous
chair was from the Chemistry Institute, a bit of an exception, somebody that
decided, "Okay, I've done enough research, so I'll do some . . . ." So he had to
spend quite a bit of time as an administrator because just of the sheer number
of students and things to do.
01:23:00So that was one example. A handful of--which was certainly not the majority--but
a handful of professors or people working there that recognized the need to
change. The other thing I do remember is we were able to invite a few well-known
foreign professors. And I might have the times a little bit scrambled . . . I'd
have to look it up, but I remember we invited some well-known German professors
and I had a great time with them. They were [a little bit] more organic
chemistry oriented, so I remember doing some field trips with them and they
01:24:00offered a lot of help. It was a little bit part of the help going to Germany.
But also what was quite important . . . . There must have been some connections
so that we did invite--and he came afterwards a couple of times--a chemical
engineering professor at Berkeley whose name was [Theodore] Vermuelen, Ted
Vermuelen, a very nice person--of course, I was just a student. He was a good
professor, and he came to give us some lectures; that was great. But we were
able to work sufficiently close with him. I even remember having this time some
discussions. He had some ideas, had to do with chemical kinetics, and I said,
"Well, but what about this and that," and he got sort of excited. So it was nice
to interact with somebody at that level, but this became important because there
was this small group of us, several other friends who were . . . actually, well,
01:25:00just a little bit younger than I was, because the difference is I went to
Germany, spent there a couple of years, whereas these other friends were just
coming up. We were admitted to Berkeley; that was unheard of: there were no
Mexicans. I mean, who would admit a Mexican student coming out of this type of
school like I was criticizing? Okay? But this professor, I mean, having
interacted with us, suddenly the door's open, and so that made it feasible to be
admitted to Berkeley's graduate school, and that's why I chose chemistry. Of
course, my friends went to do chemical engineering, several, a couple of them.
There were only three or four, but, in fact, one of them that's still [a] very
good friend of mine, [Francisco Barnés de Castro], became Rector [and
President] of the National University. So these were people that were well known.
01:26:00CARUSO: So I think now would be a good time to return to Germany.
CARUSO: So you were going there to do postgraduate work. Was this some sort of
equivalent of a master's program?
MOLINA: It was open. Yes, I had . . . I remember, it's something I didn't have
very clear whether the master's was a requirement for a PhD, but it was clearly
graduate school. And I do remember it was nice. I was able to do experiments and
so on. The one thing that was missing, which I realized from whatever I knew
even knowing Ted Vermuelen, is this closer contact with the professors: you had
01:27:00to do things on your own and you didn't have that much access to the professor.
And you could go and sit in some lectures perhaps, but for me, what at that time
I had realized already is that what was missing in my undergraduate education
was more the physics, the quantum mechanics, the much more molecular
perspective, which, by the way, now is a very integral part of chemical
engineering, but at that time it wasn't--not even in the U.S. That became,
slowly, a very important part of it. For example, for chemical engineers, again,
catalysis is terribly important, so you have theoretical chemists working in
chemical engineering departments nowadays.
But in any event, the German system was not easy to take advantage of, and by
01:28:00that time I became much more aware and I knew more details about how research
was carried out. And so I decided sort of halfway, "I think for this interest I
have, I'm going to change and I'm going to go to the States. This time here in
Germany is not wasted, but I much prefer this environment in the U.S. for a
PhD," where you work very closely with a mentor, and where I would have the
opportunity to formally take courses in physics, quantum mechanics, or
mathematics, still, that I had missed as a chemical engineer in Mexico.
And that turned out to be correct, in fact. So, fortunately, I did have enough
information so that it actually happened that way. In the US. I was able to take
these courses, I was able to work a lot more closely with my mentor, George [C.]
01:29:00Pimentel, and I don't regret having been in Germany, but it was a very different
experience. In hindsight, it's possible that if you do very well in your
undergraduate courses you already know what you want to do, you don't need much
advice, you're not changing fields, that you can do a great PhD. But it's a lot
harder--or it was a lot harder--under my specific circumstances.
So, again, that was my time in Germany. In fact, it was not even required, doing
research. You could just be all day in the lab doing routine things without even
taking courses because there was not . . . it's only a formality when you are an
01:30:00undergraduate . And taking courses, people just go on and listen to a professor.
It was not interacting with him. And, again, I became aware in Germany, they
were trying to change a lot of things, but that . . . I didn't get that change
myself. So that was my experience in Germany. Basically, at some point, it was
again waiting to get admitted to Berkeley and to get a scholarship. So I had
some time . . .
CARUSO: That's what I was going to ask. So did you stop doing what you were
doing in Germany before you had received acceptance to a graduate program or . .
MOLINA: Yes, yes, because I realized I need to now pay full-time attention to
getting admitted in Berkeley. So it was just a matter of timing, I remember,
01:31:00because you have to apply almost a year ahead of time. I did something also
unusual, like I had done something in Mexico in between, which we talked about,
but this time it's like, "Okay, why don't I . . . I want to remain in Europe,
but have a different experience," so I went to Paris, [France], because in the
Sorbonne [University of Paris-Sorbonne], they [were also doing research on
[. . .] I had decided not to get a PhD in Germany because of these things we
talked about. So having decided that, I said, "There's no advantage for me to
remain another year in Germany if I am not pursuing the PhD, so why don't I
change course and see how things work in Paris?" It turns out from an academic
perspective it was not all that different: you have very big classes and you
01:32:00could listen, you could do work in the lab, but it was just very easy to get
admitted to the Sorbonne.
So I was admitted to the Sorbonne just as a graduate student [. . .]. Of course,
I didn't tell them this--but in my mind it was just a waiting period. And it was
a time in my life there where I realized, well, I can do much better studying on
my own. So I ended up studying math and so on, [since] I had a lot of time. At a
very interesting moment in a student's life, because that was in the
1960s--1968, 1967, with all the student unrest--so I was just able to
01:33:00participate, had a good many friends in Paris. I had sort of an important
component in politics, cultural life, and other things, and did not neglect the
science. But the science was essentially on my own at that time because there's
not that much I can do at the university other than . . . well, the reason is
the following. It would be the same reason I decided not to remain another year
in Germany--I could have started the research project, but it didn't make any
sense. I was already applying to Berkeley. I had good prospects knowing Ted
Vermuelen, so it was essentially just saying, "Look, I have this opportunity. I
learn about all these other aspects of life as well. ." I remember I realized I
had to learn more, essentially, math at that time, also physics as well, which
01:34:00was useful then to get me ready to actually do the PhD in Berkeley. So it was
more or less along these lines, so I did not give up--as I'm thinking back of
those years--I did not give up my goal of becoming a research scientist. I just
did what I think in hindsight was actually the right decision: "I think I can do
it much better in the US, given my specific background and the changes I wanted
to undergo." So that was it, essentially.
CARUSO: Were the classes conducted in French?
MOLINA: Yes, yes, of course.
CARUSO: And you were . . .
MOLINA: Yeah, [. . .] German was much more difficult, but I had learned . . .
one thing I did is take some French courses as well, but that was not
01:35:00particularly . . . I could understand. A bit more of a challenge was to speak,
but there was not very much problem just attending the classes. I don't remember
if I started learning French . . . probably when I was in Mexico I might have
taken some classes. Yeah, [here] there is a [French school, Alianza Francesa]
where I remember just going to take some French lessons [when I was young] just
for general culture. It was not very scientific at that time. French was a very
important language in Mexico at the beginning of the twentieth century because
all the European--
GONZALEZ: We had a president . . . Porfirio Díaz.
GONZALEZ: A president that was very, very interested in French culture. [David
and Jody are] staying at the Hilton in Reforma [Mexico City, Mexico]. You're
01:36:00right in front of a very large white marble building, beautiful. All that type
of architecture in Mexico was started at the late [1800s], early [1900s] with
that president. He was in power for thirty years and those thirty years we had
all types of French influence. He was very Mexican . . . very Mexican, but he
was very interested in France, for some reason.
ROBERTS: The US has presidents like that, as well, who love their French
architecture, right? The only other piece with the time in Paris at the
Sorbonne, you mentioned sort of briefly the student protests. What was your
experience, your take on being there at that time?
MOLINA: Well, I do remember being part of it, with Jean-Paul Sartre and all
that. And besides reading or learning math that I was telling you, there was all
this cultural component--which it was not something like we were talking [about]
01:37:00initially in Mexico, that once you go to college, you don't do that--but it was
part of my general cultural interest; which by the way, something much more
recent, I've reinforced it a lot more in terms of history, even [in] teaching. ,
okay? There's [. . .] that cultural component which is very important, which you
could easily neglect if you're a single-minded scientific research person that
only worries about your own specialty. It's obvious that you need to do things,
[. . .] all sorts of interactions with other fields. So in some sense, that was
a beginning of that experience because it was also cultural, of course; the
cultural life in Paris was active at that time, not just concerts, but the
theater and things.
But there was student unrest. You could go to the streets and participate and
01:38:00read about it all and go and see what was happening. [. . .] I did have
interactions, also, I don't remember . . . that was in fact quite interesting
and important. There were a number of Mexican students in Paris at that time
and, being Mexican, we were friends--we got together. But none of them were
scientists; they were all in other fields and several of them became very
important afterwards: a foreign relations minister was there at that time.
Because we were young, they were part of that generation. But it was, again,
this . . . we call it in Spanish 'vivenciar:' this living something,
01:39:00experiencing something actively rather than just reading about it. It was
discussing politics and discussing these issues with students and so on. And
literature . . . I was already interested in Latin American literature, so that
was an interesting time, which in hindsight, again, it was not bad because I had
to change quite drastically, then going to Berkeley. , because getting a PhD in
Berkeley and changing [the focus of my interest] topically, I had to devote full
time there to do the studies, except for the little bit in Berkeley was also the
time of student unrest. , okay? So I didn't have [a lot of time to spend]. You
01:40:00could just see that. But . . . I didn't have time to read literature or to go to
the theater or to do the sort of things I could enjoy in Paris. So it was fun
[in Paris at that time].
ROBERTS: Were you ever tempted while you were spending this time in Europe to
rekindle your music career?
MOLINA: Yes. In fact, I did something which might have been . . . I switched to
learning guitar because I thought that might be easier. That's probably a
mistake; it's not any easier. But I did learn to play classical guitar, so that
was . . . so, like Spanish guitars. And again, just for my own [pleasure]. I
regret very much that I couldn't keep that up when I was in Berkeley. So I
certainly regained my great interest for music, but more for listening.
01:41:00Maybe I'll take it up again because just doing music . . . to tell you more, the
last bit of really enjoyable music I did was still in Switzerland when I was a
young student, still taking classes, because I did get to realize how wonderful
it is to play. I played well enough--I was very young and so on--to join a
student quartet or something, to play with others.
So when you do music and you are part of a group, then it becomes a very unique
experience. That's what I remember and I regret, because I have several examples
of scientists that, like . . . [Albert] Einstein, of course, is the best known.
He was apparently not all that good. But anyhow . . . but he did like to do . .
01:42:00. and, in fact, at MIT I have few friends, professors . . . so those who could
keep up their interest to the extent that they play an instrument. It's
something I regret not doing [. . .], but, anyhow, that was that part. But I
always kept listening to music very actively; I do remember taping all sorts of
things in Paris.
CARUSO: I know you mentioned . . . I mean, you had this interaction with the
Berkeley professor. Did you consider applying to any other American universities
or was it just Berkeley?
MOLINA: No, not really, because Berkeley was very well known and we had this
connection, I thought. There were some which were vaguely familiar with some
other ways to get a scholarship, where you just got the scholarship and yet you
were assigned some college somewhere. I thought, "Well, that doesn't compete at
01:43:00all with Berkeley." So once we had the connection, then I became confident that
we're going to be able to do something. And, indeed, so that was not very
The only thing I remember in Berkeley . . . again, I must tell you about the
misconception I had from Europe, [which is that] I applied as a master's student
because I thought that was a requirement at the time, and then, of course,
Berkeley, "No, you get a master's a little bit as a . . . for PhD students that
cannot make it, okay, we'll give you a master's." Okay. But it was very easy for
me to change. [. . .] I mean, they asked me, "Do you really want . . . ?" "Of
course." [. . .] It was just a misunderstanding that it was easier to get
admitted as a master's student. But, again, in the academic department in
01:44:00chemistry and so on, there are relatively few master's students or students that
apply that way.
CARUSO: I want to know a lot more about your time at Berkeley, but one question
I'm also curious about . . . you spent time living in lots of different
countries with different cultures. You mentioned that you had a reading
knowledge of English, but you weren't necessarily conversational in it.
MOLINA: That's right.
CARUSO: Was it difficult . . . was there a culture shock in coming to the United
States or was it just the language barrier for you?
MOLINA: I think it was just the language barrier, and it was not a big deal at
all because, again, I did understand. I just remember the fact that I was very
fluent in theoretical English. I had no problems reading any science textbooks;
and then I realized, "Hey, but it's different to really communicate." And it's
01:45:00sort of funny that, probably, the English teachers I had in Mexico, none of them
spoke English. So that was part of the [problem], they were just teaching. But,
no, that was not an issue, essentially, the language barrier is something I
probably took relatively little time [to overcome]. And, well, I do remember a
few funny things. I joined Pimentel's group at the same time as another student
from . . . I believe it was New Zealand, and we could barely communicate. He had
such an accent. So, no, I couldn't understand all English. It took a while for
me. So that tells you about my limitation, but American English was relatively easy.
01:46:00And, no, one thing to note [regarding culture], I was, again, in an academic
environment. And it was interesting because in Berkeley there was People's Park,
lots of hippies, so it was interesting, unusual . . . and not particularly a
cultural experience because the hippies were very primitive as one thinks of
them and just singing, but there were things going on that I went to a few . . .
again, I didn't have much time, but there were always interesting people that
were invited that you could go and see, but I . . . for example, I didn't have
much time to go to concerts or anything. Anyhow, I was listening to music on my
01:47:00own. But, no, I knew more or less what to expect. And, again, in academia, if
you look at it in hindsight, it can be quite a different cultural experience
than if you go to some small town in the South. That would have been a cultural
shock, I would imagine.
CARUSO: So starting your graduate career, I'm assuming that Berkeley had you
taking courses to start out with?
MOLINA: That's right. Yes.
CARUSO: How were those courses different, or were they different, from what you
had experienced previously in your other . . . ?
MOLINA: [Yes], they were different, but it's what I was expecting, in that you
really had to put a lot of time, and it was the homework but also the
interaction in class. They were graduate courses, all relatively small courses,
01:48:00sorry, relatively small classes with students and it was just a much more active
. . . I mean, I was able--remembering back in Mexico, so I tell you--to take it
very leisurely because they were not very demanding. You just had to do the
routine things. But I knew there, you really had to understand what you were
learning, and I was taking demanding courses.
I did take, by the way, some--to finish [this thought]--some sort of upper
division or graduate math courses, and there again, that was not easy because
you had to participate quite actively in those courses and it was a lot of work,
but it was very satisfying. I was worried, "Will I be able to change fields and
do this?" Fortunately, I was rewarded, if you want, because in the courses, you
01:49:00also get the feedback. If you just listen to the professor, eventually perhaps
you have to do the final exam, well, maybe you get lucky or unlucky, but if you
have a much more active participation, then that's much more rewarding, but it's
a lot more work. So I had only, I guess, maybe three, four courses at the
beginning, which was a lot. I, on purpose--and I talked to my professors that it
was all right--I was going to take a bit more time at the beginning than a
normal graduate student because I did want to take these courses and that worked
CARUSO: Were you doing laboratory work at the same time?
MOLINA: Well, at the laboratory work was when I started doing the research. So I
started . . . and again, I was able to postpone it at least one semester or
01:50:00something like that. And then I really became integrated in a research group
with Professor Pimentel and that was essentially full time. Well, I could still
take one or two courses, but at that stage, it was full-time research, original research.
CARUSO: Did you get to choose what lab you wanted to go into?
MOLINA: Yes. Yes.
CARUSO: And how did you choose Pimentel's lab?
MOLINA: I chose based on what I knew the different professors were doing
research in, which topic, and again, it was something . . . very fundamental
physical chemistry connected also with the nature of chemical reactions. I had
several options. There were some very good people, but to me it was quite
attractive, the type of research that Pimentel's group was carrying out. He was
01:51:00also very well known in education, had some very important textbooks.
So it was an attractive group to join. In some sense, I was a bit surprised, but
I had no trouble being admitted to the group because each professor only takes a
couple of students each year, but I was lucky or had the choice, but that's also
. . . later on, of course, I've been a professor myself, you talk to . . . many
students come and see you. You talk to them and some of them choose to work with
you and occasionally, the student doesn't get his first choice and then he goes
somewhere else. But I was lucky, so I joined the group I did want to do, which
was experimental research, but with very fundamental chemistry, having to do
with the nature of chemical reactions.
CARUSO: So there were eight or ten graduate students in his lab at any given time?
01:52:00MOLINA: He had a large group. He was probably more like fifteen or so. No, I
take it back. Maybe ten. But he had five postdocs and maybe two visiting
professors. He was a very well-known person already at that time.
CARUSO: And did he give you direct attention once you got into the lab? I know
some professors, they're busy with their research and they don't necessarily
have a ton of time to work with graduate students.
MOLINA: There were two things that happened. One, I did work with a postdoc that
was there, closely. In terms of the experimental details, I was able to learn
from him, we had very regular group meetings. I mean, the group meetings, it was
up for grabs. Everybody could talk and then besides the group meetings, we had
something like at least a weekly meeting with just myself and the professor, so
01:53:00it was set up to have very close interaction at that level. And you're right,
there are all sorts of different personalities. There are some professors that
every day go to the lab and see--but more to push you--see whether you produce
something or not. And some others tell you, as I remember afterwards having fun
with some of my physics friends, "Okay, here is your . . . "--a little bit more
like German--"This is your research project. Come and see me at the end of the
year and see what you . . . ." So everything goes, but the normal, the most
productive thing, most good professors were that way: you had a fairly important
interaction quite often with a group at large.
ROBERTS: How big was that research group?
MOLINA: Well, the group, again, it must have been fifteen, eighteen people or
so. And again, some visiting professors, postdocs, and graduate students, but
01:54:00once you're there, there was no difference. We were all the same in some sense,
except at the very beginning, we were shy and learning how things worked, but
very rapidly, you could get integrated. Yeah.
CARUSO: Were you assigned a project or did you develop a project with Pimentel?
MOLINA: No, it's quite open. I was assigned the project as a result of talking
to him, because in some sense, there might have been a few options, but with the
idea that the project could evolve and then you could talk about it and change
direction a little bit. I didn't have to change much. The project at large was
working with chemical lasers, which was something precisely that Pimentel had
found with one of . . . a German visiting professor; in fact, they discovered
01:55:00the first chemical laser just shortly before I arrived, maybe a year or a couple
of years or so.
And then it became clear that you
could learn a lot. It was not applied, the research, in terms of developing
lasers based on chemical reactions, but using the laser emission as a tool to
learn about the reactions. So that's what I essentially chose and did as a
CARUSO: So molecular dynamics?
MOLINA: That's right. That's right.
ROBERTS: And so using chemical lasers is a relatively new research area at this point.
MOLINA: That's right. It was very new because lasers had been discovered not
that long ago, I remember. Yeah. [. . .]
Of course, Charlie [Charles H.] Townes [Nobel Prize in Physics, 1964] was at
Berkeley and I remember going to his lab. [. . .] I didn't meet him, but was very
01:56:00envious at Berkeley that he had a space assigned because he was a Nobel Prize
winner. And it's fun because later we became good friends. He's very
approachable, so I got to know him very well, but imagine at that time, I was
And this is just in passing, but why not I mention, we were . . . let me spend
half a minute, because it's sort of fun. I was just at a meeting in PCAST
[President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology] at the National
Academies and we were worried about [United States] Congress . . . . . . some
Congressman who should have taken science in elementary school but didn't. They
wanted to impose some restrictions on NSF [National Science Foundation], that
NSF would have to guarantee that the research was for the benefit of the nation,
which is just crazy.
I mean, you have the peer review
01:57:00system, but it's very easy to find names of projects that are very weird. Okay,
so it's, "How the hell can they tell?" And so we chose Charlie Townes, because
he had a very academic, very unusual name for the research he was doing. There
was "masers" and whatnot. Just as a classic example of something they wouldn't
have the foggiest idea what he was talking about and that's nothing. There's
then the laser, okay, which we use every day in so many things. So it's a
perfect counterexample of something that you expect to be applied immediately.
No, that's not the way research goes. But anyhow, it goes back to Berkeley to
those times when the laser was just coming up to speed.
ROBERTS: So this PCAST meeting must have been very recent because it was . . .
MOLINA: Yeah, this one was just last week, sure.
ROBERTS: That Congressional proposal was just made I think a week or two ago.
01:58:00MOLINA: That's right. We're going to write a letter or something. We're going to
ROBERTS: I'm glad that you'll be doing that en masse. So was there a particular
interest in working in this area because it was so new?
MOLINA: I guess so, because it was new and interesting because it was a new tool
that still had to be developed and that could provide you with some insights
into chemical reactions that were unique also, which, in fact, was the case
because we learned a lot. I mean, it worked in some sense that we were able to
do original research. But again, this is going . . . it took a while, of course,
but if I start from being interested as a child and then doing things in high
01:59:00school, in college learning about it, but then it was really at Berkeley that I
could, for the first time, do something new in research: create something or
learn something that had not been learned before anywhere and be able to write
some original research. In some sense, that's experience I was looking for since
I was a child and it did materialize while doing the PhD. It was quite interesting.
And that's something very nice, if I push it a little further, something that
comes out of your interaction with a group, with a professor; but eventually you
create that. You find, "Ah ha! Here is something that I found." It was not
something I was . . . because sometimes the professor tells you, "Do this and
this experiment because we'll get the results and we'll publish them." That's
02:00:00what I meant by flexibility. You work in a certain area, but if you do things
right, you could find your own interpretation, specifically how the laser light
comes out and how it interacts with Einstein's equations, and so it was very
rewarding in some sense. That keeps you going as a research scientist.
ROBERTS: It sounds like the chemist's version of what you said you experienced
being on the field trips with the entomologists.
MOLINA: That's right. Yes. That's right. That's right. This excitement, exactly.
Something new there. Yes. Not requiring a lot of math, but observation and
knowing, of course. You have to know what you're doing. So yes, you are right.
ROBERTS: You didn't have to fight off any snakes at Berkeley?
MOLINA: That's right.
ROBERTS: So nobody had to tend to snakes.
CARUSO: Just hippies.
MOLINA: We did have one experience, although not quite with snakes, but since we
02:01:00were working with chemical lasers and there was student unrest. I remember at
some point, we were very worried we would have to close the lab because some of
the unrest was trying to find things that were going wrong. "Chemical lasers,
that's a weapon! So we're going to fight against that." We were not . . . we had
nothing to do with weapons, but the Army was already using some chemical lasers
there because they were very powerful. So we got worried and we were in the
basement, but yes, that was a real threat. Okay, not snakes, but in this case,
our own fellow students.
CARUSO: Were you involved in the writing process for publishing articles coming
out of the lab?
MOLINA: Yes, yes; particularly doing original things like this, yes, very much
so. Of course, with a lot of help from the professor, but yes, in principle, we
02:02:00were writing our own articles and then sometimes it was part of a larger piece
of research also, but yes, that's part of the job, to develop the skills to
write scientific articles.
CARUSO: Did you find it difficult . . . I mean, it is a very stylized way of
writing. Was it difficult to pick that up?
MOLINA: Yes, it probably did. I don't remember the details anymore because
probably we were so close to, in our case, to our mentor. It's not something I
saw as a barrier, but it was just a learning process. I do remember it must have
happened quite naturally because once I became a professor afterwards, it was
never a big worry. It eventually became a worry with my own students because I
02:03:00had some Russian students that were writing terrible English, okay [laughter].
It's time consuming. You have to correct, you have to rewrite things. So that's
something just that takes time. But you're right. It's a very special language,
which is fine for scientific articles, but talking a little bit about the sort
of things that we were doing, it's terrible for communicating to the public, of course.
Yeah, but it's part of your learning experience to be able to write. Not only
that, it's a similar experience to go to a conference and give talks, so that's
also connected to that. You had to learn how to talk to your fellow scientists.
CARUSO: So I have a few questions. Some of them relate directly to the work that
02:04:00you're doing, but there's also an outside question. I know that you get married
in 1973, and yet your description so far has been that you had no time for
things outside of work.
CARUSO: So I am curious to know a little bit about how that came about, but I'm
also . . . one of the other questions I'm curious about is I know that you
continued on to do a postdoc at UC Berkeley, and I'm wondering how it was
defined, you know, when your PhD really ended and when your postdoc began,
because some of your work is continuing.
MOLINA: Right. It was essentially a decision of my professor, Pimentel, who
said, "Hey, you've done enough. You already earned a degree, but we have this
other thing, so why don't you stay another year?" And it also gave me time
02:05:00again, as you see, I'm not very good with planning way ahead, but it gave me
time to define the next step, which was going to work with Sherry [F. Sherwood]
Rowland. But yes, it was essentially that. He thought, "You have enough for a
thesis. Why don't you write your thesis? Of course, if you want to leave already
. . . "--I have the degree, I could have done it--"but we have these several
exciting things that you propose that we could keep doing that." So that was
essentially what happened.
In terms of my [first] marriage, as you know, I have a second marriage now, [. .
.] I lived many years with my first wife, but she was a student of George
Pimentel as well, so that tells you I didn't spend too much time looking around. [laughter]
CARUSO: So were there many female students?
02:06:00MOLINA: No, there were not very many female students at that time. I'm trying to
remember. No, it was mostly male students, there were just a couple of female
students. In fact, I don't remember. I think at some point, she might have been
the only female student, but I don't remember exactly. That's a possibility. But
then later, yeah, there were other . . . of course, there was no, as you know,
no actual discrimination. It was just less likely for women to do research at
that time, which is something that fortunately changed a lot.
CARUSO: How did you meet Sherwood Rowland. I know it was while you were at Berkeley.
MOLINA: Yes. He was working also in chemical dynamics. So it was very natural as
I was telling you, it was part of our experience to go to meetings. And again,
02:07:00George Pimentel was a wonderful mentor in many respects, but this was one of
them that he encouraged us to write papers and to go to meetings, usually with
him also. So he would bring . . . students were not at large formal meetings,
but meetings of . . . in California, for example, I remember this one . . . . I
had met Sherry Rowland on several occasions at the meetings of this sort and had
similar interests. He just had an entirely different experimental approach to
learn about basically similar questions that we were posing about the nature of
chemical reactions. And his approach had to do with radioactivity.
So it's what's called "hot atom chemistry." And so you prepare . . . in a
02:08:00nuclear reactor, you can have some atoms at tremendous speeds. Well, eventually
they slow down and you could study unique aspects of certain reactions. So to me
that was attractive. Hey, this is quite complementary but it's of interest to
pursue this quite academic research. I was assuming I would remain in academia
if I had a chance, and working in other aspects of physical chemistry, like
[many of my colleagues], so this was a natural thing to do and Sherry Rowland
was a very pleasant person. In these meetings, we were able to socialize a
little bit and so on, so it was natural to talk to him. I remember I did
02:09:00consider several others, but this was one of the most attractive experimental
research groups and again sort of unique, interesting, something quite different
that became an opportunity.
ROBERTS: So before we move into the postdoc, I had two questions about your
experiences as a graduate student. One had to do with whether or not you were
responsible or had experiences looking for funding, or was that something that
the advisor does and the graduate students don't have to worry about that sort
MOLINA: Yeah, at that time, that's something I did not have any experience. I
later learned, of course. You have to write proposals and it's a little bit like
writing papers. Okay, so that experience is important. But no, that part was not
02:10:00something I had to do while a graduate student. I mean, we were aware of some of
the difficulties or the things that . . . and some important science funding
came from the Department of Defense at that time. It was for very fundamental
physical chemistry which was sort of strange, but it was understandable that
these were important developments in science. Some other was connected with NASA
[National Aeronautics and Space Administration]. One of the other interests . .
. George Pimentel had a couple of interests: chemical lasers was perhaps what he
might have been best known for, but the other one was working at very low
temperatures, doing spectroscopy at very low temperatures. And so that was more
connected with some peculiar properties of matter at these very low
02:11:00temperatures, which is why he became interested also in life on Mars. That's why
I will tell you two different--connected through the fundamental chemistry--but
two very different fields, chemical lasers and chemistry at low temperatures,
with all sorts of important connections from the point of view of the
fundamental chemistry, looking at different aspects of that. But spectroscopy
was very much at the core of these things. I mean, we became aware of that
because life on Mars was one of those things that could get funded or could get
a lot of attention, more in the public domain rather than the fundamental
chemistry we were carrying out, other than chemical lasers. Yeah, but that's
02:12:00interesting. In hindsight, it's not something we usually have students learn and
perhaps it's something we should.
ROBERTS: Was it surprising to you to learn what the variety of sources of
funding were for the lab that Pimentel was doing?
MOLINA: Yes, I guess it was surprising, but then I realized what the reasons
were. But it was all government funding, essentially. I became aware also [that]
more of it was funding from industrial sources, but much closer to applied
research or perhaps to organic chemistry or things of that sort. So it wasn't
all that important, after all, just different government agencies somehow or
02:13:00other financing fundamental research.
ROBERTS: My only other question was around becoming a part of the larger
community of chemists and scientists. You were talking just a few moments ago
about how you met Sherry Rowland and the importance of some of the meetings that
Pimentel put together, but that these were smaller meetings sort of California
based. And I'm thinking about you as earlier in our discussion you said, you
know, what U.S. institution, especially Berkeley, would ever have a graduate
student come up from Mexico City? I'm thinking about you entering into a larger
community, like the American Chemical Society, and how you experienced becoming
part of that larger community as a graduate student, if you did it at all?
MOLINA: Yeah, that's quite interesting. I should have clarified. The smaller
California meetings, that's where I had a chance to meet Sherry Rowland, but in
02:14:00fact, working with George, we did participate in some of these larger meetings,
like American Chemical Society. So it was also an--[coughs] [speaking Spanish]
[. . .]
It was an interesting part of that academic experience to participate in these
larger meetings. At that time, it was not that common as it became later to have
poster sessions because there you could have every student doing something. They
02:15:00were not that common. So it was possible for us students actually to make some
presentations, or at least to listen to others, but I remember doing some
So that was quite interesting, that learning about the larger community. And
after all, I had a chemical engineering background, so I knew about the
industrial aspects of many of the activities of the American Chemical Society.
But yeah, that was something interesting to do to the communication with the
society at large.
But one thing that [a little] later [. . .] in my postdoc career [became] a
02:16:00special [type of] world. You communicate with a certain language and you talk to
a certain group of people so it's a little bit narrow. If you then address a
real life problem, it's something you're not trained to do. You have to be able
to communicate with specialists in other fields and to communicate with people
in other fields as well, which is not part of the normal training in an academic environment.
But I was, in some sense, forced to do that, again, with my subsequent research,
the postdoctoral research, but it was not part of my PhD.
CARUSO: So do you want to take a short break?
02:17:00MOLINA: If you want; five minutes or so. [. . .]
[END OF AUDIO, FILE 1.1]
CARUSO: All right, so like I just mentioned, I think we're going to talk a bit
about your postdoc time at [University of California at] Irvine working with
Sherry Rowland. You mentioned that he was focused on hot atom chemistry,
chemical properties of atoms with excess translational energy. When you went to
Irvine, from what I understand, you received sort of a list of different things
you could work on while there and the CFC project was the one that was most intriguing.
02:18:00MOLINA: Right, and it was quite unusual in that . . . [speaking Spanish] [. . .]
Okay. Yes, what was unusual is that Sherry Rowland had this [notion of
integrating different research areas]. Normally it's reasonable for a postdoc,
as opposed to a graduate student perhaps, where it's more likely that you assign
02:19:00him to a project or it might be flexible, as a postdoc you sometimes have
different options; sometimes you don't. But, Sherry became interested in this
issue that he had learned about in one meeting, as you know--I don't know if you
have that background, but somewhere I sent to you; anyhow--I guess, the American
Meteorological Society or the American Chemical Society, I don't remember which
organizations, but they very wisely decided, "Hey, let's have some meetings
where we have scientists from these two very different disciplines, see what can
come out of that," but very much oriented as meteorologists were at that time
just using chemicals as tracers.
So the chemists in some sense were playing a secondary role there. If you can
02:20:00analyze and find something in the atmosphere, then you can help the
meteorologists learn about how things moved. I didn't quite know that at that
time; I realized that later. But, one of those set of chemicals, it's Jim [James
E.] Lovelock had just invented this electron capture gas chromatograph and he
was able to measure the CFCs [chlorofluorocarbons] industrial compounds and not
of natural origin, although at that time, there was some question whether
perhaps small amounts were coming out of volcanoes, a vector, so that was really
not the case, or if at all, they were extremely minute amounts. So these
were--it's a unique situation--industrial chemicals in the atmosphere, but the
CFCs had a lot of affinities, if you want, with the types of molecules that both
02:21:00myself, with George Pimentel, and Sherry Rowland were using, not because they
were important by themselves, but because they offered unique opportunities to
learn about fundamental chemistry. One of the core atoms is fluorine. Okay, so
CFCs . . . and I had studied the chemical lasers produced by some similar
molecules that had halogens. Just to remind you, [it just dawned on me] but it's
not that far-fetched. Chemical dynamics was just evolving at that time.
So we were interested, and we were not theoreticians ourselves, but I remember
even in my exam in Berkeley--and by the way, that was another experience as a
PhD student that was quite unique. I'll tell you about that later--but because
02:22:00this came up, understanding chemical reactions from first principles was just
beginning to be possible. Even now, it's still . . . quantum chemistry is
complicated, but one of the few reactions that you could more or less do
calculations and so on was F plus H2. Because it's very simple and small
molecules, so it somehow or other came up during my PhD exam, which in Berkeley
has the peculiarity that your mentor is not there, so you have to defend it
without help of your mentor.
But I'm just bringing this up because it tells you what the connection between
all this is. And we saw, hey, that's interesting. These are the molecules we
02:23:00understand and they are found in the atmosphere. So Sherry proposed--I knew that
he was not an atmospheric chemist at all--but he proposed, "Hey, why don't we
learn a new field where we can apply this fundamental chemistry that we're
interested in," because as opposed, say, to complex biology, this is a place
where small molecules are important.
And so this appears to be a very nice excuse. You find the problem, you try to
solve it, and you learn the new field. We had--in one of these small California
meetings I was telling you about--we had one presentation about atmospheric
chemistry, which was way up in the atmosphere. It had to deal with chemistry of
ions, which are essentially not connected at all with the sort of things we were
02:24:00interested in, but I guess in the back of our minds was in one of those common
conferences that we were, that this was a place where you could apply these
things. I realized, oh, they still have so much to learn that it's sort of primitive.
So it certainly attracted my attention. I thought, "This is different from the
other areas that he's proposing," [. . .] I could see perhaps more routine
research. You could learn about these reactions, but if you're looking for a
place where you might have an opportunity to do something new and different,
these look very attractive. So that's essentially how we started. Basically, the
only thing we knew from this meeting and later was published in a [very
important and relevant] paper, that these compounds were measurable at very
02:25:00small concentrations, which were reasonable concentrations to expect from the
industrial production up to that time of these compounds.
Then learning a little bit more about those with a unique characteristic that
these were very stable compounds, so they would probably survive in the
atmosphere, but the question was, what happens? It's a very open question. What
process would destroy these molecules in the natural environment? Biology, or
some chemical reactions yet to be discovered? And so that essentially was the
way we started and from the very beginning, being quite different--although, of
course, we interacted with all the other students--but this project was
02:26:00different from all the others; and very open. So I guess Sherry did trust me
enough to say, "Okay, this is something quite different where we're both
beginners," okay? It's because normally would you go and do a postdoc with
somebody very well known in his field and you work in his field. So this was
different from that perspective. That's how we started.
CARUSO: But it was within a relatively short amount of time that you developed
the ozone depletion theory.
MOLINA: Right, because with that question, you might think, "Well, what can
destroy these things? And there might be some catalysis in the Sahara Desert,
gee whiz, but that's probably . . . if it occurs, it's not very important." I
just systematically [thought], then that's something I have to do myself. Of
course, [I] could interact with Sherry quite a bit. But in some sense, we were
02:27:00both at the same level analyzing these results. And said, well, no, none of
these things are likely to be important, but what about photolysis which is
something [. . .] that has to be way up in the atmosphere. Then we had to learn,
okay, how does the atmosphere function, and how long it takes.
Okay, well, you think that's the most likely place where this species . . .
after all, oxygen itself is destroyed at similar altitudes, actually, maybe a
little bit higher, but because you get short enough radiation from the sun, so
it breaks everything. And then say, "Okay, well, we might have a reasonable
hypothesis as to where are these molecules destroyed and hence where will they
be and hence it might be interesting to meteorologists," and so on. Okay, let's
02:28:00. . . I remember this was, sort of . . . as far as I remember, something in the
back of our minds, we didn't talk it very explicitly at the beginning, but we
both had it in our minds, well, so what?
Well, you have this species now in the stratosphere. And just as chemists, we
knew some basic chemistry [of aerosols]. "Hey, we have chlorine atoms there."
Well, the question for completeness in the back of our minds is, let's look at
the whole cycle. So these things are produced industrially, so they are
destroyed there and then eventually, the atoms combine, perhaps in different
molecular forms, make it back to the earth's surface. But is there something in
02:29:00between? Yeah, well, they must react with ozone. So we knew that the potential
for catalytic reactions . . . what I still remember, this is something [. . .] I
repeat, we both knew that it was important to also examine the possibility of
some consequences. It did sound a little far-fetched at that time, I remember.
Yeah, but these are small amounts of industrial compounds. But then actually
doing the calculation work, how much is there and do we know--here again, was
learning about how the atmosphere functions--do we know what controls the
natural levels of ozone and that's where Paul [J.] Crutzen's work was very
important because he's the one--being an engineer, of all things, and not a
chemist--but he learned chemistry very well, and he proposed the natural cycle
of ozone in the stratosphere. Of course, it was nitrous oxide, but just a very
02:30:00small fraction decomposing to give nitrogen oxide that would then destroy ozone.
We were aware from Hal [Harold] Johnston's work without being very familiar with
it that there was some concern about SST--supersonic transports--affecting the
So in the back of my mind, I said, "Well, it doesn't . . . you don't need huge
amounts." But then you do the calculation and then repeating that, "Hey, I can't
believe it, but it is something that might matter." Of course, then discussing
it with Sherry and he immediately realizing, "Sure, let's look at this and we'll
perhaps even talk to who we want to talk to . . . ." Hal Johnston.
And shortly thereafter, he had a sabbatical in Austria, in Vienna. So, much of
what happened afterwards while we were writing the paper was by correspondence.
02:31:00But we did reach that level of awareness, which again, it all happened very
fast. I do remember saying, "Well, to do this, I have to do some experiments."
There were various experiments just to do: to take some ultraviolet spectra,
even that was not well known. Ironically . . . okay, this is later. At that
time, we were not quite aware, but industry did fund some research on these
compounds, but it was in the back of their minds. "Well, let's worry about it.
Does it matter?"
And they funded a couple of research groups and one of them was a
spectroscopist, I don't even remember his name, which was interested in vacuum
UV spectroscopy. He was looking completely at the wrong range that far in the
atmosphere, but that was all that was known about these molecules. The
atmosphere, of course, it was not extremely short wavelengths, which was the
02:32:00specialty of this person, but what we learned later on is that industry was more
or less reassured that these compounds are so stable and even if it wasn't clear
what they would destroy, but there's absolutely nothing to worry about.
And so that's what led me just . . . I'll do a few experiments. So I took some
spectra. Again, a very easy experiment, but we had to get the samples, just to
be able to predict more accurately or more carefully how long it would take and
at what wavelengths would they be destroyed and where do you find those
wavelengths. And in those months, I also had to learn about atmospheric models
and do some calculations then [with diffusion coefficients] and so on, to
02:33:00eventually put more numbers, to have a more quantitative hypothesis. But the
basic hypothesis, as I was telling you, just became clear just by looking at
these numbers and comparing them to the natural processes in the atmosphere. So
that's why it all happened relatively fast.
CARUSO: And so this came out in Nature in 1974, the results?
CARUSO: Did you have any difficulty when submitting the article? Did you get
criticism from Nature's reviewers?
MOLINA: No. Here is what happened. Two things which we learned afterwards . . .
it was taking a long time for the review. Well, we thought, what's happening? We
get something . . . no, it's because it was a very new field and they didn't
02:34:00know who the hell to send it to. So there's Michael [L.] Klein, turns out to be
one of them, was a chemist we knew very well because he was doing experiments
and knew a lot about chlorine chemistry, but he was not an atmospheric scientist
And they might have sent it to . . . that, I don't even know anymore who were
the other reviewers, but they were not many. And at the same time, we had
checked with a key atmospheric scientist in the field, the first one being Hal
Johnston because I had just come out of Berkeley, so it was easy. We went to see
him [. . .] it was a very nice meeting, and we offered him, "Hey, why don't you
join us and we publicize this together?" He said, "No, that's your finding. You
do it. I'll support you or whatever."
02:35:00So he didn't want to be part of it, not because he had any doubts about it, but
he thought that was our stuff. He was in the middle of the stratospheric ozone
worries from the SSTs. We also talked to Paul Crutzen, so the experts in our
community all immediately bought the idea [. . .]. So two things happened. First
one, just for fun, Paul presented these results in what he thought was a closed
meeting in the Swedish Academy of Sciences. So it turns out there was a reporter
there and so in the Svenska Dagbladet it made the news and we were very worried
because Nature has this condition that you cannot have a press release [before
02:36:00the publication]. Fortunately, it didn't make enough news [. . .] because it was
taking many months [to publish in Nature]. But that was our scare story.
And the other thing that happened in terms of criticism, was not from the
experts. [. . .] We had to be very quiet about this because of Nature's
conditions, et cetera, and our friends and so on, but once it got published,
then we talked more about it and eventually at an American Chemical Society
meeting . . . but before that, we did get feedback from other colleagues and
chemists, not directly to us, but we heard the rumors that we were just seeking
[to make news] . . . the criticism at that time was if you are in academics, you
don't publish in the newspapers. But we didn't. We had a few colleagues that
02:37:00actually did like to publish first in the newspapers, and they were not very
highly regarded as scientists, although in society they were better known. But
that was [another] criticism, that it [seemed] like we were just trying to make
noise. But fortunately, we didn't take that too seriously. We thought, well if
we're putting this as a hypothesis and we're checking that the science is right,
and so that's when slowly we decided, hey, this looks serious enough. We have to
make an effort to learn to communicate with the media. And so not only not to
pay attention to this criticism, but to do it the other way around. If this is
real, we should do something about it. Including what did work is to push the
02:38:00academic community connected to this to check it and to begin doing experiments,
okay, to check the hypothesis.
So that actually worked, but to continue with this, I do remember we decided to
take advantage of--talking about the ACS [American Chemical Society]--a national
ACS meeting, because we knew there [would be] press releases. It was a place
where you could communicate to, at least, other chemists. So we sort of naively
organized a press conference. And we thought, okay, let's make a list. We'll
invite first somebody that will tell about the measurements that are measured in
the atmosphere, repeating, summarizing Lovelock's results, and then for Crutzen
how the atmosphere works, and then we'll tell our story. Why was it very naive?
02:39:00Because that's not the way press conferences work with the media. You have to
come up with a punch line at the very beginning.
So practically all the reporters left after the very first [statements]. So
nobody was there when we talked about our findings. Later, of course, we learned
and then we did begin to make news, but slowly because it was not something
common. It was an unusual thing to talk about: invisible gases, invisible rays,
anyhow, invisible atmosphere, but eventually the media sort of picked it up
slowly, but we had to make an effort.
And simultaneously we thought, well, let's begin to talk to some politicians in
California, so just to see how that would work because spray cans were part of
02:40:00the issue, and so on, and so essentially, that's how we started. And I certainly
continued to do research. It was no longer experimental research in the lab, but
more modeling and working with the rest of the community and at that time
measurements were carried out with balloons, so working closely with people in
the rest of the community just to promote measurements: are these balloons
really getting there and so forth. So it . . . that's how it took off.
ROBERTS: Yeah, back on the technical stuff. I think I was struck by this is a
new area. There isn't a whole lot of established literature about atmospheric
chemistry writ large, especially at this altitude. You're using new equipment.
02:41:00You're talking about Lovelock's electron capture detector is just sort of being
used and experimented with in recent years. So you know, on the one side, how do
you even go about modeling and doing your own experimental work to try to
simulate what's happening up here and was that a concern that you and Rowland
had about presenting those results into the larger community, that this was . .
. you know, not only did you discover something that could potentially have
dramatic effect, there wasn't really an established foundation of literature for
people to sort of judge you on your accuracy.
MOLINA: We thought, and that was indeed a worry. We became sufficiently
confident in the science [behind our findings], and enough was known about the
atmosphere; as well as with Paul Crutzen's type science, there were
02:42:00measurements. Balloons were already sent. Much of the measurements, much of what
was known was really dominated by physics of meteorology was dynamics as they called.
Of course, we chemists, when we took dynamics, it's chemical dynamics, but in
that community, that's atmospheric dynamics and there was already a
well-developed interest in learning about atmospheric movements in the
stratosphere. So much of what was known about stratospheric ozone was just with
the objective of seeing how--the stratosphere is quite different from the
troposphere--how do things move in the stratosphere. So it was a new sense that
ozone was chemically active and not just a good tracer.
02:43:00So, we knew about the movements and we knew about, at least in relatively simple
terms, how do species get to the stratosphere and what are the main species that
are there. So it was enough known. And again, carrying out the simple
calculations that this [gave us sufficient data] . . . of course, we were not
sure, we knew this was a hypothesis, but it was sound [based on reliable
information]. And that's when we decide, "Okay, it's not something just entirely
far-fetched. Maybe this will be," but no, we were able to document this with the
science because it was not terribly complicated, you know.
We realized that additional experiments had to be carried out, measuring the
CFCs that we were practically sure if these compounds are stable, even if some
of [those get] destroyed at lower altitudes, they certainly have to get there.
One of the questions was, is there a process that will destroy them in
02:44:00competition through destruction in the stratosphere, which means that only a
smaller fraction will get there, but the numbers appear to indicate that it was
. . . because the numbers of what was in the atmosphere were comparable to what
had been industrially produced.
So we knew there was no fast process. So there were a few key ideas like that,
and then we realized where we needed to carry out research as a community:
[Were] chlorine compounds actually measurable there? [. . .] We knew it would
take some time, at least a decade or so, before anything could be measured
because of the large natural variability. But what you mentioned was a concern,
and we were sufficiently convinced that we thought this is worth pushing without
02:45:00such additions. So we always expressed [that] experiments needed to be carried
out. This was a hypothesis, but it was something . . . our push was, let's do
the research. Let's not just ignore it. It's real . . . with the science that we
have and with the support of the experts in the community, that's what reassured
us, if you want, that this was not crazy. This made a lot of sense. Let's
invest. And we were not talking about huge resources. Let's use some of the
balloons that are already being used to learn about movements. Let's do some
chemistry with those.
And so that's how things got moved. Then later, that perhaps is more for
tomorrow if you want, but some of the important subsequent steps very much
02:46:00connected with this question, though, was, okay, let's see how can we reassure
the scientific community? Well, the National Academy [of Sciences] study, so
that's how they got started.
This was sufficiently
sound, so the National Academy, we have many friends there, of course, who . . .
we were reasonably well respected in the academic environment in spite of this
criticism. There were always people criticizing.
So that study by the National Academy did make sense. And in those years,
furthermore, [. . .] we had to do more science. The chemistry's not quite as
simple as we initially postulated. There might be other complications. So I
continued. One peculiar thing, but that's . . . I was a postdoc for a relatively
short term because once we published this, then Sherry very, very nicely said,
02:47:00"Well, let's keep doing this, but you will do it , you should be a faculty
already." And the one complication is when you're a faculty in the U.S. in
particular, the first years are hard to get tenure. You have to show you can do
research independently, so, in some sense, I had to stop collaborating with
Sherry, but I mean, [by then] we had already a background established. So the
experimental work that we did was then independent for these reasons. So I kept
doing laboratory work, but it was already much more defined, connected with what
we thought might be the chemistry in the stratosphere.
ROBERTS: So you said that the two of you set out on this project to combine at
the same time what you liked about this project versus some of the other things
02:48:00that Sherry was working on when you came to postdoc. This was something that
there was a real question to be explored and resolved and there was some
fundamental chemistry to be learned about the physical chemistry and the
kinetics behind how some of these things were happening. When . . . so you've
published the paper in Nature. Did you feel like you were still maintaining that
balance or did you feel like you might be getting pulled in one direction over
the other at this point?
MOLINA: No, we thought we had made the right choice and in some sense that was
indeed correct, because it turns out that the stratosphere is chemically
relatively simple and most of the important chemistry occurs with relatively
small species. So we were not that far. That's why I brought this F plus H2.
Okay, these were reactions that you could attempt to understand at a very
02:49:00fundamental level and again, I'm jumping way ahead, but yes, in fact, much was
learned in chemical kinetics, which is what I told you I was interested even
when I went to Germany, but this was now with not all that different, although
we were talking about big molecules before. Not all that different, but much was
learned about the fundamental science, doing research that was at the same time
quite practical. Here we have something that is happening in real life and we
have a chemical reactor, which is the planet. We can, of course, try to select
some of that but we can go and check it.
And just to give you one example, [. . .] we know chemical kinetics, with
chemical reactions you have an activation energy and normally reactions go
faster as you increase the temperature, that's why you can cook. That's because
02:50:00everything breaks down. Hey, there were some experimental results we had, and
this is a very good friend, [A.R.] Ravishankara there were some reactions
working the other way around. So the first reaction of the community was oh,
these are experimental errors. There are complicated things to study. No, and
then it was realized, this is just one example. No, there are complex reactions
where you have an intermediate and you have channels and some of them we now
understand very well why they go faster at lower temperatures. That was strictly
a result of stratospheric chemistry.
So it's one example of something along the lines we were asking. Yes,
fundamental research moved on. The other very important component, jumping
ahead, is chemistry of free radicals. In the laboratory it was just beginning to
be possible to study reactions with free radicals directly. Before, it was all
02:51:00done in [inaudible] vessels indirectly, but at that time, we and others
developed means of measuring directly the free radical and then you can do much
more reliable chemistry, not just inferring, "Ah, the free radicals were there
and they probably did this." There was important historical examples of reaction
mechanisms that were indeed inferred that way, but this was another very
interesting opportunity to push the science and yes, it was very exciting to
combine fundamental lab science with something that's happening that you could
actually check. So that did work.
ROBERTS: Well, that seems like a good stopping place [. . .] until tomorrow, if
that's all right for you.
MOLINA: Sure, by all means, yes.
CARUSO: Thank you.
[END OF AUDIO, FILE 1.2]
CARUSO: Today is the seventh of May, 2013. This is the second interview session
with Dr. Mario Molina here at the Mario Molina Center in Mexico City. I'm David
02:52:00Caruso. Here with me is Jody Roberts and also joining us is Lorena Gonzalez. So,
I think, Jody, you wanted to pick up with some questions about where we left off yesterday?
ROBERTS: Sure, thank you. You did a really lovely and succinct closing yesterday
around the work that you did with Sherry Rowland, but we didn't poke at it too
much, and I obviously wanted to spend some time today fleshing that out more and
getting your thoughts on some of the things that happened. I wanted to talk
about the reaction more and dive more into the reaction. You made a few comments
yesterday about, you know, you don't go to graduate school and learn how to do
public communication, and you suddenly found yourself in need of public
communication, but I don't want to constrain how we think about this. I wanted
to just maybe get your thoughts first on how you experienced, how you reacted to
02:53:00the reception to the work that you and Professor Rowland had done.
MOLINA: Yes. Perhaps repeating a little bit of what I said yesterday, but
expanding it also. We had, as expected, a mixed reaction first within the
scientific community. [. . .] Our colleagues or the other scientists that we
felt were familiar with the field, they immediately supported us and so that was
reassuring. But again, with the rest of the scientific community, some [of them]
02:54:00thought maybe we were exaggerating or just trying to "make noise" in some way or other.
And a similar thing happened with the media. There were a few reporters and then
eventually a couple of people that were even writing books--that came a little
later--so we had some more thorough long interviews with a few of them, and with
reporters in general. We just had to summarize things. But, as expected, there
were a number of criticisms in the press, that this was sort of far-fetched, and
so on. But others immediately received it as something potentially quite
02:55:00important. We were stressing this at the very beginning; this was just a
hypothesis and it had to be tested.
But it didn't take long to learn that we had to communicate with the media in a
different language and trying to set up the background information or to put
things in context. And so overall, I remember just making an effort; we had to
spend some time. But, we felt that it was overall reasonably well accepted,
considering that there was relatively little precedence for this. Of course, at
02:56:00that time, the environmental movement was taking off, but most of it, if not all
of it, was talking about local pollution, water or air or whatever, so what was
new with this problem that we were dealing with was that it was truly a global
issue and so there was really no precedent for that. It didn't matter where
these things were emitted.
ROBERTS: So before you published the paper, did you anticipate what the response
might be ?
MOLINA: Well, yes, but with a lot of uncertainty. We thought, well, since this
02:57:00is an industrial compound and it's used in . . . I remember [. . .] we were told
some statistics later: Thirty to forty, maybe, but at least twenty to thirty
spray cans on the average in each American household. At that time, everything
was spray, so everybody had some contact with it. Of course, refrigerators, so
we thought, yes, well, this must make some noise. And in some sense, we were
sort of disappointed. Nothing happened at the beginning because it was just too
strange. And then just little by little, it became better known. And also, as we
02:58:00anticipated, there were objections, but not in general. Not insulting in any
way, but the industry people were saying, "Well, this is . . . "--not
necessarily putting it down as something ridiculous--but saying, "This is not
proven at all, so there's no need to stop this because this is just a
hypothesis. It would not be correct right now to do something about it."
But I do remember a few strange instances. There is a magazine which is
called--I don't know if it's the same--Aerosol Age, or something, but it was
devoted to spray cans, and of course, now many years afterwards, we get along
extremely well with them, they replaced things, so I even recently I just point
02:59:00it out because they invite me to some of their functions, so that's fine.
But early on, there was somebody's [George Diamond, president of Diamond
Aerosol] article claiming that this was . . . what was it? This was some sort of
conspiracy that had connections with . . . what was it? With the Soviet Union,
something very strange. Yes, as you know, this is clearly something that we
wanted to attack American culture.
And it made some
news, so it was sort of funny because it didn't have any more consequences. But
as always, there are people that really get annoyed at these things and they
think it's--all this environmental issues--it's just people that want to . . .
they're probably communist and there's a political agenda and so on.
03:00:00ROBERTS: Was there ever any concern about that because you were not an American?
MOLINA: No, not that I . . . I never became aware of anything like that, no. We
were scientists, and I imagine in the scientific community it's common enough to
have all sorts of strange names. At least, it never came up to my attention.
Well, talking about names, because something funny that happened a little later,
we began to talk to people in Congress first in California, but then we traveled
a little bit and so on. But the reason, when you were saying about names, there
03:01:00was a bill introduced . . . I believe it was in Congress, Tom [Thomas D.] DeLay,
who is still around, so he was . . . but the two Congressmen that introduced it
were Delay and [John T.] Doolittle. So, that's why it stuck in my mind that they
introduced a bill that nothing had to be done for all these years.
CARUSO: It's interesting, I was about to ask you how it came about that you
started to testify in these national and state legislatures. Was that something
that you were asked to do? Is that something that you took up on your own?
MOLINA: It's something, I believe, resulted from the news media. I mean, we had
to respond in other words, but I don't remember either Sherry or Paul taking the
03:02:00initiative to call. We were not connected at all with politicians on either a
state level . . . so it's something that just happened and a few politicians
were sort of sympathetic to the environmental movement or had some reasons to
worry about spray cans. And, again, we realized we had to put things in context.
We didn't do that very explicitly, but it was clear that we could have easily
exaggerated or made ourselves part of just the environment, in general.
So we really wanted to stick to the science, of course, realizing that certain
03:03:00policy has to be made, but we only wanted to state what the risks were or what
happened, and not be perceived as advocates for a particular environmental
cause. But nevertheless, it's something that Sherry and I did, but Sherry did
very explicitly that became quoted quite often, but much later that, "If not us,
who? And if not now, when?" Because that's the other thing that happened at the
beginning, I remember. There was . . . in the context of this environmental
movement, there were already a number of environmental organizations, not as
many as there are now, but they were all so far removed from these issues that
03:04:00we did not have support or communicate with any of these existing organizations
at the beginning.
Then later on, after probably some of the National Academy reports and so on,
then yes, then several organizations approached us and then we sort of worked
together more closely, but it was something that was not there at the beginning.
So we did not have . . . I mean, that would have been another option to just let
somebody else do the politics, if you want, or advertising in some sense, so it
ROBERTS: Did you have any support from the department or the university or just
other colleagues in learning how to navigate the Congressional or public face of
MOLINA: No. That was interesting. That's what I remember. That's why we had this
03:05:00experience I told you about in the American Chemical Society. So what we
learned, we learned soon. But no, we had no . . . I mean, maybe in some
conversations somewhere, but what I do remember is that in our community, which
was not the environmental community, this was academia, so this was quite
unusual. There were no similar issues. Perhaps the closest thing was the . . .
but we did not immediately learn enough from that, but the closest thing was the
supersonic transport issue and the way that worked, Hal Johnston and so on, they
were also well-respected scientists who were not going up and advocating things.
03:06:00But there were mostly scientific meetings, which were some of them a little bit
more open, like, to people in the medical community, but I don't remember
learning anything other than the science itself from colleagues.
CARUSO: How was it . . . I know in 1975, you became a professor at Irvine.
Right, so you're transitioning from this postdoc. How was it balancing these
outside activities with establishing yourself as a professor in the US?
MOLINA: It was, I remember, a little bit of a risk because Sherry was already
established. He, of course, complained later--I didn't see that personally--he
03:07:00complained later that for I don't know how many years, he did not get any more
applications from postdocs, for example. So he was clearly noticing that in his
position because he was the chairman of the . . . he sort of established the
chemistry department there, he did notice this contrast that I was telling you
about, that our close colleagues very much in agreement with us, but the
community in general looking at this with a lot of reservations.
I had no problems. I got graduate students, which I wasn't expecting postdocs
anyhow, and fortunately, although it's a time where you have to work very hard
to get your tenure and so on, but in general, did not have much of a conflict in
03:08:00terms of time because what took most time, some of the interviews for the
several books that were written, but we thought that was very worthwhile so that
And so there were three or more books that appeared on the overall issue,
interviewing Sherry and myself and sometimes other scientists, as well. But
yeah, no there was no . . . I had no problem myself that I perceived in terms of
the rest of the community, perhaps because I was mostly interacting, again, with
colleagues I already knew or the colleagues that were involved in the field. We
certainly had the support, but just informally, there was no formal support for
it. At Irvine, of course, the chemistry department, they knew Sherry and knew
03:09:00myself, so we had no problems with our close colleagues, okay; this was more
perhaps the community at large.
CARUSO: Thinking about the tenure process, I think you might have mentioned
something yesterday about the concerns with staying at the same university where
you were doing your postdoc, making sure that your science is distinct from the
person that you were previously working with. How did you and Dr. Rowland
separate that out or was it not really an issue?
MOLINA: It was not an issue because we did not have to separate anything in
connection with the communication aspects to the public or to the media or to
other colleagues. What we really had to separate was just purely the scientific
work. I had to write papers where I was the main author with my students and
03:10:00Sherry continued his research writing his own papers. We had a few joint papers
and so on, but I knew they were not going to count for the tenure process
because of the question of . . . these things were a little exaggerated, okay,
because afterwards, me myself, a professor in analyzing tenure cases, you can
sometimes tell, even though there are close collaborations, you can still make a
judgment of whether somebody was just following somebody else or his
contribution. But anyhow, we took it very seriously and there was no problem
because I was using different experimental techniques.
So even if we at some point were looking at similar systems, it was with a very
different laboratory approach, so that turned out not to be a problem. In fact,
03:11:00at some stage, I remember one important issue that came later is the realization
that reactions on particles were going to be very important in the . . . that
was some years later in the polar stratosphere and we both came up with a . . .
we knew that was the case, but we had very different experimental approaches to
the same question. So in summary, it was really no conflict in terms of
separating what was scientific research from our joint role there as spokesmen
for this issue.
And I do remember things, but sort of in some sense simplified, when the
community took it seriously enough, as I mentioned to you yesterday, that the
03:12:00National Academy started to do reports and, of course, that was then a clear
signal that this was an issue recognized by the community as something
worthwhile to further analyze. And we thought that's terribly important because
this is one way to communicate this issue to the public in which it will be
clear that it is not advocacy, that it's not because we came up with this idea
and hence, we're blindly just pushing it. This happened all . . . I don't
remember. I should . . . I probably should have looked at the dates and so on,
but in any event, early on, if not the first maybe the second report; rather
early, along these lines that I was telling you about earlier, was doing my own
03:13:00research, I pursued the chemistry further and finding out what are the likely
chemical reactions that would take place.
So essentially this is something I did independently of Sherry; of course, we
were working closely anyhow, but that was more part of my line of research, to
identify some chemical species that were new, and so in terms of one very
important one came later, that's chlorine peroxide but that was to explain the
stratospheric ozone hole. That came much later, but very early on, I realized
that there was one species which is called chlorine nitrate. I thought, "This
might be quite important because it's relatively unusual in that it doesn't
absorb light very strongly, hence it might build up somewhat in the
03:14:00stratosphere." But it was a very weird species. I realized that at least the
chemical compound existed in contrast to the other one.
The chlorine peroxide, that had not been characterized because it's not stable
at room temperature, so it was a new technique, and I was able to show, yeah,
this molecule not only exists, but will be there in significant amounts. But
this other one, yeah, it had already been characterized, but in a very obscure
paper in the German literature by some German professor and nobody had paid any
But I found it and then began to do
experiments, and then, of course, the National Academy report was along and
first I talked to Sherry, I said, "We have to let them know because this is
something that we need to find out more about this species to be able to better
03:15:00quantify how much ozone would be depleted," because it has a complex role, it
might slow it down.
And it was interesting because it caused a big uproar because some of the models
at that time were still relatively simple and the simple models were just
putting this species in say, "Wow, there's no more ozone depletion or very
little," so this sort of stopped that second National Academy report of the . .
. I don't remember which one was it.
things and then later it became clear that it was just . . . yes, it had to be
considered. It might delay things a little bit, but the ozone depletion was
So it's just one example, but ironically, years later--this was much later when
the Antarctic ozone appears--that turned out to be a crucial species to explain
polar ozone depletion. So you see historically how that came about. But this is
03:16:00an illustration of this; the different lines of research, and I was able
to--with my students, of course--to make the species, to synthesize this in the
laboratory, take spectra and so on and so forth. It's a very unstable species
which surfaces, decomposes. But anyhow, those are the techniques I was
specializing on to work with rather unstable species that you can't handle, just
a conventional, just [inaudible] vessels to look at them.
ROBERTS: So is this one of the reason that the National Academy decided to
actually do two reports? So I was going back and checking some of our notes last
night, they decide to do a report earlier that basically confirms that, you
know, what you and Sherry observed is observable and sound, but they postponed
03:17:00doing a report that really started to talk about the larger chemistry and the
implications of that chemistry.
MOLINA: I think that was it, yes, yes. But eventually, eventually they did a
report and so it just . . . essentially, if I remember correctly, the bottom
line was maybe ozone will not be depleted as fast as the simpler models would
tell us, but it's still a big issue and still we need to do experiments in the
atmosphere and so on. So that was the consequence of this making the chemistry
ROBERTS: You mentioned that Rowland had some difficulty attracting some postdocs
for a short time. Did you have any difficulty attracting students to your new lab?
MOLINA: No, because I was . . . in fact, I did work with . . . I had a few
postdocs and maybe I was lucky also, but with graduate students, that was less
03:18:00of a problem because the graduate students are admitted and then they choose to
work with somebody that is there. So I did not have much of a problem. And then
at some point--that was later--I decided to concentrate more on research, less
on teaching and that's when I moved to the [California Institute of Technology]
Jet Propulsion Labs.
It was something sort of temporary, but there, of course, you have lab work and
the other thing that was . . . again, I have to look at the timing, but part of
the reason is that as a professor in a university, you hardly have time to do
research in the laboratory yourself, whereas at the Jet Propulsion Labs, many of
the groups, it's just two or three people, and the main researcher is the one
03:19:00that is doing the experiments. But it's mixed. I had several people working with
me, but I was doing experiments myself, as well, which was unusual. And then, of
course, eventually said, no, I do have a larger group and I like teaching, so I
went to MIT, but that was later, but still long before the Nobel Prize.
ROBERTS: Sure. Well, before we get to the JPL, I'm struck by the emphasis you've
been putting on trying to dissociate the focus you wanted to maintain on the
technical work. There was still a lot of work to be done and you've been talking
about some of the work that you continued to do to clarify those original
experiments and the original observations and trying to separate that from you
said being a more public persona.
But I'm thinking back to the . . . again, going back and looking at some of the
03:20:00materials last night, the letter in Science in the year after your publication
in Nature where you and Sherry are responding to an advertisement that [E.I.]
DuPont [de Nemours and Company] has put into Science and a number of other
magazines, and I'm wondering about the experience of trying to respond in a
technical manner to an advertisement inside the pages of Science and the
response by DuPont on a technical way to your letter in response to an
advertisement in response to . . . because their response seems to be jumbling
the world in a way that you're trying to keep more neatly cut.
MOLINA: Yes. Okay. Let me explain part of that. I had forgotten about that
letter, but I need to go back and repeat because it was fun. Here is what was
peculiar. And contrasting this, this is yet another issue because, as you know,
03:21:00more recently I've done a lot more with climate change, so I can see the
differences. But one thing that was different then, that's why it brought the
climate change issue, is that DuPont--that was the largest chemical
company--they had a tradition of doing scientific research. They were funding
scientific research, much of it with polymers, of course, that was applied, but
they were very proud of expanding that to the point that they have people
publishing in the scientific literature. So it was not all applied, just for the
company. So we were dealing with a company that was proud of their acceptance of
science as an important issue, and so on. So in some sense, that's why this sort
of initial friction was unique because if it was just like this other magazine
03:22:00just attacking us, we didn't pay that much attention, but with DuPont, we felt
that we had to be more responsive along the science itself. We were not
necessarily pushing, that's clearly, right, I think Sherry also . . . we were
not pushing for political responses.
We were, at that stage, just trying to make the science clear, recognizing that,
of course, experiments still had to be done, but our statements were that, look,
it's sound, certain things need to be sorted out by experiments, but it's
certainly a serious issue. We think this is potentially very serious, so we feel
a responsibility to communicate this to society and so on. So I don't remember
the details but it was . . . we were not really, how shall I put it, at least
03:23:00personally on any bad terms with DuPont, we were just fighting on the scientific
level. But it was then much clearer afterwards . . . I don't remember the dates
very well, the way industry responded through the CMA, the Chemical
Manufacturer's Association, DuPont playing a very important . . . they decided
to fund scientific research. So they put money into funding research on the
chemistry of the stratosphere because inside DuPont, they did not have experts
in this field.
They eventually hired, much later, I don't remember when, Mack McFarland, which
was a very well-respected researcher in our community, one whose expertise was
03:24:00measuring nitrogen oxides with balloons, and so on. So, with other words, DuPont
did have, not too long after our initial announcement, their own experts,
scientists in this field that were working for DuPont, but not doing
experiments. They were, however, funding our colleagues. They could write
proposals, and so on. And so they had meetings, at least one annual meeting or
sometimes several. And that's one thing that Sherry and I were . . . was a
difference. Sherry never went to those meetings. He was sort of on a personal
level more in trouble, if you want, with this community, whereas I was sort of
accepted. I went to all these meetings. We did not have any problems. I just
remember over the years that, gee whiz, they really have bad luck because all
the research that they were funding was supporting our ideas.
03:25:00But here is why I recognized DuPont. Of course, afterwards, we became very good
friends. DuPont in those years made a statement: "Should the science really
prove to be correct, we will stop making these compounds." Okay. So what it took
for them to recognize the science was really much later, was the Antarctic ozone
hole where the sign was strikingly clear, and they did stop. Okay. And Mack
McFarland was very instrumental in that. So with other words, I never had any
personal conflict with them and it was clear that they needed something. They
were not about to stop producing chemicals just in case. They really wanted to
By the way, there was a misunderstanding in general in the community that DuPont
03:26:00stopped because they had developed replacements that would be very profitable.
It turns out that that was not the case, not literally at least. There were only
five large industries, four or five or six, you know, Monsanto, some of the
large chemical industries, and they did early on in their labs, the research
they did was not the stratospheric chemistry, but are there other compounds that
they could use.
So they did start to do some research on replacements. And then when things
slowed down, chlorine nitrate and this sort of thing, they stopped that and they
very much regretted that afterwards. They started that again, but no, they were
earning money with the CFCs and so they had to make a judgment . I knew this
more or less and because I trust Mack McFarland and I don't remember the name of
DuPont's chairman at that time. Eventually we became good friends. I've
03:27:00forgotten . . . I'm bad for names . . . because later I became friends of the
more recent chairmen of DuPont, but I forget there was a key person at that
time. Anyhow, I remember getting the inside stories: "Look, we at DuPont have to
make a decision, eventually. First, we have made this commitment. Second, public
relations is important for a company of our size, so even if we were going to
lose money because we had to stop this production, we thought that was still the
right thing to do from a purely economics perspective because they would lose
trust in the community."
But then they did eventually develop replacements, and all of them did. So it
03:28:00turns out that it was not a big issue in terms of a big economic loss, but--I'm
making some remarks that happened much later--but I remember then DuPont became
very proud and we were, of course, proud as well, that it became an
environmental company, not just because they stopped making CFCs, but because
they had a campaign with the staff and with their workers and they are all very
proud of being an environmental company.
So we sort of turned that around because initially they had no . . . they were
making Teflon and so on, but most of the relations between a large chemical
company and society were a bit more friction in terms of what was the perception
of chemistry is bad for the environment in general. So that was one company that
03:29:00early on wanted to turn that, sort of--how do you call it--it's a misconception
that all chemistry is bad for you and so we have to stop chemicals in general.
But anyhow, this is a description of the relation with industry and with the
news media; eventually, I guess, what happened is that people that kept
approaching us probably were self-selecting; the ones that believed that this
was something to worry about. Whereas critics, in general--well, there were a
number of exceptions, of course--but in general, did not approach us. They
simply brought their opinions and so on. But occasionally I remember having a
few interviews which appeared friendly, and just answered in what appeared to be
03:30:00the science and then the article was completely negative or was not based on the
science itself. It's just, that's the sort of thing one expects from all
different opinions in the media, and that happens.
ROBERTS: What was driving the search for alternatives at DuPont at that point?
MOLINA: [. . .] That's why it started early on. It was already the realization
that, "Hey, we might have to stop." And not necessarily accepting the science
where it was at, but just looking at what society might do. Okay, this is a risk
and it's associated with public health, so we'd better put some money in finding
something else, just in case. And, of course, as the science became stronger,
and obviously after . . . when they decided to support the science, it became
03:31:00very obvious. Then it was really just to maintain. I mean, they had big business
and all the connections with industry and they knew a lot about it, and so they
realized what would it take to make replacements. So, I presume that those were
the reasons. But initially, I would imagine, it's just that they realized that
this was something serious enough so that they better do something, just in case.
ROBERTS: So one other question about the 1970s, that larger context. So you are
going to Congressional hearings. You and Sherry are both testifying both at
state level and at national level, the 1970s are the big . . . at least taken to
be the cauldron of the creation of environmental regulations, the environmental
03:32:00state inside of the United States, but you also mentioned that the environmental
movement really didn't know what to do with this. It was new but it was already
pretty solidified by the time you're coming out with some of this research. And
this isn't a locally produced phenomenon. This is a dispersed phenomenon. This
is a global phenomenon.
So I'm curious where you fit or how you were received, in a little bit more
detail, both by the regulatory community and government. So you're having these
Congressional hearings, but I'm not sure if the people you're testifying before
have an idea of where they're going to wedge this into the new matrix of
environmental regulations that are out there, and how the environmental
community is or is not responding. You've addressed the latter a little bit.
MOLINA: Yes. I remember more or less what people in government . . . this
03:33:00Congressman or so, think about regulations. They thought probably the spray cans
was the weak point. Spray cans had also a bit of a bad name, but not for clear
reasons. It was just because it was maybe considered to be a waste or because we
were using chemicals. Of course, we were in no way connected with that approach,
but it was clear that that was perhaps the easier target at the beginning. And
in fact, that's what happened. In the environmental movement, spray cans got a
bad name at that time.
I remember one symptom of this is in TV, there are these . . . All in the Family
03:34:00was very famous, and the young guy that appears there made some statement on it
about not using spray cans, so that was a big thing because that's . . . because
that's, of course, millions of people were looking at that, so that was sort of
publicity. But see, it was just spray cans in general are bad for you
Ironically, there are still some people who still think that spray cans are bad
for the environment even though, of course, they don't use CFCs anymore, but
it's a little bit that misconception. Okay, so that was the target and, in fact,
the use of CFCs in spray cans was forbidden in the US and in Canada. It was the
first thing that happened, widely separated from the later Montreal Protocol and
the environmental agreements. Okay, so yeah, so that's perhaps some of the
03:35:00environmental organizations then took that line as well. I remember I was a
little uncomfortable, saying, sure, it's important for spray cans to switch
propellants, but we have nothing against the use of spray cans in general. And
in fact, I remember even talking to somebody, for example, shaving cream does
not use CFCs, they use nitrous oxide, so we were . . . at times, like, "No, no,
this spray can is no problem," and so on. But that was a dilemma, sort of.
ROBERTS: That . . . Dave and I were talking about that on the drive over here
this morning, the difficulty of conflating the specific for the general, and so
people's focus on the word 'aerosol' when aerosol is a large category and very
specific aerosols might be problematic, but, you know, growing up and thinking
03:36:00about aerosol cans and they're explosive and they cause damage to the
environment, and not an understanding of the differences of where . . . you
know, again, the conflating of specifics and generals.
MOLINA: That's right. Sure. And that typically is one of the disadvantages of
some environmental organizations, that they a little bit blindly push some
issues which are not very well supported by science. And that still happens.
And, of course, we know in recent times, sometimes that actually backfires, when
people become more and more informed, these sort of things don't help.
ROBERTS: Can you give an example of something like that?
MOLINA: Well, this is more with . . . much more recently with climate change,
03:37:00just not using anything but biofuels, but they could be economically just not
practical yet at all, but I mean, they advocate a certain set of actions that
they are just not realistic. There's no hope that society will do that and there
are more realistic, much better ways. There are reasonable ways to consider
economic aspects and everything else, okay, but the one organization that is
sort of a stereotype of this is Greenpeace now because they often exaggerate.
But there are others. But it's a little bit along those lines.
And the position we had at that time was--still with climate change and so
on--is that there are very rational ways in which society can respond to these
03:38:00things that are well justified, but not everything is well justified. And I was
talking about biofuels. Biofuels can be very badly misused, as well, if you do
away with tropical forests just to make biofuels, that's a disaster. That's just
one example, but at that time, the spray can issue was the clear one. Look,
there are spray cans that are all right or if you replace, if you use
hydrocarbons or whatever, then it's all right. Then there might be other issues,
but they are not . . . it has nothing to do with the global issue.
ROBERTS: So there was a lot of momentum building up here at the end of the
1970s. You've got two National Academy reports. You're revising a lot of your
own research. You've been going off on your own trend. And there seems to be
some recognition, at least in some of the reflective pieces that you wrote in
the 1990s, about the great halt that happens because of the change in political
03:39:00climate. And I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about the change from
the 1970s to the 1980s.
MOLINA: Here is what I remember. Those were a little bit frustrating times
because we had, initially--as we were talking about--at the very beginning, the
issue was not recognized, so strange, but then it was essentially accepted by
society. With industry we had these relations that I wouldn't even call them
fights, but the science was still moving along, and it was a little bit more
complicated than we anticipated, I think, at the beginning. So we realized,
well, it's not likely that you will notice a very striking effect in the next
few years because that's what the model tells us and there are these
03:40:00complications, so this might take a decade or two. So things slow down and so
we're a little bit frustrated, but decided, well, we just have to keep doing
research. It began to . . . well, not began, it did not receive as much public
attention as it did at the beginning. And so that's the way things were moving,
until the Antarctic ozone hole.
Just about the same time also there were indications that ozone depletion at mid
latitudes and so was also measurable. But at the very beginning, it was clear
that, yeah, we were not expecting ozone depletion to be measurable because of
the large fluctuation. So that was, if you want, uncomfortable times in terms of
knowing that not much was going to happen until we could prove to society that
03:41:00something really worrisome was actually happening. The threat of something
worrisome happening in the future was not enough to move the international
community, beyond the U.S. and Canada having banned the CFCs in spray cans and
so on. And so that's why things changed quite dramatically with the Antarctic
So I can tell you about that if you want.
ROBERTS: Sure. Sure.
MOLINA: That happened already . . . so that was in the early 1980s and it was
quite interesting because we learned from Joe [Joseph C.] Farman who was the
head of the British Antarctic survey , because he approached us. He was one of
03:42:00those . . . you know, there are all sorts of types of scientist who like to do
all sorts of strange measurements, and you need a very dedicated scientist to
spend the night in Antarctica, because it's many months, many months.
But they were measuring stratospheric ozone levels, still with the
motivation--like in Switzerland, of course, I remember also they had some long
chain of measurements from the Alps in Switzerland--all trying to learn how
ozone moves in the stratosphere as we talked about yesterday briefly, just to
learn about how the atmosphere of our planet functions, the chemistry not being
terribly important. Anyhow, so that was essentially the motivation of these
ground measurements where you can measure ozone from the ground because it's the
03:43:00only species absorbing ultraviolet light. So you just measure how much
ultraviolet light gets to the ground and you get a measurement how much ozone
there is. So, it was interesting to see . . . it was interesting to measure over
the poles because enough was understood that ozone is made in the tropics, but
then it's at higher altitudes and it [moves to] lower altitudes and so [it ends
up] piling up over the poles. Okay, so it gives you a lot of information of the
movements which are different in the stratosphere. And so Joe Farman [and his
team] of other colleagues and so on, eventually they found--they didn't believe
it--that there was practically . . . very little or practically no ozone, but
they were able to . . . they didn't approach us immediately. Took them several
03:44:00years because at the beginning, nothing was normal and then it began to
disappear. And so they approached, "Hey, could this be connected to the CFCs?"
And, in fact, they wrote a paper announcing their findings, suggesting--to their
credit, because it was not suggesting--that it could be the CFCs, when in fact,
the rest of the community of the . . . - those were not atmospheric chemists,
but were mostly the people studying the atmosphere or the stratosphere and so
They all thought, "This must be natural
phenomena. How can this possibly have something to do with CFCs? Because it is
spectacular. Something very big is happening."
And then one question was, "Well, we have been measuring ozone for years with
satellites. So are these guys wrong?" So they went back. The results were there,
03:45:00but the satellites had been programmed to ignore the data. So it was very
striking, but immediately became a big issue. Of course, that satellite also
corroborates what the hell is going on. So, then it really took just a few years
then. But the beginning, a very skeptical community and they say, "Well, if it's
chlorine, we should be able to measure it." So that's when the ground expedition
went with Susan Solomon measuring things from the ground and all they say, "Wow,
it appears that it's quite possible and even likely that it is, in fact,
chlorine from the CFCs."
And then a few years later, with Jim [James G.] Anderson and the ER-2, which is
the cousin of the U2, the plane that had been developed to spy over Russia, and
you remember Gary [Powers] was shot down and it was a big scandal, of course. So
fortunately those planes with little modifications could be used to--it was a
03:46:00very daring thing--but could be used to fly over Antarctica and at high
altitudes. But it was very daring because there was no place to . . . any
emergency and the pilot was gone. And at low temperatures the fuel begins to get
more and more viscous. But fortunately, they said, 'Well, let's plan. Let's do
it." And these crucial experiments were done. And the first . . .
ROBERTS: [. . .] I just love those things.
MOLINA: Yeah, because we were, of course, fascinated at expecting this . . .
they were flying from southern Chile, from Punta Arenas, taking off all the way
to Antarctica, thinking, "Will we hear anything else from the pilots?" But they
were able to return. The first two flights, the instruments didn't work , but
then the results came in. The smoking gun. So those were very clear, very, very
03:47:00clear results measuring chlorine and chlorine oxide with instruments that were
similar to ones we had used in the laboratory, but that was Jim Anderson's
specialty, and measuring ozone.
And so what was very revealing is, once you reach the ozone hole, practically no
ozone and a lot of chlorine. But ozone was sort of going up and down and
chlorine up and down just like a mirror image. The perfect anti-correlation. So
how can this possibly be by chance? So I remember Jim Anderson sending those
probably to Sherry and to me and a very nicely framed picture with these curves,
okay, before and after, so that's the smoking gun. And so that's the sort of
03:48:00thing . . . I mean, of course, many more experiments were done and other species
were measured as well and we have more to learn about really how the chemistry
worked, but that's the sort of thing that then changed industry's perspective.
But we still had to do some work. The chemistry was not clear, so that's when we
did some additional laboratory work with this other species to explain, no, this
is very unique chemistry that speeds up at very low temperatures. Other species
are involved, like this chlorine peroxide and so on. So that was complemented by
this laboratory work.
ROBERTS: So how difficult was it to maintain support and funding for this work
during that first half of the 1980s?
MOLINA: Fortunately, once the Antarctic hole [was found and revealed there was
03:49:00continuous] funding for the balloons by NASA. [. . .] It was initially like any
fundamental research activity, just let's learn more about the atmosphere, and
with no practical connection. Fortunately, that's basic science and so it . . .
and it was not terribly expensive.
But people had to send these helium balloons and there was a specialty and
eventually they were sending some from Antarctica as well, but that was not the
main part. It was realizing, there we really had to send airplanes. But when the
Antarctic ozone hole appeared, and because we already had a whole decade, if not
more, of knowing that the CFCs were, in fact, there, they were decomposing, so
there was . . . it was not very expensive research. There was no . . . I think,
no issue. NASA essentially had the funding to do this.
03:50:00ROBERTS: I was going to say it sounds like very expensive research to me. If
you're flying a U2 over Antarctica, I bet that's not cheap.
MOLINA: Yeah, that's right.
ROBERTS: But you were taking advantage of resources and monitoring or
observatory work that was already taking place.
MOLINA: That's right. That's right. If you consider other NASA projects, going
to the moon or sending telescopes, this was not expensive, okay, in that
context. And they had the excuse, hey, this is something that we need to find
out because it could be very worrisome for society. So at that time, I remember
NASA had no particular funding problems, so that was not an issue. And the
planes were there. It's not that they had to construct them, but it was obvious
03:51:00they still had to spend a fair amount of money compared to just doing laboratory research.
ROBERTS: And just again, I'm thinking of the [Ronald W.] Reagan context and
thinking about the scrutiny that that executive administration is bringing to
federal funding more generally, and trying to figure out if it was accidental or
strategic on your part that you were doing a lot of this work inside of one of
the few agencies that was not under quite the same amount of scrutiny that
others . . . I mean, if this were work being done by . . .
CARUSO: Until 1986 with [Space Shuttle] Challenger.
CARUSO: I assume things changed.
ROBERTS: Things changed right after the tragedy with the Challenger.
MOLINA: Right. It's probably not something we did very consciously, but the
community, the community was very much aware of that. It was reasonable for NASA
to fund it, but with Reagan, I remember one of his close friends was [Robert H.]
03:52:00Abplanalp. I mean, very wealthy guy, made a lot of money because he invented the
spray can valve. So, he was in a bind. Eventually, Reagan came around and signed
the Montreal Protocol on that with Margaret Thatcher and so on, but that all
happened afterwards, okay, but it was a fight initially. You are right.
So that was quite interesting how things changed and, in fact, at that time,
there were Republicans--I mean, Reagan, and [others]--in power, in the
presidency, and they were the environmentalists at the time, okay. So things did
change quite a bit. The Clean Air Act was also showing up at that
But yes, there were these general problems that
you mentioned, but no, NASA, fortunately, NASA continued with funding laboratory
03:53:00work. That was not a major part of the research for a while.
CARUSO: So a lot of this work is going on also while you're at Caltech
[California Institute of Technology] and you'd mentioned, I think, that part of
your reason for that move was you wanted to do a bit more research than you were
able to do at Irvine. I'm also curious . . . I mean, you were in the Jet
Propulsion Laboratory, so I'm guessing things are a little different from where
you were at Irvine in terms of the colleagues that you have around you. You had
a supportive community at Irvine. Did you have the same sort of support from
your colleagues while you were at JPL?
MOLINA: Yes, because in fact, JPL--just, again, being NASA-funded and so on--was
doing a whole variety of things. Of course, the main activity--that's what JPL
does, is known for--is the unmanned vehicles that they send to explore the solar
system. So that . . . when something happened that was very, very big, but they
03:54:00funded a number of other research activities. One was connected with the earth's
atmosphere, so we were a group of maybe five or six atmospheric chemists doing
laboratory research and trying to better understand the atmosphere. And at that
time, yeah, they said, okay, it's reasonable to fund and to do stratospheric research.
So that was the main focus of this group, in contrast to what was going on at
several other universities, which was more air pollution research. That's
another branch of atmospheric sciences. But yes, this group of . . . I remember,
03:55:00well, all friends of mine and very well known, we were all doing work in the
laboratory to understand chlorine chemistry, perhaps nitrogen oxide chemistry as well.
ROBERTS: So was this something you sought out or were you recruited to come up
to the JPL?
MOLINA: No, well, since the community is small, when I expressed my willingness
to move away from Irvine University, then this came about. I don't remember the
details, but since I knew the people, it was relatively easy to do.
ROBERTS: Were there any of your colleagues or any former students or anybody
like that that you took with you or was this sort of a solo transition?
MOLINA: No, well, my ex-wife was working with me, [. . .] but no, when she went
03:56:00there, she actually worked with somebody else at JPL, so she did not join my
group, although later on at MIT, we still did some work. At MIT, she was, in
fact, part of my group, but eventually essentially just managing things, but she
still did experimental work in the early years. But aside . . . I was mixed up
now because at JPL, I was working with a couple of postdocs. There, you don't
have graduate students, obviously, but these, essentially people or students
that function like postdocs. So they already have a PhD, and they just spend
what is understood to be a temporary position.
ROBERTS: I was curious just a little bit since you brought it up about the
overlap with your first wife, because she seems to be a coauthor on a lot of
your work. Is that an area that she was working in when you guys were both at
03:57:00Berkeley or did her career research tack towards yours and . . .
MOLINA: No, she tacked towards mine afterwards because, if you remember, I
mentioned yesterday that our mentor, George Pimentel, was very well known, but
he had two big research areas where he was. One was a chemical laser one and the
other one was the low-temperature spectroscopy. And so Luisa, my ex-wife, was
actually in the other field. But then when she . . . essentially perhaps
starting at JPL, but then at MIT, she just . . . it was all still very much
laboratory type work with vacuum lines and well, so it was not a big jump in any
way to . . .
ROBERTS: It would actually seem like her skill set in low-temperature
spectroscopy perhaps even came in handy as you were transitioning towards
different modes of monitoring some of the chemical species.
03:58:00MOLINA: That's right, yeah. That's right and we were . . . that's one thing that
was also . . . functioned well at JPL; since we were few and working together,
we could learn from each other and borrow equipment and so on and so forth. So
that worked reasonably well there.
There was also--it's just a side issue--but what was centered at JPL starting at
that time was a major effort for the group of experts in this case--not experts
in general on the stratosphere, but on stratospheric chemistry--to evaluate the
results of the community. In this case, just to very pure chemistry, what does
03:59:00this group recommend should be the rate constant and what should be the
reactions that matter. So we spent quite a bit of time. We got to study and look
at the publications and look at all the graphs and eventually we had to
recommend, okay, if you're . . . or the models, because the models were not
laboratory chemists. Okay, so they used our outputs to feed the models.
ROBERTS: So how sensitive were you about that issue around the models because
that seemed to be at the heart of some of the disagreement and controversy after
the initial publications in the 1970s. So the difference between presenting
results based on mathematical models and the presenting results based on
experimentally verified laboratory results.
MOLINA: Right. There was really never a real conflict because we worked closely
04:00:00with the modelers. [. . .] Even at JPL, there was a group of maybe two modelers
or so. The good ones were also chemists and they understood very well our
recommendations. And in parallel, we understood the nature of the models. Okay,
so it's just that we were familiar with the limitations of the models, as well.
But there was no real how should I say, discrepancy, or like two groups that
were . . . we were working together. It's just that we could only do relatively
simple models ourselves. I did some modeling early on when I was at Irvine, just
to show that this thing would make sense, but then the models, the complicated
models were . . . of course, took a lot of computer time and they were initially
relatively simple, one-dimensional. They got much more complicated and
04:01:00two-dimensional and then eventually the three-dimension. They just required a
lot of computer time and space and so on. And so that . . . at that time, it was
really a specialty. You couldn't do that sort of on the side. And so we were
able to work with the modelers and find out what . . . the discrepancy . . .
Okay, I remember now, just to make this more clear. I think this . . . I was
forgetting there were three groups. The modelers, we, the laboratory scientists,
but then the measurement people. Okay, so essentially three different
specialties, but with very close interactions and the . . . while recognizing
ones in each of the three specialties were sufficiently familiar with the other
two so that we really had no conflict of sorts. In some sense, the models were
04:02:00also one way to raise questions. Of course, in the lab, if we came up with a new
species, then, obviously, that had to be incorporated into the models and
measured also. Then the measurement people had to try to do that, but
measurements and laboratory work was reasonably closely related. We were using
very similar chemical technologies, one except in a balloon, they have to work
without anybody touching anything. But so that's why there was really a
specialty. But resonance fluorescence or spectroscopy or whatever, so those were
issues that we were all familiar with.
Yeah, so that's the way I would describe it. [. . .] The time I described
04:03:00earlier when the models came up with the second National Academy report, it . .
. we had realized, of course--that was when I came over and put in the numbers,
that this could slow down the chemistry, because here we have what we call a
reservoir species. It's a species that is holding some of the chlorine atoms in
a form that is not destroying ozone. And so if that species were to be extremely
stable, then very little would happen to ozone because the chlorine will always
be tied up, but, of course, it was not perfectly stable and later they decompose
very fast on particles, so that's why an Antarctic ozone hole . . . this species
was so important. But in the normal atmosphere, it does decompose by photolysis,
only relatively slowly.
04:04:00[. . .] I was able to do relatively simple chemical modeling. What was more
complicated is when you put it in the models, in particular one-dimensional, I
was still able to do that, but then to see how far these things move and so on,
but the fast chemistry you could do just simple chemical modeling and get an
idea of what was happening. So we realized very early that yeah, this could slow
down the chemistry but the models actually . . . we were surprised that when you
put it in the models, where they were done because they had limitations. I think
they were still one-dimensional, the result was exaggerated. And that's
something we didn't anticipate. And then later it was corrected.
ROBERTS: So I'd like to talk a little bit more, if it's okay, about the
measurement group or at least the change in instrumentation, your experience of
04:05:00it or your familiarity with it, because this is just barely more than a decade
after Lovelock has made these initial measurements over the Atlantic which is
just a little more than a decade after he develops his electron capture
detector. So the way in which you're doing your work is being modified pretty
rapidly by the changing instrumental community for this, or is it? Are you
changing how you're doing your measurements and what you're able to measure and
concentrations you're able to measure?
MOLINA: Yes, that was part of the creativity of the community there, and that
goes back to what I was suggesting yesterday of a very striking interaction
between fundamental basic science and in this case something applied because
this was a motivation to further develop these techniques, otherwise it was a
04:06:00laboratory activity, but not receiving much emphasis. In fact, just to stress
that what was receiving more emphasis were the molecular beam experiments
because that was more attractive or more fundamental, but not very practical for
atmospheric research because the experiments are under very high vacuum and just
with very simple species so we have to do more sophisticated stuff. But that was
very much pushed by the stratospheric things.
But just to tell you a little bit about this, what Lovelock had done is analysis
of very stable species, but in very small amounts. And so that was important,
and similar techniques could be used to just bring air samples from the
stratosphere to the lab and see how much . . . what was the concentration of
CFCs and some of the other stable species. You can measure methane, nitrous
oxide, and so on, but the bulk of the research in chemical kinetics, if you
04:07:00want, or atmospheric chemistry was for the less stable species.
So those require these different techniques, either spectroscopic techniques,
like resonance fluorescence, where you can measure very, very tiny amounts of
some very reactive species, particularly, say, chlorine atoms because they
absorb very strongly at one particular wavelength, and that's what Jim Anderson
used to measure the chlorine over Antarctica. And so, but that had been
developed as a laboratory tool. And so that was one approach with flash photolysis.
So you create these things and you follow them on a microsecond time scale; and
the other approach was with flow tubes, where instead of looking at things in a
04:08:00very fast time, you flow things and you still have a very short time of
reaction, but you didn't have to analyze at high speed because you were creating
a system where the time was just a flow time, but at any particular point in the
tube, you could spend minutes if you wanted to analyze what was happening there
and with a movable injector, you could vary the reaction time.
So I started actually with one . . . with the fields with flash photolysis. In
good measure, because my chemical laser work had been done with flash
photolysis, but then it turns out that the more powerful technique for
laboratory studies was flow tube and initially they only work at very low
pressure, so one of the things we were able to do in our lab is to expand the
04:09:00range of the operation of those to much higher pressures.
But these had relatively little if anything to do with Jim Lovelock's approach
because we were using either optical spectroscopy or mass spectroscopy to do the
analysis, [where] you still require high sensitivity, but in a laboratory setup
as opposed to analyzing a complex mixture of chemicals, which might have many
other chemicals, but you were able to selectively measure the CFCs.
So much of the laboratory work was done along these lines and these techniques
were developed essentially by the community. Some of us pushed it further or
04:10:00even came up with a brand new idea, let's do it this or that other way, and some
labs specialized in any one or other technique, but eventually we interacted
with each other, and so we were able to slowly use better and better approaches.
And then we had to be able to measure things at very low temperatures.
Then eventually what became a big challenge and we also were able to develop
instrumentation to do what we call heterogeneous reaction, reactions no longer
in the gas phase, either with small particles or we could deposit things on
walls and then measure the actual chemical rate of gas phase species, with
species that are liquid or solid. So that was the essence of the push in
04:11:00laboratory chemistry very closely coupled to field measurements because they
were very similar techniques in the balloons, airplanes or in the lab.
ROBERTS: Did you ever reach out directly to any of the instrument makers to ask
them to make adjustments that would help you with the sort of questions you were
looking to answer?
MOLINA: Not really because these were mostly homemade. Well, the sort of things
we could buy, initially oscilloscopes or photon counters, but no, but these were
all essentially all homemade. Or a mass spectrometer, okay, we could buy the end
of it, but all the front, it was adapted to a flow tube in the laboratory. So
no, we had interactions . Later, there were very good friends of Chuck Kolb
who's . . . they had companies developing field instruments to measure
04:12:00particles, but using essentially similar techniques to the ones we used.
So they were part of the community. But no, we never had to reach out other than
to the people making more the fundamental electronics or perhaps, for example,
Fourier transform spectrometers, okay, so that was one thing we could eventually
buy, of course, that we would not build that, but we had to adapt it and couple
it to our lab experiments. So yes, but it's not something we requested. Once it
became available, then we used it, just like lasers. There were a few companies
developing lasers, and so when we were able to buy a few lasers just to be able
04:13:00to analyze optically certain types of species. Just like general lab research.
CARUSO: When developing these technologies for your . . . these instruments for
your research, I mean, when I think of, you know, building something, I'm
thinking of you need certain tolerances for what you're constructing, things
have to be built to a specific size. Were you doing these builds yourself? Did
you have someone in your lab that specialized in these construction projects?
MOLINA: Okay, here is how I remember how we developed in . . . I'm just trying
to remember where . . . yeah, but it even started in Berkeley as a graduate
student. If you're an experimentalist, then you learn, for example, we have two
04:14:00separate activities. That way they were not really formally part of your
graduate studies in terms of a requirement for your degree, but they were very
much part of your research. And one was to take a machine . . . I even forget
the words now. We had to learn to build instruments. So we did machine work with
the . . . I forget all the names of these . . .
CARUSO: The lathes and . . .
MOLINA: Exactly. Exactly. And so our task was to build certain pieces of
instrumentation as part of the course. But we personally sort of built that.
That was quite important and useful because later on, of course, we wouldn't do
that personally and our students would do only a little bit, but we had
professionals, machine . . .
04:15:00MOLINA: Machiners and also you designed your instrument and you could bring it
to them and they would build whatever you designed. That's even more of a task
for field measurements because in that case, they have to be miniaturized and
the electronics has to be more sophisticated. But in the same way that we
learned to machine tools and so on, we had to learn some electronics. Early on,
we have to get into the boards and fix the boards. Later on, it was just a
matter of replacing boards, so things change a lot, but we had to learn all
sorts of things from how computers work and so on.
And then the other specialty was glassblowing also. So we had to learn to [blow
glass] because things broke in the lab. You have to do it, but in general, you
had to know enough so that you could go to the glassblower and have him build
04:16:00your special instruments. Okay, so again, that's where field measurements and
laboratory measurements had a lot in common, but it's not something you would
order from a company. You would get from a company things that would be
advertised, like, in Physics Today you see today mostly the electronics or
sometimes they have . . . or lasers or low temperature devices, coolers or
things of that sort. So you use what is available commercially.
You design your instrument and it's very useful to have worked yourself with
machining or with glassblowing because then you can better design things that
make sense. So that was very much part of the research.
CARUSO: I think part of my questioning comes from the fact that when thinking
04:17:00about technology today, there's a certain faith that technologies will work in a
certain way over time and no matter where you go, that same technology will
replicate data the same way. But when you're building your own instruments and
gathering data that way, it seems like there could be the potential for
scientists to say, "Well, I don't believe your data because I've never used your
device because you built your own device." Does that ever . . .
MOLINA: Not really . . . well, it's interesting. It's an interesting
perspective. I hadn't thought about this. Not really, because the idea-- when
your experiment is important enough--is the results can be reproduced. And so
all these measurements, when they really matter . . . okay, for example, you
come up with a rate constant and maybe it was a very difficult one to measure
and then there's just one additional measurement, particularly if it's
important, but more often than not, there are five or six measurements and
04:18:00people might be using different techniques, so you don't necessarily have to
depend on or to trust somebody's specific technique because he reports it. Okay,
he's like, "We used resonance fluorescence," and so you trust that he was able
to build his laboratory machine to work, but what gives strength to the results
is that it was reproduced with different techniques in different labs. But
again, emphasizing that in a few cases, it's difficult, so there are just a few
measurements carried out, but almost never would I remember a case where if
something really important was only done once in one lab, you wouldn't trust
that very much for those reasons. Let me give you one little story here, but
it's very much to the point.
You know, this species that I mentioned, chlorine peroxide that we sort of made
04:19:00in the lab, we realized that it was a key species to explain the Antarctic ozone
hole. So we had to measure how fast does it decompose with photolysis, at what
wavelengths and so on. We did that early on, and there were a couple of other
measurements. Fine. Which were in the right range and so these groups where we
recommend results with some uncertainty, we recommended some results, that was fine.
It turns out that years later, it was not that long ago maybe, after the
Antarctic ozone hole and everything was already very well accepted, of all
places, at the Jet Propulsion Labs, one of my colleagues redid one of those
measurements because it was important and again, tried to identify the chemical
04:20:00properties, photolysis rates, of this same species, chlorine peroxide. And they
did what they thought was a very careful experiment and came up with unexpected
results. Namely that we are just finding that this species is just much more
stable than we had anticipated, so that's a big problem because how the hell do
we explain the Antarctic ozone hole then? That means there's some missing
chemistry, what we thought was very well-established science, there's a problem.
It made a lot of news, particularly with the skeptics. And it took a couple of
years but then several labs did very sophisticated measurements showing they
have done something wrong. So I didn't do that anymore, but with Yuan [T.] Lee
for example, a colleague, he's a Nobel Prize winner [Chemistry, 1986], he was
04:21:00not working with these sort of things, but he built some of the finest molecular
beam instruments, so he did one of the measurements and Jim Anderson did another
set, so several well-known people took this as a challenge. They say, "That's
strange." And so they showed that . . . who knows what went wrong with that JPL
experiment, but it made news because it was a well-established group. One
measurement showing that three or four were wrong. Okay, but it's possible
because the three or four maybe they were not careful enough because they had
not subtracted this or that. Yeah, but then it got fixed. Then three or four key
measurements, very clear, knock you guys . . . but this shows that what's
interesting about this is how delicate the balance is. Okay, you do your
04:22:00research, you put everything together and then you can explain what happened,
but based on certain measurements in the laboratory where you reproduce what's
happening in the atmosphere based on measurements of what's there in the
atmosphere and then you put it all together and it makes sense. So that's how
science moves. But it's very much related to your question about instrumentation
or trusting people or whatever.
CARUSO: One other small question I had, I sort of get a sense for what the
answer to this is going to be, is some of the scientists that I've spoken with,
they care more about the data being generated in their lab. That's what they
find interesting, and are not necessarily . . . they are sometimes glad to be
away from the bench. It sounds like you like being at the bench, and I'm curious
why you like doing . . .
04:23:00MOLINA: Well, what I like, when I moved to JPL, because it goes back to my
childhood, was doing experiments and finding something new and doing the
measurements. It's sort of exciting. And it's something in which you have to be
very patient and you have to design your experiments correctly, but then it's
very satisfying when you get results. So it's one activity. Another activity,
some other people prefer to do that is just computer models. Okay, they don't
touch the lab. But the main activity is just to put it all together and see that
it makes sense.
So then what was even more rewarding, at MIT I had a big group then, so even
though I was not personally doing experiments, I was working with my students
and making sure the instruments were right and then interacting with them. And
04:24:00so it's this joint creativity, if you want, and sometimes the students have
their own ideas and we tested them and so that's how research is done.
Eventually it's a group activity.
But yeah, it's a matter of taste whether you like to do it yourself. But
eventually, you have to . . . the important activities, you have to rationalize,
to put it in the context of known theory, to write the papers and interact with
your colleagues if you have to, so that's why sometimes--and it happens more and
more often nowadays--you write joint articles even with groups that you don't
know, that you've never met that are in Europe or something you write a paper
with all of these authors because you are focusing on different aspects of a
04:25:00result that you are putting together and it's just different ways to corroborate
the science itself.
CARUSO: One thing I'd like to maybe hear a little bit more about, the Montreal
Protocol. I mean, in some ways, I don't want to say that's the culmination of
your scientific work, but it can be thought of as the culmination of the public
aspect of things that . . . thirteen years earlier. So if you could talk a
little bit about it.
MOLINA: Sure, sure. What happened is that it became clear once we had the
science moving and so on that it was important to have an international
agreement. Okay, so it was a precedent for what later with climate change became
better known, but the idea was--the components, if you want--was to create a
04:26:00group of experts that would meet maybe once a year or once every couple of years
to write a report--a scientific report--and that's what preceded the IPCC
[Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change]. Okay, so . . . and actually still
goes on. I haven't participated recently, but we had a tradition of meeting in
Switzerland [in Les Diablerets], okay, so we put all the scientific papers, all
the work and you had all the experts together and you summarize things in a
report which is like an IPCC report, okay, and that's input that you then bring
to the community of negotiators.
Of course you had to set that up, and it was set up as a joint effort of the
World Meteorological Organization and United Nations, and so on. But there were
04:27:00a few key people there, because negotiators, each country has to send their own
so eventually it becomes a big part. But, like, Mostafa Tolba was an ambassador
from Egypt to there, he was very instrumental getting everything to work. And
just like the IPCC has a chair who now is [Rajendra K.] Pachauri, a very good
friend of mine, the chair before him, of IPCC, was [Sir Robert T.] Bob Watson,
who was chair before that of the stratospheric ozone chemistry groups, [which
preceded the IPCC reports and specialized on ozone panels].
Bob Watson is a very good friend. He was even at Berkeley at the same time. But
he was a researcher at the Jet Propulsion Labs doing experiments in there, but
then very early on, he decided he wanted to move to the policy aspects.
04:28:00Eventually he was the chief scientist at the World Bank. But he was sort of
representing the scientific community, of course; that's why we worked very
closely with him; working with people like Mostafa Tolba and a few others--I
have all those names--who were the ones that pushed for an international
agreement that eventually materialized in Montreal. They met several times. I
went to a few of these meetings. I was an active participant of the scientific
reports, but I was invited almost as a courtesy because I was not a professional
negotiator. And making statements about the science or whatever, so it was very
interesting to observe this.
There were usually reporters there as well, and so it was an outreach effort.
04:29:00But that's how the Montreal Protocol came about, and the first version still
relatively weak, just calling for reducing emissions one half, and then when the
Antarctic ozone hole and everything became clear, it said, "Let's just ban it
completely." And there are lots of interesting thing happening. Initially, the
European representatives were actually industry employees which were very much
against any regulation. But then Europe changed and Margaret Thatcher, who was
[. . .] a chemist, actually, so they took this as something of an interesting
issue where they could sort of make a point.
And so it became a competition later on, so that was nice, because the US had
04:30:00dominated things before and the Europeans say, "Okay, we're on board." And so
there it was remarkable that there was not much to fight against. The big
difference with climate change being that there was this small number of
chemical industries, du Pont leading as we were talking about, they had accepted
the science so there was no major objection to this. So that's how it all
worked. Very well, with, again with different groups, but we were collaborating
ROBERTS: What role did you play in setting up the mechanics of how this would function?
MOLINA: Well, I was part of the initial discussions of this group that would
judge the science. However, what I remember distinctly, or why I was sort of
04:31:00invited and participated . . . just like with the National Academy
reports--being a member of the National Academy, I've been in a number of groups
writing reports--but very specifically on the ones related to this problem, I
was not in the group on purpose because we were the ones proposing this idea, so
we were the ones being judged in some sense, and a little bit the same thing
happened with the chemical reports. I was able to participate in other things,
but not--on purpose and Sherry did very much a similar thing, helping and
participating--but not in a dominant role because the idea was for that not to
be perceived or not in practice being something that we were controlling, but we
were just contributing to the science.
ROBERTS: And so am I correct in saying that this is mostly being driven by the
U.N. [United Nations]?
MOLINA: Yes. The U.N. and government. Right, right.
ROBERTS: As an organizational sort of . . .
04:32:00MOLINA: Right. Right, because they are the ones that set up the rules, asking
each country to name representatives that would formally be accepted by the
United Nations and then be part of the negotiations. Probably as with many of
these negotiations, the main components were done in the hallways or before,
ahead of time and then you had the formalities with everybody approving it and
so on, but it's a very cumbersome way to actually work out details of things.
ROBERTS: So I don't know to what extent you can answer some of this because you
were trying to play a slightly more distant role, but I have a couple questions
about the actual mechanics of it because it does set up a model for how the
international community can come together to talk about a global environmental
issue that has a diverse set of scientists contributing to it. And then it's
04:33:00going to do these consensus statements and it's going to format their
recommendations in a very specific way, and this gets replicated not just with
climate change, but other groups tried to replicate this same model, whether
it's around endocrine disruption or other emerging issues, but where did that
idea come from, that this was a way in which a vast amount of scientific
evidence could be condensed, turned into very specific bulleted recommendations
sort of knowing their audience, that policymakers aren't going to read a very
MOLINA: Yeah, as far as I can tell, we did not have a precedent here. There
might have been [but I´m not sure]--there were much more local precedents. If
you had a spill in the Rhine [River] or some local problem in the US, then you
also had perhaps scientific groups, but it was not the global United Nations effort.
04:34:00So as far as I can tell, this was the first global effort. It was sort of
obvious, so in some sense, it was a very reasonable thing to do. [. . .] I
remember the heads of UNEP [United Nations Environmental Programme] and the WMO
[World Meteorological Organization], the people that we were in close contact
with and [who I was] very good friends with, we sort of designed these things.
So it became a logical thing to do. We're not going to have the scientists
negotiate. This has to be something done at the United Nations level, so we
needed to summarize the consensus. So that's probably how this evolved, but
there are not that many really global issues that have occurred [like] this, but
again, perhaps the precedent might be environmental problems where several
04:35:00countries were involved, but not the entire planet.
ROBERTS: So the Montreal Protocol gets . . . the story of it now is usually told
as the exemplar of how the international community can come together in
relatively quick timeframe and act in a very decisive way to actually affect a
problem. So I have two questions. One is, did it feel like it was fast for you?
MOLINA: Well, not really, and here is why. Remember we're talking about before
there was this whole decade . . . well, the process started before the Antarctic
ozone hole came about. So it was moving relatively slowly at the beginning. With
the Antarctic ozone hole, then it became faster, but it took a decade. I don't
04:36:00know, so it was not a very fast process from some perspectives. It was very fast
according to some other perspective and say, "Wow, you reached an international
agreement and it didn't take that long." So it's a matter of perception.
But to me, it was very slow at the beginning, because we were meeting, but it
wasn't clear, and that's when, again, I was telling you, many of the
representatives were still heavily influenced by industry and said, "Okay, we'll
meet, let's discuss that, but this might be very costly and we might lose a lot
of jobs." Those were the objections, which all fortunately turned out not to be
the case. We were already working with people trying to analyze the problem at
large with industry, no, this is something society can deal with and we're not
going to stop using spray cans, let alone refrigerators and so on, of course.
04:37:00But there were some difficulties I remember very important precedents. The
precedent of the developed nations coming up with resources. They created the
The US was reluctant for a while. They said, "Wow, this is a precedent. If we
accept this, that means that we are going to have to be responsible in part.
Also in economic terms for other, possibly other issues," but I remember this
was discussed and eventually okay, we'll do it. And that turned out to be very
important to get the developing nations on board and to help. In that case it
was very clear. Spray cans were not used in many of the developing countries at
all, so they had not put anything in the atmosphere, and yet they had to agree
not to buy or use these chemicals, which you could consider that, wow, this
04:38:00means giving up a potentially high standard of living under certain conditions.
Fortunately, that's why the solution was very important. You don't have to lose
your high-quality standard of living, just do it correctly. It might be a little
bit more expensive, but nowhere as expensive as if you don't worry about this.
So, those were the important precedents. And it's still working. The
Multilateral Fund is still functioning, and they developed a highly
sophisticated way of checking everything. It was not just a matter [of
committing, but there was follow-up and checking] whether there were emissions,
whether [they were] illegal, the imports, all sorts of things. So that system
[was] a whole community working there, which I don't work closely with at all
04:39:00anymore. I sort of [distanced myself], but I was invited, obviously, to the
twentieth anniversary recently. I gave a speech, and it was all very nice [. .
.]. The issues now are more to what extent should climate change also be
incorporated into the Montreal Protocol. But essentially, all the other issues
have been more or less resolved.
GONZALEZ: Sorry, just to interrupt you really quickly. I think an important fact
is that Mexico was the first country to ratify the document and the first
country to give a calendar for reducing emissions [of these gases]. So, I think
. . . I mean, [you have to play it up a bit more].
MOLINA: That's right. Yeah, I forgot about that [laughter]. Yeah, that's right.
Mexico was very happy. Sure, because I was, of course, close to the government
at that time already. Yeah. But the US was very positive at that time also.
04:40:00ROBERTS: So my only other question on that is what made that possible?
MOLINA: I think the science was very sound. And it became clear that
replacements could be designed, and some of them were already there, ranging
from similar chemicals, but that would affect the ozone less or not at all, to
completely different chemicals, like hydrocarbons instead of CFCs. So solutions
were realistic, at hand in some way, not terribly costly, and [based on] very
clear science also. This is a risk; obviously there are always some
uncertainties, but who has a clear argument that we shouldn't do this? Nobody.
04:41:00[There] might have been always these crazy opinions in some newspapers, but that
we still see with climate change, of course, with a complete lack of
understanding of what was happening, just attributing everything to government's
trying to pursue control over people's lives. The typical things started
earlier, but that was relatively minor. It didn't have any major impact. Another
important component was that the world leaders decided to work together. They
didn't have to fight each other. They were more rather competing to see who
would do more. And so if you have approval all the way to the top , and approval
04:42:00from industries, I think that made it quite practical, and what happened with
climate change, perhaps, what could have been a big barrier is developing
countries say, "Hey, no, we want to . . . we're not sure. We want to be able to
use these compounds because they give us a high quality of life. But that,
fortunately, did not happen because, again, because alternatives were offered
and so financial help as well. Lots of these things have . . . as you know, I'm
very involved with climate change issues now, so that's . . . a lot of these
things are quite interesting as . . . to contrast with what's happening now.
CARUSO: So I think this might be a good point to transition to your time at MIT.
MOLINA: Okay, okay.
CARUSO: And the first question I have is what precipitated that move?
MOLINA: Well, I decided--after I had done a few years of experiments in the lab
04:43:00myself--I decided that the academic life was something I could enjoy. I had
learned some of that, of course, when I was at Irvine, and just to have a
somewhat greater impact and hence more satisfaction in terms of my contribution
to the field.
So it was no longer just my personal contribution doing experiments in the lab,
but getting more involved also with some of the larger issues, both
scientifically and perhaps even connected, beginning to be more connected with
policy issues, although at that time, I was still . . . that was not that clear.
04:44:00But I thought I could have at MIT a much larger group and have more scientific
publications, simply be more productive. And I would just give up--I thought
that it's fine now--just doing the experiments with my own hands as we were
talking about before. Although, if I wanted, I could have . . . I mean, I still
did some of that with my students, but clearly if you have fifteen students, the
idea is they do the bulk of the experiments, but you meet with them and you
discuss them. And even the teaching itself, I realized, okay, it's something I
actually enjoyed. It's a challenge, and we sort of improvised. We are not
trained to teach, but it's a very good way to learn in spite of the students. So
then at MIT with a smaller group, it was much more interactive, and I could
already visualize that. So it was just a very attractive thing to do then to
04:45:00move up in the academic environment, if you want, just to have more of an impact
in the atmospheric . . . or rather not just atmospheric, in the environmental
chemistry type fields.
ROBERTS: So knowing that you were going to perhaps have access to a larger work
force and some more funding, what were the big questions you wanted to be able
to turn your attention towards?
MOLINA: Well, [. . .] this was just about the time that the Antarctic ozone hole
and all that was being settled, so there were still important chemical questions
that remained to be answered and more detailed reactions on surfaces, so I
04:46:00started to do a lot more of that type of work. And I remember also at that time
already beginning to worry about the much more complicated chemistry lower down,
like in Mexico City.
So just expanding with the sophisticated techniques we had learned to use with a
much simpler stratosphere, and see how much more could we learn about more
complicated chemistry lower down, which is also an environmental problem and
requires a lot of science. So it's more dealing with more complex systems. That
would be one way to look at it. Then interact with other professors. And I had a
joint appointment in the chemistry lab but in the Earth, Atmospheric and
Planetary Sciences where I would also work more closely with the modelers. So it
was more of an expansion of vision, if you want.
04:47:00CARUSO: So I think it might actually . . . I don't know if this sounds like a
good idea. I do want to ask about you receiving the Nobel.
CARUSO: In some ways, I think of that as, you know, I don't want to say the end,
but you know, if you're moving into the lower atmosphere for your research,
maybe finishing off with what would happen in the upper atmosphere and this
recognition of your work. Maybe talk a little bit about that and then get into
more detail about, you know, the joint projects between MIT and the Mexico City
government and maybe go in that order, if that makes sense.
MOLINA: Sure. Okay. Now I have to review the timing a little bit. I'll do it
afterwards and so if there's something to clarify, I'll let you know. But as I
remember, the first years at MIT were still very much an extension of the more
04:48:00focused laboratory work I had done with a very small group at JPL, but still
working on the more complicated problems, still in the stratosphere or even in
the upper troposphere, getting with slightly more complicated chemical systems
and more complicated instrumentation, as well. But it was not . . . well, the
Nobel Prize came in between, I think, but the change--I'll come back to that in
a moment--but the change in really saying, "Okay, let's worry about pollution in
Mexico City." That was a very explicit effort that came out of discussions at
04:49:00MIT with colleagues in other disciplines because at that time, I was already
doing what I was telling you about in terms of interactions more with the policy
people, with experts in negotiation in the department of urban studies, and
things of that sort, because MIT has a program where they give PhDs or master's
in these disciplines, where you have a scientific background, but you work more
on the practical societal problem.
But we got together, being familiar with that part of the problem, and said,
04:50:00"How can we do more about this to better train students; namely find a problem
in which it's essential for the students, even though they have to keep their
own discipline and be experts without losing any depth in knowledge in their own
discipline, but be exposed to all the aspects required to solve a societal
problem, which means they would have to learn a little bit about policy issues,
about economic issues. In environmental chemistry, for example, they would have
to interact also with epidemiologists or the medical community because that's
the impacts that they would have, and with energy sources and so on.
So you have to have a picture of how the whole thing functions. So we decided,
04:51:00let's pick a problem, and being from Mexico, and air pollution in Mexico City
being a big problem, said, "Hey, it's not a bad idea. Let's focus on air
pollution in Mexico City because it's complex problem, requires lots of things."
And I had access, because although it was certainly not working in Mexico except
marginally at that time, I had good friends I was in touch with, government
people, and it became feasible because there was an organization, Comisión
Ambiental Metropolitana, and it was some sort of joint venture which had
funding, and that was important, dealing with air pollution in Mexico City, but
not knowing very well . . . or not having, perhaps, the right science component.
04:52:00Anyhow, all these things got together and that's how I switched really, in terms
of my own work in the laboratory, more focused on these sort of things. But for
the students, it worked very well because my own students, of course, they still
had to do their own laboratory work and learn chemistry or whatever they had to
do without losing any depth there, and the same thing with the urban studies
people or with the . . . MIT does not have a medical school, so we collaborated
with Harvard [University]'s public health school, so we have very close
And there were students that were--in some sense this program I was telling you
about was an overview of that--so they were involved with the policy aspects of
these issues, and so we organized it so that the students had to do a joint
04:53:00model. They had to work a model involving atmospheric chemistry, physics, both
health impact and some economic costs, and so on. And the fact that they had to
come up with some results, not just talk to each other, but some results
functioned extremely well for the students to collaborate with each other. And
so in some sense, that's how my interest changed and then after that, I decided,
well, I'm doing so much in Mexico, I might as well come to Mexico and create a
center here. But that happened much later.
Coming back to the Nobel Prize--that was just a few years after I got to MIT so
I was still doing this basic research moving more to heterogeneous chemistry--
04:54:00[. . .] I remember being quite surprised because some people had mentioned I was
on some list, but I thought it was not a very serious contest. But yeah, so I
got a call from Sweden and so fortunately I was . . . I remember that call
because Henning Rodhe is a good friend of mine. He's also an atmospheric
scientist, and I knew him, but he happened to be a member of the Royal Academy
in Sweden, so when I first got the call from the president of the Society, I
thought that was [a joke] . . . but Henning Rodhe came on the call afterwards
and said, "Yeah, this is Sweden, this is all right." So anyhow, that's how it
happened and it did . . . what that did to me is first, of course, being very
happy and very honored, but then slowly realizing, look, not all the Nobel Prize
04:55:00winners . . . this has the other side of the coin. It's a little bit, like, a
responsibility. Okay, how can you use your visibility, your convening power and
do more things than just your own personal laboratory work? And so that's how
the Mexico City experience was reinforced, with the Nobel Prize. Because I
thought, well, perhaps that's why I could also have a closer interaction with
the groups here in Mexico and get access to the funding that they managed to get
from a small sur-price on the gasoline, just one or two cents or whatever they
were able to . . . that was a lot of money. Not meant just to do research, but
for public transport projects or whatever, so that was enough resources for us
to get this project started.
04:56:00CARUSO: And you also used some of the Nobel award, the money, to establish a
MOLINA: That's right. That's right. That was not directly connected with this
work, but that was just some part left at MIT, still there, and some part here
with the Mexican government. Fortunately, both cases with the idea that, I mean,
after all, personal money, it's not a lot, but we were able to use it to get
additional resources, so we got here some resource from the government and MIT
from other donors, so essentially, these were scholarship programs that are
still there. They are still working.
CARUSO: It's also during the time that you're at MIT in this period generally
that you also become a U.S. President's Committee, a member of the Committee of
Advisors on Science and Technology.
MOLINA: Right, that came a little later, sure. That was with [William J.] Bill Clinton.
04:57:00CARUSO: Right, in 1994, right, so you were with Clinton till the end, then
there's a gap with [George W.] Bush and then you're back on with [Barack H.] Obama.
CARUSO: And also, during this period of time, a little bit after the Nobel, you
became a member of the board of directors of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
MOLINA: That's right. Yeah.
CARUSO: Is this all sort of your general movement towards the public policy?
MOLINA: Yes, in some sense. [. . .] I've got a good friend, another Nobel Prize
winner [Henry W. Kendall, Physics, 1990], who created the Union of Concerned
Scientists, who tragically died in a diving accident much later. But he was,
again just like myself, trying to do things for society, for the environment, so
it was very logical to accept this invitation and be part of that. And then, of
04:58:00course, later I became a member of a few other boards and so on, but in general,
in the same direction.
But just to tell you a little bit more about this PCAST with Clinton, the first
four years Clinton was not particularly interested in science because he
delegated it all to [Albert A.] Al Gore [Jr.]. Al Gore was the environmentalist.
And I had worked with him before, because he was a senator for [Tennessee] so we
had met on several occasions. But fortunately, the second term, they really were
[interested]. It's not enough for the vice president of the US to [want to act],
you really need the president to do it [effectively]. Fortunately, Bill Clinton
himself became very much an environmentalist, maybe a little bit too late. He
couldn't get too much done anymore but he went to our meetings, so that was very
positive and quite interesting (besides Al Gore, of course). And yes, then with
President Bush, of course, were not there and then again, with President Obama.
04:59:00ROBERTS: So you weren't there because you . . .
MOLINA: Well, two things happened. I was not invited, but I didn't make any move
to try to get invited. What happened is that group persisted, but it was very
heavily an industrial group, and these groups only work if the president himself
has some affinity for the group or for science advice, and it turned out he
didn't have much . . . I mean it was there, but it didn't do . . . President
Bush was not well known either for his interest for science or for environmental issues.
CARUSO: But it's also during his presidency that Gore comes out with An
MOLINA: That's right. That's . . . of course, if you remember, Gore lost the
presidency . . . lost, and so that was quite heavy for him, I mean, quite
difficult thing to live through, but then eventually, he [focused on other
05:00:00areas]. I continued interacting with him, but not nearly as closely as we did
when he was vice president.
ROBERTS: So what was the atmosphere like, when you came back, rejoined PCAST in 2009?
MOLINA: Well, for some reason, President Obama is quite interested and pays a
lot of attention to science, and so from the beginning, we were able to meet
with him and have quite a bit of interaction. But, as expected, these were
politically very difficult times and so his political advisors, of course, had
the last word in terms of what to do about . . . climate change was the big
issue from my perspective, but other issues we were able to . . . are still
working very hard on STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics]
education and restoring innovation through the development of scientific
05:01:00research, science also in the US enterprise system. And the health . . . of
course, the health issue, as you know, was in some sense . . . some critics say,
"Well, Obama could only do one thing at the time because that's the nature of
the power in presidency," and so he chose to do health and he could have chosen
perhaps on the environment, but with a Republican Congress, that's extreme
opinions, it would have been extremely hard.
But, the point is, the first four years were still a lot of work, very
productive, but not in climate change. And so now we just got started and it's
much more of an opportunity because there's no more political pressure, but the
Republican Congress is still there, so we can do quite a bit short of an
05:02:00international agreement, which is what's really needed. And focusing more and
more . . . of course, the science we do here in Mexico and the Mexican
government is, again, communication with the public, but with politicians as
well, including the hope of communicating with some. Not the extreme
[politicians of the party], but, of course, we get along very well with former
Republicans, but with current Republicans, there are a few that we might be able
to get close to. But it's a whole specialty. In spite of my experience with
stratospheric ozone, it was extremely helpful. The difference now is the
realization, this is really a profession. This is something that to learn from
others that do these professions, so you have to be even more flexible on how to
05:03:00communicate to the public. So those are the more recent activities related to
PCAST . . . well no, I should separate this. With PCAST, we do whatever is
reasonable, whatever we can do, what is strictly outside politics. But this
communication with the public is something to do, just like I did early on, my
activities with stratospheric ozone.
ROBERTS: So I want to come back to the Nobel. I didn't want to stop the threads
that we were moving forward. Would you describe the award as a surprise, or as a
pivotal change in your career or you know, in your short description when we
first asked, I mean, you're very nonchalant about getting a call from Sweden and
being told that you're getting a Nobel Prize. Maybe that's . . . I mean, maybe I
believe that that's the way you really are, but I'm wondering if there was any
sense of closure or if this felt, like, you know, the . . .
05:04:00MOLINA: Well, not closure. It's not as if I finally . . . "I'm finally rewarded
for what I deserved." No, that just didn't cross my mind because I was already
very satisfied, rewarded because the Montreal Protocol had been achieved. So I
thought, okay, we were very lucky we found this problem and then we were able to
actually get something done by society at large. So that part was done. And so
the Nobel Prize is not really on politics, but just on science. So it was
obviously very rewarding, but not something I was expecting in any way.
Furthermore, part of the surprise was because there were practically no
precedents for a Nobel Prize in environmental issues. They're all very
fundamental scientific work, or this was coupled, this had some of that, but
05:05:00after all, it was an environmental problem, so that's very rare. There have been
some, I think, very early on, connected with the atmosphere, but not with the
environment. Okay, so it was not sort of unexpected, not to expect the Nobel
Prize for the sort of work that we did. There might be other prizes. Of course,
now there are more and more where they focus more on the environmental
components. So, that's why it was a surprise, but then I realized, wow, this
does change your life in some way because of the attention that you receive and
I was already moving to having a broader perspective on the issues, so this just
helped and made an even stronger point and then as I--over the next few years,
05:06:00knowing other Nobel Prize winners--I realized, they really change people. Of
course, many of them received the prize many years after they had done their
research, but many change. They devoted themselves to education or to something
or other. There are relatively few that go back and do the same thing they were
doing for which they received the prize. So that was normal.
But again, it's more like an opportunity or even a responsibility, in some
sense. That's how it worked. It's still very rewarding, but I decided, wow, I
could easily waste this opportunity if I don't do anything, okay, just sit back
and retire. Fortunately, I now have a number of students that I was able to work
05:07:00with, particularly in my MIT years, that have done very well as professors in
the academic community, so in some sense, I feel, okay, I did create my own
school and they are doing the sort of research I could be doing. So it doesn't
make sense to be even competing with them to do the same type of research.
Let me tell you one of the scientific things that was also very rewarding, in
this dealing with Mexico's air quality, it was again very rewarding because we
were able to impact decision-makers in government and set up regulations and air
quality was pretty bad and so it actually improved quite a bit, not just because
of what we did, because it was a logical thing for society to do, but not all
05:08:00major cities are doing that, okay, so it took some effort, but we were able to
organize a number of smaller experiments, but two major sort of field
experiments. Even if we did not have many resources, but because we had access
to the system, we could invite some of the major research groups in these fields
to bring their own instruments and so to do a one or two-month very intense
field study of a very polluted city because that was an opportunity to learn a
lot about how this complicated chemistry works, which would be harder to do in a
clean city, It was easier here with big signals.
05:09:00And so those two field studies which involved millions of dollars--but again,
not ours, but just research money was out there--where it's just at least
symbolically also very rewarding, something where we were able to push the
science. Very applied science, science of complex systems, in this case, but
that risk, hopefully has been very useful also to understand pollution and see
the chemistry down here is much more complicated. We have bigger molecules, so
you have to deal with it not at the very fundamental level, but some of it is
more an engineering or a complex system approach, but there's a lot to learn,
what really matters, what should you emphasize.
Ironically, some of the very recent developments in climate change are to make a
much closer tie with air quality issues because [. . .] black carbon and methane
05:10:00and some of the compounds that matter for air quality also matter for climate
change. And so the sort of science that we were able to push, for example, is
very helpful for these sort of things as well. But I forget what was the question.
ROBERTS: No, you were fine. It was just around the prize as a pivotal movement.
MOLINA: Oh okay. Yeah, these are all things that were enabled, if you want, by
the prize in some sense.
I could mention . . . my problem, if at all, is being interested in too many
things because to solve a problem like air pollution or climate change, there
are many disciplines, so you have to learn to summarize important aspects of
many of these issues but also be able to communicate with people in these
05:11:00different disciplines. So that's a challenge, but it's very worthwhile.
Economics, for example, is very important. That's why here in this Center, we're
pushing that very hard. But I'm also quite interested in education, for example.
So that's just a side issue.
But I was a professor so many years and I tried to help and push that to some
extent and advising a group here, but it's connected more to the STEM education
efforts in PCAST because there are new ways, new pedagogical systems that are
much more efficient, starting with elementary school and then all the way to
college, the online stuff, not because it's online, but because you get the
students to get very much more involved in what they are doing by being active.
And I mention this as an example because one of my Nobel Prize colleagues, a
friend of mine, Carl [E.] Wieman [Physics, 2001], who got his prize as a
05:12:00physicist working with single atom physics, he switched fields. So his field is
education. So his expertise is in these new systems at college level. Here in
Mexico [City] we have a big program, but at the elementary school level with the
same ideas. Why do I mention it? It's just an example of something I could spend
my full time on. There are just so many things to do, so we do this. Part of our
activities here have to do something with education. But the challenge is to
focus on something you feel you can have an impact on and do the best you can.
And here again, that's where the Nobel Prize is something to take advantage of,
in that you have more convening power. Okay, people perhaps listen more to you,
05:13:00but you have to be very careful. There's the other side of the coin is the
expectation that you become an expert on everything in general and no, we are
experts on just a few things and perhaps we have a broad perspective on certain
issues, but only if we put enough work in those issues to deserve that
appreciation. But it's not automatic, by any means. But anyhow, the Nobel Prize
is, indeed, a big event.
ROBERTS: So, I'm curious, you learned a lot of what you've done through
experience, and I'm wondering what you tried to train into your students when
you were at MIT.
MOLINA: Okay, on the one hand, of course, the research itself is like the
05:14:00experience I had when I was at Berkeley's fundamental, just to give them the
room to be creative and to understand things at the deeper and deeper level
whenever they can and to contribute to the advancement of science in very, very
So that's why it's rewarding when you see that they respond and they learn and
you are forming people that can contribute a lot. But then there is this other
aspect, as I was telling you, to work with the other disciplines, and so we
realized it's important to, if you can, to train students to appreciate--not
just to appreciate--but to be able to communicate with experts in other
disciplines because the normal tendency we have is to teach a very narrow
language so that your students and you yourself, you communicate with experts in
05:15:00your own field but you'll develop a language so nobody else understands you.
Why not learn and have a better perspective of societal problems, a better
perspective of what it takes to have an impact in real life. Realizing some
students are going to just remain in academia and do their own things, but many
others perhaps will branch out and maybe will go to even government positions
and so on and so forth. So I think this is perhaps is somewhat connected with
this education component I was telling you about in that it's quite feasible to
take advantage of the scientific culture we have in the international scientific
05:16:00community, which is not just to be a good scientist, but you have also some
values, okay. The values are, for example, honesty, and it's because if you
cheat, you're going to be caught, most likely, [. . .] but you do it not just
out of worry that you're going to be caught. You develop a culture, which is
what you would like to communicate to your students. You have to work in a
certain way that it's honest. You also have to worry about, if you have choices,
something that will benefit other people as well and so these are the sort of
things you can communicate quite well in a university. But if you don't worry
about them, they might happen or might not happen, it's just by chance.
05:17:00CARUSO: I have questions about training. Maybe this is a poor characterization
of it, but in some ways what I'm hearing is that graduate level students in
science need to be trained not just as scientists, but as scientific citizens.
But there's also, I think, something in there, and I don't know if you spoke
about it specifically, but you know, in thinking about what you said yesterday
about your teachers in school, there's also this apparent need to have those
teaching science also be scientists and how . . . I mean, do you have any
thoughts about how that should be addressed more broadly? I mean, you said you
had it as a criticism of the educational system in Mexico. I've heard that as a
criticism of the educational system in the US, as well. You have non-scientists
05:18:00teaching science. So how do you get past that?
MOLINA: Okay, it's not an easy question, but let me give you some ideas. First,
[. . .] going to the beginning of the question, I would expand it. Ideally you
do that not only with graduate students. At MIT, we had an important program
called URO--Undergraduate Research Opportunities. So you get upper division
students, you try to integrate them into a research group already, precisely so
that you can communicate with them these sort of things we're talking about, so
it's not just graduate students. It's so important that we think it should be
part of undergraduate training, as well, to the extent that you can, because
then they see how teamwork functions and how creativity works and so on. And not
just listening or memorizing things.
05:19:00In terms of experts, what is clear is that's to be expected at the university
level. There you want people ideally who are doing research, who are creative
and who are real experts in their own field and not just beginners, if you want,
what might have happened to me when I was in college. But in high school and at
undergraduate, you cannot expect everybody to be a scientist, but at least to be
well trained in science. And we, of course, we see that in Mexico, but also in
the US, there's the job as a teacher, in some countries, perhaps Finland and a
few exceptional countries, they are so highly regarded that they are at the top
of society, but not in the US and Mexico.
And so you end up having, in elementary school, teachers teach everything
05:20:00including science when they themselves did not have anything like a satisfactory
science instruction. So they are bound to not teach well. So you need two
things. You need the pedagogical tool and so on, but you also need to understand
what you are teaching. And the challenge here, it's one of the things one
learns, is it's a challenge to simplify things. You have to understand things
very well to be able to express them in simple terms, and that goes all the way
to elementary school. So ideally, you have well-motivated teachers.
These problems I was telling you about that we are involved in, they get a lot
of help. It was developed initially by National Academies, but a very important
05:21:00component is to prepare the teachers themselves. Okay, so the teachers learn a
lot and so that's important for obvious reasons, that you cannot judge or teach
something you don't really understand, okay, but that's very common,
particularly in the sciences or even . . . I remember the history teachers I
had, well, they might have been very good in terms of memorizing names and so
on, but what is very interesting is what's a historical perspective and
sociological and that's not all that common or trivial. That's why I hated
history in high school. It was just memorizing names and dates and the same
thing happens with chemists.
That's the symptom of that is that chemistry's awful for most students. It's
just something, wow, chemistry. I dislike that so much. I didn't understand it.
Or even math. Okay, you could make . . . even math could be quite attractive if
05:22:00you teach it in an interesting way. But yeah, that's the challenge for teaching,
but it goes all the way to college.
ROBERTS: So I want to make sure we spend--I know we don't have a lot of time
left--but I want to make sure we spend some time talking about the post-MIT
years and the co-founding of both the Center that we're in here in Mexico City
and your move to San Diego [California] and thinking about those, what you
wanted to accomplish moving here and just in case I don't know what role they'll
play, but I think one of the pieces that I've been hearing for the last two days
that I at least want to put out there and maybe they'll work into some of what
is happening here, are these larger conceptual changes that are happening.
I mean, you've been very focused on sort of very specific problems that you've
been addressing and very specific technical work that you've been doing, but
05:23:00there was a lot of . . . there was a lot of knowledge shift, cognitive shift,
you know sort of larger epistemic shifts going on that you were a part of, that,
you know, thinking about the earth as a system. That changed a lot of how, you
know . . . the space in which you could do your work and the work that you were
doing was changing that.
The idea that the atmosphere is an open laboratory and that it's not just
putting species of chemicals out there, but that the species that are out there
are themselves having reactions that are out of our control. So the idea of
secondary organic aerosols and thinking about the things that are out there that
we hadn't thought about before. So there's a lot of other pieces at play and I
don't know . . . it seems like when you came here, you know, your time at MIT
and then your transition here to the Mario Molina Center and the position at
[University of California at] San Diego gave you a chance to start thinking
about some of the larger, more complex systems. Anyhow, that's a long preface.
05:24:00MOLINA: Yeah. Let me give you a few general ideas. What I wanted to do is to
have time to open the Center, but to remain in the U.S. as well because of being
in PCAST and so on and remaining part of academia there. So it had to be a
compromise, and it was difficult to do that at MIT because MIT doesn't like to
have part-time people, if you want. But they didn't want to let me go, and I
have lots of very close connections with them still, but not being a part-time
professor. I had that opportunity in the University of California, which I was
at the beginning.
So they were willing to say, "Okay, it's all right. We know you're not going to
be here, a full-time professor doing research. It's okay. You can spend time in
05:25:00Mexico, but hopefully you can contribute here, as well." And fortunately, I
think that has worked because what I tend to do in San Diego is a more
scientific component. So we do have an important effort there, which [. . .]
first I brought my MIT students that had not finished their PhDs. They did their
experimental research still while I was at San Diego, so that's why I still had
a lab there. But I decided to close it and not to take new students there, but
just to collaborate with other groups. But there is a very important research
effort looking, of all things, at atmospheric particles, but in the lower
atmosphere. Okay, that's one of the main uncertainties still in climate change science.
So there I collaborate with several faculty, and we're trying to get now a large
NSF-funded center to do that. And so the science is very exciting and keeps
moving, but I'm no longer with my own group doing that. I advise students and
05:26:00collaborate. So it's a challenge, but as far as I can do it, I'll try to remain
active in a scientific field. But there [are] these educational issues, but they
are not necessarily an important part of my activities in San Diego. They are
more a part of the other things I do. Here in Mexico, the specific activities of
this Center, if you want, is mostly in connection--to begin with--with the
Mexican government, but we're beginning to have interactions and impacts with
the rest of Latin America, as well, for logical reasons.
But in between those, there are the larger complex system issues, climate change
and how do you get things to happen. Specifically, in this Center, the goal was
05:27:00to see, can we impact the way society functions? For example, if we want to have
an impact on the air quality issue, well, it's not going to be enough to write
papers. It's a very challenging objective, but we will only consider we
succeeded if the air quality actually improves. And maybe it improves on its
own, but, I mean, it certainly will improve because of many activities, but we
can tell where we helped.
And because air quality is a bigger issue, but we were able to interact very
closely with people here in government itself, and have changed the regulations
and things, that renew the fleet, emphasize public transport, all sorts of
05:28:00things. So what we're doing more and more now, perhaps connected also with
climate change, not just with air quality or the combination, is working with
the Mexican government here but with that overarching goal, very ambitious, if
you want, that if we succeed, things will change. We don't want to just write
reports because we could do that at a university or something. That's a big
challenge. That's where you need this broader perspective because it's not
enough to be a good scientist there. You need to understand how [society
functions]. What are the political pressures? If there is corruption somewhere,
how can we get around it? [. . .] If you want to fix something that is not
working, you really have to understand how it is working now, what are the
difficulties, and you have to be very creative. Can I work with people elsewhere
to change the system?
05:29:00So a general rule that we end up using is--well, it's something that goes back
to MIT with these negotiation courses that came up from urban studies and also
from Harvard--is you get the stakeholders at the same table. So this just means
from the beginning, if we want to solve a problem we get people from government,
the key people to work with us, from the private sector, necessary from society
and we don't write a report and tell them, "This is what you have to do." We
organize activities in such a way that this comes out of the group.
But nevertheless, all these challenges I was telling you about are there. So
05:30:00this is a very different thing than fundamental science because it involves
understanding how does society function, but not in any theoretical way that you
could be doing at the department of sociology in some university. It's that the
very practical way . . . how does society function? And so we've learned enough
so we have succeeded in doing certain things and we're trying to use that, as
some challenges are very big. We have to choose things that are feasible and
we're still working on many others that fortunately we do have close connections
with government and also with the private sector.
We were talking before about extreme environmental organizations. Okay, this is
05:31:00something that wouldn't work there. If you come out as an advocate pushing the
environment at all costs, then you're not going to be able to work with the
private sector. You have to talk to them. You have to convince them that it's
not just good for society, but if you do it in a creative way, it's good for
their success, as well; for the country--climate change issues and so on--it's
good for the economy. So you cannot count on just values of people being very
good citizens. No, you have to be very practical and think, "Okay, this is the
way society will improve."
So that's a big challenge to understand all these issues and to be able to
communicate them. One example I'll give you, which it's one project that we have
05:32:00more or less succeeded. It's housing. Why housing? Well, for environmental
issues, climate change, you could name it green housing, much more efficient
housing than you could otherwise if you don't worry about it. Okay, but that's
not enough. So it turns out, we got together with a private business, the
private sector, several large companies whose business is to build houses. And
they were making all sorts of mistakes because their business was to buy land
wherever was cheapest and then with government money to build the houses and
then they got the money.
And it turns out, many of them are abandoned because they are already far or not
agreeable, so things are very wrong. Okay, what do we do? Well, let's sit
together. We get the industry people. But we get the government people because
there are government institutions that do that. We provide the environmental
05:33:00expertise, because there is all sorts of literature, how can you build much
better insulated houses. And in the end, they are cheaper because you save
energy. So, we have a system where we work not just the environmental issues,
but the economic and the social issues.
So these people are now building housing developments which are much more
attractive. First of all, they are in places where it makes sense, but then they
build schools, they build . . . so the social component is crucial. Okay, how do
they succeed? And then the government has to provide incentives. Okay, and
regulations, so otherwise, you have the free rider. Someone is going to take
advantage of that. And this is working very well. So what we did here is provide
the measure. We quantified that and so we . . . it's, like, even a grade book.
The point is not to grade how well they are doing now, but where should they
05:34:00move to. So we measure the social component, the economic component, the
environmental, but with many different measures and so it gives them a very
clear guide how to move. But it's just one example. They are happy, big
government is happy. We are improving things. And so it can be done.
The transportation sector is even a big challenge because not many people . . .
everybody wants to have cars, so you have more and more cars and things get
worse and worse, so you have to put barriers to the use of cars and that's very
difficult because you have to convince society that that's not good for them.
But in New York, okay, you don't have everybody driving their own car to work.
Okay, so there are good examples [. . .] but you need very good public transportation.
So, you have to be clear and say, how the hell do I manage to change the course
05:35:00that things are moving onto, which is every day more congestion, spend hours
getting to work, more pollution. Well, yes, but we have to . . . this enormous
barrier of convincing people not to use their cars. So anyhow, these are just
examples of the enormous challenges that require you to have just a much broader
perspective of the problems. But you can't forget that there's a very strong
technical component, the best practices. Okay, how can you build better houses?
Well, there are these advanced technologies. You can . . . and so on, and they
have to be cheap and with cars and public transportation, you have to be aware
of what's the state of the art. So the other challenge is to make sure that we
don't use obsolete technologies. We take advantage of things that are working
elsewhere. So there's a very important technological, and, if you want,
05:36:00scientific component here as well.
Okay, so you have to put it all together. So that's the challenge here in the
Center and I was talking also about more general climate change. That's a
political issue that sometimes we have to begin to work with communication
experts. One simple idea here: it's very clear in the scientific community that
there is practically . . . it's not unanimous, but almost, 97 percent of experts
in climate change agree, hey, climate is certainly changing and it's most
likely, not absolutely certain, but it's most likely something that humans are
causing. There are a few scientists that deny that, but it's actually a lot less
than one percent.
And we know very well why they are saying that and the science behind that, so
05:37:00it's nothing . . . it's not that we totally ignore them, but they are
libertarians or they pick certain . . . we know science is not perfect. You can
always find problems, but they don't affect the overall picture anyhow. That's
very clear. But if you . . . surveys show that, and of certainly the politicians
almost everybody thinks, "Oh, some scientists tell us it's this way, but there
are many others. So science is not settled, so we shouldn't do anything about
it." No, that's completely wrong. We need to make . . . but if we just write an
op-ed or a scientific paper, nothing happens. You have to do something very
well-focused if you want to change public opinion on this specific aspect.
Extreme events or . . . anyhow, that's a whole . . . but that's another
important component of my interest, which is not specifically part of either the
05:38:00San Diego or the activities here at the Center, but it's part of the overall
effort, okay, because we certainly want . . . Mexico is one of the leaders in
the climate change, in the political arena in the developing world, because
fortunately President [Felipe de Jesús] Calderón [Hinojosa] was very
interested. I was able to work with him quite closely. And so it's something . .
. there's a climate change law here in Mexico, but you have to be realistic, of
course, not to do something that backfires with the economy.
But what I'm saying is we have some very specific goals here and projects,
energy, housing, transportation, and so on, and then there are these broader
political issues that are less tractable, but nevertheless crucial to solve the
05:39:00overall problem eventually. So you see how you have to look at the big picture.
That's another way to look at it.
ROBERTS: Well, but it sounds like it's more than just looking at the big
picture. It sounds like your challenge and what you're trying to do with these
multiple roles is you have to keep an eye on the big picture, but you have to
look for the small, focused project that you can do without having to tackle the
entire big picture.
ROBERTS: And I mean, I don't know if you want to share any thoughts on the
difference between that experience and the Montreal Protocol. I mean, I think,
you know, most folks who say, you know, the Montreal Protocol was this great
example of everybody coming together, but there seemed like there was this
direct route into how to fix things and it's not quite the same way with climate
change. But it is an aggregate of a lot of other potentially solvable issues.
05:40:00MOLINA: Right. You described it just right. We were lucky in some sense, with
the Montreal Protocol, that it could be a much more focused issue. We got a lot
of help from the community and so obviously the science turned out to be
crucial, so that worked. But if you look, coming around something completely
different and much more local, air pollution in a city like this, well, there
it's not just a science of air pollution. There, the challenge is which with the
Montreal Protocol, it was setting the United Nations emphasis, which we did with
not ourselves, but it was an effort of the community.
But here, we would start . . . it's not that we did everything ourselves, but we
would start talking to the key people, getting the right funding, giving key
ideas and then making sure they get incorporated into the local regulations. So
05:41:00in some sense, this sort of thing is more challenging, although it's smaller,
and also because we were set up to do the Montreal Protocol thing, but it was
nevertheless an important experience to see what it takes to do these sort of
things and to see, well, there are economic barriers and things we have to be .
. . you have to do things in such a way that society will accept them. And in
the case of air pollution, yeah, it's just like with climate change. When the
city was very polluted, then the society itself gave a clear message to the
government. You have to fix this. But once it's not very polluted, it's no
longer on the table. Then it's harder.
GONZALEZ: I'm sorry to interrupt, but I think you just ended perfectly. We have
about five minutes, five, ten minutes and I don't know if you want to take
pictures or . . .
05:42:00ROBERTS: No, I think we'll just wrap up. I could talk to you for hours more, so
thank you very much for the time you've shared with us the last two days.
MOLINA: If something else comes to mind, we can certainly do something over the
phone or look at different things.
ROBERTS: Perhaps we could even get you on a train up to Philadelphia the next
time you're at a PCAST meeting.
MOLINA: Okay, sure.
[END OF AUDIO, FILE 2.1]
[END OF INTERVIEW]