Nobel Causes -- MIT Nobel Prize wiinners -Mario Molina and Pugwash- focused on the consequences of modern technologyBy Brett Altschul
MIT was honored by two Nobel Prizes this year, both of which were related to the consequences of man's tech- nological advances.
Professor of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences Mario J. Molina shared the 1995 Nobel Prizes in chemistry for his work in explaining the chemical mechanisms of ozone depletion.
The Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, a group of scientists pushing for the elimination of nuclear arms, received the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize. At least six people affiliated with MIT are members of Pugwash.
This is the second time an organization with strong ties to MIT has won the peace prize.
In total, MIT-affiliated Nobel laureates in science include nine current MIT faculty members, three former faculty members, and 10 other alumni. Molina is the first MIT faculty member to win the chemistry prize.
Ordinary activities deplete ozone
Molina shared the Nobel Prize with F. Sherwood Rowland of the University of California at Irvine and Paul Crutzen of the Max Planck Institute in Mainz, Germany.
Molina's and Rowland's work predicted an ozone hole and laid the groundwork for the discovery of such a hole over Antartica in 1985. This was the first prize awarded for the research on man's effect on nature.
The research showed that common items like aerosol sprays and air conditioners can harm the fragile ozone layer that protects the world from the dangerous ultra-violet radiation of the sun. These products contain chloroflourocarbons, or CFCs, which react with ozone in the upper atmosphere, rapidly degrading the crucial chemical.
Molina, Crutzen, and Rowland "have all made pioneering contributions to explaining how ozone is formed and decomposes through chemical processes in the atmosphere," according to the Nobel Committee's citation.
They "showed how sensitive the ozone layer is to the influence of anthropogenic emissions of certain compounds," according to the citation. "By explaining the chemical mechanisms that affect the thickness of the ozone layer, the three researchers have contributed to our salvation from a global environmental problem that could have catastrophic consequences."
These landmark discoveries led to an international environmental treaty. Beginning this year, the treaty bans the production of industrial chemicals that damage the ozone layer.
Molina said that, "It does feel like a vindication," for his work to have influenced the ban on ozone-depleting chemical compounds.
Molina was born in Mexico City. He came to MIT in 1989 after holding teaching and research positions at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, the University of California, Berkeley, UC Irvine, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.
Pugwash efforts bring arms limitations
The Nobel Committee cited the Pugwash Conferences' "efforts to diminish the part played by nuclear arms in international politics and in the longer run to eliminate such arms."
However, the peace prize was seen as a stab against countries like France and China, which continue to test nuclear weapons.
The Pugwash Conferences, named after the town in Nova Scotia where the first conference was held in 1957, grew out of a manifesto drafted in 1955 by Albert Einstein and British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell. The Russell-Einstein Manifesto called upon the scientists of the world to consider the social and ethical implications of their work.
The Conferences are based on the recognition of the responsibility of scientists for their inventions. They have underlined the catastrophic consequences of the use of the new weapons and brought together scientists and decision-makers to collaborate across political divides on constructive proposals for reducing the nuclear threat.
"Many members of faculty are active with Pugwash," said Kosta Tsipis, director of the program in science and technology for international security and Pugwash member since 1968.
Through informal discussions in Pugwash, MIT's 13th president Jerome B. Wiesner helped to establish the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963, an agreement to ban atmospheric nuclear tests.
Another Pugwash member, Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Jack Ruina, is considered responsible for the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty.
Professor Emeritus of Physics Bernard T. Feld was Pugwash secretary general from 1970 to 1975. Feld was a very important member and a very early participant of the movement, Tsipis said.