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The power of experimentation

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Thursday, 12 February 2015 00:00

Being a researcher is not an occupation that many of us seek. Sri Lanka may have many market researchers, but the number for scientific researchers is very much short of our needs. It is indeed sad that this state of affairs has risen as having a vibrant research base can yield so much to an economy. If we do possess a strong research culture, I dare state that the current prevailing kidney disease sweeping many a district would not have risen to this stage of a national calamity. Even after so many years of witnessing death and destruction through this kidney disease of unknown etiology, we still do not have a focused collaborative national effort directed to resolve the issue. Listening to voices from the periphery as well as to those from within only confirms this conclusion. It is important to understand the national significance of less than focused action, having the tagline of unknown etiology with numbers affected climbing steadily. Experimentation carried across with passion and dedication can even at times lead to saving the world from disaster, let alone enabling a country to be competitive. The final reward to a couple of scientists who led the unravelling may be the Nobel Prize. However, we have to ask the question: Do we really value and understand the significance of experimentation and research? Yes, some experimenters have by virtue of their efforts certainly saved the world and more so humanity. When we understand what a few have done, maybe then we will value investments for science in our country too. Understanding our environment Understanding our environment has always being challenging and interesting. , Environmental elements have been treated with religious fervour and in early days worshiping sun and fire had been quite common. What was once viewed with awe and respect, today we are thinking of dominating and exploiting. Even in the 21st century, with so many advances, we cannot yet state with confidence that we understand these environmental compartments and the synergies. As life being at the intersection of these spheres – biosphere – we have ourselves brought in an even more challenging interaction with man and the environment. We have identified progress of human kind with the ability to control nature and in exploitation of resources. As the nature of interaction become ever more complex, the way forward in realising a meaningful grasp of possible scenarios lies with strong research combined to development efforts. The ozone layer Consider the situation that developed as a result of the identification of the effect of chlorofluorocarbons on the ozone layer in the atmosphere and the possible devastating effects as a result of its depletion, on man and the environment. The ozone layer is the Earth’s natural sunscreen that protects humans, plants and animals by filtering out harmful UV radiation. The identification was not planned but simply happened as a result of dedicated long term research by many individuals. Those who deciphered the chemical puzzle eventually won the Nobel Prize for chemistry, which is the ultimate prize for scientific research. The Nobel citation reads: “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.” Thus the scientific research efforts of Prof. F. Sherwood Rowland, Paul Crutzen and Mario Molina are truly a lesson to us on the power of experimentation. The chemical villain The chemical villain in this story is a group of chemicals termed chlorofluorocarbons. They were completely manmade. The chemicals were synthesised to fulfil emerging requirements and served well in those capacities as they were nontoxic, nonflammable and therefore safe in many ways. Industries used them in refrigeration processes as they were quite safe compared to ammonia which was the prevailing option. While the industrial use of these chemicals reached significant proportions, there were scientists who were studying atmospheric constituents and looking at their various behavioural patterns. For years, Dr. James Lovelock had been measuring these chemicals in both northern and southern hemispheres with the help of a scientific group. A lecture note made by Sherwood Rowland after attending one of his lectures indicated Lovelock’s data. Nobel laureates too had to sit in class and learn like others, one should understand! Significance of the chain reaction Rowland subsequently pursued his own studies too with interest and curiosity aroused as a chemist, and looked at possibilities of breakdown compounds from the primary chemicals. The stable chemical at ground level changed at heights with exposure to UV energy. With sufficient energy received, the compound released chlorine and the finding that this released chlorine can react with ozone was determined. The significance of the chain reaction was determined and the primary mechanism was published in the premier science journal – Nature in 1974. They came out with two sets of equations to describe what is happening above us and the argument was settled once and for all! Experimental proof This part of the study is really scientific research. However, as the determination was theoretical, experimental proof that the ozone depletion was actually taking place was needed and the proof came via a group of British scientists who were stationed in Antarctica who identified depletion of the ozone layer – the now famous Ozone hole. Scientists from British Antarctic Survey also had been monitoring ozone starting from the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58. In 1985, scientists discovered that since the mid-1970s ozone values over their research stations in Antarctica had been steadily dropping when the Sun reappeared each spring. The presence of something in the stratosphere (about 20km above Earth) was destroying ozone. This finding cemented the hypothesis, mechanism and validation and the Nobel Prize was awarded to the three scientists. It must be stated that till experimental validation of the hypothesis was realised through the work of the British scientists working in Antarctica, the work was not given the attention it deserved. There were times when the scientists who developed the mechanism through theoretical means faced significant criticism from the industry that produced the compounds. With all data in, the danger facing the world was identified and the international community was galvanised into action in implementing a ban on production and use of the particular group of chemicals. The efforts led to the Montreal Protocol and a global convention that had been quite successful. Sri Lanka took the policy decision to phase out CFC consumption by year 2005. There were significant development work subsequent to the original research as the world has to evolve new ways to industry to pursue applications as well as mechanisms to recover and destroy CFCs that had been used by the industry and the users such as in automobile air conditioning systems. Importance of measurements and data collection It is also important to understand the importance of measurements and data collections at times perhaps without a hypothesis but with the express intention of gathering knowledge. The scientists have been active over decades in collecting data on both sides of the globe and at different latitudes. Multiple flights have been the initial mechanism of collecting air samples. When sampling was carried out, it had been purely with the intention of understanding of environmental constituents. The data available led to subsequent hypothesis and analysis. The final conclusion was a planet-saving understanding and today we really reap dividends of those efforts. It is important to note here that it was Rowland and Mowlina who worked on chlorofluorocarbons. The other winner of the Nobel Prize with them was studying the emissions from agriculture applications after soil-dwelling bacterial decomposes the chemicals. He demonstrated the ozone hole depleting potential of nitrous oxides, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize. In 1970 Prof. Paul Crutzen, from Netherlands, pointed out that emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O), a stable gas with a long residence time in the atmosphere, could affect the amount of nitric oxide (NO) in the stratosphere. Crutzen showed that nitrous oxide lives long enough to reach the stratosphere, where it is converted into NO. Crutzen also noted that increasing use of fertilisers might have led to an increase in nitrous oxide emissions which in turn can damage ozone. Today the world is regulating all the responsible chemicals for ozone depletion under the Montreal Protocol to safeguard the ozone layer. Much more basic research to be done As one discovery or an invention leads to another set of developments, more and more research may be necessary to understand and plan the subsequent steps. As we are yet understand nature completely, much more basic research still awaits to be done. Carrying out research is the domain of researchers. In today’s world, where glitz influences decision making, the picture of a researcher hunched over a petri dish counting the effect of a soil bacterium is hardly exciting fodder to the news machine. This needs change. While establishing a national cadre of researchers is an accepted national policy in human resources how can we proceed beyond the written word knowing its importance? [The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is the Project Director of COSTI (Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation), which is a newly established State entity with the mandate of coordinating and monitoring scientific affairs. He can be reached via email on ajith@cheng.mrt.ac.lk.]

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