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The Boom Interview: Veerabhadran Ramanathan

Veerabhadran Ramanathan (Tamil: வீரபத்ரன் இராமநாதன்) is Victor Alderson Professor of Applied Ocean Sciences and director of the Center for Atmospheric Sciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego. He has contributed to many areas of the atmospheric sciences including developments to general circulation models, atmospheric chemistry, and radiative transfer. He has been a part of major projects such as the Indian Ocean Experiment (INDOEX) and the Earth Radiation Budget Experiment (ERBE), and is known for his contributions to the area of atmospheric aerosol research. He has received numerous awards, and is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences. He has spoken about the topic of global warming, and written that “the effect of greenhouse gases on global warming is, in my opinion, the most important environmental issue facing the world today.”[2]

Boom: How did an engineer end up pursuing an offbeat, unconventional and unique career as a climate scientist?

Ramanathan: That’s a long story. And nobody has asked me that particular question, so let me reconstruct it.

Ramanathan was born in Madurai, India. At the age of 11, he moved with his family to Bangalore. The classes at the school he attended were taught in English, and not his native Tamil. He admits that he “lost the habit of listening to my teachers and had to figure out things on my own”.

He received his bachelor’s degree in engineering from Annamalai University, and a master’s degree from the Indian Institute of Science. In 1970, he arrived in the United States to study interferometry at the State University of New York at Stony Brook under the direction of Robert Cess. Before Ramanathan could begin working on his PhD research, Cess decided to change his research and focus on planetary atmospheres.

I got my undergraduate degree in engineering in India. Then I worked a few years in the refrigeration industry. I didn’t know that six years from the time I left India, that work experience was going to have a huge impact on what I did and would be what eventually took me to the Vatican.

My job was to figure out why these refrigerants—later we came to know them as freons—were escaping so quickly from refrigeration units. In India, these units would come back within six months, and they had lost all their refrigerants.

At the time, I didn’t see the wisdom of what was happening there, so I hated my job and I hated engineering. I also didn’t have too much confidence that I was good for anything. I mainly went to small-town schools because my father was a traveling salesman, selling Goodyear tires. So my education to high school was primarily in the local regional language, Tamil. And then, in high school I moved to Bangalore. That was the city the British used for their military, so school was in English. And I quickly dropped from the top of the class to the bottom of the class. I didn’t know what they were talking about. But that had a profound impact on me, which still carries with me to this day. I stopped learning from others. I stopped listening to my teachers because I didn’t understand what they were saying, so I had to figure out things on my own.

I struggled through high school, and my grades weren’t good enough. So I couldn’t get into good engineering schools, and I went to a second-tier engineering school. I already knew engineering was not my calling. The two years in the refrigeration industry made it clear to me that I was not going to be an engineer. And it turned out I had a good break. The Indian Institute of Science admitted me to do a master’s degree. The primary reason I applied for the master’s degree is that I thought it would be a ticket to come to the U.S.

Because my father was a tire salesman, he used to bring home these beautiful brochures of Impala cars. They were selling Goodyear tires, and, of course, there were beautiful people, beautiful women in the cars. I was too young to notice the women, but I noticed the cars. So I got hooked. I thought, “I need to go to the U.S. and own one of these cars, and enjoy the good American life.” I think the story in my head was that milk and honey would be dropping out of the trees.

But, at the Indian Institute of Science, which was, for me, a ticket to the U.S., my grades were not good enough. So they didn’t put me through a degree program where you have to attend courses, because I was very bad at listening to others and spitting out information. That was what education in India was—just memorizing. So they asked me to go into the research track and build an interferometer, a high-precision optical instrument to study turbulence. The interferometer measures very accurate fluctuations in temperature. In retrospect, that’s an impossible project to do, but I took it. It took me three years, but we did build an interferometer, for the first time in India. And I learned what I am good at, which is research, and doing things which others give up as not possible. So, I finally had this confidence back in me.

So then I came to the U.S. to study engineering and get a job in a tire company. Goodyear was my ambition because my father worked there. But my adviser, the day I walked into his office, said he was tired of engineering. I liked him for that. I could relate to that. He switched to studying the atmospheres of Mars and Venus. So that’s where my work was—reconstructing the greenhouse effects on Mars and Venus, where they have pure carbon dioxide atmospheres

Boom: Did this mode of learning on your own, and having to do things yourself, continue through your graduate degrees and into your research on climate change?

Ramanathan: Yes, right through, because I still never believe anything I read or what others tell me unless I can try it out myself, either through a thought experiment or designing an experiment to do that.

When I finished my Ph.D., I couldn’t get a job studying planetary atmospheres, but NASA took me in their reentry physics section. They wanted me to build a model of the atmosphere. And since I’d worked on the carbon dioxide greenhouse effect, I started reading papers on that. There was a famous report from Swedish Academy of Science that said, in terms of man’s impact, carbon dioxide is the only thing you need to worry about—and, of course, I didn’t believe that. And this was 1974, and I saw this paper by Mario Molina and Sherman Rowland talking about CFCs causing damage to the ozone layer. And it was the CFCs that I was trying to prevent from escaping in my job in India.

Boom: From the refrigerators?

Ramanathan: Yes. I could immediately relate to that. I said, this must have a strong greenhouse effect. And, in fact, my former adviser, Bob Cess, said, “Oh, you are wasting your time. Carbon dioxide is obviously the greenhouse gas.” So I did that work, and, of course, it showed CFCs were 10,000 times more potent. The CFC work was a breakthrough. That paper got me into the climate field. Paul Crutzen read it—he’s a Nobel Laureate—Ralph Cicerone, who is the President of the National Academy of Sciences, read it. He was the one who reviewed it. So it got me from being an obscure guy from India into the mainstream of climate and atmospheric science.