Pay to Marwadi
image 31 white

The story of Clair Patterson

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

The age of the earth, scientists tell us, is 4,540 million years (plus or minus 50 million years). This is when some of the swirling rocks of the early solar system came together to form one big rock, we now call Earth. How did scientists come up with such an immensely old date for the age of the earth? 

By the early 1900s, scientists knew, theoretically, how to use radioactivity (the natural phenomena of giving off radiation by some elements) to find out the age of different objects on earth. Without going into technical details, determining how old the earth is means measuring the amount of lead in the samples of old rocks.

Initially, it seemed measuring the amount of lead in rocks would be easy. Thus, Harrison Brown, a professor at the University of Chicago, gave this “simple” problem to a young student, Clair Patterson in 1948. Brown told Patterson that it would be as easy as making a cup of soup! 

Patterson’s father was a postman, and his mother was a teacher. They encouraged Patterson’s interests in science and as a young child, Patterson was allowed to carry out a range of chemistry experiments at home. Patterson said that “My parents allowed me to go off in any wild direction [of experiments] I wanted, provided it had a sound basis.” Patterson taught himself more about science than his small-town teachers at school knew. Patterson was lucky, as his teachers were also tolerant and allowed Patterson to question them and show them why he was often correct and how they were wrong.  

Soon after Patterson began working on the “easy” problem Professor Brown had given him, Patterson found that making accurate measurements of the amount of lead in rock samples was extremely difficult. This was because he kept finding a large number of lead particles in the air that were disturbing his measurements. This lead pollution was contaminating his rock samples and making his experiments very difficult to carry out.

Most other scientists might have given up, but Patterson was determined to carry on. Patterson invented what we now call “clean rooms”, used in hospital operating theatres as well as by pharmaceutical companies in their production facilities. These are ultra-sterile rooms where all dirt and pollution are removed. It took Patterson 7 years of nearly continuous work to complete his careful measurements. Patterson persevered and finally arrived at the age of the earth at 4,540 million years old. 

Dear Reader, 4,540 million years is an immensely long period of time. It gives humans a radically new perspective on themselves and the universe. It required great perseverance to finally arrive at this result. A colleague described Patterson as “no-compromise, intense and dedicated”. Patterson was so excited when he finally determined this number that he nearly fainted. He said that “the discovery electrified my soul”.

Soon after this momentous discovery, Patterson started investigating the cause of lead pollution. Through another round of careful experiments, he found that most of the lead pollution in the air was coming from the exhaust of cars. Further investigations by Patterson showed that the lead was added to petrol to make it easier to use in cars. Separately, a Doctor in New York, Doctor Needleman had started to find that lead was poisonous and causing terrible damage especially to young children’s brains and nervous systems.

Together Patterson and Doctor Needleman fought a long battle against the oil and car companies to ban lead from petrol. This was not easy, and it took decades before lead was banned as an additive in petrol. However, their efforts saved the lives of millions of children worldwide.

Patterson had the guts and perseverance to discover new aspects about mother nature and also showed fearlessness in fighting against powerful interest to remove harmful lead pollution. Patterson is one of the unsung heroes of our modern age making huge contributions to the advancement of knowledge and the welfare of all humans.

© Kaikhushru Taraporevala

Related Posts