25 years ago this month, I joined EMSL

After a call from Bill Wiley, Steve Colson, and Doug Ray

I joined a scientific team building the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory

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The EMSL (pronounced like “em-sul”)  I moved into in 1997.  For its first couple of years (1994-1996), as the building was finished and fought over, we were a blip in the PNNL- ROB and Math Buildings as MSRC (Molecular Science Research Centre), with no future except the next year’s funding. No barbed wire or armed guards for this facility.  EMSL was meant to ATTRACT the brightest minds from around the World, not keep the World out.

That is all true.  I look back and see how tenuous it all was.  We were a small group, living year-to-year on the annual allotment of funds for “future-projects.” I gave up a tenure-track position at the University of Central Florida – Orlando, for this?  All of the future EMSL could meet in a single conference room in PNNL-Math or PNNL-ROB, with Steve Colson, our boss, presiding.

Prof. Dr. Steven D. Colson (Yale).  What an honour to know him and work with him.  The son of elders in The Church of Latter Day Saints, he kept a portrait of Brigham Young in a coon-skin hat on his office wall behind his desk.  Despite his faith, perhaps because of his faith, he was as thorough a scientist as I could imagined.  In other words, I never found nor saw an instance where his faith interceded with his science.  Besides the portrait of Brigham Young, little gave away his devotion to the LDS, a truly private matter.

Only on one occasion during a meeting did he bring it up, in a humourous light.  When the selection and hiring of our first Chinese National from the People’s Republic of China (not just our first at EMSL, but the first-ever Chinese National hired in the whole of the United States DOE National Laboratory system) was up for discussion.  Someone raised, that Sunney Xie’s wife was still in the People’s Republic.  “Would she receive a passport and a visa too?”  Steve, knowing that the vote was assured for his pick of Prof. Dr. Sunney Xie, quipped to the effect…

‘Well, if she cannot, “we” in the Church have a history of arrangements like this. “We” can find him a wife here!  He will probably be making enough to support two families…’ 

I remember the stares across the room and the dead silence.  Then, Steve broke out a huge laugh and chuckle.  We all started laughing.  It was a good way to end the meeting that selected the first People’s Republic of China scientist to work for the US DOE!  Yes, Sunney’s wife and family in China all received passports and visas following his appointment in EMSL!

So why is this relevant today and what does it have to do with the Climate Emergency we are facing?  We researched the environmental issues of the day.  Particularly, CO2 emissions. I started my work, specifically, on CaCO3, calcium carbonate. We detected an unusual phenomena in CaCO3.  That it disintegrated by giving off CO2 and a small amount of CO with extremely low levels of light interacting with the mineral at UV wavelengths found in the solar spectrum.

This went against the commonly held believe that CaCO3 might be capable of sequestering CO2 gas on land.  It turns out, that CaCO3 in the form of coral and shells is capable, in the deep ocean away from solar radiation, of sequestering atmospheric CO2 to the tune of 30-40% of the our CO2 emissions to date.

Now that the oceans are completely FULL of CO2, and acidifying because of it, there is nothing left to do but just stop. Stop emissions, completely. Or die.




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Prof. Dr. Steven D. Colson’s academic great-great-grandfather was Linus Pauling!  His great-great-great-grandfather was Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrödinger, and Wilhelm Sommerfield! Oh My!


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