Thursday, January 19, 2006

On the Rediscovery of "Killer Trees"

Methane is the greenhouse gas which has the second greatest effect on climate, after carbon dioxide. The concentration of methane in the atmosphere has almost tripled in the last 150 years...Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics have now discovered that plants themselves produce methane and emit it into the atmosphere, even in completely normal, oxygen-rich surroundings. The researchers made the surprising discovery during an investigation of which gases are emitted by dead and fresh leaves....why would such a seemingly obvious discovery only come about now, 20 years after hundreds of scientists around the globe started investigating the global methane cycle?

Solomon2 has a partial answer to that question. Twenty years ago, when I felt far wiser than I feel now, Solomon2 was an engineering undergrad at a major university. One of the professors in the department, we heard, was actually working on research to prove that pollution came from plants.

Oh, how we undergrads made fun of this professor! "Killer Trees" is how we referred to his industry-funded project. It was so obviously wrong!

This professor also had a graduate student working with him on the project. The grad student felt that he was being pushed to produce research beyond what was necessary to write his Ph.D. thesis and appealed to higher authority.

Amazingly, the graduate student won his appeal and was awarded his doctorate. Whereupon the newly-degreed doctor of engineering wiped all information about the project from his former professor's computer files.

Ah, the joys of academia! Did one act of vindictive revenge set back methane pollution research for a generation? I cannot say. A number of us undergraduate engineering students were employed to re-code what information could be retrieved, but I don't doubt that much data was lost. Lost to the professor, lost to the world, and lost to history.

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