Holes in both our atmosphere and in how we talk about women in science. 

Created from excerpts from Susan Solomon’s Oral History

Maybe I’m just too indestructible, I just never let [discriminatory] kinds of things bother me. And they really didn’t bother me that much. I think you also have to keep a sense of humor about things. A lot of what goes on is actually pretty funny, and if you can continue to keep things light, it helps a lot rather than getting all sort of bogged down and angry about things. I guess one example that I like to tell is that when I was in New Zealand with a group of sixteen guys about ready to go to the ice, a New Zealand reporter asked me, ‘How does it feel being a woman working with all these men?’

Susan Solomon is one of the leading scientists of her generation. She has developed key theoretical insights into atmospheric chemistry. She’s made decisive measurements from the harshest place on Earth. She’s coordinated teams of scientists to make sure that the latest knowledge about global warming is available to decision-makers. She’s won just about every major award an atmospheric scientist can—The Carl Gustav Rossby Medal, the William Bowie Medal, the Volvo prize for Environmental Science—and even some prizes that atmospheric chemists have never won before, like the Nobel Peace Prize.

So I gave him what was really almost an honest answer. I looked around and I said, ‘Wow, they are all men, aren’t they?!’

I completely understand why Solomon was annoyed by that observation. She’s a scientist studying important things. Why does her gender matter? But as an aspiring woman in science myself, I know it does matter in some ways. And what does she mean by “almost” true? Solomon makes it clear in her interviews that she did not feel any discrimination from her colleagues in the field of science. It seems to me that the problem lies more in how the general public and media view Solomon as a female before a scientist.

Quick Background: ozone is an oxygen molecule naturally found in Earth’s atmosphere.

Let’s start back at the beginning of the story of the ozone hole. In 1984, British scientists noticed up to 50% of the ozone in the stratosphere above Antarctica disappeared at some points throughout the year. Stratospheric ozone is vital for protecting our planet from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Before Solomon’s expedition to Antarctica, most people agreed that the ozone levels were depleting, exposing our planet to potentially dangerous amounts of solar radiation, but no one agreed on the cause. As Solomon puts it:

Suddenly everyone was talking about it—’Is there really an ozone hole in Antarctica, my God!’—we decided we would have a short session at that meeting about the different theories…so I actually stood up and talked about my work. That was the first meeting where that idea of HCl nitrate was presented and, of course, lots of people pooh-poohed it, which I think is kind of funny in retrospect. But it didn’t bother me then, and doesn’t bother me now; that’s kind of the nature of science—people will be skeptical at first and that’s good, that’s one of the things that keeps us critical in science.

There were multiple explanations attempting to account for the drop in ozone. One theory, the theory Solomon supported, attributes the decrease in ozone to chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) reacting with ozone molecules heavily at the poles. Solomon thought that Polar Stratospheric Clouds present in the atmosphere above the arctic might provide a surface for ozone depleting reactions involving CFCs, hence the noticeable decrease in ozone over Antarctica, specifically. These unusual clouds form only in the polar regions during winter. They are very high, from 49,000 to 82,000 feet above the ground. And they are made of solid ice crystals, which gives them a beautiful sheen, but which also might provide an ideal solid surface for ozone depleting chemical reactions to take place. This theory would be supported by the presence of chlorine dioxide in the stratosphere as photons of ultraviolet light can break off CFC chlorine molecules, which react with stratospheric ozone to produce oxygen and chlorine oxide.

The main other competing theory attributed to the decrease in ozone to nitrogen molecules from nitrous oxide reacting with ozone, which would result in an increase in nitrogen dioxide in the atmosphere. Some smaller theories included changes in air circulation due to warming ocean temperatures and even a theory revolving around high energy electrons from Saturn and Jupiter. The National Science Foundation funded an expedition to Antarctica to measure the atmospheric makeup to prove or disprove the nitrogen/CFCs angle. Here’s how Solomon explains her involvement in the expedition:

I kind of just said, ‘Well, I’ll go.’ Of course everyone laughed because I was a theoretician—I mean, my idea of an instrument was a keyboard up until that time. But there was no one else, so they figured the worst that could happen would be that I would get no data. And that’s not how it turned out, fortunately.

In my opinion, Solomon is incredibly humble at this point in her interview. No one is picked to lead a cutting edge team of researchers on a government-funded mission to Antarctica just because he or she happened to be the only one to volunteer. Potentially, certain aspects resulting from Solomon’s gender and position of being a theoretician contributed to her leadership abilities. Being a leader requires listening to others opinions:

I mean, we’ve all seen scientists whose idea of a good time is to basically tear somebody up in pieces just for the hell of it. And even when they agree with that person, I have seen people do that. I understand the problem and I know the issues well enough to know that person “x” actually agrees with person “y,” but they enjoy the process of tearing them up. For them it’s sort of an intellectual game to the point where they do it anyway. I must say that I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a woman do that. A woman might disagree. You know, person “x” might disagree with Person “y,” but only if they really, truly disagree. A woman doesn’t do it for sport.

Solomon noticed that women in the field of science tend to be more encouraging of other people’s opinions. Solomon herself does not “tear somebody up into pieces just for the hell of it.” If this is what her male colleagues were doing, one can imagine why Solomon was chosen as the leader for the expedition. Additionally, being a leader also requires making decisions.

Also, I think the fact that I was a theoretician was viewed as a little bit of an advantage because I suppose if you assume that my instrument is not going to work anyway—and one of the main jobs of the expedition leader is actually to make decisions and at times I did have to…You had to have somebody who was going to manage that in such a way as to maximize the science of their group as a whole rather than their own instrument. And so a theoretician is in some sense a prime candidate for that because they’re not personally invested, of course.    

Next, Solomon and her team travel down to Antarctica (not the most luxurious ride):

It’s an uncomfortable trip, it’s nine hours in a very noisy military airplane without really having seats—I mean, they have these webbed structures that you can kind of sit on. But I didn’t mind any of that. I didn’t even notice it because it was the most exciting, challenging, fantastic experience of my life. And I guess it gets back again to this sense of the world as physical beauty—I mean, I have never seen anything that was to me more beautiful than Antarctica…The colors of twilight down there are incredible, intensely purple and blue. The polar stratospheric clouds, those same polar stratospheric clouds that deplete the ozone, are wonderful to see. They look like tiny suspended rainbows or pieces of rainbows…It’s a remarkable place, and the challenge of doing the work down there was for me just tremendous.

The challenge of doing the work is sure not an understatement.

Standing up on the roof of a building in Antarctica with -40° temperatures and 40 mph winds was a tremendous challenge. And we had to hold the mirror up there and do all this. So it was exciting physically to make those measurements, and of course, intellectually as well. But we knew the moon would be our best light source, but like all absorption measurements, you do the measurement relative to another background spectrum.

So what were they doing up on that roof? Solomon’s team was attempting to determine the molecular composition of the atmosphere through spectroscopy. The gases found in the atmosphere held the key to solving the mystery of the cause of the ozone hole. The CFC hypothesis would be supported by the detection of chlorine oxide in the stratosphere as chlorine from CFCs reacts with stratospheric ozone therefore converting ozone to chlorine oxide. Chlorine oxide is detected in spectra by comparing measurements with high intensities of light to low intensities of light. The larger the disparity between the light intensities, the more accurate readings of chlorine oxide. Originally, Solomon and her team compared spectra from the moon at a low position on the horizon to the moon at the zenith, but this was not enough difference in light. Here comes Solomon’s ingenuity to the rescue:  

I’ll never forget after having done some measurements around the middle of September, I was walking back to my room and it was pretty cold, probably about -20° or so—but you get used to the temperature down there—and I suddenly looked up and saw the sun. It was probably the first time I had seen the sun since I came down at the end of August, and I [thought], oh, that’s great, the sun’s coming up, you can actually see it now, it’s above the horizon. And I suddenly realized that would make the perfect background.

This perfect background highlighted the chlorine oxide molecules in the atmosphere above the Antarctic, supporting the theory that CFCs are the cause of the ozone hole. Solomon and her team measured, how she describes it, the “blockbuster” molecule of chlorine oxide in the atmosphere. With this data, scientists and international governmental organizations were able to collaborate on what would become one of the world’s greatest environmental success stories: decreasing the size of the ozone hole. Check out the current status of the ozone hole here.

Susan Solomon is clearly a very accomplished scientist. I understand how it must be frustrating to get questions like “what’s it like to be a woman surrounded by all these men?” Solomon made clear that she did not feel discriminated against in her workplace. To me, it seems that the true problem lies in the everyday people who view her work differently due to her gender. Like that reporter in New Zealand, I also first viewed Solomon as a female scientist, rather than as a scientist who happens to be female. It is important to recognise that being part of any minority group in a field results in inherent obstacles, yet at the same time we need to make sure we are exalting female scientists for their work and not just for the societal obstacles they overcome.

However, something feels wrong about just completely forgetting about gender and viewing her the same as her surrounding male colleagues. She had to climb over many societal obstacles that her male counterparts merely stepped over. I’m still hunting for that perfect balance of not letting female scientists’ gender overshadow their scientific work, yet also not forgetting their important strides in forging paths for future minority scientists.

Listening to Solomon’s oral history made me wonder, what can feminists learn from Solomon’s story? One imagines a more traditional feminist in science as someone who outwardly promotes women in science—a woman who supports other women in science by talking about how she is a woman in science. While this is an incredibly important mission, I think Susan Solomon falls under a different, equally as important field of being a feminist leader. Susan Solomon is a feminist, in my opinion, specifically because she doesn’t like talking about the fact that she is a woman in science. She prefers to talk about the science because after all, that’s what scientists do.

Illustration: Sophie Lee

Posted by:Daphnie Friedman

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