No one told Gilbert Plass to study global warming. But no one told him not to either.
It was just that the US Navy was supporting his post-doc work on infrared radiation, and he got curious around the edges of what he was supposed to be doing.
Plass was the sort of guy who listened to his first year undergraduate tutors when they said you should “read around your work”. He happened upon some of the older work exploring how the ice age could be explained in terms of changes of C02 - stuff by Fourier, Tyndall, Arrhenius and Callendar. This was the 1950s, so the idea of global warming wasn’t exactly established by then, but it wasn’t new either. Plass was the heir to over 150 years of work on the topic already.
Born in 1920 in Toronto, Canada, he moved to the US to study. After a bachelors at Harvard which included courses on geology, chemistry and physics, he did a PhD in physics at Princeton University, graduating in 1947.
He got a job as an instructor of physics at Johns Hopkins University in 1946, and eventually became an associate professor there and. As a side-project, he started considering how C02 in the atmosphere absorbed infrared radiation.
At Hopkins, he had money from the Office of Naval Research to study infrared radiation. Crucially, a sabbatical year at Michigan State University in 1954–55 gave him access to a large computer to crunch his numbers. Before he’d finished the work, he got a new job at Lockheed Aircraft Corporation in Southern California – researching heat-seeking missiles. But he kept up the global warming stuff as a sort of evening project, a bit of light environmentalism as a break from the military-industrial-complex.
Plass published a series of papers on the impacts of carbon dioxide on climate, and they were covered in mainstream press, not just scientific journals. In 1953 both Popular Mechanics and Time discussed Plass’ work describing a sort of invisible blanket growing over the Earth, and highlighting that if our industrial growth continues as it has, our climate will get warmer.
You can read his 1956 American Scientist article in the magazine’s archive, republished with commentaries from historian James Rodger Fleming and climate scientist Gavin Schmidt. Although there were still loads missing in Plass’ research, articles like these helped make the argument that this was something we should invest in some proper science to explore, and highlighted key gaps for us to invest in research on. If it wasn’t for Plass, for example, Keeling might not have had the chance to start his crucial carbon dioxide measurements at Mauna Loa.
It’s worth noting that Plass was pretty much the end of the side-project phase of climate science. After that, things got a bit more professional. It is also worth noting that Plass is one of many people involved in early climate science who had their work supported by the military.
But we should be wary of simply celebrating military funding of science. The same discoveries might well have been made if these scientists had been given the money and freedom around study of any number of topics. It’s a very lazy history of science which looks at the various spin offs of military R&D and can’t imagine a world where we had the same discoveries (and possibly more) if our brains had been invited to focus on some other challenge. Moreover, as Jacob Darwin Hamblin reminds, us Cold War funding of environmental science a long way from accidental, and not not necessarily something to celebrate (more on that in another post).
Plass died in 2004, and so would have seen his arguments take root - both scientifically and politically. Arguably, he also lived long enough to really see impacts of global warming bite. The early sketches Plass drew on - by Fourier, Tyndall or Arrhenius - were largely intellectual exercises about a far-off future no one really imagined happening. That wouldn’t be the case for Plass, or the generations of climate change scientists who followed him.
He was also a massive stamp collector, but I don’t think that lead to any big scientific discoveries.