There is Something in the Air,
A conversation con Mario Molina
Mario José Molina-Pasquel Henríquez (born March 19, 1943 in Mexico City) is the first Mexican-born citizen to ever receive a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Along with Paul J. Crutzen and F. Sherwood Rowland, he is one of the precursors to the discovery of the Antartic ozone hole. In 1995 he was co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his role in elucidating the threat of chlorofluorocarbon gases to the Earth’s ozone layer. In interview with Negocios, Dr. Molina talks about how he became interested in science and his life today.
Johannes Kepler asked himself some 400 years ago: “Why are things the way they are and not otherwise?” No matter what the era, it is that same, seemingly naive curiosity that drives us to look for answers to the questions that have fascinated mankind since time immemorial. Dr. Mario Molina, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, talks to us about his life and how he has contributed to science.
Mario Molina (Mexico City, 1943) was one of the scientists who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1995 for discovering the threat of certain polluting gases to the ozone layer. Almost 20 years have passed and Dr. Molina is still hard at work. In interview with Negocios, he tells us about everything from his early encounters with science and why we need to take steps to protect the environment, to what he does during his free time and his passion for music.
—The first “conscious” contact most people have with science is the typical kid’s chemistry set and the home labs set up in their bathrooms. What was yours?
As a kid, I started taking an interest in science –when I was about nine or ten– after reading books about pirates and the biographies of scientists. Then I got into chemistry experiments and microscopes. Years later, I started conducting more serious experiments. I “appropriated” a bathroom at home that wasn’t being used and turned it into a lab where I conducted proper experiments, not games. An aunt, a sister of my father who was a chemist, helped me reproduce the experiments she did at university in my little “lab”.
—When did you realize that chemistry is all around us? What was that discovery like?
Studying the sciences made me realize –and this was outside of school– how important they are to the general wellbeing of mankind. I gradually specialized in one branch of science: chemistry. I realized that chemistry plays a role in absolutely everything, from industrial processes to the food we eat.
—Kids are always asking questions like “Why is the sky blue?” “Why do onions make us cry?” that can only be answered by science. Do you remember the kind of questions you used to ask?
From a very early age, I started asking questions like: What is chemistry and what makes life possible? How were the elements and the chemical compounds on our planet created? How were pharmaceuticals invented?
—Is there any teacher you have fond memories of?
Yes, my father’s sister. Rather than teach me, she made chemistry a game for me. That’s how I learned. As for formal teachers, I remember Professor Giral. He was from Spain and taught me organic chemistry at university.
I also have fond memories of Professor Pimentel, who mentored me when I was writing my PhD thesis at the University of Berkeley. He was widely recognized in his day for his teaching skills in chemistry and his scientific discoveries.
—Tell us about your passion for music. Do you still play the violin?
I was drawn to music from a very young age. Classical music was probably my favorite. I played the violin as a boy and for a few years I was a resident at a school in Switzerland, where I was able to take private lessons.
Unfortunately, my parents asked for the advice of a friend who was a violinist and he told them that unless I spent eight hours a day practicing, it wasn’t worth it. I had to choose: music or science. Looking back, it was bad advice because I could have continued playing for my own pleasure, but I quit. Then I took up the classical guitar, because I thought it would be easier, but as it turned out, it wasn’t. Recently, I’ve considered taking violin lessons again and trying to remember, but I haven’t had time to do anything serious about it. I still love classical music.
—How are music and chemistry related?
It’s interesting that music has been the hobby of many scientists, including some very famous ones. For instance, Albert Einstein played the violin. I have scientist friends who enjoy a special connection with music. I think we should all complement our liveswith a little bit of culture and partake in it. A friend of mine who’s a scientist became so interested in instrument-making technology that he now designs guitars and violins using ultra-modern physics methods.
—Let’s talk about the Nobel Prize. What was the most satisfying aspect of winning such a prestigious award?
I acknowledge that it’s the greatest achievement a scientist can aspire to, because it’s one of the most prestigious and longestrunning awards in the world. The people who have received it have made major contributions to the development of science. People like Einstein, Planck and Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish chemist who was among the first to express concern about climate change. Marie Curie is another illustrious example and, more recently, Watson and Crick, for their discoveries about the structure of DNA. The list of scientists who have received the prize is extremely lengthy, which only comes to show how important it is to science and those of us who devote our lives to it.
—It’s been almost 40 years since you and Professor Rowland first revealed the threat polluting gases pose to the ozone layer. Were you aware of the implications of your research at the time?
Yes, to a large extent we were. Part of our initial surprise was that we had uncovered a problem that was significant not just to chemistry, but to the wellbeing of mankind. This was because we knew the important role the ozone layer plays in controlling the type of radiation that reaches the Earth’s surface, thereby enabling life to evolve. And we knew that the decomposition of the ozone layer would entail a major public health risk. The first step we took was to come up with ideas, a hypothesis, which was proven years later by experiments.
—Those of us who care about the environment tend to adopt certain practices, like separating our trash and using electricity, water and other natural resources more sparingly. Can our lifestyle help save the planet?
There’s no question we need to make a more efficient use of resources like water and electricity and moderate our consumption. Unfortunately, acting on our own initiative as individuals isn’t enough to solve the problem. People who care about the environment should join forces with like-minded people and communicate their concerns to their governments, because only governments can enforce the regulations needed to bring about tangible change. We need to support environmental initiatives with policies that promote sustainable development.
—“Healthy body, healthy mind” is a popular saying. How do you cultivate your spirit?
I couldn’t agree more that it’s important to achieve a balance between the various aspects of our makeup as individuals. Art, for example, is very important to human beings, as is exercise and work.
As a boy, I loved reading and I later became interested in science fiction. Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to read for pleasure lately; most of what I read is connected to work. Now and then I try to catch up with my reading, especially Spanish-American novels. I love music too, and over the years I’ve taken a growing interest in art. I had the chance to live in Europe and used to love going to museums. There you can see some of the finest art collections representative of universal culture.
—With today’s hectic pace of life, we seem to have less and less time to ourselves. What do you do when you’re not working?
When I’m not working, which isn’t often, I’m with my family. I listen to music, read, play tennis –I like sports– and catch up with current affairs in Mexico and abroad. I think you have to do things passionately. Work and free time should be something you enjoy if you want to reap the benefits. It’s important not to limit yourself to one activity, but to complement your life with cultural and sporting activities and family time.
—Returning to the subject of chemistry, it is said that nothing beats a perfect combination of flavors. What is your favorite food?
Gourmet food is one of the things I enjoy the most. I appreciate good food from all manner of countries. It’s something I try to combine with my never-ending trips. Luckily, we have great food in Mexico.