Caltech Solves for: Smog
Back in the ’40s, as eyes stung and lungs burned, chemist and inventor Arnold O. Beckman (PhD ’28) decided that he wanted to help solve the problem.
A common cry among policymakers was, “There’s no time for research.” Beckman, like all of the Caltech greats, knew better. Having maintained a connection to the chemistry faculty at his alma mater, he had the perfect recruit in mind: microchemist Arie Haagen-Smit, who was studying the chemistry underlying the scent and flavor of pineapple.
In 1948, Beckman asked Haagen-Smit the favor of analyzing a sample of fetid brown sludge concentrated from the air. Haagen-Smit complied, and his results pinpointed hydrocarbons as a key ingredient. His findings were immediately controversial.
Initially averse to the political gales swirling around the issue, Haagen-Smit would have preferred to return to his own research. But Beckman had a plan to retain this ally in the battle against smog. He arranged for a researcher with a contrary point of view to give a talk at Caltech—and he made sure that Haagen-Smit attended, seated right there by his side.
When the visitor spoke about Haagen-Smit’s research, bemoaning that such a good scientist could be so sorely misled, Haagen-Smit saw red. He knew he was right, and he was going to prove it. That moment of pique pushed him to continue his work on smog.
Caltech extended Haagen-Smit the freedom to work for a year in a lab provided by Beckman and L.A.’s Air Pollution Control District—and in that time, Haagen-Smit was able to identify two emissions catalyzed by sunlight as the culprit of smog.
By 1968, Haagen-Smith was appointed to the state’s Air Resources Board and continued working with Beckman and a coalition of others to make automobile emissions safer for people. Their efforts led to policy changes that eventually brought astonishing improvements to air quality now taken for granted.