24 March 2012

Names to Conjure With

Back in the 1970s, my family attended some American Chemical Society conferences because my dad was active in the Chemical Education Division. At one of those events Sherwood “Sherry” Rowland appeared.

That was a big deal because it was the height of the controversy over Rowland’s research showing that chlorofluorocarbons reduce the ozone layer in the atmosphere. Reportedly the CFC manufacturers had hired a scientist to travel around to Rowland’s talks, demanding equal time to raise doubts. (It’s not unlike climate-change deniers today, and in fact some people confuse the two issues.)

Despite the industry objections, the US government and others outlawed CFCs within a few years. In 1985, a paper in Nature reported a growing hole in the ozone layer at the South Pole. (It’s since started to shrink.) Ten years later Rowland and his colleagues shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their discovery. I thought back to my fleeting meeting with the future laureate when he died this month at the age of eighty-four.

But I also thought back to Sherry Rowlands, the call girl whom political consultant Dick Morris tried to impress by phoning the White House during their appointments. When Rowlands became notorious in 1996, I remember wondering, “Is that her real name or her professional name? What kind of call girl would name herself after a controversial scientist?” I never found out the answer.

Nor whether Reginald Denny, the truck driver who was assaulted during the 1992 L.A. riots, is any relation to the British character actor who performed opposite Buster Keaton, Jane Fonda, and Adam West.

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