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Clair Patterson Oral History Interview with Shirley Cohen

 Digital Record
Identifier: 2016-02-17-000124


  • Other: 2016 February 17


In this interview in March 1995, nine months before his death, Clair C. (Pat) Patterson, professor of geochemistry, emeritus, talks about his early interest in physical chemistry; his education at Grinnell College, in Iowa; his stint on the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge; and his subsequent graduate work at the University of Chicago with Harrison Brown, where he measured the isotopic composition and concentration of minute quantities of lead with a mass spectrometer. He received his PhD at Chicago in 1951. After a year there as a postdoc, he came to Caltech with Brown, who established a geochemistry program in the Division of Geology. By 1953, having measured the isotopic composition of primordial lead in iron meteorites, Patterson was able to determine the age of the earth at 4.5 billion years. He then turned to a study of the natural levels of terrestrial lead and discovered that in the modern industrial environment, lead concentrations had greatly increased, from such sources as leaded gasoline and the solder used in food cans-with a corresponding increase in lead levels in human beings. He discusses his investigation of lead levels in seawater, oceanic sediments, and polar ice cores and his calculation of the rise in environmental lead levels beginning with the mining of lead in Greek and Roman times. At the end of the interview, he discusses his current interest in the evolution of different neuronal networks for two kinds of thinking, utilitarian and non-utilitarian-and his belief that this is illustrated by similarities in utilitarian thinking in the Old and New Worlds, while their cultural (non-utilitarian) development was dissimilar.

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