How Clair Cameron Patterson “Led” Us to Success

Throughout the years, there have been many different people from many different countries looking to change the world. Whether it be from their art, music, or discoveries, they’ve managed to benefit others in many different ways. Some of the people who have benefited us the most have been scientists. Whether they’re busy calculating the age of the Earth or protecting us from certain diseases, their information can help lead us to bigger things. One man guilty of doing this is Clair Cameron Patterson.

Clair Cameron Patterson

Clair  Cameron Patterson is an American geochemist. Like any other scientist, he was a very determined scientist and his work spread across many different fields including archeology, meteorology, oceanography, and other environmental sciences. He is also known for discovering the exact age of the Earth. He was able to use a meteorite called the Canyon Diablo to calculate that the Earth is 4.55 billion years old.   This estimation was far more accurate than those at the time. In order to do it, he used a mineral called zircon which is extremely useful for figuring out the date. This is because whenever they are formed, their imperfections of uranium have no lead, so if there is any lead in the zircon, it must come from a decay of uranium. This process is called Uranium Lead Dating (U-Pb) dating. In doing this, it would be possible to figure out the age of the solar system and also the Age of the Earth by using the same techniques on the meteorites on Earth. His techniques also opened a new field in lead isotope geochemistry for terrestrial and also planetary studies. 

He also had a great bit of impact on how we see the lead, and how it affects us. While people back then believed that the amount of lead was caused by industrial and natural sources and was ingestible, Mr. Patterson challenged this idea, one of his quotes is “A new approach to this matter suggests that the average resident of the United States is being subjected to severe chronic lead insult.” When lead is left to gather in the body, the effects on the nervous system can cause disabilities and other psychological effects. When Patterson was doing the test to figure out the age of the Earth, it required him to measure the amounts of different isotopes of lead and uranium. Knowing how slowly the rates are in which they decay you’d be able to calculate the age of the sample. Once he found that he was finding lead everywhere, he announced what he had found at a conference in 1955. He then continued to go over his research once more as his paper was moved through the review process. Once he noticed the amount of lead he was finding, he decided that he must find out the source of the contamination, so he took it upon himself to find it out for himself. In his findings, he found that the ocean near southern California was heavily filled with lead at the surface but disappeared rapidly within depth. 

They were able to conclude that the cause of this was a certain type of lead called tetraethyl. This is a gasoline additive that appears as very fine lead particles and comes from the tailpipes of automobiles. They found the same amount of lead in various different locations as well, and when the winter hit, they collected snow at a latitude of 7,000 feet on Mount Lassen in northern California. In this area, they found that the lead contamination was 10 to 100 times worse than at sea. Patterson came to the conclusion that it has fallen from the sky. Its isotopic fingerprints were the perfect match for air samples in Los Angeles. In Patterson’s paper, he wrote about the seriousness of the results, and how it would be beneficial to remove some of the main big sources of lead pollution (paints, water pipes, etc.) This was his first shot of helping getting rid of lead pollution. Because of his efforts, The Consumer Product Safety Commission banned lead-based indoor house paints and in 1986, the EPA prohibited the use of tetraethyl lead in gasoline.

So, it’s fair to say, that in all of the glorious scientists that strive to make new discoveries for us, Clair Cameron Patterson is quite an underrated one. Due to his discoveries, he definitely has “lead” us to success. Full pun intended.


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