Geology & Geophysics News

Ralph Cicerone (1943–2016)

The former president of the National Academy of Sciences was an accomplished atmospheric scientist and a proponent of multidisciplinary collaboration, but most of all, he was a good friend.


Ralph Cicerone meant many things to his friends and scientific colleagues. His important contributions to science; to the University of California, Irvine; to the National Academy of Sciences; and to the American Geophysical Union have been chronicled by many already (see, for example, his obituary on

I would like to say a few words about Ralph the person and what he meant to me. I am deeply sorry for his loss; he was not only a magnificent scientist but also an outstanding person. He knew the values of compromise, friendship, and support as very few do. He was one of my closest friends, with whom I shared ideas, worries, and laughs, in difficult times and in good times.

A Good Friend and Listener, with A Sense of Humor

Although I could write a lot about Ralph’s professional work, I want to emphasize instead his great sense of friendship and solidarity, his good humor, and his unique ability to listen.

Ralph and I became close friends at the beginning of our work on stratospheric issues in the 1970s, and we remained close friends until his death. We had much in common: We worried together about our planet; we both become engaged professionally in the science, technology, and policy issues connected with climate change; and we also worried about interdisciplinary education.

I remember how grateful I was to Ralph and his wife, Carol, when they flew all the way from Washington, D. C., to San Diego to attend a celebration in my honor at the University of California, San Diego, in 2015; he was always smiling, and we had a wonderful time remembering our many discussions over the years about saving our planet.

Ralph touched the scientific careers and personal lives of many of his colleagues. Here is what a few of these colleagues have said.

Stratospheric Ozone and Rounds of Golf

Richard Stolarski, NASA emeritus research scientist and research professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, Md.), worked with Ralph on the earliest papers on chlorine chemistry and the ozone layer at the University of Michigan. He remembers their early days as young postdocs. “The few years that I spent working with Ralph Cicerone were the turning point in my career,” he said. “I went from working on assorted ionospheric problems to a career in stratospheric ozone chemistry. I owe much of this transition to Ralph’s unselfish sharing of ideas and concepts and his great wisdom about how research should be done.”

Stolarski continued, “We shared an office and occasional forays onto the golf course. Most who met Ralph later in life did not realize that he was a multisport athlete in high school and was captain of the MIT baseball team in college.”

“During our time as postdocs, the Climatic Impact Assessment Program, under the aegis of the Department of Transportation, was funding research on the possible impact of supersonic aircraft on the stratospheric ozone layer. We both found the science of stratospheric chemistry both interesting and important. Through Ralph’s initiative, we made contact with Don Stedman and others who helped us onto the path of chlorine chemistry and its potential impact.”

“Eventually, I left Michigan for a position at NASA. Ralph remained for a few years but left for a series of increasingly important positions that ultimately led to his tenure as president of the National Academy of Sciences. Ralph’s ascension to positions of importance was never too surprising, given his early display of the combination of scientific ability and practical wisdom.”

“We remained friends throughout his life and enjoyed occasional rounds of golf over the years. I will miss him not only as a scientific colleague but also as a friend.”

Fostering Collaboration

Darin Toohey’s research addressed questions posed by Ralph’s work in stratospheric photochemistry. Toohey, a professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, reflected back on his early days in the Earth System Science Department at the University of California, Irvine.

“What impressed me most about Ralph was his approach to promoting the work of individual researchers, while quietly developing a cohesive and collegial group of new faculty from a wide range of disciplines,” he said. “This led to a new model for a true interdisciplinary department, one that relied as much or more upon day-to-day personal interactions as it did on professional ones.”

“I borrowed from Ralph’s approach to leadership when I served as a Jefferson Science Fellow at the U.S. Department of State in 2012, and he continued to offer me help and moral support during that time. I will sorely miss him.”

An Avid Mentor, a Dedicated Reviewer, and a Valued Friend

Ron Ferek, team leader for the Marine Meteorology and Atmospheric Effects Program at the U.S. Office of Naval Research, was one of Ralph’s close friends. “I first met Ralph in 1980 when I was a grad student and he became our division director at NCAR [National Center for Atmospheric Research],” he said.

“Three things about Ralph left lasting impressions on me from that time. The first was his interest in the young scientists and their work, and over time, it became clear this was much more than a polite interest.”

“The second was his dedication to the peer review process. As students, we worked a lot of weekends gearing up for field projects. Ralph was almost always there on weekends, working through piles of manuscripts and reviews for JGR [Journal of Geophysical Research]. Later, as National Academy of Sciences president, when he spoke publicly about the importance and the integrity of the peer review process, he just seemed so credible to me, having witnessed firsthand his hard work as an editor.”

“The third, as anyone who interacted with him probably recognizes, was his remarkable ability for saying that little thing that really made the other person feel good.”

“Many years later, after Ralph moved to Washington, D. C., we reconnected when he contacted me one day and said he wanted to get back to playing golf. I arranged a round at my favorite course, Andrews Air Force Base, and after one outing, he was hooked. If we weren’t traveling and it wasn’t snowing, we had a regular Sunday afternoon game there. Ralph’s friend Rich Stolarski often joined us. Ralph was an excellent golfer and a great golf buddy—always on time and eager to play. He was amused by the frequent sightings of the president and his entourage.”

“One year, it was warm enough to play on 8 January, and Ralph made a birdie out of a snow-filled bunker. I was speechless, but he calmly said, ‘That was an easy shot.’ In April 2012, I was fortunate to witness his nonchalant reaction to the only hole-in-one he ever made. I’ve called that ‘Ralph’s Hole’ ever since.”

“The golf was memorable, but far more enjoyable was the conversation that began the moment I picked him up and lasted ’til I dropped him off. Whether it was science, sports, politics, news about the former grad students and other colleagues, our childhoods, or you name it, it was never dull. I’m sure Ralph had many friends, but during that time, he was one of my closest friends.”

“When he quit playing a couple years ago, we stayed in touch, and he always expressed optimism about getting back out on the course again after he was feeling better. We last spoke on the day before he moved to New Jersey, and he was still optimistic, planning to take some time off, and he told me to visit any time if I was up that way. I told him I was ‘looking forward to it,’ one of those kind remarks I learned from him. I am grateful for all those Sunday afternoons with Ralph.”

—Mario J. Molina (email: [email protected]), Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla

Citation: Molina, M. J. (2017), Ralph Cicerone (1943–2016), Eos, , Published on 23 March 2017.
© 2017. The authors. CC BY 3.0