was a brilliant guy politically—”Oh, heck, the oil companies
should be interested in this.” “Why?” “Well, because if
Patterson is looking at these sediments, the isotopic composition
of the lead is a tracer that helps identify the stage, or the
age, to characterize the time or the type of sediment that you
have.” So he convinced the oil companies that they should
finance my research because it would assist them in identifying
oil deposits. You know, when you drill a core, you’re looking at
bands in a rock. And if you measure the lead isotopes in there,
it can give you more information than you had before. It could
help characterize the type of sediment, so it could help you
locate and identify oil deposits and reservoirs here and there.
So they started. It was a national consortium of oil companies
that had this big research fund where they doled it out to help
them do this stuff. Harrison got money from them every year,
huge amounts, to fund the operation of my laboratory, which had
nothing whatsoever to do with oil in any way, shape, or form.
Cohen: That’s called basic research.
And then a very bad thing happened. We were studying the
sediments, and we found from measuring the lead in these
sediments how much lead had been passing through the oceans and
depositing in these sediments. Now look, there’s two kinds of
lead: There’s a soluble lead that’s in the water—it’s sort of a
water lead—and then there’s lead in particles. These particles
are what the sediments are made out of.
Then I got some data from the rivers. Now these were idiots
who were measuring lead in river waters, who didn’t know anything
about how to measure lead.
Cohen: Who were these people?
Patterson: Oh, various institutions, measuring lead in river
waters. Patterson was the only guy who knew. You saw this
picture here? Here they were. They were measuring lead in river
waters here, and they didn’t know what they were doing and
they’re wrong. OK? And I knew that! Because I had previously
worked out how to do the measurements for meteorites.
So I took their data for river water and I multiplied by all
the rivers of water how much water there is in the oceans each
year. And I came out with a number for lead that was 100 times
greater than the amount that we had measured that was flowing
through the oceans in the past.
I thought, Something is wrong here. Are these guys wrong?
Or is there really that much lead coming into the oceans today?
What about the lead in gasoline? If you took all of the ocean—we
only had a profile for just part of the Pacific, and actually
part of the Atlantic, later—but if you took those profiles and
you extrapolated from that over all the world’s oceans, the
amount of lead equaled what was being produced from gasoline. It
could easily be accounted for by the amount of lead that was put
into gasoline and burned and put in the atmosphere. We had more
tons put in the atmosphere from lead gasoline than we could see
in the upper part of the world’s oceans right there.
And that’s what caused the problem. The oil companies were
financing my work. We’re in serious trouble.
Patterson: Oh, he did! And that’s when he disassociated himself
from me. He stopped getting money from the oil companies, and I
had to start getting it myself. I wrote a big paper, and I said,
“This lead is coming from leaded gasoline.” Wham! They stopped
my research. They not only stopped funding me, they tried to get
the Atomic Energy Commission to stop giving me anything—they were
still giving me some money. They went around and tried to block
all my funding. But I’m so stupid that I didn’t know. I
couldn’t do anything about it. Harrison could have, but he was
out of it then.
I needed money, a lot of money, because since I got this
idea about lead coming from gasoline, I wanted to look at the
record. Where do you see that record? You see it in the snow
that never melts in the polar regions. It comes out of the air,
which has lead in it. Lead is in the snowflakes. It goes down,
and you have a layer there. Next year you have another one.
Cohen: Now did you arrange all of this yourself?
Patterson: I arranged it, but the payment of this stuff—you know
I can’t really remember how this was financed. God must have
arranged for me to get this money in some way or other, because I
certainly didn’t have the ability to convince people to do this.
Anyway, we got it. The money was there, and there was a
lot. So we collected the snow up there, and we brought it back
here and we analyzed it and found huge concentrations of lead
increasing over the last centuries, since the 1700s until now—
about a 200- or 300-fold increase in the concentrations of lead.
And these concentrations were so infinitesimally small compared
to what other people were used to measuring that no one else
could verify this. It was impossible. It was beyond their
ability by factors of thousands, or tens of thousands. So no one
could verify what we did. So it was sort of sitting there for a
And you know what? The barium-to-calcium ratio in rocks was
way up here. It was actually 100 times greater—it dropped in our
food, and it dropped in us, by a factor of 100. And I said,
“Look, lead and barium is wrong. The barium ratio shows that
lead should be 100 times less than it actually is in us today.
We are being poisoned by lead. And guess where it is coming
from? Look at the ocean. You see this curve with all this lead
up here? That’s coming from tetraethyl lead. Why do you think
it took me all these years to measure meteorite lead properly in
the laboratory? We are as contaminated as the laboratory.”
They thought that was a pile of crap! They said—no, they
didn’t say, they thought and said later—“Patterson, would you
please start worrying about science instead of this health crap.
What a waste! Here you are, you measured the age of the earth,
and you’re worrying about tetraethyl lead. And this stupid stuff
about lead in bones.”
But I was right. The barium ratio went down a factor of
100. And you know, when we finally actually measured it—it took
about twenty-five years to do this accurately—it’s a factor of