In 1989, Scientific American magazine assigned me to write “The Amateur Scientist” column. After the editor flew me to New York to discuss the details, he became deeply concerned about the “public relations nightmare” he said would occur if readers learned that I reject abortion and Darwinian evolution. I replied that a public relations nightmare would occur if he cancelled the assignment because of my personal beliefs, and that’s what began after the Houston Chronicle published a story about the incident. The Wall Street Journal then published a detailed story, and The New York Times sent a reporter to my office for their story. More than 100 radio and TV interviews followed, including a debate broadcast around the world by The Voice of America. I won the debate by quoting Darwin’s doubts about his own theory. Even the American Association for the Advancement of Science supported me.

After calls from the media began to slow, I told my wife Minnie that I wanted to devote a year doing science with the instruments I published and planned to publish in Scientific American. My goal was to prove that an amateur scientist who is a practicing Christian can do serious scientific research using homemade instruments.

That first year doing science began Feb. 5, 1990, with daily measurements of solar UV-B, haze and the total amount of ozone and water vapor through the entire atmosphere over the field by the tiny farmhouse that serves as my office. The data were so fascinating that I continued the project for a second year. That’s when I discovered an error in NASA’s ozone satellite, a finding that became my first paper in Nature, the world’s leading journal of science. NASA then flew me to their Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) to give a talk they called “Doing Earth Science of a Shoestring Budget.” This led to assignments from GSFC to do make atmospheric measurements in Brazil (1995 and 1997) and at major forest fires in Western States (1996).

Meanwhile, my ozone project received a 1993 Rolex Award. Minnie and I were flown first class to Geneva, Switzerland, where Sir Edmund Hillary escorted us to the awards ceremonies. The Rolex Award provided money to retain my friend Scott Hagerup, a first-class electronics engineer, to convert my simple ozone instrument into Microtops, a microprocessor-controlled version. The Solar Light Company acquired rights to Microtops, which they redesigned into Microtops II. A few thousand Microtops II are used by scientists around the world to measure haze and the ozone and water vapor layers.  

That first year of measurements has now become 30 years. Along the way many new instruments and cameras have been added. Every day the sun is not blocked by clouds, I’m in the field at solar noon making measurements. The data are saved in three giant spreadsheets, the largest having 338 columns for various instruments and processed data. This spreadsheet alone reached 11,125 rows (one per day) as of February 5, 2020. These data and more than 22,600 sky photos are stored on three computers and several external drives.

Every summer since 1992 I’ve calibrated my instruments at Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory. This research has resulted in two dozen scientific papers.

You can explore some of my atmospheric science at www.forrestmims.org. Briefly, over the past 30 years the ozone layer has recovered from the decline caused by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991. Solar UV-B has returned to pre-Pinatubo levels. While haze has been slightly reduced, Eagleford activity has added occasional spikes. The total water vapor I measure is the main greenhouse gas, and climate scientists assume that increasing carbon dioxide should increase evaporation from the oceans that will produce more warming. However, NASA’s NVAP-M study shows no trend in global water vapor and my data show a slight decline. I was an “expert reviewer” for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment Report 5 and the forthcoming Assessment Report 6. Unfortunately, the IPCC shows little interest in data that does not support the global warming paradigm.

In 2013 I developed a new kind of twilight instrument for measuring the altitude of stuff in the air, including smoke, dust and power plant smog, all of which sometimes form layers several miles or more over Seguin. Have you noticed the brilliant twilights that began last fall? These are caused by the eruption of Russia’s Raikoke volcano last June. My twilight instruments have revealed that the Raikoke volcanic cloud is typically 10-13 miles high. My instruments can even measure the altitude of meteor smoke 40 to 80 miles over Seguin.

None of these 30 years of research would have occurred had I denied my faith and kept the Scientific American column. Yes, it was depressing to lose the column, but back then I had no idea that the magazine’s public relations nightmare would soon lead to the fulfillment of my boyhood dream of doing science.

I close by thanking the Gazette readers who followed my science column for 17 years and Chris Lykins for publishing them. Chris arrived at the Gazette shortly before the science column began and soon upgraded the Gazette to the electronic era. Instead of printing my columns on paper and delivering them to the Gazette, I could send them by email.

Many of you have asked why the column has not appeared since 2016. That year NOAA retained me to calibrate the world standard ozone layer instrument at Hawaii’s high-altitude Mauna Loa Observatory (MLO).

Since this assignment required me to live at MLO for 64 days and nights, Minnie told me there was no way I could continue the column. As usual, she was right, for the schedule was quite rigorous and writing columns at 11,400 feet takes twice as long. Since returning I’ve completed a 600-page book (“Environmental Science: An Explorer’s Guide”), many articles and conducted a UVB survey of Hawaii Island sponsored by Rolex. I’m now completing a memoir and a novel, and I hope to occasionally post a science column in the Gazette.  

Forrest M. Mims III was named “One of the 50 best brains in science” by Discover magazine.

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