When Rodney Wayson Nichols died on August 30, 2018, at the age of eighty from lymphoma, the world of science lost one of its most talented and dedicated sons.
Readers might wonder what a remembrance of a scientist is doing in the pages of such a humanities-focused magazine. He came into The New Criterion’s circles obliquely. Rod was a founding member of the CO2 Coalition, a nonprofit organization formed in 2015 to educate the public about the benefits of increased atmospheric levels of CO2—something the media and scientific establishment had ignored because it contradicted their default narrative of “settled science” surrounding what was once called “global warming” and is now called “climate change.” Rod served as the Vice President of the CO2 Coalition from its founding until his death. He was fully dedicated to the educational goals of the Coalition, and he personally wrote major sections of its influential white papers. And he was the main driver of “The Climate Surprise,” a series of talks sponsored jointly by this magazine and the CO2 Coalition in New York in March 2016. His vision and the concomitant forcefulness of his views resulted in the proceedings being published in a special issue of The New Criterion. Rod believed deeply in the ancient motto of England’s Royal Society, nullius in verba, or “take no one’s word for it,” a rule that had guided his thinking all his life. He was fully persuaded by observational evidence as well as theory that more atmospheric CO2 would be a major benefit to the world, and he continued to help spread that message. He held that scientists should be able to follow results and speak their minds, a view that put him at odds with the academic establishment and therefore squarely in the camp of The New Criterion. But even before he came into The New Criterion’s orbit, Rod had left indelible marks on the many organizations with which he was associated.
He had a distinguished career in science, academia, government, and diplomacy—related, though not necessarily contiguous fields. His career began auspiciously. Soon after graduating from Harvard, in 1957, he served as a Special Assistant in the Office of the Director of Research and Engineering in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
Leaving Washington for academia, Rod joined Rockefeller University in 1970, beginning a long association with that august private research institution. He was a trusted advisor to two Rockefeller presidents while serving as Executive Vice President of the University, and later returned as an adjunct professor, teaching there until his death. He later directed the New York Academy of Sciences. Despite the Academy’s aging infrastructure, both physical and otherwise, he served the Academy with distinction until 2001.
Through his myriad and varied positions, Rod’s core beliefs never wavered. He believed deeply in the value of sound scientific research and the contributions it could make to human well-being, as well as to international peace and security. A member of the Council on Foreign Relations, he was on the Board of Advisors to Foreign Affairs, and he co-chaired the U.S.–Japan Cooperative Science Program of the National Science Foundation. He served on major U.S. Government delegations from the 1970s through the 1990s for negotiations on nuclear and chemical arms control, on technology transfer, and on capacity building in developing countries. The consummate diplomat, Rod was able to convey his views in a clear but firm manner—never hectoring, even when he felt strongly about an issue.
Through his myriad and varied positions, Rod’s core beliefs never wavered.
He wrote two books and many essays, editorials, and scientific reports, approaching the task with a lucid prose style that belied clichéd notions of impenetrable scientific jargon and revealed his specialist knowledge. The list of topics he addressed is dizzying: research strategy, national security, arms control, international scientific cooperation, K–12 education, economic development, philanthropy for science and technology, and ethical issues in research and development. His breadth of knowledge was perhaps only matched by the distances he traveled to impart it.
One wonders where Rod found the time for all this activity. He advised the White House and United Nations, gave invited testimony to bipartisan congressional committees, judged science awards, and served on the boards of multiple charities. He was a man who donated not only his expertise but also his time to a variety of worthy causes and was honored thusly.
But it was not all work with Rod. Having played varsity tennis as an undergraduate, he was a lifelong devotee of the game. His style in tennis and in the game of life were similar: he possessed skill, determination, and an amazing ability to recover from occasional setbacks.
Few could match Rod’s ability to raise significant funds for causes he believed in. His approach to potential donors was always the same, whether he was seeking millions of dollars for Rockefeller University or the New York Academy of Sciences, or more modest sums for the CO2 Coalition. A favored procedure was to schedule a lunch at the Harvard Club, near Grand Central in New York. I was privileged to join Rod on a number of these occasions. We would always be greeted warmly by the serving staff, who cherished Rod for his warmth and gentle manner. Our party would be seated at the best table. Rod would begin by recommending the popovers, for which the Harvard Club was justly famous. After placing our order and charging it to his account, Rod would launch his pitch. It was always the same: after basic pleasantries, he dove into a persuasive explanation of why funds were needed, what would be done with them, why providing funds was a sacred duty, and what contribution would be appropriate for the donor’s circumstances. This direct approach was a winning one. His success rate was amazingly high.
Rod was a loyal son of Harvard, so much so that I, with my Princeton connections, would often tease him about the occasional lapses of Harvard graduates. My favorite dig was that most of the judges and lawyers at the Salem Witch Trials were Harvard-educated. Rod would laugh and remind me that Jonathan Edwards, the president of Princeton University from February to March of 1758, had the shortest tenure on record because he insisted on being inoculated against smallpox to demonstrate the safety of the procedure. Edwards fatally overlooked the detail that the inoculant should be the cowpox virus—not variola, the agent of virulent smallpox. The lessons of this highly publicized experiment may have set back widespread inoculation by many years in the United States. Rod fully understood that a little scientific knowledge can be a dangerous thing, whether of witches and smallpox in the past or of climate today.
Active till the end, at the time of his death he served on multiple boards, including the Rockefeller University Council and the board of trustees of the Manhattan Institute.
Those fortunate enough to have known Rod—as I and the editors of this magazine did—were always impressed by his honesty, warmth, keen intellect, and common sense. We will miss him, as will the many students who took his classes, those who served on boards with him, and anyone fortunate enough to come into contact with such a prolific yet humble man.
Horace’s great poem “Exegi monumentu aere perennius,” Ode 3.30, written some two thousand years ago, is an appropriate commentary on Rod’s remarkable life: “I have created a monument more lasting than bronze/ . . . I will not entirely die! and a large part of me will avoid the grave.” The world is a better place thanks to Rod’s time in it.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 2, on page 79
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