Every person makes a difference, but some people change everything. Clair Patterson was such a person. He was only 25 years old when he became part of the Manhattan Project and helped build the atomic bomb. There, he had the opportunity to work with mass spectrometers that didn’t exist anywhere else in the world. He mastered the technology that could destroy earth.
After the war, Patterson used the technology to try to save the planet by first determining its age. In the process, he found out that our environment is exposed to massive industrial lead pollution. He began to fight for clean air, fight against lead contamination, and the oil companies.
Lead is a neurotoxin. The body cannot break it down. One drop is enough to kill a person. But lead was cheaper than iodine. And this is why Standard Oil and General Motors decided to add lead to gasoline. TEL – Tetraethyl Lead – makes engines run smooth, makes big airplanes take off, and allows tanks to conquer vast landscapes. Standard Oil and General Motors sold TEL to the Nazis and the Allies, to everybody willing to pay, until Patterson came and called them on it.
Lead is a symbol. The word lead evokes poison and leadership. As an alchemy symbol, lead is the ruler of the dark, representing lusterless prime matter. The scientist Patterson symbolizes the seeker, the Promethean man. An eagle perpetually eats Prometheus’ liver while he is tied to a stake. The liver is the organ that detoxes our bodies.
Only a few years before his death, a scientist at the Palomar observatory named an asteroid Patterson – for his achievements in determining the age of the earth. At the same evening Patterson wrote a little poem: shine little asteroid, glitter glitter, in small circles, tumble tumble.
And this is where the story ends, and the 21st century begins.
I began to understand the story of Clair Patterson after I saw Chris Marker’s “The Last Bolshevik.” Marker tells us the history of communism and the 20th century by the example of Russian film director Alexander Medvedkin. Clair Patterson’s story tells us the story the capitalism and the 20th century.
Film helps humans remember. It archives parts of the 20th century. The biography of Clair Patterson consists entirely of archival material. Out of found features, documentaries, and educational films from the time, I created a montage. We hear Patterson’s voice, but see footage that adds a seconds layer, a context. The viewer starts guessing about the origin of the material, the circumstance of its production, and by doing so reassembles the past, historical time. This is how historical awareness is created. We remember