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A Researcher Who Keeps His Mind on the Clouds : Richard Turco, a Co-Author of 'Nuclear Winter' Theory, Continues Studies of Effects of Atomic Warfare

November 05, 1986|MICHAEL BALTER

Although at first glance they may seem strange, the poster-size photographs of nuclear explosions on the living room wall in Richard Turco's Pacific Palisades home are not really inappropriate.

After all, as a research scientist at R & D Associates--a Marina del Rey-based think tank with numerous Defense Department contracts--Turco has studied nuclear weapons and their effects for much of the last 15 years.

Yet a closer look at the photos reveals something more. One of them is adorned with peace buttons, and below the billowing mushroom cloud is inscribed a line from Act I of Shakespeare's "Henry VIII": "Heat not a furnace for your foe so hot that it do singe yourself."

No Peace Activist

Turco is not a peace activist. He does not march in demonstrations or carry picket signs. But he is, along with four fellow scientists including Cornell University astronomer Carl Sagan, the co-author of the controversial theory of "nuclear winter," which has irrevocably altered the international discussion of nuclear war strategy.

The theory--first formally proposed in a December, 1983, article in Science magazine--predicts that so much smoke and dust would be generated during a nuclear war that it might block out most of the sun's light for weeks or months, sending temperatures at the Earth's surface plummeting to as low as minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit. And according to a companion study performed by Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich, Harvard University biologist Stephen J. Gould, Sagan, and others, a nuclear winter could lead to the extinction of many of the Earth's animal species, including the human race.

This past July, in recognition of his work as the lead scientist on the nuclear winter theory, Turco was one of 25 Americans to win the MacArthur Foundation's so-called "genius grant." The amount of money awarded depends on the age of the recipient, and Turco, at 43, can expect to get $216,000 paid out over the next five years--no strings attached.

Last year, Turco and six colleagues received the prestigious Leo Szilard Award, which is presented by the American Physical Society for physics research in the public interest. Yet despite his recent public recognition, all the attention does not seem to have gone to his head.

'A Lot of Prima Donnas'

"There are a lot of prima donnas in the science world," said Brian Toon, a research scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center in the San Francisco Bay Area and one of Turco's co-authors on the nuclear winter paper. "You see a lot of aggressive people who would stab you in the back. But Rich is a very low-key person, very unassuming, and very generous to other people. He goes out of his way to give credit to other people where it's due."

Similar sentiments are voiced by Cornell's Sagan. "What was clear to me the first couple of times I met him," Sagan said, "was what a firm grasp of the fundamentals of the subject matter he had. And what a modest, unassuming, friendly person he was. That mix is very rare."

An explanation might be found in Turco's origins. His grandparents came to the United States from Italy, and his parents grew up in the ghettos of New York City.

When he was about 5, his family moved to Fair Lawn, a small town in northern New Jersey. "We really went there to escape New York City," Turco said. His parents had "lived in some pretty raunchy neighborhoods in New York, and it was a big breakthrough for them to get out to Jersey, to the country."

Turco soon began to show an aptitude for science. "When I was a kid I liked to take things apart and put them together," he said. "I was always getting my parents upset by disassembling radios and things of that sort. I had piles of junk all over."

After high school, Turco enrolled at New Jersey's Rutgers University and majored in electrical engineering. "I did very well the first semester. Then I joined a fraternity and I took a nose-dive, my grades did anyway."

He dropped out of school for a year and went to work at the Ford Motor Co.'s Rahway assembly plant, where he "got to appreciate hard work, and went back to school the next year."

Upon receiving his bachelor's degree, Turco went on to the electrical engineering department at the University of Illinois' Urbana campus, where he received his doctorate in 1971. His thesis adviser, professor of electrical and computer engineering Chalmers Sechrist, remembers "very vividly that he was an excellent student. He was always looking for creative solutions to problems. I'm not at all surprised that he has reached this level of achievement."

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