On Saturday June 21, 1952, in a garden in Copenhagen, Denmark, raindrops fell through the slim neck of a beer bottle, splattering and splashing as they hit its bottom. But the bottle wasn’t carelessly left behind – Willi Dansgaard had inserted a funnel into its neck so he could use it for an experiment. He was watching it closely, collecting rain to later measure in his lab. Each drop brought Willi closer to revealing the secrets of Earth’s history, by giving scientists a way to work out temperature from ancient ice. In doing so, he would help show how climate can change much faster than experts had thought possible.
Willi was born in Copenhagen in 1922, living and studying physics and biology there until going to work for the Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI) in 1947. The DMI sent Willi and his wife Inge to Greenland, first to study the Earth’s magnetic fields, and then to help improve the reliability of weather forecasts. Their time there left the pair with ‘deep impressions of the course of Greenland nature, its forces, its bounty, its cruelty, and above all its beauty,’ Willi wrote in his autobiography. ‘We were both bitten with Greenland for life, but after a year the need for further education forced us to turn homeward.’
So in 1951, Willi took a job at the biophysics research lab at the University of Copenhagen, where his first job was to install a mass spectrometer. Able to distinguish between chemicals using weight differences, mass spectrometers are often described as atomic-level weighing scales. But they actually measure molecules’ weight by firing them through an electromagnetic field at a detector, similarly to how bulky old TVs fire electrons at their screens. Though mass spectrometers existed since the early 20th century, Second World War US efforts to produce uranium for an atomic bomb had boosted their power. Willi set up the type of machine that had been invented in the course of that work, so his department could detect tracers used in medicine and biology.
By 1952, Willi knew that his mass spectrometer could separate forms of the same chemical elements – or isotopes – that could differ in weight by as little as a single neutron. And faced with a wet weekend in June, he wondered whether the amount of these isotopes in rainwater could change from one shower to the next. ‘Now when I had an instrument that ought to be able to measure it, there was no harm in trying,’ he writes. ‘I placed an empty beer bottle with a funnel on the lawn and let it rain.’