Distinguished professor examines all angles of industrial disaster

In News, Research & Innovation

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – It wasn’t just chemistry gone awry that resulted in thousands of deaths when a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, leaked tons of poisonous gases in a single evening 30 years ago. The recipe for the disaster also included ingredients of politics, economics, history and culture.

So says Ranganathan “Ranga” Narayanan, a University of Florida chemical engineering professor who is scheduled to deliver a lecture on the subject at 4 p.m. Feb. 17 at UF’s Emerson Alumni Hall. “Bhopal – A Tale of Technology, Tragedy and Travesty,” is the second in the UF Faculty Senate’s Distinguished Professor Lecture Series.

Narayanan, who directs a major National Science Foundation-funded center at UF dedicated to international research and education in fluid mechanics, has, in addition to his mainline research, made an avocation of studying what has been called the world’s largest industrial disaster.

“It’s tempting as a scientist to examine Bhopal purely as an act of chemistry. But the accident was the product of social forces as well, and if we don’t examine it from multiple perspectives we run the risk that we’ll fail to learn from it,” said Narayanan, who was named a distinguished professor at UF last year.

On the night of Dec. 2-3, 1984, a pesticide plant in Bhopal leaked 32 tons of toxic gases. Thousands perished in the following days from what they inhaled. Others died when they were trampled in the mass panic set off by the accident. Thousands more have died since then of gas-related illnesses.

Narayanan said he aims to reach a non-engineering audience with his talk. He also hopes to serve as an example of the culture of cross-disciplinary research at UF at a time when the university is hiring teams of faculty experts to deploy in 26 research areas.

UF recently began its mass recruitment as part of its push called UF Rising to gain recognition as one of the nation’s top public research universities. As many as 130 researchers will reinforce UF’s cutting-edge work in fields ranging from personalized medicine to Latin American studies.

UF Faculty Senate President Marc Heft said he launched the series in part to recognize that the newcomers will be joining an already accomplished faculty.

“We have great minds at work on many of the world’s most pressing problems,” Heft said. “In fact, we believe the talent we have at UF is one of our most potent recruiting tools as we seek yet more researchers of national stature.”

Watch Narayanan’s lecture here.