In a world where a billion people live without access to safe water, more than six young children die every minute because of contaminated drinking water.
Now a water purifier invented by Berkeley Lab physicist Ashok Gadgil is bringing safe water to developing nations and to victims of natural disasters. UV Waterworks is portable, rugged, and inexpensive; it disinfects enough water for a small village using no more power than a 60-watt bulb -- power that, in a pinch, can be supplied by a bicycle generator.
Growing up in Bombay, India, Gadgil knew he wanted to be a scientist by the age of nine. No science kits were available, so he had to be creative. "My chemistry experiments stunk up the house."
He read voraciously in his father's home library -- "Life, Look, and Scientific American gave us a window on the outside world," he says -- and by the sixth grade had read all his future high school textbooks.
Although studying medicine or engineering was more respectable than pure science in India at the time, Gadgil's father believed that "if a child is passionate, let him bloom in that direction." Gadgil earned physics degrees from the University of Bombay and the Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur; in the early 1970s he went to UC Berkeley, seeking practical experience in physics research.
Gadgil believes that in "a world of contending beliefs and fickle artistic fashion, science reaches for bedrock truth." And for him, truth has always had a human dimension.
Shortly after he arrived in the US, an energy crisis struck. He knew that "if the United States -- where five percent of the world's population consumed almost 40 percent of the energy -- was in trouble, India would be flattened." From then on he concentrated on environmental physics.
With a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley in 1979, he joined Berkeley Lab in 1980. Much of his work has been with solar energy, biodiversity, conservation, and clean air.
Today he leads a group in the Lab's Environmental Energy Technologies Division studying how to control airborne pollutants inside buildings. Gadgil holds numerous patents and has won numerous awards; as one of the scientists profiled in the documentary feature film Me and Isaac Newton, he is even a "movie star."