AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXVIII, No. 1, Spring 1996


Oral History Project Launched by Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

To help commemorate its 50th anniversary in 1999, Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory has commissioned an oral history project to record its collective memory, according to a press release issued by Columbia's Office of Public Information. The project will be conducted by Columbia's Oral History Research Office--the world's first oral history program and now the world's largest.

In the 1940s Columbia geology professor Maurice "Doc" Ewing and a small group of students and associates initiated pioneering research in seismology and marine geophysics on Columbia's campus in New York City. In late 1949 they moved their operations to a 125-acre estate in Palisades, NY, donated to Columbia by the widow of the late financier Thomas Lamont. Scientists at Lamont developed numerous modern instruments and techniques, including the only two ships to log more than a million miles of oceanographic research, collecting crucial data that confirmed the concept of plate tectonics. They played a central role in the discovery of the world-circling mid-ocean ridges, seafloor spreading and seismically active zones at the boundaries of crustal plates. In subsequent decades, Lamont scientists were at the lead in research on global climate change and the ocean's role in regulating it. They pinpointed the orbital shifts that paced the earth's ice ages, discovered the global system of ocean currents called the Great Ocean Conveyor, and created the first computer model that could successfully predict El Niño.

1948 was also the year that the Columbia Oral History Project was established. Its creator was Columbia historian Allan Nevins, concerned by what he called the enormous waste of vital source material in every field as people died without leaving a memoir, diary or letters. The problem had been exacerbated, he warned, when telephones replaced many written communications.

Starting last fall and continuing over the next three years, lengthy tape-recorded interviews will be conducted with an array of former and current Lamont scientists, as well as technicians and staff. The tapes will be transcribed and archived, with copies in the AIP Niels Bohr Library as well as at Columbia. While the project is funded principally by Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the Columbia Oral History Office and the Friends of the AIP Center for History of Physics are providing additional support for transcription. Conducting the interviews will be Ronald E. Doel, a historian of 20th-century science who has specialized in modern astrophysics and earth sciences. As an important component of the project, Doel will seek out personal correspondence, laboratory notebooks and other documents and artifacts. The AIP Center for History of Physics will provide advice and assistance in preserving materials that are uncovered or donated.

Doel earned his Ph.D. in history at Princeton University in 1990. He worked as postdoctoral historian at the AIP Center from 1989 to 1993, where he expanded the center's oral history program to include the field of geophysics. He is currently Visiting Assistant Professor in the History of Science with a joint appointment in the Department of History and the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. He is the recipient of research grants from the National Science Foundation and in 1995 won the Herbert C. Pollock Award for in-progress research on international science during the Cold War. His book on Solar System Astronomy in America will be published this fall by Cambridge University Press. Those wishing to provide information or archival materials can contact Doel most directly via e-mail at

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