Oral History Transcript — Dr. Arnold L. Gordon
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Arnold L. Gordon; October 10, 1996
ABSTRACT: Born February 4, 1940 in Brooklyn, NY. Recalls his family background and childhood. Graduated from Erasmus Hall High School in 1957. Undergraduate education at Hunter College, major in geology; senior paper on ďClimate-Current Relationships of the North AtlanticĒ in 1961. Graduate school in physical oceanography at Columbia with a Ford fellowship under Georg Wust. Discusses his introduction to life at Lamont and the scientists there. Describes his decision to come to Columbia for graduate school; comments on working with Georg Wust and his exposure to the ďGerman schoolĒ of oceanography. Compares Lamont with several other institutions: Scripps, Woods Hole, and the Institute at Kiel. Describes the courses he took at Lamont and how the number of courses increased after he graduated. Comments on his collaborative work with Bruce Heezen and Rhodes Fairbridge soon after graduating; discusses the tension between Lamont and Schermerhorn geologists over his years there. Comments on his tensions with Maurice Ewing and his wife, Harriet Greene; discusses his senior thesis and the guidance he received from his thesis committee; compares receiving funding from the AEC to NSF and ONR. Discusses the relationship between physical oceanography and meteorology in 1960s; describes his Antarctic research and how he came to work on it. Comments on what he sees as the critical difference between his generation of oceanographers and the current one. Discusses his work on the Southern Ocean Atlas and the help of George Deacon; comments on the challenges of teaching oceanography to current students. Describes his perspective of the political unrest at Columbia in the 1960s; recalls his work as interim department chair in 1976. Discusses the changing leadership of Lamont under Taiwani versus Ewing; comments on the Earth Institute and his reservations. Describes his successful collaborations with Soviet scientists during the Cold War.
TranscriptSession I | Session II | Session III
Doel:Let me begin by saying this is Ron Doel and this is an interview with Arnold L. Gordon. Weíre making this interview on the tenth of October, 1996 at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York. And I know that you were born on the fourth of February 1940 in New York City.
Doel:But I donít know much about your parents. Who were they, what did they do?
Gordon:Okay, I was born on February 4, 1940. Thatís correct. It was in Brooklyn, New York.
Gordon:Yes. Youíre from New York City. You know Brooklyn is very different than New York City, which is much — And both my father and mother were born in this country, in the United States. Their parents were born in Eastern Europe. Motherís family from Romania. Fatherís family from Lithuania. He, my father, Abraham Gordon, was a salesman. Sold mostly food goods in wholesale sales. Mother was a telephone operator, long distance telephone operator for AT&T. My father died in 1968. Motherís still alive in — Motherís name is Blanche. She lives in Florida as many people do now when theyíre that age. I hope I donít though. I want to keep on working. Anyway, they and their brothers, my father, uncles and aunts on my fatherís side all had similar types of occupations. But all the children have gone into the professions, mostly in teaching, law and politics.
Doel:Were you all living fairly close to one another in Brooklyn?
Gordon:No. We lived in Brooklyn, but the rest of the family for the most part lived in Peekskill, New York which is right across the river from here.
Doel:And you mentioned that it was your grandparentsí generation that had come
Gordon:Yes, thatís right.
Doel:When had they arrived?
Gordon:Yes, the grandfather on fatherís side arrived in 1894 and opened up a saloon on the east side, right in the shadows of the Williamsburg Bridge. They then — the rest of the family came over in Ď95 or Ď96, a hundred years ago. My father was born here in Ď97, 1897. And at that point, right after, about 1899 or 1900 then they moved to New Brunswick, New Jersey, where they started the business that they ran in Europe which was a slaughterhouse business. And a branch of the family still lives in New Jersey, in the Brunswick area, though we never had much contact with them. I donít know too much about them. Motherís side. She was born in 1912 I believe. And I really donít know all that much of when they came here. I think it must have been in Ď03, 1903, when her family came over. And she had lots of brothers and sisters, I think about six. And one of them is still alive. Her sisterís still alive. They all, I think — half of them were born here and half of them in Europe. And I do have the name of the town in Romania theyíre from. But I couldnít find it now. And he was — grandfather on motherís side, made and delivered tombstones to cemeteries. Itís odd what people do. But at that time it was a good business. So — and the mother, I donít think she worked, the grandmother on my motherís side. I donít think that she worked. On my fatherís side. I guess women didnít work much then.
Doel:It would not have been surprising.
Gordon:No. Grandmother on my fatherís side too. She didnít work either.
Doel:Did your father stay in the wholesaling business during the time that you were growing up?
Gordon:Yes. Yes. He started that in, you know, probably 1920s. He was signed up for World War I, but he went to officersí training but then the war was over before they sent him abroad. He then went into the movies for a while. He played bit parts in movies right after the war. Played a German soldier. His big triumph was playing a German soldier in World War I who got shot so the camera was on him. I think it was in New Jersey or Brooklyn. Canarsie I think in Brooklyn was where they had a big studio at that time for silent films. And then I believe he thought of studying pharmacy, but the financial situation in the family would not allow that so he went in to work in sales, sort of stayed in that for his whole life. Tough time during the Depression.
Doel:What sort of house were you living in?
Gordon:Always private homes. I always lived — we always lived in private homes, never apartment houses. And thatís a real division within New York City. If you live in an apartment house youíre a cliff dweller. And living in private homes is the proper way to do it. But I do feel that at that time when I was a kid that got me into gardening. I was always into nature and into gardening and loved it.
Doel:And you remember that from an early age?
Gordon:Oh yes, right from the beginning. I always loved gardening. Vegetables, fruit trees, everything. I think that was the — and that sort of attached me to the outside. Gave me a viewpoint that I think led to me going into the earth sciences. I loved weather. Always followed the weather forecast and even before the weather channel or before weather was in vogue as it is now. You know public broadcasting. Always loved following the weather. Subscribed - the Department of Commerce at that time, the Weather Bureau, now NOAA used to — youíd be able to order daily weather maps that were delivered by normal mail. I got those at a very early age. Followed the weather all the time. Particularly big snow storms, for the most part. Loved it.
Doel:How did you find out about what the Commerce Department was publishing?
Gordon:Thatís a good question. I donít really know the answer. And I have thought about it before. I was interested in gardening and weather. I consider them both actually similar outdoor but not natural phenomena. I think though that my interest in meteorology was heightened because of my cousin, a child of an aunt on my fatherís side. He was — heís a geographer. And he got his Ph.D. at Columbia. And he was interested in climate, geography and climate. And I believe I think that his influence was what led me down the trail that ultimately led to my profession; first with an interest in meteorology, then with an interest in climate and oceans. Iím not certain of that, but thatís the only connection that I could make of anything in the past. I know I spoke to him about these issues before, about meteorology. And I would suspect that he was the one who told me about the Department of Commerce Weather Bureau because I donít think anyone else in the family would have known anything about that.
Doel:Thatís very interesting. I want to make sure that we get back to him and his influence.
Gordon:Yes. One thing that you should know is that they lived with us. Yes. So the aunt and her two sons lived upstairs. We lived downstairs in a private home, two-family private home. So their influence was daily. More of an older brother than a cousin. So thatís I think important.
Doel:Right. And what was his name?
Gordon:Marvin. Marvin Gordon. Heís now — a lot of work for the UN. Agencies within the U.S. government. Specialty topography of South America. Heís retired. Then became a professor at George Washington University. Heís still alive. Theyíre all — oh that was another thing too. My father was the — far the youngest of all the children. Because they all were born in Europe. He was born here. There was a big gap. And then Iím by far the youngest of — he was quite old when he got married. And Iím the youngest of all the cousins by far. So its most of my cousins from my fatherís side are in their eighties now and Iím fifty-six. So they were like older, they were quite older. It was mostly Marvin and Irving were the two that lived in the house that I was in. They were like older brothers. Quite older brothers. So they had — probably had a big influence on me I suspect.
Doel:And you mentioned that you had other brothers and sisters?
Gordon:One other brother.
Doel:One other brother.
Gordon:Elliott. He was born in February first, 1936. My father was born on January twenty-ninth, 1897 so weíre all three days apart, separated by a few years though. Yes, it was easy to remember. Thatís right.
Doel:Iím curious what you remember reading when you were growing up? Did you feel you had a particular interest early on? You mentioned gardening and the weather or were you?
Gordon:No I was not reading. No. My interest was always strongly in observation. I thought about that in the past. I read. I went to the Brooklyn Public Library and took books out routinely. I donít remember what they were. They werenít great philosophical pieces of work. My interest, even today — Iím not much of a reader today. My interest is observing. Drawing my own conclusions of what goes on out there in the world, both natural sciences and even the social sciences. I always — Itís wrong. I assume itís wrong. But I always had the feeling that if you read too much, you donít develop properly your own ideas. I feel that Iím a very creative person. I want to have free reign on my creativity. And I really havenít really read very much. Part of it is because I felt that I could do that. [Laughter] No, itís obvious. Itís too obvious what theyíre writing. Itís not. So I donít read all that much.
Doel:Did you have a library at home as well?
Gordon:No. No. There were a lot of Jewish literature books. My father read a lot of that. No, there wasnít much. No, all the books and I did read. I donít want you to get the impression that I didnít read. [Laughter] But I would routinely get books at the Brooklyn Public Library. And which, oddly enough it was in the news yesterday that Bill Gates is giving a bunch of computers and internet access to the children there at the Brooklyn Public Library.
Gordon:I used to love going there to the library. And I would get books. But I think they were mostly novels. I remember — they made a movie of it once, The Mouse that Roared. You know that kind of stuff. I just loved those kinds of fantasy books is what I liked. As far as philosophy is concerned, I just thought Plato, Platoís Republic just says it all. And so I do read a lot. I do read those things once in a while. But Iím sure thereís other people who say it all, or say it better, but I did love Platoís Republic when I read that. And that might have been in high school.
Doel:You had mentioned earlier that at a very young age you had begun to order the weather maps. Roughly how old were you?
Gordon:Yes. No that was in the — I was still — I was about twelve, thirteen because I remember the big storms, a big noríeaster. It was in the early or mid-fifties that I was following it. So I remember those. You know I could visualize the isobars and the snowfalls. And it might have been the big snow of forty-seven that turned me on to — Christmas of forty-seven we had this enormous snowfall. I believe that sort of really stands out and trying to why did it snow so hard. And I remember being really loving it. Tremendous driving snow. Going for long walks, you know, out in the snow. That was quite a snow.
Doel:For someone seven years old at the time.
Gordon:Thatís right. That was as tall as I was. Twenty-five inches of snow.
Doel:Was it magazines that you regularly received at home? Do you recall?
Gordon:No. You know, no. I donít remember. There wasnít much in magazines then. I mean there were magazines, but they werenít — did we have Newsweek and Time? They probably did. Youíd look at Life magazine which has wonderful photographs — even then appreciated. No. I donít remember getting magazines. No, there was no — the intellectual environment at home was not intense. These are all pretty intelligent people, but pretty much self-made, practical people which is why I went into the earth sciences rather than physics. [Laughter]. And, however, as most Jewish families as shown by my cousins on my fatherís side, education is highly valued. But you were educated to provide a secure career for yourself. You werenít educated as the upper class, traditional upper class of the United States or any country, to do humanitarian things. You were educated for your own good. To provide a sound, secure career. I saw this wonderful documentary on T.R. Roosevelt on public television last few days. We were no Roosevelt family. We were not. [Laughter]. You know this driving need to serve.
Doel:But it does capture something indeed of the early twentieth century America.
Gordon:It does. Yes, it does.
Doel:Did you go to public schools?
Gordon:Oh, of course. Yes. P.S. 130. And you know, yes when you sort of think about these things perhaps there was one teacher there, oddly enough, his name was Lamont. Mr. Lamont. Could it possibly be any relatives of the Lamonts? Odd I havenít thought about that. And he was a wonderful, wonderful teacher. He was — must have been about seven feet tall, first of all. He would teach in a — is it working right?
Gordon:He had — very stern. Very good sense of humor, but still stern. Class just — no discipline problems in that class. There were not much discipline problems in school systems in the fifties anyway. But one day there was. Somebody did, I think, make some noise. And he then — therefore he went into, I forgot what he called it, but he was not going to make any jokes. He was not going to have any fun. He was just going to be just teaching and he went on for about a week until the class apologized. It was terrible. It was no fun. He was wonderful.
Doel:What subject was he?
Gordon:Yes, it was sixth grade. They donít teach any subjects then.
Doel:Right. I wasnít sure if this was still the elementary level.
Gordon:He was one of those teachers though that you had you know that you look towards as being really wonderful.
Doel:When you went in say in junior high and high school, were there any teachers then who were —?
Gordon:No Junior high. I donít really remember. Junior high is that awkward time. And I donít really have any strong recollection of junior high. It was Montague Junior High, Sixteenth Avenue in Brooklyn. I donít have any — We were there for three years though at that point. Seventh, eighth and ninth inclusive. So your high school thereafter was for three years. And no wait now, wait. Iím trying to think where I took earth science. It must have been there with Mrs. Turner, which of course everybody calls stomach turner. But she was nice. That might have been in high school. Isnít that something? I donít even remember. I think it might have been in Erasmus Hall. I went to Erasmus Hall High School. Started there in, oh I know I graduated in Ď57. So I started three years earlier, which would make it Ď54. So I really loved earth sciences. So that she was the teacher that certainly reinforced my interest in the natural world. And it was one of these — all through my, the sciences, I always was interested in sciences. I remember particularly on the Regents, which are the exams given in New York State. I remember getting nothing wrong on the earth science Regents. It was a hundred. You know, nobody had probably ever done that before.
Doel:You know but itís interesting that there was a separate course or curriculum for earth sciences.
Doel:That certainly wasnít common even by the 1960s.
Gordon:Is that right? I donít know. No, there was a separate course. You had physics, chemistry, and earth science. The sciences to choose from. And I donít know what else I took. I probably took physics. Yes, I took physics. I was always very good in the sciences. There was no problem but I particularly liked the earth sciences. And then in college I majored in earth science at Hunter College.
Doel:Before we get to that I do want to make sure we cover it. Do you remember any of what was taught in that earth science class in the high school or junior high school? Topics that —
Gordon:It wasnít climate. It was not climate or weather. The kinds of things I was interested in. It was mostly very traditional earth science. But the part of earth science that Iíve always liked the most of the traditional earth science is geomorphology. Is the shape of the land forms? Rocks never interest me. Mineralogy, petrology never interested me too much. I loved geomorphology. You know the glacial — the way the glacier shaped the topography, the Palisades. They taught that. I remember being most fascinated by that. And I was also fascinated by structural geology. Interesting that much of those two attributes that make those fascinating to me are also found in the ocean. The structure of the ocean, the stratification of the ocean. You donít get rocks in the ocean. I was never terribly interested in chemistry of the ocean. But it was geomorphology and structural that turned me on — that I was most interested in and oh, paleo of course. Everybodyís interested in dinosaurs. The past life — thatís absolutely fascinating. You know the whole evolution of past lives.
Doel:One of the things, thinking about that, I had meant to ask you a moment ago was how much time you spent in the museums in New York as you were growing up.
Gordon:A lot. We went to the museum a lot. The Museum of Natural History. I would say now when you go into New York from Brooklyn itís a big deal. Itís almost a big deal as going in from here.
Doel:Itís a long ride.
Gordon:Yes, by subway. And we didnít go in that often. But we would go to the Natural Museum, the Museum of Natural History, I would say three times a year. Which that would be the major travel into New York City would have been to the museum. I would think that we would have gone into New York, gee maybe five, six times a year. Thatís all. We just didnít go in very often. Everything was in Brooklyn that we needed.
Doel:Yes. Iím curious if you also did either as a family or individually a lot of travel things?
Doel:Did you get to see —? We talked about the land forms.
Gordon:No we did. In 1947, the summer of Ď47, the family downstairs, me, my brother, father and mother, and the upstairs, the aunt and her husband and her two children. So in two cars we took off for Niagara Falls, and that was wonderful. I just loved that. Going through the Catskills and the Adirondacks. We did a complete tour of New York City. And that was — that was just when people beginning to do that, right after the war. And traveling was opening up, the modern era was kind of opening up. And we were one of the first. I remember my cousins who just came back from the war had a movie camera, one of the first of the eight millimeter movie cameras. So we took a lot of film on that. It was just wonderful. And then what we used to do [laughter] — itís great times we used to have. They brought back a lot of memorabilia from the Second World War. They were both in Europe. Irving was in North Africa and Marvin was in Europe, Western Europe. Irving fought under [General George S.] Patton — just a fantastic person. Anyway, we would go out to the developments in Long Island where they were just building like Levittown and all that, just a bunch of dirt roads, and we would make these great silent films. And of great events in history. You know, so one of them would get dressed as [Joseph] Stalin, one as [Franklin D.] Roosevelt, one as [Adolf] Hitler so it would be the meeting at Yalta. One of the meetings was Yalta. That was when he was sick, when Roosevelt was very sick — I think that was towards the end of the war when they were dividing up Europe. So they would reenact that. That was just wonderful to see that. All dressed up — I mean [Winston] Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt and other ones that would be. My cousin Irving would be really fond of my imitating Hitler. So he would give not too many Hitler sorts of speeches. [Laughter] They were just great. Wonderfully funny. Which is pretty good, right after the war to laugh about all that. And so those films, I loved.
Doel:Were you any part of those?
Gordon:Oh yes. I was in those too. Yes, they had me dressed up. I remember one time in — letís see I was in Germany, when the so-called American troops were marching through and I was supposed to be a I guess a French kid asking for chewing gum or something like that. Iíve forgotten. They were great times. And really you know. Those were really fun times. I would love to get those films, those eight millimeter and put them onto some VCR now. I probably ought to call my cousin. They still exist I assume. Maybe they should be restored. They would have titles too. Because you would have to have the whole set up. So youíd have to have — they would make up titles like in the silent films. So the viewer could know whatís going on. Funny.
Doel:It sounds like a lot of fun.
Gordon:Yes. Long Island was just one big dirt road I remember. I never — we probably didnít go very far out but it was just you know. There were just big potato farms. There was nothing. They started building all these houses and developments there in the late forties and early fifties.
Doel:You mentioned of course that you were growing up in a Jewish household.
Doel:Were your parents particularly religious? Did you attend —?
Gordon:Oh yes of course. Yes, I went to Hebrew School. Got Bar Mitzvahed. They were not Orthodox. It was conservative. We didnít keep Kosher but itís sort of a strong Jewish style.
Doel:Were there any science clubs in the high school when you think back? Did you take part?
Gordon:No. No. Let me think now. No, I really took part in no extracurricular activity. You know in high school I was always a pretty good student, but no I just, I worked in Sears & Roebuck in the nursery department there in my junior and senior year in high school and that took — and that was — I just loved that. Oh, what a wonderful job. You know nursery, selling plants, not babies. It was just a wonderful job. That was good. Then I — so a lot of my junior and senior year a lot of my extra time went into that. But no, I used to get home and just — I didnít do any extracurricular. No sports or anything. Oh, I played baseball, big on baseball, but not through school.
Doel:I was curious about given when you graduated — How much did you hear about the IGY [International Geophysical Year]? Do you remember hearing much about that?
Gordon:No. No. No that was in fifty-eight and I was already in college. I suspect I did hear about it. Iím pretty sure.
Doel:[Crosstalk] would have been in fifty-seven.
Gordon:Fifty-seven, yes. Now of course I knew all about that. And I must have heard of the IGY. I doubt if it had a large influence on my thinking. I donít know. I donít remember. I donít remember. I have some recollection of knowing about IGY when I was still in college. Something! I canít remember what it is now. [Laughter]
Doel:You can always insert something later on.
Doel:Were there any high school teachers who were particularly memorable for you?
Gordon:Interesting. I — this earth science teacher, Turner, which I canít even remember it was junior high school or in high school. That was the only one. I did not find my high school teachers memorable. I had — there was one English teacher who I liked. I guess reminded me something of Mr. Lamont, my sixth grade teacher. I kind of liked him. It sort of — both of them had this common of being stern, disciplined, but yet, good sense of humors. You know, good outlook on life. I liked both of them. And then I think they were probably good teachers because of it. They had firm ideas and principles sort of. It was clear where they stood. But yet they understood human nature and I value very highly a sense of humor. I think people need to be funny. It helps expand the intellect. It helps. Itís almost a reflection of the personís ability, creative ability, to see humor in slight twists of reality. And so I consider thatís important. I always valued good sense of humors and these both people had it. But they also had a lot of discipline and principles. They knew where they were and where they were going.
Doel:Humor is a saving grace.
Gordon:Yes. Like The Far Side jokes. So many scientists love the Far Side jokes. Gary Larson. Thatís just the ultimate in humor to me. Boy, he is funny. [Laughter] Just slight twists of logic. Such a subtlety makes things so funny, so hilarious. And that — Yes, go ahead.
Doel:It was clear to you, I sense, that you were going to go on to college.
Gordon:Never a doubt.
Doel:And what do you recall? What other schools or what schools were you thinking about as you began to examine?
Gordon:Yes. One thing I would say about your previous remark is that I had no doubt that I would go to college. I had no doubt that I was going to study something in the earth sciences. And I never gave it a second thought. I never explored anything else, any other thoughts or ideas of what to do with my life. Everything, even here when I got to Lamont and Columbia, just sort of fell in place. Like it was all a road that I was walking along that was already set out for me. And it was almost like no decision making. I consider my job now a hobby. I donít consider I work. I consider Iím still doing what I did in the 1950s; just having fun and thinking. Just wonderful, wonderful career. No doubts. No qualms about moving in this direction. Not that I gave it any thought early on. I just kept moving along with my — maybe in those days you could do that. When I applied to colleges, we didnít really have any money, so I had to get some place didnít cost anything. At that time, Hunter College was just — was it forty-five dollars a semester and they gave you your books. Can you imagine?
Gordon:See, the other colleges, City College and Brooklyn College was about the same price, but they didnít give you your books. So I had to go to a place — but college, I did very well in college once I — oh, youíre talking about from high school to college.
Doel:From high school to college.
Gordon:Okay. There was just, there was no choice there. I had to go the city system because of the — it didnít cost anything. I got admitted to NYLT, but it was silly to pay all that money. And the city system at that point they were just opening up Hunter College to men. I entered there in 1957. I think the first class that had men in it was 1956, Ď55, maybe Ď55. So that all the men that were applying were pretty much shuttled in there. Unless they had high enough grades to get into City College which was still the premier college. My average was not quite high enough to get — in high school I was not quite high enough to get into City College, and so they shuttled us all off to the Bronx which was a long ways. Luckily only one subway ride so I was able to — hour subway ride from Brooklyn, so I was able to work on the subway but I really liked it up there. Great college. Loved it. They changed the name to Herbert, Herbert Lehman?
Gordon:Lehman, yes. Wonderful place. I majored in geology there. I was — I really came into my own there as many kids do. In college you come into your own in college, not high school. Much more free. You can think better in college. And I just go, I got As in everything. You know just, well the sciences and math, got As in it all. You know, never got anything less. Just it was so easy. I could have gotten a — I mean there was nothing stopping me. I knew far more than the teachers.
Doel:Thatís really interesting. One last question I wanted to ask you at that point. When you were applying to college and knew, as you say, you wanted to go into earth sciences, you also mentioned that your fondness was for observation.
Doel:How much had you begun reading at that point about research or the field of the earth sciences?
Gordon:I remember reading books on meteorology for the most part. Cloud forms and fronts and cyclones. I remember reading books on elementary meteorology and that did start in high school. Maybe that just wasnít covered in my earth science course which was basically classical geology. So the meteorology I knew was all self-taught. It wasnít until college that I turned towards the oceanís role in climate. Thatís what this paperís about.
Doel:Youíre pointing behind you.
Gordon:Yes, itís the paper I wrote when I was in — 1960, it has the year on it. I was a senior in college. ďClimate-Current Relationships of the North Atlantic.Ē Climate and current, current meaning ocean current and then of the North Atlantic, Newfoundland to Africa. So I looked at the meteorology and climate from Newfoundland to around Africa and tried to explain the variations based on the ocean. It was — thatís a good term paper. I got an A on it. That took a lot of imagination. There was nothing in the education that, you know, I self-taught that subject. I remember reading [Harald] Sverdrup which was The Oceans which is the classic in oceanography written in 1944. So I got most of my information from that. And then I got a lot of information about the weather in various cities around — I forgot even where I got that, some almanac or something like that and I related it to surface temperature. Iím pretty sure Iím right you know when I say that. Nowadays thereís so much interest in the effect of the North Atlantic on climate, on global climate.
Doel:But as you say this was a very new area that you were writing in.
Doel:And we should say you told me off-tape that this was written on January — At least the date on it.
Gordon:Well it says January first. I canít —
Doel:January first, 1961.
Gordon:Yes, thatís when I must have handed it in. I couldnít have. No, I know what happened. It was probably — I had to probably hand it in after the winter break, so I typed it up on January first. Yes. Thatís a good date. Wanted to get the new year in there, 1961.
Doel:Was it a geology curriculum that Hunter called it at the time? It wasnít yet called earth sciences.
Gordon:Thatís right. It was geology and I really liked it. Again, it was basically too easy. And then I took physics, chemistry and math. And in each one of those all I needed was one more course in either one of those to have a major in those fields. So I took more science than anyone ever did before. However, I did the same thing for geology. I took one less course than you needed for a major. Wait, wait now. Maybe in those other fields it was two less than I needed for a major. But that was still pretty good. Because I had physics, two more courses I would have had a major in chemistry, would have had a major in math — would have had a major in those. Geology I had one more. And I was supposedly majoring in geology. So here at graduation time, about this time January first, 1961, the registrar informed me that I couldnít graduate because I didnít have a major. And what I was doing — because see in City Colleges at that time nobody kept close tabs on you. I made up my own program and I just took all the sciences and I was surprised at the end when I saw I didnít really have a major. However, in geology, I knew them most of all because I took more courses there and thatís where I hung out. And I used to work for the chairman of the department, Gordon Darkenwald [?] I think his name was. Who was the person who brought view graphs and overhead projectors into education? So he was exploring its use in teaching as a teaching tool, overhead projectors. And so I worked with him in making overhead — making the view graphs of geology and I used to get paid for that. Anyway, so I knew him fairly well and he gave me credit for a course in mineralogy that I never took and so I graduated. [Laughter] So they let me graduate. I was right down to the wire. They werenít going to let me graduate. Here I got a fellowship here at Columbia and a fellowship at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and they werenít going to let me graduate, and I had more science than anybody there in the whole college. Got all As. Just fantastic.
Doel:Thatís just a bureaucracy.
Gordon:Yes. Yes because I didnít have a major.
Doel:Did you have a mentor among any of the faculty members or outside of the faculty in the earth sciences?
Gordon:Geez. Really, no. At that time in college Ė Iím trying to think of professors. I had [Henry] Thompson who was probably best known of the professors. He was sort of an older guy about retired. He was kind of — he was pretty good. Everyone looked up to him. The person who I wrote this term paper for, actually it was a geography course I was taking. I felt he was a complete dud. He gave me an A. Couldnít be all that bad. But for the most part I donít think the teachers knew too much there. There was a young guy that came in, Rodriguez, when I just about was graduating who I feel was pretty sharp. And I remember spending a lot of time talking with him about the earth sciences. But no, there was nobody. I didnít. Oh, in physics, there was a Professor Otis there who I admired quite a bit. He wanted me to major in physics. And he wrote these fantastic letters to the colleges that got me those fellowships I suppose. So you know but — chemistry I had some good teachers too, but no one stands out. None of the professors stand out any great — you know stand out as a great mentor of mine at that time.
Doel:When you think back on it, how did you get — how did you come to understand the things you needed to know to write that kind of paper that you turned in.
Gordon:I donít know.
Doel:Because thatís a really interesting paper.
Gordon:There was nothing in the education that would have, formal education that would have allowed me to write that paper. Clearly it was my interest in, my early interest in meteorology and climate and then someplace in college I turned towards the oceanís role in climate. Interest in how the ocean controls climate. And thatís what led to that. I have no idea what led me in that direction. But by the time I, senior year, by the time I wrote that in my senior year, I knew I wanted to study oceanography and not meteorology. So something happened and I donít know what it is that pushed me in that direction.
Doel:You think itís likely something that you read as opposed to —
Gordon:Yes. Yes. I donít have much of a memory actually. One thing that I also like to do is I like to reconstruct information from basic facts. Some people say I have good memory. But actually I donít. And I reconstruct things from basic facts. So I donít — so a lot of these, I should know what happened that turned me on in oceanography. It seems to me an obvious — but I donít. And I donít know at all. And much of what I do is I reconstruct information or concepts. I reconstruct concepts from the fewest facts that I need to store in my head. I donít clutter up my mind with things like that. So therefore I canít answer your question.
Gordon:I would like to know though at this point what is it that got me into oceanography. I wonder. I knew all about, at this time I knew all about the Gulf Stream, all about ocean circulations.
Doel:Interesting. Iím curious, did you find the library at Hunter helpful or did you often end up going elsewhere?
Gordon:Oh no, no. The library was very good. Whole big building just for the library. Great library. No, that had everything in it. Boy you think of what New York City did. That was still a city college. It wasnít part of the state. Those were wonderful colleges. You know, Hunter, and Brooklyn and Queens, and City College. I took a lot of my science courses at City College too because I couldnít fit all these science courses into, into just the regular semester. So I went during the summer I went to City College. I took a lot of the math and some physics courses I think, math and maybe physics, at City College. And then I also, during the summer, took psychology courses down at Hunter downtown, Park Avenue. So I did — summers I took courses too. I donít think I worked. I must have worked. Canít remember what I did during the summer. I took a lot more credit. You know I had far, far more credits than I needed to graduate. I just didnít have a major.
Doel:But you donít remember, say, working in some project. It wasnít a school-related activity that required —
Gordon:No. I was big on — No, thatís what it was. It was baseball. Thatís what I was doing. I was on lots of teams. I was very good. Played first base. And it was — during the summers I played on the various leagues in Brooklyn. That started in high school. But it was in college I did that. You know some of — I forgot, Gawanus League I guess it was called. I was on the Saints. And that was pretty good. Loved baseball, loved playing baseball. What a wonderful game. Everything else is just kicking a ball, or throwing something through some hoop or some hole. All the same to me, hockey, soccer, football. Only baseball and tennis are the only really different sports. Wonderful.
Doel:Yes, I was thinking about something else you said a moment ago, quite a few moments back, about the influence of your cousin Marvin.
Doel:Was he already at Columbia at the point you were —
Gordon:Yes. Thatís a good point. I remember when he was handing his thesis in I went with him to Columbia. I remember running after him because he walked really fast. And I even remember where he parked, 116th between Broadway and Claremont and running then after him when he turned this in. I think in Schermerhorn building where I am now. Thatís where the geography department used to be.
Doel:Thatís right. Yes.
Gordon:So, yes so I was there. And that must have been in high school, certainly high school. Yes, not college. That had to be in high school. So he probably got his Ph.D. mid- fifties because I remember him working upstairs in the attic on his thesis. And I used to go up there. And we used to play geography of course. You know you had to name a country whose first letter ended with the letter of the country that the other person just mentioned. He also used to give me — just amazing, hereís this little kid coming up there while this guyís trying to write his Ph.D. thesis. And he used to give me so much time talking about things, questioning me about geography. And I forgot there was some other game we played. He also, maybe this was to shut me up, he also then gave me some paragraphs to read and then would ask questions about my comprehension of those paragraphs.
Gordon:Yes. It was pretty good. It was really wonderful. So he must have got his degree probably in fifty-five, or fifty-six from Columbia. So I was at Columbia campus at that time.
Doel:And you say you were there when you were still just in high school. Did you get to know what any of the professors there were working on in geography?
Gordon:No. No. When I started at Lamont and I —
Doel:We have it on tape, but those were difficult years for Lamont.
Doel:In time indeed we will be getting —
Gordon:Yes, I know. Thatís important. Thatís what I thought you probably wanted to talk about. This first hour or so, I didnít expect this. [Laughter]
Doel:You mentioned that when you were thinking to apply, you knew you were going to stay on in the earth sciences.
Gordon:In oceanography at that point when I went to college. When I went to graduate school, I knew it was oceanography.
Doel:How much did you then know about which schools were offering programs in oceanography.
Gordon:Nothing. Nothing. I just applied to the big name schools. And I applied to Columbia, MIT, and I think thatís about it. I donít know if I applied to any other place. And I said I was interested in oceanography and I remember going up to both places for interviews. And I went to MIT and spoke to the head of the department there, Shrock.
Doel:Was that Shrock?
Gordon:Yes. Yes. And there they wanted me. They had a space in coastal sedimentation which didnít interest me all that much, but it was — they were going to pay all my way and give me money. It was called an assistantship. It was like a fellowship. And then at Lamont, at Columbia, they just started — they had a grant from Ford Foundation and thatís what paid for Georg Wustís visit here and also paid for a graduate student to work with Wust. And I remember when I came up here, my father drove me up here, in February of — no I think it must have been in the fall of sixty. Thatís right. The fall of 1960. Because then I came by myself in February of 1961 for further — I spoke with Jack [John E.] Nafe. And I just said, are you sure that I can study physical oceanography here? Because I knew that Lamont at that point was mostly geology and geophysics. And I said, ďI want to study physical oceanography. Are you sure?Ē And I asked him a few times. And he said, ďYes.Ē But I didnít know that thatís exactly what they were looking for because they had this Ford fellowship for Georg Wust, whoís a famous physical oceanographer, and they wanted a student to work with him. So thatís exactly what they had in mind, but I couldnít believe it. And then there was of course a fellowship and so I came here. I wasnít really terribly interested in the coastal sedimentation work that Shrock told me about. And so I decided to come here.
Doel:You mentioned that you had met Jack Nafe when you had come.
Doel:Were there others that you recall meeting?
Gordon:No. The first visit was just with Nafe. I remember in February when I came here. Anyway in November when I was here the — so my father drove me up. I drove the car my first time. I drove the car. To me this was going way upstate. And of course I got lots of kidding about it later on when in my books here at Lamont I would write New York State, Palisades, upstate, New York State. [Laughter] Anyway, so my driving way up here was quite something. So we drove in and he had his dog Nellie, so she — just a little dog. And she got in a big fight with [W. Maurice] Ewingís dog Arabesque. Arabesque was a big Great Dane. Two dogs fighting on the campus there. Anyway so thatís when I see Jack Nafe. And then when I came back in February, there I came up by subway then bus, and thatís when I spoke with some of the other people. I think I probably made the decision at that point. Wust was not around then. He was in Germany. I didnít see him till I started during the summer of Ď61. Actually late in the summer. He was in Germany until late summer.
Doel:Right. And he was still at Kiel at that point?
Gordon:Yes. Yes. He was in — he just retired as director at Kiel just before that. And he was probably some emeritus professor at Kiel, so thatís basically where he was stationed. And he came — he was here from Ď61, he started in Ď61. Why did I say —? He must have started in Ď60, and he left in Ď63. I know he left in Ď63, so he was probably here for three years.
Doel:In retrospect did you come to understand how that Ford fellowship — the broader Ford money for physical oceanography and what arrangements?
Gordon:Well, it was Ewing of course. Maurice Ewing was the only one that could arrange that. And the story was is that he wanted to study the floor of the ocean and he was hoping to drain the ocean. Couldnít drain it so he needed physical oceanography here at Lamont to try to understand how it circulates, how it moves sediment around. So thatís why he decided to get a physical oceanographer, and he then, what I hear, is that he then got the Ford Foundation money to develop physical oceanography here at Lamont. Bringing in a visiting professor and getting a student. So just the right time is so much of my life. I just happen to be in the right place at the right time without thinking. [Laughter] No thought. Just keep on going and everything works out. So that I understand was thatís why. They had to get a student that year and I was the one that applied. And I did not have any idea of — I donít know what made the decisions of where I applied. I really donít know. You know, why didnít I apply to University of California at Scripps there? I guess it was just too far away.
Doel:Yes. That was what I was asking about and I should have said that directly. You did know about what Scripps was doing?
Gordon:I would think so. You know, I canít firmly recollect if I actually knew or not. I would think that I would. You know I wasnít living completely in a closet, but it might have been that I did not know. Itís a possibility. But I donít think that — see at that time I didnít do much traveling. We just went, you know — I went to Washington, D.C. and Niagara Falls. And that was it. So to go to California was just unheard of. I mean you just didnít go to California. I mean you went locally. So I donít think that I would have — I never remember seriously considering applying to any place, you know like the University of Washington was — Woods Hole [Oceanographic Institution] interesting. Woods Hole didnít have an education program at that point. You know you went to MIT and then you would work at Woods Hole. So that — I probably had that connection in mind. But when I went to, I was talking to Shrock, it was really a — the connection with Woods Hole was very weak, and I think they must have been going through the same kind of development that was happening here at Columbia. You had the old hard rock geologists in university and then the new geophysicists and oceanographers and such were moving out of the that core of the department into one of these research facilities such as Woods Hole or such as Lamont and eventually caused lots of friction between those two groups of people. So the Woods Hole connection I remember was, you know I knew about Woods Hole — was not clear how that factored into my education at MIT and since it was not really physical oceanography he was talking about so I didnít go there. I came here to study.
Doel:Do you recall meeting any other professors when you were up at —?
Gordon:Up at — No.
Doel:It was just with Shrock.
Gordon:Thatís right. It was just one of these things. My brother drove me up there in the morning. We drove back from Boston. It was that afternoon. There wasnít any time. No, there was no one around. Even the person I was going to work with, somebody by the name of Gavin. I donít remember. Iíve seen his name some place.
Doel:That sounds right.
Gordon:I never even met him. [Laughter] In February when I came up here to Lamont, then I did meet Sam [Robert S.] Gerard and Saul Friedman who were the two oceanographers here. Sort of technical type people. Wust I didnít meet until I think August of Ď61 when he came back from Germany. Took the course in the fall. Interacted very strongly with Wust during the two additional, two and a half years that he was here that we overlapped.
Doel:Yes. I particularly want to talk to you about your impressions of him.
Gordon:Oh yes, thatís important.
Doel:Did you also meet Wally [Wallace S.] Broecker?
Doel:Was that later?
Gordon:Yes, that was later through courses. You know, he was just starting. He must have been an assistant professor at that point, maybe an associate, Iíve forgot when he — Iím sure he — so I took his courses. So I only knew him as a professor. I didnít work with him.
Doel:One thing that is interesting is that, as you say, Ewing mutters that famous quote about wanting to pull the drain out of the oceans much earlier on in the mid- 1940s as this whole program develops, yet it takes until the very late 1950s till physical oceanography really begins.
Gordon:I think he needed it because of his interest in the sedimentation in the oceans. The movement of sediments by turbidity currents.
Doel:Bruce Heezenís work.
Gordon:Yes, thatís right. And they were just beginning at that point with Ed [Edward W.] Thorndike to look at the Nepheloid layers, suspended materials. So I think he just was — he needed the ocean understanding for sedimentation studies. At that, you know, science was very different then. It was his lab. And he directed what happened and the directions that the science would move in at his lab, and he also arranged for all of the funding. The old days.
Doel:One thing Iím curious about, did you already have facility in German, the person you came into contact with?
Gordon:No. My language facilities are really bad. I canít speak any language. But I, again maybe itís by the powers of observation that I was able to read foreign languages really well. So Spanish, and French, and German I studied here. So I was able to translate German fairly well. Just by sheer memory. A few words here and there and you know using some logic to put it together. And German I found was actually easier. As long as you didnít have to speak it, I found it was easier, pretty easy language. It just, yes, it just made all sense to me. The words were laid out. I like every other verb at the end. I like German actually. So that was no problem. So I was able to read a fair amount of the German literature. French is fairly easy. And Spanish is fairly easy. But I could never, never, speak French. Just like another language to me.
Doel:It was clear when I recently looked over a list of publications that the vast majority of the things that you published were in German.
Gordon:Yes. Since then much of them have been translated. Some important things that were there, theyíve been translated. And of course Iíd much rather read in English. I mean I donít read anything in German anymore. So I like when people translate for me.
Doel:Iím curious what your impressions were of those people that you came into contact with that you mentioned. Nafe, Jack Nafe early on. Meeting Sam Gerard and Friedman.
Gordon:Well Sam and Saul Friedman were just supertechs. They didnít really know much about — they werenít formally trained in oceanography. They were just an early start for Ewing to get some oceanographic measurements on the ship and develop some simple ways of measuring ocean currents. Getting water samples. It was mainly a technical. They didnít really know too much about oceanography. Jack Nafe of course was very different. He was an extraordinary intellect, and also one of these people who I, as I mentioned earlier, reasons out things in first principles. So he was very good educator because of that.
Doel:I was thinking about that because his teaching style as well as his research style does seem to match yours.
Gordon:Thatís right. Yes. I like that. Thatís why I liked his teaching. I liked him very much. He was an important influence on me here as he was to almost everybody else. And one of the few people that continuously got along well with Maurice Ewing too. Usually had run-ins somewhere along the line. But not Nafe. And then you had Chuck [Charles S.] Drake here. But this was the point where, letís see. How to say it? You had the columns. You had two basic columns. You had classical geology at Schermerhorn. And then you had all the geophysicists here. And these geophysicistsí people really did study the floor of the ocean and sediments. You know you had Drake and Heezen and [George H.] Sutton, and the seismologist too, [Jack E.] Oliver, Jack Oliver. Frank Press was here. I think Press left just before I got here.
Doel:I think thatís right.
Gordon:Yes and Ewing and all that. So you had those people. I didnít fit into either one of those camps because I was studying the fluid part of the ocean.
Gordon:And so I was really just, you know, building a third column here, whatever I was doing as a student. And it was — they were interesting times. But of course I was closest to the marine geophysicists and took a lot of those courses. Probably know more marine geophysics than any other physical oceanographer in the world which isnít saying much. But certainly it was — aware of the great advances in plate tectonics that were going on here. Many other oceanographers, physical oceanographers, were trained more in departments of atmospheric science or oceanography departments and were not exposed at all to the earth sciences. I think it was very, very important in my view of the earth that there was a strong geology or geophysics group here. Iím much more interdisciplinary, much broader knowledge now. That obviously comes in, thatís very useful in doing research where you never know where the story will take you. You know where the observations will take you. So you got to know as much as possible. And that this is the place you do that. Itís not narrow. Itís a broad place. So I interact with the geophysicists. Though again, I wasnít doing research in those areas. It was somewhat of a separation. Letís see, what else happened of interest there?
Doel:There are a few things I want to talk about and then we probably best pause to see how our recordingís actually going. What were your impressions of Ewing?
Gordon:Scary. Just I always — walking down that long hail on the second floor of Lamont Hall towards his office was always scary. Itís just one of those things like you keep walking and it doesnít get any closer. Just this long hall.
Doel:You were thinking of walking the corridor down to his office, living quarterís area.
Gordon:Thatís right. Back there. You know it was really scary. He was quite a presence, bushy white hair. And I was just a kid. You know, you know didnít travel much, didnít know very much. I remember one time, this is a slight aside, that I had to find a telephone number in Nassau County in Long Island. I went in to see Bruce Heezen to see if he had a Nassau telephone book. And he thought it was a great challenge, looking all over for a Nassau telephone book. And we found out it was not in Nassau, Bahamas, but Nassau, Rhode Island, he just threw me out of the office. [Laughter] But it was the same thing with Ewing. My experience, world experience, was so much narrower than theirs that when I went in to talk to Ewing, it was the same thing. I could say something really stupid. So I did most of the listening, and he would say lots. His desk was a pile of things. One time when his secretary moved it around, he got really angry because everything of course was mentally ordered. He knew where everything was. No, he was quite a presence. He was that very practical person, extraordinarily hard worker, legendary, his background. And he was always there. You know worked probably twenty hours a day, weekends. Thatís all he did was work. Thatís what the Lamont personality is all about. Hard work, Spartan life, individualistic. You know, he sort of set that tone. Itís changed now. More group efforts. I mean itís changed for the better as science evolves. I mean that was thirty years ago. Thirty-five years ago.
Doel:It was clear he had enormous influence.
Gordon:He did. On many, many people. Thatís right. He was one of these people, like Broecker, who had extraordinary, infinite number of ideas and almost infinitesimal number of those were correct. But almost — so when you divided infinitesimal by infinite, he had a lot of good ideas. So itís very much like Broecker. That I think a lot of what Broecker does is so much, so many feel that heís really a genius, but heís wrong very often. Heís more often wrong than right, but he gets the people thinking. Same thing was true of Ewing. Every once in a while they are right, and they really hit a home run as we say.
Doel:Iím wondering hearing you say this, during your graduate career or even earlier did you come across say the writings of Grove Karl Gilbert or others?
Doel:Talking about the philosophy of geology or hypothesis?
Gordon:No. No. I donít. Isnít it amazing? I donít believe I did. I was not an intellect. Iím still not. No. I would not — I like to do it myself.
Doel:This was something that came up in the seminars at Columbia?
Gordon:No. No. No. I suspect if you took the courses with the more classical geologists you might have gotten more of that, more of the history. I didnít take any real geology here at Columbia. I suspect that with the group that was just retiring when I got in there, Arie Poldevaart, I think he just died.
Gordon:And I suppose he and Holmes. Of course, he was still around when I was there. I suspect that if you took their courses you would have gotten more of the history of geology too. I got a little bit of that, but not much. You know the usual. No, not too much philosophy of science.
Doel:When you think back to the first year at Columbia — letís make this perhaps the last question.
Gordon:Okay because itís getting late.
Doel:Do you remember any that you regarded as particularly influential or particularly interesting?
Doel:Yes, the seminars that you had or other faculty members here?
Gordon:No. It was exciting times. Learning so much. No, it was great. I think I would say most of my focus in that first year was Wust. I mean he was very demanding of my time. So I couldnít do much more. There werenít as many seminars as there are now. I think that we have too many now. Probably didnít have enough then. But I remember hearing talks on seismology and visitors come through. I donít remember any one of them. They must have had an influence on me, but I donít —
Doel:When we resume, let us talk directly about your experiences with Wust and the other topics.
Gordon:Yes. I think thatís important.
Doel:Thank you very much.
Okay. Well thank you.