Oral History Transcript — Dr. Arnold L. Gordon
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Arnold L. Gordon; September 25, 1997
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:This is Ron Doel and this is a continuing interview, Session 3, with Arnold Gordon. Todayís date is the twenty-fifth of September, 1997. Weíre recording this at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York. One issue that I didnít get a chance to talk to you about in the last session was what the relationship was between physical oceanography and meteorology by the time that your research began in the 1960s? How much contact did you have with —
Gordon:Well, not all that much. The meteorology here at Lamont was run by a fellow by the name of Bill [William L.] Donn. He was a professor at City College and visiting researcher or whatever the title was here at Lamont. I think he was a senior research scientist here at Lamont. And most of his work did not deal with weather prediction or any of the weather phenomena that we know. He studied primarily the microbarograph - I donít really remember what they were called. But they were slight changes in air pressure due to internal waves within the stratosphere. And one of the things that excites the internal waves in the stratosphere was the explosion of nuclear weapons. So he was touting this as a way of detecting nuclear explosions in Russia, in the Soviet Union at that time.
Doel:Right. That became part of the work with [W. Maurice] Ewing on the acoustic channel.
Gordon:Yes. Thatís right. And in fact we were told that one of their early experiments in the 40s when Ewing and Donn first got together was to send up some high flying balloons. You know the story?
Doel:Did he tell you — did he give details about that or Roswell [NM]?
Gordon:No. The Roswell thing? No, he did not. I only learned of it maybe about five years ago. I didnít know about it at the time, but it sounds more reasonable than other explanations. [Laughter] But Ewing and Donn worked together very much in the early days of Lamont. And not just on the micro, not microseisms, micro-barrier — I forget. Jeez. Youíll probably get others who will remember. Anyway, but they also worked on a number of other issues that were somewhat related to the atmospheric science and had to do with the role of the Bering Straits, in opening and closing of the Bering Straits in governing the glacial, interglacial oscillations. I think that was a very reasonable hypothesis thatís being inspected more seriously nowadays than it was at the time when it was first published in the late 50s, early 60s. Anyway, there really wasnít much. We had a professor here who, then, as I say Bill Donn was in City College. And they brought a professor in; it must have been about 1961 or so, Richard Pfeffer. And he is where I — he taught courses in geophysical fluid dynamics, and the sort of GFD kind of what itís called approach to the fluids and thatís where I got that background from him from an atmospheric scientist and very classical background. He then, itís too bad, he was very — I thought he was a very good teacher and good researcher. He moved on, I think to Tallahassee after that; about 1965 or so, maybe 1966. But there really wasnít much in the way of meteorology here at Lamont after that.
Doel:was just thinking when the group at Princeton in Geophysical Fluid Dynamics was established, that was not there already was it by the time that you were doing your work here?
Gordon:Boy. I donít think it was. I really donít know. I mean, I was the geophysical research GFDL [Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, Princeton University]. Thereís a NOAA lab there is that the one I think that the one youíre thinking of. And [Joseph] Smagorinsky started that. But I donít think he started that until the early 70s. Again, I donít — Iím not really good on dates and remembering those things. I donít think it was in the early 60s.
Doel:Have you had much contact with them?
Gordon:Oh yes. Yes. There was, even from those early days, particularly in their development of their ocean model, the Bryan-Cox model was the — they were very concerned about getting the — simulating, as they are today, as modelers are today — in simulating the overturning of the ocean correctly. And the basic water mass or thermal line structure of the ocean. And at the time, the models were very crude. They had various — because the models werenít complete, they introduced various relaxation functions, or what I call fudge factors that relaxed the model back to observations at various kinds of intensity. Snap right back or slowly bring them back over a number of time steps. And that part of the GFD model, that Bryan-Cox model, is still around today. And I think is still causing problems. Itís not that itís not a real model; it always relaxes back to data. So any — if it looks like the real world is just coincidental. Itís probably not really due to the physics of the model, but due to that they force it to look like the real data. And that always has bothered me. So much of my interaction in the early days with the development of their model had to do with that, with making the model — getting the processes within the model to make the model data look real. And I think in the end they couldnít do it because many of the processes are so small in space and time scale that they couldnít properly model them within the, at that time, with the computers available.
Doel:Thatís what I was going to ask. It was an instrumental —?
Doel:More than a theoretical —?
Gordon:It was two things. Yes. Much of it was just technology because the computers just werenít fast enough to allow the small space and time scales that were necessary. Much of the overturning of the ocean occurs in the polar areas where scales of one to ten kilometers are important, and youíre talking about probably a hundred kilometers or even more at that time. It must have been five hundred kilometer spatial scales. And I donít know what their temporal scales were, their temporal steps were — but I assume also it was long compared to the time scale that the real processes within the ocean. So that was why they had to then parameterize a lot of these small scale processes numerically and even then still had to relax the data back to observations. Nowadays, as the computers get faster and faster, they still havenít gotten down to those very small scales that are necessary in the polar regions, but they do get closer and also the methods, numerical methods for representing sub-grid scale processes are far improved. The models nowadays are pretty impressive. There are tremendous advances.
Doel:In the late 60s and 1970s as you focused particularly on the Antarctic, who did you regard as the community of other researchers who shared that particular interest?
Gordon:Boy. Letís see. You know the king of Antarctic oceanography at that time, of course, was George Deacon who was knighted Sir George. And I spent my sabbatical in 1973 in Worley in Surrey just south of London working with him. Got to know him there a little bit better. And here in the United States at that point, we had Adrian [E.] Gill, who was — He was at, boy, Cambridge in England. But he spent a lot of time at GFDL at Princeton. So I spoke with him a lot. And he was a theoretician but nonetheless made some really good advances. He made more advances in understanding Antarctic oceanography. And one of the reasons he was at GFDL was to help parameterize some of these sub-grid processes within their model. And then in the field there was the primary other person beside me was a fellow by the name of Theodore Foster, Ted Foster. And I forget where he was. He started at Yale [University]. He was assistant professor at Yale in the 60s. I donít think he had tenure. Didnít get tenure there. Yale often, as many universities do that, will hire people without and only give tenure to a small number of those people, and he was one that did not. And then I donít really know where he went after that. I think he went to Scripps. Yes, he went to Scripps after that. Was there for a while. And he — while my work was primarily working on the Eltanin and the circumpolar survey, which then came to an end I think in about 1972, with the funding problems. He worked from the icebreakers — The U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers in the Waddell Sea and to a lesser extent in the Raw Sea. I never really had too much interaction with him. Basically we never really got along very well. And we still donít. [Laughter] You have to ask him, not me. But he worked with a number of good people. He got a number of good colleagues that, particularly a fellow by the name Eddy [C.] Carmack, very gifted, very good intuition, very thorough in his analysis of the data and creative in his development of concepts. And so there were a number of Foster-Carmack papers published in the mid to late 70s. And those are really classics. Those are really good papers. And I guess the way I presented that is that I credited Eddy Carmack with those papers, and I think other people would also. Foster earlier on, when he was at Yale and part of his Ph.D. thesis they considered his best work, and that had to do with double diffusion and mixing within Antarctic water column. And nowadays we are finding the kind of structures within the water column that can possibly be explained by the process that he discussed. So Foster is I think, is a valuable and effective scientist. I think his most important work was that — his Ph.D. thesis. Okay.
Doel:But the community was really less than half a dozen people.
Gordon:Oh absolutely. It was very small. Yes. The communities in almost all fields of physical oceanography were very small in the 60s, early 70s. I entered as I mentioned last time, I believe, I entered the field at the time of its great expansion in numbers as the funding, government funding, increased exponentially. So you were bringing in lots of new students from the mid-60s on to the late 70s, and they swelled the ranks of physical oceanographers by the 1980s. But certainly in the 1960s and 70s, it was just very, very few people. The ones that I worked with, the older people, were primarily — very few, at Woods Hole, non-Antarctic oceanography though, but they were people who came from other fields. Fritz Fuglister was an artist. I forget what Val [L.V.] Worthington did. Neither of them had Ph.D.s and really entered the field because they were just fascinated about the ocean. They were pure, at that time in the 50s and 60s — it was a period of pure exploration. We knew very little about the ocean. You couldnít help but go out and make — any measurement you would make, you would make some discovery. And these people were pretty good at making measurements and reasonably good at explaining the significance of the measurements.
Doel:Was funding a problem prior to the time you mention in the early 1970s?
Gordon:No. No. It was not a problem at all. I never realized that funding — Yes. I didnít think funding was a problem. I thought you just, you know, wrote a letter and you called your program manager and you needed more money and it would come. And I didnít realize that the answer could someday be no. [Laughter] I didnít think about it. And that was — it was interesting to see at that point what you did was that you had one program. You ran one program. The program I ran was the Eltanin program. It funded me for, well, the University I think paid me four months a year, four and half months, thatís what they paid. I was assistant professor starting 1966. They paid four and a half months. The rest of my time came from that one grant. And the people that worked for me on the ship, and everybody was on that one grant. Thatís unheard of nowadays. Now you have to run about five or more grants in order to support yourself and a group. But at that time there was only the one. And thatís what, of course, got me in trouble in 1972 when the NSF [National Science Foundation] started having budget problems. And one of the quick ways of solving their budget problems was dropping the Eltanin. So they dropped it and I had to give the money back, and I had absolutely nothing then. There were no fall back grants available. And that taught me a lesson that, you know, that I ought to have at least two grants. I ought to diversify. That was the start of it all. So it was really — And during the 1970s that I was able to get some funding from, also from NSF, to continue Antarctic work as part of the IDOE [International Decade of Ocean Exploration] program.
Doel:International Decade of Ocean Exploration.
Gordon:Exploration. And the program that I was involved with in IDOE was called ISOS, I5-0-5, International Southern Ocean Studies. It was primarily directed at the circumpolar current in the great passage. So that supported some field work I did in 1975.
Doel:And you, of course, had been doing that work in the great passage since the 1960s, late 60s.
Gordon:Oh yes. Yes. I was there, and so it was just a continuation, just under a different umbrella — IDOE instead of just the polar programs. And also that I diversified in — starting working in the South Atlantic in 1979 and through the 1980s.
Doel:And youíre also looking at circulation of the Caribbean. That had been earlier.
Gordon:Oh that was — that was a long — that was in the early 60s. That was my thesis. And some day Iíd like to get back to that. Not many people have worked in the Caribbean. And maybe as I get closer to retirement, Iíd like to do some Caribbean work. Anyway, so the nineteen — late 70s and early 80s, was when I began diversifying big time by entering into the South Atlantic. And I think thatís just been wonderful for me because there was so much unexplored territory down there. The Brazil current and Malvinas or Falkland current, and the Dulles current and that really — that was very, very good for my career and opened me up to a lot of global issues. In fact, I would say that that line of my work, non-Antarctic line of my work, is the major part of my studies now. It ultimately led to my ideas of inter-ocean exchange between the Indian and the South Atlantic and its role in governing the North Atlantic deep water formation. It led therefore to the work Iím doing presently in Indonesia which is part of the inter-ocean — In other words, I guess it got me started on this inter-ocean exchange of warm thermocline waters. Certainly in the Antarctic, I was always looking at the exchange of polar waters between the ocean basin but now I was more focused on warm water exchange and their role in the global climate. And I would say thatís been a fundamental part of my — theme of my career since then.
Doel:What led you to the work in the South Atlantic?
Gordon:Well, I guess it would have to be, you know, Georg Wust. I can only assume that that must have been it. You know, as I think I might have mentioned earlier, I just go ahead and do things. Justify them or figure out why I did them later. But in the South Atlantic — see Georg Wust in 1920s, he was my professor; he was a visiting professor in the early 60s here at Lamont. He made his career in the South Atlantic in the 1920s, Ď24, Ď27 or 6. I forget the exact dates — the great Meteor Expedition.
Doel:Meteor expedition. Yes.
Gordon:Of the South Atlantic. And he wrote the book on the South Atlantic. So it could — I suspect what happened was that I knew the literature of the South Atlantic better than any other ocean basin. So it was a natural place for me to go. And I knew the German work in the South Atlantic, not just Wust, but other work in the 30s in the South Atlantic. I knew nothing was done since then. So this being the 1970s at that point, I was — it was natural to go back, and using their work, to really go down and explore it with modern equipment. And that again really paid off. The ONR, Office of Naval Research, picked up on that — my South Atlantic work — and set money aside for a five-year program to look at the South Atlantic, and that intensified my research in the South Atlantic during the 1980s.
Doel:How important was that the AEC as a patron for your work?
Doel:Atomic Energy Commission.
Gordon:Oh yes. Thatís right. Well, of course, they supported the physical oceanography group here in the, from the late 50s I think before I got here, through the 60s, into the 70s. And at that point, a lot of that kind of support was sort of blanket support. And as time went on, you had to justify getting money more and more. You had to be more specific of what you were doing, sort of milestones, and more specific objectives for the work. So that money became more restrictive as time went on. But I would say it was the backbone of the support of physical oceanography here through the 60s and into the 70s. Towards the end of the 70s and. No, in the 70s and in the early 80s, the AEC or DOE — I forget what they were called, there was some other name they had then, or something — so they then they turned towards coastal research. And I did get involved with that. New York byte, mid-Atlantic byte, coastal waters off New York, New Jersey, and to look at exchanges of those coastal waters with the deep ocean. And I did, I got involved in that during the 70s and 80s. And that was a good line of research. But it was always a diminishing amount as most of my support and interest was deep ocean.
Doel:Were there particular instrumental limitations as you began the Antarctic work in the 60s and 70s?
Gordon:Oh yes. Oh absolutely. Absolutely. Itís the— boy, gathering every data point was an extraordinary effort. And now when I look back, when I look at satellite images now and I see the complications of the surface ice fields, and surface temperatures, and sea surface topography, those hard fought data points that we used to get in the 60s and 70s, it just didnít — it wouldnít have seemed worth it. The ocean was so complex that getting those points so far apart in space and time, Iím amazed that weíre able to at all make sense of the ocean with those data points. But of course we did because the temperature and salinity which primarily were what we measured were very good integrators of the — of all the things that affect the ocean stratification. So one point provided sort of a sense of the whole history of that piece of the ocean and what it went through in terms of circulation and mixing and coupling with the atmosphere. It took a lot of imagination, but then again we didnít have many data points. And, as I said before, we only worked on one or two projects so we had the time to think. Few data points, focused research. So we had, I would say, a typical station during that time was what we call a serial cast or Nansen cast station, and it was — took about seven hours to do and you got twenty-three observational depths. You observed the ocean about twenty-three levels. Temperature, salinity and chemistry. Nowadays thatís done with an instrument thatís lowered into this ocean and that records all those things a few times a second as itís being lowered. Maybe, you know, ten meters or thirty meters a minute. Thirty or sixty meters a minute. So, you know, we have thousands and thousands of points now per station, instead of just twenty-three. And also the stations only take a few hours. So you were able to add more stations to a typical cruise. And many of the stations are closer together now. The work I just did in the Antarctic in the last month — I just got back from a program called Dovetail — our stations were, on average, about fifteen nautical miles apart. Where on Eltanin, our stations were a hundred nautical miles apart, maybe more. We had no way of really measuring ocean currents at that time. And now we measure ocean currents routinely with the same package that we measure temperature and salinity, through the lower Doppler, acoustic Doppler current profiler. So the amount of information that weíre getting now is orders and orders of magnitude more detailed in space and time than what we did then. I donít know why in the 1960s, I guess I just should have waited until the 1990s, until the instruments really allowed you to study the ocean.
Doel:But you needed a career in the meantime.
Gordon:Thatís right. In the meanwhile thatís right. And you do learn a hell of a lot about the ocean when you had a lot of time to think about a few data points. And nowadays you just — the students donít have that sense about them. They, I donít think they, they donít think about — thereís so many data points, you donít think about each one in the detail that we used to think about it.
Doel:I was curious, because youíd mentioned that twice, having the time to think as being a critical component of being the research at the time. Whatís been lost in more recent styles of oceanography that you had in the late 60s and early 70s?
Gordon:Let me think about that. We have a lot more information. We can work through it much faster because of the help of computers. But you donít look at the individual points. And while we are — our data points are closer together in space and time, theyíre probably not as close together as the processes are. We still limit it. And in studying these processes, particularly the higher latitudes and deeper in the ocean, the processes are very small space and time scale.
Doel:Was that something that became increasingly apparent as you did the research?
Gordon:Yes. Thatís right. Yes. In other words, the more you measured, the more you realized you donít know that type. Now whatís happening now is you get so swamped out by the data and you have so little time to think about it, because youíre running about five or ten programs at the same time, that there could be some very important features of the ocean being revealed in those data sets that you donít get into. I think that people are looking at a smaller content, science content, of the data nowadays, and only those that are easily manipulated by computer and looked at by computer. So Iím not an advocate of doing everything manually without computers. I think computers do help you, but they — of course, they help you — but what can happen though is itís easy to do the easy things, and it takes more time to go into depth in the data and thatís where the discovery is. The devil is in the detail. And really the essence of the oceans is in the detail. And nowadays the models, which are also not really up to the kind of fine scales that are necessary in understanding the ocean, and may also not include some of the relevant physics, which Iím beginning to think nowadays more and more that they do not include some relevant physics, so theyíre not perfect. And yet, much of the focus of the scientists nowadays is on model data and not observational data. So itís a very superficial study of model data. And just as observational data. But the problem is that the models may — are not really properly reflecting the real world. They may have the added problem of being wrong. So I think the new students and the new, younger scientists are generally not thinking of the ocean in the kind of — Interesting, the kind of detail that in the same sense you need that detail to think in the far sweeping sort of way about the global ocean. I think that even the thoughts of the global ocean will suffer by not knowing the essence or the detail of the structures and the region of oceanography. So, yes, all right. You go on.
Doel:No. This is very interesting. When you began the Eltanin program, did you already have a concept for what became the Southern Ocean Atlas in mind?
Gordon:Oh yes, of course. Yes that was, but that was so — thatís traditional in exploratory oceanography, you go out in these grant surveys and when the survey is done, you spend years analyzing it. And one of the things, one of the tools is producing an atlas. So, no that was clear that an atlas should be done. Now that atlas, the Southern Ocean Atlas, was supported by IDOE as part of that ISOS program. So that was another thing that, another sort of grant that I had post-Eltanin. And that was interesting that George Deacon, when I was there in 1973 — and I probably mentioned all this before — he did his southern ocean work in the 1930s. And his publications primarily, I mean, looked primarily like cruise reports. They were just very narrative and anecdotal. And he said, when I spent time with him in 1970s, that he was going to write up a serious monographs on the southern ocean, but then came along the war, World War II, and then after that, when they were rebuilding oceanography in England, he was the senior person, and he had to direct the labs. So he never really got back to it. So he was one of these people that knew a lot more of the southern ocean than you might think from his publications and gave me a better appreciation in reading his data report publications of the 1930s that these really had a lot of content with them, in them. And every sentence that he had in there, while it seemed not terribly quantitative at the time, did have some real thought behind it. So, I have more respect for George Deacon after my — spending my sabbatical with him in 1973 than I did before.
Doel:Was he willing to share data that had not been published as well? Was there sort of a quantity of that or was most of it indeed in the published reports?
Gordon:No. It was not in the reprint. The Discovery data reports were — it was Discovery that was name of the expedition — They were published, all the data was available. But I met at the time, not just him, but also a fellow by the name of MacIntosh. They looked at the polar fronts at the time. He was pretty old then. And so I met sort of the previous generation. And you see because of the Second World War, there was a big gap between my generation and that previous generation. People like Wust and George Deacon were from that previous generation. And I really benefited tremendously from having that link with those older guys, the pre-war generation. And nowadays you donít — the students — there are so many oceanographers around, their sense of history and how the field unfolds and develops is gone. They donít have that sense any longer. I really felt that it was like a, you know, a tag team race or something like that. That I took the baton that they passed on to me. And I was to pass it on to somebody else. And the whole history sort of unfolds that way. Now you just got, you know, like the start of the New York Marathon, all those mobs running across the Verrazano Bridge. [Laughter]
Doel:Thatís how oceanography feels now.
Gordon:Yes. Thatís what oceanography feels like now. [Laughter] Only at least with these marathons they run in one direction. It now runs in all sorts of directions. So your sense of continuity is sometimes — is not that all apparent to the new students? So thatís why in teaching classes itís very often a good idea to teach it from a chronological idea so people realize that theyíre part of a process, a process building on the results of earlier generations.
Doel:Thatís something that you emphasize in your —
Gordon:Yes. Yes. Trying to do that. But, boy, I donít think theyíre terribly interested in that. Again, the present oceanographers. You know, yesterday I had a long talk with Knut Egert who is here about — Heís an Arctic oceanographer. Heís my counterpart in the Arctic. And I — you know, the same thing is that youíre doing — why are all the new students going into modeling. And even the applicants for graduate school want to do modeling. And these people donít know anything about the funding or about the history or where it is. They want to do things are strongly computer oriented. And models are really fun to do. They are, like playing computer games, you can tweak all sorts of knobs and you see what happens. And itís like a game. And itís great. And it also is easy to define problems to do and you know youíre going to be successful. Where, when you go out into the field, thereís a risk. First, not all that comfortable out there. I think the new people today donít have the same sense of adventure that we used to have. They donít want to travel. They donít want to go out in remote parts of the world. You know, that was, in my time, that was fascinating to do that. And now, they, the modelers, theyíre just sitting in front of their computers in their office, and they just — they hardly know how to turn a wall switch on for the lights, let alone to travel to Indonesia and work in all those little islands there and discover things.
Doel:Thatís very interesting. Why do you think thatís the case?
Gordon:I donít know. I think its computer games. Life is in front of the computer screen. Theyíre taking well to browsing the web because that also is a simulation of life. Plato had something to say about that.
Gordon:I think I did mention my fascination for Platoís Republic in my earlier —
Doel:You certainly did in one of the earlier sessions.
Gordon:And it has something to do with that. I think that itís fun and it seems like it is life. And a lot of the students now, they want to browse the web. They want to look at web sites and look at the data on the web, instead of looking at the real world.
Doel:Do you have many discussions with them about the interface between theory and experimentation?
Gordon:Yes. Between modeling and experimentation. And I feel theyíre — I think both go together. Modeling to me is a tool. You have observational information and you have information developed from models. And the models we use for predicting the future. You want the models to be correct. The only way theyíre going to be correct is by making sure that they are consistent with observations that you have of present day and past ocean. And I present this to the students, that itís not observationalists against modelers. Itís observationalists working with modelers. And you got to know both. You absolutely have to know both. You canít build a house with just a screwdriver. You got to build with everything, the whole tool kit. And observations and models are all part of the tool kit that you need. But yet the skills of people go in one direction or the other. And they donít have the feeling for observations that I think are necessary. They donít know — They donít know what the real world is like. And therefore theyíre going to make big errors in interpreting their models. Oh well. Well, thatís another point. Why donít we get back to this?
Doel:Itís very interesting, though, because you have the perspective to see the changes from the time that you began in the 1970s.
Doel:It does lead me back to asking, which courses did you begin teaching? Which ones did you want particularly to offer at Columbia once you joined the faculty?
Gordon:The one that I teach now, that Iíve got to teach at ten oíclock today, is the introduction of physical oceanography. Itís a graduate level course. And I just love teaching it. And I change it from year to year. It hasnít gotten old. And I try to cover different angles of it at different times. I do feel that in the late 60s and 70s, I covered far more detail and much more quantitative than I do now.
Doel:Is that right?
Gordon:Yes. I think so. And I look at the exams that I gave then. I could never give those exams now. You know, they were just too detailed. Too much knowledge. Now, I donít know if it was me that I wasnít reaching the students then. And — but I think I was. They did all right in those exams. And the students that took my course in the 70s thought it was a really good course. And a lot of them were fairly successful in their careers. So I think that theyíre — but now they donít seem to do the reading in the library. I hate to say they donít work as hard. But I think that might be the case. Maybe there are too many other things going on. I think my course is far more conceptual now and less detailed. I try to get the basic concepts across. And I have some doubts if itís successful because I have the basic concepts in my mind because I know the details, and I donít know if you can get the concepts without knowing the details. As I said earlier, I donít think you can understand the global ocean without knowing the details of the regional oceans, regional oceanography. So one might think that these broad brush concepts of global ocean, thatís easy because you donít have to know the details. But I donít think you can do it without knowing the details. And I think thatís sort of whatís happening now. In my course, too, when I question them about the concepts, I have not gotten my point across usually. And that kind of bothers me. And Iím not certain why thatís the case. It may be that not putting more quantitative science in the lectures might be — they might be not grasping the concepts then. I donít know.
Doel:Was it primarily this one course that you offered through Columbia?
Gordon:I always taught another course too. I always taught an undergraduate course. That varied with time. In the 70s, late 60s, I taught a course with Jim [James D.] Hays on Introduction to Earth Science. I taught that for a few years. And there was a one thousand level course, introductory course, for non-scientists. And that was very good. Because thatís when you realize that the non-scientists out there didnít understand graphs. You know, I knew they wouldnít understand math and trigonometry. But it turned out they didnít even understand graphs, how to interpret, you know, the plot of something or other against something or other. So when I would show these graphs as an example of what I was trying to present, and I thought it was clarifying it, I just lost them. So you had to spend — I learned at that point, you had to spend more time on the graphs. Say what the x axis and what the y axis was and what each dot represented, things like that. And it was hard to get through to them. But yet they asked really good questions because they often looked at the field from an angle that I didnít think of before. So anyway, I taught the ocean and atmosphere part. Jim Hays taught the more solid earth parts of it. It was a good course. I thought it was. And then after that, then I started teaching a course in earth climate. There was something in between too. But I teach, right now I teach undergraduate, an advanced undergraduate course, a so-called three thousand level course, on earthís climate. And itís pretty good. I restrict it to a few students with good backgrounds, and theyíre scientists, theyíre majoring in the field. And thatís — I enjoy teaching that course. I do that in the spring.
Doel:The late 60s was a time of tremendous turmoil at Columbia University. How much did that affect your teaching or your research?
Gordon:Oh not at all. No, I never got involved in any of that nonsense. No I was, of course in the Antarctic, there were some tough — [Laughter] during the riot when they occupied the presidentís office. What was the name of that guy?
Doel:Grayson Kirk was the —
Gordon:Was president yes. I canít remember the student, the leader of that SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] was it? [laughter]
Doel:Yes, students for a Democratic Society.
Gordon:Yes. Oh what nonsense. But yet now looking back, I kind of wished there was a little more of that in the present students. [laughter] Because I think that at that point these kids were adventurers. I didnít agree with their political views, but they were adventurers. They were the ones that went into the Peace Corps and they traveled. And they had more imagination. Nowadays, kids donít seem to have that kind of adventure in them. So the 60s are — when you live through a period, you donít realize how unique they are. And now Iím beginning to realize how unique they are. Because I thought we would have a return to that after the quiet 70s, but it never really happened. Not yet anyway. [laughter] But, no, that really didnít affect me at all. I think there were a few classes that were called off because the buildings were locked up. They chained themselves across the doors and chained the doors. And that was good because then I was able to do some more work up here. [Laughter] So it didnít really bother me all that much. But the graduate students never got involved in that. That was not — it did not affect Lamont other than an inconvenience at times.
Doel:I wonder if you remember what the graduate students were politically active in any way during those years.
Gordon:No. I donít think they were. No. I donít. Most people were not politically active. It was just very few. And it was at the undergraduate level. No. I donít think that there was very much here in the way of political action. There were no demonstrations here on campus. Nothing like that. Iím sure that the graduate students at that time had more political thoughts than they do now. But I donít think that they — I donít think they were — You know, they didnít obstruct anything.
Doel:Iím thinking in 1971 you were also a visiting scholar at Woods Hole.
Gordon:Oh thatís right. Yes.
Doel:How did that come about?
Gordon:Oh that was just a program that they had there that was run by the students at Woods Hole. And they would invite people there to spend some time in the summer who they wanted to hear from. So I think I went there a few times. And you give some lectures and you spend some time with the students. And there, during the 70s and continuing today, Woods Hole was the center of physical oceanography, the field that Iím in. So you really got to know, got to meet a lot of the faculty members at that point, and also a lot of the students. So that was — those are fascinating times. I really enjoyed working with the students there. And, you know, I donít know if Iíd wish I was at Woods Hole rather than here, because this here gave me more opportunity for — to do whatever I want because there was so, there was no competition. There was no one else around. There were all the niches. I could fill any niches I wanted here. Where it was all, I could only fill the ones that were vacant at the time.
Doel:Who did you interact with particularly at Woods Hole?
Gordon:At Woods Hole at that point. Bruce Warren, Val Worthington, and then Mike McCartney, I think started in the 70s at Woods Hole and he is somebody I interact strong with nowadays. Oh, Phil Richardson was there then. And of course Henry Stommel was there and I interacted with him a fair amount too. So no, itís a very — Fritz Fuglister. It was a very focal point of physical oceanography then. More so then than now. But they are the center of physical oceanography still.
Doel:How did it come to be that you were interim department chair in 1976?
Gordon:Well, everybody else was leaving and I was too dumb to step back. You know, it was, you know, who wants to be department chair step one foot forward, and everybody stepped one back and I was standing there. [Laughter] I think I mentioned that to you before. Yes. No, itís just at the time a number of the people they were leaving. They were department chairmen and our interactions with the University werenít that great. There were a lot of frustrations being department chairman. The University looked at Lamont as something that they could draw money from and not put any money into because we were fat cats getting grants. So we were still growing. We wanted to grow. And there were beginning at that point to be more limitations on our growth. We werenít just able to add faculty members easily. So the chairman at that point, for the first time, it became a difficult task.
Doel:Was it also difficult to balance between teaching and research?
Gordon:Yes. There were the conflicts between Columbia and Lamont. You had — yes, I guess that must have been an important part of it. In the late 60s, you had faculty down there and you had people up here. And the power was beginning to swing up here. And then when the people up here really had to take over the chairmanships of the department, there was never anybody down there any longer who was more traditional to be the chairman, then it began to be a sink of time. So perhaps the frustrations with the University, balanced against the pleasures of doing research, must have also made the job more difficult. Anyway, a lot of people had the job and then left. And I forgot who was immediately before me. I think it was Chuck [Charles S.] Drake. Jack E. Oliver, Chuck Drake, both of them left after being chairman.
Doel:It was quite a pattern for those years.
Gordon:Yes. For quite a while. And no one wanted to do it anymore. So somebody asked me, and I was really very young then, just in the thirties, and not — didnít really know too much. But I thought it would be — I didnít do too much in the way of administration before and I thought it would be a good experience to do that. And it was only going to be interim. It was not really being the chairman. It was to do it for a year. I think thatís all it was. And with this idea of having a committee of more senior people on the staff that backed me up and do some of the work. Of course that never worked out. They werenít there. [laughter]
Doel:Who were the senior people who were to be on that? Did it include people like [Manik] Talwani?
Gordon:It was Taiwani, yes. It was primarily Talwani. Oh boy, I could have boned up on the timing of that though. I know it was Talwani who nominated me to be interim. And he was the one that set up this sort of pattern of interim with a committee for at least a year. And he set up that paradigm. And he was director of Lamont at that time. Because, you know, Ewing left I think Ď72, í73; something like that. And I think Talwani took over in late Ď72 or early Ď73. So it was part of the Lamont role at that point so in a sense a Lamont director appointing a chairman of the department really.
Doel:Did you notice much difference between Lamont under Ewing and under Talwani?
Gordon:Oh yes. Well, with Ewing, you worked for him. In a classical sense of a director, this was his lab. He directed what the lab did in terms of research. Put people on what he felt would provide the research that was necessary to reach his objectives. And his name went on all papers, more or less. That was sort of weakening by the time that I came around. You know, people worked for him. Did the research that he wanted. He was a real director in terms of research directions. And Taiwani then, you started breaking up into more independent departments, each with their own objectives, with the administrator — with the director being more of an administrator, rather than the active research director. Of course he did that. It was important in hiring and promotions. But there was at that point an executive committee set up for instance where Ewing would never have an executive committee. And so there were members of the senior staff that were represented in that executive committee, and I represented oceanography. I believe Iím the longest standing member of Lamontís executive committee. The only one that might be longer is Talwani, not Taiwani, [Taro] Takahashi. I think he was on the committee when I got on it with Taiwani in 1974, I think, 1975. I think he was already on it. And Iím still on it now. We could abolish the executive committees. I think Iím the Karl Rifkind of the executive committees. [laughter] And I think with the new director, theyíre going to abolish the structure we had. The executive committee will be abolished, and thereís going to be an advisory committee or something like that. Thereíll be much larger representation. So Iím hoping to stay on until they abolish the executive committee.
Doel:How do you feel about that change?
Gordon:Oh boy. Oh the idea of the Earth Institute is a wonderful idea, and the time has come for that. And I feel that the scientists here at Lamont have always felt themselves relevant to attack the real problems of society and interact even more strongly with the non-scientists and the other people at Columbia is definitely on a positive side. The implementation — Thereís two concerns I have. One is, has to do with — I always felt that interdisciplinary science depends on the strength and depth of your knowledge of disciplines. That you cannot have interdisciplinary scientists without having at least some deep understanding of at least one other discipline. It really is a linking together of people who have deep disciplinary understandings and are sensitive to the other personís discipline rather than looking at it as a competitor. And Iím afraid that much of the simplified approach to interdisciplinary science now is similar to, I guess analogous to the computer issues that I spoke about earlier.
Doel:I was wondering if you saw parallels between them.
Gordon:Oh yes. Itís that browsing the web is analogous to many peopleís interpretation of interdisciplinary science now. Just the surface. You donít have to need to understand the depths. And I think thatís a real, real mistake. You donít have to understand the details. So, thatís one concern that I have is that in the implementation. Well, no. The concern I have is that the criteria for promotion and appointments are going to be those people who are interdisciplinary and not much emphasis will be placed on their disciplinary training, depth of their disciplinary training which means that itís going to be more of, promotions maybe depend more on appearance, rather than substance. Thatís one problem that I have. And the other has to do with, while I agree strongly with the Earth Institute idea, and itís certainly not a new idea either, is the implementation of it. Right now weíre signing a lot of MOUís, Memorandum of Understandings. Iím involved with one with Indonesia. And we signed one with JPL, Jet Propulsion Lab. And weíre going to sign one with Japan, Jamstack, and all of that. Now, in almost every one of these cases, I have worked with those people who are involved. You know the other non-Columbia members of those MOUís. I worked with them in years and it never occurred to me that I needed an MOU. And all of a sudden now, weíre signing lots of MOUís. So it formalizes our links with these other labs. And I suppose thatís good and may come in handy in the future. In other words, while you didnít need an MOU to interact with other labs, now maybe you did. Maybe thereíll be restrictions that you, from many labs, that you can only interact and exchange people and have new joint programs only if you do have an MOU.
Doel:What sort of things have been inspiring the need, or perceived need for the MOUís? Why has that come about?
Gordon:Iím not as smart as Peter Eisenberger so I donít see the clear need for MOUís. And they, again, they do look good and good photo ops. But I am concerned that what is their real benefit for us. I mean, whatís their real need? There might very well be a need in the future. It may turn out that, you know, people in the past here maybe didnít need a Ph.D. to do the work, and you can hire somebody without a Ph.D. But now there are so many Ph.D.s around, you need it to be hired. [laughter] Even if you need it to do the job or not. It may turn out thereíll be so many MOUís around that preference will be given for funding for joint efforts between programs, between institutions that have formalized their ties together. So I think that possibility, the MOU use is going to become clear in the future. But the implementation of the grand ideas of the Earth Institute that Iím concerned about is maintaining the quality and the depth of the disciplines, the intellectual energy within the disciplines. Because, like web browsing, the interdisciplinary approach can very well become just very flashy, appearance only, not much depth, not much substance to it. So thatís the danger of the trends that I see now in our present undergraduate course on environmental sciences. I also think this doesnít teach very much depth. The Earth Institute may not, and maybe thatís what Iím concerned even about my own graduate courses. I mentioned earlier, indeed, that Iím even guilty of presenting just broad concepts and not the details.
Doel:Thinking back to the time when you were interim chair, were there particular developments or ideas that you wanted to see come about in the department?
Gordon:No. Really, I was just an interim. I didnít really put much time into it. There was - - my view was to, actually it was to broaden the departmentís scope. I felt that, even at that point, that it was too geological, too rock-oriented. And I definitely wanted more oceanography [laughs] and atmospheric science as an active part of the faculty. And but being just an interim, it was something that I, you know, I pushed in that direction, but didnít really have the kind of leverage that I would if I were a full department chairman to really implement. And I donít think the time was right then either. You know, because other people have tried that since then. It was really only in the late 80s that the department moved much more strongly in the direction that I always wanted to move into the fluids and atmosphere and ocean sciences. So I certainly wanted to do that, but I didnít — The time wasnít right for that and I didnít have the formal position to do that. I did get the department out of a rough time. And it was right after that, that we entered sort of the next phase of administration within the department. I think [Wallace S.] Broecker might have been the next chairman, or maybe Dial, Ian Dial was the next chairman on that. But at that point it was interesting. It was the interim that I did was a transition from a Schermerhorn dominated system to a Lamont dominated system. I think thatís true. I think thatís what it really meant —
Doel:Thatís very interesting.
Gordon:— at the time.
Doel:How much resistance was there within the department to that transition, or was that something that you felt they were welcoming in terms of the broader issues?
Gordon:At that point it was welcome. It was a problem that solved itself.
Doel:A problem within the department?
Gordon:Yes. Because of all the new appointments were Lamont-oriented. You would never at that point think of making an appointment that for somebody to sit down in Schermerhorn. It was all Lamont-oriented. So we just — we got the votes. We cornered the market on the votes. There was no longer an issue.
Doel:Thatís very interesting. [Laughter]
Gordon:Thatís how it worked. But you know it was where the government funding was, it was where the studentsí interest was, and it was, thatís how it worked. Thatís how it happens nowadays too. Yes. All right. A little more time.
Doel:Yes. Then weíre going to have to bring this to a close quickly. 1980, mid 1980s, the Vetlesen Foundation provided the one million grant for the Center for Climate Research and additional 3.5 million for the chair and other operating expenses. Had you played a role in bringing this grant about?
Gordon:No. So that makes it easy. Weíre finished then. [laughter] No, I did not play a role in that. That was a Broecker primarily role. Barry [C. Baring] Raleigh was chairman at the — Director of Lamont at the time. And all the fanfare and a nice dinner, but, you know, when they announced that. But no, it was mainly Broeckerís interaction with the Vetlesen that did that. That was the Climate Center that you mentioned? Was the Climate Center you said?
Doel:Yes. Were there initiatives of that kind that you wanted to bring to Lamont?
Doel:Iím wondering if you felt the need for funds of that sort to do the kind of research that you continued to do?
Gordon:Not really. No. I didnít at the time. I was always very well-funded since the early 70s when I had my Eltanin. Very well-funded, and Iím very well-funded now. Iíve never felt the need to go to funny corners of the funding potential to draw in more money. And I never felt the need for centers like that to enable good interaction among interested scientists. I guess Iím more or less an ad hoc person. You just, you work with when and who you felt, where your scientific instincts lead you. And centers to me and such were in a sense a certain amount of money was drawn off for administration, and a certain amount of time was drawn off for administration. And I havenít really seen the overwhelming need. I have not seen the overwhelming need or benefit of the Climate Center. It brings in visitors, but it could have been done anyway. So I —
Doel:Do you feel itís still possible to do those kind of ad hoc arrangements in oceanography today?
Gordon:I think it is. Yes. I do think that ideas and intellectual energy is what makes the difference. And it can overcome — it can work within or overcome any administrative barriers that you have. So I donít worry about all those administrative structures as much as maybe other people because I feel I could work with them or around them if I had the idea. And thatís not a — Iím a little bit more concerned now with the Earth Institute. But in general these are all constructs of people, and they can serve some benefit here and there, but they are not the generators of ideas. And since ideas are the things that win in the long run, I donít need those, sort of all that structure to — [laughter]
Doel:This is very interesting. I realize that weíre just about out of time. I just wanted to ask one last quick question for our session today. In 1980-81, you had the joint U.S., the Lamont directed and USSR study of the winter sea ice and the winter sea began. Was that the first time of sustained interaction with Soviet oceanographers?
Gordon:Oh yes. That was wonderful time. And I developed that during — when [President Jimmy] Carter announced that we wouldnít go to the Olympics in Moscow. And, oh boy, so I went over there myself in Leningrad in Moscow to work out the details of my 1981 program with them, and that was an exciting time. Thatís when the KGB really worked me over there.
Doel:Howís that? What are you thinking about?
Gordon:Oh the — boy, I donít know. I met a lot of people I never met before or since in there. [laughter] And I got, I think I mentioned this to you before. And in the morning I woke up on the floor. I wasnít — That was unlike me. [laughter] I donít know how I got there. And also as soon as I got into the hotel, I was whisked away for about six hours for some silly little trip, and my bag was searched at that point. So I was subject to far more investigation then, and once I got cleared that I was innocent and pretty naive, then they approved the program and we went ahead with it, even though in 1980 when we started that program, Ď79 and Ď80 and Ď81, we were in the real depths of our interactions with the Soviet Union. I was able to work that program. And in fact thatís one of my specialties. I am one of the few people who have access to Indonesian waters. And I had some Japanese visitors here. They wonder how I do it. Has something to do with Japanese occupying Indonesia a few years ago and torturing the hell out of people. But they donít seem to understand that. But in any case, I do have a knack in working with totalitarian governments wherever they are. I take that back. [Laughter] So like in Indonesia, Iím one of the few people that they — I have built their trust. I have moorings in their waters now. I can go there whenever I want. Work in their waters. No one else anyplace in the world has gotten their trust as much as I do. Maybe itís just my naivetť. They realize Iím not a danger. Maybe only to myself. [laughter] So that was — so the same thing happened in the Soviet Union, was that I was able — I worked on that. And then we developed early in the mid-80s, we started talking about the ice station work that I did in 1992, that took a long time to develop. And that work was carried out even as the Soviet Union was crumbling around us. I started that procedure with the Soviet Union and ended up being done by the Russians. So I was able to maintain these scientific ties even though the establishment around was collapsing. Which maybe is related to what I said earlier is work on an ad hoc basis and if you have the ideas you can work around any kind of administrative structure there is Ė
Doel:As you look back on it, what else do you feel enabled you to be able to make these kinds of connections?
Gordon:Innocence I think. I donít know. I donít know why Iím so successful in working with — No — I know thereís a science problem there that I want to work on, and the Soviets were the only ones that could get me in there. Indonesia Iím most interested and fascinated with the oceanography of Indonesia. When I worked in Dulles current, I had a worked up Gordon - 3 -103 arrangements with the old regime in South Africa. I worked with the military regime in Argentina, when I did the Argentine, Brazil. Jim Baker whoís the head of NOAA said I was going to get the human rights award in oceanography. [Laughter] So itís, I guess they donít see me as a threat. My motives are purely scientific. And I make the case to them that itís in their benefit. I assume that much of their agreement is politically motivated. That they can say they are working with somebody from United States. So I donít know what their motives are, but I achieve my objectives of gathering the scientific data that I want that I feel are important to get at the time. But that has set me apart from any other oceanographers: my desire and abilities to succeed in joint programs and working in with countries that are very difficult to work with. Iím trying to develop — like now, Iím trying to develop ties with Burma. I was there last year in May in Burma. You know, sort of the outcast of the whole world. And I was one of the few people that they took around there last May and try to develop a program. Well, that has not continued. But I suspect any day Iím going to get a message from them and say weíll continue our discussions. So — I do those things and I, you know — All right.
Well, I know you have to go at this point. Thank you very, very much for this long session. I do appreciate it. Youíll be getting the transcript from Columbia.