Oral History Transcript — Dr. Marcus G. Langseth
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Interview with Dr. Marcus G. Langseth
Marcus G. Langseth; December 13, 1995
ABSTRACT: Born 21 November 1932 in Lebanon, Tennessee. His parents separate during the Great Depression. From ages four to about eleven or twelve he resides at the Monroe Harding Childrenís Home in Nashville, Tennessee. His mother works at Monroe Harding. He doesnít see his father again until 1957. Older sister is a writer. Describes the Monroe Harding Childrenís Home. Home is supported by the Presbyterian Church. The church turns from supporting orphans and needy institutions to the war effort in 1941. Tells of his experiences raising chickens as part of the Homeís effort to be self-sufficient. His early schooling and early encounters with geology while at Monroe Harding detailed. In 1944, He moves with mom to Dutchess County, New York. His time at Hope Farm, also known as Greer School, a childrenís home in Dutchess County. An interest in science is sparked by Miss Tausig, a teacher at the school. Enjoys nature walks with Tausig and takes an avid interest in bird identification. Describes his math and science studies at the school. Moves to Long Island to the Attoly Orphan House when mom receives new employment on Long Island. His experiences at Jamaica High School in Long Island. He develops his interests in music and art. Langsethís science studies at Waynesburg College in Pennsylvania described. Between his junior and senior years at Waynesburg, he works at Lamont Geological Observatory. Recounts how he received the job and his first impressions of Lamont. Works recording seismic waves with Jack Oliver and Charles Drake. Learns the theory behind his work. Mentions people at the Observatory, and more fully describes Oliver and Lamont director, W. Maurice Ewing. Explores the interaction between the scientists and the machinists, particularly mechanist Angelo Ludas. Many of the scientists spend time at the machine shop developing instruments for their research. Describes the daily routine at the machine shop. Mentions the scientists at the core lab and the geochemists. Langseth decides to attend graduate school to pursue further research.
TranscriptSession I | Session II | Session III
Doel:This is Ronald Doel and this is an interview with Marcus [G.] Langseth. Weíre recording this on the 13th of December, 1995 and we are at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York. I know that you were born on November 24, 1932, in Lebanon, Tennessee. But I donít know much about your parents or their own background. Who were they and what did they do?
Langseth:Well I was named after my father who was Marcus Langseth. He was a self-taught civil engineer. I was born in Lebanon, Tennessee, primarily because he was traveling through Tennessee at the time, working on some bridges and road work in Tennessee. He actually was a native of Wisconsin being of Norwegian extraction. He was raised by some Norwegian aunts in Coon Valley, Wisconsin. My mother, Elva Langseth, was born in Elmira [NY]. She and I remained in the Nashville area, not in Lebanon, after my birth. By the time I was — my father and mother were separated. The stress of the Depression had a lot to do with that. But they separated in probably Ď36 or Ď7 — something of that sort.
Doel:So you were about three?
Langseth:I was three, three-and-a-half. And being at the sort of the depths of the Depression it was a pretty difficult situation for my mother because there were three other children as well in the family.
Doel:Were they all older than you?
Langseth:They were all older. I was the youngest of the four. And we were placed in a childrenís home in Nashville, my younger sister and I. My older brother and sister went with my father but after a brief period of time they left him and came back and also came to the childrenís home. So I started my years four through, I think, eleven or twelve in a childrenís home known as the Monroe Harding Childrenís Home in Nashville, Tennessee.
Doel:It must have been extraordinarily difficult for you and the rest of the family.
Langseth:It was, in a way. I think going there so young it probably wasnít so difficult because the change was not that great. There was a lot of — I donít have a good memory of times when I was three, three and a half, and four, but it was so filled with events which were essentially kind of catastrophic for the family that they were pressed in my mind fairly strongly.
Doel:Did you see much of your mother during that time?
Langseth:Well, my mother came actually to support us — she had worked outside but then she came and worked at the childrenís home. And in fact she was the — what is it? — house-mother for the boysí part of the childrenís home.
Doel:Did she actually live on site?
Langseth:She lived on site. And that wasnít initially. I think that was after about a year. I was there about a year and then she came and took over as the house mother so my mother was there. And my father I never saw again until 1957.
Doel:You were already in your twenties then?
Langseth:I was in the Army in my mid-twenties and actually looked him up and found him in a veteranís hospital in Kerrville, Texas. He had suffered seriously from TB [tuberculosis] and a variety of ailments and was not in very good condition. And then eventually after making that initial contact I kept in contact with him and sort of took care of him. Placed him in a nursing home at the end. He died, oh roughly, ten years ago and is buried in a veteransí cemetery in San Antonio, Texas.
Doel:Thatís a very interesting story. And he had not been in contact with the family at all then during the time that you were in the home?
Langseth:No. He remarried, in quotes, but he never divorced my mother. So he had two other children. I have two kid brothers and I didnít know about them either. I only learned about them after meeting my father.
Doel:So presumably they didnít know anything of —
Langseth:Right. So he went off on a completely separate life and we managed. And I think quite well. My older sister went to Vanderbilt [University]. Sheís quite a good writer and has written a couple of books.
Doel:What kind of books?
Langseth:One is a book — itís called Fifty Keys I think — Iím not sure of the name of it — But itís a book that she wrote about 50 communities in the 50 states in the United States and just some vignette out of their history which kind of showed how the fabric of the United States was put together. And that kind of shows her interest. Sheís rather patriotic and interested in history.
Doel:That suggests she traveled quite a bit during that time.
Langseth:I donít think she did. I think she did it all in the library.
Doel:She researched it? Is that right? Thatís interesting.
Langseth:I donít really know. And then sheís written some religious books. She worked for a while with Addington Press.
Doel:Was religion something emphasized when you were growing up in the home?
Langseth:In the home it was — It was a Presbyterian home. It was church supported and this was interesting because when the Second World War broke out in Ď41 — the interest of churchgoers and so forth turned elsewhere, from providing for orphans and needy institutions at home to supporting the war effort. And the war years were very interesting.
Doel:Thatís putting it gently, I suspect.
Langseth:There was a woman who ran this place. Her name was Mrs. [?] Fuller and she managed to kind of carry the place through. We wound up raising chickens. We had something like two thousand chickens that were raised by the children at the home and most of them were sold to get money. We had large gardens and that provided vegetables. It was pretty close to being self-sufficient.
Langseth:Just, you know, to make it through the war because I donít think there was any state or federal support at that time — It was strictly, you know, whatever they could get through.
Doel:From the churchís contributions or general charity.
Doel:What part did you play in all of that?
Langseth:Well I was good with chickens. [Laughter] But I left there when I was about eleven or twelve.
Doel:In the middle of the war?
Langseth:But even from the very early times you were kind of put to work to support the place. If you donít mind an anecdote.
Doel:Iíd like it.
Langseth:It wasnít announced to us that we were going into the chicken farming business but we had noticed that there was a shop — there was a separate building that was used as sort of a shop — we always said it was being refurbished and fitted out with some curious looking apparatus. One day this truck arrived and the truck was full of little baby chicks in these boxes — They came a hundred to a box and theyíre divided into quarters which meant 25 chicks in each one of these little compartments inside the box — and we were told that each one of us was responsible for 25 of the chickens. And there were brooders and things that had been set up. Thatís what these things were that had been installed. And so each of us had our 25 chickens and they went inside this drawer like place with a wire and so forth. And we were responsible for feeding them. We had to get up at five in the morning and go out and make sure that their trays were clean and the food was in the food bin, and it was great. Of course these little things were cute and theyíre running around and weíre all delighted — having a wonderful time until one of them dies — and then a few of them die — Thereís some kind of set attrition rate or mortality rate in these things. About ten percent of them died. And that kind of broke our hearts but we managed to raise them and then they were kind of handed over. As they got older, when they began to get their feathers they were turned over to the kind of the next up age group with more of them in a cage and then eventually theyíre put in a hen house and they became adults.
Doel:So you didnít have the shock of seeing them suddenly disappear on you?
Langseth:Well, no. This is of course is — now the end of the anecdote is that one day it came over and was announced to us that we would have to kill the chickens. And we were provided with a chopping block and a hatchet and we were given a few demonstrations of how you take a chicken and lay its neck down on the block and chop it off with the hatchet. And of course the first couple of times the chicken of course gets up and runs off without its head. Like crazy, blood spurting in the air. The people who were showing us how to do it didnít know that much about it either it turns out. After a while we figured out you put them in a bushel basket and various other things to prevent this kind of motion. We of course were horrified with having to kill our own precious little chickens.
Doel:You would have been about ten years old at that time?
Langseth:I probably would have been something like that. Maybe nine, something of that sort. It was a bad moment. But then we found out how much fun it was to watch them run around without their heads [Laughter]. There was this turn. Great sympathy and weeping and wailing to ďWOWí [Laughter].
Doel:You were ten, after all.
Langseth:So anyway we got inured to all of that after a while.
Doel:Did you raise another batch of chickens?
Langseth:Oh they kept coming in. After your batch graduated to the next size brooder, youíd get another set of baby chicks would come in. And pretty soon the grounds — we had quite spacious grounds there — a large part of the grounds were covered with chicken houses and chickens running around. It was quite a place.
Doel:What kind of schooling did you have then?
Langseth:Normal grade school. Went to school in Stokes School initially and then Burton School which was a new school closer to the home.
Doel:Was that an intermediary school?
Langseth:Well, I first started school there and I think I went up through seventh or eighth grade before I left. I would rate them very highly. I remember it being a pleasant time even though we had to walk to school — the first school was about a mile and a half away so we walked there and back — but when Burton School opened it was only about maybe a quarter of a mile away so a little easier.
Doel:How big a school was it? How many students were there?
Langseth:Gosh, I wouldnít know. I imagine it would be quite large, a few hundred. Iím not quite sure what happened but the last year I was there for some reason they transferred us all to something called Robinson Academy. I spent only one year there. That was a small — I think a private school, and Iím not sure what the arrangement was. What the deal was. Why or how it was?
Doel:Or how you came to be in the group that went in there?
Langseth:All of us went. They just transferred us all. Took us out of Burton School and stuck us in Robinson Academy. The thing I remember about it was that it was small enough so that I think the sixth and seventh grades were combined. You didnít have separate classes for each grade. It was a school which had more spirit to it — you could tell there was more dedication from the teachers and stuff. More hands on.
Doel:It seemed that it was a wealthier environment as well?
Langseth:Iím not sure it was. It may have been a school actually that was on hard times, again perhaps because of the war, and had made some arrangement somehow — My guess would be that there was a block payment or something because they were down in students. They had the space and it was an expedient both ways. Iím just guessing. I had no idea. But these were the kind of deals that Mrs. Fuller would pull off. She was a mean old gal.
Langseth:Yes, she treated the children terribly. We all thought they worked us too hard and didnít give us enough to eat and punished us for nothing at all.
Doel:Do you remember studying much science when you were in grade school?
Langseth:Not really — although I remember a keen interest in natural things — I used to like to draw fish and birds and things. First Iíd copy them out of books and then I think I would make up fish and birds and things. Not fanciful ones really. I would just kind of duplicate the fish I had seen in books and maybe streamline them a little bit or something of that sort.
Doel:Were there streams nearby? Could you actually see or could you go fishing?
Langseth:Yes. There was Brownís Creek which had played some role in the Civil War in the Battle of Nashville. Actually the bottomland that belonged to the school was one of the battlefields in the Battle of Nashville. There were still berms there from the cannon emplacements in the Civil War.
Doel:And you could still see this?
Langseth:And there were even craters from cannon shots. We used to sit in them when we were kids.
Doel:They would have been just about the right size.
Langseth:They were all grassed over and everything. I always wondered what these dimples in the ground were and they were actually craters from cannon shot.
Doel:A lively history class, then, at least when you were — or did you learn that actually later?
Langseth:No, I learned that while I was there because I think my mother explained it to me. Also we used to find a few things, a few artifacts — I wish I had kept them. You know I think we found things like fragments from wheels, the carriages for cannons and things of that sort. Disposable sorts of things that would naturally be left behind. We would find these berms which were built — They were long things which would extend right across the whole bottomland and then there would be sort of spurs built back from them that they would put the cannons on and that was the place we learned to look for things of this sort.
Doel:It sounds like your mother was a keen observer of the environment in pointing this out to you.
Langseth:She was. She did not have a full high school education but she read widely and was very interested in things. She always kind of sparked my curiosity anyway.
Doel:I was curious a moment ago when you had said that your interest in birds and fish came from seeing books that had these illustrations. Was it from the library?
Langseth:No, I think they were school books. Just school books. I donít remember getting them from the library. Although, you know, they used to march you off to the library and youíd have library sessions in which you were meant to take out a book and read a book. I never made it through Heidi [Laughter]. I was a pretty slow reader. I liked the pictures.
Doel:So this was coming out of the standard curricula books. The science parts of them. Was it principally an interest in things like natural history, geology as well? Were you also collecting rocks then? Do you remember at the time?
Langseth:No. The only thing I remember from that period was once after I learned that coal was a product of forests that had lived long ago and fallen. I guess I assumed they were buried. I took a large pile of wood and buried it assuming that it would turn to coal [Laughter].
Doel:An early experiment.
Langseth:Thatís the only geological thing I remember. And some mild curiosity about if I dug deep enough what would I find — I had that sort of thing — I guess people thought I was just digging holes to be digging holes but I used to have this interest about what the next thing down is. Whatís-next-after-that sort of feeling. I guess childish curiosity.
Doel:I suspect a lot of children have that kind of curiosity.
Langseth:Let me push on then. In Ď44 I think it was, 1944, my mother found a position in a school that she had worked in briefly before in Dutchess County, New York.
Doel:Had that been her place of origin? The family origin?
Langseth:No, she was from Elmira.
Doel:You had mentioned that. I was curious what the connection was. You say she had taught there?
Langseth:Well, after my father left, she first came back north to her relatives. Her sister lived over here in Kearney, New Jersey. She came back and she found some work at Kresgeís, as I remember. She had a job at this childrenís home in Dutchess County, and so she wanted — I guess she wanted to move. So she wrote to up there and got a job there as a cook. So we moved north in Ď44 to this school which was known as Hope Farm — or Greer School. Originally it was known as Hope Farm when it was — Well, it wasnít really a boyís school in the sense of a place where they would put kids who would misbehave. It was more of a boarding school, but it teetered back and forth between being a boarding school and a place for displaced children, of one type or another.
Doel:You could perceive that it had mixed missions.
Langseth:Yes, at the time — from the make-up of the people who were there. And that was a much more interesting place to me. Of course, I was growing up at the same time but it had a really woodland setting. And the children were segregated by age and gender into different classes and there was a lot more activity there for the children. For example, I know they had a hoard of skis and we had a big snow storm. Of course I had never seen deep snow before. We had one heck of a winter in Ď44 and there were two feet of fresh fallen snow and theyíre handing out skis to all the kids to go out.
Doel:It must have been a wonderful experience.
Langseth:Oh fantastic. I liked it there a lot. I was there until I was in tenth grade I think. So I think it was about two or three years.
Doel:You would have been about eleven when you moved up to New York?
Langseth:Thatís right. And then I think we left there shortly after the war ended. Ď46 I think or Ď47.
Doel:Did your mother tell you why she wanted to go back to that region?
Langseth:I think there was a growing conflict between her and this Mrs. Fuller I was telling you about. And also I think that my sister had gone on to college in Vanderbilt, my brother had enlisted in the Navy and so only my sister and I were left. And I think my mother felt she wanted to opt out of that situation. It isnít an easy job because at that school all the boys were mixed. You had kids from age four through nineteen and thatís tough. And I really donít know how she managed it but she did. So I think that was the situation she wanted to get out of. And also I think she was a little bit concerned about my schooling and my sisterís schooling, and she felt that this had a better school, which it did in many ways. Thereís where I think I first got my first real interest in science because there was a Miss Finch there I can remember well. And a woman from Austria, Miss Tausig. Miss Tausig was one of these nature walker types. You know stoutly built, loved to go out and hike.
Doel:And took her students with her?
Langseth:And took a gaggle of kids along. I think sometimes I went with her alone because I developed a strong interest in birds at that time; identifying, maybe just identifying birds and making notes and things of that sort. A junior observer.
Doel:Were things like the PetersonĎs Guide already available at that time? Did you have anything like that?
Langseth:I had a bird book. I canít remember which one it was. It probably was quite an ordinary one. I started with ones from the library. We had a small library there. My mother bought me one. I think it was a field guide of birds or something of that sort. And of course the thing was that you had to check off all the birds that were in the book, and there were ones that eluded me. I got a fair number of them after a while because I spent a lot of time in the woods. Unfortunately I was there a relatively short time.
Doel:That was, as you say, only about two to three years.
Langseth:Only two to three years. I think we left there in Ď47. And again I think my mother was at that time — then my sister had gone off to Berea College in Kentucky and, being left alone, Mother decided to leave the school scene and took some position in Long Island. And so I finished up my high school at Jamaica High School in Queens.
Doel:Which was the biggest urban area that you were exposed to, clearly, at that point? When you were still at the Greer School you mentioned that you did feel your interest in science and other areas growing but principally the nature walks. Do you recall?
Langseth:Yes, and just being let loose in the woods. I spent most of my spare time, and any time I could get free. There were paths. I would just take off into the woods. If I was with somebody I would suggest we go to the woods and look around. Even if it was my cousin from Kearney, Iíd say, ďLetís go. Iíll show you some birds.Ē I can remember that quite well. My cousin, Eugenia, was a city person. She really wasnít too keen about this trekking across meadows and over fences [Laughter]. And, of course, I wouldnít be denied. But she was very reluctant. And, of course, I was too insensitive to feel awful. She wasnít all that interested in these birds.
Doel:Thatís how youthful interests are generally.
Doel:Were there any other friends in the school who shared your interests? Any other nature walking or bird watching?
Langseth:I donít think so. I hadnít really thought about that very much. But I donít think I had. I had some fast friends there, but I donít recall it being centered around either the bird watching — sometimes weíd get together to build things in the woods. Our favorite thing was to go out and either build a dam or cross a creek or build a shelter of some kind in the woods so that you could cook out with dreams of running away and staying overnight. That you would usually do with a couple of guys. I donít recall anyone that I had a shared interest in things of this sort.
Doel:When you were bird watching you would try to record not only what kind of bird it was, but the surroundings and the environment, the markings — was that the sort of interests that you had?
Langseth:I mainly verified what was in the book. For example, the Marilyn Yellow Throat is a low-leveled bird — stays in shrubbery — and if you want to find them you usually go find a sizable stand of shrubs and look around. And in the middle ranges youíll find Chestnut-sided Warblers and Vireos and things at higher levels. And sometimes if you could find their nests and things like that — I never raided nests but I would observe them making nests and seeing how many eggs they laid. I was interested in whether they returned to the same place — what happened to them after they disappeared in the fall. And I discovered that there were certain kinds of birds that do seem to come back and set up housekeeping where they left off. Orioles are ones that do that. My recollection was that I tended to kind of verify what I read in the book. Not so much find some new and exciting avenues of research.
Doel:That would have been a bit extraordinary had it been so. But it sounds as if you might have been pushing beyond what the book was telling you if you were looking at the nesting patterns Ė
Langseth:Well, some of it you just observe and then you see some new things. And that, of course, I guess is what kind of really ropes you. And plus the success. I mean when you begin to realize that you can find birds by understanding what kind of environment they live in and by their calls. And, I can show you where you can see an Indigo Punting, for example. It was the kind of thing I could do. And youíre somewhat proud of that knowledge. If somebody wanted to see a certain type of bird I could usually take them to the place where theyíd have a very good chance of seeing it.
Doel:Were the visitors who came through who were interested in that?
Langseth:Not many [Laughter]. My mother had to be interested [Laughter].
Doel:Well thatís her job.
Langseth:And Mrs. Finch. Actually, she used to stuff birds, which I was never much for. But she was the one who actually got me started on this. She was very interested — and Miss Tausig was very interested in birds.
Doel:Was there anything like a science club in the school?
Langseth:No, except Miss Tausig taught mathematics and I became interested in mathematics and I kept trying to get her to explain integral calculus to me since I hadnít even had algebra at that point [Laughter]. I knew the name.
Doel:Interesting, interesting. Do you recall what fields were taught? Was it a mixture of physics and chemistry at that point?
Langseth:Well, it was a small school. So, it would just be basic courses. I think that, aside from the wood shop, there were the usual things — chemistry and English and math. Nothing special. They certainly didnít have the breadth that a high school like Jamaica High School had.
Doel:I was just curious if astronomy, for instance, was taught — that you remember when you were in grade school?
Langseth:It wasnít taught, but I was interested in it. I found some books on astronomy in the library. When I saw those, it piqued my interests — started reading about that. And actually I donít remember at that school becoming interested as an observer of astronomy. But, later on, a little further down the line, I became very interested in the sky and star identification and the operation of orbits and things of that sort.
Doel:That didnít come in Greer School?
Langseth:No, that was all later.
Doel:Was there a telescope that you recall at the school?
Langseth:No, no. There was nothing of that sort there. Only the skis and sleds and things of that sort.
Doel:Did you say you were about in tenth or eleventh grade when your mother left and you —
Langseth:I think actually it was probably tenth grade — if it was Ď47. And we moved down to Long Island. And eventually I wound up in yet another home there, to finish my high school education. In a place known as the Attoly Orphan House. It was about as ugly a name, I think, as a person could ever think of.
Doel:How did it happen that you were in the orphan home at that point?
Langseth:Well, my mother found work in a — I had been staying with my mother briefly — and then she found work in a — Iím not sure what itís called — a maternity home in Hoboken. And since I was enrolled in school in New York and she didnít have a place for me to stay, I was tucked back into a childrenís home. By that time I was flexible enough. I didnít really mind that much. And, in fact, I rather liked the social atmosphere of childrenís homes. There were lots of kids there. Always things to do — lots of game to play and stuff. Itís not a bad environment in which to be raised. Outside of the individual attention — it isnít there yet. I donít recommend it but I donít knock it too badly either. And I was there until I was out of high school, and finished high school at Jamaica High School in New York.
Doel:How did the experience of being at Jamaica compare to the other schools?
Langseth:Terrible. I hated it.
Doel:Is that right? What struck you as particularly terrible?
Langseth:I hated it. Because, first of all, I — I remember the first day very well because it was mid-semester or the term had already started. And it was quite clear to the person whoíd been put responsible for handling these few stragglers who came in that they were very unhappy about having to do this. And, they put me in these strange courses. They didnít give me any choice. [Telephone interruption] At any rate, I was completely buffaloed by this school. I remembered being so miserable after that first day because they put me in courses where they were already deep into the course. I think the day after I arrived in history class, they gave an exam — it was such a large class — I guess I was so stunned by the experience and the teachers didnít realize that I had just arrived the day before. They gave me the exam anyway [Laughter]. I think I got one question right or something like that. Somehow this fed through the whole system. The very low grades — well, the low grade in history — and the guy took a dislike to me for some reason. And from there on in it just kind of went downhill. I think the second year I kind of recuperated and did all right. But it was a very bad starting experience, and mainly because of the size and it was a callous way that they treated kids coming in. It was almost as though they — belligerent. ďWeíll show you. Weíll put you in mechanical drawing.Ē [Laughter]
Doel:Sounds like you had no choice at all as to what courses you could take.
Langseth:Thatís right. They didnít give you a menu or anything, so you didnít know what to ask for. You just told them what you had been taking. And, the only class I remember liking was the algebra class and Mrs. Van Buren who was a wonderful teacher of algebra, and about the only teacher I hit it off with right off the bat. The rest was pretty bad — the English, the history and those kinds of things.
Doel:The humanities were a difficult kind of environment?
Langseth:It wasnít that they were difficult. Itís just that I was placed in them — and just lost. And really had a hard time finding my feet. I guess. I was probably depressed from being kind of a stellar student in other schools and suddenly finding you being washed downstream in a huge school. It was a tough thing to overcome.
Doel:Was it that way in the science classes too, do you recall?
Langseth:No, I guess the science class I remember is chemistry. We had a fascinating teacher — he was full of experiments that he could do successfully, a grand guy. I enjoyed that. No problem with that kind of thing. The humanities I did have trouble with — I had trouble with the teachers — I didnít have trouble with the subjects.
Doel:That makes it clear. Was there anyone else besides Mrs. Van Buren who became a mentor to you at that time?
Langseth:In high school the only other one was that — one of the benefits of going to this Attoly home was that I learned to play the bass horn. I played the bass horn in high school. We also had a woman who was the bandleader. There seemed to be a lot of women in this — strong orientation that way I think I had when I was young — with my mother and father leaving and so forth. I probably tended to migrate. I hadnít thought about that before. Thereís a possibility.
Doel:And you were active in the band itself then, at the high school?
Langseth:Yes, I played in the high school band. I enjoyed that because I liked music.
Doel:Did the band tend to travel much during that period?
Langseth:No. It was an excellent band because we had five thousand students at Jamaica High School. At that point they drew on a wide range of families. There was quite a bit of talent in the band. There were some stragglers too.
Doel:So they could afford to be very selective.
Langseth:Well, not in high school. You canít afford to be too selective —
Doel:Well, thatís true.
Langseth:You could be put in the training band. They had places that would make you feel good to be there.
Doel:Right. But what I should have said was you were playing in the band that was doing the concerts and had the greatest public exposure.
Doel:Again, were there any students who shared — What I should ask — Did that experience diminish your interests in the sciences during that period?
Langseth:I donít think so. But actually, my interests in music and also I kind of took up some art at that point. I used to like to do pastels and things of that sort. I became more interested in that than in science itself.
Doel:When you were bird watching had you been drawing too?
Langseth:Yes. I always liked to draw things. Then my mother — I think used to feed some of this because she used to — on our weekends we usually spent together weíd go to art museums. She knew how to get more out of nothing in New York City than anyone Iíve ever met. She would think nothing of walking into the Devine Brothers Museum on Fifth Avenue and barging in like she owned the place. And we often would get a custom tour of all of their holdings. Devine Brothers I think it is — or some other museum. We used to take in all the free concerts. At that time NBC orchestra used to have free concerts in the afternoon with [Arturo] Toscanini conducting. The amazing thing is that they didnít draw a full auditorium in those days. With Toscanini directing an outstanding orchestra the auditorium might be half full for free concerts — and free. Unbelievable. But culturally though — at that level of culture, New York was very weak at that time. Iím not sure why, but the museums were virtually empty. You could hear your footsteps in the Metropolitan Museum of Art as you trudged from one hail to the next. You canít do that anymore. Completely changed.
Doel:Did you also get into the Natural History Museum?
Langseth:Oh yes. Great favorite.
Doel:What attracted you particularly at that time?
Langseth:[Interruption] Dinosaurs, I think, probably.
Doel:Well, that was a very impressive exhibit at that time.
Langseth:Oh yes, fantastic. Mainly that and meteorites — I liked meteorites. I liked meteorites and dinosaurs. Of course they had these dioramas. They were fascinating wild animals.
Doel:Of course the New York Museum had a very remarkable collection of meteorites. It was one of the strongest, of course of U.S museums.
Doel:Weíre resuming after a brief interruption. You were talking a bit about that you had learned partial differential equations.
Langseth:Or taken a course in partial differential equations. I didnít learn about them.
Doel:A good distinction. One thing I was curious about. You mentioned, hinted at this already, but it sounded like when you learned about experiments it seemed more the cookbook variety rather than actually using a laboratory.
Langseth:There was no real research activity there. Closest to it was what Paul Stewart did in his spare time.
Doel:Did you have a sense there was science as a profession by the time that you were finished in college?
Langseth:That I would be involved in science as a profession?
Doel:Did you recognize that people could earn a living at doing research?
Langseth:Doing research? Yes, sure. And I think part of that was from a guy like Riggs, the physics professor who had worked with the Manhattan Project. He did invite people. I can remember some fairly outstanding people coming and giving lectures at the college. One of the math professors was brave enough to try to hold a small math conference with people from the University of West Virginia and Pittsburgh and so forth at the campus there and gave some papers. I donít think I understood one of them. I remember going to some of those and sitting bravely through a morning session and saying holy Moses. But we were exposed to that kind of thing. We went to West Point [Military Academy, New York] once. We traveled to West Point for some reason. We went with Riggs. You know I canít remember what that exercise was about. We went there to either participate or compete in something. Iím not sure what it was. But a small band of us went off in Riggsí Ď53 Nash to West Point.
Doel:Well if it comes back to you, you can add it onto the transcript. Were there any visitors who were particularly memorable? You say there were some interesting people.
Langseth:I was just trying to remember because there were one or two that were internationally known figures in physics or in chemistry. One is on the tip of my tongue but I canít remember.
Doel:Again we can get that added.
Langseth:If it comes to me.
Doel:One thing I was curious about when you described what you were learning in geology. Did you get much exposure to geochemistry and geophysics at that point?
Langseth:No. In fact I didnít even realize that they existed as separate subjects or disciplines at that time since this was an undergraduate school.
Doel:Many people will get that kind of exposure if at all through engineering courses or similar things at the smaller schools. Iím curious, though, how you started to think about graduate school. How did that — what people were influential?
Langseth:That stemmed from an experience here. Between my junior and senior year at Waynesburg College [Pennsylvania] I came to visit with a friend, an old friend of my mothers, who lived in Upper Nyack [New York]. A man by the name of Bob [Robert] Wynn who was an executive with Eastern Airlines. And he was a very generous sort of person and he said that I could come and stay at his place and find a summer job locally. At that time they were building the Tappan Zee Bridge so there was some interest. I thought maybe I could find something related to that, some paperwork job. However, it was thoroughly unionized and barricaded so there was no chance. And I remember once on a day in which I was doing no looking for work at all, I went swimming up at Bear Mountain and just by chance there was a woman there who was the wife of a Lamont [Geological Observatory] employee, Lynn Sherbert by name. And she mentioned that there was this laboratory that had just started up down in Palisades where they were studying geology and physics and thatís all she knew about it. And I said geology, physics, thatís my place. So the next day I raced right down here and I remember going — just walked in the front door.
Doel:At Lamont Hall?
Langseth:Right. Said I wanted to talk to somebody about the possibility of a summer job. So I talked to [W.] Arnold Finck who was then the administrator. I think the only administrator at the Observatory at the time. And he assured me there was nothing here at all but he let me talk with Lynn Sherbert. I met his wife and I talked to Lynn and he told me what he was doing and I guess I told him I was hoping to get some summer work and I had various kinds of background, a great interest in geology, and knew some math and physics. And I then left and later I got a call from Jack [E.] Oliver. And he said, ďDid you come down looking for a job?Ē And I said yes. He says, ďWell, I have something for you to do, come on down.Ē
Doel:This is in the space of a few days that all this happened?
Langseth:One day. One day. I was down here, I went back home, got a phone call that afternoon and was back down here before the day ended.
Doel:Without wanting to interrupt that story, what were your impressions of Lamont when you first walked into Lamont Hall? Did you get any sense of what was going on there?
Langseth:I wondered how the kind of place this woman was describing to me could be in this mansion house. And it was obvious the place was pretty busy and bustling and stuff and it smelled of paper. And they had a core lab at that time. The core lab was where the library is at that time. So when I walked in you could see the cores and stuff and there were some people sitting there with beards and so it looked authentic. And then Lynn told me about — he was involved with reducing gravity records from submarines, appending the records from submarines. So he told me about that and then before the day ended I was back down talking to Jack Oliver about the project he had in mind. And that essentially was to record the seismic waves created by blasts being set off for the Palisades Parkway. And this essentially involved setting up a recording system in the basement of Lamont Hall and setting out a string of geophones out to the south and down through the woods. And then a guy would run off in a jeep with a radio and another little geophone and when theyíd set off the blast he would send what they called the shot instant back to me and then we would record the record here from this blast. And that was the summer job. To show what kind of a sweet guy Jack was, first thing I told him was, ďI donít drive.Ē Iíd never learned how to drive a car anywhere [Laughter]. He looked crestfallen because he needed someone to drive the jeep down there.
Doel:Obviously they needed someone to drive.
Langseth:I borrowed the guy that Frank Press had hired for the summer. He drove down and stood by the radio while we recorded blasts. And we also recorded some blasts that Chuck [Charles L.] Drake and — I forget who he was working with — I think Ezra Smith. On the Hudson [River] we had a little boat that they operated. They were still doing some seismic work related to the bridge construction.
Doel:So you had multiple sources.
Langseth:We recorded some of those too.
Doel:You must have been learning quite a bit about instrumentation during that period, how to set up?
Langseth:I wish I had learned more. I did learn donít touch a bank of batteries that has about 270 volts. Thatís one of the things I learned.
Doel:Sounds like you learned from personal experience.
Langseth:Right. But yes, there was a lot of rudimentary equipment and then the electronics lab at that time was in the basement of Lamont Hall. So I spent a lot of visits there and talked and began to get some hands-on experience with electronic devices.
Doel:Now to get down to Lamont were you taking the bus from where you were living here in this area?
Doel:Did that limit you to having to leave in the early evening to go back or did you have a chance to interact?
Langseth:I usually could get a ride back but it did limit you to usually daylight hours to catch the bus.
Doel:Whatís interesting, Iím curious how quickly you came to understand some of the theoretical background that was involved. Did you have sessions with either Jack Oliver or others who were here?
Langseth:I did, and Jack would point me to the right books. You know he would say ďRead the first chapter of this thing and it will tell you all about elasticity and wave provocation.Ē And then there was a lot of — you know it was a very active place, and there was a lot of talk around the labs so that they would be talking about surface waves and railey waves and fluctuant waves and these things so your curiosity piqued and youíd look them up and check out what they are. And then Jack kind of helped me select something we could do with the data. Something we could derive from the data. I think at that time it had something to do with amplitude studies, amplitude versus distance or something of that sort. Continuation of waves.
Doel:Methods were just being refined in some sense in a critical way in the years after World War II.
Langseth:Right and this was still pretty early on. But Frank Press was there and [Wenceslas S.] Jardetsky and Doc [W. Maurice Ewing] and Frank were writing their famous book at that point.
Doel:Who did you come to be closest to during that summer?
Langseth:Jack Oliver actually. And — letís see — Mark [Marcus G.] Landisman at that time was out to sea so he was gone that summer. Jim [Henry James] Dorman was there. He was making some seismometers to go off to the Arctic. But I think mainly Jack Oliver. But it was a very friendly place so you got to know most people. This is the thing that kind of impressed — Even people who were reputedly quite famous were very friendly.
Doel:Resuming after another brief interruption. You were mentioning some of the people that you had first come into contact with that first summer between your junior and senior year when you were out at Lamont. And one of the things you mentioned a moment ago was that people like Jack Oliver were pointing you towards the library and telling you ďHere are some books that would be a good idea to read.Ē
Doel:Iím curious — do you remember the sorts of books that gave you your first introduction to geophysics?
Langseth:They would be fundamental books. Things like Geophysical Prospecting by [Louis L.] Nettleton.
Doel:Yes, that was an old classic, wasnít it? 1940 or something?
Langseth:Right. There was a more fundamental book. I canít remember what it is. I probably still have it somewhere. You have to be careful because there werenít a whole lot of books at that time.
Doel:There really werenít. Thatís one of the reasons I was asking what you were reading.
Langseth:I can name a bunch of books that came out after that. But probably [Milton B.] Dobrinís books and Nettletonís book was about it. There was one other one but I canít remember what it was. It had more fundamental information on wave provocation, elasticity theory, things of that sort.
Doel:Were you also being pointed simply to physics texts? The sorts of things you hadnít learned when you were at Waynesburg.
Langseth:No. That came when I started going to graduate school when they kind of would go through and see what you are going to need to catch up. And there were some physics courses I took strictly as remedial courses to come up to speed.
Doel:Think back just to that first summer, what sort of things did you and Jack Oliver talk about as you began to learn his research interests? And I checked just as you were on the phone. He earned his Ph.D. in Ď53. So he would have just been about finished.
Langseth:Thatís right. He was a recent Ph.D. But a very clever guy. I could see that right off the bat. The kind of things we would talk about mainly would be sort of how to use this data. And I would usually try to find some questions to ask him about this or maybe amplifying something that I had read. Heís not very loquacious. But heís friendly and heís usually quite to the point, so that if he answers the question it would usually be in a sentence or two. Something of that sort. He will not expand upon it very much. So I donít remember lengthy conversations involved with either the data. It mainly had to do with the technical execution of this particular experiment that he was doing.
Doel:So the conversations focused mostly on seismology rather than across the field in geophysics?
Langseth:Right. And how to get on top of the chimney on top of Lamont Hall on the jeep.
Doel:Kind of practical knowledge.
Langseth:Practical knowledge that you need. How to fix the geophone that didnít seem to be working very well. Pretty practical sort of things. I was basically working as a technician, technical assistant probably. Technician would have been too good a word for my capabilities at that time.
Doel:Were you already getting then, however, a sense of the different areas of geophysics that were being done at Lamont?
Langseth:Oh yes. Because they were all in the same building. Ed Miller, for example, who was working on magnetics, was next door and interested in what he was doing. And behind the next door Maurice Ewing was working although I think he was out most of that summer.
Doel:I was curious if youíd had much contact with him?
Langseth:Not personally, only just to meet him and shake hands and welcome me aboard and finding out where he had to go next. He was an imposing figure, though, even from those days. He was fairly young in those clays. He was a youthful looking guy.
Doel:It sounds like he made an impression on you during that first meeting.
Langseth:Oh sure. Heís that type of person. But Frank Press was here. He was impressive. We used to have lunch out on the lawn and you know whoever was there would come out and sit and talk. It was always very informative. Somewhat intimidating considering my level of knowledge of what was going on. And I did quite a bit of work in the shop at that time because some of these geophones had to be repaired and I had very little facility with the shop tools and stuff but I learned quite a bit by the time I got out. The shop group usually met for coffee and met outside as well as together with the scientists. A lot of the scientists worked in the shop.
Doel:Was Angelo Ludas there already by that time?
Langseth:Right. The shop was thriving at that time. Even though it was very early on, it was the center of a lot of activity. A lot of the scientists actually came over and worked on their instruments there so under the big oak tree thatís still behind the old machine shop was a common place.
Doel:That used to be where everyone would have lunch.
Langseth:And talk about the new ship that we just acquired, the Vema. How things were going and all the latest gossip and the field programs.
Doel:I think thatís very interesting that you had both the technical shop and the scientists working together. One thinks of other scientific institutions at that point where the two groups were essentially separate universes with of course the particular lines of contact.
Langseth:I think that was a very key element in the growth of the Observatory and the attitude that the underlying philosophy of the Observatory was that union between actually making your own instruments and the can-do sort of attitude and the experiments and then the science that come from those. And the people who worked in the shop, the machinists, who were professional machinists and very good ones, developed an interest in the science as well. You know they were interested in knowing how the pendulum apparatus work out and whatís the feedback? Is there some problem with it? And so these instruments were developed really in a partnership between the scientists and the shop workers. And in fact in some cases the scientists became quite good machinists, or reasonable machinists. You know, could do their own work. And often people would be there late at night turning out a pressure case or getting something ready to go out to sea.
Doel:Was it typical of the machine shop that people like Ludas would stay late as well? Or did they tend to keep normal business hours?
Langseth:No, they kept very rigorous hours. They always came early. They were always here at 8:30. Ten oíclock they had coffee break, lunch was at twelve and you were back at your machines at one and then I think they left at 4:30. And they still keep those hours today. And pretty religiously. The coffee break was particularly religious. If anybody called during coffee break, 10 to 10:15, the phone was not answered.
Doel:One learned quickly.
Langseth:Right. But I used to go to those coffee breaks because there was always a lot of discussion about what people were making and how it was turning out. I think this was after my summer. I didnít do that during the summer.
Doel:I was curious. This is after you were a graduate student.
Langseth:After becoming a graduate student. Then Ludas had to father the graduate students a bit. You know, heíd always say things like ďYou know your job is to write papers.Ē He says, ďBut I can show you this one. If you promise not to break it.Ē [Laughter]
Doel:So aiding you not to get too involved in instrument development when you needed to do other work but at the same time allowing you a chance to understand what needed to be learned.
Langseth:Or actually help make it. If they were busy doing something else and somebody had to turn out a penetrator for the pressure vessel or something like that, I learned so that I could do that and relieve them of a job.
Doel:I was curious in that first summer — you mentioned a number of the programs whose people you came in contact with and I imagine that Dave [David B.] Ericson was another?
Langseth:Dave Ericson was here. I donít remember a great deal of interaction with Dave. Goesta Wollin was working at that time I think in the core lab. He was a bit more garrulous and I got to know him. The geochemists were there as well.
Doel:I was going to ask if you were in regular contact with people like Larry [J. Laurence] Kulp.
Langseth:Not Larry Kulp. Some of the — I have this maybe a little mixed up with my first year in graduate school. But Iím not quite sure which ones I remember from that particular period but I think they were people like Don Carr and the Eckelmann [Walter and Donald] brothers. During that first summer, you probably realize, these people sort of seemed out of my league. They were talking about things I knew very little about.
Doel:Youíre not even a senior at college.
Langseth:Thatís right. And I was just there you know doing a job.
Doel:But yet youíre also an interesting vantage point to observe.
Langseth:I fully intended to join this group as soon as I had an opportunity. I made up my mind about that fairly soon after starting work there.
Doel:I was just curious if that experience during the summer changed what you ended up doing in your senior year when you went back to Pennsylvania to finish up?
Langseth:Not really, except you know to make out applications to go to graduate school. I think I decided I had to go to graduate school if I was going to pursue research. Certainly cinched that particular thing. Iíd probably have to work pretty hard because of my background and so forth to get in. You know I think my voice is giving out.
I think we ought to, alas, call this very enjoyable interview to a close. We will continue. Let me put this on tape. We will not release the tape or its contents before you actually see the transcript and receive the forms from Columbia University regarding the project. Thank you very much.