Oral History Transcript — Dr. Neil Opdyke
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Interview with Dr. Neil Opdyke
Neil Opdyke; March 17, 1997
ABSTRACT: Describes family and growing up in Frenchtown, New Jersey. His early schooling. Plays high school football. Is recruited by Columbia University's football coach Lou Little. Enters Columbia in the fall of 1951. His first impressions of Columbia University and early difficulties with course work. Jobs he took to cover tuition. Football at Columbia. Decides to study geology. Describes Columbiaís geology department and characterizes the main professors, A. K. Lobeck, John Imbrie, Marshall Kay. Mentions his undergraduate thesis, laboratory work, courses, and textbooks. Discusses playing football at Columbia and the importance of being competitive and aggressive in science. Graduates from Columbia in 1955. Imbrie, his undergraduate advisor, loses his application to Columbia's graduate school. Applies and is accepted to the University of Wyoming. Meets Stanley Keith Runcorn. Runcornís interests. Runcorn takes him on as a field assistant for geologic work in the Grand Canyon during the summer of 1955. Runcorn suggests and makes possible Opdykeís study at Cambridge University. Enters Cambridge in the fall of 1955. His impressions of Cambridge. How his thesis project came about. Arguments with Runcorn. Supported on a stipend from Runcornís grant. Further disputes with Runcorn. Describes Westall, Robert Dietz, and P.M.S. Blackett. Runcorn leaves Cambridge for Newcastle in January of 1956. Opdyke transfers to Newcastle. Who did and did not leave with Runcorn and how the move affected those who stayed at Cambridge. Conversations with people during the time he wrote the thesis. Finishes his degree in three yearís time. Discusses continental drift. Explains how continental drift was ignored at Columbia and how certain Soviet scientists, particularly Vladimir Belousov, disdained the theory. Mentions the supporters of continental drift in England. Thomas Gold and polar wandering. Characterizes Harold Jeffreys character and Jeffreyís teaching style. Jeffreyís view of the earth. Southern hemisphere geologists explanation for perm carboniferous glaciation involves more than polar wandering, also continental drift. Irving's 1956 paper. Runcornís conversion to supporting continental drift. Opdyke discovers ideas about drift through his readings. Discusses continental drift at Cambridge with John Belshe. Conversation with Belshe provides impetus for changing how Opdyke pursued his thesis. How he came to change his mind about continental drift. Princetonís department of geology discusses continental drift. Marries Margie the summer of 1958. That same year he begins a postdoctoral fellowship at Rice University. Describes Cary Cruneis, Charles Officer, and Nelson Steenland. In 1959, he receives a Fulbright to study pale magnetism with Ted Irving in Australia. Mentions Ken Greer. Following his Fulbright, he takes a position in Rhodesia. Discusses North American scientistsí opposition to paleomagnetics and polar drift. Paleomagnetics at Pittsburgh and Washington University explored. Accepts a position at Lamont in 1963. On the trip from Africa to Lamont visits European scientific communities. Visits Newcastle, experience at the rugby club. Describes M.G. Ruttenís group in Holland, the power structure in Dutch geology, and Vening-Meinesz. Regard for Runcorn among the leaders of geology. Describes Bucher's research and modeling.
TranscriptSession I | Session II
Doel:This is Ron Doel and this is an interview with Neil D. Opdyke. Weíre recording this on the seventeenth of March, 1997, at the University of Florida, in Gainesville. I know that you were born on February 7, 1933, in Frenchtown, New Jersey, but I donít know much about your parents and your early upbringing. Who were your parents and what did they do?
Opdyke:Well, my mother was Beatrice Opdyke and I was illegitimate. And I was born during the depths of the Depression. My grandparents — I lived with my grandparents in my first ten years.
Doel:Thatís very interesting. And your two parents didnít marry then at any point.
Opdyke:No. I had a stepfather who came along when I was ten years old, Walter Bird. And we had this sort of usual relationship, you know, between stepchildren and stepfathers — bad. [Laughter]
Doel:You were then the only child —
Opdyke:I was the only child.
Doel:— that your mother had, which makes it difficult too once someone else comes into the family.
Doel:What sort of person was your stepfather?
Opdyke:Well, he was a nice enough person. He was smart enough. He always — never failed to make the wrong decisions financially and otherwise. You know, he did all sorts of dumb things.
Doel:Iím curious what sort of things are coming to mind when you say that?
Opdyke:Well, he was a trucker at one time, and he bought his own truck. And then he sold it to somebody. Of course, this was in New Jersey. He sold it to somebody from Georgia that he met and co-signed for the sale of his truck. And the guy ran away with the truck, and he had to buy the bloody truck. That's what I mean.
Opdyke:This was about when I was going to go to college. So you know, it was — to say it was a stressful situation is the understatement of the day.
Doel:I can imagine. Because finding the resources to get you into college, particularly a private college like Columbia [University] must have been quite difficult.
Opdyke:Well, if it wasn't for my — I used to work as a carpenter every summer with my uncle who was a builder. I had a lot of support from inside the family. My mother was very supportive. And I played football. So I didnít have a full scholarship, but I managed somehow to get through.
Doel:I was curious what sort of a person your mother was.
Opdyke:She was a fine person. She worked in a sort of a factory that makes spark plugs all during the depression, during the Second World War. You know it was a very big struggle to even stay alive. At least, it wasnít that much of a struggle, but during the depression we ate sweet corn and, you know, things like that. My grandfather had a garden patch, and three acres, that he used to plant every year. So, you know, thatís what we ate most of the year. Sweet corn season you really ate sweet corn.
Doel:Yes. That was a famous New Jersey crop. [Laughter]
Opdyke:Right. But my mother was — actually she had a lot of hidden talents that she wasnít able to utilize because — finally, when she finally retired and finally stopped putting holes in spark plugs and putting me through college and things like that, she won awards for artistic merit in flower shows and things like that, and actually started to paint. She had a hell of a lot more things that as a child I never knew.
Doel:So she wasnít painting when you were growing up?
Opdyke:She certainly wasnít.
Doel:Itís very interesting that that talent emerged [cross talk].
Opdyke:I was a latch key kid. Serious, I used to get up. She used to go to work every morning at six-thirty. I used to get up at seven o'clock, used to feed myself every morning, my stepfather was out of town, and I used to go school. I used to decide when I was sick that I didn't have to go to school. [Laughter] By the time I came back, she was home. I was the original latch key kid.
Doel:Was the factory actually in Frenchtown or did she have to commute by bus?
Opdyke:Yes it was. It was in Frenchtown. It was the only factory in Frenchtown.
Doel:Because I was thinking Frenchtown had to be fairly small.
Opdyke:Itís small; thirteen hundred people.
Doel:What sort of house were you living in? Were you living with your grandparents as you grew up?
Opdyke:Yes. I was born in a house that I lived in the first ten years. I was born in the upstairs bedroom. Itís still there. That was a nineteenth century building which my grandfather had inherited, at least, he didnít inherit it cleanly. I think his father died and he moved into the house, and the title of it never cleared I think until after my grandparents passed away. It was cleared by my parentsí generation. My great grandfather was a hotel keeper. He ran the Lower Hotel [inaudible] in town. I think he died when my grandfather was about twenty-one. I donít know what happened. I was always unclear about what happened afterward because my grandfather then left town and my mother was born I think in Jersey City. He was a railroad fireman and he got into an accident — he was in an accident. In the train accident he was thrown through the window of the train and was hung on a mail hook on the side of the train right up through his palate, out his nose, this hook actually hooked him on the side of the train. He survived this and my grandfather wasn't up for having to go back on the railroad again. I can remember when I was kid looking up and you could see this hole where the septum of his nose had been.
Doel:Youíre pointing right to the base of the nose.
Opdyke:Yes. It wasnít there. Nowadays he would have been a rich man because he would have done is sue the railroad. But in those days they didnít sue anybody. He never even got disability from the railroad as far as that goes.
Doel:Is that right? Thatís very interesting. How old were you when that accident happened?
Opdyke:When that accident happened? I wasnít even born then.
Doel:You werenít even born? That was prior to —
Opdyke:That was nineteen-fifteen or fourteen, something like that.
Doel:That was prior to —
Opdyke:Fifteen or fourteen, something like that.
Doel:So your grandfather then was not working during the time that you were growing up?
Opdyke:Well, during the depression he wasnít. No, thatís not true. My grandmother used to run a paint store, and he was a painter and paper hanger. My uncle was a carpenter. And my grandfatherís brother was a carpenter and into construction down along the New Jersey shore. So my uncle followed in his footsteps, and now his descendants own a big lumber yard in Frenchtown, New Jersey.
Doel:I would imagine you got a lot of exposure to carpentry and hardware.
Opdyke:Yes. I still enjoy doing carpentry. I just did some last weekend, fixed a spot in front of my house.
Doel:I imagine that so far in the family that youíve been describing — did any of them have a chance to go to college?
Doel:Or were they high school educated?
Opdyke:My grandmotherís brother went to Ryder Business School about 1895. He was the only one that in this family, immediate family, who ever went to a university.
Doel:Thatís what Ryder College became later on.
Doel:Wasnít it near Trenton?
Opdyke:Yes, near Trenton. He and his wife never had any children. He was quite wealthy when he died, but he didn't have a will either, which was pretty stupid.
Doel:Were any members of your family particularly religious. Was religion something that —
Opdyke:No. In fact, my grandmother and grandfather never went through a church door as far as I can ever know except for weddings and funerals. I donít know why. My grandmother never swore, never drank. My grandfather drank occasionally, in moderation. But my grandmother never did. And I have no idea — I mean this was sort of a little bit strange for the background, the place where they were born and raised. I donít know the story behind it. But I have a theory however. Would you like to hear my theory?
Opdyke:My grandmother also got pregnant before she got married. They had to get married. My grandfather told me this. I didnít even know this until he was about ready to die. So my guess is that the local church people gave my grandmother a hard time, and my guess is that as a result, they never went to church at all, ever.
Doel:It certainly makes sense for that period of time in a town as small as Frenchtown was.
Opdyke:So, I donít know, but thatís my hypothesis on what happened with my grandmother and grandfather. But they never went to church.
Doel:Thatís very interesting. How many generations has your family been in the United States?
Opdyke:About three hundred years. John Updykeís autobiography just came out, and I just read his autobiography. John Updykeís almost exactly my age and he was born in Pennsylvania. He spells his name with a U.
Doel:Right, of course.
Opdyke:But weíre actually related back by about seven generations something like that. He talks about the Updyke family. The Updyke family came in 1653 or something like that, and have been located in western New Jersey for a couple centuries. The cemeteries are full of them.
Doel:Thatís very interesting. That whole — of course, that whole area was settled very quickly after the Plymouth Colony.
Opdyke:Yes. They came to New Amsterdam, when New York was New Amsterdam.
Doel:Has anyone in the family traced back particularly all of the generations?
Opdyke:Yes. Yes they have. There was an anthology produced in 1895. There was an Opdyke who was mayor of New York during the draft riots in 1863. And thereís an Updyke anthology which covered — my grandfatherís in it.
Doel:He would have been the last generation —
Opdyke:He was the last generation.
Doel:— probably recorded.
Opdyke:But thereís been others since then.
Doel:Iím curious about what sort of books you remember reading when you were growing up?
Opdyke:Well I started to read when I was about ten or eleven, something like that. The library in Frenchtown was about as big as my office. [Laughter]
Doel:Youíre pointing to a room thatís maybe about a twenty foot square.
Opdyke:So I started to read historical novels. I have always been a history buff. I loved action history of the Revolution, the Civil War, and Hornblower novels. I read every one I could get my hands on. Then I started on western novels and I started to read, you know, all the Zane Grey novels, I think I read every one of them. I exhausted the library and I started to read books in the lending library, they used to have novels you could buy at the lending library. I finally ran out of everything to read and I came back to the library and I started to look at things that weren't quite — a little bit different. I remember reading the Seven Pillars of Wisdom which was an eye opening book for me. A wonderful book.
Doel:What do you remember about that particular book?
Opdyke:What do I remember about the book?
Opdyke:Well it was a lot of action, of course. But it was a lot of introspection and philosophy in the book, which was unexpected and I never had contact with this before. I thought that was really neat. It was Ė itís a very good book. I highly recommend it.
Doel:As you say, you were about ten, eleven, twelve, perhaps when you read that?
Doel:Or this was later?
Opdyke:It was considerably later than that. I was about fifteen.
Opdyke:Sixteen, something like that; just before I went to college. I was in high school.
Doel:Did you have much of an interest in science?
Opdyke:No. Not really. Well I was interested in everything when I was in school. And I, you know, when I was in high school I was interested. But, you know, the high school wasnít a really strong high school. So, I knew more history than the history teacher. He was the football coach. And science, you know, was about all that could be said was that it was adequate. You know I enjoyed biology and chemistry and physics. I was in the, you know, the advanced stream. I did — you know in those days we had to do Latin and a foreign language to get your diploma. And this I did.
Doel:I meant to ask you a moment ago, were there magazines that came regularly to your home; National Geographic for instance or Popular Mechanics?
Opdyke:I donít think we ever saw National Geographic. Life used to come in. But except for me I donít think anybody in the family were great readers.
Doel:Was there a library in the house?
Opdyke:No. Yes, yes there was. It was about as big as this.
Doel:Your pointing to a shelf thatís —
Opdyke:Three feet wide and six feet high.
Opdyke:There was the Opdyke anthology in there and there was a book called The Geology of New Jersey was produced in 1853. I think that was the year. It was pretty old. I forget now who wrote the book.
Doel:But do you remember reading it? You remember reading it at the time that you were —
Opdyke:I remember paging through it. There were all sorts of the treasures there like my great grandfatherís mustering out papers from the Civil War. Things like that.
Doel:Thatís interesting: So that sort of papers had been preserved in the family — some of the history.
Opdyke:I still have some of the bibles. My grandmotherís father was apparently wounded at Gettysburg.
Doel:Bibles are a wonderful — for that generation, the late nineteenth century, a lot of family history was written in the bibles.
Opdyke:Lots of hair and all sorts of funny things. A lot of it got cannibalized later on.
Doel:Interesting. Did you have much interest in geology? Did you go outside a lot? Did you enjoy that when you were growing up?
Opdyke:I was in the Boy Scouts. I did a lot of hiking and walking and camping, and I enjoyed it very much. I enjoyed sports. I, you know, I loved to play football.
Doel:When did you first start playing football?
Opdyke:Oh, twelve. We used to play pick up football all the time. In fact I broke my arm playing pickup football with the big boys, when I was about thirteen or something like that.
Doel:And you were on the team in high school?
Opdyke:Yes. In fact, the high school was so small that they used to play; they played soccer up until the time I went to high school. And my freshman year they changed and started to play -≠ there was the first football team. So when I was a freshman they played their first — I guess they began to play football that year. I was on the first team that the town ever put out, the high school ever put out. And our third year we won the championship.
Doel:Is that right? Thatís a pretty steep rise.
Opdyke:Steep learning curve. My uncle had played football. He played semi-professional football, you know, these sort of, I don't know, not pick up teams, but the club teams that were used to play during the thirties. And I used to — I remember going down to Lambertville. It was down in Lambertville that he played and I remember going down there and watching the games. Iíd climb up a tree and watch him play football. They played the old single wing with a blocking back. And so I used to watch him do that. I really enjoyed it. So we won the championship when I was a senior, and it was that fact that got me into Columbia. I also interviewed at Princeton [University]. If I (a) hadnít read and (b) hadnít played football, Iíd have never gone to an Ivy League school. I donít have any doubt about that at all. In fact I was the only person that I know who ever went to an Ivy League school from my high school. I donít know of anybody else who did.
Doel:Thatís very interesting.
Opdyke:But my senior class was fifty people. I was scared to death.
Doel:Iím sure you were.
Opdyke:Iíd never written anything more than a paragraph before I went to college. Suddenly I was faced with three hour written examinations. [Laughter]
Doel:As you were saying, it sounds as if you hadnít really been that challenged when you were in high school.
Doel:Iím still curious. Were there any teachers who you regarded as mentors? Any that helped you understand what —
Opdyke:My math teacher, I thought, was very good. She helped me prep for my SATs. I donít remember her name right now. She was — Mrs. McDonald? Anyway, she was the sister of a surgeon down in Philadelphia. She was a very bright woman, very good. And there were a lot of good teachers in the school. I liked the principal Mr. Light. I went to the same school for twelve years, from kindergarten through senior high school.
Doel:In a town that size indeed thatís —
Opdyke:The principal was there all the time. It was like having another parent in school.
Doel:It sounds like he took an interest in you.
Opdyke:He did. Well he tried to recruit me to go to his college.
Doel:Which one was that?
Opdyke:Ursinus, outside of Philadelphia.
Doel:Sure, small school.
Opdyke:And the science teacher tried to recruit me to go to Chattanooga.
Doel:Is that right?
Opdyke:But I went to Columbia.
Doel:Were there any other activities that you were involved in? You mentioned that sports of course were very important to you and the Boy Scouts when you were growing up. Were there any other clubs that you had become active in in school, activities?
Opdyke:Well, in school I was in the school government. But, you know, I think most of the things that I was interested in was young ladies and football.
Doel:Thatís perfectly understandable. When you began thinking of applying to college, how much did you know about Princeton or Columbia?
Opdyke:I didnít know anything.
Doel:Had you visited? Princeton, of course, wasnít that far away from Frenchtown. Had you been there?
Opdyke:I really didnít know the difference between going to Rutgers and going to Ursinus and going to Columbia and the Ivy League schools. I really didnít understand that. The football coach at the, you know, at Columbia recruited me. You know, I just didnít end up there by an accident. He tried to persuade me to come to Columbia. I went over there for an interview.
Doel:This is the football coach at Columbia who was interested in you?
Opdyke:Well it was one of Lou Littleís. Lou Little was the football coach and it was one of his assistants. I think the end coach I think it was the one that called me up. You get a high school football player gets on, you know, on the all-state team. I was the second team you know class 3A, or whatever it was. And so once you get in the newspapers then they begin to pay attention to you. Otherwise they don't know who you are.
Doel:Iíve heard a bit about Lou Little from Jack [E.] Oliver.
Opdyke:Yes, I'm sure you would.
Doel:So it was the coach who encouraged you particularly to consider putting an application to Columbia?
Opdyke:Oh yes. Oh yes. It just wasnít by accident.
Doel:How about at Princeton? How did you come to think about going there?
Opdyke:Oh, it was the same way, but they weren't quite so. They probably rightly looked at my credentials and decided that I wasnít (a) big enough and (b) smart enough to go to Princeton. They were probably right.
Doel:Were there any other possibilities that you were considering, or did Columbia pretty quickly emerge as the best?
Opdyke:What the devil did I do? I think I only applied to two schools, I think Rutgers and Columbia. How is that for being laid back?
Doel:How much did it cost to put an application in at that time?
Opdyke:Gee, I forget. Fifteen dollars or something.
Doel:When budgets are tight that can also mean that itís not possible to apply to —
Opdyke:The tuition when I went to Columbia was only about six or seven hundred dollars.
Doel:Even factoring in inflation thatís still much below what itís costing today.
Opdyke:Well you could still work your way through college in those days. Itís impossible to work your way through college now, Columbia or any other major school, unless youíre robbing banks in the summertime.
Doel:Right. One thing I was curious about, when you were working during the summers in high school was that still primarily carpentry and things that your family had been involved or did you have other jobs?
Opdyke:Well, the first year, when I was sixteen, I worked with — in the factory my mother worked in. I put holes in spark plugs. Thatís a real motivator Iíll tell you.
Doel:Having to do that routinely.
Opdyke:Yes. You want to extend your life span by another fifty years just to sit there and put holes in spark plugs. Thatíll do it for you. Iíll tell you I was never so bored in my entire life. It motivated me right out of Frenchtown, New Jersey Iíll tell you.
Doel:Iím sure it did.
Opdyke:I became a very serious student after that. [Laughter]
Doel:Were there any other friends in high school that shared your ambitions or your interests?
Opdyke:Oh yes. My best friend growing up was a guy by the name of Forman Van Sealos whoís now dead. He was my best man. He went to engineer at Lehigh [University]. He worked for a company that makes pumps for submarines and things like that. He passed away from cancer just two years ago, three years ago or four years ago. Cancer of the — you know, prostate cancer which is the killer when men get to be fifty-five.
Doel:You say he shared a lot of your, your interests.
Opdyke:Well we grew up together. You know, he was up the hill from me and we just spent twelve years together in school. He was always my best friend. He was a smart, smart guy. We did all these things. You know, went to Boy Scouts, all the same sort of things.
Doel:And he went on to college at the same time?
Opdyke:Yes, he spent a year working in a factory up in Milford, in New Jersey, which is a factory which makes paper, Regal Paper Corporation. He spent a year there putting away money to go to school. He went to Lehigh the next year.
Doel:Of course by that period of time, Doc [W. Maurice] Ewing had left Lehigh.
Opdyke:Oh yes. Long ago.
Doel:That does, is an association that comes to mind. One of the other things I was curious about, before we talk about your college years, during what would have been your middle years in school, of course, World War II was going on. How did that affect either your life at home or your experience at school as you look back? Were you very much aware of the —
Opdyke:Oh absolutely. I used to read newspapers every day; used to follow the headlines. And I used to deliver the Philadelphia Bulletin as a newspaper deliverer. It used to come every evening; it was an evening paper. I used to meet the train and deliver the paper.
Doel:Thatís right. That paper survived until the 1970s, I think.
Opdyke:I guess so. In fact I was at Boy Scout camp when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. We had no idea what they were talking about. I remember VE day. We lived in the third street in Frenchtown and behind us was a fire house, there was an old fire bell out there. I remember going out with a hammer and hitting the fire bell, you know, raising as much clamor as possible over the victory in Europe. Oh yes, I followed it very closely. When people began to come home from the war, that year, I was an Explorer Scout. I remember one of the people, who was a young man from town who had been in a unit that had captured one of the internment camps, Auschwitz or one of them. By god, you know, he brought us pictures. He showed us pictures of when they occupied Auschwitz, you know, peopleís bodies half burned outside of buildings and Germans just set the buildings on fire. Man, it burned itself into my memory, Iíll tell you what.
Doel:Thatís something you donít forget.
Opdyke:No. It was sort of, you know, it was his own — it wasnít propaganda or anything else. It was just what he had, what he saw. Oh yes. I was very much aware of it. Then of course when I was in high school, my last year in high school, the Korean War broke out. I had to make a decision on whether I was going to go to — a lot of my friends who I played football with decided they were going to be heroes and they enlisted right away. They figured they could get their Ė theyíd just give them their degree after theyíd joined the Marines. They thought that was a good deal. Theyíd rather do boot camp than spend another rest of the year in school. So I remember I finished school and then I went to see Mr. Light, the principal, and I said, ďWell, should I enlist?Ē In those days, you know, I had no thought of evading the draft and I thought the war was just — you know, everybody I knew was in the service, had gone to service, or just came back from the service. It was just something you did. Mr. Light said, ďWell,Ē he said, ďNeil,Ē he says, ďthey know where you are.Ē He said, ďIíd go to college and if they want you, theyíll come get youĒ which I did.
Doel:It sounds like good advice Iím sure.
Opdyke:It turned out there were so many volunteers from my town that they never needed to draft me.
Doel:Thatís interesting, sure, that makes sense.
Opdyke:I donít know whether it makes sense or not, but that was the case.
Doel:It makes sense in that, perhaps in the sense of demographics, given the nature of towns like Frenchtown in that period of time that the local quotas would have been —
Opdyke:They fill them up. Anyway that was what happened to the Korean War. So I didnít get shot.
Doel:I want to make sure, it was 1950 then that you graduated from high school?
Doel:Fifty-one. Then four years later youíll get your bachelorís from Columbia?
Doel:Okay. What were you doing in the summer before you went to Columbia?
Opdyke:Working for my uncle, the carpenter.
Doel:Did you go down to the shore or was it mostly in the —
Opdyke:In the Frenchtown area. My uncle did build a house, a large house, in Princeton. Iím not exactly sure when that was. He bought the lumber company in 1955 after the flood. That was just after I got out of college.
Doel:A flood rings a very faint memory for me.
Opdyke:Well there was a big flood in the Delaware Valley which, a hurricane blew out [inaudible]. The lumber yard in town was flooded. And at that time, after the flood, my uncle bought the lumber yard.
Doel:That was a business then that he kept on for some time?
Opdyke:Yes. Itís now a very large business.
Doel:Thatís the one that mentioned before.
Doel:Okay, very interesting. Iím curious, what were your first impressions when you arrived at Columbia? This is the fall of 1951.
Opdyke:Well, I was, you know, I was very excited. I was very much aware that I came from a sort of a backwater place. The freshman class — I went out there to play football with the rest of the freshman. In those days you didnít practice with varsity, they had special, they had a freshman team which actually played some game. So, the usual sort of thing happened. There was about sixty people show up for football practice, and by the end of the year, they were down to thirty or twenty-five or thirty or something. But I was I guess I was sort of overwhelmed for a while. I remember looking at Columbia. I donít know, you walk down there, you see the library, Aeschylus, Euripides and all these people. I don't know any of these people. [Laughter]
Doel:This is of course on the top of the facade of the Library.
Opdyke:Yes. The facade of the Library, Butler -≠
Doel:The Butler Library.
Opdyke:So I went to my advisor to find out, you know, what should I do? What should I take? You know, I wasnít sure what I wanted to do professionally. So the guy says, ďWell, you have required courses you have to take so you might as well begin to do that.Ē So he said, ďWhy donít you take humanities and contemporary civilization and Spanish?Ē I think then I had to take remedial English because my English was so bad. So, I remember walking into remedial English and I figured — I had to write a paper a week, I could figure out why I was there but I couldnít figure out why these other guys were there. [Laughter]
Doel:You said you felt at a disadvantage —
Opdyke:What I didnít know, you know, the advice that I got from this advisor was okay, except that contemporary civilization and humanities are legendary at Columbia, and they are the two biggest, heaviest reading courses in the curriculum. And people, you know, who knew what the system was all about and had been properly advised and wanted to be going on to medical school and law school. These guys took these — you know, they spread them out during their whole career so that they were taking contemporary civilization when they were seniors.
Doel:And certainly not taking two of them at once.
Opdyke:Not taking two of them at once. And I, you know, I just walked into it blindly. I had stacks of books like this.
Doel:Youíre holding your hands about two foot off the floor.
Opdyke:Yes, right. The first book we read was, I think, Homer. They gave us two weeks to read that. And then it was the book of the Bible, and you know the great books all the way through to the middle Ages. I could read all right and I could remember what I read, but I had a hell of a time writing essay questions. It was really strange. The guy who was the instructor in this course in humanities, every week heíd give a test on the book of the week, right? And I did, on content; I did quite well in these. After my mid-term examination when I didnít do very well because I had to write out long questions, he came and stood behind me to make sure I wasnít cheating. I can remember that very clearly because I think he thought I was cheating on these quizzes because I could remember all that was in the book. That wasnít the problem. Expressing myself in the written word was the problem.
Doel:That must have been a difficult experience to have him wonder about —
Opdyke:Yes, it was.
Doel:How was that resolved?
Opdyke:Slowly and carefully and persistently. [Laughter] When I came back from my semester at Columbia, and because I was an athlete there, I had a sort of a job in the dining halls which allowed me to get my food. I had a job in the Lionís Den, with actually, a senior football player who was a big star and another freshman football player who was in there. There used to be an interval between after you took your final examinations, final examinations were in January, I think. You had to go home for Christmas and then you came back, took your final examinations.
Opdyke:There were a couple days between semesters and then you started the spring semester. I came back to school, and I came in the morning and I had to go work at Noon. I got there just in time to go to work. I never forget this, this football player from Pennsylvania was in there, the gentleman by the name Chad Zielkowski, Iíll never forget his name, and he was downcast and moaning and complaining. He said heíd failed four courses and he got a D in the other course. This is the person that was telling me all year, all semester, how good he was and how smart he was, all this sort of stuff. And I thought, ďOh boy.Ē At Columbia they — so all this was going on during this lunch time, and I thought boy am I in trouble. So I went over to the — they used to have the Wailing Wall, they used to put — none of this baloney about putting your Social Security number there.
Opdyke:It had all your names, and, you know, your grades were out there displayed on the wall for everybody to see. So I went over there and I got my grades and I had straight Cs. I was so happy. [Laughter] Man, I was happy. I was so happy.
Doel:Thatís a good story.
Opdyke:Man Iíll tell you. I was never so happy to get a C in all my life. But thatís what I did, you know, I started out and gradually got better.
Doel:Was it on the quarter system?
Doel:It was still on, it was on semester. How did the second semester go? Do you remember that?
Opdyke:Well, by that time, I knew I had a system I could actually succeed in doing what I had to do. So I wasnít quite so panic stricken. I still worked; I worked hard all the time at night. I used to study every night until eleven oíclock before going to bed, whether or not we were playing football. I remember very clearly when I went to England and the first year I was there as a graduate student I had a laissez faire attitude that the English students had been working hard, I just couldnít believe it.
Doel:That was a pretty common complaint of the Americans, wasnít it?
Opdyke:I donít know. It was certainly struck me because I didnít do anything at eight oíclock at night except study in those days. These guys were doing everything under the sun except studying. Of course they will tell you that they were brighter than we were.
Doel:How many hours a week were you working back that first year at Columbia?
Opdyke:I did all four years; I worked two hours every day, five days a week. So I worked ten hours a week.
Doel:And then, of course, you were working during the summers for additional income.
Doel:Where did you work in that first — the freshman summer?
Opdyke:In Frenchtown with my uncle. I always worked with my uncle.
Doel:That went on through your undergraduate years?
Opdyke:Oh yes, all the time.
Doel:How much did the football scholarship cover?
Opdyke:I didn't get a scholarship. The only thing I got was a scholarship room, and a job. So I never had a scholarship. But they kept telling me, you know, they tell you that scholarships are based on need which is a lot of horse puckey. When I was a sophomore, I put in an application for a scholarship and that was declined. Then when I was a junior, I started to play regularly and by the time I was ended, I was elected captain of the team. So then, lo and behold, I got a scholarship, and a scholarship room for my senior year. I was a bit cynical about the whole thing by that time.
Doel:Right, I can imagine.
Opdyke:Because, you know, my family was as poor as anybody at Columbia College. Iíll tell you that right now. [Laughter] So I donít think Lou Little ever expected me to play football at Columbia, but I did.
Doel:You were number 69 if I remember.
Doel:Were you number 69?
Doel:Did I remember correctly?
Opdyke:How do you know that?
Doel:It was in an article that Lamont had published at the time that you left for Gainesville which happened to mention it. It just happened to stick in my mind. Iím curious if there were any courses, in addition to those two that you mentioned, having to take the humanities and the contemporary civilization at the same time, were there other courses that were memorable for you in your first few years, when you were largely taking the required classes?
Opdyke:Well, I enjoyed those courses, although I complain about them now. But I really enjoyed them. I think Columbia did a great job, certainly with me. But Spanish I struggled with for two and a half years. I donít have a big facility with languages, and I just, you know, brute forced my way through it. In fact, I had to take a fifth semester because you had to have a B in the last semester in order to pass out of the language retirement and I didnít get it. Iíll never forget, my professor was Senor De Morales. He used to terrify everybody the first year when he was there, when you walked into his class. If I worked hard in De Moralesí class and did all the homework, then I was going to pass. That was fine, but I never got the B. So, my fifth semester I said, ďWell, Senor De Morales,Ē I said, ďIíd like to take conversational Spanish to make it so that I can really do this Spanish for my fifth semester.Ē ďNo, no, no, no, no,Ē Senor said, ďyou canít do that. Columbia College men do not take conversational Spanish. I suggest you take Medieval Spanish.Ē
Doel:Medieval Spanish. [Laughter]
Opdyke:So hereís a person who had to do five semesters, right? I ended up taking Medieval Spanish. Itís like taking Medieval English. Oh boy!
Doel:So you were dealing with the Spanish equivalent of the [old English variant of Ďoakí] tree of Old English.
Opdyke:Yes, the Inquisition. Oh boy. But, it was fun.
Doel:I'm curious, what was it like coming from a town like Frenchtown, living in New York City?
Opdyke:Well, certainly it was a change. I didnít have any money, which was one thing. So, I very rarely ever went downtown. I went downtown my freshman year and had a date with some Barnard girl, and she almost wiped me out by having a hamburger and a Coke. So, you know, I literally, for a while, I didnít do anything. When I was a senior I went down for the St. Paddyís Day [St. Patrickís Day) Parade. I had a wild time. New York City on St. Paddyís Day Parade was always a wild time.
Doel:I believe it.
Opdyke:So that was what I did when I was a senior. But by that time I was comfortable and established and I could get my way around the city.
Doel:Did you get to the museums often? The Natural History Museum for instance?
Opdyke:No. Although when I took art appreciation, I had to go the art museum and compare two statues. Iíll never forget that. One was a Greek statue, with one from Thailand or some place, I donít know. How do I do this? Arms and legs, I think the Buddhist statue had more arms than the Greek statue. Anyway, they forced me to do that. But I really had no chance to take part in the cultural history of the city. I really didnít have enough time and I didnít have enough money.
Doel:And as you say, you were out of the city during the summers in any case. When did you start taking science classes at Columbia?
Opdyke:Well, earth science was one of those — itís a funny thing because when I was in high school, I worked as a stone masonís helper with my uncle. I worked as a carpenter, but, you know, I did a whole set of other things. One of the things I did was also to help the guy who was the stonemason that worked for my uncle. We used to break open rocks and I used to look at the rocks. I found some fossils in the rocks that we broke open, and I thought, ďWell thatís pretty interesting stuff.Ē I thought about being a geologist. I always liked archeology and was interested in pre-history and archeology, but I decided that, and quite rightly, that you couldnít get a job doing it. Archaeologists were not getting big money. That was just from reading in Popular Science. I found it very fascinating, still do. I still read pre-history and archeology for fun. But, I thought well the nearest thing is to be in geology. Actually my mathematics teacher thought I would make a pretty good geologist.
Doel:Your high school mathematics teacher?
Opdyke:Yes, for reasons which I have no idea why she thought that. But anyway, she did. So when I went to college, I looked up what it took to be an earth scientist. One of the things you couldn't be is color blind because of looking down microscopes and looking at minerals. Well, I was color blind. I was red, green color blind. And so I said, ďWell, I guess I canít be a geologist.Ē So I spent two years doing required courses and then I looked around just to see what everybody was doing. Well the people who had graduated, it was, you know, either that they went to the military for a couple years, most of them. And the other thing was that, MDs, a lot of football players became MDs. Jack Oliver was an exception doing physics and he dropped out in his senior year, and he didn't play football in his senior year.
Doel:I think thatís right.
Opdyke:The other was a lot of people from Columbia went into the stock market, Wall Street, or into business. I decided that I didnít want to do that. I didnít want to be a lawyer, I didnít want to be a doctor, and I didnít want to sit behind a desk all my life. I wanted something I could get out and do. After my sophomore year, I decided to do it. Damn the torpedoes.
Doel:But you were still worried about the color blindness?
Opdyke:I just avoided petrology.
Doel:Fair enough. I was just going to say thatís where it would come up?
Opdyke:Iíve never looked down a microscope. I have no intention of doing so although we force the kids to do it here.
Doel:I was startled when you said that. It was clearly — itís what affects petrology, but subsequently have you run into that kind of restriction at any other university? I was just wondering how unique that kind of requirement was for petrology majors?
Opdyke:Well, here they make the students do petrology.
Doel:I meant more color blindness as a factor in admission to the department.
Opdyke:Oh, color blindness. They donít use it as an admission. They just, this was just -≠
Doel:Just a requirement.
Opdyke:No, you know what you should be if you want to be a geologist or a physicist or anything else, or sociologist.
Opdyke:This is one of the things that this brochure, which, you know, the universities had these guidance tools which they, you know, pull out and show students. And I decided I couldn't be because — it turned out to be wrong.
Doel:Right. That makes sense.
Opdyke:It wasnít a requirement for the college.
Doel:What were your impressions of the department as you look back now? This is your junior year that you really begin taking your science.
Opdyke:Well it was a bit chaotic. A. K. [Armin K.] Lobeck who was a great professor, he was a great teacher.
Doel:I heard about his teaching abilities.
Opdyke:He got ill halfway through, he had cancer, cancer of the throat, I think. He actually expired the next year. He was replaced by a graduate student. Then the historical geology, which is a second thing you take next, was taught by a guy who was totally incompetent. Thatís my opinion. Structural geology, I was taught by a graduate student.
Doel:Iím curious if you recall who was teaching historical geology?
Opdyke:Paul Taylor. I donít know, Paulís probably still alive, whether I want it widely known Paul Taylor was totally inadequate as a teacher. He did get fired. He did not get tenure at Columbia.
Doel:Itís important to know because it affects how people are trained and their experiences.
Opdyke:Well, Iíd ask him things like how are mountains built? He had no bloody idea. Well, you know, he said about shrinking skins on an apple. I thought, ďWell that sounds very appealing to me.Ē
Doel:Sounds like the old Ellie de Beaumont concept.
Opdyke:Had no idea how tectonics on the face of the earth operated because they were not thinking about compression even when they were faced with all this compressive structure. I couldnít figure it out. These guys were absolutely blind to what was going on in the world.
Doel:Were you hearing things for instance about David [T.] Griggsí work or is that just something that didnít come up?
Opdyke:No, that was too low on the totem pole. Marshall Kay I met later on, but actually I got out of sequence with this historical geology so I never took him as an undergraduate, although he knew who I was because he followed the football team very closely. He was a great sportsman. I think the person who had the greatest influence on me was John Imbrie who I took paleontology with and also biometrics. I got my best, I got B+s and As in his course. Like biometrics, it was a graduate course and I was taking it as an undergraduate. I was actually taking the course when I was taking other courses that were being taught by the TAs who were in that course.
Doel:Interesting dynamics there.
Opdyke:Yes. But that was okay, it turned out. You know, professors always say, ďWell you donít have to do everything the graduate students do.Ē Thatís a lot of baloney. [Laughter]
Opdyke:I did, yes. But it was very interesting sort of education I got then. It was sort of eclectic in many ways.
Doel:Iím now curious how as you think back why John Imbrie became as influential on you as he did?
Opdyke:Well I think he was the only true good professor I had. The other guys were sort of TAs. Karl Turekian was one of the TAs up at Yale. He helped teach me historical geology. At least Karl knew what was going on. So in that respect I — you know, he was good Karl. Of course heís good. But John [Imbrie] was a cold, cold professor. He used to walk in and —you know, just deliver and walk out. But he knew what he was doing and understood it and was obviously enthusiastic about it, which students appreciate, most of the time.
Doel:How big was that class that you're recalling where he'd walk in and give the presentation?
Opdyke:Oh I donít know, ten or twelve.
Doel:So, seminar style?
Opdyke:Yes. It was something like that. We had one very beautiful Barnard woman in there, and a bunch of graduate students, a couple of undergrads, not many. There werenít very many undergraduates. There have never been many undergraduates at Columbia.
Doel:Were there other memorable teachers, either positively or negatively memorable, from the department?
Opdyke:In the department?
Doel:Yes, in your undergraduate years.
Opdyke:[Paul] Kerr was a good mineralogist. He was a good teacher I thought. He had lots of stories. He taught mineralogy, general mineralogy. But Imbrie was by far the best. Of course, later on I became a colleague. There were some great teachers in other subjects. I took American history with Jim [James] Shenton who was a terrific teacher, a great professor. Thatís when I decided I couldnít be a history.
Opdyke:Well I couldnít write well enough to do well in his class. [Laughter] They would be very surprised to realize Iíve written a hundred and fifty papers or something like that.
Doel:It would be interesting to tell them at some point. Do you remember any classes with Walter Bucher?
Opdyke:I never had any class with Walter [S.] Bucher. He never taught undergraduates.
Doel:Thatís right, he didnít, did he?
Opdyke:As far as I know he didnít. I only met Walter Bucher after I got my Ph.D. When I was at Houston, at Rice [University], I met him then. With [S. Keith] Runcorn, we went to see him at Humble Oil.
Doel:Thatís right. He did have connections down there.
Doel:Humble. Thatís quite right; others? Were there others in the department that you met? Iím curious in particular; maybe I should ask this first. Did you come to know, through Karl Turekian, the sorts of geochemical work that he and his own mentors were interested in? Or was that something you came to —
Opdyke:Not really. I didnít know what he was into at the time. I only found out later. Of course knowing him then, I knew him for a long time.
Doel:But you didnít hear much about Larry [J. Laurence] Kulp for instance?
Opdyke:No. I didnít. I only knew about Larry Kulp after Iíd already got my degree and was actually out in Africa when I first came across potassium-argon dating. Then I knew who Kulp was and I knew where he was. Although when I came back to Columbia, I never really met him.
Doel:Of course it was just around, the lab was being moved out, just around the time that you arrived —
Doel:— so that you wouldnít have encountered it during, certainly your junior and senior years at Columbia.
Opdyke:No I didnít. I had heard about Lamont. There was one undergraduate male who actually was working at Lamont at the time back in the early fifties so I knew that the place existed. We took classes together. He came up and worked up at Lamont so I knew about it.
Doel:Do you remember who that was?
Opdyke:No, no. I donít remember who that was.
Doel:But you had never gone out to Lamont?
Opdyke:No. I never visited.
Doel:Do you remember people talking about it within the department; any of the professors, what their views of Lamont were?
Opdyke:I never heard very much at all about it. Because I was interested in — the people, I ran into more of Marshall Kayís students, I guess, than the geochemists or the geophysicists. Kay students were vectored toward the oil industry a lot of them, the stratigraphers, and sedimentologists. I took a lot of these classes with some of these cross over classes, and got to know some of his students, Marshall Kayís students. There was a guy name of Kip Crawford I remember, had red hair. I remember I came back and I told him what my thesis topic was. He said, ďWell youíll never get a job in the United States.Ē
Doel:You told him your Ph.D. thesis topic you mean. This just brings to mind, what did you do for your undergraduate thesis? I presume you had to write one within the department.
Opdyke:Well what I did was I mapped an area along the boundary fault in northern New Jersey, the Ramapo Fault. I mapped some of the sediments in the northern part of Huntington County where my family owned property. I produced a map of this for Paul Taylor. I had to come back in fact in June of the year I graduated so I could complete this map. I was sitting there with the graduate students having to do all the drafting on this damn map. Although I got my degree, it really wasn't official until I finished this bloody map.
Doel:I canít imagine you felt good about that in the midst of —
Opdyke:No, I wasnít feeling very good about it, sweating there in New York in June.
Opdyke:But I did it.
Doel:Did you have a class in out in the field, field geology? Was that a summer course that was required?
Opdyke:I never did take the field geology. The field geology course was run with Princeton out in the Red Lodge, Montana. I never took the course.
Doel:Was that still being operated with the train?
Opdyke:With the who?
Doel:With the train. Princeton earlier at least had operated a Pullman car that they used in the summer courses.
Opdyke:I have no idea. I never went. I shouldíve gone but I never did. I didnít have enough money.
Opdyke:I figured I could do it some other time.
Doel:You mentioned that you got out of taking petrology. Did you have any other lab courses that you recall?
Opdyke:Well, all these courses had labs, but they weren't that kind of lab.
Doel:Did you feel that you were getting exposed generally to the most up-to-date ideas and techniques, or as you look back on it now, did it not seem —
Opdyke:Well, I was just sort of learning business. Itís hard to make that kind of judgment as an undergraduate.
Opdyke:I have said that I was lucky that my undergraduate education was poor. Because otherwise it would have cluttered my mind up in other things so that I would've ended up like a lot of my contemporaries who were not open to suggestion or other things. [Laughter]
Doel:That's a very interesting observation that —
Opdyke:So I actually benefited, I think, from having a poor undergraduate education in geology. After all, I could have had Professor Bucher to indoctrinate me in the ways of the world in which case I would never have made any progress.
Doel:Iím still thinking about that observation because itís — did you feel that at the time that in some ways you were looking for a broader understanding of global processes and tectonics that you just werenít getting?
Opdyke:You know, I was always very interested in things. My goals at that time were very simple ones. I wanted to, you know, do a graduate degree and then go on to do oil geology and make money. I pretty well, knew what I wanted to do and I didnít, didn't think about making a big score in science. It wasnít until later when I got really into processes and got to thinking about things in Bucherís world at a little deeper level.
Doel:Of course by the summer of your senior year, youíre pulled into that and rather quickly. Iím curious when you think back, were there any books that you were reading generally in geology and the earth sciences that were particularly memorable for you? Remember which textbooks youíd gotten most exposed to.
Opdyke:Well [Armin K.] Lobeck was the physical science book that I remember. In fact, in fact I still have some of them.
Doel:Youíre looking over the shelves right now.
Opdyke:Hereís Paul Kerrís book on optical mineralogy which I bought because I figured I should know about it.
Opdyke:It has a Columbia College thing on it here. Whatís this one? This is mineralogy. I never took a course with Paul Kerr. Paul Kerr was the other big gun in the department. This is the one. This is my mineralogy book.
Doel:And as you say, it still has your Columbia —
Opdyke:It still has my Columbia University cover.
Doel:Very interesting. [Background talk as they looking through books]. Danaís Manual of Mineralogy.
Opdyke:December 3, 1958. Well, I was in graduate school at that time. This is Dissiderís book; Structural Geology by Billings. Hereís a physics book; Linus Paulingís College Chemistry.
Doel:You had that too.
Opdyke:When I went to — my senior year I remember reading this textbook by J. Tuzo Wilson, which I thought was a very interesting — which you know the onion skin hypothesis about the growth of continents and which was all wrong, but at the time I thought it was very interesting.
Doel:You heard of Tuzo Wilson before then?
Opdyke:No. How did I? Well, I, how did I? I donít know. Maybe, maybe. But I donít recall how I came across this book. By just looking for something, I came across this book and I found it very interesting. It turned out to be wrong, almost all of it. [Laughter] But at the time, I felt it sounded like it made a lot of sense. But it didn't make sense in the end.
Doel:Wilson certainly produced a lot of original ideas.
Opdyke:Yes. He was a great scientist.
Doel:Of course weíll be getting back to Tuzo Wilson a little bit later in what weíre talking about here. Iím curious if there were, you mentioned already your history professor who was influential for you. Were there other people when you look back in your undergraduate years that were particularly memorable either as teachers or mentors?
Opdyke:Well I was the only, you know — my football career of course occupied a lot of my time. In general in most cases the faculty at Columbia is excellent and theyíre — thatís true then. I think itís one of the more interesting — I told you I was interested in history. I took a course in military history, which I enjoyed a great deal. It was a seminar which was run by an ex-colonel in the Marines. It was fascinating. I took two semesters. It was very, very good. I forget his name right now.
Doel:Thatís all right.
Opdyke:Heíd served with the Marines in Korea and heíd served in the second World War and then he served the State Department. God, he had —Tetter, was it Tetter? Come and talk to us, you know, the guy who ran the strategic bombing in the Second World War
Doel:Is that right?
Opdyke:My god, you know, we had all these heavy duty people come into this course. It was really fun and I enjoyed that. I still read military history for fun. I don't know whether you call military history ďfor fun,Ē but I -≠
Doel:Itís something that really interests you.
Opdyke:Yes. Itís something that interests me but I donít, you know, I make no professional contribution to it so I do it for fun. Iím still interested in military history, and I was at the time. I never forget, you know, they give out topics for the seminars, and all the topics, I wanted this topic on, you know, guerilla warfare, because I thought it was a really fun thing to do. I had it all planned out how I was going to do it, and so I didnít get it, somebody else got it. I had to report on the Krupps. So I went, and took out all this stuff on the war crime trials and I knew a hell of a lot about the Krupps family by the time I got through that report.
Doel:Iím sure you did, yes. Iím sure you did. [Laughter]
Opdyke:The development of the Krupp Empire, from god knows when. I knew more about the Kruppís than I needed to know.
Doel:Were there other experiences generally at Columbia when you think back that were important for you that we havenít talked about so far?
Opdyke:Well, I became a man at Columbia. From adolescence to manhood, I think thatís one thing that becomes important in the scheme of things. My football career was probably a thing that occupied more time and energy and had a greater impression on me probably than I like to admit probably because I had a conflict with the football coach. I had a — I donít know what it was. He was, like a lot of football coaches, there are some good ones around but there are a lot of bad ones around. Although this man had a tremendous reputation, Lou Little had a tremendous reputation, for some reason he didnít think very much of me when I first came there. So, when I was a junior, when I was struggling to make my — I had decided by the time I went to football camp that I was either going to play football or I was going to do something else. I wasn't going to waste my — a couple more years of my life sitting on the bench watching other people play this game. So I went to football camp and I really turned it on and played hard. The line coach, one time, sent me up to — he asked for the second, the captain was playing in front of me, the right guard. So, Dr. Lou Little asked for the second string right guard, it was me. The line coach sent me up to Little and Little was infuriated, and sent me back again. He didnít want to see me. I was so mad, you know, I could have bit the heads off of bullets. You know I was really mad. That kind of stuff used to drive me up the wall. The only reason I was second string guard is because Iíd beaten everybody in front of me. That was the reason I was there. It wasn't by accident. [Laughter] But Lou Little didn't want to hear about that.
Doel:Did it come clear subsequently what the root of the conflict was between you and Lou Little?
Opdyke:I donít know. Well, I just donít know. I think when I first went to Columbia he didnít expect me to play. They had given scholarships to people who were in front of me in my same year who were slotted to play this position and they werenít playing this position. I have no idea what was going through his mind. I don't know. But anyway, by the end of the year I was starting. The captain got hurt badly in the Army game, and couldnít return.
Doel:Then you became the —
Opdyke:I became the other guard. I became the starting right guard. Before that, Iíd been rotated into both guard positions, both left and right guard, which is fun. In those days you had to play both ways. I had played right guard almost all the time, and then suddenly when I was sent into the game they sent me in as a left guard, which means all those mechanical moves you had to make, you had to make backward. [Laughter] First play I almost got the quarterback killed, because I pulled the wrong way and took out the other guard. [Laughter] However, after a while I solved that problem.
Doel:Itís a little bit by like learning to drive when youíre over in Britain?
Opdyke:Yes. You have to be ambidextrous about it.
Doel:So those tensions really werenít resolved even in the senior year between you and Little?
Opdyke:I never never felt comfortable with him. I just talked to a guy who played quarterback just a couple years ago. He lives just down south here. He had the same kind of problem. People who, you know, the players who played for him who really liked him, they were in love with him. But I think itís this business of humiliating people that really got me down. I thought that was just, you know when you do something like that and you get humiliated before the entire team. Itís one of their super put downs and it's hard to swallow.
Doel:Iím sure. Iím sure.
Opdyke:Itís hard to swallow.
Doel:I can imagine that took a lot of mental energy to deal with that during the course of the years.
Opdyke:Oh yes. It takes a lot. It takes a lot. To play sports like that, itís a consuming thing. Of course thatís why in a place like University of Florida where they really play big time football, and itís big time sports, even bright people who are playing sports, they take easy classes, and they unfortunately are not — they donít extend themselves academically as well as they should. There are people who play here who could have the capacity to be excellent scholars. Thatís true in almost all schools. Athletes are always stereotyped, but in fact, thereís very bright people playing football here at the University of Florida as well as other places -≠ quarterback for instance. Some of them come back to school and actually go back and study later on. But athletics, big time athletics the way it is, I think is a little bit destructive.
Doel:You sense thereís been significant change from the time you were playing to the way that college sports are operated?
Opdyke:Well the Ivy League has de-emphasized. When I played with them, we played Army and Navy; they were 1A football. But now they donít even aspire to play teams at that level.
Doel:Yes. That is a change.
Opdyke:They donít have spring practice.
Opdyke:They donít. Iím sure itís the same now. They donít give you a break. When you go in there, you still have to do all the — You know, you take the same class everybody else does. You just got the opportunity. But on the whole, it was a positive experience because I succeeded. If I hadnít succeeded, it would have been a bad thing.
Doel:One of things Iím prompted to ask by your saying that is when you thought back, did going through that kind of experience help you later in your scientific career?
Opdyke:Probably not. Well, yes, no I take that back. I think yes. The reason for that is I was always very competitive and I used to be much more aggressive than I am now. I think that helped a lot because, believe me, if you were a supporter of continental drift of the early, in the late fifties and early sixties, if you werenít aggressive enough to be able to stand in there and take it, you were not going to succeed. You just got rolled over.
Doel:Thatís what I was thinking about particularly, given the role that you played once you came to Lamont and particularly —
Opdyke:I think thatís true. I think that I was aggressive. I still am aggressive although my testosterone level has probably dropped significantly in the last few years so Iím not as aggressive as I used to be. But, I think itís one of the underplayed things in the history of science, I think, is the fact that competitiveness in science is very keen. The people who I know who have done it best are very competitive. Dr. Ewing was a huge competitor, believe me. [Edward] Ted Irving, my friend from Canada, who Dennis Kent calls the great white knight of the north, he is also extremely competitive. And so, itís these people, you know, I think itís the competitiveness which drives them to succeed.
Doel:You also cut your teeth, or at least in the sense of the early part of your active professional career at an extremely hectic, hurly burly time when developments were occurring at a very rapid pace and you called on that even more to maintain priority.
Opdyke:Right. Yes. At the time I didn't realize it of course. I thought it was normal.
Doel:You donít see anything else, of course. [Laughter]
Opdyke:Thought it was all normal.
Doel:Yes. When you were a senior, and you were thinking about graduate school options, what options were out there? What were you thinking about?
Opdyke:Well I had applied to Columbia College, to Columbia University, to go to graduate school. Iíd asked John Imbrie to write me a letter of recommendation for graduate school. John Imbrie says he lost it on his desk. Itís possible. Itís possible. But he may have lost it on purpose, I donít know. But anyway, I was all lined up to go to graduate school at Columbia. In fact, I was going to coach the hundred and fifty pound football team. So I had a job, and, you know, I had it all arranged.
Doel:But John was your principal advisor and then was the one who —
Opdyke:Who fouled up this application. I lose things on my desk, so I understand. John, you know, heís a real scientist, he thinks about other things all the time. Itís quite possible he did it. Iíve always had a suspicion that perhaps he did really like to see me go somewhere else. [Laughter] It might have been a good way out. I donít know. I was not an A student in undergraduate. I got B-pluses in geology by the time I got finished.
Doel:I gather this was something you not talked with him directly about in the years since?
Opdyke:Iíve jibed him about it a little bit. But Iíve never told him, John, I think you lost it on purpose or anything like that. No, I havenít done it. I also applied at University of Wyoming and had been accepted in the masterís program out there.
Doel:What had intrigued you about Wyoming?
Opdyke:Well, they had a good masterís program. A lot of students from Columbia had gone there. I heard about it. The summer camp was out there. So, I, you know, had no problem about thinking about going to Wyoming. It was a place I would have liked to gone anyway. Wyomingís a wonderful place as I found out.
Doel:You hadnít visited there by that point?
Opdyke:No, I hadnít.
Doel:Let me pause just to flip the tape. So Columbia and Wyoming had emerged as possibilities. Were there others that you were thinking about?
Opdyke:No. I had been accepted at Wyoming and was going to go.
Doel:But then things intervened, particularly with Runcorn.
Opdyke:Yes, Runcorn intervened.
Doel:— particularly with Runcorn. When did you first meet him? Was it right then or had you known of him before?
Opdyke:I had never heard of him. It was a strange story actually because Runcorn was always — he played rugby as you know.
Doel:Yes. He was quite an athlete.
Opdyke:He was quite an athlete. He had arranged for an undergraduate from Princeton to go out to the Grand Canyon with him in the summer of 1955. This guy pulled out. He was in the gymnasium at Columbia, and he was in the pool. He used to swim a lot. And Max Ferner who played football with me was in engineering, he was a fifth year engineering student, and he was the lifeguard in the pool; was taking care of the pool. So Runcorn asked him if there was a — he needed, he said he needed somebody to go out with him as a field assistant to the Grand Canyon —did he know of any geologists that were big enough to carry rocks out of the Grand Canyon; someone that was big as well as a geologist? And so of course there was only one and that was me. So Max Ferner said, ďYes I know this guy by the name of Neil Opdyke.Ē
Doel:Thatís how he contacted —
Opdyke:So he gave my name. It was a Saturday morning and I was at my grandmother and grandfatherís. Of course, Runcorn looked up the only Opdyke in town, in Frenchtown; it was my grandmother and grandfather. Because the home phone, my home phone was just under Bird so he didn't know the difference. But he called — he happened to call my grandmother and grandfatherís house when I was there. It was a Saturday morning and I was there doing something, I have no idea what it was, and just hanging out. I was working for my uncle at the time, this was in June. So my grandmother said that I had this telephone call. I said, ďTelephone call?Ē And she said, ďTelephone call.Ē So I said, ďOkay.Ē So I went up to the house and I picked up the telephone and this man at the other end said, ďThis is Runcorn here.Ē I said, ďRight.Ē And he spelled his name, R-U-N-C-0-R-N. I said, ďOkay.Ē I thought it was some guy trying to play a joke on me. Then he launched down this explanation that he wanted to go to the Grand Canyon and needed a field assistant to go to the Grand Canyon and Iíd been named, you know, and would I like to go. And I said, ďWell, Iíd like to think about it.Ē And he says, ďI have to be there on Monday morning.Ē
Doel:This is Saturday.
Opdyke:This is Saturday morning. [Laughter] So, you know, I -≠
Doel:By this point youíre convinced itís a real call.
Opdyke:By this time, I thought you got to be real, yes. So I said, ďWell, I told him Iím working for my uncle as a carpenter,Ē and I said Iíd have to, you know, since Iíd be leaving him shorthanded, Iíd have to — weíd have to discuss this. I said Iíd call him back. So I went and I talked to my uncle and I talked to my parents. And my uncle said, ďWell, if you want to be a geologist, you better take the opportunity.Ē So I called him back and said Iíd go with him. So he said -≠ you know, I gave him my address. So he said heíd be there about noon on Monday because he was coming from Connecticut. He had borrowed a car from the father of — who was a surgeon -≠ of one of the students, an American student who was in England at the time.
Doel:Keith was always a great one for making these things happen.
Opdyke:Conniver, yes. So the road into Frenchtown from New York, it goes right by my grandmotherís place. Thereís only one road if you come directly from New York City. I was sitting out in front of her house, my grandparentsí house. They had a railing along the wall. I was sitting up on the railing. And about quarter-to-twelve this car comes tooling down, stops across the road, and this red haired guy pokes his head out the window, he says, ďI say, do you know Neil Opdyke?Ē [Laughter] I said, ďYes, I'm he.Ē [Laughter] So I went and shook hands with him and I took him across to my parentsí house on that second street. He parked his car in front of this big stump of a maple tree and we then had lunch and he refreshed himself and after lunch we took my stuff and put it in the car and were ready to go west. The first thing Runcorn does is drives over this big stump of this old tree that had been taken down in front of the house. My mother says she didnít expect me to ever make it to Arizona. And, you go across the river to get, you know, we had to get on the turnpike go down to Washington one way or another. I guess we went down to Washington. But you had to go across to Pennsylvania, so we crossed the river in Pennsylvania, started south across the river. He never went above second gear in the car. He got to second gear and left it there, and went across the bridge and started down to Pennsylvania in second gear. And Iím in this quandary, saying god, you know, I canít let — I mean weíre never going to get to Arizona in second gear. I was afraid to — and all this time heís talking about paleomagnetics which Iíve never heard of before. Heís giving me a lecture all the way down, across the bridge into Pennsylvania.
Doel:Right. Youíre barely into Pennsylvania and heís already telling you —
Opdyke:Heís already beginning a lecture on what paleomagnetism is all about. So I finally interrupted him, I said, ďExcuse me Professor Runcorn.Ē I said, ďYou know youíre in second gear? I think you should shift to high gear.Ē [Laughter] ďOh yes, yes, yes.Ē And he shifted gears and away we went. Talk about an auspicious start. I thought, ďWow, this is going to be a long trip.Ē
Doel:What thing struck you about Keith Runcorn as you came to meet him during that drive out to Arizona?
Opdyke:Well, you know, he was very intense about what he was doing. Thatís one thing. He was always vectored in. He was always that way when he was doing something like that, he was always focused on the problem. He liked to horse around. He liked big guys because he liked to wrestle and do things like that. I found out later that he was partly homosexual.
Opdyke:I didnít find out until later. [Laughter] But, you know, he was — we got along quite well. We didnít have any real problem. And we drank together and talked together, and talked science, talked science all the time which was interesting because Iíd never had anybody do this. You know, I never met anybody who was so intensely into science. And we did this all the time.
Doel:As you began to talk with him, I wonder how that made you reflect back on what you had learned at Columbia.
Opdyke:Well of course Columbia was the fixist capital of the world at the time. Bucher and Marshall Kay were dead set against continental drift.
Doel:Had [Alfred] Wegenerís ideas come up in any context? Were they ignored or were they brought up to be discussed?
Opdyke:They were more or less ignored. They were not discussed. I mean, the powers that be just didnít think it was worthwhile discussing. And of course Runcorn at the time wasnít into continental drift either.
Doel:No, he was into —
Opdyke:He was into polar warming, which is a whole different kettle of fish. So at the time, you know, we didnít discuss continental drift.
Doel:Iím just curious generally in terms of methods, techniques, broader issues, not even necessarily on continental drift, whether simply having those long conversations with Keith, someone coming at a different intellectual tradition just the sorts of things that came to your mind.
Opdyke:Well he was interested in a lot of things. He was interested in politics. And I was always interested in politics too. So that was fine, we talked a lot about politics. We also talked, he was also into architecture. Although this trip we didnít discuss it too much because there wasnít very much to see. But he was very interested in religious architecture, cathedrals and things like that. And later on we would visit cathedrals in Europe. But he was interested in a lot of different things. He was a well-read individual, interesting to talk to even if he wasnít talking about science.
Doel:Of course when you were taking that trip it was in the middle of Dwight D. Eisenhowerís second administration.
Doel:Not too many years after the [Joseph R.] McCarthy period.
Opdyke:Right. Well Columbia was certainly anti-McCarthy. So I was anti-McCarthy and by that time I had become a Democrat much to the chagrin of my uncle.
Doel:I was going to say Iím sure that that did not go over terribly well in Frenchtown. [Laughter]
Opdyke:Well there were a lot of Democrats in Frenchtown. My uncle happened to be one of the biggest influences in my life, and he was a solid Republican, for whatever reasons. We used to argue at work. We used to start out in the morning arguing about politics, and argue about McCarthy. We used to go on all day. Heíd come back to this job site and weíd start all over again. Iím sure that the other, that the other workers, you know, who had no interest in these arguments whatsoever think weíre crazy. My uncle and I used to argue like crazy all the time. I came up with an argumentative family. It was fun. I loved it. I still like to argue. In fact, it was sort of sport.
Doel:Iím sure that was also good training for you when you ultimately went to Lamont.
Opdyke:Sort of sport, yes.
Doel:Thatís very interesting. I wonder when you think about that, do any particular arguments come to mind, or is it more that the —
Opdyke:Oh we used to argue about the McCarthy business and, you know, what a Communist was. Well if it quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, itís a duck. I said, ďWell it could be a goose.Ē That sort of thing. You know all the standard arguments.
Doel:Had the McCarthy era affected anyone that you had come to know at Columbia? Or was this still somewhat further away?
Opdyke:No, but there were certainly some people who were Communists. You know, I knew some of the people in contemporary civilization, a guy who taught me contemporary civilization said it right up front that he was a Marxist which is the appropriate thing to do if he had such a political slant. But it was even stranger for history because I could never — you know, determinism is something that I could never believe in at all. Was it dialectical determinism?
Doel:Yes. Dialectical materialism was certainly the Soviet, the Marxian —
Opdyke:Whatever it was, the history has a path which is final and is determined by this, you know, by this social setting and I always thought it was a lot of baloney. And I couldn't believe that these people would take it seriously.
Doel:One of the things of course thatís come clear in more recent years is that there were a number of Soviet scientists who did find something very satisfactory about dialectical materialism. Was that something that — weíre moving ahead to talk about this — but when later you came in contact with Soviet researchers, was that something that ever came up in discussions?
Opdyke:It never came up in discussions. My feeling about most of the people Iíve met later was that they were just trying to survive. They had the same problems in the Russian hierarchy about crust mobility as we had.
Doel:Iím sorry, about which mobility?
Opdyke:Plate tectonics. They had the same kind of problems we had. They were repressed and ideas were trying to be repressed. And the paleomagnetists were the ones that eventually lead the charge again and the same story all over again.
Doel:Thatís an interesting observation; of course, (Vladimir V.) Belousov was terribly influential in terms of tectonics.
Opdyke:Yes, he was, Belousov came to Lamont and interviewed everybody, me included.
Doel:Thatís very interesting, when did that happen?
Opdyke:Well, I guess it was early seventies, seventy-four, seventy-five.
Doel:He still wasnít convinced, of course, at that point.
Opdyke:Oh absolutely not. But, you know, he attacked paleomagnetism, you know he attacked the Dipole hypothesis. He was absolutely right. If youíre going attack it, thatís where you have to attack it.
Doel:How did you regard him as a scientist?
Opdyke:Not very well.
Doel:What did you feel, Iím just curious —
Opdyke:I thought he was doctrinaire and not willing to look at data. He had his own ideas which he then went around trying to; he just wouldnít accept anybody elseís data. Thatís a bad way of proceeding because that means that you can never — everybody has, you know, a test hypothesis, but this guy was just dismissing whole chunks of stuff out of hand.
Doel:Do you find that to be characteristic of Belousov more than the Russian researchers, Soviet researchers that you had come to know in that period? Or did you find that it was something that had more to do with the style of teaching?
Opdyke:Well, I donít know. It certainly, you know, Belousov because he had such a commanding influence in Russian science at the time, earth science at the time, you know, sort of set the agenda. And, you know, because the way that the Soviet society was structured, I mean if you get to the top, by god, everybody has to do what you want to do. Of course, that's very handy if youíre at the top. You happen to be somewhere else, that's not so handy. I went to Leningrad — when was it, Ď75, Ď76 — with geodynamics. And Belousov was running this — he was head of the Russian geodynamics committee — he was running this meeting, and he wouldnít allow the paleomagnetists to meet. We tried to meet by ourselves and you know discuss continental drift, plate tectonics, and things like that, and he went ballistic.
Doel:Is that right? [Laughter]
Opdyke:He forced us to go back and listen to layered earth thoughts on seismic velocity studies
Doel:How did he find out that those of you who wanted to discuss other things had -≠
Opdyke:Well I suppose somebody told him we tried to hold our own meeting.
Doel:What actually happened? I'm just trying to picture this in my mind. Did the meeting actually start? And then he —
Opdyke:Yes. Well, you know, there was a sort of main ballroom, and we tried to — and they were, you know, talking about sort of pedestrian things that I didn't regard as very interesting; nothing about plate tectonics at all. I mean this was when plate tectonics had just been invented and you know that people wanted to talk about. As paleomagnetists we tried to — and there were others like Zonshine, guys like that, who were there, and they didnít want to sit around talking about the layered structure of the continent. They wanted to move them. [Laughter]
Doel:Thatís a good way to put it.
Opdyke:Yes. So Belousov put a stop to it. It was a sad thing. We had our own meeting, we went to dinner with the paleomagnetists; we all went to one dinner. Mike [Michael] McElhinny was there, and I was there and Ken Greer was there. Ted Irving was not there. That was the first time I ever met most of the Russian paleomagnetists because they werenít allowed out of the country. Only a female, a lady from Moscow was doing that. She was doing things like paleo secular variation and pot charts and paleo intensity of the field over the last couple of millennium. And that was pretty safe. It couldn't offend anybody doing that.
Doel:What were your impressions of them, either individuals that youíre thinking about or —
Opdyke:Well Khramov, I think, is a brilliant scientist. I think the guy was brilliant. I have his book there and Iíve since met him in St. Petersburg, and was able to talk to him. Heís subsequently come to the United States and collected the Bucher medal at the AGU [American Geophysical Union]. Heís a genuine — there are a lot of good scientists in Russia and theyíre getting hammered to pieces right now. I have a guy thatís coming next month, or in May, hopefully to work with me for two months, with Mike McElhinny and me on magnetostratographic database. Itís a dangerous situation because well you can't kill anybody with a magnetic field, at least not that I know of. But nuclear scientists are, you know, in the same situation. I mean, you know, it's very dangerous.
Doel:Indeed. Indeed. For those that you were meeting back then, like Khramov, how were they getting their training and their familiarity with paleomagnetics, given the environment and the Soviet Union at that time?
Opdyke:Well, Khramov was one of the very early workers in paleomagnetism. I think one of the people, Runcorn says that one of the Russian scientists at one of the international meetings, IUGG [International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics], in 1950 took pictures of their exhibition there of what they had set out at the IUGG and took it back and that Khramov had picked up on this. And I donít know whether thatís — I never asked Khramov how he got interested in paleomagnetism. If I ever get a chance to meet him again, Iíll ask him. But he started to do magnetic stratigraphy and he was working for the oil institute. He published a book in 1958 or Ď59 on magnetic stratigraphy in the, in fact as far as I know, it was one of the earliest books on the subject. He had been doing magnetic stratigraphy for the oil industry in the Crimea.
Doel:That is interesting.
Opdyke:Irving had the book translated. I saw it first when I went out to Australia in 1960.
Doel:I imagine you wouldnít have seen it prior to that point.
Doel:I want to get back to a lot of the Soviet issues. I think all of these things are quite important as the field begins to develop. But we left off — I donít think we got you out of Pennsylvania so far on the trip going out with — [Laughter]
Opdyke:Thatís your fault. Yes, well we got out to Arizona and the field work went rather well. We collected samples in the Grand Canyon and Arizona and in the Colorado plateau.
Doel:Were much of those new techniques that you were learning at the same time, or had you had exposure to that at Columbia?
Opdyke:Well, I had never had exposure to this kind of field work before. Nobody had, I donít think anybody had. Runcorn was an engineer and a physicist. He really didn't know what he was doing. So I used to get the geologic maps and it was up to me to identify the formations and make the correct designations of where they were, find them, and then weíd sample them. He had the sampling techniques down, which he developed with Ewing and others in Europe. So I, you know, I did the back grounding. I would sit in the library and pick out where to go, and decide where the exposures were, and then go do it. Runcorn loved the Grand Canyon. We worked in the Grand Canyon, went down the Grand Canyon, and on our way down he said, you have to have a hat because it gets very hot down there. He says that the winds in the Grand Canyon blow in strange directions. So you have to be very careful so you donít lose your hat. So we go down. I walked a little bit, Runcorn had a short stride, he was shorter than I was and he had a short stride. So I was comfortable with a longer stride than he was so I used to get ahead of him occasionally. So l used to sit down on the side of the trail and wait for him to catch up and then weíd go on again. On one of these things we were down in a gorge, in a gorge on our way to Phantom Ranch, and Iím sitting there and Runcorn comes around a turn in the trail and he had no hat. So I said, ďWhat happened to your hat, Keith?Ē He said, ďIt blew off.Ē [Laughter]
Doel:And yours had not by that time.
Opdyke:So we get to Phantom Ranch and he borrows a hat from the people there. And we collected the Precambrian and the [?] shales, and spent a couple of days there, it was a beautiful place, absolutely beautiful. I was dumbstruck by the beauty of the Grand Canyon. Iíll never forget, you know, camping out, weíre camping out, sleeping outside and you see the contrails at night of the planes going over. It was just a beautiful place. It was nice; you could eat there and have a beer. So we decided weíre going to come out. He had borrowed a hat from this owner of the Phantom Ranch and he had to give the hat back. So we decided to walk out, and then start out in the afternoon. So we laid around the pool, and I guess we had a beer for lunch and then we started out of the canyon. We decided to go the short way up which is the Kaibab Trail rather than go out the Bright Angel Trail, which is shorter, which was a hell of a mistake, because it has no water on it. So we get out, we get out of the inner gorge which is about a thousand feet up and Runcorn without his hat, is getting a heat stroke. There was this telephone there, and I said, ďKeith,Ē I said, ďI think we better call for help.Ē ďNo. Iím not going to call for help.Ē I said, ďI think we should.Ē ďNo, I can make it.Ē And by this time I had given him my hat, he drank all my water. So we kept on going, and by this time, you know, by the end of the day and into the evening he was walking maybe a hundred yards and then stopping, a hundred yards and stopping. He was not in good shape. I thought, ďOh shit, this is a bad scene.Ē So, by the time eleven oíclock at night came along, you know, by this time Iím getting tired. I fell down and I remember laying there in the donkey dust. The dust was about this deep, face down. Oh boy. No water. [Laughter]
Doel:Right. How far are you now from the rim?
Opdyke:Oh, I donít know. We were in the [?] shale, a couple thousand feet, a thousand feet or so. We wandered off the trail, and I said, ďThatís it Keith. Weíre not going any further.Ē I said, ďWeíre wandering around here in the damn dark.Ē I said, ďWe can fall to our death,Ē you know, you fall over the cliff and itís over. So I said, ďIím staying right here until morning.Ē At least Iím sensible about these things. So we agreed to do this. So there we are sitting there, and no, you know nothing to drink. And Iím thinking, all I can think about is water up at the top of the Grand Canyon. He assures me that thereís water at the top of the Grand Canyon. So during the night it rains, we had a thunderstorm. All this, I hold my hat out, hoping itís going to get enough to drink. But no, but it did rain enough so it made us all wet, and I thought I was going to die of, you know — shaking like this. Oh man!
Doel:It gets real cold there.
Opdyke:It gets colder than hell in the desert. So, finally dawn arrives and we locate ourselves with respect to the trail, get back on the trail, and still Keith [Runcorn] is very weak. We, you know, walk, sit, walk and sit. We finally get out. By this time Iím very grumpy, you know. [Laughter] We get up there and I said, ďWell, whereís the water?Ē Thereís nothing at the top of this trail. So I looked up and there are a couple of donkeys out there. I said right, where thereís donkeys, thereís got to be water. So we walked down and sure enough there was a watering trough. We kicked the donkeys out, the mules out of the watering trough. [Makes sound of drinking water] Oh boy. So anyway we got a drink. Then we had to go back to the Bright Angel Lodge. So we finally got picked up. Of course weíre dirty and disgusting with a two-day beard. My pants had torn. I had put my bathing suit on under my pants to keep my backside covered. So they picked us up in a road truck that was out mending roads and took us back to Bright Angel. On the way back, nobody else would pick us up. You know, weíre out there [laughter], hitchhiking. Nobody would pick us up.
Doel:Youíve got your thumb out but it was not doing any good.
Opdyke:Nada. So we got back to Bright Angel Lodge and had a great big breakfast, with tons of orange juice. It was great. But he recovered all right, but it was close, very close.
Doel:Thatís very interesting. I had not heard that at all before; that story.
Opdyke:So thatís the way the summer went. We stayed at the Museum of Northern Arizona, where there was a marvelous old character by the name of Major Brady. Major Brady was a retired school teacher, and he had a degree from Cambridge. Of course, he and Runcorn got along like a house afire. He was volunteering at the museum in the paleontology group. And he had set up his own private school in Arizona beginning just after — it was a territory down near, southern Arizona, I donít know exactly. I forget the name of it now. But this school had been successful and produced several governors, and at the time, I think the governor of Connecticut was one of his graduates. He was a very influential man in Arizona, and a very interesting talker. He used to — we used to have scotch in the evening and he would tell us about the way it was England at the turn of the century and the Boer War, and how everybody dressed for dinner in things that I never heard about. It was very, very interesting. He was a very interesting character. His girlfriend was a very flamboyant lady who lived in Oak Creek Canyon. She was about ten years younger than he. He had a white beard, and was a genuine person. So was his girlfriend. Both were very interesting. He has a building named after him now at the museum and I went back four years ago and had a look around. There was a building named the Brady Building. We used to stay with Major Brady. It was at this time that Runcorn said, ďWell how would you like to go to Cambridge and do a Ph.D. at Cambridge instead of going to Wyoming?Ē I thought heís not going to be able to get me into Cambridge. Because Cambridge, I donít know whether you know the system, but you have to be admitted to a college, but first you have to be admitted to the university. I figure thereís no way. I mean this was July and by the time this came up it was July 30th. So I said, ďSure, you get me into Cambridge, Iíll go.Ē My god if he didnít pull it off. He sent a letter off to the Vice Chancellor, a letter off to the physicist who was head of Gonville & Caius College, Nobel Laureate. By god if he didnít get me into Cambridge.
Doel:How soon did you —?
Opdyke:At the end of August. I had to write a letter to Wyoming saying — [Laughter] but he was going to pay enough of a grant that he had, he was going to support me as well as get me into Cambridge. How can I turn down an offer like that? An offer you canít refuse. But I was scared to death, you know. I hadnít even had a masterís degree and here I was going to England for a Ph.D.
Doel:Yes. How did you feel about when you think about it now?
Opdyke:I was scared to death. It was like going to Columbia all over again. [Laughter] And you know the English degree is a totally different sort of kettle of fish because they expect you to be fully trained when you walk through the door, and they just throw it at you and you do research, and then when you come out the other end, thatís it. So I thought holy moly.
Doel:You were getting an education, I would imagine, from Keith about what the expectations are and how the system differs.
Opdyke:Well yes, sure. But we had already decided on what I was going to do for my Ph.D. You know the dipole hypothesis sort of a central, one of the central things in paleomagnetism. And the question really was did it hold in the Paleozoic. So he wanted me to do paleoclimatology and to test the dipole hypothesis. And so, gee, that was a very interesting subject. So I thought that was cool, and hardly anything had been done in paleoclimatology at that point. And so we got — if the rotation of the earth changes and the position of the continents on the earth change, how can you tell? We went over and over this. Finally, I said, well, you know, aeolian sandstones and sand dunes, the wind systems on the earth are controlled by the rotation and their pattern. So with every rotation we have these aeolian sandstones. So maybe we can, we can use aeolian sandstones to give us some idea about the relationship of the wind belts on the earth to the change in the pole position.
Doel:Thatís very interesting. So that was one of the contributions you brought to that discussion, the idea of using aeolian sandstones.
Opdyke:Yes. Yes, he wanted to do this. We brought up, you know, we were bouncing these things off of, off each other. I knew, you know, I knew about aeolian sandstones. And rotation of the earth, of course, is controlled. So this idea came about in a hotel room in, a cheap hotel room in Chicago. I think he was what were we doing there? I forget now whether we were seeing [Harold C.] Urey or whether Urey was still in Chicago or not.
Opdyke:Yes. It could have been.
Doel:If it still was around Ď55 Urey would have been —
Opdyke:Yes, thatís what we did, we stopped to see Urey. You know, I canít imagine this kind of stuff. I mean you know we stop and see Urey. [Laughter] Give me a break. I wasnít ready for this, you know.
Doel:And Neil was this the first summer? Was this the summer of Ď55?
Opdyke:It was the first summer of Ď55.
Doel:Itís an interesting time for Urey because he was having his major conflict with Gerard [P.] Kuiper, the astronomer also at Chicago.
Opdyke:I didnít know about that. But anyway, thatís where this idea about the aeolian sandstones came from.
Doel:So you met Urey at that?
Opdyke:I don't recall meeting Urey as a matter of fact. I don't know whether — I may have been left behind and Runcorn went to meet Urey. I don't know now. I just don't recall. I met Urey later on at Scripps [Institution of Oceanography]. And I do remember meeting him then, and that was in the early sixties. That was a good time later. But anyway, we had come back through the northern tier, because on our way, because I was coming back to New Jersey to pack up. I had to prepare all these rocks that we collected and one of the things that — The car that Runcorn had borrowed was from one of his graduate students who was working on the Precambrian in the northern part of Minnesota and Michigan in the Upper Peninsula [MI]. So we stayed in the Upper Peninsula and collected the Jacobsville sandstone and the [?] was up there for Bill [William] Dubois whose father had given him the car. So we did that work, and that was when I had my first serious argument with Runcorn. [Laughter]
Opdyke:Well, we had this kid who came out from the Western Michigan Tech or whatever it was, somewhere in the state of Michigan. He showed us all these rocks and we inspected all these samples. We were coming out and we stopped and it was raining, I think, and cold and we stopped to have a drink in some bar. God Runcorn didnít buy this guy a drinkÖ And I was infuriated. [Laughter] So I told him what I thought about this, you know. I said, ďGeez, you got to buy this guy — you canít not buy this guy a drink. Heís helped you all day, by god, you buy him a drink.Ē And that was, that was our first argument. But Runcorn was notoriously tight and it was one of those episodes, unfortunately. But we got into a serious argument.
Doel:How did that resolve?
Opdyke:Well, I forget now whether, I donít think we had the argument with the guy present. We did buy the guy a drink. I would have bought it myself but I figured it was not my business to buy the guy a drink. Runcorn had the money, I didnít have any money. That was our first argument. We had others after that, some more serious than that.
Doel:I have no doubt.
Opdyke:But it was interesting. You know, I could never figure that out. You know Keith is, in many respects, is a really great and interesting, lovable guy, but god damn, you know, often he would do this kind of stuff which I just didnít understand it. The culture that I came — even English culture, didnít do that. You know, I just could not figure this out. Where it came from in his past, or you know his psychic — no idea. No idea.
Doel:The penny pinching particularly.
Opdyke:Penny pinching business. I donít know, but Iím sure he died a rich man. Anyway, we came back and the idea about the — by the time I hit New York I already had a thesis topic.
Doel:Of course your thesis topic evolved from that early conception because it came to include continental drift as well as —
Opdyke:Yes. Well, the change — the continental drift part came about because I changed my mind, so did Keith on continental drift in about a year from then.
Doel:Iím curious about what your perceptions were as you arrived at Cambridge? Was it now the fall of 1955?
Opdyke:Ď55. Well, it was an interesting place. Madingley Rise is very interesting. There was a secretary there that ran the place and had a smelly dog. [Laughter]
Doel:Oh, the dog was right there in the —
Opdyke:The dog was right there beside the — what was her name? Itís on the tip of my tongue. [Sir] Edward [C.] Bullard came back that winter from Canada to the department there. He had been running the — some government institution, and Ben Brown was running the place. Ben Brown had the distinction of failing Ted Irving on his Ph.D. thesis. Thatís the only thing heís noted for, I think in his entire life, Benny Brown. [Laughter]
Doel:I gather he was someone you didnít have that many — not much interaction with.
Opdyke:Not much. No I had a lot of interaction with him. There was a couple notable — what was the guyís name, he was the seismologist there. He was quite noted.
Doel:That wasnít Lenox Cunningham, was it?
Opdyke:I donít think so, no. Then Morris Hill who was the marine geologist who was there who was doing marine geophysics, and Bullen?
Doel:Keith [E.] Bullen was down in Australia later.
Opdyke:He was in Australia. Anyway, there was a seismologist there.
Doel:We can always add names to the transcript later. Iím blocking on —
Opdyke:He was there. I was at Gonville and Caius which is one of the older colleges of Cambridge. Have you ever been to Cambridge?
Opdyke:So it was a society which I really didnít understand very much. And, you know, you had to wear a gown, and since I didnít have a Cambridge undergraduate degree, they cut off my — the tassels that hang down. [Laughter]
Doel:So it was pretty evident.
Opdyke:The College was nice and there was a bunch of graduate students, very interesting graduate students in the college, some from Canada and some from Australia and some from New Zealand. It was a very interesting place, doing different things, everybody doing different things. I had the opportunity, for instance, one evening, you know, Runcorn actually had me sit at the high table, and of course that the fellows, the graduates used to sit up in the balcony at high tea or at dinner. The undergraduates were down on the first floor. And the fellows used to sit at these tables in the front of the hall. The hall was enormous; three stories high, with shields all down one side of the room. So, you know, occasionally, once or twice I had the opportunity of sitting with Runcorn at the high table and going into, with the fellows afterward, to drink port and eat apples and things like that. It was very impressive. And one evening I had the opportunity to go with Runcorn to Sir Ronald Fischerís apartment, he was a fellow of Caius, with Tommy [Thomas] Gold and Runcorn, and sit there and listen to them discuss science which was a marvelous thing to have a young person do.
Doel:I can imagine. And Gold was certainly a personality. Do you remember anything in particular about that discussion?
Opdyke:Well, they were talking about continental drift or not continental drift, but polar wandering. Tommy Gold had written that paper about the fly on a rotating sphere which would end up at the equator. So at the time Runcorn of course thought that he could explain all the magnetic data by just — was just polar wandering.
Doel:The divergence of the series was quite clear. Let me pause just to — We were mentioning on the other side of the tape your recollections of that meeting with Tommy Gold, and talking about polar wandering.
Opdyke:Yes, and I remember Ronald Fischer, he had a table, sort of an end table there, which had the — must have had about fifty honorary degrees on it. Iíd never seen anything like it in my life. It was just piled up like this, about a foot high with honorary degrees. He was amazing. Of course he did the statistics for paleomagnetics which is dispersion on a sphere, but he was really a geneticist and he made great contributions to breeding mice and genetics. So his, you know, the things that he was best known for were not dispersion on a sphere at all, but other things. It was amazing and very interesting. I didnít say a thing. I just sat there. I figured it was not my place to contribute to that conversation. [Laughter]
Doel:You were certainly more than a fly on the wall in it. Did you meet Harold Jeffries?
Doel:Did you have much interaction with him —
Opdyke:No, not really.
Doel:— or was he somewhat separate from that group?
Opdyke:I tried to take a course with Harold Jeffries, and you know heís famous for his courses that nobody could understand him, that he mumbled and heíd run up — And I heard he mumbles to the blackboard, writes equation on the blackboard, and then erases the equations before anybody can see them, and, you know, heís just a disaster as a professor.
Doel:Yes. Iíve heard that from —
Opdyke:You know a total disaster.
Doel:— quite a few folks.
Opdyke:And, yes, Harold and Runcorn had this continuing disagreement all the time I knew both of them. Jeffries came up to Cambridge or Newcastle later on to give lectures. It was very interesting because we had a professor at Newcastle by the name of Tom Kieffer. And Tom Kiefferís wife was a German woman and had actually known Jeffries when he was a student, and he had went courting this girl, this woman, and climbed up the outside of the building and knocked our window out. [Laughter]
Opdyke:I said, Harold, go away. [Laughter] So you get information from funny sources. But anyway that was, Jeffries lived to be, what 95 or 6 or something like that.
Doel:And also one who did not accept, whose —
Opdyke:Continental or plate tectonics would never change. Runcorn wrote that thing Harold Jeffriesí view of the earth.
Doel:I think Iím recalling that but Iím not sure. When was that?
Doel:When was that — this was in the thick of the controversy wasnít it?
Opdyke:Oh, quite a bit later.
Doel:I have a feeling that that was a memorable publication for you when that came out.
Opdyke:No, Jeffries didnít believe in paleomagnetism at all. He didnít think much of it at all.
Doel:One of the issues I want to get into, Iím curious, in general, who you came to have particular interactions with while you were at Cambridge. Was Bullard for instance one of the people?
Opdyke:Bullard I knew. I met first there. One very important person I came to know when I was at Cambridge was Ian Gough, who was at that time a post-doctoral fellow at Cambridge with his two young children and wife Wendy. And, of course, I later worked with him in Africa. So that was an important person. Dave [David] Stone, who was from Alaska, and Ron Girdler, the three of us arrived at Cambridge at the same time.
Doel:All as graduate or post-doc students?
Opdyke:Yes. No, as graduate students; we were all graduate students.
Doel:All graduate students.
Opdyke:I think maybe Dave arrived — no, we all arrived the same time.
Doel:Ian was the post-doctoral I think.
Opdyke:Ian was — he was the post-doc and Girdler and was, started to work on a project in the Red Sea for Hill, and I donít think he ever left the Red Sea. I think he spent his entire career doing the Red Sea, which is interesting, but not something Iíd choose to do. Dave Stone and I were — he came later that fall I believe; maybe the same time. I guess you have to come in about the same time. Then, of course, I was only there a semester, or you know one semester. So I never, never really got dug in at Cambridge.
Doel:How did the change come about from Cambridge to Newcastle?
Opdyke:Well, Runcorn was offered a professor of experimental physics position, professor of experimental physics at Newcastle.
Doel:Right. That was 1956 wasnít it that he did that or was it even —
Opdyke:Well he was offered the job in Ď55.
Doel:It was Ď55?
Opdyke:In December. So there came a big shake out because Runcorn decided that he was going to move and he was going to move his whole operation up there. And so he — you know, I said, ďWell can I stay at Cambridge for another six months, and then come up?Ē He said, ďNo way. If Iím going to pay, youíre going to be in Newcastle.Ē So I negotiated a position at Newcastle in which I sit in the geology department but have dual supervisors — one Runcorn and one T. S. Westall who was Chairman of the Geology Department. Because I wasnít a physicist, and, you know, I didnít want to masquerade as one going up there. So Allen Nairn who was also at Cambridge at the time, and myself and Dave Stone, all went to Newcastle with Keith. John Belshe and Bill Dubois refused to go. They were the other two students. Both of them were pretty well along in their Ph.D., but Bill was rowing for the Cambridge Eights and he had been captain of the Cambridge/Harvard team, and he wasnít about to leave Cambridge to go to Newcastle. There was a guy by the name of Smith who was also a wing three-quarter at Cambridge, [laughter] who was also a Runcorn student and he didnít leave because he was playing first-class rugby and he didn't want to do that. So, he actually did come later on as a faculty member. So we moved the laboratory, all the equipment up, and running back and forth between Cambridge and Newcastle in January of 1956. It was a very trying time because the roads were foggy and hard to drive. The fog really sets in in England.
Doel:It sets in.
Opdyke:It sets in. You know, it was something else. But anyway, we got —
Doel:That was around the time of the deadly London fire?
Opdyke:Yes, I donít know whether it was that year or the year before.
Doel:It may have been earlier than that, but right —
Opdyke:Yes, the early fifties. You might ask Harry about that.
Doel:I will indeed. [Telephone interruption] I should say on tape weíre resuming after a very good lunch break. Right before the phone call had come, about an hour ago, you were talking about the move when Keith Runcorn moved the entire operation from Cambridge up to Newcastle. You said the move was actually rather traumatic in that the weather was —
Opdyke:Well, the weather was bad and, of course, we were severing relations with the department. The paleomagnetics group was essentially split in half. And of course the people who were left behind didn't have any more equipment to work with. [Laughter]
Doel:How did that resolve itself? Did they switch fields?
Opdyke:No, John Belshe finished his Ph.D. and so did Bill Dubois. The other students were working on other things so it didnít make any difference to them. They had to, it took them a longer time, they put together, and they began to build a new lab. I forget now how long it took them to do it from scratch. There was this controversy; there was a clash between Brown and Runcorn of course. How much of it, my feeling, maybe you know better than I, but from Runcorn the clash seems to have gone earlier than Irvingís thesis catastrophe, but certainly had something to do with it Iím sure. Irvingís problems I think had, you know, undoubtedly became exacerbated between Brown and Runcorn. So itís, there was a lot of friction. Belshe later on was in the field, but he really was not, never became very prominent later, later in the business. The same is true of Bill Dubois who worked for the Canadian Survey and I think went to his old prep school in New England, and I think probably became a crew coach and teacher of science. I havenít heard of or from him for thirty-five, forty years. Of course Allen Nairn went with us and Allen Nairn was a post-doctoral fellow. And we worked together for several years afterward, and he did a lot of good work in the early days. He sort of flagged when he came to the United States. But he did some interesting early work in paleomagnetism. The later people who became prominent werenít there. [Ken] Greer had already graduated with the survey in England and came later to Newcastle. Jim [James] Parry went to Newcastle with us. He was another Runcorn graduate student who finished his degree at Newcastle and submitted it to Cambridge; a very, very bright guy but again somebody who never really lived up to their promise. Raymond Hide who was also one of Runcornís very prominent students went, didnít go with us, but ended up in Newcastle as a lecturer and then later on when I was there went to MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology]. Two years after, I guess about Ď68, he went to MIT. He became very prominent, Fellow of the Royal Society.
Doel:He played a major role in MITís — in the development of their earth sciences area.
Opdyke:Yes. Paul Roberts also was a student of Runcornís in the early days at Newcastle, Iím sorry, at Cambridge. He was a mathematician and came as part of the physics department later with, and then took over the mathematics department, applied math department. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society, is now in North America, and doing very interesting work with on modeling the earth. Heís still very active, very prominent. Runcorn had an amazing number of very prominent students. I guess it was Cambridge. When I did Runcornís obituary, I realized that he never wrote any papers with Hide and Roberts.
Doel:That surprised you?
Opdyke:Yes, of course, it was very surprising. I, you know, itís just amazing. He was focused on the paleomagnetic aspects of the work, I guess, at the time, and I canít explain it. Next time I see Raymond Hide Iíll ask him. But, it was Ė itís very interesting.
Doel:Particularly given how much the two of you collaborated on papers.
Opdyke:Well, Irving too. I just donít understand it. Youíd thought thereíd be at least one or two papers co-authored by Runcorn with Hide and Roberts, both of whom became Fellows of the Royal Society, but none. Then Frank Lowes also made — one of Runcornís students, became instructor at Newcastle. I just saw him this spring. He produced a self-generating dynamo, but never managed to get into the Royal Society. His contributions have tailed off after that. Ken didnít quite make it. [Laughter] Ken Greer, which annoyed him immensely. He won the Fleming Medal though later on. Ken had, well it doesnít make any difference in this context. But anyway, Runcorn surrounded himself with some of his, many of his very prominent students, and so, initially it strengthened the department at Newcastle very much. I was sort of out of it because I was in the — I worked out of the geology department, so I got buffered from the physics part. And that was a very nice arrangement as far as I was concerned.
Doel:Buffered in this case sounds like something that was for the betterment, for your betterment.
Opdyke:Yes, I think so. In the — of course Runcorn, when I went to England, I said before that Runcorn was, you know, a committed polar wander person. And as he expressed to me, he didnít feel that the data demanded that anything else was necessary. Irving very early on, I found out subsequently, when he was doing his thesis, he was thinking about continental drift. And so, since I was hired to paleoclimatology, you know, I was researching that essentially on my own. The only book, one of the only books I could find was written in 1925, I think, on paleoclimatology. And so there wasnít a whole lot known. So I was sort of on my own. But thatís a lot of fun to be on your own. Whatever you do, you know itís done. So, one of the things that happened, you know, in trying to look at paleoclimatology, one of the things that youíre struck with is permocarboniferous glaciation of the southern hemisphere and any sort of constructs that you make, if you canít explain the permocarboniferous glaciation, you know, youíre dead in the water. So I was wrestling with this problem after I came to Newcastle, before and after I came to Newcastle. And I persuaded myself that the southern hemisphere geologists werenít a bunch of dodos, they actually knew what they were doing. They could — you know, they knew what glacial debris would look like. There was no doubt after Iíd read the relevant papers that the South Africa, South America, India and Australia had been back glaciated.
Doel:Was there a — I mean clearly when one thinks about those who are familiar with South American and African and other geologic regions, did it have to do with the old connections that had still existed between England, for instance, and the former colony in South Africa, those kinds of old geopolitical links that made geologists there more sensitive to the papers that had been published in those areas?
Opdyke:Well I think that the southern hemisphere geologists, as far as the permocarboniferous glaciation is concerned, they were faced with trying to explain this problem. They werenít fools, some of them were very, very good and many of them were very good. People like Alex [Alexander] du Toit. I read Alex du Toitís book and I read standard text, Davidís book on Australian geology. Once you do this, I mean itís very clear that these people really knew what they were looking at. The evidence was all there. So the question is how you explain this, and the fact is you canít do it just by polar wandering. It became clear to me because I went through the — you know, I went through trying to put poles to cover all eventualities — is impossible to do this. G. M. Bain, a guy who was in Amherst [College] I think it was, actually tried to do this by just doing polar wandering. We had a certain amount of disagreement with Bain.
Doel:This was in the mid, late 1950s.
Opdyke:In the late fifties. It just isnít possible to do it. So I was left with the facts staring me in the face and I couldnít explain this distribution. And I was actively thinking about continental drift when Irvingís paper in 1956 came along. This was a truly epic paper which, one of those papers that changed the world. His did. And the paper you know about because I sent you —
Doel:You mentioned that in your offering [cross talk].
Opdyke:The paper did two things. First of all, he showed quite clearly that the paleoclimatic indicators like the ones I was looking at would not fit continental or polar wandering. You had because he did exactly what Iíd been doing; you put a pole somewhere in the equator going somewhere else, ninety degrees away. And the distribution of southern continents is such now that theyíre ninety degrees from each other. So you just canít do it. So he made a — he said the paleoclimatic evidence wouldnít fit the distribution of pole positions and the paleoequator. And he had — he looked at the data from North America and Europe and showed that there was an offset between the two. He had actually run seven samples during his thesis time that [Patrick M. S.] Blackett had had collected for him by the survey in India.
Doel:Thatís P. M. S. Blackett.
Opdyke:Yes, P. M. S. Blackett. And these give pole positions that were miles away from anything from Europe and North America which was the data set. So from this he concluded quite correctly that the offset in the polar wandering curve was due to the opening of the Atlantic and that India had a totally different record. So this paper sort of, you know, in a way I was depressed because he did a lot of the things that I wanted to do.
Doel:Youíd known Irving already by that point, didnít you?
Opdyke:No, I had never met him —
Doel:Oh you hadnít?
Opdyke:— at that time.
Opdyke:No. But on the other hand, I still felt, you know, I had some things I wanted to do and I could say. So I went ahead, but the question of whether polar wandering and continental drift would happen together or not. And [S. Keith] Runcorn initially essentially ignored this paper, and then in the spring of 1956, he knew about this paper of Irvingís. And I just came —
Doel:How did he know it? Did you call his attention to it?
Opdyke:No. Irving sent it to Runcorn. Runcorn knew about it. He knew about the stuff in Irvingís thesis as well. But he never told me about it. I never saw Irvingís thesis. So, once I became aware of this paper, then and it was a sewer journal, it wasnít something you pick up every day. Thatís the only place youíd get it published I guess. Thatís probably the reason you could publish it there. So anyway, one day at the refectory there at Newcastle, I was there with T. S. Westall, who had, you know, was a big believer in continental drift. He was a very good paleontologist. He kept ragging Runcorn about the offset in the two polar wandering curves. That afternoon, I think itís the afternoon where Runcorn didnít say very much and changed his mind about continental drift.
Doel:Thatís interesting. How did you know he changed his mind?
Opdyke:Well, because he was writing a paper saying so, within a week.
Doel:Is that right?
Opdyke:Yes. It was pretty easy to figure out. [Laughter] If you look at the public record, youíll see that that year he published two papers. One in which he used the data and said there was only polar wandering going on, and the other that he put out said that the two tracks offset and it was the opening of the Atlantic.
Doel:Indeed. I was just curious had he — whether he had discussed that with you at the time his views were changing, or was it something you had discovered after you started reading the draft of the second —
Opdyke:Well, my views had changed and I knew about Irvingís paper. Runcorn changed his mind after I did, I think. You know, I was anti-drift, you know, I was barely into, but faced with the data that I was looking at, I had to — you know, there was no other choice for me.
Doel:Thereís a few things that youíre raising that I think are quite interesting. How, when you were going through your geology classes at Columbia, had you encountered the writings of du Toit?
Doel:Had you seen any of these raised as problems, the glaciation issues?
Doel:None of that was, it didnít come up at all?
Opdyke:You know, I did, most of the science I read on my own. You know, I just — it was the only way I —
Doel:— read on your own once you were at Cambridge or Ė
Opdyke:Yes. I just started to read on my own. The English have something called reading; well I did a lot of reading.
Doel:They sure do and you did.
Opdyke:I did, yes. So thatís the way I became acquainted with all this stuff.
Doel:One thing I meant to ask you is how you felt about leaving Cambridge?
Opdyke:Well, at the time I felt bad about it because, of course, you know Cambridge was one of the intellectual centers of the world, and Newcastle wasn't exactly that. But, on the other hand, there were a lot of good looking ladies in Newcastle and there weren't very many of them in Cambridge. So, there was some recompense.
Doel:And you were married, and this is probably getting ahead of the story, but it was before you completed your Ph.D.
Doel:Am I right or was it after that?
Opdyke:No. I got married after I completed my Ph.D. But I got engaged in my last year of my Ph.D.
Doel:Okay. Thatís helpful to know. You mentioned another phrase a moment ago that clearly you needed to find your own way through these ideas and the literature. Did you do that primarily through the reading or were there people that you found you went to, to talk through these things?
Opdyke:Well, Allen Nairn is somebody I talked to a lot. He was interested in paleoclimatology as well. He was a geologist. And so I did discuss all these problems with Allen Nairn. And when I was at Cambridge, I also discussed continental drift with John Belshe. I remember discussing continental drift with him until over midnight one time and I got fined fifteen bob for coming back late to the Gonville & Caius. The little guy on gate, you know, I had to come up and knock on the gate, and this guy in long johns and a bowler hat comes to the door and lets me in. So he says good evening, sir. And then you say, what do you say to that with a guy in a bowler hat and long johns? What's your name, sir? So I was admonished by the tutor for staying out too late.
Doel:Intellectual activities notwithstanding.
Opdyke:Notwithstanding. I was expected to climb in over the wall. Iíll be damned if I was going to do that. [Laughter]
Doel:Even with the football scholarship.
Opdyke:So anyway. I believe thatís the big change then, because it changed the focus of our understanding of what I was looking for. It made a big difference in how I pursued my thesis.
Doel:Let me ask generally, if you think ahead to the time that you are at Lamont, did you have more difficulty getting at some of the relevant literature, the published materials, given what the libraries in the United States had compared to what you would have as a student at Cambridge?
Opdyke:The Columbia Library is very, very good. Itís a terrific earth science library. There was nothing that —
Doel:So you really found that those were comparable.
Opdyke:Thatís — they had a terrific library there. Columbia University Earth Science Library, even today, has got to be one of the best in the world. Itís a really good library, and was then. At the time, of course, a lot of it was downtown, and itís been moved subsequently to Lamont. But, no, it's a first-class library.
Doel:How were you supported during the years that you were at Newcastle?
Opdyke:I was supported on a stipend from Runcornís grant.
Doel:That lasted through the entire time?
Opdyke:Well, I was only there three years. Then the last year I was there we got into a violent argument and we, I essentially didnít talk to Runcorn for a year. It stimulated me to get the hell out of Newcastle. So I did my Ph.D. thesis in three years.
Doel:I was going to ask you how that was possible because I was noticing that you had one of the shortest times in getting a degree done in the earth sciences than anyone I have encountered.
Opdyke:Well, the way that it was done, the English degree is a research degree. And they, in fact, expect you to do it in three years. So it wasnít all that astonishing but the, in fact if you have, if youíre not keyed into doing research, it can be a disaster. Dave Stone took seven years and there was another American who was there later than I, after I came, who was there almost ten. So, you know, it depends on how you go about this. I mean I didnít go out in the pubs and play darts and things like that. Dave Stone did this all the time. You know, for the first three years I did my Ph.D., he was researching Jaguar XK One Hundreds and certain ladies. Thatís what he did. I didnít do that. You know, I wanted to get out of there because I had this big dust up with Runcorn.
Doel:Tell me, Iím curious what happened during that? That must have been a difficult episode for you, given he had been a central advisor.
Opdyke:Well, it was a gradual thing. When, you know, Iíd been doing field work in the western part of the United States doing directions of cross venting on aeolian sandstones. I was out there in Ď56 and Ď57. And during this second time out, I got into a big disagreement with Keith on a different, whole different variety of things, some of them personal. It was the way he operated. You know, as an example, Dave Stone was going to be doing his — started doing his thesis; he was going to be anoscopy susceptibility. And he was to build the equipment and he was going to look at metamorphic rocks. The first thing that Dave was going to do was to go to Stalin and collect rocks. Then one day, this is an example, this is not the incident that caused this problem, he called me into his office on a Wednesday afternoon and said, Daveís going to go to the Highlands in Scotland — it was in December sometime — he said, and I want you to go along with him. When is he going? Heís going on Friday. I said, ďKeith, I got a date on Friday to go to a dance with this girl. Sheís bought a dress for this dance and so I canít go.Ē He says, ďYou have to go.Ē I said, ďI canít go.Ē ďYou have to go. You have to go.Ē And this continues. And then he says, well if you donít go, Iím going to pick up your stipend.
Doel:Keith had threatened you with that?
Opdyke:Yes. So I said, ďOkay Iíll go.Ē So I went to David Stone, I said, ďDavid, Runcorn insists I go to Scotland.Ē So I said ďhereís what weíre going to do. You will drive the land rover to Edinburgh. Iíll get on a train on Saturday morning and Iíll meet you in Edinburgh in the afternoon.Ē [Laughter] You know, infuriated all the time about this, you know. The whole thing was just, you know, I would never do that to a student. People in life have commitments they have to — I had this girl, you know, I didnít fall in love with this girl or anything like it, but itís just a question of, you know, you canít have a girl buy a dress and not show up for the damn dance. I mean, you just canít do that sort of thing. Well as far as Runcorn would have said, yes, you can do that kind of thing. I mean hey.
Doel:This you say was in some sense a pattern that Runcornís insensitivity?
Opdyke:Yes. He used to do — he was insensitive, but and he was socially inept in many respects. I didnít say that in his obituary, but, you know, he was socially inept and he used to do these kinds of things and think it was okay. I donít quite understand where the hell he came from with this kind of social behavior. But he could be, you know, mean spirited about this kind of stuff and absolutely dogmatic about it. Irving had the same problems with him. Irving didn't speak to him the last year of his thesis.
Doel:Is that what youíre referring to when you said about the debacle with his dissertation?
Opdyke:Yes. Thatís one of the reasons I think the debacle came about is because of the falling out between Irving and Runcorn. The same thing happened to me. The same thing happened to me.
Doel:You had a subsequent argument?
Opdyke:Yes. And Runcorn, Irving says — well, thereís one thing about Runcorn is he gave you a problem to do and then just let you go ahead and do it. He was a great supervisor. In that respect, you know, Ted is correct. Thatís exactly what he did. I did it. Although I did talk to him a lot about the statistics having to do with aeolian cross venting direction and things like that. But anyway, thatís the kind of thing. I had a girlfriend in the physics department, and he thought I should not have that. You know, he forbade me to go out with her, which is the reason in the end that I said ďWhat do you mean I canít go out with this girl?Ē Well, sheís a technician. You have the ear of the chairman of the department. You canít go out with a technician when you have the ear of the chairman of the department. I said, come on. This sort of class stuff, you know. And my god, he was going to make it stick or Iíd go home. And I said, okay.
Doel:Did you lose your funding that last year?
Opdyke:No. I was funded the whole year. But I knew that if I didnít go, didnít produce the thesis at the end of that three years, I wouldnít have had any funding or at least I donít think so. [Laughter] May have relented in the end, but I donít know. But I had no reason to believe that that was the case at the time.
Doel:But you were kept on even though you didnít have contact with Keith [Runcorn] in that last year?
Opdyke:Well, you know, we had minimal contact is all Iím saying. We didnít socialize any further. I used to — you know, we used to go out and have dinner and things like that, drink beer and that sort of contact went by the boards.
Doel:So it was just occasional professional contract. Did anyone else help to fill the role as mentor, or by that point did you really know enough of what you wanted to do so that you really felt that the —
Opdyke:Oh yes. The professor, my other supervisor, the professor of geology there.
Opdyke:Westall. Was, you know, he, I was able to talk to him and he guided me through a difficult stage. I didnít have a problem talking to people.
Doel:You had mentioned the role that Westall had played as a mentor.
Opdyke:Yes, Westall was, you know, a continental drifter and he was good. He was a very bright man, very knowledgeable and knew a lot of geology. He really knew a lot of geology. He had a complete recall. He had a memory that wouldnít quit. He could read abstracts and recall the whole damn thing. And he was a Fellow of the Royal Society. So he had standing in the community. He liked to talk a lot. That was okay. He was a nice person. I got along with both he and his wife. He just passed away a year ago.
Doel:Did you have much contact with the American geological community?
Opdyke:No. The only American that showed up at Newcastle when I was there was, oh, sea floor spreading?
Opdyke:Dietz because he was with the American Embassy at the time with a Navy uniform on.
Opdyke:And he came by, I donít know, Ď57 or Ď58. I remember his visit.
Doel:What were your impressions of Bob Dietz?
Opdyke:Well I thought he was a great — I think he was a very magical individual. I don't think he ever produced a stick of data.
Doel:Thatís a way to put it.
Opdyke:He used to, you know, he used to go around and pick up data from everybody else. But, you know, so did J. Tuzo Wilson. So, you know, thatís okay. Thatís not a damning statement at all.
Doel:Although Iím sure it irritated those who were investing a lot of time in producing those data.
Opdyke:Oh yes. I remember, I remember Tuzo Wilson coming to Lamont for instance and going to a lecture he gave and then he showed some of my slides and never told who they came from. [Laughter]
Doel:How did you feel at that moment?
Opdyke:Well I felt a little bit irritated. [Laughter]
Doel:Thatís very interesting. This is at Lamont that this was going on.
Opdyke:Yes. I donít know exactly what year it was. It was early on.
Doel:Ď64 or Ď65.
Opdyke:Yes, that kind of number.
Doel:Very interesting. Leading into another line of thought, I think Iíll hold off on that, Iím curious if there were other developments that had occurred during those three years that we havenít spoken about that you felt particularly influenced your work in the earth sciences at that point?
Opdyke:When I first went to England, I — you know, P. M. S. Blackett is the other player in this game. He was a very prominent player in the late fifties. And he interfaced a lot more with Ted Irving than with me. But the group there, for whatever reason, Blackett was a firm believer in continental drift when I went to England in 1955. And when I first — I visited that group in Cambridge, or in London, there was a — I remember arguing — the people there were arguing strongly for continental drift, and I was adamantly opposed to it.
Doel:Blythe being among the group.
Opdyke:Well, Blackett was the group leader. So, you know [John] Clegg, and [M.] Almond, and [P. H. S.] Stubbs, they were actively trying to test continental drift at the time. And we were the polar wandering group; they were the continental drift group. And Irving had been one of those who, I think, originally interfaced with Blackett on the continental drift question. Blackett was very careful about it. He said he didnít want to mislead the geologists. He, you know, was a physicist. He wanted to be sure he was right before poor stupid geologists. Blackett didnít like Americans very much.
Doel:Is that right?
Opdyke:Yes. He was refused a visa to the United States because he was a socialist.
Doel:Of course, because of the — and had consistently refused it since the start of the Cold War.
Opdyke:Yes. And he was not very happy with Americans.
Doel:But, I — for a moment I was startled in wondering whether you felt that Blackett could distinguish between what the government acting during the Cold War felt versus the American scientist? Did you feel that he was colder towards —?
Opdyke:Well, he was pretty frosty. [Laughter]
Opdyke:When I came back from Africa, I met Runcorn in London. And I told Keith, by that time we were talking again and I told Keith about our results from Africa. And he said, well Blackett must know about this. So I gave a private lecture to Blackett and Runcorn on the results, our new results from Africa.
Doel:And you felt that there was —?
Opdyke:There were only two people in the audience, just Blackett and Runcorn.
Doel:Yes, thatís pretty extraordinary.
Opdyke:That was Ď63.
Doel:Blackettís difficulties with the government were legend clearly, by the early 1960s. But itís interesting; you say that you felt that on a personal level.
Opdyke:Well, I never felt that way about, you know, I did. I felt that he tolerated me; I think is what it boiled down to. Bullard, on the other hand, I got along with just fine. I had no problems with Bullard, Edward Bullard. He was always, you know, a big deal and I was just a student in England. But still, he was a person who, as far as I could tell, had no — I detected no background vibes which were bad. Blackett, on the other hand, was pretty frosty.
Doel:Did you understand at the time the political issues that were at the heart of his problems?
Opdyke:No, I didnít. I wasnít cognizant of these problems until much later. Whether I had been apprised of them by — I think I knew them, I knew what the problem was by Ď63. But earlier Iím not sure I did. And, you know, certainly when I was a student I knew nothing about this kind of stuff.
Doel:Indeed, and one thing I should state and state on tape is that there are two other interviews that have done by historians of science with you. One by William Glenn in — To make sure that it got on the tape, a second interview was done by someone heading to Australia, and youíre not quite sure who that individual might be.
Opdyke:I donít know whether it was Homer LeGrand or not.
Doel:And we shouldnít say itís Homer LeGrand until we are in fact sure. But these interviews also cover particularly some of the concerns weíre going to be talking about a bit more generally here.
Opdyke:Mostly theyíre much more focused than in this interview.
Doel:Did you have any long discussions before you composed or finished the final version of your thesis with any member of the community, either in England or elsewhere on the continent? Was it something that once you knew what you were going to write came out rather smoothly or were there points that you kept discussing?
Opdyke:I did it in about six months. I talked to people there at Newcastle, and I donít think I talked to other people. I did — Ted Irving came through — in Ď57 he was fascinated by the wind aeolian sandstone business. Appeared prominently in his book in Ď64. He just got married then. Ď57 I guess it was he came through Newcastle. So, yes, at that time I was able to talk to Ted, but when I was writing a thesis I didnít. I did talk to statisticians about my, about two dimensional statistics that aeolian sandstone motion which appeared in, Runcorn and I wrote that paper in 1960. And I talked to [?] Watson who was at Princeton and now is retired about it, and he, in fact, didnít solve the problem which was disappointing. [Laughter] He said it was more difficult than three dimensions and I could never figure out why that was. [Laughter] To this day I have no idea, but anyway.
Doel:There were — Iím sorry, I didnít mean to interrupt your train of thought.
Opdyke:No, Iím just trying to think. No, I sort of knew what I was going to say on my thesis. I had done all the field work, all the analysis was done on the aeolian sandstone part of it, and the other as well. Iíd done all the research for distribution of climatic indicators and had to prepare the face maps which I did. And I essentially wrote the thesis in six months, beginning of December of Ď67.
Doel:A very concentrated period at that point.
Opdyke:Yes. And I worked every day until late at night. Thatís when I didnít play any darts. I went out and played darts after I submitted my thesis. And David [Stone] was stunned by that. [Laughter]
Doel:Interesting point; two questions that came to mind in, particularly in this period. One is, and I realize this is a difficult thing to reconstruct once you've embraced a different point view. But, back in Ď55 and Ď56 when you were still arguing against continental drift, what were the factors that seemed particularly persuasive to you that drift hadn't occurred?
Opdyke:None as it turns out.
Doel:This is why Iím saying in retrospect it may begin to look quite different.
Opdyke:Well I read this book by Tuzo Wilson. And I was enamored of this idea of continental growth. And for North America it looks great. Itís not until you come look at South America and Africa that it becomes — it falls all apart. It clearly falls apart.
Doel:So the accretionary ideas didnít look so good once you started to study more.
Opdyke:Once you knew a lot more information it just didnít hold water. You know South America grows from one end. South Africa, Africa doesnít grow at all. It looks, you know, it has continental nuclei on both coasts and a little full bell in the south and another one, late one in the north. You know, where in the hell is the accretionary — accretion stops in the precambrian. Come on. It didnít make any sense at all. So, no, I think that my opposition initially to continental drift was simply prejudice, just like everybody else, except I didnít hold my prejudices quite as hard as some other people did.
Doel:And you also were exposed very deeply to —
Opdyke:I was exposed to information that changed —
Doel:— to other —
Opdyke:I was able to change my mind. Ted Irving had already made the transition. He was the guy, really the key to all this. The other things which happened in this time, an interesting one I think that you might be interested in is there was a meeting in London of paleomagnetics community about 19 — I guess it was the end of Ď56, yes, about the end of Ď56, in the autumn I think — which came out as a geophysical supplement of the Royal Society. John Graham came across from the United States and [J. R.] Balsley came across the United States and we came down from Newcastle and I donít know whether, the French were there; I donít know who it was. It may have been [?]. And it was a very interesting meeting because I was a graduate student, and the personal animosities involved in this business — John Graham and Balsley took David Stone and I out to dinner and tried to persuade us to leave Runcorn.
Doel:You mentioned, and I thought it was a fascinating set of developments, in one of your retrospective pieces, and weíll make sure that we get this cited in the interview, that not only had John Graham and all published that 1957 paper that sought to undermine the confidence that had existed in paleomagnetics, but that there was this personal —
Opdyke:There was a certain — definitely a personal thing between Runcorn and John Graham.
Doel:How much of a role do you think that played even in his judgments about paleomagnetics?
Opdyke:I think it played a great role. Because first of all, he didnít believe in reversal of the field and he didnít believe in continental drift or polar wandering. If you donít believe in any of those things, what the hell are you doing, doing studying paleomagnetism? So, I think I said in that paper that — did I say in that paper? I might have. But in which he sent a letter around to everybody.
Doel:You had mentioned the letter in that — and this was a letter I presume reached you as well as some of the other graduate students —
Opdyke:I donít know what year it was now.
Doel:And he personally mailed these to each of you? It wasnít something circulated?
Opdyke:No. In which he said that everything was due to magnetostriction and we should get out of the field.
Doel:How did you feel when you got that letter?
Opdyke:I thought he was wrong. I just threw it away. I wish I had kept it. [Laughter]
Doel:I wish you had too. That would have been a very interesting document. What gave you confidence? I happen to have here a copy of that paper that had come out in JGR [Journal of Geophysical Research], the original one. Interesting, it was co-written by Arthur Buddington who had of course been a —
Opdyke:Buddington and Balsley, yes.
Doel:Had you read the paper at the time it had come out? Were you aware very soon after this?
Opdyke:Oh yes, I had a reprint. I had a reprint of the original paper here in my file. I had, at one time had a complete collection of paleomagnetic papers going back to 1957.
Doel:Iím just curious when you read it, what gave you what seems to be confidence, that you could ignore the arguments that Graham et al were making?
Opdyke:Well I think that the — I think of Grahamís pole test, you know, Grahamís own tests showed that the magnetization of these were ancient. These were tests that were proposed by Graham. Their best application was by Irving. You know, one of the things he did in his thesis was demonstrate for the first time that rocks could retain magnetism for a billion years. Not an inconsiderable feat. And, you know, the other things were contact zones. You know, I had measured contact zones and showed the same polarity as lava flows. I had done this; I did this myself on the Colorado Plateau. So there were lots and lots of evidence, if you were willing to look at it, which demonstrated that, you know, there were, that the magnetization was in fact ancient and the same thing with reversal of the field. And Irving, I think, you know, the people in Runcornís group used Johnís arguments. And Buddington and Balsley for some reason got off on these rocks up in the Adirondacks. You know, these, you know these rocks are deep seeded metamorphics, you know. Had nothing to do with the arguments that we were having really, but they always brought Buddington up short for some reason or another. And, of course, Buddington was a big gun.
Doel:Indeed he was.
Opdyke:An old Princetonian. But he changed his mind later on too, once Harry [H.] Hess had changed his mind because Harry Hessís paper came out in the Buddington volume.
Doel:Thatís right, it did indeed. So you see more than, it was a connection.
Doel:Hess persuaded Buddington.
Opdyke:I donít know but I imagine thatís the case. Mike McElhinny went too, well there were other people there as well. Bob [Robert] Hargraves was a student at Princeton during the late fifties; he was from South Africa and was always favored continental drift. They used to have arguments in the department of geology there and they had to root for each side.
Doel:Is that right?
Opdyke:Yes, thatís what he tells me. They set up a lab in Princeton, and I always had a desire to be the professor that was doing paleomagnetism at Princeton, but they never invited me unfortunately. So they set up a lab at Princeton. When I was there, when I passed through and stopped at Princeton, oh I donít know 1959 I guess it was, I stopped and saw Hargraves and the people at Princeton. I saw Hess and talked to these guys. My mother-in-law only lived about twenty, fifteen miles from Princeton.
Doel:Thatís very interesting. That was your first visit then to geology at Princeton?
Opdyke:I think probably. So they were having a struggle building a lab. So when I went to Africa, Mike McElhinny wanted to take a sabbatical in 1962, and he said, well, he wanted to go to the United States, but didnít quite know where to go. I said, Mike, I got the perfect place for you. I said, Princeton is the place for you because those guys are never going to get a lab put together, and you know if it takes them forever because they just donít have the expertise in the department. I said you go, you make an offer, youíll come and help them set up the lab; theyíll take you in a second and a half which is exactly what happened.
Doel:Interesting. When you think ahead to the time when you set up the laboratory at Columbia, at Lamont, back to what you were seeing then in Ď59 at Princeton, what were the differences, what made it —
Opdyke:Well they were doing, they originally tried to set up a static magnetometers. The magnetometers that, Iíd used a static magnetometer in Ted Irvingís lab in 1960, and then spinner magnetometers Ian Gough had put together out in Africa, or the turbine, air turbine. I liked the fact that you didnít have to be a building way away from everything else to do these measurements. You could do, the spinner magnetometers were much more easier to use, much easier to use. So I was inclined to want a spinner magnetometer. I didnít want to replicate the statics, and Iíve never used them since my post-doc and with Ted Irving. So when I came back to Columbia, I tried to copy. I gave the drawings from Ian Gough to an engineer to replicate them, and he did a very poor job. He — you know, he thought that Ian was, had this rabbitís foot and he threw out that rabbitís foot and this rabbitís foot and by the time he was through, he didnít have the rabbit. Joe [Joseph] Phillips down at Princeton had — the astronomers, the astronomy group at Princeton in Ď62 were doing phase-lock amplifiers, they had phase-lock amplifiers which were looking at, were used in radio astronomy. They were producing them, I think, [?] Dickie was the guy who did it. He produced these in a company which he had something to do with. He actually produced these commercially, these phase-lock amplifiers. Joe Phillips who was a student down at Princeton, thatís a guy interfaced with McElhinny, took a spinner, just a shift and a pick-up coil and spun it, somewhere away from mainís frequency, a hundred and fifty cycles a second or something like that — I donít know what it was. And he used the phase-lock amplifier that the astronomers had put together, and you had a magnetometer.
Doel:As you emphasize in one of your publications, itís available commercially.
Opdyke:It was a commercially available unit. So when we had trouble with our engineer at Lamont putting together that machine of Ian Goughís, I found out from Joe Phillips what he had done, and I went down there and bought them, bought a phase-lock amplifier, and we replicated that machine in a week and a half. And then what we did at Lamont, we then took station flux gate magnetometer, Dr. Foster magnetometer, which was used to measure small variations of the earthís magnetic field. And we used that flux gate, and my first graduate student added the flux gate to the phase-lock amplifier and spun it five cycles a second, way away from the main supply and put a filter on it, and then we had to be building a totally new machine. So it was John Fosterís idea, but the thing was actually commercially available. My first magnetometer was a spinner which —
Doel:It sounds as if itís a combination then of changes in the instrumentation that occurred between the late fifties and the time that you arrived at Lamont, as well as the institution [cross talk].
Opdyke:Yes, there were, Ted Irving knew about, he didnít ever use spinners before he came to North America. Ian Gough, who I was working with in Africa always, had always used spinners and DTM had always used spinner magnetometers. Ian had made a better one. And our contribution, really my studentís contribution, was adding the flux gates. These are actually still being produced commercially.
Doel:Is that right? Thatís interesting.
Opdyke:Yes. But thermal demagnetization and AFT demagnetization are the other two key ingredients. That technology was originally, the AFT demagnetization was a French invention. Thermal demagnetization was also implicit in what [?] Thellier was doing and that began in the late sixties, or fifties. And when I went out to Australia, Ted Irving had an AFT demagnetizer working and he was, they were building a thermal demagnetizer and I helped them build it. When I went to Africa, I carried the plans to both of them with me, set them up in Africa. So those are the big break through that in this business which occurred early in the sixties.
Doel:One of the things I do want to try to cover in this interview, are some of the post-doc positions that you had prior to the time that you went out to Lamont. What inspired you to take up the possibility at Rice?
Opdyke:I went to Rice because I had to have a place to go to after I came back to the United States. I got married that summer and I had to have a place, and the guy who was the manager of the football team was doing a Ph.D. at Rice and said, ďWhy donít you come to Rice. Theyíd be delighted to give you a post-doc. They have a new, young department here. There was actually a paleomagnetic being done at Humble [Oil Company] in Houston. And Joe Martinez and Howell and they fit right in.Ē So I did. I applied for a post-doc and they gave it to me. Five thousand dollars for my first year. My wife was teaching medical surgical nursing at the hospital.
Doel:Thatís interesting. You met your wife over in England?
Opdyke:No, I knew my wife since she was ten years old.
Doel:Is that right?
Opdyke:I decided to marry her.
Doel:Someone who had grown up in Frenchtown?
Opdyke:Well, actually my wifeís aunt married my uncle. She used to visit my aunt and uncle and so I knew her when she was a kid, when she was ten or eleven years old.
Doel:And for the record, her name is Margie?
Opdyke:Margie. I knew her grandparents; I knew her mother and father. I was pinned to somebody else in college and then, we used to go out together when we were in high school occasionally. And I decided when I was in graduate school that she was going to be my wife. I actually proposed to her and she turned me down, and then thought better of it. [Laughter]
Doel:That sometimes happens.
Opdyke:But anyway, yes, in fact, it was a very strange thing. Because I talked to this guy, one of Blackettís physicists on the way across to England on a ship one time and I told him about this girl. And I told him about I was pinned to a girl that I really didn't know; whether I should marry this girl or not. He said, well, marry your childhood sweetheart. That's the best he could do.
Doel:Like his advice.
Opdyke:It turned out that way. You know, who knows? Weíve been married for forty years almost now.
Doel:Cary Cruneis was at Rice.
Opdyke:Yes, Cary Cruneis. Yes. He was a jolly guy, and good leader for that department. He did good things for it. He made some, a couple mistakes, in hiring. One was not hiring me and the other was hiring a couple of geochemists that turned out to be duds, but —
Doel:Thatís what you had in mind one reference at lunch time you made to geochemists.
Opdyke:No, no. I just happen to know [Gerald] Wasserberg and those guys can be really nasty having gone to scientific meetings with Wasserberg and Wally [Wallace S.] Broecker. Jean Claude Allegre who happens to be a very good friend of paleomagnetists, but god they can be abrasive individuals.
Doel:I wonder if youíd include Harmon Craig in there.
Opdyke:Well I donít know. Yes, I ran across Harmon one time at a visit to Scripps with Runcorn, but so again, Iíll include him in the same group.
Doel:Weíre certainly going to turn to them in the Lamont context in a few moments. Iím wondering if Chuck [Charles] Officer was also still there at Rice?
Opdyke:Yes he was. We used to call him blow top.
Doel:Blow top? How did that come about?
Opdyke:Well he was always, you know, blowing his — you know, getting mad at somebody. He used to throw chalk at students in class and things like that.
Doel:Is that right?
Opdyke:Yes. He was bad news. But he was a brilliant guy. And he still is a brilliant guy. Officer was running his own company out of his office when I was there.
Doel:Out of his office in Rice?
Opdyke:He was only, he was a titular professor, but really what he was doing was building a business. He lived in a big house. He had eleven kids or something, an enormous family. He and Broecker both. But he was a brilliant guy, and I remember going to his house to dinner parties because he was, you know, from Lamont and I was from Columbia College. Of course I didnít know very much about where Iíd come from. But I met another excellent [?] that did magnetics and we got into an argument, I remember in his kitchen, usual sort of place where you get in arguments. I don1t know, what was his name? The guy made a fortune in the oil industry finding where the basement was.
Doel:Someone down in Houston?
Opdyke:Yes. He was the same vintage, early fifties, Lamont person, who went to magnetics.
Opdyke:Nelson Steenland. And I think itís Nelson Steenland that turned down [L. W.] Morleyís paper about [?].
Doel:Thatís very interesting. That should be a question —
Opdyke:He didnít believe in reversal of the earthís magnetic field.
Doel:How well did you come to know either Chuck Officer or Nelson Steenland?
Opdyke:Well, I got to know Chuck Officer pretty well. In fact, in recent years weíve gone to meetings together. Although Chuck because he took the stand against the [?], he came up and ran Alpine Geophysics and made a fortune and retired by the age of thirty-five. Well, maybe he was older than thirty-five, but not a whole hell of a lot older than thirty-five.
Doel:Itís certainly about right.
Opdyke:He sold his stock in Alpine Geophysics when it was at fifteen and in six months it was at five. [Laughter]
Doel:Timing is important.
Opdyke:Right, particularly when youíre getting out. He essentially went to Dartmouth [University] to retire, and then did other things later. One of which was the argument, the great argument among the [?]. Heís masterful. Heís one of the most brilliant scientists Iíve ever met. And God he could get up and almost make you believe that a meteor never even came close to the earth sixty-five million years ago. He was great. One of the great, great debates that Iíve ever heard was between him and Walter Alvarez at a meeting, AGU [American Geophysical Union] meeting. And he just did a superb job. He had an answer for every damn thing that the Alvarezes could put at him. It was just amazing. The guy was brilliant, but he was wrong, but brilliant; [laughter] absolutely brilliant. I told him, I said, Chuck that was one of the best lectures Iíve ever heard in my life. And it really was. It was fantastic, just fantastic. Chuck had enough money so that if he wanted information, he didn't go to the library, he picks up the telephone, calls up Dyken, and well, what do you think about the, you know, the reversal of stratigraphy in this particular core. Well, Chuck, you know, he does it with everybody; a formidable opponent. And Walter for some reason, when they wrote that series of articles for Science Magazine, they tried to belittle Officer, and that was the wrong thing to do.
Opdyke:It was just the wrong — I could tell. You know, I looked at the papers and I said, ďOh boy, itís a mistake, Walter. Walter, you should never have done this.Ē And he had the fangs out for the next decade. And Iíll tell you, he was the bane of their lives. Even if youíre right, you hurt somebody like that and youíre dead.
Doel:That has certainly become one of the contemporary contributions.
Opdyke:I said get him into Gainesville. Want to send him to Orlando for fifty bucks, give me a break.
Doel:Weíre back on tape right now. And as you mention, this is someone who is coming in from Russia and on more contemporary issues of maintaining international science.
Opdyke:Yes, where were we here?
Doel:We talked about Chuck Officer.
Doel:And Nelson Steenland and others.
Opdyke:Nelson Steenland, yes.
Doel:How well did you know Steenland, not as well I gather?
Doel:You didnít know Steenland as well.
Opdyke:I didnít know; I only met him that one time. In the early days at Lamont, he actively opposed ideas of reversal of the earthís magnetic field. He never believed it. At least he didnít believe it then. He was very influential in the magnetic community in North America. But I donít know what happened later on in his career. You know, he had his own company and did very well. But, in the early sixties, he was a very, very — reviewed a lot of papers.
Doel:He had quite a bit of influence.
Opdyke:Had a lot of influence.
Doel:Of course, itís later in 1959 that you get the Fulbright travel grant that takes you to Australia.
Doel:That was your first choice, I gather, to go —
Opdyke:Well, you know, I —
Doel:— had you wanted particularly to go to —
Opdyke:I was thinking about what I was going to do with my career. You know, and when I was with Runcorn, I actually hadnít done any paleomagnetism per se. I knew all the data. But I never had the time. And I decided that, well the oil industry had crashed for the umpteenth time depending on where you sit. So oil industry wasnít a very attractive place to be. And I decided that was pretty unreliable sort of bunch, place to have your employment anyway if theyíre going to crash every five years or something, which has happened again. So I decided well Iíd become an academic instead of go with the oil industry.
Doel:And this decisionís coming rather late then. This is post your dissertation that —
Opdyke:Yes. Yes. So I decided that I wanted to do paleomagnetism. Iíd like to learn the nuts and bolts of how to do it, and so I decided that the best person to learn from would be Ted Irving. Ted knew about aeolian and he persuaded his boss that Iíd be a great person to have there for a year. And so I got a senior — I was only about twenty-five — Fulbright grant to go to Australia. And I went out there for a year. I had a great time. Ted and I, we did the first thermal demagnetization of Red Bank. Although Ken Greer beat us to publication because Ken Greer held our paper while he published his.
Doel:Thatís an interesting comment.
Opdyke:I learned that at a cocktail party. I didnít know whether to hit him. I stood there with my mouth open. He told me.
Doel:He told you directly?
Opdyke:He told me directly. I could not believe it. I could not believe it. We did a lot of the early work on the sewer in North America. The Triassic in New Jersey, I took with me and I clicked these formations and took them in the more chunk formation which Iím now writing yet another paper on Pennsylvania, New Jersey and some stuff from Texas. My car broke down when I was going out to collect the [?] in Texas and I never did collect it.
Doel:This was prior to going to Australia?
Opdyke:Going to Australia, yes. So I arrived there with all these samples.
Doel:Except for what would have come from Texas.
Opdyke:Right. The year there was great. I helped build a thermal demagnetizer. Our first son was born there. It was all around a really great time. Scientifically it was very good. I put together that first paper on the New Jersey Triassic. And Ted and I also did a paper mutually on Bloomberg formation. So it was a great productive year. And at the end of the year I had the problem of deciding, you know, where I was going to go. I, there was hardly any place in North America in the time, you know, the environment in North America was anti-paleomagnetics and anti-polar continental drift. So it was a little bit difficult.
Doel:Were you aware that efforts were already being made to try to bring you to Columbia, in 1960?
Opdyke:Well, no. What I — after I had accepted the position in Africa, I got a notice from Lamont saying that they had this position for me at Lamont. But I had already said I had —
Doel:Yes. You already had the commitment by that point.
Opdyke:I had the commitment to go to Africa at that point.
Doel:I was curious what kind of interaction you had had with Lamont people, with Jim [James R.] Heirtzler, others. Were they more aware of your work, the other channels than through you directly?
Opdyke:Well, I donít know. When I finally got to Lamont, it was because of Ted Irving talking to Jack Oliver on a bus at the IUGG [International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics] meeting in San Francisco. Jack Oliver was asking about, you know, weíd like to get somebody at Lamont to do paleomagnetism, and Ted said, well, you should, Opdykeís the guy you need. And Doc Ewing had — Iíve got to give him his due, you know, he wanted somebody to do paleomagnetism on marine cores and said he wanted to correlate on doing that. Why he should think that was possible, I have no bloody idea. And Manik Talwani was going to be his person to do this. And Manik went down to the DTM in Washington to work with— to do measurements with John Graham. And he came back very discouraged and said he wanted to do gravity. So he essentially refused to do paleomagnetism. So I learned this later. I didnít know at the time. And at the time, in 1960, there was only, I donít know, there was a group at Washington University who were doing paleomagnetism and a group at Pittsburgh, and neither one Ė the one in Pittsburgh, the group in Pittsburgh — was to last but the group in Washington University sort of crashed later and —
Doel:How long did it take before they went down?
Opdyke:I don't know. The guy who was running the place went into, went into the industry, in Ď60 or sometime. Leroy Sharon was the guyís name. And that was it. I donít think there was anybody else. John Graham by that time was working at Woods Hole. I guess there was a group at the — Princeton people were still working. And Chuck [Charles] Helsley at Princeton was still working then. No, I guess he started Duncar in the early sixties. What are we talking about here? It could have been —
Doel:Youíre talking generally Ď60 to Ď63.
Opdyke:Yes, So, yes. He was. Helsley had come to work in Princeton. Princeton had a steady output of one student every couple years at that time.
Doel:One thing Iíve been curious about, how influential did that Ď57 JGR paper by Graham and Buddington, Mosley remain? How much of an impact did it have, say after two, three years?
Opdyke:I think that the people in North America used it as a crutch in order to support their ideas against continental drift.
Doel:Did you feel that the Lamont group was particularly well aware of that?
Opdyke:I donít know whether they were aware of this. They, I donít know, they probably werenít. I would guess that they werenít aware of the paper. They were — [Walter] Bucher and [Marshall] Kay were the two big geologists, the geologists downtown were the ones they talked to and Bucher and Kay were against continental drift. That's all they needed to know.
Doel:I was curious in particular because when I pulled the volume from the shelf to make the Xerox that I put in front of you, the volume opened up directly to this paper.
Opdyke:Buddingtonís paper. [Laughter] Well who had taken it out in 1958?
Doel:Well it would have been anyone of course who had gone back to [cross talk].
Opdyke:Was it taken out of the library in 1958? Can you look that up? It would be interesting to know.
Doel:That would be interesting. There may be a way to tell.
Opdyke:I donít know.
Doel:Of course, there are a lot of, but as you say, there are a lot of other groups that are forming or in the process of coming together even in the United States.
Doel:Using the techniques for reasons that Graham et al had considered to be invalid.
Doel:When you were in Rhodesia during those years, where did you see your career going? Did you imagine that youíd be able to get back to the United States relatively soon, or were you beginning to think —
Opdyke:By the end, until I heard from Lamont I thought maybe Iíd be selling shoes.
Doel:Is that right? [Laughter] Were you truly worried for a time?
Opdyke:Hey, you got to be worried.
Opdyke:You bet I was worried. Iíd written to MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology]. They had a job offer, and I donít know. By some mistake, the letter went by sea or something. Going from sea from Africa is a real disaster. And, you know, I wrote to other people. I didnít think to write to Lamont. And then Heirtzler wrote to me in December of that year I was coming home. I accepted right on the spot. I had no choice.
Doel:Iím curious if you had thought to write to any of the other oceanographic or other research institutions that might have been interested? Scripps for instance or —? Had you had any contact with —
Opdyke:Well Scripps, they had — Belshe was in and out of Scripps in those days, along with Chris Harrison, who actually did the first of the measurements on the marine cores in North America. And Chris, I knew about Chrisís work before he went back to North America. [telephone interruption]
Doel:Very easy going from the late 1990s back to the early 1960s. You were mentioning that you were aware and had some contact with Scripps. Or at least you knew of some of the areas of interest that overlapped.
Opdyke:Yes. My colleague Ian Gough had gone to the United States in 1962 to, and actually went to Scripps and lectured there. And he interfaced with Chris Harrison and so I knew what Chris had been doing. In fact I heard John Belshe lecture when I was at, you know, Australia in 1960. He was talking about the results that Chris had gotten on marine cores. So I knew what they were doing. And I knew that Chris was having a hard time with the measurement of the cores. One of the problems they had a restricted core library, and they didn't have their own cores. So Chris was hampered by that fact, and —
Doel:Meaning, a very limited time scale. Clearly from what you have written, the large questions of the magnetic anomalies in the Pacific were things that you were talking about in South Africa.
Doel:I meant to ask you, had you had any contact with people like Lester King during the time that you were in Africa?
Opdyke:Yes we did. We had contact. Lester King, I think, lectured — his daughter was at the university there and I think he actually came up and lectured there when I was in Africa.
Doel:Had you been to his own institution?
Doel:I wonder what you recall from interacting with him.
Opdyke:Well he was a very — if I can recall him correctly, he was a very dynamic individual. He was very outgoing, again, aggressive and a very certain person. I remember he talked about giving his students — one of the things, when I heard him lecture afterward; he gave this example of giving his students a suite of rocks from the group in the Antarctic and having them arrange them in stratigraphic order, and they were able to do it.
Doel:That's quite a test.
Opdyke:So he was a pretty flamboyant person, I believe. He also lectured — did a lot of lecturing in places like, had a big effect in places like Princeton, I believe. He lectured there with some Australians who were also sort of in that category. [Warren] Carey for instance, who was big influence in the early days. Also very flamboyant men who, in the end, were quite wrong. But very interesting characters.
Doel:Was he someone that you ran into in Australia?
Opdyke:I didnít actually, but he and Ted Irving had a lot to do with one another. I actually met him when I returned on sabbatical in Ď77.
Doel:Of course at a much, much different time.
Opdyke:Yes, different time.
Doel:The late 1970s. You mentioned that you had gotten the letter, and indeed, by the end of October in 1963, you had accepted the offer that had come from Heirtzler. In one item that Iíve seen, you mentioned that on your return through Europe and England you had planned to stop at a few laboratories to get a better idea of what sort of things might be done.
Opdyke:Yes. I did stop in London, and —
Doel:I was wondering what, when you think back to that, if it comes clear what ideas you had, what places you were planning to visit?
Opdyke:Well, Ted Irving — Yes, well I stopped in London with my family. We had a not very good experience going out to Africa because we went by turbo prop across the Atlantic, and it took us twenty-five hours or twenty-six hours to go out with a small child, a baby, out to Africa. It was very exhausting. Coming back, I stopped in Greece and went to see the Parthenon, and went to Rome and saw the Coliseum, and the Sistine Chapel, and we stopped in London. And I think I went to the — I donít recall whether — I donít think in 1960 I went to Newcastle. On my other trip back from Australia I did. And went to Newcastle and they had a big party for me. And my wife was scared to death because I played rugby in Newcastle and I went to the Rugby Club, and they got her up on a table. My wife is just not used to that. She was scared to death. [Laughter]
Doel:Must have been an experience. [Laughter]
Opdyke:And they sang to her. You know, you've never been in a Rugby Club so you don't understand what I'm talking about. [telephone interruption]
Doel:Perhaps for the benefit of others who also don't quite know what kinds of activities go on at those celebrations, what did Margie do?
Opdyke:They drink a lot of beer. They put my wife on a table and then they all sit around and they sing. They sing this song: [sings] ďWhy were you born so beautiful? Why were you born at all? Youíre no bloody use to anyone; youíre no bloody use at all.Ē Then everybody cheers, you know. But, my wife was so embarrassed. Thatís the last rugby party sheís ever going to. [Laughter] And rugby players also sing raunchy songs and things like that. The English are good at that.
Doel:So that celebration continued then it sounds like for —
Opdyke:Well, it went on for a couple hours.
Doel:In one letter I saw, you were planning, hopefully, to stop in Holland in the way back as well. Did that happen?
Opdyke:No. I didnít stop in Holland. I went to Holland later, but not that time. Dutch groupís the one Iíve forgotten about.
Doel:Was this with [Hans] Wensinkís group or was it —
Opdyke:Wensink. Well, Wensink was later. Wensink came as a post-doc when I went to Lamont. He was already arranged to come as a post-doctoral fellow. He actually helped me set up the lab. But [M. G.] Rutten's group in Holland was a very active one in the early days, in the late fifties.
Doel:Had you actually been there?
Opdyke:I had. Yes, I had. When Runcorn — Runcorn and I actually visited [Felix A.] Vening-Meinesz who was the professor. Vening-Meinesz had received an honorary degree from Columbia University when I got my undergraduate degree.
Doel:Well thatís interesting.
Opdyke:So I knew who this man was. I was suitably impressed when Runcorn called him up and said he wanted to go see him.
Doel:This sounds like a pattern with Runcorn that you were introduced through him to —
Opdyke:Yes. It was marvelous, you know. And sure enough, he calls up Vening-Meinesz and we were over in Holland looking at aerial photographs from a Royal Dutch Shell thatís overflying, looking at sand dunes in Saudi Arabia. We went up to see Vening-Meinesz. Of course itís not very far from anywhere in Holland. And I think it, where was it Delft he was?
Opdyke:Yes. Anyway, he invited us up and by god we had dinner with him. He asked about my parentage, you know, and he said that my family probably came from Priestland and was spelled with a J instead of — all that stuff I knew. And it was very, very interesting. He was very polite, a very kind gentleman. We just, you know, discussed science. It was very impressive.
Doel:Iím sure it was.
Opdyke:Very impressive. Later on we went to — I guess it was Amsterdam. It was a special meeting of the, of the power structure in Dutch geology, which Runcorn gave a little talk to. There were ten people there. Rutten and Ben [?], and I donít know whether Vening-Meinesz was there or not. But there were ten people. These were all the, you know, they were the professors at major universities. And by god, you know, those guys had so much power, I mean, I couldnít believe it. They ruled Dutch geology. So they came to hear Runcorn and discuss it.
Doel:It was ratification wasnít it?
Opdyke:Boy, Iíll tell you. Iíve got to say that that sort of thing didnít ever happen in the United States. I never — it just doesnít. Nobody has that kind of power in the United States.
Doel:Itís very true, isnít it? Itís not merely that Runcorn was not regarded in quite that way, but that even Ewing would not get that kind of audience.
Opdyke:No. Thatís right. Nobody —
Doel:Thatís a very important point.
Opdyke:— nobody has that kind of power in the United States, although some people have a lot of power.
Doel:When you think back to the early years when you did come to Columbia and Lamont, generally how were Runcornís views regarded? Not just on the magnetics, paleomagnetics but — How did Runcorn stand as far as many of the leaders that he came in contact with?
Opdyke:Well, I think that, at the time, he wasnít very highly regarded, although thatís probably not quite true. I had — he had interface with Marshall Kay. I was there when we stopped and saw Marshall Kay at the field camp at Red Lodge, Montana. We had a long discussion about paleomag, continental drift. And like I say, when I was a post-doc in Houston, weíd gone out to the laboratory where Bucher was working. He had two post-docs and he had this enormous lab, you know, it was almost the size of our department here. He was making mountains. And I remember, we went in and I was — he showed us this enormous, had clay, you know clays were just different geologies on this big table. What they did was lift up one side of the table and slide the clay back and make mountains. I looked at this and I thought. So I said, I asked the guy, I asked Bucher. I said, ďWell Professor Bucher,Ē I said, ďtell me, in a system like this, how do you get the Precambrian basement thrust up over top of this?Ē [laughter]
Doel:What did he say?
Opdyke:ďItís a difficult problem.Ē I said, ďYou betcha.Ē My last impression is thatís a very difficult problem.
Doel:So this was a large model that Bucher had built that occupied more than a few offices?
Opdyke:Yes. A big, big lab. Bigger than a teaching lab. He had two post-docs working with him. All funded by Humble Oil. If theyíd happened to fund us with about one-third the amount of money, weíd have been off like a shot. They would have made some real progress.
Doel:Interesting point. Well, we have covered a lot. Weíre getting close to being on tape now for four hours and this might be a good time to bring the first part of this interview to a close. But let me thank you very much for this long session. And again, let me put on tape that youíll be getting a copy of the transcript along with forms from Columbia University once itís processed.
Thank you very much. We will resume with Lamont and Columbia the next time.Session I | Session II