Oral History Transcript — Dr. Gordon MacDonald
This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the American Institute of Physics.
This transcript is based on a tape-recorded interview deposited at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. The AIP's interviews have generally been transcribed from tape, edited by the interviewer for clarity, and then further edited by the interviewee. If this interview is important to you, you should consult earlier versions of the transcript or listen to the original tape. For many interviews, the AIP retains substantial files with further information about the interviewee and the interview itself. Please contact us for information about accessing these materials.
Please bear in mind that: 1) This material is a transcript of the spoken word rather than a literary product; 2) An interview must be read with the awareness that different people's memories about an event will often differ, and that memories can change with time for many reasons including subsequent experiences, interactions with others, and one's feelings about an event. Disclaimer: This transcript was scanned from a typescript, introducing occasional spelling errors. The original typescript is available.
See the catalog record for this interview and search for other interviews in our collection
Gordon MacDonald; November 15, 1993
ABSTRACT: Early life; study of chemistry and geology at Harvard University (1946-1950, AB); influence of Wendell Furry, John Rosenfeld, Jim Thompson, Francis Birch, Percy Bridgman, Cliff Frondell, Marlon Billings, R. A. Daly and Kirtley Mather. Harlow Shapley adn McCarthyism at Harvard University. Elected to Harvard Society of Fellows, sponsored by George Kennedy (1951-1952, AM; 1953-1954, Ph.D.). High pressure studies of jadeite. Arguments about continental drift theories of Jeffreys and Harold Urey's views of geochemical history. Assistant then Associate Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1954-1958); use of computers and time-series analysis and the influence of Steve Simpson. Discussions of geophysical research among King Hubbert, Tom Noland, Phil Abelson, Merle Tuve, and Bill Rubey. Research at Caltech with Fowler, Wasserberg, Greenstein, influence of Fred Hoyle. Editor of the Journal of Atmospheric Sciences. Relationship of cosmology to geophysics. Development of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. John Tukey's report on the greenhouse effect. Reaction to M's paper "How to Wreck the Environment". Early history of the Environmental Sciences Services Administration.
Doel:Okay. Let me begin. This is Ron Doel, and this is an interview with Gordon MacDonald. Today's date is November 15th, 1993, and we're recording this at the University of California at San Diego in La Jolla, California. I know that you were born on July 30th, 1929, but I don't know much about your family and about your parents. Who were your parents and what did they do?
MacDonald:My father at the time I was born was working with the Royal Canadian bank in Mexico City. He had come out from Scotland after World War I, and after short stays in Canada and Cuba eventually ended up in Mexico City. My mother was working with the U.S. Consulate Office in Mexico City. She had arrived there after graduation from the University of Texas, and then working in Washington with a Senator from Texas. She went down to Mexico, and there is where they met.
Doel:Did either of your parents have a strong interest in science?
MacDonald:None whatsoever. My mother's background was in English. My father, who did not take a college degree, was basically in accounting and in finance.
Doel:When you were growing up, do you remember hearing about science or reading about it? Was it an early memory?
MacDonald:No. I really did not get interested in science until I came down with polio in 1939.
Doel:So you were about 10 years old?
MacDonald:Yes. Actually, I guess it was 1938, and I was 9 years old. Naturally I wanted to learn about the illness, and that led to inquiries about other aspects of science.
Doel:You grew up then in n Mexico?
MacDonald:Yes. You know, the early childhood was in Mexico. After I contracted the illness in 1938, I spent a year in Texas at a clinic recovering, then went back to Mexico. Eventually I did my high school work at San Marcos Baptist Academy before going on to college.
Doel:I was interested a moment ago when you mentioned that when you contracted polio, you wanted to find out more about it. Was this through reading, or through discussions with others?
MacDonald:Both discussions and trying to get any articles that I could. I was helped a great deal by the fact that I was in a clinic in Dallas, Texas and I had an uncle there who was at one time chairman of the board of regents at the University of Texas. He was very well read, and was able to provide me with a lot of the literature. Actually much more so than the physicians. But it was enough to get me started and asking questions.
Doel:What was his name?
Doel:He was someone that you could discuss the illness with, and the broader questions that you had at the time?
MacDonald:In a sense this is slightly emotional, but during my stay at the clinic, he came in every morning with a copy of the Dallas Morning News, the newspaper, and we discussed the stories of the previous day in the newspaper. And he obviously got me very, very much interested in what the world was doing. This was a time of great turbulence in the late 30s. And on most days we also played a game of dominoes. But he did this every single day.
Doel:I imagine he was a very powerful mentor for you?
Doel:And you were there for a year and a half or a year?
MacDonald:About a year, about a year.
Doel:When you went back and you were in the San Marcos Academy, were there other students who you felt close with?
MacDonald:No. You know, I initially went from Dallas to San Luis Potos where we lived, and I guess I stayed there for maybe two or three years before I went on to high school. There was a gap in my education. I had taken my first years in a Mexican school, a church school, and then I had no formal education. I did a great deal of reading at home. My mother tutored me in how to write and so forth and so on, but then I made the leap into high school and was able to do very well.
Doel:What language was this in?
MacDonald:Spanish. Spanish was my first language. English was spoken at home, but when I went to school or all outside activities, it was Spanish. The earliest of my remembrances are all in Spanish.
Doel:That's interesting. You said that it was a leap into high school, given that you were out of school for a long time?
MacDonald:From second grade to ninth grade.
Doel:Yes. I imagine that was quite a transition.
MacDonald:It was a challenge. It was a military school, and in addition to the sort of problems of adjusting to regular school work there was also the problem of trying to maintain my standing within the corps of cadets, as it was called. And since I still continued to suffer from physical deficiency as a result of the polio, it was a great challenge.
Doel:I can imagine that was emotionally trying as well.
MacDonald:Yes. As well as being away from your parents.
Doel:How far away was it?
MacDonald:San Luis is essentially one day by rail, one and a half days by rail from San Marcos.
Doel:So you couldn't return frequently?
MacDonald:No. I would come back at Christmas and then at the summertime.
Doel:Do you have particular memories when you think back to that period of schooling? Were there any teachers who were particularly memorable?
MacDonald:No. You know, all of it was challenging, interesting. Lots of it was obviously completely new, since it was a Baptist school, and my family was not Baptist. But it was regarded as a good school for people, private school, and there was a heavy emphasis on learning about the Bible and religion. I became interested in the math courses, algebra, and then plane geometry absolutely fascinated me.
Doel:That was really your first exposure?
MacDonald:That was. We did have a course in biology. We had a course in physics, but, there was nothing memorable about physics. And at the same time, my principal ambition was to overcome my physical defect, and so in the last year I was there I played football, became a member of their starting team, and that I regarded as a very great achievement.
Doel:Indeed. Were there also any courses in geology, do you remember?
MacDonald:There was nothing in geology, and there was nothing in natural science or anything that you would see in some of the schools that you would today. There was, as I say, a very poor course in physics, a fairly good course in biology. But what really interested me was the courses in plane geometry, trigonometry, solid area trigonometry.
Doel:Was that also something that you were learning a great deal about at home, on your own?
MacDonald:No. It did start in the summer subsequent to graduation from high school. I began working at the smelter. My father at that time had become sort of the chief financial officer for American Smelting and Refining Company's plant in San Luis Potos By the Sea, and through his intervention I got a job as a helper, lab assistant in the analytical lab. It was there that I really got into science in a meaningful way. The people who worked at the lab included a couple of men who taught at the local university. They were very good chemists, and I became absolutely fascinated with chemistry, analytical chemistry, how to do measurements. I was given a great deal of responsibility very early on so I could make the assays and write up the reports and so on.
Doel:When you did that, how did you principally learn the techniques? Through interacting with these people?
MacDonald:It was totally through interaction. I did this every summer as I went through college. Later on, I began to bring back books from Harvard and study on my own, but at the early stage it was totally through learning from practitioners and all of this in Spanish.
Doel:Yes. But you were bilingual clearly, without any question?
MacDonald:Yes, yes, I was.
Doel:And I gather that there simply wasn't much of a local library that if you had an interest to do this, there really wasn't any facility to do that.
MacDonald:There was no facility, and again, it was sort of a life that focused on what happened in the laboratory, and even on weekends I would be asked to come in and take part in the weekend assays. And there's obviously no social life because you're an American in a Mexican country and doubts on both sides as to whether it's appropriate to mix with -- Fortunately no longer true. It existed at that time.
Doel:I could imagine that tended to keep you isolated.
MacDonald:I was very much isolated. My principal companions were the men in the lab, all of whom were of course 10 to 30 years older than I was.
Doel:That's quite interesting. Do you have any brothers or sisters?
MacDonald:I have a sister, whom I was never very close with.
Doel:Was she younger or older?
MacDonald:She was younger, and she also attended San Marcos Baptist Academy, but after I had, or after I graduated, and we never shared much in common. She certainly never had any interest in science or any interest in pursuing sort of an intellectual life.
Doel:How did the decision to go to Harvard come about?
MacDonald:I applied to two schools, Rice and Caltech. In the case of Rice, I stressed the fact that I was able to do fairly well in football, and Caltech that I was interested in science. At a very late stage a friend of the family who had graduated from Harvard in 1901 and happened to live in San Luis, Mexico suggested that I apply to Harvard. I did. I thought that there was absolutely no chance whatsoever. I was accepted at Rice on a football scholarship, at Caltech, and very late in the game, I got a letter from Harvard saying yes, and they would give me a scholarship with no mention of athletics. And obviously I took that.
Doel:Right. I'm curious. How did you know about Rice and Caltech? How much did you know of the schools when you made--?
MacDonald:I had absolutely -- I knew that Caltech had a wonderful reputation. I knew that Rice was the premiere institution in Texas in terms of science and technology and it was a private school and they were very good on scholarships.
MacDonald:But there was almost no counseling. Many, almost every student who went on to college from San Marcos went to Baylor, since Baylor is also a Baptist institution with a few going to the University of Texas or Texas A&M.
MacDonald:So this was a big break.
Doel:I can imagine. Was that something that you talked about with your uncle?
MacDonald:No. I did not talk with him. At one stage I wrote and said I hoped very much that he would write a letter endorsing me to Harvard, which he did, and he highly approved of that.
Doel:Of the choice to go there?
MacDonald:Of the choice to go to Harvard. At the time, as I say, he was Chairman of the Regents at the University of Texas, and obviously I could have gone there, but I never even thought of that.
Doel:Right. What was the first year that you arrived at Harvard? Was it during the war year?
MacDonald:No. It was just shortly after. It was 1946. And it was of course a very great experience in the sense that I came up by train from San Luis, and I'd never been in a city. I'd of course never seen a subway or any of those things. Arrived at South Station and made my way carrying a couple of bags, asking where Massachusetts Hall was. I was very fortunate to have been placed in a dormitory for freshmen in Massachusetts Hall. My room was right over President Conant's office, which eventually led to my meeting President Conant. In much later years we became very good friends. But it was let's say a challenge.
Doel:Indeed. Given the environment that you had been in.
MacDonald:That's right. And, you know, I started out, went out for the football team, and the football team was dominated by veterans who were much, much larger, much older, and given the fact I had a bad leg even though I was good enough probably, to have decided not to do football and went for crew.
Doel:You were in crew then during your time at Harvard?
Doel:That's interesting. When you first arrived at Harvard, you already had a strong interest in science?
MacDonald:Yes. I was absolutely committed. I thought I would go into chemistry, given the background of the lab and the fact that I was interested. I had also, through the work at the smelter, gotten to know about minerals. I could identify hundreds of minerals because they would come through and look at them and so forth and so on, and I'd been taken out and looked at minerals. Not geology; this is strictly looking at the minerals.
Doel:Yes. You made your way to the chemistry department rather early?
MacDonald:Went to the chemistry department. So the chemistry course was given by an absolutely fabulous and flamboyant Professor Nash, who maintained my interest in chemistry. The first semester. The second semester was taught by a Professor by the name of Forbes, who was long past retirement. The second semester was analytical chemistry, and I knew more about analytical chemistry than he did.
Doel:That's interesting. Was there some disruption because of the war in '46, or had most of the faculty who had been on war duty returned?
MacDonald:They had come back, and it was a very exciting time. I mean, I can say that I really enjoyed every minute, because I was learning a very, very great deal, and it was a real challenge, because obviously most of the students had far better preparation than I did. I had to struggle with English composition, I took German, I took calculus, which was a problem.
Doel:It must have been a considerable challenge, given the background of many of the Harvard students.
MacDonald:Yes. Given how many of them were, of course, from Andover, Exeter, and so forth and so on. And I came from quite a second rate school, and obviously I was admitted because I came from Mexico and came out of Texas. The distribution requirements and so forth even then were in my favor.
Doel:Mm-hmm [affirmative]. You mentioned Nash and Forbes in chemistry. Where there others who were influential for you during your freshman and sophomore years?
MacDonald:No, the sophomore year I took a physics course, a half year of physics, and it was so abundantly boring that I never took another physics course in my life. Even though I have taught physics at many institutions. [laughs]
Doel:That's interesting. Do you remember who taught then?
MacDonald:Yes, let's see. Wendell Furry was principally responsible, and then a cosmic ray physicist whose name will come to me in a moment (J.C. Street). But Furry was a very good physicist, and I admired him very much more in later years because he became a target of the McCarthy campaign. After one half year of physics I said, "No more physics for me." So what I did was go in to take as much math as I could. Then I took a geology course taught by Kirtley Mather, and it was the most magnificent thing. One, he was a fabulous lecturer, secondly it was abundantly illustrated.
Doel:You mean that he used a lot of visual materials?
MacDonald:Lots of -- today it would be view grafts, but then it was slides. And he made the subject tremendously exciting. I later of course came to understand that he was a wonderful teacher but not a very deep scientist. But he got me interested in geology, and I switched from chemistry to geology on the basis of his presentation.
Doel:That's interesting. How well did you come to know him at that time?
MacDonald:Oh, at that time I didn't know him at all. In later years I got to know him quite well.
Doel:So the interactions were just within the classroom?
MacDonald:Within the classroom. It was a very large class, 250 people, and he didn't know who I was. I got to know some of the section people because there was sort of lab work.
Doel:Was there field work as well?
MacDonald:In that course there was not field work. There was in later courses. And part of the reason of going into geology was again my deformity. I thought I could overcome it by doing something that required you to go out and climb mountains. And so I thought that was an appropriate challenge and I should take it on.
Doel:I appreciate that. You mentioned some of the other section leaders that you got to know. Again, these interactions took place just within the lab sections?
MacDonald:Yes, the lab sections, yes. There was none that stood out in my junior. I came to, oh, I took courses in petrology with a man Jim Thompson, and his section leader was John Rosenfeld, and both of them took a great interest in me. And Thompson in particular was a guiding light through my subsequent years and graduate years. During that time, my junior year, they picked up on the fact that I could do things fairly well, looking at thin sections under the microscope and identifying minerals and so forth and so on.
Doel:Right. So you were already quite comfortable with laboratory work.
MacDonald:That kind of laboratory was no problem. Each year I'd go back to San Luis and work in the lab during the summertime and maintain that connection. So I was in the lab for five years, five summers.
Doel:Did you have much contact with Daly during your undergraduate years?
MacDonald:Very, very little. I met with him on several occasions. I read his book, two books -- I wish I could remember them, their titles -- but both of them obviously I found very exciting. But Daly was retired, elderly, and not readily accessible.
Doel:Of course, which you may not have obviously known as an undergraduate, his wife died right in that period. It was a difficult time for him.
MacDonald:Yes. It was. I learned that later. I did get to know Francis Birch, who was much more accessible and took a very great interest in me right from the start.
Doel:This was during your junior year?
MacDonald:Junior and senior years. Thompson was by far the biggest influence in the geology department. Francis Birch was a big influence. From a mineralogist, I learned X-ray techniques. Cliff Frondell was a big influence. Marlon Billings, who was an old style structural geologist, taught me. He gave a course in field geology which I took, got me into the field aspects of geology.
Doel:Was that done as a summer option?
Doel:How was that done?
MacDonald:That was done during the year. It was local, and you mapped the Dedham granite and its various glacial deposits and so forth and so on.
Doel:So you were out and about in Massachusetts, then?
Doel:Did you come into contact with Bridgman, by chance?
MacDonald:Not as an undergraduate. I got to know him as a graduate student, and got to know him very well largely through Francis Birch, who had been his student. He took an interest in me and thought that I would benefit from interaction with Bridgman -- particularly when I went and started to do high-pressure work.
Doel:As a graduate student?
MacDonald:As a graduate student.
Doel:Yes. I was curious. When you read the two books by Daly, was one of them, do you recall, Our Mobile Earth?
MacDonald:Yes, that was one. Yes.
Doel:Okay. I'm also curious what you knew of Jim Thompson's own research when you were an undergraduate?
MacDonald:A very great deal, because he was at that time working the metamorphic rocks of New Hampshire and Vermont, and we did, in the petrology class, did a field trip to Mount Ascutney, which was in Vermont. Just through conversations got to know a good deal about what he was doing in terms of looking at the metamorphic rocks and beginning to try to interpret what he saw in the field using thermodynamics. There had been earlier work by Eskola in Finland, somewhere by Goldschmidt in Norway, but it was really pioneering work in this country.
MacDonald:And that -- I had taken -- or, let's say I'd learned enough physical chemistry on my own during the summers that I was able to-- I never took a course in thermodynamics or anything of the sort, but learned it on the outside.
Doel:What sort of book, for example, would you bring home during the summers when you were working to learn thermodynamics?
MacDonald:I would bring home the text that was being used in physical chemistry in the chemistry department, and learn do it.
Doel:Did you come into contact as an undergraduate with any of the people in the astronomy department, like Shapley?
MacDonald:I knew Shapley through Kirtley Mather, who once again thought it would be good for me to interact with some of the other people. He was a very good friend of Shapley. And so I got to know him, and I would say met with him maybe a half a dozen times during my undergraduate years. Obviously I was very, very much impressed with this person who had been heavily involved, and clearly got me interested in matters astronomical.
Doel:What sort of things did you and he talk about?
MacDonald:Well, origin of the earth and how did the planets come into being, and how do stars form. Those kinds of questions. What is the relationship between a star formation and a planet formation.
Doel:Did you meet, for example, Fred Whipple?
MacDonald:Not at that time, no.
Doel:Of course at that period of time between '46 and 1950, cosmogony was getting to be a very interesting area. Von Weizacker had written his wartime paper supporting the nebulae hypothesis.
Doel:Was that something that came up?
Doel:More general conversation?
MacDonald:It was much more general, much more connected with my interest in the earth and how it came about, and the issues really than about Von Weizasacker.
Doel:Just out of curiosity, did any political questions come up? Were you aware of Shapley's political views?
MacDonald:No. I was, you know, I maintained an interest in international events, from my uncle's introducing me to the daily newspaper and the fact that when you're living in Mexico, you listen to the shortwave radio to find out what's going on in the world. I maintained an interest, but the real excitement was in the science and not in the international that came in my graduate years.
Doel:Okay. Were there any other people who influenced your scientific work as an undergraduate?
MacDonald:Yes. As an undergraduate, the other great influence was George Kennedy, who was an assistant professor at Harvard who was an experimentalist, worked at high temperatures, high pressures. He was extremely energetic. And clearly he wanted me to continue at Harvard and pushed very hard for me, nominated me for the Society of Fellows when I was a senior.
Doel:Which would have been 1950.
MacDonald:Yes. And I don't recall anybody going straight from college to being a member of the Society of Fellows. But nonetheless, he had been a member of the Society, and he felt that I could benefit greatly from that, and he pushed very hard, and we became very, very close friends. He was much closer to my generation than I was to, let's say, Birch or even Thompson.
Doel:Before we get into the work that you began to did as a graduate student and the choices that you faced there, were there any other activities that you recall that you spent time in at Harvard that were influential for you?
MacDonald:No. I mean crew of course was very influential, and I enjoyed that, but gradually, you know, science, geology, going back to San Luis, working at the lab during the summers were the dominant features of my life. Aside from having a girlfriend at Wellesley whom I courted for four years and finally married in 1950.
Doel:Were any other student influential for you? Did others share your interests?
MacDonald:We had, we ended up, a group of five who basically stayed together for the last two years. Three of us were associated from the sophomore year, but five for the last two years, living in the Eliot House. One was a physicist, George Ludwig, the second was a biologist, oh goodness, whose name just went out of my mind--
Doel:Those sort of things we can put on the transcript later.
MacDonald:That's right. A third was, and his name also escapes me at the moment, and a fourth, er, the fourth member of the group, Oscar Starobin was the biologist, and Henri Shaloh was the sort of humanities major. Out of the five I graduated suma, three graduated magna, and Henri barely got through. But he was the delight of our establishment, since he'd get the calls in the middle of the night, put his raincoat over his pajamas, and head out to do his duty with some lady friend, which endeared us--
Doel:Yes. [laughter] Indeed.
MacDonald:And Ludwig and I were particularly close. We took lots of courses together, because I was -- he majored in physics, I majored -- But we took lots of courses in mathematics together, and we had a common vocabulary, played squash, tennis, and that sort of thing.
Doel:Also it gave you an opportunity to talk about what you were doing.
MacDonald:That's right, that's right. And Oscar is also an extremely bright -- he's now I guess one of the leading physicians in Boston. Ludwig ended up at the GE labs in Schenectady, never did as good in science as I thought he might do. He was in solid-state physics. And Henri has pursued an eclectic life in France and Algeria.
Doel:Indeed. Did you also come into contact with faculty in science in any of the other Boston area universities?
MacDonald:No, no. At that time, until I got into graduate school I didn't. With one exception, and that was through both Clifford Frondel and Jim Thompson I got to know in my senior year Martin Burger, who was at MIT, a very great scientist.
Doel:While you were an undergraduate, were you aware of that informally organized experimental geophysics committee at Harvard?
MacDonald:Yes. Through Francis Birch I knew that such a committee existed, and that there was opportunity under their auspices to do work. Some of the work that I ended up doing, though it wasn't related directly to my thesis, was funded through that committee.
Doel:Right. Was it a kind of activity that was particularly visible to an undergraduate?
MacDonald:You simply were aware of it. Birch did not teach undergraduate courses, so unless you happened to know him on some other basis you probably were not aware of it. As a graduate student of course you were very much aware of what was going on.
Doel:Right. I want to get back to that in just a moment. A question I should have asked you a moment ago: Daly's, Our Mobile Earth included in its ending chapters discussion of Wegener's ideas about continental drift. Do you remember discussing that with anyone?
MacDonald:Yes. With Birch and with Thompson, and all of them, clearly all of them influenced my later thinking on the subject.
MacDonald:They thought it was nonsense.
MacDonald:And I guess I was a graduate student when I took, or sat in on, a course with Harold Jeffreys, who was visiting.
Doel:That's interesting. What year was that probably?
MacDonald:I think it was probably '52.
Doel:Of course Jeffreys was no supporter of the idea of continental drift.
MacDonald:No, no, and I was a disciple of Jeffreys -- principally from his book rather than from getting to know him. His lectures were totally impenetrable, largely delivered to the pigeon outside and not to the audience.
Doel:I've heard it described that way, but never quite as poetically. Was there anyone at Harvard who did support or defend Wegener?
Doel:Okay. That's interesting.
MacDonald:Billings was vehemently opposed. Birch was very much of a view of a fixer.
Doel:Was it something that ever came up with Shapley, when you spoke?
MacDonald:No. At least I don't recall.
Doel:Right. Okay. When you were approaching your senior year, did you have any other schools in mind as alternative candidates, or did you really feel that you were intended to stay at Harvard?
MacDonald:I talked about going to Caltech and to Princeton, but my advisors, Jim Thompson and George Kennedy, both urged me not to do it -- Kennedy in particular because he said, "I'm putting you forward as a junior fellow." And I don't think I even wrote out the applications.
Doel:Okay. That's interesting.
MacDonald:And generally it was against Harvard's policy to take undergraduates on, as graduate students.
Doel:So it was clear to you as well that this was an exception?
Doel:And that you would have unique opportunities to develop.
Doel:Okay. One thing I meant to ask you: in your undergraduate years, did you ever come across Leet and the work that he was doing?
MacDonald:Oh, Don Leet I got to know -- not well. But you know, every department has its pecking order, and Don Leet was not high on the pecking order.
Doel:And was that view generally shared by the faculty?
MacDonald:Yes, yes, yes. I mean, the graduates or even the undergraduates sense that. Frondell was the top mineralogist, Hurlbut sort of second rate, but wrote a good textbook. The intellectual leaders were Birch and Billings.
Doel:Did personality play any role in any of that?
MacDonald:It's hard to say. Birch was a consummate New Englander, taciturn but very, very thoughtful. Whenever he said something, he obviously had considered it in some way.
Doel:In early 1950 of course, was the Rancho-Santa Fe meeting, which greatly influenced American geophysics. Were you aware of it at the time?
MacDonald:Oh, very definitely. Matter of fact, I among others ridiculed it as saying, "Here are these old men getting together and sort of plotting how the science should develop." We were very critical of some of the things that came out of that.
Doel:That's interesting. When you say "we," who do you mean? Fellow students?
MacDonald:Fellow students, yes. By my senior year I had become very interactive with graduate students, and they were my closer associates than my fellow undergraduate students.
Doel:Who are you thinking of in particular?
MacDonald:Oh, I guess Sid Clark, uh, Bill Diamond, Clyde Walnhoftig, Hofdig, Dave Hopkins, Art Meyerhoff.
Doel:Did you have much contact at all with David Griggs at that point?
MacDonald:Some, not much. He had of course moved to UCLA, and I only really got to know him after I started spending summers at UCLA.
Doel:So he wasn't at all a presence even as a visitor?
Doel:That's interesting. Were you aware of Urey's presentation at the Rochester meeting in '49? Was that also something that was discussed?
Doel:Do you recall what the reaction at Harvard was to what Urey was arguing about Earth's geochemical history?
MacDonald:A great deal of skepticism. And again, the clannish attitude that chemists, Nobel prize-winning, even if he is, talks nonsense about these kinds of things.
Doel:Do you recall anyone in particular expressing that sentiment? Or was it general?
MacDonald:No. It was general.
Doel:And this was among you and the graduate students, or did the faculty also share it?
MacDonald:It was also the faculty.
Doel:Birch, for example?
MacDonald:Was not enthusiastic at all. Birch never really liked getting into much chemical detail, and it was only after he got to know Ringwood very well and some of the later work that he appreciated that general approach.
Doel:How did you learn about the results coming out of Rancho-Santa Fe?
MacDonald:Word of mouth. I don't recall, but I knew all the details. I mean, Bill Rubey was there and Harry Hess, and all the great men and--
Doel:Right. Whipple was there as well as was Griggs, Gutenberg and many of the west coast leaders of geophysics.
Doel:Teller was also there.
Doel:But did the ideas that came out of that meeting, as you recall, influence any of the people at Harvard?
MacDonald:No. Not at all.
Doel:That's interesting. I'm curious about how your early graduate years took shape: how did you determine what courses were most appropriate? Was this a predetermined set of courses, or did you arrange them?
MacDonald:No. Most of the courses I took were not in geology. They were in applied mathematics, one or two courses in advanced chemistry and organic chemistry, one of the great disappointments. Paul Doty advertised a course on inorganic chemistry at the graduate level. I took it, and it turned out to be nothing but organic chemistry and since I'd never organic chemistry, ever since I've been teasing him about false advertisement. [laughs] In let's say the summer of 1950 I went out with George Kennedy and worked with him doing some field mapping in Montana. I got to know much more about field work. And the following two summers I spent doing mapping projects in southern Vermont, working with Jim Thompson. And actually, I sort of did the Brattleboro [?] Quadrangle, which is later incorporated into the geologic map of Vermont.
Doel:I was going to ask you about that, because I noticed that is in your list of publications, and one of the few that of course involves field geology. When you were out in Montana, did you also meet other geologists who were working there?
MacDonald:No. Because it was rather isolated. It was just northwest of Yellowstone near Dillon, Montana, working in the cretaceous. It was sort of camping out. Principal memories are having George Kennedy shoot a couple of grouse and having the game instructor just drop by accident, and George exclaiming, "My God, the hawks are rough in this part of the world." And I shot my first and only elk.
Doel:Yes. Sometimes in the western camps, people from different camps would have a get-together. But this didn't happen at all?
Doel:In the early years of your graduate study, from 1950 to 1952 -- I know that you received your PhD in 1954 -- you were a regular graduate student?
MacDonald:Yes. Those two years were regular graduate, when I was a teaching assistant. The second two years it was a Junior Fellow. And so that was a very different kind of experience.
Doel:Right. And that did not involve any teaching?
MacDonald:No. The first two years I was teaching assistant in petrology. I had lots of field trips and so forth and so on.
Doel:Who were the most influential for your career in the first two years, whom you worked with most closely?
MacDonald:Thompson and Birch, and Kennedy. I did a lot of laboratory work with Kennedy. I learned basically the techniques of doing high-pressure research. Some didn't work out at all. I spent a long time, for example, trying to gold-plate the inside of a pressure vessel in order to run some chemical reactions that involve sulfides at high temperatures and pressures and just failed completely. I learned all about lathes and how to put high-pressure together, but gradually shifted away from Kennedy and worked much more with Francis Birch and his high-pressure work. We were doing work on the stability of Jadeite.
Doel:Graduate teaching was the principal means of support that you had in those first two years?
MacDonald:Yes. Plus my wife was working.
Doel:Right. I also wanted to ask you about that too. You say she was at Wellesley?
MacDonald:A French major, and we married shortly after both of us graduated. Then she accompanied me when I went out and did field work in Montana. Then we came back and she worked as a secretary in the soils mechanics department, a secretary to Casagrande at Harvard. For three years, she basically supported me, or for two years, and then I got a Junior Fellowship, which covered both of us.
Doel:Right. How did you meet?
MacDonald:She was from Westfield, New Jersey. I have an aunt and I used to spend Christmas in Westfield because Mexico was too far to go for Christmas when I was up at Cambridge, and the aunt attempted several pairings and in this case we met at some bridge party. Since I knew how to play bridge at least, I wasn't too embarrassed, and then I kept seeing her during the next three and a half years at Wellesley.
Doel:I'm sorry: I don't know her name.
MacDonald:Her name was Eve Lapeyrouse.
Doel:Did she have an interest in science at all?
Doel:Okay. Was it something that in your early marriage that you could talk to her about?
MacDonald:Oh yes. We talked a lot about it, and since she worked for a scientist or a science engineer in Casagrande, she became much more familiar with some of the concepts and ideas.
Doel:Yes. When you look back on the early years of your graduate work at Harvard, was there any area of training that you felt you weren't getting what you wanted, or did you feel that you had access to everything that you really wanted?
MacDonald:Yes. Basically you had the freedom to go the direction that you wanted to go in. In my case it was learning as much applied mathematics as I could. I never took, as I say, aside from one half year, I never took a course in physics. I did audit lots of courses in physics -- Schwingers courses in quantum mechanics and things like that, but basically it was a program that allowed you a great deal of freedom so you can make your own selection of which way you want to go.
Doel:It sounds as if funding was not a problem as far as developing the instrumentation for the high-pressure research?
MacDonald:No, that came out of the experimental committee.
Doel:Right. What kind of cohesion was there between members of the group in the early 1950s? How did that work for you in practice?
MacDonald:Oh, the graduate students were very close. We'd have dinner together, see each other. It was a fact that has influenced all my teaching career: graduate students learn from other graduate students, and the professors are largely irrelevant. And so there was a very cohesive group - a group that interacted extremely well.
Doel:Who are you thinking of in particular? Were there others besides those that you mentioned?
MacDonald:Oh, Ian Eanzen was a member of, Art Lochenbrook, I think I mentioned Bill Diamond?
Doel:Yes. Was it Birch who had the greatest influence on you as far as developing your thesis work?
MacDonald:No, the thesis work, my actual thesis was really influenced mostly by Jim Thompson. I was doing experimental work with Birch and I was doing field work with Thompson, and my thesis was on the sort of the thermochemistry of important minerals, which brought together the information we had on the thermodynamic properties of all the minerals and, determined what one could learn out of that. And I published a couple of early papers, one on anhydride gypsum, one on stability of brucite and using it actually in an innovative way of getting at the thermodynamic properties of water.
Doel:Of course, at the time, the Carnegie Institution of Washington was doing high-pressure research as well. Did you find that there were any others who were influential for you? Griggs, as you say, was out in California.
MacDonald:Griggs had his lab in California. Kennedy was going to move to California in '54. I got to know the people at the Carnegie very well. Joe Bogd, who went to the Carnegie was a fellow graduate student.
Doel:Oh, that's interesting.
MacDonald:I got to know him obviously. Subsequently, I became a staff associate of Carnegie after I went to MIT, and spent a lot of time with him.
Doel:Right. Was there a great deal of communication in your graduate years between all of these centers?
MacDonald:Yes, yes, yes. We knew what everybody was doing. We all went to GSA meetings, we all sort of knew what everybody was doing.
Doel:When you mentioned the GSA meetings, how did geologists respond to the work that you were doing, the high-pressure work and the mineral studies?
MacDonald:With a lot of interest. I had the advantage that, at the same time as I was doing the lab work, it was known that I also did field work, so I wasn't labeled as somebody totally outside. And I consciously made an effort of relating the lab work to certain things I was doing in the field. My great ambition was to try to delineate the fields of stability of kyanite, sillimanite and andalusite, you know, and tie that to the metamorphic region, where I was mapping.
MacDonald:So it was an attempt to tie them together.
Doel:Was that something that people would discuss the interface between theory and experiment?
Doel:What sort of discussions, do you remember?
MacDonald:You know, what is the role of laboratory investigations in geology. And of course in tying it into theory, Thompson was very much interested in the experimental work. He never did any experimental work, but he did field work, and he did a lot of theory, so he was able to make that connection. And I did experimental work, understood some of the theory, and also tried to do some of the lab work. Birch was not interested as much in the field aspects. Obviously he was more interested in the very deeper as opposed to the surficial or surface geology.
Doel:When those sorts of discussions took place, did anyone seem to hold particular positions that opposed one another, or was there a consensus for these issues?
MacDonald:At that time, within the Harvard group, there certainly was a consensus that geology fundamentally rested on going out in the field, but a great deal could be learned through theory and through experimentation. And it was important to try to bring all three together.
Doel:Did you have much interaction with others in the geology department per se at that point?
MacDonald:Through Kennedy, Billings, Birch, and Frondell. Another graduate student who I interacted a great deal with was Art Baoucof who was on the paleontological side.
Doel:When you were in graduate school, was there much discussion about events outside of science when you had the informal groups? Did philosophy or politics often come up?
MacDonald:Yes. Politics became important, particularly because of the '52 election. So many of us supported Stevenson. McCarthy was a very big presence, because Furry and the math professor [Dirkstruih] at MIT whose name escapes me at the moment--
Doel:I know who you mean too, and I can't--
MacDonald:He's a geometer. Oh God. Anyway.
Doel:We'll put that in the transcript.
MacDonald:And so there was a lot of attention, and once I went into the Society of Fellows, of course life blossomed in a sense that I was exposed to a lot of people from other sciences in depth, and a lot of people who were involved in politics. You know, I could have dinner and Adlai Stevenson would be there, Enrico Fermi would be up for dinner, and I'd spend all evening talking with them. So those two years were absolutely incredibly exciting. It's an opportunity that I'm very privileged to have participated in.
Doel:I wanted to hear a little more about that, let me get back to this in just a moment. Was Shapley's difficulties central to those discussions too?
MacDonald:No. Shapley was obviously, since I'd met him and knew him, I took an interest, but I also had a course with Wendell Furry, and he was in some ways more, or I felt more in danger because he didn't have the stature that Shapley did.
MacDonald:But clearly it was of great interest, and there was a great deal of discussion.
Doel:When you think back to it, was it divisive in a sense that people took strongly differing positions, or was there general support for them?
MacDonald:No, no. There was very general support for Shapley, for Furry, and for Struik. [laughs]
Doel:Blank on the tape. We'll know to fill that in. Okay. We were talking about the Society of Fellows. When you think back, what seemed the most significant aspects your Fellowship?
MacDonald:Well, the significance was it broadened my view of the world in a way that probably would not have happened, at least not in as short a period of time. You can't associate with let's say the senior fellows including a religious scholar such as Arthur Dorbey Nock or mathematical philosophers. Ed Purcell was a Senior Fellow at the time and I got to know Ed very well, and he took great interest in bringing physicists by and always making sure that I interacted with the physicists, because he knew I liked physics, and could understand it. And the discussions were very wide-ranging. Sometimes you'd have somebody that you could talk to about your subject; most of the time, you talked about world events or a subject outside. And so you learned how to converse at various levels. You learned a lot about good wines, a lot about good food, and it was just unbelievable. An incredibly enriching intellectual experience.
MacDonald:No responsibilities whatsoever.
Doel:Right. Among the physicists or the geophysicists that you met through the Society of Fellows, were any particularly memorable?
MacDonald:Fermi made a very great impression on me. He asked me what were the great advances in geophysics in recent years, and I said, "Well, probably paleomagnetism," which was just starting at this time, and had a big influence in later years. And then we also discussed some of the high-pressure experiments that I was doing, and the whole field of trying to understand stability of minerals and where they were. And he displayed an in-depth understanding that I hadn't anticipated. Only later did I learn that he at one time had taught geophysics at Rome, and had actually written a very perceptive textbook in Italian, covering many of the subjects at a level that would have been appropriate in the 1950s but in 1935, 1936. And his general approach and his enthusiasm, the fact that he was already dying of cancer I knew about, but it was a very, very wonderful experience. Having an evening with Adlai Stevenson and talking about how particularly rewarding anything was with Reston, Scotty Reston. Even at that time he was enormously wise and perspective.
Doel:He certainly was a young man at that time.
MacDonald:He was a young man. And then, we'd always meet at least a couple of times a year and have dinner with the senior fellows, interchanged with the journalists. It was just enormously exciting. You wanted to live that sort of life.
Doel:You certainly don't want it to end.
MacDonald:No, you don't. Oh, I quit before the three years were. I had a three year appointment, but I decided to start teaching.
Doel:Right. You had of course at that point gotten your Ph.D.
Doel:I wanted to know how that appointment came about at MIT.
MacDonald:Let's see. I gave seminars based on my thesis and other activities at Johns Hopkins and MIT, and both of them offered me a job. Harvard offered me a job -- which was, again, highly unusual, a free undergraduate and graduate level. And I decided that I had to move from Harvard, but not very far. [laughs]
Doel:Indeed. At that point you didn't have to change your postal code.
MacDonald:That's right. And I went to MIT.
Doel:I'm curious just about the Hopkins offer in particular. Who there was your point of contact?
Doel:Yes. And he among the faculty was principally interested in developing geophysics?
MacDonald:Yes, that's right. Ernest was -- And Pettyjohn was also interested.
Doel:Pettyjohn was broadly interested in both the geochemistry and the geophysics after the war.
MacDonald:And the geophysics, that's right, that's right. But Ernest was the principal push.
Doel:But you had to make the choice. Was it more wanting to be in the area, or did it involve very much the intellectual and institutional factors?
MacDonald:I was interested. I had always thought that I could learn a great deal at MIT, and that the learning experience would continue. I learned a great deal at Harvard, and I knew the people, and I thought MIT with its very good physics department, excellent chemistry, and a geology department that had its pluses and minuses that I could really contribute there. I also thought that the chances of getting very good students were excellent at MIT, which turned out to be absolutely true.
Doel:Right. You would have a pretty good guarantee of having people familiar with all branches of the physical sciences.
MacDonald:That they, I wouldn't have to start from scratch.
Doel:Which hindered the development of geophysics in many geophysics departments in schools lacking strong physics departments. How well did you know the people at MIT in the different departments when you considered?
MacDonald:Fairly, uh, relatively well. I knew of course the principals of the geology department. I'd known Martin Buerger for years, I knew Pat Hurley, I knew some of the physicists, Phil Morrison and Vicky Weiskopf and had gotten to know the chairman of the math department. I forget his first name, William Martin. But the thing that impressed me most was when I interacted with the students. Some of the MIT students had come down to take courses at Harvard, and so I'd gotten to know the quality of the students, and that excited me.
Doel:Yes. And your appointment was in the geology department?
Doel:How did that work, being a geophysicist within the geology department there?
MacDonald:There was less emphasis at MIT on field work. There was more on mass spectrometry. Hurley had a group of people who were working on, and then there was a very, very good group that was working on using computers to interpret seismograms, and they made the breakthrough as influenced exploration geophysics up to the present. And Enders Robinson and Steve Simpson, who looked at seismograms as time series, were able to extract a great deal of information.
Doel:As I recall when Slichter was at MIT, he also focuses on exploration geophysics.
MacDonald:Yes, yes, that's right. And it's there that of course I learned about computers.
Doel:How did that happen?
MacDonald:Well, I shared an office with Simpson, who had already started working with a 702, or 701 I guess it was, or maybe it was a 650. And I had a Marchant and doing that sort of thing, he said, "Gordon, you really have to--" and I said, "Okay," and so I started to learn and programmed up some calculations on the thermal history of the earth and things of that sort and ran them on the 704, so when I moved to California I had all this stuff going.
MacDonald:I'm going to have to break away.
Surely. As you just mentioned, we are going to have to end this session now, but I do want to thank you very much for the recording. We will of course -- and this should be on the tape -- not make the tape available to anyone, or its transcript, without your express knowledge and approval as defined in the permission forms that we will be giving you with the edited transcript.