Oral History Transcript — Dr. Eugene Shoemaker
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Eugene Shoemaker; January 30, 1986
ABSTRACT: Early career in the United States Geological Survey (USGS); Atomic Energy Commission-sponsored surveys of uranium deposits in the western United States; USGS Grand Junction, Colorado field office; nuclear explosion crater studies; the MICE project; early lunar studies sponsored by NASA. Specific topics include Shoemaker’s investigations of the geology of the Colorado plateau; doctoral studies at Princeton University in the mid-1950s; his identification of coesite at the Meteor Crater, Arizona; and the Ries formation in Bavaria, Germany; the development of lunar stratigraphic principles.
Doel:This is Ron Doel, and this is an interview with Dr. Eugene Shoemaker of the United States Geological Survey… I know that you were born in Los Angeles in 1928, but I don't know anything else about your family, your background. Who were your parents? What did they do?
Shoemaker:Well, my parents started out professionally as school teachers. Both went to UCLA. My father was still in school there at the time I was born. So that's how I happen to have been born in Los Angeles. My mother came from a family, she grew up in Kansas and Nebraska, as a youngster, and then the family moved to Los Angeles when she was of college age, and UCLA was, she started out before it was UCLA. It was a teachers' college closer to downtown, and later became UCLA. Both of them were there. In fact my mother continued on and then they went to Oregon, and actually my father graduated from the University of Oregon.
Doel:What year was that?
Shoemaker:Well, that must have been about 1930, or ‘34. And so he had a long, prolonged college career, sort of like some kids do now, except he was a fairly mature person by the time he graduated. He started out playing football. He was a considerable athlete. He actually played football in several different places, San Diego State and UCLA. He graduated in physical education. My mother was teaching current events (?) at an independent school, in the valley. I get confused with the schools…this is not very clear in my understanding. Then, while they were in Oregon, after he finished, they decided that they would go on to graduate school at Columbia, which was the Mecca for teachers, the School of Education at Columbia (Columbia Teachers College?) so in the midst of the early depression, these two young people went to New York City. When they got there, they very quickly learned that one of them at least was going to go to work or they weren't going to make it, so my mother was the one that went on and my father got a job at the School for Boys. During that year she completed her master's degree, and was offered an appointment at the newly established Buffalo State Teachers College. So at the age of four, when I was three I was in New York City, at four I went to Buffalo, having been born in Los Angeles. My father was anxious to go (home), we were displaced people at that time.
Doel:Were you in touch with your relatives?
Shoemaker:Well, these were tough times. As I look back on it, my mother must have been an extraordinarily outstanding person, because the competition for jobs was incredible. There must have been hundreds of applicants for the position that she was offered at the Buffalo State Teachers College. She was just a young teacher fresh out of Columbia with a master's degree, and it was the faculty at the normal school, where teachers were practicing. It was a damn good job in 1932! My father actually, he got a job also at the teachers' college substituting for another person who was away on a leave, that first year, but then they had this nepotism rule, both of them couldn't stay, and —
Doel:So your father taught only during 1932?
Shoemaker:Well, ‘32, ‘33. And so he had to look for another job. That was very difficult. He went back to and secured a position as a physical education advisor in one of the CCC camps, Civilian Conservation Corps. The first camp he was at was located fairly close to Laramie, Wyoming. So my mother stayed at Buffalo State Teachers' College for about 2 1/2 years. Finally she gave up that job and joined him in Laramie, Wyoming.
Doel:Did you stay with your mother?
Shoemaker:I stayed with my mother during that period of time, except that I never was in Buffalo in the summer time. I was with my father during the summers. She was with him during the summers too. Then, I was born by Caesarian section which was a very significant operation in the 1930s, it's routine now, so they had planned to have a large family but this put a crimp on things. My sister was then born about seven years later, and she decided she would return to Los Angeles to have the same surgeon who had delivered me, so the next year I was in school back in Los Angeles. My father continued in the CCC camps, and then he purchased a farm on the North Platte River bank, very fine, County which is close to…this was in 1936, that he purchased the farm. By extraordinarily good luck, nearly paid for the farm with a crop, it was very difficult and my sister was not doing very well, the was extremely primitive, and she got a job offer to go back to Buffalo State Teachers College and snapped it up, and we went to Buffalo. This was in the fall of 1936. So we were there. We actually continued in Buffalo through — at the school, practice, I was at the school, the first…(fades) she was the new teacher. When I turned fourth grade I went to the public schools, continued through — the school practice doesn't exist anymore—but continued through. In fact I was in the last 9th grade class that they had at Buffalo. My father meanwhile had come back and taught in Jamestown again, which was then about an hour's drive.
Doel:He was still teaching physical education?
Shoemaker:He was a coach, that's right, taught in the junior high schools, taught physical education, and then out on the baseball field he was coaching a baseball team, and turned around to catch a hard line drive, and he popped a cartilage in his knee, which is a typical hazard for football players, and that essentially put him out of coaching at that time. So after that, he went back out, this was now in the late thirties, went back out to Los Angeles.
Doel:Let me interrupt for a moment. You began to tell me about the first years of school that you had. Where was the first classroom that you attended, was that in Los Angeles?
Shoemaker:It would have been kindergarten. Well, I was in a nursery school in New York City because my mother was in a class. An aunt and uncle did come and stay with us for a while. But she was able to put me into nursery school during the day. And then she made it part of the condition of her job, believe it or not, in Buffalo for me to come on into kindergarten a year early, so I started kindergarten at age four. So that's where I started.
Doel:Did you begin first grade —?
Shoemaker:In Buffalo. About the middle of my second grade is when we left. We left in mid-year, Christmas time. But really the education that I got from 5th grade on through 9th grade at the School of Practice was really a very important education. There were outstanding teachers in this school. It was a demonstration school for student teachers. You can imagine, they were some very good people. So in many respects, while this was a public institution, nonetheless there was only one class in each grade. The pressure for youngsters to get in was very high, because among other things the Depression had hit Buffalo very hard and a lot of the old time families of Buffalo were hit very hard by the Depression, by the collapse of the Pierce Arrow factory, and so kids who had gone to prep schools, and another places, a lot of them were my schoolmates. Literally, it was like getting a prep school education. When I went back into public high school in Los Angeles, even though academically it was the best public high school in the area, there was just no comparison. I sort of coasted through. In fact I went through high school in three years, in a very relaxed mode. That's just an education. Another very important thing happened when I was in Buffalo. The faculty at the teachers' college were close friends of the family, and they took an interest in me also. My interest in rocks and minerals and fossils developed quite early, and who was principal of the School of Practice himself took me out and introduced me to glacial strati and several interesting geological features in the Lake Erie region, and was able to get enrolled in science courses that were offered, very innovative, at that time I think a pioneering program of science education for youngsters at the Buffalo Museum of Science, and they offered these courses for a wide range of ages for youngsters, including evening courses for high school students and Saturday morning courses, quite popular, for kids in the primary grades. By the time I was in 5th grade I was enrolled in the evening courses for high school students. So I started taking formal courses in mineralogy, geology, aquatic biology, all kinds of things. The Museum was a very important influence in my getting into geology. But my father was also. I'd gone around with him in Wyoming and adjacent states in the summer time, places like the Black Hills. I started collecting rocks. He knew just enough to whet my appetite.
Doel:You would go out together then?
Shoemaker:Well, he took trips and I'd just go with him to some of the famous places. He actually thought about trying to start a tourist business, taking Easterners on tours around there. So my interest was actually very early, and I was an avid mineral collector by about age nine. I actually had textbooks.
Doel:This is all very interesting. I was just going to ask you that question, what do you remember reading as a child? Did you read much about science, about geology?
Shoemaker:Well, I didn't really understand fully what geology was all about at that early age, didn't really get a grip on that, on the discipline, until I was in college. But I did know a lot about minerals. I could identify lots of minerals, and not only tell you what the mineral was but its locality, and knew them by sight, so I was full of lore about minerals, basic elements and crystallography. Mineralogy is a more constrained discipline than geology. And I also collected fossils, and I knew a fair amount about Devonian fossils. Western New York has some famous fossil localities. But it was more a matter of lore than really scientific knowledge, except to the extent that I had grasp of sort of a college level introductory mineralogy? I knew that before I was in high school. So it was natural for me to aim toward geology as a career. I realized that you could go and make a living being a scientist, pursuing this. I was really aimed in that direction by the time I entered high school, which is an extraordinary stroke of good fortune.
Doel:This is quite interesting. Were the teachers at the school often at the house? Did you have a chance to talk to them often outside of school?
Shoemaker:Not a great deal. A few of these teachers were special friends. In fact, some of them still are and my mother still keeps in touch with a few of them. (fades out…) But as a youngster, I didn't have a whole lot of contact with them. As I was saying, my father returned, after his knee was broken, he had to resign from coaching, he returned to Los Angeles, and went from running a gas station in the San Fernando Valley to, eventually got into trucking. He managed a Los Angeles firm, the Trucking Line, at one stage, and then purchased his own trucks. This is just about the time that the United States got involved in World War II. It was a very difficult time to try to do trucking, mostly up and down the Coast. You couldn't buy tires. You couldn't keep the trucks moving. So an opportunity came up for him to get into a studio, as a grip. I think you know what a grip is. It's a specialized trade that applies to movie making. Basically the grips are the stage hands who are there doing the things you have to do to make a picture. They run the camera dollies, the sound booms, they put up the scaffolding, the backing, they're the all around guys that tote that barge and do things to set up a movie set. The key grip is the key person in moving, and he had a long time he was a key grip at that time, and this is a very tight union among the grips. It was hard to get in. It turned out most of the grips were ex-athletes. You just about had to be an athlete if you were going to do it. He spent the rest of his working career as a grip, and enjoyed it thoroughly. He got into everything, to do with making movies. (fades out…) So, the latest part of our return to Los Angeles, he was living in the film, in the area near the film industry. So we were there and I went to high school at Fairbanks High High School, in Los Angeles. We were actually living in an unincorporated part of the county that's only recently become" but anyway, Fairbanks High School was very close to the area where my folks owned a home when I was born. But in the meantime, by the time we returned, it's interesting, that became sort of the center of the Jewish community in Los Angeles. Fairbanks High School, when I went there, was about 90 percent Jewish students. As you know, the Jewish people are very academically oriented, so there were some very good students and good teachers in Fairbanks.
Doel:Do you recall the names of them?
Shoemaker:Well, Ben Lewis was one of them. He was a special friend. He went into geology also. He was the one I palled around with. There were, I'm trying to think of the names, I'm having trouble at this stage-there were four students in my trigonometry class that went to Cal Tech. I was not the best student in my trigonometry class. So it was a pretty good environment, the high school.
Doel:How did you find the mathematics offerings at the high school?
Shoemaker:Oh, well, they were pretty standard at the time. Calculus wasn’t available, then. There were a few high schools where you could get calculus. So I just went through the standard math courses, geometry, algebra, advanced algebra, trigonometry. I took solid geometry.
Doel:What science courses did you take?
Shoemaker:Well, I took the ones that you expect to take if you're going to go to Cal Tech. I took physics and chemistry. I guess I took a biology course too, a year of chemistry and a year of physics and that's basically what you could get in the school system. I didn't waste time in high school. I went to summer school. This was during the war, and I was able by going to summer sessions to complete three years in two, so high school was kind of compressed, so I was a little past, it was my 16th birth day when I graduated from high school. That was before the days of the SAT and all these national examinations. Cal Tech had its own special examinations for entrance. I took them and was accepted, so -– My mother more than anyone else was the one who aimed me at Cal Tech.
Doel:How early did you begin to —
Shoemaker:In high school.
Doel:Did you expect from a very early age to be going to college?
Shoemaker:Oh, yes, sure. I grew up with college educated parents. It went without saying. There was never a question.
Doel:Tell me a little bit about the exam that you went to for Cal Tech entrance?
Shoemaker:I remember going down and taking it, in a large lecture room which in fact was in the geology building. As it turns out I've given many a lecture in that room since. Of course that was my first introduction to — I got the bus, in those days, you could take a bus from West Hollywood to Pasadena, but still the red streetcars were running. It was a pretty intensive exam. I think I was pretty well prepared for it, from my high school.
Doel:Did it cover all the areas of science?
Shoemaker:It covered math, physics and chemistry. That's what I recall. I know the chemistry… (fades out…) I don't recall that there was anything else. That's really the — where Cal Tech was concerned about your preparation, because the standard course, in those days, every student basically took the same course right through the sophomore year, regardless of what you were going into. Not quite the same. There were some possibilities for electives. Mostly it was the standard course, two years of mathematics, two years of physics, and everyone took at least one year of chemistry, and for geology I took two years of chemistry. So it was a very standardized curriculum at the preparatory stage. But you had to be able — the exam was really to determine whether the student was prepared to do it. Students at that time, I entered in the fall I think of ‘44, students at that time were not as well prepared as the students entering as freshmen today. At least very few. There was one student in my section — this was during the war, so Cal Tech was geared up academically, most of the students who came to the school were V-12 students, and they were students who were being trained to be engineers, and they were compressing the four year curriculum into three by breaking up the year into three semesters, so you did a year and a half. There were no vacations. You were right straight through. And you came out in 2 2/3 years, and most of the students who survived academically then got their commissions and went on into the Navy. And so I was, there were a limited number of civilian students, actually, that entered in any semester, and most of them of course were gone into the services by the time you reached the first year. It turned out, I was just young enough, at 16, that by the time I finished two semesters, I was just barely, had just finished my first year, I just turned 17. In those days, almost all my classmates were going into the Navy. There was a special test you'd take to go into electronics. So I took that test. After a pretty intensive first year, I was ready to go to the Navy! But you had to have your father's permission to join at 17, and his wisdom prevailed. He said, "No, I think the war's going to be over in a year, and I'm making enough money at the studio to keep you going, so why don't you hang in there," and sure enough, he was right. It ended the next year, the war was essentially —
Doel:Did you receive any financial support from Cal Tech?
Shoemaker:Not initially, but on the basis of need and acceptable grades, I did get some support, I think probably the last couple of years, just the last year or so. The total tuition per year was $400 for the academic year at that time. Now it costs a small fortune. Of course, $400 was a pretty good amount of money in those days.
Doel:— was a small fortune then.
Shoemaker:My father was working full time in the studio, so he, I was able to keep going , so I squared out, they shifted back to just a full civilian program in my senior year, but in the meantime I'd completed three years, so I came out finishing in 2 2/3 years. By which time I was exhausted! I went off and just spent a whole month the first half of the summer, just relaxing and doing nothing, bumming around the studio, visiting my relatives — I just went, sssshhhh —
Doel:That I believe. Did you have any other alternate schools in mind? Was Cal Tech always the first?
Shoemaker:That was it. I never even thought about any place else.
Doel:And before, there are many questions based on what you've said so far that I am very interested in pursuing, but could you tell me a little bit more before we go chronologically forward about the museum that you mentioned?
Shoemaker:Well, of course all my impressions of it were as a youngster. There were some gifted people in this education program. They were employees of the museum and taught courses.
Doel:Do you remember any of them very vividly?
Shoemaker:I remember the geology course and the mineralogy course in particular, since that's what I was most interested in. And a little bit about the teachers there, one was a person, the other — I learned a bit, mainly I learned to sit down and how to take notes in a lecture and prepare a good notebook for the course, in mineralogy in particular.
Doel:Were any of your teachers in mineralogy or geology then actually in field practice? Did any of them come out of that?
Shoemaker:Some research was being done in paleontology by the museum staff, but Buffalo Museum of Science has not been a strong research organization. In fact, I was interested, I've gone through Buffalo in later years and I went down to look at the museum. I was surprised at how small it was. It looked like a big place to me when I was a kid. Gosh, I walked into the same exhibit halls and it looked like the same old place. It just hadn't changed much. It was amazing. It was an incredible experience, to go back. I remember one hall was on astronomy, and there was a very simple model on the wall of Beutelgese in comparison to the size of the sun. That size comparison stuck with me all through my life. It was a very good place for a kid. I think that's by far the most important thing that such an institution can be. I don't know what's happened to it. I don't think there's that much—it was a special group of people, a special time, a very unique and special place. But I literally don't know what's happened, whether it's continued.
Doel:Do you remember any other hobbies that you had when you were a child?
Shoemaker:Oh well, I did the usual things, of course. Model airplanes and stuff like that. But mineral collecting, I was a fanatic. That was all important.
Doel:How large did your collection become?
Well, it wasn't very big, actually. I had some old cabinet drawers and aluminum boxes I'd collected over the years that I kept these things in. I did, curiously enough, when I was in high school I worked in what they called the public library for a time. That was one of the jobs available. I discovered, when I was shelving books and magazines, I discovered an encyclopedia and happened upon a section dealing with radioactive decay, series. I thought that was the most amazing thing. I had not heard anything about this in school, I just found this. I got absorbed radioactive — I started to collect them, mainly by purchase, and I built quite a mineral collection, both primary and secondary uranium minerals. One of these specimens actually comes from the desert in Wyoming. It's a beautiful secondary mineral called, and interestingly enough, Paul Mazursky who spent a long time, you know, one of his early jobs on the Geological Survey was to go and work on uranium deposits in the Red Desert, so I had gotten quite fascinated with uranium minerals before I was in college, and it's just one of those turns of fate that my first job with the Geological Survey was to go around doing mineral exploration.
Of course, I knew about radioactivity before I was a student, and when the news broke on the atomic bombs dropped over Japan, of course a lot of things started to click and I thought, oh yes. I didn't know the details, but I understood quite a bit about it. And that had a profound effect on my outlook and expectations of science. If we could make the incredible step of making a nuclear explosion, and it was an enormous achievement, — I was looking at what has happened with rockets, during the war, and of course being from Cal Tech, I knew about what was happening here at JPL after the war, the building of sounding rockets and their being launched, the state system, the V-2s and the, so I was familiar with what was happening there, and I was impressed with the potential of advanced technological advancement and scientific advancement. How much had happened, in the few short years while I became technically aware, so I had really immense anticipation for what might happen in my scientific lifetime. I think it was really those factors which led me very early to conclude, really on totally insufficient grounds, to conclude that probably there would be manned exploration of the moon in my lifetime, which really kind of arrived just about the time (which conclusion I'd arrived at?) just about the time I went to work for the Geological Survey. It clicked, one day, I can remember the exact situation as was working on a little uranium can, and a guy that worked at the staff house of the Corporation, we were driving for breakfast at the staff house of the corporation, driving down this little road way out in the boondocks of Western Colorado, thinking about these things, and it dawned on me, yes, there was going to be manned exploration of the moon. Why were you going to the moon? Because you wanted to explore. What did you really want to take to explore? You wanted to take a geologist. That's what it was all about. I made up my mind right then and there, I'd be standing at the head of the line, use whatever opportunities came along to be as near as I could to being the most qualified geologist to go to the moon. This was in 1941.
Doel:Certainly a time of high expectations.
Shoemaker:But those events that happened, which I followed at a distance, very much influenced what I meant to accept.
Doel:Particularly I want to get back to what you did in our years at Cal Tech, but before I do, when you were collecting minerals, did you have correspondence? Did you talk with other people once you became interested in uranium?
Shoemaker:Well, there were other young people, mostly in high school, I was always the kid, mostly high school students involved in this, and we had a club, swapped minerals. That was another nice thing about the Buffalo Museum of Science. The mineralogy teacher knew enough about collecting localities that were accessible there in western New York, and we'd go out in field trips and collect rocks, so it was more sort of a club activity, and we did swap, but I don't recall that I wrote letters, except to write to Ward's in Rochester, New York, which was a prime supplier of mineral specimens and other — the Ward Scientific Establishment, a famous institution, an early source of some of the minerals I was interested in , and Ward was not too far away, of course.
Doel:What did you feel were the strengths and weaknesses of Cal Tech in your years and later when you were there?
Shoemaker:Well, of course I was there during a very anomalous time, and there were kids who started there, about 25 or 30 of us, freshmen, who entered that semester, and only four graduated, going right straight through. Out of the four of us two were 4-F and two were very young squirts. I don't know how you'd — and so — it was, it was just as challenging then as it is today, I think, for the freshmen. To go into Cal Tech, I found it very — first of all, I was very proud to have been selected, to be able to do it. “Now I am somebody,” probably what every kid thinks when he starts Cal Tech, you're on your way to being somebody. And Cal Tech affects students in different ways, depending upon where they are in the pecking order of ability. Of course, except for a very few, you find that there are some people around who are a hell of a lot smarter than you are, despite the fact that you've been academically top dog or close to top dog from wherever you came from, and that's a humbling experience. But for the people who are sort of in the upper half academically, it's a tremendously good place, exhilarating, and for me Cal Tech was just, I was absolutely at home there. It was the place for me. For the kids who are at the lower end of that, Cal Tech is a pretty tough place. It's a cram, it really is. I don't know any way to solve that. There is no solution. What has happened, of course, is that the kids at Cal Tech aren't any smarter than the top students anywhere else. They're certainly every bit as smart at Princeton or for that matter UCLA if you take the top group. But what you've done is, you've essentially screened out the lower ranks of students that would be doing perfectly all right at less universities, and so, competition is just terribly keen. Cal Tech at that time, when I was at Cal Tech, it was much more strongly selective than or Stanford. These days I think it's just as tough to get into Harvard or Princeton or Stanford as it is Cal Tech, maybe more so. But it was very selective at that time, — well, it's still selective, it's just that some of the other schools have got equally selective. So the students terrified you. Well, they've actually taken some steps to ease the pressure at Cal Tech, making the freshman year Pass, Fail, that helps a lot. But I enjoyed Cal Tech very much. One of the disadvantages was that the geology department was essentially disbanded during the war, so what I ended up doing was, I took every other course that I had to have, that I needed to graduate, and so I took some of the beginning courses that were available. I was one of the students taking the course. Then essentially my senior year, the faculty re-assembled and I took all my geology. I took an overload of about a year and a half or two years, I took two years worth of geology courses that they had to give, so that was a distinct disadvantage. That wasn't Cal Tech's fault, it was just absolutely —
Doel:What were the faculty members doing during the war? Of the geology department?
Shoemaker:Well, a lot of them were involved in the Defense Minerals Program. There were various critical minerals that the US supply was short of, and there was intensive work to see if domestic supplies of some of these minerals could be located. And of course some of those people were in the service. So there were just two professors who were older, who were actually sort of the of the department, too old to be involved in the war. One of them was a paleontologist, one a structural geologist. They were also not involved in defense minerals and similar kinds of efforts, so they were on campus.
Doel:What were their names?
Shoemaker:John Peter Buwalda, was the structural geologist, and the founding chairman of the department. He was still the chairman when I was a student. And Chester Stock, the paleontologist, who came at the same time. The department was essentially established and built up in the later 1920s. So these men were not the younger generation — a little old for the draft. So I enjoyed Chester Stock particularly well. In fact I took graduate courses from him. He's just a delightful guy. Buwalda was somewhat more aloof, a very distinguished man. He always scared me a little bit. I was a pretty young guy. The interesting experience, of course, was when I was a senior, almost all my classmates then were returning veterans, out of the service, — in fact, …(off tape) so actually I had had all the geology sort of in a great gush. Dick Johns, who was one of my professors, a young fellow, he'd gotten a Cal Tech PhD and then come back, just returned to the faculty, he sort of became my mentor. He suggested that it would be a good idea, since I was only just 19 or so, it would be a nice idea to stay on for a year and take a master's and kind of consolidate that — and so he more than anyone else really had a major influence on my life. I worked with him for about a decade, in the US Geological Service, and I was most impressed, on the Survey, got by Dick but I didn't really have to … (fades out) But I did go out and he invited me to join in the latter part of that summer after I graduated and work in the field, and I did some work that led to my master's degree. So I stayed on and took a master's. Then I was a teaching assistant the next year at the age of 19.
Doel:That must have been an experience in itself.
Shoemaker:Well, I was a TA for Johns and for Ian Campbell, who's another marvelous teacher. I was TA for the introductory petrology courses. And they taught it in their own distinctive style. The lab part, which I was primarily responsible for, and I'd taken these courses just the year before, was the really important part of the course, and I poured myself into that teaching year with enthusiasm. It was as great experience. Every student in the class was my senior in years by at least two or three years, most of them older than that. But the wonderful thing about Cal Tech is, those guys who came back right after the war was over, were they ever dedicated students. I mean, they felt that they'd lost time, and they were anxious to get in there, finish up that degree and go on. It was as tremendous class. There were about 13 students. This is normally a junior class. 13 students in that class, and they didn't blink at my being a TA, and they just were in there doing it. I went from there, I have to tell you, since you're at Princeton, three years later I was a TA in an introductory geology course at Princeton. Oh my God, what have I gotten into? Half those kids were just there because Daddy wanted them to be. The difference was just night and day! They were really kids, kids straight out of high school, compared with these rather mature guys under utterly different circumstances. So that was a shock to me after being a teaching assistant at Cal Tech. So I would say that Johns and Campbell, both of them had a strong effect on me. Actually I developed an abiding interest in petrology, and decided what I should do at that stage, I should just go out and get some experience, and I applied to the Geological Survey. They used to have a very tough civil service exam for geologists.
Doel:Was this 1947?
Shoemaker:I actually took the exam the first time in the spring of ‘47, and I had just attacked about a year's geology under my belt, and I cashed these in. I passed the exam and was offered a job as a summer field assistant in Alaska, but I just wasn't up for that, I'm sorry, so I turned that down. I made it a practice in following years, every time that exam was offered I'd take it, just for the heck of it, and of course I got better and better as time went along. It was kind of fun to do that. So I was on the register. I was the TA for summer field courses as well that summer of my master's degree, the following one when I actually completed the additional requirements. As soon as I finished that I had a job offer from the US Geological Survey to work (???) Junction. (Is this background noise too large for you?)
Doel:I think it's all right… What kind of relationship did Buwalda have with his students?
Shoemaker:Interestingly enough, I think he scared off a lot of students. I know of only one student, to my knowledge, who completed a PhD thesis with Buwalda, and that was Bob Wallace, who's still with the US Geological Survey. He's just about to retire. I think Wallace was his only PhD student. So he, I got to know — he died in the mid-fifties, and I got to know his wife much better in later years. She survived him by many many years, died just recently, and lived close to Cal Tech. He had a wife that I got to know quite well. Strong woman, very warm person. So I got to know her better than I did John Peter, but in fact, I got very good grades in geology courses, which enabled me, by special vote of the faculty, to graduate without (him?) In those days only about 5 percent of the graduating class graduated, these days it's about 50 percent, the standards have changed, but Buwalda gave me a B in structural geology. I thought I did better than that. In any event, he was the one who built up the department. That was his creation. Very distinguished. But he I think was somehow somewhat aloof from his students. That's probably the reason was, more important study.
Doel:What impression do you have of the relationship of Dr. Stock with his students?
Shoemaker:Oh, they loved him. It was a strange thing, because paleontology was really an anomaly in a place like Cal Tech, but when the geology department was started, at that time there was a very close relationship between the Carnegie Institution and Cal Tech. George Ellery Hale of the Carnegie Institution came out here and founded Mt. Wilson Observatory, and then became the guiding spirit behind the building of Cal Tech, turning what was a small polytechnic school into Cal Tech. He was the one that went and recruited Millikan and Noyes(?), the three that really brought in Cal Tech, but Hale was always the eminence grise in the background, never directly in the school. Nevertheless when Millikan would start on a new venture, actually what happened was, Carnegie — Hale was interested in starting seismology, so he made a deal that he would start the Seismological Laboratory under the Carnegie Institution, of Millikan would start a geology department to go with it. Then when the time came the Seismo Lab would be transferred to Cal Tech, which is precisely what happened. So geology was as far from Millikan's ken — he sought advice, and he went to the president of the Carnegie Institution, which happened to be John C. Merriam, a vertebrate paleontologist. And Merriam of course recommended his start students, which were John Peter Buwalda and Chester Stock. Buwalda was asked to come and he was slightly the senior of the two, so he was asked to come and start the department. He did, he came from Yale, was made a professor, and proceeded to bring to Cal Tech a stellar group. Stock came two as a second professor in the department, and Stock was a distinguished vertebrate Paleontologist. You have to build up collections and do all those things. Stock had a very good ongoing enterprise, and one means that he had students was, it was required of PhD students in those days to actually have two theses. They had to do a major thesis and a minor thesis. Many geologists did a minor thesis on paleontology under Chester Stock, and a number of distinguished vertebrate paleontologists came out of Cal Tech, which is a strange place for paleontology. When Stock retired and left, in fact, he died in the job, he was chairman. He didn't retire. He succeeded Buwalda as chairman and died of a heart attack, while he was chairman actually. He had only a couple of years in that position.
Doel:Do you recall what year that was?
Shoemaker:It was early fifties, but I can't be sure. So later the vertebrate collection was sold and transferred to LA County Museum which is a better home for it. It just wasn't feasible to maintain a high profile in that field. You needed a better environment for it. Stock could do it all alone, but it wasn't a natural direction for the department to go. But there were many students who came out of that — a very important part of their education was Chester Stock. Of course a tremendous liking for the man among those who worked for him. So that — It's interesting, the influence that came from that.
Doel:When did Dick Johns and John come on board?
Doel:You had mentioned another name, another professor.
Shoemaker:Oh, Ian Campbell. …
Doel:We've come back after an interruption. We were talking about Professor Johns and Professor Campbell.
Shoemaker:Ian Campbell had come out of Harvard. He was a young assistant professor hired by Buwalda in the early 1930s, so he was on deck at as very early stage in the department, later he served as executive officer of the department, and was in many ways the life and spirit of the place. He ultimately left to become the state geologist, in fact is the state geologist of California. He was much beloved and well known across the country. He really was as much an administrator as a scientist, during much of his career, but he had a wonderful gift as a teacher, and he was the teacher of Dick Johns, who was a Cal Tech undergraduate, later actually came back and did h is PhD at Cal Tech. A lot of Dick John's style –- One of the things I have to recount is, Campbell taught the introductory as well as some of the advanced petrology and petrography courses, and there's great emphasis laid on field ability, ability to recognize and describe accurately rocks in the field, and so the final exam was a special collection of rocks that Campbell had acquired over his career, which no one was allowed to see during the the course of the semester. About 100 rocks were laid out on the table. You were not allowed to scratch them, put acid on them, do anything but just look at them, and identify those rocks. A very challenging experience. I remember one in particular, it was a cobble, black, dense, very (???), and with one broken chipped surface where you could see what the interior looked like under the surface. I think that probably the vast majority of the students looked at that rock and identified it as a basalt. It was about the right density, right color, fine crystal area(?) and looked like But if you looked very carefully at the of the chipped surface, there was a tiny of a tail section. It was in fact a dense black limestone! Finely crystal. But that was completely in Campbell's style, and he had all kinds of fun with sweepstakes and good jokes that would go on through the course, that would lighten and put a challenge into some of the tedium of microscopic work. Johns just took this same kind of spirit, and elaborated on it. It was a delight to be in the field with him all the time. He was a raconteur of jokes and limericks and such. Just full of this fun. Students were always playing practical jokes on him and he was always retaliating — in fact a little bit of mayhem around there, with the two of those guys on the campus. But always in good spirits.
Doel:Before you began your Master's research, did you have much chance to actually see research in progress?
Shoemaker:Well, yes, surely. In the sense of, a lot of the faculty were coming back, picking up the threads of where they were. Johns had lots of ongoing projects remaining to be finished with the US Geological Survey. So one could get a very good feeling for what they were really doing, and it carried over into the courses. I should mention another man who came my graduate year, returned to Cal Tech. He had been an undergraduate there and had gone on and received his PhD at Harvard and taught in the Midwest, and then after the war was invited to come to Cal Tech on the faculty. His name was Robert P. Sharp, who later then became the chairman of the department, and guided it to basically the division of Geological Science that it is today, with key people on the faculty, senior members of the faculty, and the young men improved on it. He was also one of the most extraordinary teachers in the Institute or nationally, so he was very influential. Sharp is a general geologist and geomorphologist, and I've developed a lifelong interest in geomorphology, which carries over, I should say, into the space program. Sharp himself got very much involved in the Mars missions and the which was a natural thing for a geomorphologist, absolutely.
Doel:What kind of research equipment were you using for all this?
Shoemaker:I didn't use anything more sophisticated than a petrographic microscope. In fact, there generally wasn't sophisticated equipment in those days. A few places were just getting X-ray machines. That was a big deal, to get an X-ray machine. In fact, I didn't learn to run an x-ray machine while I was a student at Cal Tech because there was none available.
Doel:When did you learn?
Shoemaker:At Princeton. Mainly I became, through the influence of Johns primarily, really dedicated to field geology. It sort of aided my goals, to try to become a top notch field geologist. In a sense, that's been my continuing orientation, and primarily an observational scientist. While I went back to Princeton to learn to become a petrologist, I did in fact do petrological (research?) but I intended to work on crystal rocks and studied — I got sidetracked into other things, and I really got more into structural geology, and from that into planetary, first lunar then planetary, and actually, outside of the straightforward simple instruments we used in the field, — I do things that students don't generally do in planetary — I don't really work very much with instruments. It's an eyeball kind of a science, both in the field on the earth, it is still, as well as what we do when we look at the satellites of Uranus. I get out of those the things I can get by trying to understand their spacial relationships, and looking in great detail at the morphology(?) of the surface, rather than trying to extract the numbers that come out of photometry or something.
Doel:Field geology has a long tradition. Were you involved in other groups and activities while you were at Cal Tech?
Shoemaker:Hah, just making it through school was an absolute all consuming full time activity! There wasn't time for anything else. Actually many of the exterior activities, athletics, glee clubs, things like that really weren't active, during this anomalous period during the war. So you know, there wasn't some special outside interest that I pursued. My hobbies became my profession. Still are. So that I've had the great good fortune of being able to pursue my avocation as my vocation.
Doel:Were there geologists outside the circle of people you knew at Cal Tech that influenced you?
Shoemaker:Not while I was in school, it was the faculty that — of course, when I left to go to work for the Geological Survey, that was a whole new education. I learned a lot on the job.
Doel:Tell me about your research for your Master's?
Shoemaker:Oh, it was a study of metamorphic rocks, in a small window through the Tertiary deposits, bordering the Rio Grande Trough in northern New Mexico. Johns had worked in that area during the war on the deposits, as optical quality mica was one of the critical minerals, and so he was just going in to do a little project that summer, to map an area that had never been mapped, so I mapped with him, along with two other people, and he suggested I work on the petrology of these metamorphic rocks as a thesis, which I did, basically. It wasn't a great scientific just journalism, but it further whetted my interest in petrology. And petrography. I intended in fact to pursue the whole business of pre-Cambrian rocks in southwestern New Mexico, … as my goal, but as it turned out, I got into entirely different things. One of my good friends that I met the first year on the Survey was Lee Silver, now a professor at Cal Tech, who did in fact become an expert on the pre-Cambrian rocks of southwestern New Mexico.
Doel:In looking back on it now, do you think you were exposed to the most up to date theories in geology?
Shoemaker:Oh yes, I think that my exposure was to the modern ideas of the time. But you have to remember that the period of great scientific breakthroughs was just about to happen. So most of the transformations that have come about in geology, through new techniques, through seafloor exploration — marine geology was, there were few places in the country you could study marine geology. It really became a whole field, tremendous field, discipline. One of the graduate students at the time I was there was Ark (?) and there were others who went on into marine geology at La Jolla, and Ark (?) certainly was one of the pioneers, making discoveries that were preliminary to plate tectonics. So the whole business of seafloor explorations really was just beginning…except a couple of … And all of the analytical techniques, and I got very much involved in modern analysis through chemistry in my period with the Geological Survey, most of that still was so — really, the big advances in the science all followed that, that period of my career. I do have to say that you didn't get a terribly deep grounding in the literature at Cal Tech. You spent most of your time learning technique. So you came out armed very well to go study problems, but without broad grounding in what the problems are, and it turned out to be a very fortunate choice for me to go on and continue graduate work at Princeton, where the emphasis was on what the problems are and not very much on technique. It was a pretty good combination. It's hard to pick up physical and mathematical background later on. It's better to start with that early and then, and do it in the sequence in which I did it, it's much easier. You can do it the other way but it's harder. So I felt I was doubly lucky to start at Cal Tech, — the contrast to Cal Tech, which was a very high pressure place at the time, both on the graduate and undergraduate level — the graduate level at Princeton was pretty laid back. Essentially, you had a long reading list and important things to learn and know and there's the library, go to it.
Doel:Back in ‘47 and ‘48, prior to these later developments, what did you think was the most exciting research that was going on at the time?
Shoemaker:Well, I was excited about understanding the pre-Cambrian, which was practically terra incognita. We knew what the pre-Cambrian rocks were, but precious little about them. This pre-dated any significant amount of isotopic age determination. The old technique of doing this with mass spectrometry had been worked out by Al Neer just before the war. Then there was just a tremendous explosion and development of that after the war, which was critical in unraveling the first 7/8 of history, and so that contributed very much, and excited about early earth history, as a wide open field, and the Southwest, to go for that, and so that's one of the things that looked interesting to me. I was always interested in the structural problems of the Western United States, to try to understand the basic problems. Now we even understand it a little, with plate tectonics, but it's still — I would say it was during this period, actually after I left as a student, that the field work that was going on during that time led to the real documentation of the San Andreas Fault, — the Fault is an enormous lateral slit, and I was convinced, and the argument was hot and heavy at that time, how much slip was there on the San Andreas, a favorite topic of John Peter Buwalda, who thought the slip was large, and he was right. Although I don't think he guessed how big it was. There was the famous paper by Hill and that appeared in the early fifties, when proposed the evidence for this for the first time, and I became convinced from that that there was tremendous motion, lateral displacement, in the crust, that Wegener was probably right. Continental drift looked pretty good.
Doel:This was, very few people — this was quite early?
Shoemaker:Even as a student, I wouldn't say, it wasn't that there were drifters at Cal Tech, but I really, just the field evidence that was coming out of California — probably the continents had drifted. How else could we get these tremendous displacements? These displacements we were already looking at. So I was convinced there had to be convection. By the time I went to Princeton, of course there was no doubt in my mind. Harry Hess was a relatively young faculty member who had just come back from South Africa at that time, and had become convinced himself by ‘50 or so, so that I was already very much predisposed to this.
Doel:Who was Buwalda arguing with?
Shoemaker:Oh, there was a well known structural geologist at Berkeley by the name of Tolliver — it looks like Talio Farro, and Tolliver had engaged in a study in the San Francisco Bay area, and was arguing strongly that the total displacement was small. He was at the other end. There was the big argument between Southern Californians and Northern Californians, between Tolliver and most everybody else really.
Doel:We're going to have to save the story of your Princeton work and your early work at USGS until next time. Thank you very much for this long section.