Oral History Transcript — Dr. Eugene Shoemaker
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Eugene Shoemaker; June 16, 1987
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 a second interview with Eugene Shoemaker of the United States Geological Survey of Flagstaff, Arizona, on June 16, 1987. In our first interview, we covered events in your career up to 1948, the time that you got your Master's from Caltech. You joined the US Geological Survey at that point, and you became involved in exploration of the Western deserts. How much freedom did you have in choosing your research options at that time? How did you get involved in the work that you became involved in, once at USGS?
Shoemaker:Well, I looked upon myself as a pretty lucky guy, really. I had my sights set on the Geological Survey, as a matter of fact, as a principal mode of employment, while I was still an undergraduate, and that was probably influenced at least in major part by Dick Johns, who was a teacher of mine at Caltech.
Doel:Had he been in the Survey then?
Shoemaker:Johns had been in the Survey for ten years. And had had a very wide experience during the war years in particular, and in fact, had come back, he'd been a Caltech graduate himself, and had come back and taken his PhD, and during this period of time, and then at the end of the war he was invited to return to Caltech on the faculty as an assistant professor, and so I met him as a senior when the faculty essentially re-assembled at the conclusion of the war. And Johns was a charismatic individual, and he was young and full of beans and gung-ho, and I found him a very exciting guy. Of course he was very strong on the Survey, but also you could go to the library and see what people on the Survey did. You looked at the bulletins and professional papers and it was pretty impressive. It was an important part, major part of the geological literature. So it seemed to me that that really was the career. I did go and do some interviews with petroleum companies. In fact, hiring in the oil patch was very vigorous in those days, but I soon made up my mind that the Survey was the place I wanted to go. In fact, I had taken the examination, the civil service examination for geologists which was administered by the Survey and designed by the Survey. In those days, and it had been during the thirties and how long before that I don't know, but at least during the thirties and the forties a very stiff exam, and I took it when I was a senior, and in fact I crammed all my geology practically into my senior year, so I was pretty green when I took that exam the first time, but I passed it, which most takers of the exam did not, so I actually was on the register and was offered a job at the end of my senior year, but instead I stayed on, took the Master's, with intent of going on. My game plan was to go and work for the Survey for about three years, and then go back and do a PhD, with the hopes that I might have in my pocket at the end of that time a thesis project.
Shoemaker:Well, I didn't know where I would go, actually. I didn't intend to return to Caltech. I figured I would probably go back East. Some place in the Ivy League. But anyway, it was good to go to another school, although as it turns out I did end up applying back at Caltech, more or less as an ace in the hole, backstop in case nothing else attractive came through. So I had the Survey in my sights, and I went out the summer I finished my Master's degree, and I think we probably did this on the other tape — was a TA for a summer field course in the Zuni Mountains on the Colorado Plateau, in northwestern New Mexico. The course was run by another Caltech grad who was both a bachelor's and a PhD from Caltech and a buddy of Dick Johns, who was then on the faculty at New Mexico Tech at Socorro. Well, —
Doel:And this was?
Shoemaker:This was Clay T. Smith. He's just now retired actually at Socorro. He stayed there, he'd just gone to Socorro actually right after the war. In fact, he had worked in the uranium business too, actually with a group that was formed to survey the uranium ore prospects for the Manhattan Project. And so he knew the plateau also before he'd gone to Socorro. Well, I had cut my geological teeth in the California Coast Ranges, where you crawl on your belly to get through the brush, or you scramble or beat your way through it, and that was my knowledge of field work, and you know, it was tough and it was hot and you came eyeball to eyeball with the rattlesnakes, but mostly it was dusty and dry and a struggle to get around. I went to the Zuni Mountains. We were camped in the pine forest. This was a country you could walk upright in! Through the forest! And you could see the rocks. I thought it was heaven. I thought, my God, I didn't know there were such neat places! And lo and behold, I got a job offer from the Geological Survey to go to work in Grand Junction on the Colorado Plateau. And I thought —
Doel:— you can walk upright there.
This is the place for me. And furthermore, Clay Smith had spoken glowingly of the Plateau, and so I was really primed to go there. In fact, he advised me to go en route to Grand Junction, to take a train ride, which I didn't do and I have regretted it, because the whole narrow gauge line from Durango, Colorado, going up through the San Juan Mountains and ending up at a little town of Uray in Colorado (there's another town called Uray in Utah), would have, I could have used that as a roundabout way to get to Grand Junction. And I later did go on some rides on part of that line, but it was no longer connected railroad at a later point in time. It was a fantastic trip. So when I finished the job as a TA, and I helped return everything back to Caltech and in short order I was on my way out to Grand Junction, and arrived about mid-summer to go to work. Well, the program in Grand Junction was to explore for uranium. It had been a program that had been about one year under way at that time, and what had happened is that the AEC, which was of course the successor to the Manhattan Project, had sat down and taken a cold hard look, the Commissioners themselves had taken a hard look at the prospect of finding enough uranium both to continue the production of nuclear weapons, and they were also of course thinking even at that early stage about the prospects for nuclear energy. But that depended critically on their being an adequate resource or supply of uranium for the whole business. In fact, the entire US supply of uranium, or cache of uranium, it wasn't a supply, cache of uranium that was available to be used in the Manhattan Project had been consumed. Almost every scrap of it.
It's widely believed, and there are many historical misconceptions actually about this, that essentially all that uranium came from one mine, the Shenkalobe(?) Mine in the Belgian Congo. In fact that's not true. What had happened was that there had been a radium mining industry in western Colorado, that spilled a little bit over into eastern Utah but was mostly in western Colorado, in the very region to which I was going and would be assigned, and this was the principal producer of radium up to about 1920, and at that time the Belgians brought in major production in the Congo, but the Belgians were very cagy. They secretly developed the mine and produced a major supply of radium before announcing their discovery, and then they essentially forced the US industry out of business.
Doel:They had the market.
Shoemaker:They just cornered the market for radium, and the existing radium mines in Colorado just shut down overnight. In fact, in some of the mines I went back into and mapped, which had not been operated since 1920, you'd go in and there were gunnysacks filled with hand-sorted ore sitting in these little mines. The miners just picked up and walked out. The market absolutely disappeared overnight. So anyhow, I arrived in Grand Junction. I got off the story a little bit. It turns out, when the Belgian syndicate took over, they bought out the resources of what had been the major producer in the Colorado Plateau uranium field, which was the Standard Chemical Company whose headquarters were in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, and that's where the radium was finally refined from the concentrate. And they had in Canonsburg a very large stock of uranium oxide. There was no market for it. They were producing radium, but they got the radium out and they had a large supply, and in fact, about half of the uranium that was used in the Manhattan Project had been sitting there at Canonsburg since about 1920. So it was bought from the Belgians. We bought it back. But it had never left the United States. So there's an important turn of history here. But at any rate, both the supply that had been built up at Canonsburg and the new uranium that had been purchased from the Belgians during the war had been used up in the construction of the three nuclear devices, plus the uranium that had gone into the reactors that had been built. So it was absolutely crucial to find new uranium resources.
Doel:What was your perception at the time? Had you suspected that there were more uranium deposits when you first entered the Survey?
Well, I was totally ignorant when I took the job. I knew nothing about the geology of uranium deposits. Curiously enough, by one of these very very peculiar turns of fate, I had gotten interested in uranium when I was in high school. By a pure fluke, I had a job in one of the public libraries relatively near my neighborhood. I was just a book stacker, and you know, I handled the various volumes and put books away and got familiar with what was in the library, and once in a while there'd be a little bit of time and I'd browse on something, and I discovered a wonderful encyclopedia article on uranium, and the radioactive decay series. At that time I was an avid mineral collector, so I began collecting uranium minerals. So I knew quite a bit about uranium minerals just from having collected as an amateur, as a kid, but I knew nothing about the geology of the uranium deposits. So I knew what carnotite was. I knew what the major minerals were. But I didn't know the geology of their occurrences when I went to work for the Geological Survey. So these were all things I still had to learn when I got there, and so, what had happened, the AEC Commissioners — as a matter of fact, it was Bob Barker who was then a Commissioner of the AEC, who later was a provost at Caltech, when he stepped down as a Commissioner he came to Caltech and was on the faculty and was a provost, and he was a physicist there, very distinguished one, he had gone, Barker himself had gone to the Geological Survey and asked the then director, William Rather, whether the Geological Survey would undertake an exploration program.
Now, what Barker was asking for was in fact rather something more extensive on a particular mineral commodity than the Survey had ever attempted to do, and in particular, they were trying to, the AEC wanted to create a mining industry which in fact was kaput. It was absolutely moribund. There had been some activity in these deposits, during the war, and mills had been built, and the ore had been processed, but interestingly enough it was just for the vanadium in the ore, not the uranium, and it was for the Strategic Metals Program, and it was just sort of getting under way, because people were worried that the vanadium supply would be short, and basically the war was won, so there wasn't a major activity of mining. There was a period of a few years that the mines were active. They had shut down completely about 1944, and there might have been one or two miners still active in 1947 when the Survey was asked to begin this program. Well, it turns out that the Geological Survey had one man in particular who was an expert. In fact, he had studied the uranium deposits of western Colorado and eastern Utah as his PhD thesis at Princeton. His name was Dick Fisher. And he was the resident expert on vanadium and uranium, and so Fisher was called to head up this new project, and there were some others that had worked with him on vanadium resources, probably. Fisher was the key man. Well, the AEC wanted to get things going. Fisher was a very careful, meticulous, methodical man, and he was carefully organizing and planning a drilling campaign. He had really very thoroughly looked at the principal mining region. He knew the mines by heart. He'd mapped a great many of them personally. All the principal ones. He knew what was there. He knew in fact how to plan a diamond drilling, an exploration campaign, to develop ore deposits and get the thing moving.
In the meantime, of course, a law had been passed at the behest of the AEC to establish the guaranteed price for uranium, with the hopes that this would attract industry into the field. Well, this project had been going about a year by the time I got there, but it had been going very slowly, because Fisher was just building step by step. He'd designated areas of land where the rights had been withdrawn from mineral entry, because you couldn't have a government drilling program going on with a bunch of people hanging around waiting to stake the claims, so the procedure for government drilling was to withdraw land from right of mineral entry. This was land in the public domain that we're talking about now. So that there'd be no conflict in claims and so on, and then when ore was found, the ore bodies would be leased on a competitive bid basis to whoever wanted to develop it. And Fisher designated the areas to be withdrawn, and had actually, by the summer of 1948, established the first drilling projects, and these were just beginning to get under way. But the AEC had gotten very itchy. It was going very slowly. And so the Geological Survey decided that they'd better send a manager down to get things moving. There was no question that Fisher was the expert. He was the best in the business at knowing the geology of the deposits, knowing the ore bodies themselves and how to get the thing started, but he didn't know how to manage a big program, and get it off the ground, so they got one of the Survey's old hands by the name of David Gallagher to come down and take charge. You can imagine, the atmosphere was a little bit electric, because Gallagher had arrived only a couple of months before I got there, but he was the geologist in charge of the program. In fact, Fisher was still the technical decision maker, in terms of what would be drilled and how you would do it, but Gallagher was the manager, was getting the thing going.
Doel:What kind of background did Gallagher have?
Shoemaker:Gallagher was an economic geologist, and in fact, during the war, or rather at the conclusion of the war he had been in charge of a major program to go into Korea, South Korea, and assess the mineral resources of Korea, and had just completed a major report on the mineral resources of Korea before coming to Grand Junction. He was an interesting guy. He was a billiards shark among other things, and his relaxation was to go downtown and take on any comers at three cushion billiards. But he did his job beautifully. They picked the right man, and Gallagher got it going, and he managed to smooth things out and make it actually a quasi-amicable relationship with Fisher. So anyway, I signed in, and so I got sent down to Dick Fisher, because I was really going to get my assignment from him. Anyway, the Survey was out scrounging for manpower to get this program going in a hurry, and I interviewed with Dick, and he asked me what I'd like to do, and I allowed as how I fancied myself to be a field geologist and I'd love to participate in the geological mapping. But they had enough guys doing mapping. What they needed were people to go out and do the nitty gritty of diamond drilling for uranium, and so I got assigned to a drilling project, to learn what it was all about. But meantime I was also assigned to a particular areas, one of the areas that Fisher had designated and withdrawn from right of mineral entry, which was the specific sub-project. And I went down and that was the one I was going to be in charge of for the drilling.
Doel:Was that the Colorado Plateau?
Well, all of this is on the Colorado Plateau. In some ways this was called the Colorado Plateau Project, but actually it was only on a small part of the Colorado Plateau. The Colorado Plateau is a huge area, equal to the area of Great Britain, so we're talking about a small portion of the Colorado Plateau, right. So I was therefore assigned to learn to be an economic geologist, and I was really starting from scratch, because economic geology per se is something you learn by experience. It's like being a physician, you learn by doing it. And I was a little discomfited by that. I really wanted to go out and map geology. But that's OK, I went down, I was going to do the best job, whatever they gave me I was going to do the best job I could. So I went down and in fact I had a look at this area and thought, the best way to plan for that drilling campaign is to go in there and map it very carefully in detail. This was the Joe Dandy Project. It was in an absolutely fantastic place, scenically and geologically. The Joe Dandy Mine was high on the wall of the Paradox Valley, which is one of the really fabulous scenic areas of the Plateau and western Colorado, and Paradox Valley is localized over a salt anticline and has a very complicated geologic history and has some very complex structure over it, and it turns out that the area that was withdrawn from mineral entry was right on a lot of this complexity. It was more complex than anyone had thought.
So I went out and I spent some time with the mappers, and I spent some time with the guys doing stratigraphy and studying the Morrison Formation which is the unit that was ore-bearing, that were doing regional stratigraphy, and that fall I was down on the drilling campaign in one of the early projects, just learning the ropes and how to log core and just the procedures that were being developed. But the most important thing I did that fall was to go and map very carefully about six square miles that was going to be the area we were going to drill on Joe Dandy. Well, I went in and I mapped it, and I discovered, the experienced old hands who had done the mapping for the quadrangle maps in fact I concluded had mis-mapped it, and a huge big area that was just mapped as a landslide, I concluded was actually underlain by the ore-bearing beds, and had been dropped down on faults into the valley. In fact, I went back to Fisher and said, "I think we ought to have another section withdrawn."
Doel:This was in the fall of 1948?
Shoemaker:1948, right. So in fact Fisher agreed with it and an additional section was withdrawn, because I thought we should probably have it available for drilling. And the fellow that was in charge of the mapping, his name was Fred Cater, I actually succeeded in convincing Fred that he'd made some mistakes in the mapping and that in fact the Morrison formation went out under this area he'd mapped as landslide, and it turned out I was right. In fact, in the long run what happened is that the richest ore in the area was in this area that had been mis-mapped and the additional area withdrawn turned out to be very prospective, and ultimately out of that project, which was finally passed to other hands as I went on to other things, the diamond drilling of that project that I started divulged about a million tons of uranium ore, much of it in this particular area under the landslide. So I felt pretty good about that! But that got me into the uranium business, and I went in and I in fact mapped the ore deposits myself. I got quite familiar with them, and I got very much intrigued with the occurrence of the uranium ore, and sat down and tried to do a synthesis myself, took a regional look at how the ore deposits were distributed, and I concluded maybe Fisher had been wrong about the origin of these deposits. So I started forming my own opinions about that.
Doel:This was the time that you were writing the paper on the Sinbad Valley under Fisher, Valley of Salt?
Shoemaker:Well, I was still looking for a thesis, you see. This project wouldn't yield a suitable thesis. So I was quite familiar with the ongoing work of mapping. There were about 18 seventeen and a half minute quadrangles that were being mapped as a part of the overall program, and there were some quadrangles that hadn't been mapped yet, and I had a look at some of them. And there was one that included a portion of Sinbad Valley, which was localized over another salt anticline. I went in there and took a look and thought, boy, this would make a dandy thesis. So I went back and that winter I propositioned Dick Fisher and said, "How about letting me map out in Sinbad Valley?" Because they weren't ready yet to start drilling at Joe Dandy. The drilling contract had not been let and wouldn't be let until the summer time. So I had a little bit of time. I'd done about all the work I could in preparation for that, so in fact I had a little bit of time. There was another fellow had his eye on that quadrangle too, but he had other commitments, as it turned out, so I actually talked him into letting me start geological mapping in Sinbad Valley.
Doel:Who was this?
Shoemaker:Well, this was Dick Fisher. He was really the technical boss. And Fred Cater, who was in charge of the mapping per se, the overall mapping, agreed with it. He had plenty enough to do so he wasn't covetous of the territory. So what I did is, I went out in the spring before the snow was melted, actually, and I set up a camp in the valley, a tent, and I had just purchased — the guy who was in charge of the drilling had a big Labrador retriever. I'd never seen one in my life. They weren't popular dogs in those days. This fellow had come from Alaska. I saw that Labrador and thought, that's a beautiful dog, so I determined I'd get myself a Labrador, which I did. I went out, I purchased this pup a few weeks before I went to the field, raised him out in the field with me in this tent, so I was camped out alone mapping in the valley, and it turned out to be a fabulously interesting place, because the salt structure had grown over a long period of time. In fact, most of the formations, sedimentary formations in and surrounding the valley had been strongly influenced by the movement of the salt, and all this could be documented in the stratigraphy, so I was having a great time mapping the valley. And then I got a big piece of that quadrangle map finished. Cater actually did one part of it and I did another, before I had to get back to the drilling campaign, and then we did start the drilling in '49. So I was going right along very nicely by my planned schedule, to get a research topic started for a thesis, and sort of a three year game plan. And what I was able to do was, on weekends and times during the year in which the drilling was recessed, I would just take time and get out and continue the mapping. So actually over the course of the next summer, and sandwiched in between times, I was able to pursue the mapping, over the structure, and I continued the mapping on into Utah, where we didn't have topographic base maps yet.
Doel:Were you working alone mostly?
Shoemaker:I was working — all that mapping I did alone, as a matter of fact.
Doel:How often would you have contact with Fisher and Cater?
Shoemaker:Oh, you have to go back into town and get grub, so I'd report in every couple of weeks or so, when I was out. When I was working at Joe Dandy, I actually had an apartment in a housing complex that had been built for the workers in a mill, during the war, near the little town of Natareto. The housing project was called West van Colon and it was for a vanadium mill that was just a half a mile down on the San Miguel River, and that was my base camp really, and there were a lot of Survey people housed there. They were working in either mapping or working on diamond drilling projects. So there were lots of people in the camp and I was basically in town, a little teeny town, but in town when I was on the drilling. It was only when I was mapping at Sinbad Valley or the extension of Sinbad Valley into Fisher Valley over in Utah that I was more or less working alone. So over the course of two years, I managed to squeeze in enough time, a great deal of it on my own time, to go out and continue the mapping, and I had basically most of the mapping completed at the time that I returned to Princeton. It turned out that my game plan didn't quite work as I had figured out, because the following December, after we had begun the drilling at Joe Dandy, I was told that the AEC had decided to shift some emphasis and was pulling back on some of the funding for drilling, and so the drilling campaign at Joe Dandy was being put into temporary recess, and so that seemed like, that was the opportune time to take a break and go back to school. But I learned about it so late in the year that I had to scramble to get an application in for the following fall.
Doel:What year was this?
Shoemaker:This was late 1949, and so I immediately wrote and got applications to Harvard and to Princeton and I worked back to Caltech to cover my bets, and made application to Harvard, Princeton and Caltech. Well, Harvard, by the time they got my application, they'd already handed out all the fellowships and teaching assistantships. I was accepted but they didn't have any financial support left. In fact, Caltech had also handed out all of their financial support, but they get some rejections, and so I actually did get a quite decent offer for support. I could have gone back to Caltech, but I didn't want to return to Caltech. I knew exactly what that was going to be. I was really hoping to go to Princeton, because I'd heard very good things about one professor in particular, Arthur Buddington, who was a famous petrologist, and I had heard glowing things about Buddington, and I was going to be a petrologist. That's what I really wanted to go back to school for.
Doel:Had you met him already?
Shoemaker:I had not met him, only heard about him. So I really wanted to go to Princeton. And that's about all I knew about Princeton, was, Buddington was there.
Doel:How much did you know about Harvard?
Shoemaker:Well, I knew names. That was about it. I knew there were a lot of famous names at Harvard, but about the school in particular I didn't know a lot. I knew it had, Harvard at that time had the highest reputation of any school in geology in the US. But I really wanted to go to Princeton, and it turned out Princeton was very relaxed in their decision-making process. They kind of did it later than everybody else, and I was in adequate time for Princeton, and they offered me a TA and I took it. So I went back to the place I intended to go to, and the timing was just shifted up by — but I was ready. I really had my project for a thesis in good shape, and I spent quite a bit of time that following summer continuing the mapping, doing more quadrangles, and had the thing, by the time I got back to Princeton I was really in very good shape. So I had a game plan then to go and spend two years, to take the courses, take my orals, write the thesis and be done. That was my game plan. And of course Princeton wouldn't agree to that thesis until I got there, but they actually were quite amenable to the project, when they'd had a chance to size me up and see what it was all about, so that went very well.
Doel:I'd like to get to that in just a moment, but I'm curious, I'd like to get back to the Atomic Energy Commission. Was the funding for the research work that you were doing coming from the Atomic Energy Commission itself?
Shoemaker:Entirely. It was money transferred from the AEC to the Geological Survey, to conduct this very broad ranging exploration program for uranium. The program involved basic geological mapping in the known uranium bearing regions, regional stratigraphic studies of the known ore-bearing formations, detailed mineralogical studies of the ore deposits themselves, studies in geochemistry aimed at trying to understand the origin of the ore deposits better, and then very specific directed diamond drilling campaigns to develop known ore bodies, to stimulate the industry. That's what it was all about.
Doel:Who were the major leaders in the AEC for this work?
Shoemaker:Oh, you're going to strain my memory, if I can bring some of them back. Of course, we were working for the raw materials division of the Atomic Energy Commission. They were the ones that were the direct contact with the Geological Survey, and the raw materials division had been formed, you see, and in fact, one of the interesting things that had happened is that things had gone so slowly at the very beginning that the AEC decided they'd better get their own program put together and do some of this themselves. And so part of the reason why, for example, we had this little recess in the drilling campaign at Joe Dandy was that the AEC was trying to build its own crew of geologists and decide how to allocate the resources, and in fact we were both there located on the AEC compound in Grand Junction, and the AEC essentially developed a completely independent organization that to some extent was in direct competition with the Geological Survey.
Doel:Were they also recruiting the people?
Shoemaker:They were very actively recruiting. They didn't try to recruit from the USGS, but you know, we were recruiting from the same general manpower pool. One of the men who became very important in the AEC raw material division was Robert Ninninger, who in fact, interestingly enough, was the son of Harvey Ninninger, the famous meteoridicist. And Ninninger went on and spent most of his career with the raw material division in very important positions. I can't pull of the top of my head a lot of the other names right now. I think there were some major outside consultants to the AEC, well known economic geologists. One of the names that comes to mind is Olov Rove. But I would have to go back now, and it's difficult for me to reconstruct names, and there are others who know them very much better than I do. I was, after all, a very junior geologist in the whole scheme of things, so I didn't really have much to do with the politics of the thing, nor did I initially have very much comprehension of how the whole program was being managed.
Doel:Did you have a sense of how large the Atomic Energy Commission funded program was as a percentage of the total USGS budget?
Well, it grew very rapidly, and at one time there were about 200 people headquartered in the Geological Survey office right at Grand Junction, working out Grand Junction regionally on the Colorado Plateau and in the uranium deposits directly, and there were perhaps about a hundred other geologists off on other project elsewhere, in the Black Hills, in Wyoming, and in other areas that became important known uranium-bearing areas, so there was a wide-ranging program, and it evolved and built up with time, so that at its peak, I would — I'm making a guess now, I don't have the numbers at my fingertips because I wasn't managing the program, after all, but I would say several hundred, something on the order of 300 geologist or 300 technical people were involved in that program, and at that time, — well, before World War II, that would have been as many or more people than in the entire geologic division of the Geological Survey, so it was a big piece of the whole thing. The geologic division of the Survey grew very rapidly as a consequence of this program. An interesting thing is that the Colorado Plateau Project was perceived by most other people, particularly the old hands in the Geological Survey, as sort of a salt mines. You got sent out there to do these chores. It was not considered an attractive place to work. There were a few who didn't have that feeling, and of course there were people like myself who hired on from the outside, and I thought it was terrific. And those that came to Grand Junction and stayed usually had very much the same feeling. They got to have a deep love for the country and for geology. I just thought it was an incredibly rich experience. I wouldn't trade it for anything.
The ten years I spent headquartered at Grand Junction were some of the very best years of my life, and it was an incredibly exciting time, because we had this huge project. There had never been an effort in mineral deposits in particular with such a concentrated effort, and bringing — this was also a period, it was just the beginning of the ferment of the period in all these exciting new developments in geology, and geochemistry and isotope geochemistry in particular, and we were bringing all the tools that people could think of, focused all on this one problem. So intellectually it was a very rich and stimulating environment, the likes of which had not been seen in the Geological Survey, or for that matter in the field of economic geology before. There were of course major massive efforts in petroleum exploration, but that was a kind of different game. But in terms of mineral deposits, this was a unique historical time, and it was exciting just on that account. The Colorado Plateau itself was an extraordinarily romantic place. When I first went to Grand Junction, the central part of the Colorado Plateau was the last big truly wilderness area left in the conterminous United States. It was empty, virtually empty. And it had, you know, it had some of this wonderful lore of the early radium days. It was fantastically scenic country. And then there was the whole business of the uranium boom, and I saw it from scratch, because when I got to Grand Junction uranium mining was dead, and I watched it build up slowly, and then uranium fever hit the country, and prospectors were crawling all over — penny ante stocks — it was the only major mining boom we've had in the United States in the 20th century, really major mining boom, and all the richness and romanticism and lore that goes with that was there, too. So it was a tremendously exciting time and a wonderful place to be. I wouldn't have missed it for anything.
Doel:Do you recall discussions with people in the Survey, that taking on Atomic Energy projects was affecting the direction of the USGS work ?
Shoemaker:Oh, it was affecting it enormously, sure. This tail was starting to wag the dog. But fortunately we had as a director, and the only time in the entire history of the Geological Survey that we've had a director who came from the outside and came from industry, and he was very good and he was very effective, and he understood the importance, and Bill Rather backed it and supported it, and he knew full well what was happening. But also we were blessed with having a very astute, very able chief geologist whose name was Bill Bradley, and Bradley — I was at such a low level in the Geological Survey, I wasn't close enough to know what was going on in Washington and how these things were being managed, but looking back, I can see that Bradley managed those things very astutely as well. So there was of course the huge risk. The Geological Survey was growing at the expense of outside funding. It did not have direct Congressional support for this work. And it did come to haunt us, when finally the total exploration effort, and the discovery of uranium of course went far beyond the Survey. The really big deposits were not found by the AEC or the Geological Survey, they were found by industry exploring new areas. What we were doing was doing the very conservative sort of pat thing. We were fishing where you knew the fish were, and we were bound to catch fish and we did, but we didn't get the big fish. The really big fish were found in new deposits in the Grants District and later in Wyoming, and they were found by prospectors and by companies. But we were there, and we helped stimulate it. The AEC program was in fact overall extraordinarily successful, and it was chiefly successful because of the direct stimulus for financial — guaranteed price support, straight economics, was the main factor in the success, and it was successful beyond anyone's wildest imagination. So successful that it brought the government program to its own demise. In a very uncomfortable way, because it was cut off. If there had been the opportunity to taper it down, it wouldn't have been a problem, but suddenly the Grand Junction office was simply closed, in the course of a year. That was in the late 1950s. This is in 1958, yes, shut down. We all moved out, lock, stock and barrel, in 1958. So I was there for ten years, from the summer of '58 to the summer of '58.
Doel:We're going back to that in just a moment, but I'm curious about the time you did have in Princeton when you went back there. How long were you actually in residence at Princeton?
Shoemaker:Well, I had worked for two years, and I had saved up some leave, and saved money of course to go back to school. I went back in the fall, got there about a week before —
Doel:— it was the fall of 1949?
Shoemaker:Of '50. I'd been working for two years, so I arrived in the fall of 1950, and I went back. I looked at the catalogue and found out when school was supposed to start, and I corresponded with the department, and I thought, well, I'll just get myself back there early and find a place and get settled — and I was so late applying that I had no priority at all other than the wait list for the graduate college and way down on the list, so I wasn't in the graduate college at Princeton and had to find a place to stay while I went and checked in. In fact, I got a room in what was the oldest dormitory there on campus. I've forgotten the name of it now. It's not far from where the book store used to be, maybe still is. I see it's just had a face lift, and I can't think of the name of it. Anyway, it was an undergraduate dorm.
Doel:It might be Stanhope.
Shoemaker:No, it wasn't Stanhope. What the heck was it? Well, if I could point to a map of Princeton, I could tell you which one it was.
Doel:We can get back to that later.
Yes. Anyway, so I got a room. It was a kind of decrepit old building, I have to tell you, and I was housed with a bunch of undergraduates, and I had a teaching assistantship, which was being teaching assistant for one of the freshmen sections. And I got back early, and it turned out that the geologists were still in the field. The Princeton faculty didn't get back until a week after school started, so I had more time than I realized. So after finding a place to stay and getting settled that way, I went over and there were a few of the older faculty members that were there, and one of them was Benny Hull, who was a professor of paleontology. One of the things I was worried about in particular was, I'd passed all my language exams at Caltech. When I'd gone back to Caltech I'd taken French and German and I'd passed the courses and that satisfied the language requirement, but I was going to have to establish that all over again at Princeton, and unfortunately I learned all my French in about two weeks. I'd been rather lackadaisical in my language courses at Caltech, and I just crammed French enough to pass the course with a high enough grade, and of course promptly forgot it all. I'd studied much more seriously on the German for about a year, so I was in better shape on German, so I thought.
I thought, well, I'll go back and I'll start studying my language, because the rules were in geology, you have to pass one language exam in your first year and another one in your second year, and that was a requirement. You absolutely had to do that. I thought, so I'll get a head start, so I went and saw Benny Howell, and Howell gave the French exam. So he said, "Why don't you take this book and work on it?" And what he handed me was LA FACE DU TERRE, which is the famous book by Seuss, the great Swiss structural geologist on the face of the earth, was a great synthesis written at the end of the 19th century, and there were translations available in English and German, so you either get — I can't even say my German any more — or you get THE FACE OF THE EARTH, so I could get the two volumes and compare them and start to go through them. I got out my old French dictionary and started going in, so I soaked myself in LA FACE DU TERRE, and my French dictionary, for about a week, and I thought I'd go back to see Benny Howell and see what to do next, and Howell reaches up, when I got to his office, and pulls a volume in French down and opens it up and says, "Here, read it to me." So I hadn't wanted to take my exam, I just went in for some advice, so I start to stumble through this translating it, and every time I came to a word I didn't know, Howell supplied it to me, and by the time I walked out of the office, I'd passed my French exam. I thought, that's pretty good, I'll start working on German. That's a good way to start. So I made good use of that time. And then I started courses. Well, I'd been a pretty good student, but I had been completely out of academics for two years. I mean, I really hadn't even thought about academics while in Grand Junction. I started taking courses, and that's a shock, because, you know, I'd been a student all my life, I'd only been out for two years, and blame, all of a sudden, you don't realize how rusty you are.
Doel:What courses were you taking that semester?
Shoemaker:Gosh, I don't know if I can remember now. I took a course in sedimentary geology from Van Houten who was a young professor then, he's just retired, and I was taking Buddington's course, which is the one I really went for. I can't remember the sequence. I took a course from Erling Dorf on stratigraphy, and I took — later on I took a course from Hess in mineralogy, but not that first year. Hess was on sabbatical. He was in South Africa that first year. So I don't remember the sequence of courses, but the main one I was interested in was Buddington's petrology course I did take that year. It was very good.
Doel:What do you remember most from that course? What were your impressions?
Shoemaker:Well, first term, I was getting into physical chemistry, of silicate systems, which I'd had just a taste of as an undergraduate, and I was determined to learn, really understand phase diagrams and learn to work with them, and Buddington had been at one time a research fellow at Geophysical Laboratory in Washington, and knew phase diagrams. That was an important part of his course, and so I was just stuffing myself with sort of the basic fundamentals of petrology, and trying to learn as thoroughly as I could. Buddington was a very systematic lecturer, not dramatic or anything, but he was very thoroughly organized, and he'd write the stuff on the blackboard and put it all down so that when you got through with his course, you felt like you'd taken, number one, a very good set of notes, and then he had reading lists on all of these topics, and we got extensive, every course I took the main style at Princeton was to give you a long list of papers that were judged to be important papers relative to the topic. Here's the list and there's the library. As a matter of fact, it was perfect. It was exactly what I wanted to do, because as an undergraduate at Caltech I'd been grounded in physics and math and chemistry. That's what they stuffed into you there. But not so very much of the lore of the science. What I wanted to do was learn the lore of the science, and that's exactly what I got at Princeton. I didn't have any idea what a perfect fit it would be. It was just pure dumb luck that the combination, starting at Caltech where you get this very highly technical training — they teach you how to solve problems at Caltech. Man, do you learn how to solve problems! But they don't teach you what the problems are. You've got to go find out for yourself. At Princeton, I learned what the problems were. It was a perfect combination, and I've sent many students of my own from Caltech to Princeton for exactly the same reason. It's very good.
Shoemaker:As a matter of fact, there'd been one fellow who'd preceded me, took a Master's at Caltech when I was there, who had gone to Princeton, and they liked him well enough. His name was Ray Smith. So I was the second one, and so I paved the way, and there were quite a few who came after me. That got to be a pretty good trek, from Caltech to Princeton. So it turned out, I found it was an absolutely ideal situation. I got exactly what I wanted out of it, and I spent a lot of time in the library reading, which is one thing I wanted to get when I went back there. There was as young fellow — oh, another course that I took that was a very influential course with me was offered by a young fellow who had just been hired on the faculty by the name of Heinrich Holland, Dick Holland. He'd come and he'd taken his PhD at Columbia, and he wasn't a whole lot older than I was. We were both very young squirts. And Dick was very good, gave an excellent course in geochemistry. I worked very hard on that course. Some of us rebelled when he was going to stuff us with some more calculations by calculus, because I had forgotten my calculus, which I had to go back and re-learn. I hadn't used any of it on the Colorado Plateau. But Dick was the exception. He had a different approach. But his was a very good course as well, which I took the first year. But it was something of a — it was a shock to the morale to discover how rusty I was, and it wasn't till about Christmas time that I got my confidence back, and of course I did very well in the courses, but I worked pretty hard. So from September, sometime in September, and then the area there at the end of the… So by Christmas time, I'd kind of gotten my wind and was feeling pretty good about things, and then the second semester actually ends fairly early, near the end of May, when we were finished, and I headed back out to Grand Junction, where I was able to come back on for the summer, and actually went back to take the mapping I'd been doing and get it completely compiled in good shape for publications, quadrangle maps, so it was directly related to the work I was doing that I was going to pursue for a thesis. So I was there altogether something less than eight months on campus, seven and a half I guess probably.
Doel:How closely did you interact with professors like Buddington? Did you often have discussions with him on topics not related to the classroom work?
Shoemaker:Not too much, really, in that first year. I was really pretty well tending to my knitting. There was lots to do and I was hustling to kind of get back in the groove, and there was lots to read. There was just plenty to do. But I of course had extensive bull sessions with my fellow students, but I didn't really have a lot of casual conversation with anyone on the faculty, although they were friendly enough. I must say the faculty was extraordinarily nice at Princeton, still is. It's really a tradition in geology there. It was a very comfortable warm place. You just felt totally at home. So there wasn't anything standoffish about the faculty at all. They were really very accessible and very friendly, and mutually very compatible. It was a fun place to be from that standpoint, just a tremendously nice place to be. One reason I think I was a little bit in shock when I got there was the other graduate students. It turned out in hard rock courses that I was taking, the petrology and the geochemistry and so on, most of the students were Canadians. There'd been a tradition that had started Canadian students coming down to Princeton, that had been started by Dickie Field a generation earlier, and these guys were good. They were really good. And they were very experienced, just as experienced as I was and some of them were coming more straight from one school to another, and so it was amazing, because I was the only American, the rest were Canadians, and these guys kept me hopping, I'll tell you, they did. They were so good. But of course, they were — graduate students learn from one another, so that was a tremendously good environment.
Doel:Do you remember any of them in particular?
Shoemaker:Oh gosh, there were quite a lot of them. Three of us shared an office. One of them was Jacques Ballon, who is now on the faculty at Montreal. He was the only Frenchman actually out of that group. A number of them went into the petroleum industry, Clinton Dolstrum did and then went into mineral exploration, I believe. Gosh, I'd have to kind of go down through the list.
Doel:There weren't that many that went into the Survey?
Shoemaker:Most of the Canadians went into industry. They were aimed. They were economic geologists and went into the petroleum industry. A few of them, one of them went with the Geological Survey of Canada. Some went into teaching. But most of them went into industry from Princeton, and the Americans tended to go into academia. Muff Laheed(?) was one of the Americans. But the guy I was really closest to, I can't remember the name of the other fellow who shared an office with me, he was a whiz bang too. Terrible to lose your memory. I've lost complete track of him. But they were a good bunch all the way around. I really enjoyed them tremendously, and that made a good year. So I was there for about seven and a half months, and I used up my annual leave, and I was off the payroll actually for about six months. Then I went back out.
Doel:How were you supported during the first year?
Shoemaker:I had a TA, and I taught a section of the introductory, of the laboratory, for the introductory geology course that was given. Gosh, I can't even remember who taught the course now. It was a tremendous shock to me to teach freshmen at Princeton, because I'd been a teaching assistant at Caltech, and I taught the hand specimen petrology labs at Caltech, and these were juniors, and they were all veterans. Every man in my class when I was a TA in the petrology courses for Johns and Campbell at Caltech was a veteran and was older than I was. Very different at Princeton. Those guys, those veterans came right back after World War II, were ready to get on with the show. They were soaking up all the knowledge they could get and they wanted to get on with their lives and their careers. There was no fooling around. I worked my tail off as a TA at Caltech preparing stuff and really knocking myself out to do a good lab, and those guys soaked up every bit of it. You really felt it was worthwhile. Then I got Princeton freshmen! Oh, was I ever disillusioned! About half those kids were there because daddy wanted them to be. I felt like I was really spoon feeding them. I think the caliber of Princeton students has increased materially since that time. So that was a come-down. But actually, I was in pretty good shape financially, because I had saved money. In fact, I had loaned money to my family. I'd saved enough. And I didn't need to call in any of those loans. I pretty well made it by living in an undergraduate dorm for a very low fee. I've forgotten, I think I paid $15 a month or something for that room, and I ate at a little Chinese restaurant in the Princeton downtown sort of on the east side there, can't remember the name, but that's where I usually ate.
Doel:You went back then in — the summer of 1951, back in the field.
Shoemaker:— back in the field. It was mostly not doing field work but doing compilation of the geology, very careful compilation on the topographic maps and getting the mapping ready for publication. I did do some field work, but my main side activity was courting Carolyn. I had met Carolyn the summer before, going to Princeton, because my former roommate at Caltech had gotten married that summer. He was a chemical engineer and had been on Aruba and had met his bride back at Chico, and it turned out she was a very good friend and sorority sister of Carolyn's, and had been introduced to Richard by Carolyn, and so they were getting married that summer, and I was asked by Richard to be his best man at the wedding. So I went back and I met Carolyn in Chico, California, and young ladies were not exactly in abundant supply for eligible bachelors in Grand Junction, and when I met Carolyn I thought she just fit the bill, and I corresponded with her over that winter at Princeton. She almost terminated us. She stopped writing to me, but I persisted. When I learned that she and her family were going to take a trip that next summer, that was spring, and tour around and look at some national parks and go out and visit her father's family in Texas, I wrote to them, "Why don't you come out to the Colorado Plateau and I'll take you on a personalized tour of some of my favorite country " I had known Carolyn's mother before I met Carolyn. Her mother was on my side. I don't know whether that was a hindrance or a help. So her father was going to join them later, and Carolyn and her mother did join me. In fact, I went out to see her, and then we took about a two week trip in the early summer, and I took them to all my favorite places in the canyon lands country, and we ended up back in the uranium country which is spectacularly scenic, and I wooed and won Carolyn in the course of the summer, so later that summer we were married. This is in 1951, and we were all packed up ready to return in September to Princeton, when a very peculiar opportunity arose. There had been considerable discontent and grumbling among the Indians of the Survey — by the Indians I mean the junior people — because there was a very considerable amount of thought control going on, in all the reports coming out of the Colorado Plateau Project, control by Dick Fisher. Fisher had figured out how these ore deposits were formed, and had laid out the program, and everything read like Dick Fisher had written it, and Fisher was very systematically repressing originality, because he thought this was going to be a red herring as far as the AEC was concerned. He had his reasons, to some extent legitimate.
Doel:What did you feel at the time?
Shoemaker:Well, I felt, first of all, that it was thought control, and secondly I thought Fisher was wrong. In the long term I think Fisher was more nearly right than I was, but I thought there were arguments to be made for other ideas, and in fact had done my own attempt to assess the regional picture. In fact I had worked on uranium deposits, and in the particular area I was mapping, the Sinbad Valley, Fisher Valley, which incidentally is where the uranium ores were first discovered and first mined, a lot of the uranium the Cures worked with came from the Raja Mine which is an area I mapped, and these were very unusual deposits. They were not like the other uranium deposits. They were in fact structurally controlled. They were later deposits. And so I had a lot of ideas that were not exactly seeing the light of day, and so there was — but I was not the only one. There really was discontent, and the people at Washington thought, gee, this is very strange, here are all these people out there, but there isn't much intellectual ferment, from what you could read, coming back. So it was apparent, there really was something wrong.
Doel:These are the reports you mean that were prepared for the Atomic Energy Commission?
Shoemaker:Yes, right. And so it turned out, so two of the people who were principal coordinators of the program, Vincent McElvy and Lincoln R. Page, were going to make a trip and come out and try to figure out what the hell was going on, and the way it was arranged, there was a lady geologist cum botanist who was doing some very original work on geo-botanical prospecting, and — it was really quite creative. You looked for certain indicator plants that would take up certain trace elements, associated with the ores, and you could find ore deposits, by the plants growing. Her name was Helen Cannon and she had an apartment in town, and so Helen spread the word that McElvy and Page were coming to town and there was going to be a bull session at her apartment. This was all done very quietly so it wouldn't get back to Dick Fisher. I don't know, surely Dick must have learned later about this meeting. So the young squirts, me included, were invited to come have a bull session with these fellows.
Doel:How many did that include?
Shoemaker:Well, I guess maybe a dozen, fifteen guys, in Helen Cannon's basement apartment. Well, it turned out I was the only one who showed up. I was loaded for bear. I was ready for this. Other people didn't quite clue on to what was going on. And so I came loaded with all my crazy maps and graphs and stuff, and expounded on a lot of ideas, and they thought this was just great, why not support and encourage some of this? So they essentially offered me carte blanche, write my own ticket, go do a project pursuant, right then and there on the spot.
Doel:That doesn't come very often.
Shoemaker:Yes. It fell right out of the sky into my lap. Not quite. I had prepared for it and was ready for it. So I called up Princeton and I explained to them the situation, and the course work schedule for the graduate courses at Princeton were all on alternate year schedule, so there wasn't any point in my staying that one year. If I was going to stay out I'd stay out two years, and then go back and pick up courses. How about my postponing my return because of this opportunity, and I'll be back in two years? And they said OK. So that's what happened, and I started a project which became known as — it was called the Distribution of Elements Project. It was a geochemical study. What I was trying to do was to determine the pattern of distribution of the elements that were affiliated or associated with ore deposits in the sedimentary rocks, the possible — the patterns of these elements in the ore bodies themselves, regionally, and whether they might have anything to do with the igneous centers, the volcanic centers on the Colorado Plateau, because I thought they were a pattern related to the volcanic centers, so I was also studying the petrology and the geochemistry of the volcanic and shallow intrusive rocks on the Plateau. It was a very ambitious effort, and I hired on some new fellows to work on it, and it grew apace, and in fact, it continued for quite a number of years. So I got that project started, and we used basically the tool of spectrographic analysis.
Doel:Were you using new equipment?
Shoemaker:Well, I wasn't doing the analyses. The Survey already had a laboratory set up to do semi-quantitative spectrographic analyses for about 30 elements, in ordinary rocks and ore deposits, and I collected hope samples. I got samples that represented very large bodies of ore, which were the samples which were essentially the referees samples taken of the ore on which payment for shipments was made. These were already nicely ground up, and all we had to do was composite them and mix and split them to get representative samples, so we sampled large numbers of ore deposits in all the stratigraphic horizons. I tried to get as broad a distribution pattern as I could, and basically, I ended up with tens of thousands of analyses of elements, just from the ore deposits alone, because we'd get 30 elements typically out of a single sample, and the spectrographic analyses were very fast. So at one point I had about four girls hired. This is in the days before computers, please. I had four girls hired with key sort cards, and we were doing statistics. The AEC finally got one of the first IBM computers at their offices in the compound. It was purchased to do the payroll. And I got friendly with the guy who ran the computer. Now, these computers were not programmed the way you program a modern computer. They were programmed by the wiring, and you had a thing called a plug bird, and you actually hooked in wires at various junctions to program the computer. And they were IBM cards and there were card sort machines, and I got friendly with the computer operator, and we figured out how to do standard statistics by a combination of sorting cards and wiring the plug bars, and we did regression analyses. I finally was able to transfer this horrendous chore from all the girls punching calculators and key sorting, to actually doing it on a computer.
Doel:That's fascinating, and a computer hired for payroll.
Yes. These things weren't invented to do science at that time. They had other purposes. So that was my first introduction to computers, at that stage, and so we carried this out. We did extensive sampling of the sedimentary rocks of the Colorado Plateau, to understand the background of the rock composition, and so I started a number of people on their professional careers. They're all retired now. And we ultimately wrote, in fact, I hired a fellow, a geologist, who took a Master's degree at Socorro. I found out about him since I had contacts at Socorro, and I had meanwhile taught myself statistics by going and getting the collected works of R.A. Fisher as my reference and reading it, and then I had to start this fellow from scratch. He had forgotten his calculus too, and I taught him statistics, and he ended up being one of the statistical experts for the geologic division. His name was Al Miesch. He went far beyond where I had left off. It's interesting how things get going. So this was the project that I actually got started, and worked on it for two years, and meantime of course I was getting all over the Colorado Plateau.
I went out and I was working on the volcanic rocks as well, and I started, I did some reconnaissance, sampling and collecting and observations in the Hopi Buttes country down here in Arizona, and I knew there were uranium deposits associated with other volcanic rocks, and in the Navajo country, and I'd gone and looked at these deposits and studied them in some detail, and I did a systematic survey of the Laccolithic Mountains and looked at those, and actually began a preliminary mapping of the Ute Mountains in Colorado as a part of this sampling program, and I ended up proposing two follow-on projects that I thought would be fun to work on. One was to map the Ute Mountains in detail, and another was a systematic study of the Hopi Buttes which is a region, it's the region best exposed mar type volcanoes, deeply eroded volcanic field showing their throats, the so-called diatremes, under the mars. There are more of them better exposed in the Hopi Buttes than anywhere else in the world. This was just a fabulous place, and by pure dumb luck I discovered uranium in the diatremes, during my sampling. So that part proved very productive. Well, both of these projects got proposed and the AEC bought both of them. So I had, later on I had to make a decision. I'd started the mapping already in the Ute Mountains, but I knew the really interesting project would be the Hopi Buttes and the Navajo diatremes, so that was what I selected to do as a follow-on effort to the Distribution of Elements Project, but that was later.
Doel:During the time you were doing the Distribution of Elements, were you aware of the astronomical literature which was also in a more general way concerned with the question of elemental abundances in the earth's crust?
Shoemaker:Well, sure. I had really kind of gotten into geochemistry, thanks to Dick Holland, a kind of geochemistry I hadn't thought about before. I knew about the geochemistry as it's used in petrology, the Buddington kind of geochemistry, but really had not been exposed to other kinds of geochemistry, and Holland exposed me to that. And then of course I got into my own geochemistry project, really, at Grand Junction and it became a big part of my life, so I got very familiar with the geochemical literature, not so much cosmo-chemistry, except that the pioneer geochemists also looked at cosmo-chemistry of course. And so I was quite familiar with the literature at that time, which was of course not nearly as extensive as it is now. I subscribed to GEOCHEMICA ET COSMOCHEMICA the first year it came out. I got the complete set in my personal library. So you know, these are very heady times for geochemistry, really, and I was working in a field that was just blossoming at that time. In fact, later on I taught an evening course, an extension course, for the University of Colorado. I taught it in Grand Junction. I taught a course in geochemistry.
Doel:That's interesting. What year was that?
Shoemaker:Oh gosh. It was after I'd left Princeton, came back, probably '55, somewhere in there. So I was deep into geochemistry at that time, and I had all this petrology I was going to do on these igneous rocks. Well, you can see what happened. I spread myself so thin that not all those things got finished. I wrote a fairly extensive paper on the chemical composition of the ore deposits, and I initiated these other programs out of that original work.
Doel:You were also involved in another project, associated with another project at that time, the Mice Project from Theodore Taylor.
Shoemaker:Well, that came out of the work I'd done on the diatremes, in a very peculiar way. To come around to that, I did go back to Princeton in the fall of 1953 as per schedule and completed the second academic year, took my oral exams that year. I went back on a fellowship. I was a Libby Fellow. And so I had a pretty good run at it. But of course I'd been out again for a year, although the second time you go back and do it, it's a lot easier, I discovered, but I didn't get my thesis finished, so that was left undone. I got about a third of it written while I was there, on the Sinbad Valley, Fisher Valley, salt anticline. Meantimes, of course, I had this secret ambition all along, which had sort of been inspired the first summer I was there working out in that region, when I was in the field, and I kind of had the notion that there was going to be manned exploration of the moon, and this notion was there. But there wasn't anything immediate I could do about it, except I just determined I was going to try to make myself the best qualified geologist, field geologist, because I figured you'd need a field geologist on the moon, and that was also what I considered to be my forte, and to go in the direction of working on things that might later apply to the moon. The Hopi Buttes is not completely unrelated to that. The kinds of craters made by the volcanoes of the Hopi Buttes had a gross morphological similarity to the craters on the moon, although that wasn't an immediate reason for studying the Hopi Buttes, but I thought that it would probably be relevant in the long run.
Doel:You were consciously considering the comparison at that time.
Shoemaker:Yes, and I had on the side started to collect papers on lunar literature. There are a few people who knew this secret ambition of mine, but it wasn't widely bandied about.
Doel:Who did you talk with that about?
Oh gosh, I don't know if I can recall. Certainly Arnold Brokaw, who inherited the job from Dave Gallagher, the guy in charge of Grand Junction, at some point learned about it, but I don't know just when. Probably when I was ordering papers on the moon from the Geological Survey Library. I think people probably noticed. So there was this secret ambition about the moon, which we haven't talked about, I don't think, so far, but it was nevertheless there in the background, but there wasn't anything I could do about it immediately. It was just kind of a long range thing. And it was something in the background, when I really decided to go ahead and push on the Hopi Buttes work. I did wrote a short paper in a US Geological Survey professional volume, collection of papers actually, on uranium deposits, which was actually first presented at a big international conference on atomic energy, on the uranium in the diatremes in the Navajo country, and I had some cross-sections of diatremes and some brief descriptions of the eruption mechanisms in this paper. So that work did lead in a very curious and circumstantial way to an involvement in a quite different thing, and the involvement came about in 1956, and about that time, there was a peculiar crisis in the plutonium supply, for fabrication of nuclear weapons.
The plutonium being produced at Hanford was not coming out at a rate that was needed for weapons manufacture, and so people at AEC labs were pondering various approaches to solve that problem, and one of the more novel ideas for the solution came from a whiz bang bomb designer at Los Alamos by the name of Ted Taylor. I won't relate the story of Ted Taylor. It's already been well related by people at Princeton. But at any rate, Taylor in his usual imaginative fashion said, "Well, I know how to make a lot of plutonium in a hurry. All you have to do is wrap a blanket of uranium around a nuclear device, the bigger the better, the more efficient, and you'll make yourself a pot load of plutonium of you blow the device.” The trick of course is to get it back. Well, he considered all the possibilities. You might put this device underground and contain it. The underground could be whatever — he considered under ice would be underground, though it might be in some other kind of rock ice as a rock, though Ted probably didn't think of it that way. You might stick it in a lake, if it were in a closed basin, then you might catch the water coming back down in the lake. And so the options were to really put it in a closed basin lake or put it under ice or maybe put it in rock of some kind, and of all these ideas, the one he really kind of favored was just to try to stick it in a big mass of ice, because what you do is, you melt the puddle under the surface in the ice and then all you have to do is pump it out. But of course, to bring any of this into reality, you needed a little bit of geological knowledge, and so the AEC came to the Geological Survey and asked if they could get some input on this problem. And so one of our ice and glacier experts was requested to review the prospects, where could you do this experiment? Was there any place that you could do this experiment under ice? The answer is, no, not really, and certainly not in ice where the US has any real control over it. The only two bodies of ice that would be remotely big enough would be the ice cap on Antarctica or Greenland. And doing this in a closed hydrographic basin didn't look very attractive. So even though Taylor favored ice and the project became code named "MICE" — meaning Megaton Ice Contained Explosion, it was very quickly realized that if you're going to do it at all, you'd do it in rock. And really what you wanted to do was to choose rock which was sufficiently homogeneous chemically that you could understand what the chemistry would be of the final product.
I always imagined you might do it in a variety of rocks. It could be limestone, big homogenous mass of limestone. It might be salt. These are two possibilities that were considered, like the products might be most easily manipulated chemically for recovery, and it fairly quickly boiled down to salt, and so a significant study was made of salt masses, to see where it might be done, and a good deal of chemistry was done at Oak Ridge in particular on the chemistry of plutonium in salt and how you'd recover it. Well, I got involved in this thing really kind of by a fluke. Everyone has to have angels in this life, and I was fortunate to have two of them. That is, I mean, real life angels, people who take an interest in you and boost you along in your career, and one of those angels was Vincent McElvy and the other was Lincoln R. Page, the two fellows who came to Grand Junction and actually helped me get started on my first independent, really independent program of research. And Page, who had organized this Geological Survey professional paper, knew about my report on the diatremes in there, and he was the one that the AEC went to. And almost as an afterthought he said, "You know, we have this geologist working on these explosive volcanoes. How do you know that this underground explosion won't make a volcano like this?" And hmm, maybe we'd better look into it, and so as sort of an add-on, a project was started then to look in to see what would happen. Would your plutonium deposit erupt? Would it be contained? And so on, and so Page got in contact with me, and asked me if I would be willing to do this, and also a fellow by the name of Charles B. Ree, who was involved in it, also came out to talk to me, to see if I'd work on it. Well, I didn't have to have my arm twisted very hard. I didn't know anything about nuclear explosions, but I thought this was a dandy opportunity to learn, and I rather imagined it ought to have some application to the moon and the craters on the moon.
Doel:How confidentially were you told to handle this? Could you have —
Shoemaker:— oh, it was a classified project. It was all secret. Yes.
Doel:Whom were you able to discuss your ideas with during that time?
Shoemaker:Well, I thought the first thing I'd better do is go find out something about nuclear explosions, and it turned out that there were only two places in the world at that time where explosions, nuclear devices had actually been detonated underground, and they were at the Nevada Test Site. There were two rather small explosions. One of them had been just the year before, and they were at rather shallow depths, and they made craters. So I promptly hided myself out to the Nevada Test Site to have a look at them, and what I wanted to do was figure out where the plutonium was going to go. I sat down and I analyzed, I got a hold of some of the classified literature, on nuclear explosions, and I sat down and in a matter of a month or so, I convinced myself and wrote a report to the effect that I did not think there as much hazard of an underground nuclear explosion leading to a volcanic type eruption. That problem wasn't a problem. But I did perceive, after having looked at the Tangle U and Teapot Ess nuclear explosion craters, that there was a problem, and I thought the evidence in looking at those craters was that the plutonium would likely be dispersed in a large volume of shock-breciated broken material, whereas the AEC picture of it was that you were just going to make a cavity, and melted rock would line the rock of this cavity, and the plutonium would all be in that melted rock, and it would all puddle down at the bottom of the cavity, have a nice contained pool, and after looking at the craters I thought, maybe that's not the way it's going to work. So I decided I'd better go and map those craters very carefully and figure out where it went. Of course, you have a very nice tracer in a nuclear device. You do melt rock, you make glass, the fusion (fission?) products of the device go into the glass, the radioactives are easy to see where things go.
Doel:How many geologists were able to inspect those craters?
Shoemaker:Well, there came to be quite an extensive program at the Nevada Test Site which started to get under way at about this same time, but for a very different purpose. Because quite independently, Lawrence Livermore Laboratory had decided to embark on establishing underground explosions as a method of testing nuclear weapons, and so at precisely the same time as I started to work, on the problem of the plutonium, Lawrence Livermore Lab had started a project to do a test underground nuclear explosion at Rainier Mesa on the test site, and the Geological Survey, quite a different group, engineering geology, was brought in to work with the AEC on that experiment. So I followed what they were doing of course very carefully as well, and spent a lot of time with them. Well, those fellows were working pretty intensively to do some scale experiments, to try to map the Ranier Mesa and do the necessary engineering geology to carry out the Ranier tests. A few of them came over to see what I was doing, but not too many. The craters were there. The fellows who were on the test site, once you had access to the test site, could have gone and looked at them. Of course, you needed to have class, needed to have the clearances, needed to have reasons for being on the test site, so other people, a lot of them, may have gone over. I don't know how many had gone. They were certainly there, and a few did go by to have a look, but not in any detailed way. So ultimately what came out of that was that I mapped those craters in very careful detail, by myself, did the plain tabling, ran out and got tape measurements, and go back and shoot in the site and so on, rather slow laborious process to map two little craters, but meantimes, these were simply kiloton shots, and the real question was, how would it scale up to a larger scale? Because the thing would only be efficient if you went to the megaton range. So I went out to Meteor Crater to see if I could scale the effects up and was astonished when I sent back out — I had casually looked at Meteor Crater from the rim once when we were working in northern Arizona, but never really looked at the geology carefully. I went out to have a look, and was amazed to discover that Meteor Crater is a scaled up version of Teapot Ess Crater which is the one that I was mapping in Nevada, so I promptly decided that I ought to map Meteor Crater to demonstrate how it scales up.
Doel:And this is in the mid-1950s?
Shoemaker:This is still 1956 when I began this work, and then I went out and I did the mapping at Meteor Crater in 1957.
Doel:Was that work supported by the Survey or by the?
Shoemaker:That work was supported out of the MICE project. It turned out, by the time I finished that work, and there'd been a lot of work done on the chemistry of plutonium explosions in salt, because salt isn't pure salt, there are sulfates and other things in there too. By the time all this was done, the plutonium production crisis passed, and the experiment was never carried out. No one ever attempted to make synthetic plutonium. Nevertheless it got me started on this other project. I did look on from the sidelines on the Rainier project. In fact, at one point, after having looked very carefully at the whole design before the Rainier shot, I concluded that the stemming might not hold, and I wrote a memorandum to that effect, which caused a minor flap at the AEC. It turned out, the stemming did hold on Rainier but not on some of the later tests, so it wasn't too bad. I think it was well worth calling attention to the hazard.
Doel:By stemming, you mean the tunnels?
Shoemaker:The tunnel was driven in sort of like a shepherd's crook, and then the device was placed at the end of the shepherd's crook, with the expectation that the explosion then would close off the tunnel, but there was stemming put in in front of that closure, so as to prevent the whole thing from blowing out the tunnel. It turns out the scaled explosion with high explosives that the Survey did did blow the stemming, just blew like hell. But I was not at all convinced that the design of the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory was going to work. It turned out that it was marginally OK. So I did have some nuisance effect, you might say, on the Rainier experiment, which in general was very successful and was the basis actually of establishing the Test Ban Treaty, when both the US and the USSR were able to go into underground testing. It was a very important experiment.
Doel:We're resuming now after a brief pause. Let me ask you just a few brief questions from the mid-1950s. Did you have any direct dealings with any of the officials in the GSA at that time? How active and how influential were they in determining any of the research work that was done at the USGS?
Shoemaker:The GSA, you mean the Geological Society?
Doel:That's right. How much of a role were they playing at this point?
Shoemaker:Well, the GSA is simply a scientific society, albeit it's had a rather privileged situation, owing to a bequest, the Penrose bequest that was left to the GSA. I don't know the exact time, in the late twenties or around 1930, but Penrose made his fortunate in mining and left a handsome endowment to the organization, which gave it quite a flexibility in publications programs and that sort of thing.
Doel:It was also involved in funding specific projects that its members considered important.
Shoemaker:They have funded, they did fund some projects, but in recent decades, it's been chiefly student projects. The GSA has not had the — I have to say that the Penrose funds are not managed all that wisely, and therefore, the real value of the endowment depreciated, decreased with time, so the GSA really hasn't sponsored research directly except for student projects in any major way for quite some period of time, and I'm not aware that it really supported any significant amount of professional research during the fifties. It may have but I simply remain rather ignorant of it. There was a period of time in the 1930s during the Depression in which things were so bad, some of the really important and significant people in the Geological Survey were furloughed. There was no money to pay them. And the GSA in those days had enough money, it stepped in and actually supported Survey projects. One of them I know specifically was James Gilluly started his work in the Aho region with GSA support, so there was a time when GSA did really provide some very significant support for major research. But during my professional career, it's been quite minimal. Of course, the important thing that they've done is the publications program, a major series of memoirs and special papers in addition to the BULLETIN. But GSA publications have had some real ups and downs, and there was a period, oh, ten or fifteen years ago, that it really went through a minimum. The GSA was not attracting good papers. The publication program was not being well managed at all. This was about fifteen years ago, and it took some injection of new life into the organization, shaking up the whole thing, to get that back on its feet. So that's the most important thing, having a strong publication program. Right now they're in the midst of a big effort to put out a whole series of volumes called A DECADE OF NORTH AMERICAN GEOLOGY, to celebrate their hundredth anniversary. That's the thing the GSA does best really, is to have special publications. That's going to be a very nice contribution. And it does help to focus research, to be sure. It gets people to gather their wits together and do things and publish things that wouldn't come out otherwise.
Doel:Of course publishing in geology is expensive, compared to certain other sciences, because of the maps which need to be printed.
Shoemaker:That's right. GSA has, I should say, used to provide a very important outlet for geological maps, and they had the funds to do that. It is expensive. They really don't do much of that any more. If you've done a good geological map of an area, it's hard to get it published, especially in color. And GSA simply doesn't have the financial resources to support much of that these days. They could choose to do that, I guess, but somehow it's gone into decline.
Doel:Let me just ask you one further question, and then we'll bring this session of the interview to a close. You had mentioned literature that you had begun reading on the debates over lunar craters. Which people in particular do you recall reading in early and mid 1950s? Which writers were most influential?
Shoemaker:Well, the two most important works — and I didn't have a great extensive collection of stuff, because it wasn't practical for me to do the digging and research out of Grand Junction. I didn't have library resources available to do that. But I had Ralph Baldwin's book, which was published in 1949, THE FACE OF THE MOON, and I had G.K. Gilbert's classic paper on the moon also , and those were the two that I was aware of and had. Of course, I had Urey's early papers on his ideas about formation of planets and so on. He published one of these in book form, and also one of the very first papers in Geocimica et Cosmocimica, so those were the things I was aware of and had access to.
Doel:Had you met Baldwin personally at that time?
Shoemaker:I didn't meet Ralph Baldwin until quite a few years later. I knew of Harold Urey. I knew who he was. In fact, I saw Urey at one of the early GSA meetings. I think it was in El Paso, about the time he was really getting interested, although I don't think I ever went up and introduced myself to the man. I saw him there. Actually it wasn't until the Ranger project that I really got personally acquainted with him.
Doel:When you were both co-investigators.
Shoemaker:Right. I knew Gerard Kuiper somewhat earlier, and more closely, and had correspondence with Kuiper, and then I visited him at Yerkes Observatory before he went to University of Arizona. In fact, Kuiper invited me to join him at that stage. So I followed Kuiper's work. At that time I was already really getting into it. I hadn't formally gotten a lunar project started, but I was coming down the stretch towards it, you know.
Doel:We're going to be taking up some of those themes tomorrow. You know, of course, that Baldwin was already out from the field professionally during the publication of his works on the lunar craters. Did that affect in any way his reputation among the geologists, any geologists with whom you discussed his work?
Shoemaker:Well, I didn't really discuss the moon with geologists. There weren't any around to talk about it with who were knowledgeable. There was a handful of us. I didn't know Bob Dietz in those days. Bob was one of them, of course. So actually it didn't matter a hoot to me that Baldwin wasn't pursuing an active career as an astronomer, but in fact, he wasn't really completely out of the field. He maintained an active interest all the way around. He never really did get out. It's a misapprehension to think that he'd gone out of astronomy. He kept his hand in, at least in lunar work, and still does. He's still active. He has never dropped out.
That's an interesting theme. I hope we get back to that tomorrow. Thank you very much for this long and now late session.