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Oral History Transcript — Dr. John Verhoogen

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Interview with Dr. John Verhoogen
By Ron E. Doel
At Berkeley, California
November 6, 1990

 
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John Verhoogen; November 6, 1990

ABSTRACT: Interview complements an extensive oral history interview made by William Glen in 1977, and focuses on academic geophysics. Verhoogen's study of geophysics in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s; attendance at Rancho Sante Fe Conference, 1950; research and teaching at the University of California, Berkeley; impressions of American geophysics community and major research groups, 1950s and 1960s.

Transcript

Doel:

Let me note that a long interview was already made with you by William Glen in 1977 and 1978, and we don't want to repeat what you already talked about with him. Bill Glen concentrated in large part on your work in paleomagnetism. In this interview I would like to focus on your work more broadly; and would like to ask your impressions of academic geophysics in Europe and the United States. One thing that I was curious about, while you were in Belgium during your study, what perceptions were common of work being done in America of geophysics? Do you have any recollections?

Verhoogen:

In those days I think the term geophysics was synonymous with exploration physics and all we heard about was the work that was done with gravity and salt domes and that sort of thing, but not much beyond that. There was one point where geophysics came in, and that was in the name of the Carnegie Institution Geophysical Laboratory. We were aware of what they were doing; that was in the heyday of Bowen, and Schairer, and all the rest of them. Day and what not.

Doel:

Did they travel to Europe frequently? Did you have any contact with any of the leaders of the CIW directly?

Verhoogen:

No, I met them when I went to Washington in 1934. I have not seen them in Belgium at all. In fact the only personal contact I ever had with any American geologist in those days was with H. Schenck who was a Professor of Paleontology at Stanford and who happened to be in Belgium on sabbatical leave. He was the one who suggested I go to Stanford; he is the one who got me to Stanford. Essentially from 1934 on I was mostly in the United States, except for a period of time from 1936-38 when I was in Brussels, and then I went to Africa during the war. I was in Africa from the end of 1939-46, and then I came to the United States in 1947. I haven't moved from Berkeley since.

Doel:

While you were studying in Belgium, did you think possibly of going to any of the German centers of geophysics as a career? Had that possibility crossed your mind?

Verhoogen:

No. At that time I wasn't really so much interested in geophysics as I was in geochemistry. It was really chemistry which was my main interest at that time. When I came to Stanford I thought I was going to work on the chemistry of sediments and things of that sort. My interest through the physics of it came only a little later. I suppose as a result mostly of when I was at Stanford of chancing upon a volume of Jeffreys, and that was a revelation to me.

Doel:

It was the first time you had encountered that book?

Verhoogen:

It was the first time I had even heard of Jeffreys. I hadn't heard of him before I found his book on the shelf of the library at Stanford.

Doel:

That is quite interesting.

Verhoogen:

That was a revelation to me. And that certainly excited me and really turned things around. I lost a little bit of interest in chemistry and turned more towards physics.

Doel:

Do you recall any discussions with anyone in particular about Jeffreys' book once you began reading it? Did you discuss Jeffreys' ideas with anyone?

Verhoogen:

No.

Doel:

It was independent work?

Verhoogen:

Yes, independent work. And then in 1938 I went to Africa to study the Nyamuragira Volcano and this again confirmed my interest in geophysics and this puzzle of "Where did this heat come from?" and "Where did this magna come from?" During the war I was put to work on procurement of strategic minerals, so all that faded away. But I did happen to find, quite by accident, a copy of Eddington's Internal Constitutions of Stars. And this was another revelation! How it came that astronomers could tell you within the last million degrees the temperature for stars million light years away and you sitting on the earth couldn't find what the temperature was ten miles down infuriated me. That is what really got me started on heat problems and convection.

Doel:

That's something I wanted to ask you about. One of the first major conferences that you attended when you were in the United States was the Rancho Santa Fe meeting in 1950, in part organized because of ideas about convection which Harold Urey presented that preceding October. How did it come about that you came to be at the Rancho Santa Fe meeting?

Verhoogen:

Because the meeting was arranged by Slichter, who had become the director of the Institute of Geophysics at the university. All members of the staff of the University of California, whatever campus they were on, were invited to the meeting, all those who wanted to attend. And, I went. That was quite an interesting meeting also.

Doel:

What were your perceptions at the time? Who seemed to be the leaders of the discussions as they emerged?

Verhoogen:

As I recall that meeting most of the interest was in Rubey's paper on the "Origin of the Oceans" in which he tried to establish a balance between the amount of sodium chloride in sea water and in rivers to the oceans—where it comes from and so forth—and discovering the history of the oceans, concluding that most of the water and the CO2 that reside on the surface of the earth first must have come from inside the earth, from volcanoes. As I remember the discussions were mostly about that. We did have quite an interesting paper of course by [Edward] Teller, who talked about magnetohydrodynamics. That was another thing that I had never heard about before and which fascinated me, and still does in fact.

Doel:

Bowen had presented some evidence at that conference on mineral evidence that addressed the question of whether the earth had been molten or not. That was then a point of some controversy. Do you recall any discussions about this?

Verhoogen:

I don't remember specifically any discussions about that. It seems to me that at that time the general consensus was that the earth could not have been initially molten. But what were the arguments .... for or against this?

Doel:

It was in part the concentration of particular minerals in certain strata, and how much mixing would have occurred had the crust been molten in earlier periods. Bowen's argument was that the different strata were too well preserved for the crust to have been molten. Did any of Urey's comments make any particular impression upon you?

Verhoogen:

None at all. Urey in fact never impressed me very much.

Doel:

Is that right? Do you mean his view of geochemical arguments?

Verhoogen:

His geochemical arguments and his work on meteorites and so on and so forth. Always he left me rather cool. I had the impression that he was essentially an amateur and that he didn't really known what he was talking about. I remember a conference—I don't know where it was, I think a small meeting in Los Angeles—Urey had a very magisterial manner of talking and you were supposed to be convinced by whatever he said. I remember Urey talk about the evidence that meteorites were fragments—I think he wanted to say fragments of a large planet not obviously fragments of a small body. I asked him how he would recognize a fragment of a large planet if he saw one. He said: "We must take a more sophisticated view than that" and he mumbled on something. Obviously he hadn't thought very much about what he was talking about. No, Urey's work never really quite impressed me. In fact, I thought that some of it was quite erroneous. Some of the things were downright impossible, as when he was talking about mineral phase changes, and silicon going into sixth coordination. I thought, erroneously, that was absolutely absurd!

Doel:

I remember Rupert Wildt had some concerns about Urey's chemistry in the early 1950s. Do you remember discussions about his work with others?

Verhoogen:

No.

Doel:

One of the other younger people at the Rancho Santa Fe meeting was David Griggs, also from UCLA. Do you remember anything that he was discussing at Rancho Santa Fe?

Verhoogen:

He was very much interested in mountain-making and convection. The first time I met him was at the IUGG meeting in Washington in 1939, where he had given that beautiful paper on his experiments with the two cylinders and buckling of the crust to form geosynclines. I thought that was great.

Doel:

It was a controversially received paper at the time, however, wasn't it?

Verhoogen:

Maybe, yes. It was very heavily endorsed by people like Vening Meinesz, for instance. A good many people liked it very much.

Doel:

Did you have much sustained contact with Vening Meinesz?

Verhoogen:

No, I never met him. The 1939 meeting of the IUGG was quite interesting to me. There were lots of people I had never heard of before. Bullard for instance, was there giving a paper on gravity in East Africa, I think it was. He was a really weird-looking guy and he impressed me very much as somebody who knew what he was talking about.

Doel:

Did you have any discussions with him?

Verhoogen:

No.

Doel:

This was just your impressions of him?

Verhoogen:

Those meetings were actually a little bit hard because the war had just broken out and people didn't know if they had to go home or what. It wasn't very conducive to a lot of calm scientific discussion.

Doel:

When you got to Berkeley, what impressions you had of Byerly as the Department Chairman?

Verhoogen:

I had known Byerly when I was here in 1936 when I was doing my Ph.D. at Stanford. By a very extraordinary arrangement, and Aaron Waters who was my professor, sent me to Berkeley to do my work in Berkeley with Howel Williams. It was at that time I spent a little over a semester here at Berkeley. I took a class from Byerly and I met him at that time. That's how when he became Chairman in 1946 or 1947, he knew me, and then he invited me to come to Berkeley. We already knew each other at that time.

Doel:

In your article of personal notes you mentioned that it impressed you that you could take your degree in one university but yet be in residence at another. Was that very unusual at the time?

Verhoogen:

I think that was very unusual.

Doel:

You may have been the only one?

Verhoogen:

I think so.

Doel:

When you were at Berkeley, did you find that other geophysicists from elsewhere in the country visited for any periods of time?

Verhoogen:

No.

Doel:

Didn't that happen very much?

Verhoogen:

No. It didn't happen at all. I was there, well, only a little over a semester, but I don't recall any lectures or any visiting of any sort. I don't believe in those days geophysics was very much mentioned. I don't think there was any talk of giving courses in geophysics at all. That started only after I arrived. Before I arrived there had been a visiting professor for a year whom Byerly had asked to start teaching geophysics and who had devoted the course entirely to exploration geophysics.

Doel:

Is that approach what Byerly had in mind?

Verhoogen:

This is not what Byerly had wanted. When he asked me to come and give a course in geophysics, he made it quite clear that it was not exploration geophysics. On my way here from Belgium in 1947, coming to Berkeley, I had stopped in Pittsburgh at the Gulf Research Lab. I had spoken to various people there about what they thought the future of geophysics to be, particularly in relation to exploration. They had said that they didn't see any particular need for teaching exploration geophysics in universities but they would much prefer to have the students be given a good background in chemistry, physics, math and forget about the exploration geophysics. I said, "Well, suppose I teach a course in which I disregard all exploration applications of geophysics and just teach the kids to understand Jeffreys' book The Earth." They said, "Oh that would be perfect—ideal." That was interesting. I can't remember the name of the man who lived there but he was the head of the Exploration Division at Gulf Research Lab in those years.

Doel:

We can always put names in the transcript later. It's interesting, then, that the idea of people schooled in basic geophysics and geochemistry could be trained in exploration geophysics once they reached the company.

Verhoogen:

That was the idea.

Doel:

Just a few years earlier M. King Hubbert, Straley and others had been involved in discussions about how departments of geology could be encouraged to teach geophysics. Do you remember any discussions that you may have been involved in?

Verhoogen:

I remember that King Hubbert in the early 1950s was still talking a lot of teaching geology in an entirely different way. He didn't want it to be descriptive; he wanted it to be a thoroughly analytical look at the details of the physics of the thing in every respect.

Doel:

What was your impression of that plan at the time?

Verhoogen:

I think it went a little too far. After all if we are concerned with the earth there still has to be a little bit of description. You have to describe first what it is that you have to explain! I think he went a little bit too far. He wanted to go back to the first principle, start everything by first principle, derive everything from first principle. I think that went a little too far but it was, of course, a step in the right direction.

Doel:

Did others at Berkeley feel the same? Were Hubbert's critiques something that came up in discussions?

Verhoogen:

Not that I remember in particular. I am trying to remember when the department changed its name from Geology to Geology and Geophysics. It must have been in the late 1950s.

Doel:

I think that is right.

Verhoogen:

Yes, I think it was in the late 1950s when it became clear that geophysics was now established as a fundamental science

Doel:

Did you have much contact directly with Gutenberg after you were established here at Berkeley?

Verhoogen:

No, I met him at conferences but not otherwise.

Doel:

That's interesting. So Caltech in essence operated very independently with its own research?

Verhoogen:

Well, Caltech in those days was interested mostly in seismology and that was Byerly's province. Byerly was a seismologist. They had California divided into zones of influence. If an earthquake occurs there it belongs to you, Gutenberg, if it occurs here it belongs to me, Byerly. They got along pretty well, Gutenberg and Byerly. They used to make fun of each other a great deal but they got along pretty well. Byerly was also one of the very few people who could get along with Richter. He seemed to like Richter—I don't know why—but he seemed to like him.

Doel:

Richter was a difficult man to get along with?

Verhoogen:

I think he was. Then there was Benioff at Caltech. And in those days, who else was prominent? Oh, Eckart at Scripps. I thought very highly of him. I thought he was a wonderful scientist.

Doel:

Was Eckart someone whom you developed extended contact with?

Verhoogen:

Not extended contact, no.

Doel:

There is one question I neglected to ask you earlier about the Rancho Santa Fe meeting. You were, of course, very interested in convection. Do you recall whether there were discussions there ever discussions of an alternative other than convection?

Verhoogen:

No. The impression I got from the meeting was that convection was now quite an accepted thing.

Doel:

So it really wasn't debated?

Verhoogen:

It wasn't debated. It was an accepted thing, even though Jeffreys was still dead-set against it. His opinion carried no more weight. I think everybody agreed at that time.

Doel:

So in your view Jeffreys' influence was already waning by the early 1950s?

Verhoogen:

Yes.

Doel:

Was it stronger among the European or British researchers?

Verhoogen:

I couldn't tell you. I went to Cambridge on a sabbatical in 1954. It seems to me that at that time Bullard was already disregarding to a large extent Jeffreys' opinion. Yes, surely.

Doel:

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, where were most of the graduates of the department going? Were the jobs still in the industry in the United States or were there other options?

Verhoogen:

You mean the doctorate?

Doel:

Principally the doctorate, yes.

Verhoogen:

We didn't turn out very many in those days. I think that most of them would go into industry or to the geological survey. Those were the two main outlets. Did any of the early graduates get teaching jobs somewhere? Yes! Doell left off to go to MIT. He must have taken his Ph.D. in 1954 or 1955.

Doel:

In 1950 Otto Struve came to Berkeley to head the Department of Astronomy here.

Verhoogen:

Wasn't he here before that?

Doel:

He still was at Yerkes. Struve was interested in the elemental abundance issue and had advocated studying the earth as a planet. Did you have much contact with him?

Verhoogen:

Not very much. I knew him but we didn't have much contact.

Doel:

So you didn't talk about geophysics or planetary problems?

Verhoogen:

No.

Doel:

You mentioned a moment ago that Bill Rubey's contribution seemed prominent at the Rancho Santa Fe meeting. In the course of your career in the 1950s did you come to have regular contact with people in the Geological Survey—people like Bill Rubey or Jim Gilluly?

Verhoogen:

Yes.

Doel:

Do you recall any?

Verhoogen:

Gilluly I saw frequently; Rubey, Jim Balsley. When was the Menlo Park branch of the Survey established?

Doel:

That was in the 1950s, I believe.

Verhoogen:

Yes, early 1950s—

Doel:

Is that what brought them to this area?

Verhoogen:

No, I don't think they came particularly for that reason. The Berkeley and the people at the Survey at Menlo Park did meet frequently and were in constant touch, driving back and forth between the two places. There were a lot of new ideas. It must have been in the early 1950s it was established. Stanford by that time had not really made any great steps toward developing geophysics. They had a professor in geophysics who was an exploration man. They hadn't gone into the theory of geophysics at all until the early 1960s.

Doel:

Why do you suppose it took that long?

Verhoogen:

I don't know exactly why it was. It may have been the influence of Leverson, the chairman for a while there, who was mainly interested in industrial problems. I don't know why.

Doel:

They previously had a strong tradition in exploration geophysics.

Verhoogen:

Yes.

Doel:

When you think back to that time, were there people from other institutions who were in favor of continental drift? Do you recall discussions about that?

Verhoogen:

In favor of continental drift? Not many people that I knew of. In fact, I can't think of any.

Doel:

You were one who argued to give the idea critical discussion.

Verhoogen:

Yes. Let's see. Bill Glen always talked about meeting up with the student club at Berkeley where they voted in favor of continental drift. When was that? The middle 1950s or something?

Doel:

That sounds right. I'll check that.

Verhoogen:

They knew they were doing something very, very risky. Yes, that was in the middle 1950s.

Doel:

A number of people in the U.S. Geological Survey by the mid-late 1950s had become interested in the process of impact craters. C. S. Beals in Canada was beginning to survey possible impact sites. Was that a topic that others at Berkeley had gotten interested in?

Verhoogen:

No.

Doel:

Was it that there wasn't much interest in the question? Didn't it seem respectable or well-established?

Verhoogen:

Oh, it is so difficult to separate scientific reasoning from petty opinions. I think that my mind was set against impact craters because Urey was advocating them for the Moon. Was it Urey?

Doel:

Yes, it was.

Verhoogen:

My reaction was that Urey said those craters in the Moon were impact craters and I thought they were volcanoes. So I didn't take the impact craters very seriously. When was it that Quade(?) got a Ph.D. in geology from Berkeley, went to Moffett Field to start working on cratering?

Doel:

Don Gault was at Ames working on that I believe. Was that one of the times that you began to reassess that idea?

Verhoogen:

That was when I began to think that there might be something interesting there.

Doel:

That would have been the early 1960s?

Verhoogen:

Early 1960s, yes.

Doel:

Did you have contact with Quade after that? Did you talk about these results directly with him?

Verhoogen:

No discussion. He came once in a while to give a lecture at Berkeley on what he was doing or something like that but not much more than that.

Doel:

This may be a difficult question, but in looking back to the 1950s, did you have any strong impressions of how the funding that was available for geophysics changed? Did that make a particular impression on you or did it not seem to be an issue played a large role?

Verhoogen:

There didn't seem to be an awful lot of problems with funding in those days. It seemed to me that money was flowing rather easily. I don't remember anybody around me had any problem getting their grant approved. I don't think that changed until the 1970s. It seems to me that in the 1960s we still had plenty of money. Is that correct?

Doel:

Others have had similar recollection, but I was interested to hear yours. How easy or difficult was it to recruit students into the field?

Verhoogen:

It seems to me that the number of graduate students in geophysics didn't really change very much. It has never been large and I don't think it has changed very much over the years. We might check the figures on that but my impression is that it hasn't changed enormously over the years.

Doel:

Did it stay constant during the 1950s?

Verhoogen:

No, it grew in the 1950s and 1960s, but then I think from about 1963 or 1964 it must have stayed about constant. We can check that.

Doel:

By change, were you involved in the discussions Lloyd Berkner and others had in the mid 1950s over whether it would be a good idea to establish a new national institute of geophysics? A number of people opposed it, feeling it might pull people away from existing centers. Do you recall discussions about that?

Verhoogen:

No, I don't think I was at all involved in that. Was that when Berkner established the institute in Dallas?

Doel:

It was before that. This was just prior to the IGY 1957-58.

Verhoogen:

I don't remember anything at all about that.

Doel:

The California system was then planning to build up the new University in La Jolla around Scripps. Were you involved in any discussions about how that campus would be founded?

Verhoogen:

No.

Doel:

About the launch of Sputnik, the National Academy of Sciences set up various panels involving space science, and I recall reading that Urey once considered inviting you to participate. Do you remember whether you had sought to be involved in this work?

Verhoogen:

No. I never had anything to do with space programs.

Doel:

It wasn't something that you were thinking about to invest in?

Verhoogen:

No.

Doel:

One of the reasons I asked is that the University of California system, during that time, tried to establish a space science institute that would link together different branches of the campus. This wasn't something that you heard discussions about?

Verhoogen:

It was essentially physics people who wanted that, wasn't it?

Doel:

That's right. I was curious whether it was something that also involved the geophysicists.

Verhoogen:

I suppose we were asked if we wanted to cooperate but I don't think we saw any real advantage or any real purpose in doing so. I don't remember that. Maybe there was, but I don't remember.

Doel:

It important just in not making a strong impression. Did you know Frank Press fairly well at that time?

Verhoogen:

No. I have never known him very well. I have seen him at meetings and so on and we shake hands. But I never worked close or had any connection with his work or anything.

Doel:

One concern that he had about American geophysics in the early 1960s was that so many institutes of geophysics had been established autonomous from other departments in the universities and sometimes did not have very strong communications with them. He thought that their isolation would adversely affect the development of the discipline. Was that a worry that you or others shared?

Verhoogen:

UCLA had a distinct institute. It was supposed to be an all-university institute.

Doel:

Modeled on the Germanic idea?

Verhoogen:

Yes. I don't think we were on the whole very sympathetic to it. We wondered why it had to be an institute and why it couldn't simply be incorporated into a regular department. If it was going to have an all-campus range then of course it could not be a single department, but all campus connections were very frail except with San Diego. We never had very much to do with the Institute of Geophysics and they decided we didn't have much to do with them. So it was never quite clear to me what purpose the institute really served that could not be served by a regular department. But I don't think the existence of the institute as a separate entity has harmed in any way the development of geophysics. In fact they have been able to do all sorts of things financially that the department would not have been able to do, getting some good people working and so on. So on the whole it was probably a good idea. There was a terrible fuss when the institute was set up in Los Angeles because it had been set up at the initiative of a man who was interested in aeronomy. What was his name?

Doel:

Joseph Kaplan.

Verhoogen:

Kaplan wanted it to be upper atmosphere mostly. Slichter appeared on the scene and lo and behold! It had become something about the earth and Kaplan felt very put out. He was absolutely disgusted. I think he took to the bottle at that time. That was a rather strange episode in the development of geophysics. I don't know exactly how Slichter managed it but anyhow what was supposed to be Kaplan's institute on aeronomy turned out to be Slichter's institute on the solid earth.

Doel:

Kaplan did carry some of that interest into the International Geophysical Year but you are quite right that it wasn't strongly an institutional level. Did you become directly involved in any of the IGY programs?

Verhoogen:

No.

Doel:

Did it make much influence in the way that the department operated at Berkeley? Was it something that had a big impact?

Verhoogen:

No, I don't think so. In fact I think the department had been criticized for not being sufficiently outgoing and not participating in all the international projects. On the whole, I don't know why we tended to stay in our little cubby hole and not try to rule the world and not try to establish empires. Maybe we should have been more active more outgoing more enterprising. I don't know.

Doel:

Certainly you had many achievements, through your students you had quite a bit of direct contact with others.

Verhoogen:

Through the students, yes.

Doel:

There are a lot of other questions I would normally want to ask but Bill Glen has already discussed them with you. I would like to give you a chance to say anything now—of course those interviews were a while ago—if there were any other themes or issues that you've thought about since the time that you did that interview with him that you hadn't talked about that you wanted to mention here.

Verhoogen:

I don't really think so. If you ask me to repeat what I have said to Bill Glen you would probably get a different answer. My memory has changed or something or other. We better not go through that again!

Doel:

This has all been very interesting, and I did want to thank you very much for having this session. We will, of course—and this will go on tape—not make the transcript of the tape available to anyone without your express knowledge and approval, as defined in the permission form which you will be receiving. Thank you very much.