Oral History Transcript — Dr. Robert Sharp
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Robert Sharp; April 26, 1990
ABSTRACT: Born in California in 1911; recollections of childhood. Undergraduate studies in geology at California Institute of Technology, then one year of graduate work (J. P. Buwald, Chester Stock, William Morris Davis). Graduate studies in geology at Harvard University (R. A. Daly, Kirk Bryan, Percy Bridgman, Francis Birch, David Griggs), 1935-1938; comparisons between Harvard University and Caltech. To University of Illinois for teaching position, 1938-1943; summer research in geomorphology and glaciology. Research in Army Air Force during World War II. Accepts position at University of Minnesota (Larry Gould); professorship at Caltech, 1947. Debates over geochemical and geophysical approaches to geology; reassessment of curriculum in Division of Geological Sciences; decision to encourage research in space and planetary sciences (Harrison Brown), late 1950s.
Doel:I know that you were born in Oxnard, California on June 24, 1911 but I do not know much else about your family or your early life. Who were your parents? What did they do?
That is interesting, Ron. I'll tell you about my parents, eventually, but my paternal grandparents were as important to me as my own parents, in some ways. Let me talk about my paternal grandfather, whose name was J. M. Sharp. He was a pioneer citrus rancher in Ventura County near Saticoy. He had eight children, six of whom were boys. He was a very entrepreneurial gentlemen, who got involved in all sorts of activities. One of those activities was the so-called People's Lumber Company of Ventura County. He had, as I said, six boys and somehow he managed to, I won't say control, but be a very important factor in the lives of these boys particularly. The girls less so. One of the girls was terrific. She was the first MD out of Cooper Medical Center in San Francisco. She lived to be almost 104 years old. She was the oldest child, and a magnificent lady. My dad was the next oldest child. My grandfather, at some stage in his career, arranged for my father to become manager of the People's Lumber Company in Oxnard. My dad had abandoned high school in his freshman year. Neither of my parents had more than a grammar school education. My mother, who had been in high school in Ventura—though she lived in Saticoy—had to go home early in her freshman year to take care of her mother who had cancer. My dad had rushed off to be a Klondike 1898 gold rusher in Alaska. He spent about five years in Alaska. That was the great adventure of his life.
As a kid I heard many stories about Alaska. I don't think he ever found much gold. I think he had more fun hunting game, living off the land, and just working up there than he did anything else. When he came back, he married my mother. As I said, my grandfather arranged for him to be manager of the People's Lumber Company in Oxnard. Oxnard was just a small farming community at that time. It had a large population of Hispanics and, interestingly, Japanese and Chinese. I grew up in a very polyglot community. It wasn't much of a town; a small town. Subsequently my dad became manager of one of three large ranches that my grandfather owned in the upper part of the Santa Clara Valley. This is the Santa Clara Valley of the south, not of the north, in California — up near Piru. It was primarily an orange ranch and that is where my dad lived for the rest of his life. My family split up about that time, when I was about ten years old. From ten years on I didn't see much of my dad, except occasionally. My mother raised the family. There were three of us. I had a brother who was seven years younger than I and a sister who was about ten years younger. We grew up in Oxnard. I went to Oxnard High School. In high school there was one of these young fellows, we always referred to as the boy scientist. He had a chemistry laboratory in his garage and so on. He was determined to go to Caltech. He knew about Caltech and kept talking about it. Long about my senior year I said, "Gee, if this guy can go to Caltech I can too — I'm just as smart if not smarter than he is." So, I applied to Caltech and that was the only place where I applied. In those times you had to take a special examination. Not college boards; Caltech gave its own examination. You had to go to the campus and take the exam to get into the place. This boy scientist and I went down and took the exam. I guess they were short of students that year, because we both got in.
Doel:Wasn't that about 1930?
Sharp:1930, yes. It was the spring of 1930 that we took the exam, because we went to school in the fall of 1930. We persuaded one other of our fellow students to take a second giving of the exam, and he got in too. Unfortunately, the other two guys eventually flunked out. Our high school wasn't that good. I stayed out of high school one year between high school and college. I worked full-time in a gas station. This was before Roosevelt initiated the NRA, and I was working 60 hours a week in the gas station. I remember the proprietor coming to me and saying, "Gee, Bob, I have to cut you back to 48 hours a week." At the same time I was going to high school part-time to fill in some deficiencies in required courses to get into Caltech, solid geometry being one. There was no Solid Geometry course offered in our high school. But, the math teacher gave a special course for the three of us who wanted to go to Caltech. We also took a required drawing course, and I learned to type.
Doel:Did you have courses in physics in high school?
Sharp:I'd had the required courses in chemistry, biology, and physics plus a general science course. But I didn't have all of the pre-reqs to get into Caltech.
Doel:Did you realize this before taking the examination at Caltech?
Sharp:I took the examination in the spring after I had the required courses. I didn't have anybody directing in these matters. I did it on my own. From about aged ten years on I was pretty much making my own decisions. My mother was — God bless her — a courageous woman and did a good job of raising our three kids. But, she was not a highly educated or sophisticated woman. She had a grammar school education. So I pretty much made my own decisions.
Doel:Did you talk much to your paternal grandfather?
Sharp:My paternal grandfather was important this way, Ron. First of all the home ranch near Saticoy was a center of activity for the family. The family always gathered there, particularly at Christmas, but also on other occasions. My grandfather had about twenty grandchildren. He loved them and was very concerned about them. I was the next oldest in this list of twenty. He would talk to me, even when I was young, in a very mature way, urging me to do things. Or, he would say to me, "Bob, I am counting on you to set a good example for all the rest of the grandchildren" and so forth. When our family, the Oxnard family — my dad and mother had broke up — he had entered the picture making financial arrangements that helped support the family. This involved partly the income from his ranches, but he made a provision that a small fund was to be set aside for the education of the three children. For this reason, I was able to go to Caltech, although the tuition when I was first there was only 250/year. It's much, much higher now.
Doel:Still, that was a hard thing to do then.
Oh, yes. I think, except for his support and to some degree his encouragement to do that sort of thing… I would not have done it. He was never specific about, "You ought to go to Stanford, you ought to go to Caltech." He himself was largely of self-educated. As a young man he had taught in some schools of various type; he knew the value of education. He always took an interest in kids. When I was a little bitty kid my uncles and grandfather would go off fishing in the Sierra Nevada. I often got to go on these trips although I am sure I was a nuisance to them (a little kid with these full-grown men). I think I got to go because my grandfather said, "If Bob wants to go he gets to go." I don't know that, but I think that it was his the influence that got me in on these operations. I had a lot of respect for him and felt that he played a very important role in my life. My grandmother was a matronly, kindly person. On occasions I would go and stay with them for a week on their ranch even as a little guy. I can remember one time during World War I, when everybody was knitting things for the soldiers overseas, I took up knitting. I had taken my knitting over to the home ranch when I was over there one time.
One night my grandmother — who was going off to a knitting bee where they knitted sweaters and things like that — grabbed my knitting bag instead of her. All I ever knitted were little squares. She had to sit knitting little squares this particular occasion. Of course, she knit much better than I did so on a half-finished square that she finished, the two parts didn't look like they had any relationship! The home ranch was a very important place to me. I liked to go over there and wander around. There were lots of different fruit trees around, and I knew where they were. I knew where there was a plum tree and a nectarine tree, and this and that. In those days these were unusual fruits. That was characteristic of my grandfather. He would be about the first in the county to have a solar heater, to make hot water in the house. He really forward looking person, although he was basically a very conservative man. Both grandparents were important to me, but particularly my grandfather. My dad being away beyond my age of ten had less influence, although he did leave certain things with me. Later, when I was in college, he and I would go off in the fall, hunting and fishing in northern California. I learned things from him but he never inspired me intellectually in any way. He was a rancher and an outdoorsman. Do you want more on the early life or do you have specific things in mind that I left out?
Doel:I was curious if any of your teachers in high school had any particular influence on you?
Sharp:Yes, the general science teacher with the name Lauderback, who was a martinet kind of guy. He was a very strict person, very firm minded, but a good teacher. He certainly stimulated my interest in science — I had chemistry and physics from him and general science. And then mathematics in which also I did well was taught by a woman teacher, Mrs. Brown. She wasn't exactly inspirational, but nonetheless I did O.K. in mathematics, and I think if you do well teachers tend to like you. I'd say the mathematics teacher was a factor, but primarily the general science teacher, who was a Christian Scientist, was the principle inspiration. You could not cough in his class. If you would cough, he would stop and glare at you and say, "You do not have to cough — you must learn to control that." He taught the whole class self control. I was never close to him in a personal sense but I certainly was inspired by him. There was one person out of our high school who had gone to Caltech and who later became a Caltech professor and now is an emeritus professor there, who was held up to us as a model. I see him once in a while. This particular teacher had taught him and he was always pointing out how Vito Vanoni had done this and that. That was another sort of influence that may have steered me toward Caltech, though I knew very little about Caltech. It was mostly that school mate of mine who was so hopped up about it that provided background.
Doel:Did you read about science while you were a child?
No I didn't read much of science. From about the age of ten on I was always working at something. I did my school work and all the reading that was involved with that. We had a Carnegie Library in the town which was a considerable influence on me. I would read many things — about Civil War history, the Indians and the mountain trappers and that sort of thing. I didn't read science. I didn't read books about science or about scientists or anything like that. I read a lot of things but mostly non-science and not necessarily the great works of literature either. I read things that appealed to me. There happened to be a whole series of books on the Civil War, which were novels but they were realistic. They would deal with specific battles such as Shiloh or Vicksburg. I got started on these books and became, in a sense, something of a Civil War buff. I still like to visit a Civil War battlefield. To me Gettysburg is a great place, and I have been there two or three times. So, I had that kind of reading background but not science. As a matter of fact, except for high school where I was taught science I didn't have any people around me who were scientifically trained or strongly intellectual.
This was a farming community and people worked with their hands so that other than a general science teacher in high school, I can't point to any personal influences. My dad, who could have been an important influence on me, was an outdoor person. From the time I was about two years old, I went camping, and was outdoors. He was mostly into hunting and fishing. I never hunted much with him, and the hunting didn't rub off on me as much as the fishing. I did, as a kid, hunt a modest amount. Largely, that was my dad's influence. I had guns and used them, but by the time I finished college that was over. The fishing stuck, and in my old age that is one of my passions. As an old guy you better have some passions, and trout fishing is one of my passions and one of the great joys of my life. I have a lot of fun doing it. I didn't have strong intellectual influences exerted on me in my youth.
Doel:You didn't have an interest in geology?
Sharp:No. As a matter of fact the only influence that I had had to geology courses prior to the time of going to Caltech was in the general science course where we had to make a rock collection. Here again is the general science teacher, but he couldn't teach much geology as he didn't know much; that was part of the problem. Most high school teachers don't know much about geology. No, it wasn't until I got to college — and I will get to that if you are about at that point — do you want to hear that?
Doel:Yes. The only other question I had is whether any of your other siblings were interested in science?
No, my brother was quite a bit younger. He went to Davis and became a rancher. He actually took over the job that my dad had had up on the ranch near Piru. He was never interested in science, though at Davis he had to study some basic sciences related to agriculture I'm sure. My brother — it was unfortunate — had a lot of the same teachers that I had in high school and grammar school. He was about seven years behind me. When he showed up — I had done well in school — after a little while they would say to him, "You aren't as good as your brother." That had a very bad, psychological effect. He never got over that to some degree and it bedeviled him all the way. When he got ready to go to college, he and I talked a bit. I told him there was a great opportunity in ranching for somebody in the family. My grandfather had three ranches and when he died he had left them in a family company — the J. M. Sharp Farming Company. I said that provided a great opportunity, if that appealed to him. Davis was a good place to go. That is what he did. We were not antagonistic, but he always seemed to be under the thumb in relations with me. Unfortunately, he died of alcoholism. He was in the war but didn't get into combat. He was a bombardier and reputedly a good one.
At the end of the war he asked me if he should stay in the Armed Forces or if he should go back to the ranch. I told him if it was up to me I would get back to the ranch. I was in the Army Air Force, too, but not in any combat role. He should get back to the ranch as fast as he could, it may have been the wrong decision. He just went downhill from there and ultimately killed himself with alcohol. My sister went to Occidental College and married a man who ultimately worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as an engineer, not as a scientist. They had four children. He was killed in a train crash. She is the only other surviving member of the family and now lives in La Jolla with her second husband, who is not science-oriented in any way. My sister did well in school, she is a hyperactive person. In thinking of the rest of the grandchildren, two of them went to Caltech after me. One of them was an engineer, not a scientist. The other did get a degree in geophysics but never practiced it extensively. He is now into computer programming. He lives here in Santa Barbara, as a matter of fact, but I almost never see him. Of the other grandchildren, there were no other scientists, but one was an electrical engineer. So, there were some engineers but no scientists. There was not a strong scientific influence in my family associations. Shall we go to Caltech now?
Doel:Did you have a feeling for what you might do when you arrived at Caltech?
When I first went down I thought I would be a civil engineer. The first year at Caltech is the same for everybody. At that time it was a highly regimented place, Ron. In four years at Caltech, as an undergraduate, I had one elective. That was in my last quarter of my senior year. It wasn't really an elective. It was a humanities course and I could take Modern American Literature, economics, or something else. That was it. Everything was prescribed. To register, you just opened up the catalog and copied down what was there. It was basic: math, physics, chemistry, history, English and drawing. The sophomore year was not much different, except you did make a choice in the sophomore year whether you wanted to be an engineer or a scientist. And about the only difference was, if you were an engineer, you took a drawing course, and if you were going to be a scientist you took a certain chemistry course. You didn't select a major until the last quarter of your sophomore year. I had never really been aware of geology. There was one guy in our freshman class who said he was going to be a geologist. We all laughed and said, "What's that?" He was going to be a geologist largely, I think, because his dad worked in the land office of a big oil company — Union Oil Company in Los Angeles — and apparently his dad had said to him, "Of all the guys in this company the fellows who have the most fun are the geologists—why don't you be a geologist?" So, this kid said he was going to be a geologist. He didn't do that. He went into engineering. Subsequently, however, he worked as a geologist, even though he had been trained as a mechanical engineer. He lives up in Santa Ynez valley right now.
Anyway, in the sophomore year we were required to take a course in geology. No choice, just take it. The professor who taught it — John Peter Buwalda — taught a very good course, and we hadn't gone very far into it when I said hey now, I am finally beginning to understand things that I had been interested in as a little kid. We traveled extensively in California — but not widely outside it — a lot. My dad hunted and fished. I can remember asking my mother questions that were basically related to geological things we saw. She did the best she could. She was not an educated person, and I didn't think her answers were always very good. I can remember that. But clearly, as a kid — partly from spending so much time camping and out in the woods with my dad — I had an interest in the natural environment; landscape features and related things. I hadn't really recognized that but when I took this course in geology, I can remember John Buwalda talking about lateral moraines made by glaciers. It suddenly dawned on me, as a kid that I had climbed over lateral moraines along a certain stream in the Sierra Nevada to get at the stream to go fishing. I thought, "Oh, that's what they were." At the end of the sophomore year we had to choose a major. I said, "Gee, can people earn a living doing that kind of thing?" These were Depression years. We were right in the middle of the Depression, and jobs were hard to get no matter what. So, I elected geology, and happily have never looked back. For me, it was one of the most fortunate things that ever could have happened.
By the time I had selected geology I had already abandoned the idea that I would be a civil engineer and had moved over into science and was pointed more towards chemistry than anything else. Though one of the professors in chemistry — Ernest Swift — was changing my mind about how good a chemist I might be. I think I could have been a good enough chemist, but my interest was in the outdoors, not inside laboratories. Even within geology, I am just an old fashioned field geologist. I make no pretense to be anything else. Election of geology was one of those forks in the road that you encounter in a lifetime. For me, it was most fortunate that regimentation brought geology to my attention, you see, this business about having curricula requirements and regimentation is now looked down on. But not by me, I am a beneficiary not a victim of regimentation, I benefitted from it — being forced to take a course in geology, a subject I didn't know anything about but had an inherent feeling and liking for. It was the best thing that could have happened to me. It would not have happened in most universities.
Doel:At that time?
Sharp:Yes. So I went through to a bachelor's degree at Caltech in geology.
Doel:I'm curious: did you get to know John Buwalda outside of the classroom?
Sharp:We all spent a lot of time in the field with him. Indeed, I got to know him. You didn't get close to him. There was too much dignity and reserve. But on the other hand, I have been many days and weeks in the field with him.
Doel:These were the summers?
Sharp:Summer and spring, and other times. I had him in many other courses. He was a very good teacher — very stimulating, critical teacher — who tried to make you think rather than just telling you. He was never recognized widely. He was a good geologist, but he never established a national reputation because he didn't publish much. As a young man he had written some good papers, but then he got into consulting. Basically the consulting ruined his professional attainments. That was a lesson for me, which later in life became important. Buwalda was to me an important figure. As a matter of fact I regarded him with almost reverence. When I went East I found nobody had ever heard of him, and it was a big shock. Then I realized why. That is one reason you should move out of your undergraduate environment. We will get to that again in a moment. Anyway, I graduated from Caltech and had applied to a number of universities…
Doel:Before we turn to your graduate career, did you also take courses from Chester Stock?
Sharp:I took a course from Chester Stock. He was, of course, a vertebrate paleontologist and very specialized. I took the only course I could from Stock. I was just going to say to you that I spent one year as a graduate student at Caltech after I had gotten my bachelor's degree, that's when I took Stock's course in vertebrate paleontology.
Doel:When did you get your bachelor?
Sharp:1934, and then a master's in 1935. That wasn't a good thing to do, but I will get back to why I did it in a moment. Nonetheless, when I graduated with a B.S. I did apply to Princeton and Harvard, and I don't remember where else. Eastern schools primarily.
Doel:What had you heard of them at that point?
Sharp:Not a lot. I had one professor who was urging me very strongly toward Harvard. He had a Harvard degree. I felt it was good to go far away. If you sit down and draw a line within the United States between two fairly good institutions, it is hard to draw one that is longer than Caltech to Harvard for instance. It is interesting, the dean of students at Caltech when I was there was an ex-West Pointer. He was a great guy. I went in and asked him for a letter of recommendation.
Doel:In 1934 or 1935?
Sharp:1934. I asked him for a letter of recommendation. This was the first time I had applied for graduate study anywhere. He was the kind of man who calls in the secretary and dictates a letter while you are sitting right there in front of him. This is the kind of person he was. Unfortunately right at the end of this letter he said, "He's been captain of the football team." I found that torpedoed me in many places. They would look at it and say, "This guy is a lunker." I learned later that that didn't do me any good. Anyhow I had a Princeton offer of a very modest kind. As a matter of fact I think they were the only one who really offered me anything. Others would admit me but they wouldn't give me any support, and by this time I needed support to go to graduate school. Caltech would give me a tuition fellowship plus room and board in the Athenaeum. They didn't have any money either but they took care of us completely by above means. We never saw any money, but we didn't need it. It was great. For the most part it would have been good if I had left. It was good that I did leave the next year.
Doel:Were you thinking to go to Yale?
Sharp:Not that I recall. I went to Harvard. Northwestern offered me a terrific fellowship and I declined because I felt I wanted to hit higher on the ladder than Northwestern. Actually this professor that wanting me to go to Harvard had also been at Northwestern. He finessed things so another Caltech graduate got the Northwestern fellowship. All Harvard gave me was a tuition fellowship. When I arrived there, I realized that the "old boy network" was very much in effect. There were graduate students at Harvard who had the nice Austin Teaching Fellowship, infinitely better than my appointment, but mostly because the person who had recommended them — let's say from Washington University — was part of the "old boy network." That was all right. I got by the first year and after that Harvard treated me very well.
Doel:I want to get to Harvard in just a moment. But what courses did you take during that first graduate year at Caltech?
Sharp:They were all graduate level courses. Chester Stocks' vertebrate paleontology. There was a man teaching economic geology — F. L. Ransom — a very famous guy; by a poor teacher. I stayed at Caltech primarily because I wanted to take a course from William Morris Davis, the very famous geomorphologist. He died the summer of 1934, before I could ever get to him. As an undergraduate I could not get into his course because I had no electives. I knew him and knew who he was and I had been on field trips with him. I wanted very badly to know him better — that was a major reason that I stayed at Caltech beside the financial considerations.
Doel:It is clear that you had a pretty strong interest already in geomorphology by that time.
Sharp:Yes, although at that time I don't I was not committed, and actually my Ph.D. thesis in Nevada was more in structural matters than a geomorphological thesis. Anyway, I missed Davis though I did know him slightly. He didn't know me. I could stand in the crowd and listen to him.
Doel:Was there a colloquium that you could get into?
Sharp:Not especially. There was no established seminars at that time. There was a geology club that I always went to but no, mostly I listened to Davis on field trips. These were field trips in which he participated. The leader of the field trip wouldn't be Davis but when the leader got done, Davis would always stand up and point out about seventeen other things that the guy hadn't mentioned. He was a very good observer. And, of course, a renowned man. He was about 85 years old by that time. He was a incredible fellow. Do you want more?
Doel:I am curious do you recall anything particularly about the teaching styles at Caltech? Did you know what the people were actually researching at the time?
Sharp:I knew pretty well what most of them were doing in terms of research and the teaching styles varied all over the lot. There is an interesting point here, and we might as well treat it right now. When I graduated as a undergraduate, if you had asked me who was my best teacher, I would have said a fellow, Ian Campbell, who was newly appointed a couple of years before.
Doel:He had just come into the Division, hadn't he?
Sharp:He had just come into the Division. He was from Harvard. He was the professor who wanted me to go back to Harvard. His courses were beautiful. They were organized; you could understand things. It was clear — the kind of thing the any undergraduate student would like. But, Buwalda's teaching was really more stimulating and tended to make you think more for yourself as he kept probing you. Campbell didn't do that. Anyway, I would have said Ian Campbell was my best teacher. When I got my Ph.D. I would have said a man who caused me to think in bigger terms in a critical way, R. A. Daly of Harvard, and very famous person, was the best teacher I had had. Ten years afterwards I would have named a teacher who I never believed a thing he told me — Kirk Bryan. He was a man I admired and loved. He was a marvelous fellow, but he was a mystic. Ideas would come out of the blue. You would say, "Where did that come from?" and I would go work like a dog for a couple of weeks in the library, saying that I would cut the old man off at the knees. I would usually find out he was right, but it took me two weeks to work it out. He taught me self-education. I really never accepted at face value most things Bryan told me the first time he told me. I learned, eventually, that more times than naught he was right but you couldn't see why.
Doel:Was it intentional to try to stimulate the students?
Sharp:No, that is just the way he was. He was born that way. I am not sure he himself would have known this, and it took me awhile to recognize the thing. So now if you ask me — I would say from about ten years beyond my Ph.D. I've always recognized that Bryan was the best teacher I have ever had. But his courses were not coherent. One day it was one thing and another day it was another. They were full of mystical ideas that came out of the blue. He was an engaging personality. Everybody liked him, and he was a paternal figure to all of us. He was also a highly perceptive person; but again I say mystical in the sense that you could follow his line of thinking. I don't know if it was a line of reasoning. He was intuitive. Linus Pauling was intuitive. Linus Pauling, of course, always shakes up the chemistry — he'd do something and then everybody would say Pauling was wrong this time and we're going to prove him wrong and they'd work like dogs, and end up proving Pauling was right. But nobody ever understood why he was right. Bryan was kind of that way: intuitive.
Doel:What was Bryan working on?
Sharp:He was a geomorphologist and he was working mostly on all kinds of geomorphological topics, primarily involving Pleistocene or surface features. He was into archaeology, not so much archaeology but the contribution geology could make to understanding of archaeological relationships. Kirk Bryan was a tremendous influence on me and was one of the supervisors of my Ph.D. work. However, I never was one of the guys that was totally under Bryan's wing in doing my Ph.D. work. He had a large group that worked in New Mexico. He was a New Mexican, born, bred and educated in New Mexico. He had a slew of guys working back down there, but I was not one of them. I was off by myself up in northeastern Nevada. Bryan did come out and spend several days with me in the field. He flew out and was extremely helpful. As a matter of fact, it was Bryan who helped me do what I wanted to do in terms of my Ph.D. thesis. Other people were opposed or didn't want me to do it in Nevada or in the way I wanted. Bryan supported me.
Doel:I want to talk with you about that too, for that's very interesting. I am curious though, what differences did you see in training in geology when you did get to Harvard?
Sharp:I think the thing that I got most out of Harvard — let me back up just a bit here. Going from Caltech to Harvard I arrived with a background training in field geology and in basic principles; math, physics, chemistry, and so forth. My background in these respects was much better than most of the graduate students there, so graduate study for me at Harvard was a breeze. I only had to take four courses and that was a cinch compared to the six or more I had been taking every quarter at Caltech. Harvard courses weren't that difficult, so I had a lot of time to do things I had always wanted to do — a lot of reading on various subjects and so on. It wasn't difficult for me. A lot of students were having a tough time, because they had never had to work hard, but I had had to work very, very hard for five years at Caltech. So, Harvard was easy and very permissive and so forth by comparison, but very rich.
Doel:Did you find that your fellow graduate students did not have as much training in physics and math?
Sharp:Nowhere near it. Rarely would you find one that would have the background in basic science that I had and never in the field experience. I had had a tremendous amount of field work by the time I arrived at Harvard. Well, the things I got out of Harvard were first of all, the richness of the place and the opening of horizons to think about larger problems. Actually I had spent a lot of time doing CCC — Calisthenics, intellectual ones. That is kind of a limiting business and now I finally felt I was on the playing field and could use these intellectual muscles that had been developing. Besides broadening my horizons and helping me to think on a larger scale, Harvard taught me to be critical. Above almost everything else, it taught me to really be critical of things that I read, what people told me, taught me, and of myself. There was a very critical atmosphere existing there. It helped me tremendously. At Caltech I got basic essentials and wide field experience, and at Harvard the horizons were opened up to new ideas and totally different viewpoints, which was good. Not just only science, but culture. When I first arrived there, I found it wasn't a good thing to be from California. In general, New Englanders considered me to be half-Indian, uncouth, and so on. I was became obtuse as to where I was from. I said out in the "tules" and they didn't know what that meant. Then I would have to explain what "tules" were. That was only really at the beginning. Later it wasn't that way. I came to like New England and New Englanders. I treasure the time spent there. I think it was a very good thing to go to a completely different setup from what was, I would say, a very provincial atmosphere at Caltech. Harvard is also provincial and New England is provincial but in a different way. It was a good thing, rather than going to Stanford or Berkeley or somewhere like that, which I might have done. It was certainly good to go much farther afield. I am glad I did it. It was a good thing for me.
Doel:Did you have a choice at that point between Harvard and other schools at the end of 1935?
Sharp:Yes. Everybody offered me something. I wasn't captain of the football team anymore — Princeton offered me, Northwestern offered me a beautiful thing, and Harvard. I guess those were about the only three that I considered seriously. Harvard was the more modest offer of the bunch, but I went for two reasons. First, I felt it was the better place, and secondly I had this professor who was urging me toward Harvard very strongly but in a restrained sort of way. When I decided to go to Harvard he was delighted, and I think that was right. It was good for me. The Princeton department at that time was good (geology department) — there is no question about it. There were several top men there.
Doel:Hess was there.
Sharp:Yes, Harry Hess was there. He was terrific, of course, but —
Doel:He was very young, though.
Sharp:Well, yes but he was very influential at the time. I am trying to think of the petrologist (Buddington) but his name escapes my mind at the moment. Some of the older people were on their way out by that time. It was a department in which there was still an aurora of good science. They did a lot of good things. I am sure I would have been happy at Princeton. But I don't regret going to Harvard. It was a good thing for me to do.
Doel:Did Campbell talk to you about particular people at Harvard?
Sharp:Not a great deal, except he had said that I would like Kirk Bryan, and he was right. But I didn't go to Harvard because I knew that Kirk Bryan was there, particularly. I respected Campbell's judgment, and he was the only member of the faculty, as a matter of fact, who was really concerned about what I did and where I went. The others were — well, Buwalda and others wanted me to stay at Caltech. Campbell was, I would say, the lone guy who was saying. "Get the hell out of here!" In that sense, his influence was a good one and was important.
Doel:By the second year had you gotten an Austin Fellowship?
Sharp:I got an Austin Fellowship the second year and worked for Marland Billings, who was a structural geologist. Basically, in a sense, he was closer to me in terms of influence than anyone other than Bryan. Although I learned many, many things from Billings (which I deeply appreciate) my relationship with Billings was always a little strained. He told me why about the time I left. The summer before I arrived his mother and sister had been in California touring. They had been somewhere in the mountains and they had been parking at an overlook. They got into their car and thought they had it in reverse but instead went right over the edge and were killed. He says when I arrived and every time he saw me for the first year all he could think of was his dead mother and sister. I didn't have anything to do with it, but he couldn't stand the sight of me. Well, the next year when I was his graduate teaching assistant, he was going through a trauma and almost had a nervous breakdown. It was kind of a tough year in terms of personal relationships with him, though I respected him. He is terribly provincial. Billings was a New Englander from the word go and still lives in New Hampshire. It is incredible that he is still alive because he has had some physical problems. Then the third year Harvard gave me the Woodworth Fellowship, which is as good a fellowship as you can have. I didn't have to do a damn thing for it. I could just spend all my time writing my thesis, except I didn't because I had already arranged to be late back to school in the fall so that I could do some other things. Then along in late summer, before I left Nevada, Campbell was organizing, with Carnegie Institute support, a boat trip through the Grand Canyon for the fall of 1937, invited me aboard. That was a superb adventure! I was the gun boy — the kid of the outfit. We had three boats and three boatmen and three mature geologists: Ian Campbell, John Maxson, both from Caltech, and a fellow named Jack Stark, from Northwestern. I was a geologist, but very junior to those guys. Half to three-quarters of the way through the Canyon the park naturalist Eddie McKee came down and joined us. So there were eight of us instead of seven. That was probably the best, most thrilling trip I ever had. We spent about two months on the river, this was before it was damned at Grand Canyon. There were no tourist trips through the Canyon at that time. It was great.
Doel:What were you hoping to accomplish on this trip?
Well, as I say, I was just finishing my Ph.D. thesis work in Nevada, and I should have gone back to school. Let me treat that for the moment. I wrote to the Harvard Dean asking a leave of absence and thinking they would take away my Woodworth Fellowship. I asked if I could have the Fellowship for the second semester. I told them what I was going to do, and pretty soon back came this letter from good old conservative, stodgy Harvard saying they had talked to Professor McLaughlin and Professor Bryan, and others in the geology department, and they thought the Grand Canyon trip was a worthwhile scientific adventure, so they made my fellowship a traveling fellowship for the first semester. So Harvard paid me to go down into the Grand Canyon; not very much, about 400 or something like that. Nonetheless, it was amazing. It was a very nice thing. I liked that very much. The Canyon trip was a great adventure. Now what did I intend to accomplish? Well, it was a scientific adventure. Campbell and Maxson were working on the old Precambrian rocks of the inner-gorges of the Grand Canyon. It was hard to get at these rocks. They would have to go down a trail and go 100 yards along the river and then go 5000 feet back up.
So, they organized this boat trip to get at the rocks. That was what they were interested in. I asked Campbell, "What can I do that will contribute to this?" and he assigned me a couple of little chores which weren't very demanding. Then I took an interest in the two huge unconformities that exist in the Grand Canyon. One, between the oldest rocks — the old archean crystalline rocks — and the younger Precambrian tilted Grand Canyon series that rests on top of them. This contact has a beautiful erosion surface. The younger unconformity, which is essentially horizontal, is at the base of the Paleozoic sequence that goes up to the rim of the Canyon. At every opportunity, when I could get at those unconformities, I would take off up a side canyon and get up on to those contacts. I wrote papers about those old surfaces and other things that I saw related to them. As a matter of fact, curiously, I ended up publishing more papers about that trip than anybody else did, partly again because Campbell and Maxson didn't write very much. That was one of the weaknesses of the operation. Merrian bet on some relatively unproductive people. Back at Harvard, they threw me out of the dormitory where I was to be housed. I didn't get back to Cambridge until Christmas time. Then I had to write my thesis and defend it within that remaining time. My thesis had to be in by the 15th of April. I got it done. I worked like a dog. Buwalda didn't make a good role model. Campbell was a great guy, but he just didn't publish research results. If you are going to do research you should make it available and not to make it available, you might as well almost not have done it. I felt very keenly about this.
Doel:Was Stock the same way?
Sharp:No, he published widely, as did our geophysicists, Gutenberg, in particular, and Richter and Benriff less so. Stock was a member of the National Academy, and Gutenberg was internationally famous. Stock was president of the Geological Society of America at one time, so he had national exposure. Harvard, of course, was different. Daly published widely. Most of the professors published. That was another thing I learned upon getting there. Not that I was impressed with the Caltech's behavior in not publishing anyhow. Let's see, do you want to do the Canyon anymore? It was a great adventure.
Doel:Yes. Was the Carnegie interest through John Merriam?
Sharp:John Campbell Merriam had been in Washington during the first World War, and he was a member of the National Research Council group that was organized at that time. Robert A. Millikan was in that. So, when Millikan wanted to start geology at Caltech he turned to Merriam rather than his former colleagues at Chicago. Our department was basically constructed on the image of the Berkeley — Andy Lawson — John Campbell Merriam model. Merriam became president of the Carnegie Institute, and he decided that he wanted to get the geology of the archean Grand Canyon done and done right. So, he gave Maxson and Campbell the Precambrian oldest rocks. He gave Norman Ethan Allen Hinds at Berkeley the Protozoic tilted beds, he gave Eddie McKee the Paleozoic, and he financed them all. He published a lot of McKee's work in the big books that the Carnegie Institute puts out. Campbell and Maxson never really delivered for him in terms of significant published material, nor did Norman Ethan Allan Hinds, as a matter of fact. Merriam didn't get his money's worth out of the operations, but he did stimulate a lot of work. It wasn't Merriam alone that provided support, but there wasn't a lot of Caltech money the Precambrian effort. It was known as the Carnegie/Caltech expedition. Caltech, in effect, furnished people and I don't really know how much money the Institute put in because I wasn't party to the arrangements. I was off in northeast Nevada, and I kept getting letters from Campbell, "Would I like to go down the Grand Canyon?" "Yes, I would like to go down the Grand Canyon."
Doel:How did you get started on your thesis research?
That is interesting. I had already had one year of graduate study when I arrived at Harvard. I had no intention of spending more than three years there. So during the first year that I was there, I was thinking about the thesis. I was going to work two summers and finish up the third year. I wanted to work somewhere in the west. I had the idea I wanted to do something on Basin and Range structure. I wandered into the map room at Harvard one day and here was a brand new topographic map; the Halleck quadrangle in northeast Nevada. It was a beautiful thing, and I looked at it and could tell it was beautiful country. It looked like the kind of thing I wanted to do. You have to be a little careful that problems aren't preoccupied. I immediately sat down and started writing. I wrote first to the United States Geological Survey and said, "Are you working in the area and do you know anybody else who is working there?" And I got back a reply, which I realized Tom Nolan (who was later head of the Survey) had written. At that time it wasn't signed by him but by the director of the Survey; Nolan was later director but not then. He said, "No, we have nobody working up there. We understand a fellow named George Anderson is interested in that area." I knew George Anderson very well because he had been a graduate student at Caltech. He was a mature man who had come back (to school). I wrote to Anderson. He kind of equivocated when I told him what I wanted to do, which was really not what he wanted to do. I wanted to study the boundary structure of the range; the Basin and Range structure. He was interested in the old rocks inside the range, which to me was secondary. He had grown up in that area and knew the people. He said, "Well, let's go up there and look it over and see if we can arrive at something." He actually took me up and introduced to people locally in the area, which was very helpful. We arrived at an agreement. He would never have done anything up there anyway. He just sort of staked out a hunk of land and had held onto it.
The range is a little Sierra Nevada. It is a fault block that has been glaciated. It has lakes and streams and so forth. So, I went up there and basically the focus of my thesis was the structure of the mountain range; the boundary structure — the fault boundary structure of the mountain range which is more structural and geological than geomorphological. Although geomorphology fits into it. As I was working on the problem I was just mapping things I saw, and I began mapping the glacial features. The first paper I published was on the glacial features of the range, the second was on the basin deposits surrounding it because much of the story of the evolution of the range is in the basin deposits. Then I published on the boundary structure, and finally the geomorphological surface features around the range that I saw. I did four papers, four chapters of my thesis, only one of which (well, two you might say) turned out to be geomorphological. I hadn't really intended this. From there on I tended to go more toward geomorphological matters. The first job I could get after I got a Ph.D. at Harvard was at the University of Illinois.
Doel:You were saying that you didn't have full support from certain people on the staff?
Sharp:No, it wasn't support. Just a difference of opinion as to what I should do. Daly wanted me to map on the 49th parallel because he had mapped up there as a young man and there were a lot of things that he was never able to get back to.
Doel:To tie up loose ends he had?
Sharp:He wanted me to go up there but didn't tell me what I should do. Marlin Billings didn't mind me doing Basin-Range structure, but he wanted me to map over in the middle part of Nevada, in a different area, partly because there was a ranch over there. Billings was a New Englander and the idea that you just live out in a field camp was a bit strange to him. He didn't particularly like the fact that I was going to go to this other area that he hadn't known about, and so on. Bryan was the one who supported me most warmly. It wasn't a conflict, really. The professors were trying to get me to do things differently but in a modest way. Bryan said, "No, you go to the Ruby East Humboldt Range because the streams coming down out of the mountains dissect the margin of the range, and you will be able to see something. In other places it's all buried and you won't see anything." I wanted to go there anyhow so I was delighted with his support. It wasn't a conflict. The one conflict that I did have was with the tradition for a graduate student to take an undergraduate student along with him in the field for companionship, safety, the training of the undergraduate. I went to the mat on that. I didn't want to take anyone — they had a student they wanted me to take. I knew him and I knew I would be just wet nursing him the whole time up there and he wasn't going to be anything except a damn burden to him. I said, "No, I will not take him." We had a little arm wrestling on that. I had a 250 grant from some Harvard fund. They gave me that, and so I went off into Nevada by myself and did my thesis. It was a great. I had a marvelous time and it turned out to be a very good problem.
Doel:While you were out in the field or traveling out there, did you come in contact with other geologists?
Sharp:Not geologists, there weren't any around then. Very little. I went down to the Eureka mining area to visit with Tom Nolan to get a feel for the stratigraphy. As a matter of fact, that wasn't during my Ph.D. work, but later I spent one more year in the area after I got my Ph.D. working the southern part of the range. So, no. I had no contact with other geologists except Bryan, who came out and spent about three days with me and Marlin Billings who came out and spent the better part of a week with me, and told me I was doing it all wrong.
Doel:Is that right?
Sharp:Oh yes, he didn't like the way I was doing it. He and I are both pretty stubborn guys and we agreed to disagree, and went my way. Nonetheless, he came out and had a couple of students with him. He was touring the country — this was a sort of therapeutic thing because he had had a nervous upset — and this was his therapeutic summer. It wasn't very therapeutic when he was with me!
Doel:What was it that he disagreed with?
Sharp:He felt that the secret of the boundary structure lay in the older rocks in the mountain range itself. I wasn't paying much attention to them. I didn't have the time and that was not the focus of my work. He is from New England, and he is a New England geologist who worked on old crystalline rocks. He though I ought to do the same. I said, "You know, Marlin, I don't give a damn whether it's mashed potatoes or gneiss in there. I am interested in what is happening along the edge of the range, which is not strongly related to what you see inside the range." It was just an honest difference. It really wasn't that bad, and when I was all done at Harvard and was leaving he had the good grace to say, "OK, you did all right." Even students have to stand firm. That is all part of the game, Ron. It all worked just fine. I wrote my thesis in a big hurry, met my lady and persuaded her to marry me.
Doel:I wanted to ask you about that too.
Sharp:She was a student at Radcliffe and I had known a bit about her before I had ever seen her. She had come while I was away in the Grand Canyon. She had not been there during the first two years I was there.
Doel:During your Grand Canyon trip?
Sharp:Yes, when I was in Grand Canyon. She had already been there several months by the time I arrived. I knew who she was because of the graduate student who had gone to Northwestern and taken the fellowship that I might have had there. I had lunch with him and his wife after I came out of the Grand Canyon. They had said, "Oh, when you get to Harvard there is this swell girl that was at Northwestern with us," where Jean had been for two years. She was out of Carleton College in Minnesota. She was Larry Gould's first geology major. He came from Michigan. Then she went for two years to Northwestern and got a Masters degree and was at Radcliffe. In those days they hadn't melded the two institutions but Radcliffe students could take courses at Harvard, if they sat in an adjacent room and listened to the professor. It was terrible. You would need to get this story from Jean, not from me, but it was very bad. Harvard treated girls horribly. Jean though she was headed toward a Ph.D., but wasn't that strongly committed to that kind of career. I think Jean wanted to have a home, be a housewife and start a family. We got married in September of 1938. I got my degree in 1938 from Harvard, and I worked for Stanford that summer out in California.
Doel:You had another field camp then?
Sharp:Yes, in a field camp in the Ventura region the first six weeks and then four weeks in the Mono Basin. I got some curious disease before that summer was over. It might have been undulant fever; it was never diagnosed. In the last couple of weeks of field camp I was out of action and didn't know if I would be able to recover enough to get married. But we did get married and went to the University of Illinois, where we spent five years.
Doel:I want to turn to that in just a moment. I am curious if you ever had contact while you were at Harvard as a graduate student with people doing geophysics? Like Bridgman?
Sharp:Geophysics at Harvard?
Sharp:The people who were doing geophysics at Harvard were people like Francis Birch and Dave Griggs. It was the Bridgman-type physics which is different that geophysics of the type I had known earlier at Caltech, which was seismology.
Doel:Right. They were doing high pressure studies.
Sharp:Well, high pressure, stress, breaking things up and so on. Birch was just coming in to the Geology Department at that time. He was basically a physics student of Bridgman's and Bridgman was a big name in his field. He had a very broad outlook on things. He had gotten Francis Birch to work on earth things. Birch was not yet over in the geology part and certainly was not teaching there, or I might have taken a course from him. Griggs was a fellow graduate student, though he was actually in the Society of Fellows. He was not a normal graduate student but a Society of Fellows. Griggs I knew very well. Griggs, again, was like Birch in the sense it wasn't just the stressing of things under high pressure but doing all these other variations in conditions and parameters that affected rocks and minerals in various ways. There was no seismology to speak of at Harvard then. So I didn't have much contact with geophysicists, though in some ways R. A. Daly was a geophysicist — in a broad sense. Daly's courses were interesting. You could take them year after year because they tended to be different each year. One year it would be on isostasy, the next year it would be on submarine canyons, and the following year it would be on whatever was interesting Daly at that time. You could repeat his course many times. Daly was a great thinker. He really was very advanced. In those days he would say, "You know, we are stupid; 2/3s of the globe is covered by the ocean and we are looking at 1/3 of it and arriving at all these conclusions. We ought to look at the ocean floor, the ocean features and the islands and the islands is sticking through." He was right—absolutely and totally right. He would have gloried in what has happened since. Too bad he hasn't been around.
Doel:He was a supporter of the idea of continental drift in that period, wasn't he?
Sharp:He probably was, though I never heard him hold forth on that particular topic. Isostasy was the thing he was really high on, and submarine canyons were a hot topic at that time. Daly was like anybody else. If there was a hot topic around he tended to have a swing at it. I think that he very quickly would have been in on all the sea-floor spreading ideas, they would have just delighted him beyond measure. But there was little or no paleomagnetism then. For his day he was a free thinking man. Harry Hess was a free thinker too. Hess was a great guy. He was just terrific. He died sooner than he should have, but probably partly because he ran the engine at too high a rpm. Where do you want to go from here?
Doel:I spoke with Birch at Harvard a couple of weeks ago.
Sharp:He is living in New Hampshire, isn't he?
Doel:He is at Cambridge.
Sharp:Maybe only summers in New Hampshire. I thought he had moved. I have tremendous regard for Francis Birch. I didn't know him well at Harvard. I got to know him as a man subsequently when he was president of the GSL, and I was on the council. I tended to raise cain in council meetings and Birch was very tolerant of that, even though he had to preside over the melee. We brought him out of Caltech as a visiting professor. Birch is great. I respected him. He was one of the earliest of any of the earth scientists to ever get the national medal for science. If you look up the list. I think Rubey may have been the first but Birch was not long after. I liked that very much because Birch, who was a lean, hungry, cool, self-effacing New Englander, who was shown to get the recognition nationally that he deserved. He was good. I am glad you talked to him. That was a good thing to do.
Doel:On the Stanford field camp, was that primarily for graduate students?
Sharp:It was more undergraduate than graduates. There may have been a few graduate students in it, I don't remember. It was a very good field course, because it had been set up years before by C. F. Tolman — the groundwater expert — and he had set it up very rigorously. I had a lot of field geology and a lot of field courses before that time, but I would rate the Stanford course one of the best, partly because it was a long, ten weeks, and we had four instructors for a modest sized group of students. It was a good course with standards that had been set at a high level by Tolman. It had a good tradition. Stanford has always had, of course, a good tradition in geology; Berkeley and Stanford both have marvelous traditions in geology on the west coast, which has contributed to their strength. It is very hard to stay on top. These schools were tops, as were Harvard, Yale and Princeton at one time. It is very hard to remain on those pinnacles. You can come back up again, but it takes a couple of generations; you don't do it quickly. Berkeley is on its way back. It had a low point. At one time it was essentially dominant — even better than Stanford — on the west coast, though Stanford was very good. Stanford is not as good right now as it ought to be in terms of earth science departments.
Doel:Is that in part owing to attrition of the faculty? Did the departure of senior faculty lead to that?
Sharp:They don't rebuild in the right way. You need a bunch of good, young guys, and let them grow up together, but you have to keep feeding young people in from the bottom all the time. Your old luminaries are going to go. That is what happened to some degree at Princeton. Buddington is the name I couldn't think of. Buddington and Hess, those great guys disappeared. They filled in with some good people, but not with enough. They hadn't fed in continuously enough from the bottom. The same thing can happen, and to some degree is happening a little bit at Caltech at the present time, although Barclay Kamb who was chairman of the division did a great job for us in bringing very good young people in. They are there and they are working up. I hope we won't disintegrate to the same degree that some other places have done. It is very hard to be among the best always. But Berkeley is on its way back. As a matter of fact, it is now better than Stanford. Stanford probably is the preeminent university in the country right now. Kennedy is probably the best college president in the whole damn place. The earth sciences at Stanford is big — that is part of its problem — and it is dispersed. The death of Allan Cox was a very tragic matter for them. Dick Jahns, who had been the dean there before Cox, was a great guy; a marvelous fellow, but Dick tended to build with cronies, and you don't build a first class operation that way.
Doel:Jahns was also on the Caltech faculty.
Sharp:Yes, he was a Caltech undergraduate, and graduate, and was in our department a long time. He finally left and gave me fifteen reasons why he left, and none of them were the right reasons. He went to Penn State and became, finally, a dean. Then he went to Stanford where he was a dean. Dick, in terms of his own ability, is great. He got into consulting, and that partly was John Buwalda's problem too. That was a lesson I learned early on. It is very hard to mix consulting and academic work. It is like beautiful girls. You can't make love to all of them! You better decide which one is your "gal" and stick with her. You can't serve two of them.
Doel:That is a good point. You say you had pretty good contact with Dave Griggs during the time you were at Harvard?
Sharp:I knew Dave fairly well at Harvard, partly because I had a better feeling for the physics and types of things he was doing than most people around there. He had been there for a couple or three years before I got there. Being a member of the Society of Fellows he was set apart, but because of the kinds of things he did I was interested in him and his work. We were good friends at Harvard; not real close but good friends. Finally when he came out to UCLA I would see him now and then. I had a lot of respect for Dave. He could kind a lot of hackles, but we need guys to do that. Unfortunately, the last year I was at Harvard, Dave had a horrible automobile accident in Europe. He got broken up all over. They finally had him back in a hospital in Boston. I used to go down and visit with him there. My last year or more he was pretty much out of the scene, so that although we were good friends we didn't work together. I think there was kind of a mutual empathy there that I appreciated.
Doel:It's an important point that both of you had more physics than most other graduate students.
Sharp:His physics was better than mine, because he continued in the field, and I to a large degree, when I moved to Harvard, moved away from physics and wasn't renewing it all the time. If you don't keep up you become antique pretty quickly. He was a much better physicist than I ever was. I was never really a good physicist, but I had deep respect for the subject. The other fellows mostly had an abhorrence for physics because they didn't understand any of it, you see. They didn't want anything to do with it, while I felt it was a very important subject and could make a lot of contributions to earth sciences though maybe I couldn't do it myself. I knew it was important for the earth sciences that this type of physics oriented work be done. I respected Dave.
Doel:One thing that is interesting, too, is that the time you were at Harvard there was a lot of interest among a lot of the campuses around there with problems of the age of the Earth. Lerey and Lane were working on it. Did you have any contact with them?
Sharp:I didn't. I that comes somewhat a little later.
Doel:By the mid-1930s.
Sharp:I don't have much feeling on that. Perhaps it was beginning to evolve, but it didn't impact me. I'd say that the geology I got at Harvard was very classical. It wasn't the geology that I got there that was important; it was the concepts, ideas, stimulation, richness, broadening, broader viewpoints, and critical attitude. In terms of things I actually learned there, they weren't that important. I think it was very valuable to me because it was different than what I had been used to. That was the important thing at Harvard, not that somebody was doing something, except for Griggs, and Birch, although Birch wasn't yet into it deeply and of course Bridgman. Again, I knew Bridgman by sight. His boy was in the geology department as an undergraduate student at the time. You see that you got attitudes out of the place, and that's important.
Doel:One last question about Harvard. Was there much contact with the people at Yale, with Adolf Knopf?
Sharp:Yes, interestingly. When I was an undergraduate, a junior, at Caltech I had to take a summer field course and one of the people — a graduate student in that summer field course — was a student from Yale by the name of Cooksey. His father was a professor of physics at Yale. One of my best friends at Harvard, who was a Harvard undergraduate and they had farmed him out for one year to Yale, had come back to Harvard to get his Ph.D. It wasn't much of a farm-out. But he liked Yale and so he and I each spring would make a pilgrimage to Yale. We'd go down there and say, "Here we are the humble supplicants from Harvard coming to Yale to learn." Among other things, the elder Cooksey (the professor) was a faculty member of one of the so-called colleges there. These are the living houses for the students. He'd say, "Gee, I want to take you to lunch today because we are going to have cream of lettuce soup, and if you've never eaten cream of lettuce soup you have to come." I did go down to Yale. I did know Adolf Knopf and had a lot of respect for him and Eleanor Knopf. I knew Chester Longwell. Those two particularly I knew. I did have contact with Yale and knew the people down there, but I was never real close with them.
Doel:Did you talk with them about their own research?
Sharp:Some. Longwell particularly, was working in the west. I talked with him not only at that time but subsequently. He moved out to the west coast eventually and was up in the Bay area, — Stanford, the Menlo Park area; as were the Knopfs. As a matter of fact, I visited with them at Stanford once or twice; either because I was up there to give talks or for some other reason. I didn't talk so much to Adolf as to Mrs. Knopf, sometimes about things she was doing, and always with Chester Longwell. He would tell me about his big overthrust out in Nevada. I never had that kind of contact with people at Princeton. I knew Harry Hess later. We spent a lot of time together on Washington committees. We didn't talk about each other’s research so much as we did general problems. Hess and I were very fond of each other. Harry was one of my favorite guys.
Doel:Dickie Field had his accident by this time?
Sharp:Dickie Field at Princeton? I know about him but I don't know if I ever even said "hello" to him. He had, of course, organized all the western field work.
Sharp:The damn train. I think that was out of the bailiwick by the time I got around. He did orient Princeton toward the west and the establishment of the big Princeton camp there near Red Lodge. I knew Tyler Thom who subsequently ran that. He was there, and in my senior year we worked up in that area, and I got brief contact with a member of the Princeton people. I knew some of them better later. I have a place I call a "cabin" near Cooke City and Silvergate in Montana, which is over the Bear Tooth plateau on the west side from the Princeton camp. Erling Dorf I knew. I had Princeton associations subsequently, but not so much as a student. I did have a little association as a student with Tyler Thom and some of his students. We were working in the Big Horn basin and that was a Princeton bailiwick.
Doel:Was there anything else during your graduate years that we haven't talked about that you want to bring up?
Sharp:Not particularly. There are a lot of things we could go on and talk about for a long time, but we have hit the main points. The Grand Canyon trip was very important to me; working on the Ph.D. in northeastern Nevada was a very valuable experience for me. At Yale I knew Richard Foster Flint, of course, quite well. I used to be on field trips with him. Then we were in the army together during World War II in the same operation. I knew some of his students, like Lincoln Washburn and people like that. I did have a little sprinkling of contacts, but most of these are subsequent to my graduate years. I knew Flint while I was still a graduate student because of field trips we did together in New England, but not well.
Doel:How did you get the instructorship in geology at Illinois?
Sharp:That was a funny thing. Again, depression years extended into 1938. It was the only academic job I heard of. The reason I even heard about it was that at the University of Illinois was a fellow named Carleton Chapman, who had been a graduate student at Harvard when I first showed up there. He had been teaching in petrography and optical mineralogy, and I took both of those course although I already knew a lot of optical mineralogy. I repeated a lot of courses when I got to Harvard to get the different viewpoints. Well, he had gotten a job at the University of Illinois. How he got that job, I don't know. One day came a letter from the Chairman of the Geology Department at the University of Illinois, saying that Carleton Chapman said that I might be the kind of guy they should hire for an instructorship. What had happened at Illinois is that the Dean of the college of LAS had decided they had too many graduate teaching assistants, so they took two graduate teaching assistant positions and rolled them together to make an instructorship. They created two instructorships that year by doing that. That is ultimately what I got. The other one was picked up by a fellow named Leland Horburg from the University of Chicago. One of the problems with the Illinois department was that it was about 90% Chicago Ph.D.s. There was one Princeton man; I think, Harold Wanless was a Princeton Ph.D. but the rest of them were Chicago.
Doel:Chicago was a big school.
Sharp:They were still talking about Chamberlin and Salisbury and their ideas. Illinois' was not a good department. As a matter of fact, the University wasn't that good at that time either. It has improved a lot since. This was the only academic job I heard of, I got it, but it was a lousy job. When I arrived there the Chairman of the department sat down and outlined a 48-hour week for me which involved no time for research or anything like that. I was just being two graduate assistants! Also I worked at everything other than my own special field; optical mineralogy, petrology, mineralogy, etc. That is what they needed. I did that for five years. Only once did I ever teach anything that was anywhere near my own interest. I did work in the elementary geological laboratories. I reorganized them and rewrote the manual. Later I did a lot of elementary physical geology teaching but that wasn't really what I was oriented toward, but I got started at Illinois. I was there for five years and then came the war. I then went into the Army Air Force for three years.
Doel:In 1940 you were also Research Associate at the Museum of Northern Arizona?
Sharp:That was a little summer field course that they had out there. Nothing came of that because no students showed up. Bob Nichols from Tuft and I were to be the instructors and we arrived out there, and this wonderful old fellow who had built the museum said, "Well, sorry they didn't show, but if you want to do some research around here we will house you." So Nichols took off, but I stayed there and worked on the glaciation of San Francisco Peak which hadn't been mapped at that time. I did a little paper and felt I had discharged my responsibility, and went off to the Big Horn mountains. That was a trivial little thing that didn't amount to much, but it was fun.
Doel:Did you get much chance to do any research during the summers while you were at Illinois?
Sharp:Yes, during the summer time — I basically was on a nine-month appointment. The first summer I spent in the Big Horn mountains of Wyoming and the next one I was up in the Ice Field Ranges on the Yukon Alaska border. That was a good summer; the summer of 1941, just before the war. That is what really got me into glaciology, though I had mapped glacial geology in my thesis area — I never had a course in glaciers in my life, but you don't have to have one to be able to work in the field.
Doel:Was it then still considered to be more or less a branch of geomorphology?
Sharp:It was split, because there we do get into physics. Yes, it is geomorphological certainly because a lot of the landforms and deposits are made by glaciers and are geomorphological in aspect, but there are about three approaches. There is a kind of meteorological approach which Ahlman from Sweden presented. Then there was a sort of physics approach that the British were doing and have always done; Tyndale for instance did very good glaciology work. He was a physicist who went to the Alps. There was this group in Great Britain — basically rheologists, which involves engineering as well as physics, Seligman and his gang used that approach. I got into it in both ways. I always knew that physics were very important, and a lot of the subsequent glaciological work that we did — not that I did it personally — was done basically by guys like Kamb, who was a physicist. There were plenty of others. Real good work has been done by John Glenn and John Nye, both whom were British physicists. There we do get off into physics and geophysics. It was that summer in 1941, while I was in Illinois, that got me really into active glaciers. I had been interested in glaciers a little bit and, of course, at Illinois I was living in a glaciated area. But my approach was more geomorphological. Then I got onto real live glaciers in the summer of 1941. Subsequently, after the war, the same person — Walter Wood who had run the 1941 expedition and is still alive, organized more expeditions. He was director of field exploration and research at the American Geographical Society in New York City — and prior to 1941 he had been working in the St. Elias Range in a certain canyon. We called it Wolf Creek in those days and is called Steele Creek now. They changed the name of it. Wood's associates were basically mountain climbers, but Wood himself also did some geodesy. He had been trained in Switzerland as a geodesist, and he would do some surveying, laying out a triangulation network as the party climbed mountains. Wood decided it would be good to have a geologist along, and he had asked around a little bit in search of a young guy who could get around. People at Columbia University apparently said to try Sharp at Illinois. So, he did. We got together, and I spent a glorious summer in the St. Elias Range.
Doel:This was the Wood/Yukon expedition?
Sharp:The Wood/Yukon expedition, yes. It was a great summer for me. After the war we continued similar work — right on the Alaska/Canada border, but farther west out of Yakutat — the Seward Yakutat glacier system. I was up there five different years but only two of them were full summer season. Subsequent to that, they were only partial years, because we lost our expedition plane and Wood's wife and daughter along with it. We never found them, although we looked for them for a long time. I had enough work to continue for a while and an office and Naval Research contract by that time that permitted me to finish up what I was doing.
Doel:This is all, of course, post-war?
Sharp:Yes, eventually we were in the coastal area on the Malaspina piedmont glacier a big ice sheet down on the coastal plain. We worked initially way up on the upper Seward glacier, which is a primary feeder for the Malaspina. Then we worked the last year—the year that the plane was lost that carried those people down on the Malaspina glacier. That was a continuation basically of things that were started back in 1941. That is really what got me into that whole field of glaciology. But, yes, during the summer at Illinois I was able to do my own research. Because they only paid us for nine months!
Doel:Could you get grants during the summer?
Sharp:The first summer I was at Illinois I didn't. I went back to the Ruby mountains on a grant from a Geological Society of America — 250. But, I could work all summer long in the field on 250 in those days. It wasn't as expensive and in those days you could do alright. You see there wasn't an NSF or anything. ONR which supported the Alaska glacier work; after the war it was the first real government support I ever had. As a matter of fact, I hadn't realized it but I was looking at some old records at Caltech, and they make a difference between contracts and grants. I forget which is which now, but if it is a contract, let's say they call it Geology 1 and Geology 2. We had a great big geochemistry contract with AEC, which was Geology 2. I wondered, "Who in the heck was Geology 1?" And then I happened to see some old papers and realized my little old ONR contract, which wasn't very large, was always called Geology 1. It was probably the first of the government contracts into the geology department. I hadn't realized that.
Doel:During the war you were in the Army Air Force?
I was in the Army Air Force in an intelligence section called the Arctic Desert and Tropic Information Center. We had a number of scientists aboard not only geologists, but ecologist, and people who had been in arctic, desert and tropic environments. We were dealing with problems doing these areas. I didn't do anything very important during the war. I worked on air route manuals up through Canada, Alaska — on that route that went across into Russia. I didn't go into Russia. I only worked on the American side of it. I worked on survival manuals and that type of thing. I worked in the Aleutians doing a survival manual for the 11th Air Force. Problems like landing aircraft on sea ice, the Arctic ice floes. It was not geological, but it did involve the same kind of reasoning and same sort of ability to assemble information, digest it and put it in a reasonable form. I wrote a modest number of things that the Air Force published and distributed to the armed forces that were stationed in Alaska, for example. I kept going back and forth between mostly Alaska and the Aleutians. Our group started in Minneapolis, then moved to New York, and finally ended up in Orlando, Florida during the war. Dick Flint was in the same outfit; so was Lincoln Washburn. I guess we were the principle geological guys.
There were a couple of fellows there who had experience in petroleum geology in the tropical section. The tropical section gang I didn't know very well. I was in the Arctic operation, not that I was an Arctic expert but I had been in the Alaskan area some. I don't think what we did was that important. I did a couple of field exercises that were kind of interesting. One winter, with Brad Washburn, at the Boston Museum, although he is retired, and I attacked an air force. If a couple of flyboys went down in one of those mountain ranges in Alaska, and you located them, what do you do? Do you drop them a lot of stuff and say, "Stay there and we will come and get you?" Or do you drop them a lot of stuff and tell them to walk out and that we'll pick them up at such and such a place? So, Washburn and I, and two flight-rated people went into the base near Mt. McKinley in the winter time and camped in there for awhile, and then walked out, over the mountain range to the railroad. It was about 45 miles. It was quite an adventure. Washburn was a good mountaineer. I was supposed to be the other experienced guy. The other two were absolutely inexperienced. Washburn and I both gained weight during the trip and the other two guys lost about 15 pounds each. They were scared; scared to death. After we had done this exercise in which we babied them out, our report said if you find them, "Drop them everything you can think of and make them comfortable, and go and get them—don't expect them on their own to do a damn thing in that country." They'd probably fall in a crevasse.
Doel:That was an interesting piece of work.
It was fun. You're not supposed to have fun in war time and you don't, but that was as much fun as I had at any time during the war. While was out in the Aleutians and writing a survival manual, I got onto Shemya, which is the third outermost island of the chain. There was a big airfield out there because they had at one time talked about having the B-29s go after Japan from that area. Remember? They never did and it could have been a feint. After all, the boys on top aren't telling everybody on down the line what the score was. They built a big runway out there on Shemya, which is a flat island. There was a tough old General out there. I arrived out on Shemya and had lunch with him, and he said, "I don't believe all this crud you guys write about survival. We'll put you over in Agattu for a few days and see how you do." So they loaded me onto one of the little boats they used for picking up pilots who went into the drink — a high powered speed boat. I had basically the bailout kit of a single-seater fighter pilot plus a sleeping bag. It was summer time. In a sense it was a stacked operation. They dropped me on the east coast. On the west coast the only thing on Agattu was a big radar station. That station was told that I was on the island over on the other side, and if I didn't show up in 3-4 days they should start looking for me. I didn't have any trouble. There was rain and so on but I got in under a overhanging tundra bank. There was a fish line and a hook and I rigged up an outfit so I caught enough fish to support myself in one day.
I learned something from the experience. You combed the shore lines, and if there has been enough shipping in the area so there will be useful things cast up on the shore. The first thing I found was a can of peanuts. I opened them up and looked at them; they were perfectly good but I didn't eat them as I was existing on natural foods. They made me salivate. I finally found a whole case of C-rations. I could have lived for a couple of weeks on them. You have to go and do something to really understand things. That experience was very good. Although the General had been rough on me, I always appreciated what he did. Anyhow, that was again, for me, an interesting experience in the war. You don't have many. Most of the war is a pretty dreary damn thing. You are pulled away from your normal work and when you come back it is surprising how long it takes to get back in gear after having been doing something else like that. It took about a year before I could sit down and write a scientific article again. You just forget how. I did a lot of writing during the war but it wasn't the right kind of writing, you see for me.
Doel:Was that the same trip you were making geological observations on?
Sharp:That was an accident! Clarence Allen talks about that. Yes, after the war I published a little paper about the sedimentary rock on Agattu. The Aleutians are volcanic, and there shouldn't be any sediments out there but there they were on Agattu. It hadn't been reported. Nobody had seen them. That was trivial but I did do that. You have obviously done your homework, I can see.
Doel:During the Second World War Carey Croneis had written an article about the ineffective of geologists during the Second World War.
Sharp:He could have. It's the kind of thing that he would do. He had been a professor at the University of Chicago and then he went down to the University of Texas at Austin, didn't he? Or was it Southern Methodist? Somewhere down there — it was the finale of his career. Carey was a very fluent, he made a marvelous toastmaster at a banquet. He wasn't that good a geologist but he did do a good look — remember the University of Chicago Press published a series of science booklets, from Galileo to Cosmic Rays was the one in physics. It was illustrated by cartoons? Croneis and somebody else did the one on geology. It wasn't a bad book. It was done on a different basis. I don't remember that article you mention. I knew him but not well.
Doel:There seemed to be several geologists who worried that physicists were getting the benefits of war-time involvement.
Sharp:The United States Geological Survey had a very large outfit which before the end of the war were doing important studies for battlefields.
Doel:This is the military group?
Sharp:The military geology group. It was a big gang, and I would say that probably whoever wrote that article didn't know about them because they didn't talk about their work very much at the time. I visited them once or twice and knew about them, but I couldn't communicate with them because even though I had a top secret clearance, they wouldn't talk to me. I don't know what they were doing. I think they made a lot of strategic terrain input. Ultimately geology was used extensively, and of course the work that Walter Munk and Sverdruk did on the swells in the Pacific, was absolutely fundamental and important to all the landings in the Pacific area. It was a beautiful piece of work. Again, people didn't know about these things until after the war.
Doel:Do you feel that there was more communication between the physicists at the time?
Sharp:The physicists have always been in on war activities, partly because of the submarine. In the First World War the submarine is what they were working on, and then radar in the Second World War, plus the submarines. And, rightly so. If you read Clancy, The Hunt for Red October, it is mostly physics; engineering on top of physics but fair enough. The geologists certainly were left out earlier but during the World War II, before the war was over. In fact when the war was over and people in our unit were being mustered out, I couldn't get out. The commanding General at the Orlando Air Base, where I was stationed at that time, had looked over the projects that were being done and said, "Don't let that guy go until he gets it done." I was working on a report on Siberia. It was a kind of a general discussion of terrain and environmental conditions in Siberia, which I didn't know a damn thing about, but I had gathered information from various sources. People high enough in the military and probably in our own government realized that after the war our major problem was going to be with the Russians. So this general right away said, "Don't let this guy go until he finishes that report." So I was one of the last guys to get mustered out, because I had been working on this stupid Siberian report, which I don't think was that important and which I don't think was much good. I didn't know that much. I had never been there, I couldn't go there.
Doel:Were you working alone on that?
Sharp:Yes, I was working alone on that report, so nobody else was held up because of it. Well, other people were held up for other reasons but not because of that. Lincoln Washburn and I did such a report early in the war on Baffin Island. That is where we had a lot of airfields. That was about the only time that I worked cooperatively with anybody in our group on a report. Other than that, most of the time I was doing things by myself on assigned projects. For me it worked better that way.
Doel:Did you go to Minnesota right after the war?
Sharp:Yes. What happened is I had taken leave from the University of Illinois. They had given me academic leave to go in the armed forces. Presumably, I should have gone back to the University of Illinois. For about six months early in the war I had been stationed at the University of Minnesota. Our Arctic section was housed at the University of Minnesota, because Larry Gould, who was heading it, wanted it to be there. I got acquainted with the geologists at the University of Minnesota and found them very compatible. Their geomorphologist — a fellow named Hanley — got meningitis or something similar and died during the war. So at the end of the war they were looking for a geomorphologist and they remembered me and they offered me a job. The Minnesota department was better than the Illinois department. As a matter of fact, the University of Minnesota at that time was better than Illinois. It was administered better. It was big, but it was handled a lot better. I liked the environment, so I resigned my leave at Illinois and went to Minnesota right at the end of the war. It came about because of that sequence of events that I just described to you.
Doel:Did you have pretty extensive contacts with Gould at that point?
Sharp:I had extensive contact with Gould during the war and I always had an entre with Gould because my wife, Jean was one of his favorite people. He always said that anybody who married Jean Todd, which had been her name, must be a good guy, smart guy, and so on. Gould and I got along very well and still do. He is still alive down in Tucson. He must be over 90. His wife died within the last year or two, which would have been a big blow to him. Larry is a delightful guy. He is anything but the best geologist in the world, but he is certainly a very good leader. He had a marvelous facility of bawling you out and then laughing in your face when he was all done. He was a broad, imaginative, tremendous contact; a stimulating guy. The principle contact that I had with Gould was during the war and I have seen him a number of times since. He had a house up in Jackson Hole. I visited him there a couple of times. I have visited him in Tucson two or three years ago. He is about finished, I am afraid. He was an outstanding guy. He did a great job as president of Carleton College.
Doel:He became President of the university?
Sharp:Yes, at first he was chairman of the geology department, and then he became president for a long time. He did a fine job.
Doel:How many other people were in the department at Minnesota?
Sharp:At Minnesota when I was there?
Sharp:It was not a big department. There were probably not more than about eight of us. It wasn't big. Only one other guy came after I did, a fellow named Charlie Bell, a paleontologist. It has gotten bigger since that time. It had a good tradition. Of course that was a delightful time to be in a university because of all the veterans. They were really serious. You could treat them roughly and they worked hard.
Doel:I heard that from other people with the same experiences.
Sharp:You yourself were glad to be alive, glad to be back in the fold. It was a good time.
Doel:It took awhile to get back into it?
Sharp:Yes, it took a long time to shift gears and get back in the academic mode. It took a long time to find a place to live in Minneapolis at that time.
Doel:Were there any people in the department you felt particularly close with, or who were also working in geomorphology?
Sharp:In geomorphology, no, almost none at all. Actually it was at Minnesota that I got started in teaching elementary physical geology. Thiel (department chairman) had handed me a course which he had been teaching, it was five lectures a week. Every quarter, five lectures, bang, bang, bang! You learn rapidly, and it was good experience for me. I was able to do it well enough. It started with a group of about 30-40 and in a couple of years it had built up to a group of about 250 students. That is all they could handle. It was the biggest room they had. It was good experience for me, no question.
Doel:Were you tempted to stay there?
Sharp:Well I was a Westerner by birth, orientation, and experience, and I loved the west. Any geologist likes the west because of the things you can see and do there. I figured that I had gotten to the west bank of the Mississippi River and perhaps that was as far west as I was going to get. Yes, I was settled in, and I would have been happy to have stayed at Minnesota. Jean liked it because she had gone to school in Minnesota, and she was a Midwesterner by birth and orientation anyway. I figured that was about as far west as I was going to get, and I was settled in. The wartime, of course, disrupted all academic staff as you must know. There was sort of a game of musical chairs going on and things were very fluid. You didn't have to be very well known to get a job offer. I got offers from other places, but I turned them down.
Doel:Do you remember which other schools had given you offers?
Sharp:The University of North Carolina, Clark University and perhaps others—no real top ones, and I didn't find it difficult to decline. But suddenly came an offer from Stanford. Illinois was after me to come back and offered me the chairmanship of their geology department, which I didn't want. I went down and talked to their new president (Stoddard), who I think did a lot for the university, but I didn't want to go back to Illinois. And then Caltech weighed in with a better offer. Now if you had told me when I was a younger man that I would ever turn down a job at Stanford, I would say, "No way." That would have been my idea of a place that I would like to be. I did turn it down for two or three reasons. First of all, the person that was supporting me there was feuding with the department chairman whom I also knew — a fellow named Leverson. In fact he was a native Minnesotan, he was also an ex-oil company geologist. The fellow who was supporting me was Aaron Waters, who was a very fine geologist and ended up at Johns Hopkins and Santa Cruz. I thought, "Boy if I go to Stanford I will be caught between these two guys." The Caltech offer was better. DuBridge had just one year before come to Caltech and was really doing great things there. I didn't like to come back to my own alma mater, but I had been gone 12-13 years, and I figured people would forget that I had been a student and wouldn't treat me as a freshman anymore. So, I came back to Caltech. In hindsight it was a good thing to do. If I had gone to Stanford I would have been perfectly happy, and I would have been what I have always been, an old-line field geologist, classical and so on. At Caltech, in due time, I had opportunity to work in the field of geo-chemistry cooperatively with geo-chemists; and also in due time in the field of planetary science cooperatively with planetary sciences. I was one of the investigators on Mariner 4, Mariner 6 and 7, Mariner 9 — all of which was very thrilling. I never would have had either of those opportunities at Stanford. I would have been happy at Stanford, but I would not have had the wide spectrum of opportunities I had at Caltech. I didn't know that when I made the decision, but in hindsight it worked out just fine.
Doel:Of course you couldn't have foreseen even some of the changes made by 1950.
Sharp:Oh no, I didn't know that all these things were going to happen. Stanford was my ideal. If you would have asked me what university would I like to be at in the whole country, I would have said Stanford. They had a fine geological tradition when I had known them during the summer I worked in their field camp. I knew those people. It was good and I would have liked it, and I would have been happy. I would rather live in northern than southern California. I have a little saying that wherever you are in California, the better part is still north. With some modification I believe that to this day. I have just come back from being in Oregon and again traveling through the northern part of the state I feel it's better. But I think that going to Caltech was all right for me.
Doel:Did the offer to come to Caltech come from Ian Campbell in particular?
Sharp:I am sure that Ian Campbell supported it, but it came from Lee DuBridge. The president is the guy who writes you an offer. I am not sure, but I would guess the person who might have pushed it in the geology department most strongly — and I don't know this and I've never tried to find out — was maybe Dick Jahns, who had been one of my very closest friends. So, Campbell and Jahns together; Buwalda perhaps concurred.
Doel:Buwalda was already phasing out of the department at that time. In 1947 he was getting near to retirement.
Sharp:Buwalda had had a heart attack and he finally yielded the department chairmanship up to Chester Stock. Stock was the department chairman when I came back. I don't think Stock would have initiated this, though Chester and I were good friends and he welcomed me very cordially. Chester was only in for about two years when he died and then Ian Campbell became acting chairman for a couple of years. Subsequently I succeeded Campbell and stayed in for about fifteen years.
Doel:I was impressed by something that you had written not long after you had got to Caltech, on the research requirements of geomorphology.
Sharp:That was perhaps an article in the American Geophysical Union Transactions or something like that. They had symposium at a Geological Society of America (GSA) meeting.
Doel:Was it a panel discussion?
Sharp:Well, it wasn't much of a panel discussion as I remember. It was a kind of symposium and Lee Horburg — who had been the other new instructor at Illinois—was on the program. Lee gave his talk, which was very much in the old style. I gave my talk which tended to emphasize the basic sciences that were needed to read other journals and know how to apply other ideas. We needed to orient that way. I had forgotten all about that.
Doel:Do you remember the reaction you got from that?
Sharp:I didn't get any reaction. I don't think anybody had even looked at the article except you. You are the first one I have ever heard mention it. I had forgotten all about it. We tried to practice that later at Caltech.
Doel:Yet that was important to the division at Caltech.
Sharp:It was very important to us. Even to this day, as an Earth Science Division we are different — you know we have radio astronomers in the division and they're happy. The fact that we can keep them happy is amazing… Well you couldn't do it in a big place, but you can do it in a little place like Caltech.
Doel:In the late 1940s were you following any of the arguments that were being presented particularly in the geophysical journals about the place of geophysical education in the departments of geology? Longwell was involved in that, as well as King Hubbert and others.
Sharp:King Hubbert always was. I don't remember that Longwell was so much. Again, you read these things. I don't remember those discussions, and I don't remember being particularly influenced by them. When I arrived at Caltech, I was supposed to be teaching courses in geomorphology. The first thing that happened was John Buwalda walked into my office. He says, "I've been teaching this elementary physical course for 25 years; you teach it." I wasn't supposed to do that at all. I suddenly inherited this thing that I hadn't anticipated doing and then I did it for about 25 years. It is the most important course that is taught in the department. Fermi used to do it in Chicago. You remember, he taught the elementary physics course because it was the most important course in the department. It doesn't follow that the department chairman is the guy who should teach it but nonetheless it worked OK for me, I think. We subsequently revised the course in a very dramatic way that is different than what I had been doing, which is all right.
Doel:What did the institute try to bring to the course when you first taught it?
At that time it was a required course for all the undergraduates at Caltech (that's changed but it was then). The first time I go in there and I'd say "Look, I'm not trying to make geologists out of you guys. What I want to do is excite your interests in a certain aspects of the macro-environment that surrounds you. That is really what my aim is. I am not going to teach you all about geology, but I am going to try to excite your interest." So we started. Again, you learn by doing and you change. If you don't change you aren't doing it right. We did teach the basic principles but I always, in my lectures particularly, tried to pick up new ideas. For example paleomagnetism was not a well-known subject at that time. It was an evolving subject. I don't know anything about it but in order to introduce some feeling for it in the elementary course I sat down and read a lot of the literature and got enough of the basic principles. Then I would teach these kids about paleomagnetism. There wasn't a word about it in the textbook, and I tried to do as much as I could about new ideas, plus bring the outdoors indoors as much as you can. I did that mostly with Kodachrome slides, trying to bring the thing to life. And, field work. We made these kids do very elementary field work on their own in the local areas.
We had a typical geological laboratory but a lot of little laboratories weren't indoor at all. A student got a lot of mimeographed sheets and went out to the Arroyo Seco or over in the San Rafael hills to certain places, and a certain thing, and there were a bunch of questions they had to answer. Or we went over to Griffith Park. We drove them out into the field. When we reorganized the course we broke it up into little sections instead of a big lecture. I had a section of 25 kids and we met in class only twice a week because, I had ten days of field travel in that course. I took them to Death Valley, Owen Valley and the Grand Canyon. We had to really stretch things but we did it. You see, I still teach a course at Caltech, illegally because as an Emeritus Professor I cannot have my own course, but I can teach in somebody else's course. So there is a course in the catalog under a couple of other guys' names. It is straightforward. I wrote the Provost and said, "Here is what I am going to do and if I don't hear from you I will assume it is OK." I never heard from him. So I still have my course; it is a traveling field course in which we go out with students, physicists who don't know any geology or radio astronomers and so forth, and we look at the things in the field. Each student, is the honcho or the head guy on some particular subject. Then he has to dissert on that in the field with the thing right there in front of us. I still do that, and we try to do it in the elementary course as much as possible. If I would suddenly drop down in a strange university someplace and was told to teach an elementary physical course in geology, the first thing I would do is walk around the campus — even if only to look at the stones in the library building — the aim being to get students outdoors looking in the field. That is a major part of an old principle with me. I still practice it. As a matter of fact, its four down and three to go for me. I wrote a postcard to somebody the other day, one of my former students saying I just finished off four trips, and I still have three to do between now and the end of June. That's seven trips that range all the way from Hawaii to Yellowstone in scope.
Doel:I also wanted to ask you about the origin of the Division of Geological Science at Caltech.
Sharp:Basically the Caltech geology division is an off-shoot of the geology department at U.C. Berkeley, because R. A. Millikan asked John Campbell Merrimam to advise him and help him establish a department, and John Campbell Merrimam sold Millikan two of his favorite boys — Chester Stock and John Peter Buwalda. John Buwalda was the one who was head of the department, and he built a department in the image of Berkeley, with some very strong influence from Andy Lawson. I would say a stronger influence from Andy Lawson than from John Campbell Merrimam. Although, both Buwalda and Stock were Merrimam people Buwalda I think was more impressed with Andy Lawson than he was with John Campbell Merrimam.
Doel:Hadn't Buwalda remained in California through that period?
Sharp:Once Lawson came to Berkeley he never left. He traveled but he was always there and was a very forceful person. That is not bad grandparentage. I mean, Andy Lawson was good. He was a rough old son-of-a-gun but he was good. Our department started as a very typical, basic, old-fashioned geology department. The one thing that Buwalda did, and it was not really that much of a departure, because Berkeley had it, was to emphasize seismology. Carnegie Institute had already, in effect, founded the seismological laboratory and ultimately Caltech took it over. Partly because of Buwalda's astuteness and orientation. Right away we became somewhat different in the sense that we had heavy emphasis on seismology. Gutenberg was brought from Germany and Beniof, who had been an astronomer at Mt. Wilson, was converted to seismology. Charlie Richter came out of the physics department at Caltech. Those three made the thing go. As they got old, I was able to persuade the institute that we needed to get the best young geophysicist in the whole country, and we got Frank Press.
Doel:What year was that?
Sharp:It would have been the mid-1950s, about 1955-56. Press and I were working together on IGY committees and that was 1957, so we were together a lot in 1955-56. It was right then. Press, of course, was very strongly tied into Maurice Ewing and to the Columbia — what is now the Lamont-Doherty Lab — and it wasn't easy. Partly we got it by saying, "We'll take you when you can come." Press agreed to come two years before he came to Caltech. We made no announcement, nobody knew this was going to happen. We got him. Press completely reorganized and reoriented the seismological lab. This was the time when government contracts were beginning to come in large amounts. The older people never heard of a government contract and they believed it was unholy to be involved in that kind of thing, but not Press.
Doel:Was that a reaction that you heard from Gutenberg, for example?
Sharp:I didn't hear it from them. It was just the way they operated. See, Gutenberg was director and it was only when he retired that we made Press director and then he had a free hand. Beniof had wanted to be director ever so badly but, that was not the thing to do. It took awhile to heal that wound. Then shortly after that Chester Stock died. That forced us to make a re-evaluation of things and that was when we started into geochemistry.
Doel:And during that time that Ian Campbell became acting chairman?
Sharp:Yes, Ian Campbell was acting chairman. I think Campbell himself was in favor of geochemistry, but I don't think that he was the one who had the idea or was the driving force. My feeling is that it was Al Engel. He was a professor on our staff and later went down to U.C. San Diego in La Jolla and is now retired. Engel was a very forceful guy, and is a good Princeton Ph.D., incidentally. He is a great admirer of Harry Hess and Buddington. Engel and I actually worked together pretty closely in this but I didn't originate it. I would say that Al Engel was the one who had the original thought and then we executed it partly by bringing Harrison Brown out and then building up a group.
Doel:What was the reaction among the other members of the division to strengthening and expanding geochemistry?
Sharp:Any time you want to bring somebody new in from an outside field, the rest of the division usually is opposed because they want to enhance their own turf. I would say Dick Jahns probably left primarily because at the time we brought in geochemistry he felt he wasn't in charge anymore and he didn't like that. He was a chemist originally and should have been in on it. I think he felt challenged by the new geochemical operation. It involved isotope chemistry which was not his type of thing. Here was an element of luck for us in getting into the isotope geochemistry. Not just the radioactive aspect of age measurements, but into stable isotope chemistry as well. Then a very important thing happens, and it has happened to us twice. You can't go to faculty members and say "stop" what you are doing because we want you now instead of being a paleontologist to be a geochemist, or something else — it doesn't work! But what you can do is establish a program that is so vital, so active and so much fun that the paleontologist goes over and watches for awhile and says, "Hah, you guys are dealing with something that I know a great deal about." "I know a great deal about that, and you are making a mistake, or I can tell you how to do it better." Pretty soon he is into the program. This happened in the geochemistry program. We never had more than maybe four or five people on our staff that you could really call geochemists. That is really honest-to-god geochemists. Most of them were Ph.D.s in chemistry, not geology. At one time I would say 50-60% of our staff was working in geochemistry because it was such an interesting thing to do. It was well-financed and had a lot of vitality. I am an old-line guy but I got dragged into it. Sam Epstein and I did a lot of the initial pioneering work on stable isotopes of ice and snow in glaciers, in Antarctica and all over the place. We all got involved to some degree. That is the glue. Chicago never got that glue. Fortunately and partly by luck, we got it. Before our geochemistry matured—and it takes 15-20 years — people used to come to me at national meetings. They would stand right in front of me and sneeringly say, "Well, how's the department of geochemistry at Caltech coming?" I would always say, "Well, it takes time. Be patient." It does. It takes 15-20 years. At that time it was clear that we needed another sense of mission.
Doel:Are you talking about the time in 1951-52 when you hired Harrison Brown?
Sharp:No, it would be beyond that. It would be up into about the early 1960s probably, when the planetary program was just beginning to unfold. Nobody had been to the Moon yet but it was clear that unless something went wrong, we were going to get material from the Moon. Frank Press wanted us to go into ocean geophysics.
Doel:Right. Press was also interested in developing a seismometer for the lunar surface.
Sharp:Yes. Of course they did, but no Ranger [spacecraft] was ever able to put the thing onto the Moon except as a bunch of mangled equipment. They never made a successful landing with the seismometer. Press was into that endeavor a little bit. But Press wanted us to go into ocean geophysics which is a great field, but there are already three or four major institutions successfully operating in that area and secondly, if you have ships it is like owning a harem and you have to take care of them. It costs a lot of money whether they are sitting in the harbor or out sailing around. We already had access to a bus in JPL and to give us access to space. So we elected to go that way. Again, that was lucky.
Doel:Do you recall the discussions about how those decisions were made? Wasn't Bruce Murray was hired in 1952?
Sharp:Bruce Murray was just a research fellow to begin with and not a major influence then. It came about mostly in what I call our "blood and gut" sessions. I had learned way back that if you want a group to agree on something, first of all you get them off the campus. So we would meet at my house in Altadena. Jean would fix up crackers and cheese with a lot of stuff to drink and we'd just hammer away at these things. They were hot sessions but fortunately when were all done people went home still friends. Nevertheless they were what I call a real "blood and gut" operations. We'd have long discussions about "What should we do?" Finally I would say, "Well, after I listened to you guys all night long it seems to me that the general sense is sort of this way and we really ought to go into the planetary science thing and not ocean geophysics…" That may be one reason that Press left Caltech. I don't know. Press wanted to run his own show. He could have stayed here and had a larger responsibility but I think Press, who looks far ahead, he had his eye on the presidency of MIT, I do think. He had been disappointed when he didn't get that job but of course he now has a very prestigious position, and he does a good job. Frank is good; no question. Well, it was a loss for us, but we had him at a very important, formative time and benefitted greatly from his influence. The geochemists shifted over beautifully to lunar geology and geochemistry. Material started coming back from the Moon, and they were back in gear. Pretty soon our geochemists became planetary scientists and so did I.
Doel:Harrison Brown was already submitting proposals for analyzing meteorites early on.
Sharp:He was way back. As a matter of fact, Harrison was, in many ways, the first to realize what was coming. He spent a lot of time in Washington, and he knew what the thinking was there and what the possibilities were. Although he didn't put us into planetary science he certainly helped us. Then he left. It was during that time that he pulled out, but the momentum was there and we carried forth. We built what is now a very strong unit in planetary science. A lot of other places had planetary science but all they did was retread. They took the staff and said, "Now you are planetary scientists," but most of ours were genuine. Peter Goldrice, or Andy Ingersoll, or Dewey Muhleman — these guys are honest-to-god planetary scientists hired as such. Take the planetary science group of graduate students in our division. The year before last, we made seven offers and got seven acceptances from graduate students. That doesn't happen very often. It is a well-recognized, strong group and thank goodness it is still an integral part of our Division. I take a lot of these planetary science kids on these field trips that I run. Even some of the radio astronomers become enthusiastic geologists. It is interesting.
Doel:When the discussions were going on about whether the appropriate mission of the Division might rest in oceanography or in space science, do you recall whether Frank Press was principally one of a small group who argued for oceanography or was it a larger number?
Sharp:My recall is that Frank was almost alone in arguing that we should go into sea floor physics. He didn't have a wide constituency in the Division. The ideas crystallized among other people that we ought to go into space science. It made sense to do so, partly because of JPL. That year we had a wonderful opportunity to be different. That was primarily my own argument: let's not be like everybody else. We already had three or four outfits: Woods Hole, Scripps, University of Texas through the Corpus Christi operation University, and Oregon State. There were half a dozen in the field to some degree and Lamont-Doherty was the dominant center. "Let's not go out and play the New York Yankees, when we are just starting to play ball. Let's find our own field." The staff bought that, aided by the general atmosphere at the Institute that we needed to capitalize on our relationship with JPL. It made sense to do so. If we didn't somebody else would. Why shouldn't we? I don't think that Press had a strong constituency behind him. I don't think many of the staff were thinking that far ahead or looking that far ahead. Frank was right in one sense. Sea-floor geophysics proved to be a great field. But I think it was not the best thing for us to do. What our division needs right now is a new mission — a new concept of mission. Wasserburg is off into his cosmic geochemistry, which is a good field and I am glad it is in our division, but it isn't all-encompassing. We need something that is more general. Barclay Kamb had a good idea when he was chairman, in thinking of natural resources.
Doel:That's the 1970s that Kamb became chairman?
Sharp:About that. Barclay didn't execute it properly. It was a good idea, and then Barclay lost his constituency because he got bogged down in detail. Barclay did a marvelous job in getting us young people. Thank goodness they are going to save our neck. He did a beautiful job in that, but he clobbered the other big task. He simply got bogged down in detail. He never could bring his program on steam. By the time he had messed around, Dean McGee — who had been with him — had lost interest, as well as the trustees. Too bad but nonetheless that is the way it happened. We do need a unifying activity and influence. I already told you about this. You see, I had opportunities when I came to Caltech that I wouldn't have had at Stanford. First it involved geochemistry and then it involved planetary science. It was a great thing for me, an old line, dirty fingered, field geologist. I had opportunities to do things I would never have had at Stanford even though Stanford is a marvelous place. It wasn't me. It was the environment.
Doel:In the 1950s what kind of role did exploration or applied geophysics have within the Division?
Sharp:Not a great one though we did have Hewitt Dix. He was a very unusual person. He was very quiet and didn't make a lot of fuss. Hewitt Dix had an uncanny ability to spot innovative people and ideas. The applied geophysics was never a big endeavor in our division — never.
Doel:Even in the 1940s?
No. I think the few things that were done were well done because Dix always did well. You know you get all kinds of synergenetic fallout. Right now just 24 hours ago, we finally got the Hubble space telescope up there. There is a big wide-angled camera on that telescope: the principle investigator is Jim Westphal. Jim Westphal is a professor on our staff. He is an observer in the Mt. Wilson and Palomar Observatory. That is like being anointed by the Pope. Jim Westphal has a bachelor's degree out of Tulsa University, period. He was working as a technician for one of the oil company research labs in the Oklahoma City area; I forget which one. Dix found him, worked with him, and finally brought him here on a temporary basis. Jim went back to Tulsa but eventually came back to work some more for Dix. Finally, we made him a research fellow. He is now a full professor. It is a wonderful story and now he is the principle investigator on the Hubble Telescope and built that camera, or at least the people working under him did. What a marvelous thing! I love that because it is the kind of thing we ought to do at Caltech. We don't give a damn whether he has a Ph.D. or not. He can do things. Jim could take a piece of wire and a Campbell's soup can and make an instrument out of the things.
For a long time we have had the feeling that we needed to draw people like that into our operation, who are not geologists necessarily but who have the talent. Physicists, chemists, and other people who come from these other sciences need to have the right attitude. They must not be contemptuous of the "dumb" earth scientists. Even Jerry Wasserburg, who basically is a physicist and a chemist and who can be very contentious, has a basic respect for geology that is very powerful and very important. Otherwise Wasserburg and we would never have survived. I remember one year I had a note from a fellow at U.C. Berkeley. He had been a physics undergraduate at Berkeley, he had done two years of graduate work at Berkeley, and had an excellent academic record. He had decided physics wasn't really for him — it wasn't very exciting. He had gone over to the earth science group, but they had not welcomed him. John Verhoogen, God bless him, had said, "You know those buggers down at Caltech, they are crazy. Why don't you call them up or write them a note?" He either called me or wrote me and I said, "Come on down" and he jumped on his motorcycle and came down. Charlie Raymond — he is now a professor at the University of Washington, a glaciologist and a great guy. We welcomed him with open arms. I didn't care if he had any geology or not. Barclay Kamb and Ron Shreve had been six years in physics before they came into geology. Both are top-notch guys.