Oral History Transcript — Dr. Wallace Broecker
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Interview with Dr. Wallace Broecker
Wallace Broecker; December 29, 1995
ABSTRACT: Childhood and upbringing in Chicago [Oak Park], recollections of family members; involvement in religious activities as youth; attends Wheaton College, recollections of courses and social environment at Wheaton; early interactions with I. Laurence Kulp and Paul Gast. Transfers to Columbia University; early impressions of Lamont Geologica 1 Observatory [LGO]; impressions of relations between Kulp and W. Maurice Ewing; recollections of conflicting interpretations of C-14 ratios in ocean water samples; impressions of Harmon Craig and Gerald Wasserburg; interactions with Columbia University geology faculty, including Walter Bucher. Impressions of graduate and undergraduate teaching at Columbia; recollections of Hans Suess; impressions of relations between LGO geochemists and Lamont scientists in other fields; recollections of Heezen-Ewing tensions and Heezen presentation at 1965 meeting of the Second International Oceanographic Congress (Moscow); relations with Ewing involving promotion and tenure and impressions of Ewing’s intellectual domination at Lamont; role as faculty senate member at Columbia University; recollections of proposed relocation of LGO; impressions of funding shifts involving oceanographic research, l960s-l970s; recollections of experiences onboard Vema; recollections of Henry C. Kohler. Also mentioned: Thomas Aitken, Jacques Barzun, Michael Bender, Bobby Fischer, Tom Chapin, W. Theodore de Bary, Fred Donath, James Dorman, Charles L Drake, Walter R. Eckelmann, Rhodes Fairbridge, Arnold Finck, GEOSECS program, Bruno Giletti, Billy Glass, Ralph Halford, Patrick Hurley, John Imbrie, International Decade of Ocean Exploration [IDOE], John Knuckles, Norman Kroll, Polykarp Kusch, Devandro Lave, William J. McGill, Jack E. Oliver, Neil Opdyke, Philip C. Off, Arie Poldervaart, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Robert R. Shrock, Boris Spassky, Sterling Forest [NY], Arthur N. Strahler, Lynn Sykes, Taro Takahashi, Manik Talwani, Charles Tucek, Harold C. Urey, George Wetherill, Joe [J. Lamar] Worzel.
Doel:This is Ron Doel and this is an interview with Wallace Broecker. We’re recording this on December 29, 1995 at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York. And I know that you were born on November 29, 1931 in Chicago, Illinois. But I don’t know who your parents were or what they did. Can you tell me something about them?
Broecker:My father ran a gas station in Chicago across from Montgomery Ward’s wholesale plant. He parked cars for their executives and had people that greased them and washed them and kept them filled with gas because these people didn’t want to worry about their cars.
Doel:What part of Chicago was this in?
Broecker:That’s north side. Chicago Avenue and right near the Chicago River. In fact, it backed on to Mother Cabrini Housing Project where I had my first knowledge of black people. Because in the town of Oak Park that I lived in, there were no black people.
Doel:Indeed. Oak Park was a suburb aside.
Broecker:Yes, it was the unwritten laws and not one black person was living in Oak Park. Seventy thousand people — not one black person. So he ran a gas station until about the time I was coming here, and then he sold out and went into the gourmet food business.
Doel:Is that right?
Broecker:Quite a switch. Sold aged steaks.
Doel:What motivated him to switch?
Broecker:Oh, he just got tired of running the gas station. Of course, he had to get up at five o’clock every morning and drive from Oak Park to Chicago. He’d get home about seven o’clock at night. It was hard work.
Doel:Back then that probably took over an hour, didn’t it, between the home and Chicago, or was it less?
Broecker:No, he zipped up Washington Boulevard. It’s probably twenty-five minutes.
Doel:Is that right?
Broecker:It wasn’t so bad. I mean at the time it seemed like a long way but by present standards it was not much, because Oak Park, as you know, is not all that far from downtown. I, of course, worked for him on and off. My mother was a housewife. She didn’t work but she was the more intellectual of the two. She certainly valued education and encouraged us. I had, I guess compared to most people, an easy childhood. I was well taken care of and mostly encouraged. Very little negative stuff. My mother would get upset with me when I got bad grades in deportment. My report card looked like this: all excellents and very goods, until you got over to the self-control and then I would drop to the next echelon and she placed a limit on that. And for every one of those marks below satisfactory, which is sort of the middle, I had to spend a week inside after school to pay that off.
Doel:Did it help?
Broecker:It helped somewhat. I never really did very well. [Laughter] I was a hell raiser most of the time. [Laughter] I enjoyed my school years.
Doel:Were those marks for being rebellious in school or being feisty?
Broecker:I don’t remember. No, I wasn’t rebellious. I was just noisy and talked and teased people and the tricks. My greatest trick was when I was in fifth grade. I convinced all the boys in the class that— it was this really cold time of year in Chicago—that we could close the school down for a couple of days. And they said, “How will we do that?” And I just said, “All we have to do is at recess when we go to the little boys’ room we all pee on the radiators.” And I said I know—I didn’t have any idea of the chemistry at the time—but I said I know it makes a horrible smell. So that day I got in trouble in the morning and I didn’t go to the loo, I was kept in the coat closet. I wasn’t allowed to go out for recess but they all stuck with our blood pledge and peed on the radiators. And it closed the school and they all got thrown out and they were all mad at me. They thought I purposely got put in the cloak room. My mother probably would have — that would have cost about six weeks inside after school. That would have been really bad news. Yes, they had to take the whole radiator out and put in a new one. You know, one of the big old cast iron steam radiators.
Doel:What were your parents’ names?
Broecker:Wallace and Edith.
Doel:Had either of them had any college training?
Broecker:No. My father may have gone to some technical school. I never did get that straight, but certainly not too much beyond. He may have had some engineer’s training—probably of a practical sort. My mother, I imagine, just had a high school education. My mother read a lot, wrote poetry, things like that.
Doel:That’s interesting. Did she publish any of that or was it for her own—for the family?
Broecker:No. Her own sake or for her kids.
Doel:Would you see the poetry that she was writing?
Broecker:Now and then but as a kid I didn’t pay much attention to it. Later I did. She wrote a poem when I started going with my present wife. She was at an academy at Wheaton [College] and she wrote a poem about whizzing out to Wheaton. I can’t remember. My wife probably remembers more of it. She wrote more serious stuff and I think she was shy about it, like a lot of people probably are when they write poetry. Anyway, I just drifted along through school. I guess it probably was good that nobody pushed me. I loved sports. I wasn’t great but I spent all my free hours playing with the kids around the neighborhood.
Doel:This wasn’t organized sports as much as it was just being with the kids?
Broecker:No. You don’t see that very much any more. You know, we played in the alley. We played baseball and football and basketball, a gang of kids from the neighborhood, and we were always together.
Doel:What kind of house did your parents have?
Broecker:Well, it was in the south side of Oak Park, which was the poorer side. Split between richer Oak Park. I mean Oak Park was pretty affluent for its time. It was the Lake Street “El” [elevated train stop] I guess on the other side that was more prosperous. I don’t know what you’d say; it was middle class, lower middle class. We lived in a small house on a suburban street. I suppose at that time I would consider it a rather nice neighborhood, but when you go back there now, it looks like a dump.
Doel:Times have changed considerably.
Broecker:Well, yes. The west part of town like Washington Boulevard used to have really quite nice apartment buildings. I went through there recently and it’s like the South Bronx. It’s one of the worst areas of Chicago. It’s all abandoned buildings and a disaster area.
Doel:Did you have brothers and sisters when you were growing up?
Doel:How big was the family?
Broecker:Three sisters and one brother. And it’s amazing how they all did well. My brother screwed around in high school and he got C minuses and barely got through. He even got a C minus in co-educational cooking. And my parents asked me—I was seven years older than him, I was here in graduate school—what they should do about his college. And I said make him work for a semester, pay his way through his first semester of college, make him work for a year and if he gets better than a B+ average then you start paying. And of course you can imagine his reaction, “You bastard they paid your way through.” But they did and he did. And he ended up graduating first in his law class eventually. So he became a very successful lawyer.
Broecker:My sisters are— I got this Revelle Medal the other day and I mentioned that a lot of the research I do is very similar to what I did for my Ph.D. thesis. People say I’m very broad, but if you examine what was in my thesis and look what I’m doing now, I’m still working on the same problems. And I said my sister Bonnie is married into a music family, the Chapins and they have a family song, “All of Life’s a Circle.” And so I mentioned that and then I said but it’s fortunate that she remarried because if I followed the tune of her first husband, it would have been Freddy Krueger, because she was married to Wes Craven, the guy that did Nightmare on Elm Street.
Broecker:She lives in Piermont [New York] here and has a very nice store, Abigail Rose and Lilley Too. And she’s married to Tom Chapin, who does a lot of children’s music.
Doel:Brother of Harry Chapin.
Broecker:Yes. And my other sister, one of my other sisters, lives in Tucson [Arizona]. She married an orthopedic surgeon and lives the wealthy life. My older sister was a WAC [Women’s Army Corps]. She married, was a war bride, and got divorced practically two months after the war ended.
Doel:That wasn’t uncommon in those days.
Broecker:Messed up her life up a bit. But then she remarried. Had kids. Did fine. So the family is doing well despite our humble origins.
Doel:I was thinking. You were born as the Great Depression was getting particularly intense. Was it hard for your family when you look back on it now?
Broecker:Well, my father had his gas station the whole time. And I don’t imagine it was easy. I look back and I didn’t have many things. But I was never aware if the family was really in bad financial problems. We never had to move. We lived in the same house the whole time. We always had food on the table and so I don’t really think I knew about the Depression. I mean it never really—
Doel:It wasn’t something that you became conscious of when you were growing up.
Broecker:No. Because by the time that I was old enough to start thinking about things like that, the Depression had started to ease. The war came. And so no, I wasn’t really aware of it. I didn’t think about it and nobody talked about it.
Doel:When did you first start working with your father down at the garage?
Broecker:Oh, I don’t know. He’d take me down there. One time I ran it for him for two weeks while he took a vacation, because he never took a vacation. So somebody got the idea that I could run it for him and he didn’t think I could but it wasn’t all that complicated. I didn’t have to do any books. I only just had to open it up, pump gas and make sure the car washer was there. Things like that. But I used to go down and clean. He had this basement underneath the adjacent building where he had a sink and he had his—I guess, the coal stove for the furnace for the place. And that was the most unbelievable thing. It was a dirt floor, filthy dirty, and I’d go down and clean with my friends and we’d clean it out for him. If my mother ever saw it she probably would have died. It was terrible. It was awful. And you could go out underneath Chicago Avenue which had obviously been built up. It must have been lowland near the river that was filled in and there were parts of old buildings that went under there that you could walk right out under the street. It was crazy. I don’t know how they built it. They didn’t just fill it in because you would go way out in front of the building. And he had this big iron door, I remember, to separate his gas station which was upstairs and this was under the other building. There were rats down there. But I used to go with his—one of his car washers was particularly nice. He used to take me home to lunch in the Mother Cabrini Housing Project so I learned that one thing that black families had was a lot more humor than white families. It was my impression at the time that they had a lot of fun. Well, not that my life was bad, but theirs seemed to be bubbling over with—
Doel:But you noticed the difference.
Broecker:Yes. I encountered my first bookie. They told me one day to take these keys down to the barber shop. And he said go in the barber shop and then go through the door in the back of the barber’s room there and there’ll be a guy back there. You can give it to him. And I went back and there were all of these wooden counters — it was like a movie—all these cheap wooden counters and a guy in a booth. And it was a bookie.
Doel:It was an operation.
Broecker:It was an operation. I was giving the bookie the keys to his car.
Doel:How old were you at the time?
Broecker:Ten or eleven, I guess. I don’t know. I don’t remember things like that.
Doel:Probably sometime around the time the war began.
Broecker:Yes, I suppose because I remember being there with all of the rationing stamps. I remember going to the local store to get meat and stuff with ration stamps. And then I know he had to collect those from people. Had those A’s and B’s stickers.
Doel:When you could buy gas, and who could on particular days, and how much you could get.
Broecker:You had to spend your coupons. If you were just using your car for fun then you got minimum. If you had to drive or if you were a doctor or something, you got more. And of course he, running a gas station, could get as much gas as he wanted. So I remember that. I remember scrap drives and the involvement in the war. Of course we used to get the Chicago Tribune. They had a map of where the front was. And I remember I used to watch those carefully. I suppose everybody did. I remember Anzio Beach in Italy and everybody expected them to really advance and they just sat there for months. Didn’t make any headway. I guess that was a blunder.
Doel:I’m sure a lot of people will remember in detail from your generation those same maps appearing in many of the daily newspapers.
Broecker:Yes, that and of course the Tribune used to put a color cartoon— or cartoon, maybe it wasn’t color, I doubt if at that time they had color cartoons— but I remember on the front page—and they hated Harry Truman.
Doel:Yes they did. That was [Robert R.] McCormick’s paper at the time.
Broecker:Yes, McCormick’s paper. And that’s what we got. My parents were staunch Republicans. I can remember my father making remarks about [Franklin D.] Roosevelt. He obviously didn’t like him. But my father never talked about politics to speak of so I didn’t hear too much of that. But it was clear from what I did hear that he did not like Roosevelt.
Doel:Particularly for his economics or for getting into World War II?
Broecker:Oh, I think this probably was before the war. I think probably it must have been for his economics although he never talked about it in detail. I was totally an apolitical intellectual all the way through college. Maybe I still am. The first time I ever had to do anything that was really serious was to take a course at Oak Park High School in expository writing which was probably the most difficult course I have ever had in my life. We had to write a paper every week. And it was comparing editorials in several newspapers. And these were not simple assignments. And when I went to college I took English. I felt like an eighth grader during this course because it was much more sophisticated, with a very good teacher. And I went to a literary society at Oak Park High School and I remember the first time that I heard the secretary read the notes, I was absolutely—I said, “This is incredible.” It was so articulate compared to anything I had ever heard in my life. And I was just sort of sitting in the back and my eyes were popping in and out as I listened to this guy.
Doel:You mentioned, of course, that your mother was particularly interested in literature. Was that something that you felt very interested in as you were growing up?
Broecker:No. I mean I read books like every kid. No. I had no intellectual pursuits. I was interested in sports. I was just a typical kid. I did kid things. I had no serious— you know, I made model airplanes. I did this and I did that. But I didn’t do anything intellectual and I always did well in class but I never did one iota extra. I’d rip off my homework while I listened to the Lone Ranger or Tom Micks or something on the radio because I could do math.
Doel:You found that easy to do.
Broecker:I could do it while I did something else. My parents never helped me or paid any attention to my homework. I never asked them I guess. I just assumed it was something that I could take care of and I did.
Doel:You handled them pretty independently.
Broecker:It was good for me. I don’t know. I think it was a nice kind of childhood not to have a lot of pressure put on you.
Doel:When you were with your father at the garage, did you have an interest in mechanics? Did you actually repair cars on occasion?
Broecker:Well actually, when I was in college, my roommate and I bought a ‘34 Ford. A really neat car which had a 1942 Mercury engine in it so it was really—wait a minute. One of those two cars that we owned, we replaced the rings in the engine. This was really a big job.
Broecker:And we used my father’s lift which made it possible because it was awfully hard to get the—I remember getting the oil pan. Some of those things we had to get off—it was really difficult to do. So I built—actually one thing I did which I did all on my own which was right after the war—I bought a, I must have been twelve or thirteen, a Briggs Stratton. I saw advertised a Briggs Stratton gasoline engine for a washing machine or something like that. I don’t know what it was for. And I bought it for ten dollars, or I don’t know for some—I always did paper routes and things. I always had money. I mean I didn’t have a lot of money, but I had enough money.
Doel:A little spending money.
Broecker:Yes, because I always had a paper route. I always earned money. And I bought this and I bought soap box derby wheels which you could get for almost nothing and I built a soap box derby car with a rope around the thing and I attached to the back a trailer where I put this motor and the trailer had two separate wheels. That was my first car. And the trailer pushed the soap box derby car and it had a long rope clutch. You’d tighten the belt with a thing for an arm and I’d drive that around. Strictly illegal. But there was nothing like that around and the police — I would go thirty-five miles an hour down boulevards. And I’d yell at people “How fast am I going?” and the only brakes we had were our shoes. And we’d pull into gas stations. It was marvelous. Oak Park is very flat. You could pull into gas stations, fill her up, that was five cents, and we could go for about three hours. Go all over. I drove that thing all over town. And every now and then the police would stop me and say I shouldn’t do that. And I wouldn’t pay any attention. And they never got serious about it.
Doel:That was rather clever to have developed that on your own. Were other friends involved with you at all?
Broecker:I think a couple of my friends helped me. And in fact, Jimmie [James] Roth may have suggested some of the— you know, told me about the mechanics of about how to do it. But I guess I put it all together and made it work. I had a marvelous time with that car.
Doel:It sounds like you did. Really fun. Did you get magazines like Popular Mechanics at home?
Broecker:I don’t remember. I remember seeing Popular Mechanics. I never went to a library as a kid. We certainly didn’t get it regularly and I didn’t read it.
Doel:When you say you didn’t go to the library, you mean both the community library and the one at school?
Broecker:Well, no, I didn’t. The free hours I had I played sports and did other things. I did not do anything intellectual. I was perhaps unusual in that regard.
Doel:Not necessarily so.
Broecker:Anyway that’s the way it was. I may be — I forget what kind of things but I don’t think I got any magazines that came to me. I think probably my parents got National Geographic and a couple of things like that. We got the Readers’ Digest, I remember that. I used to read some things now and then in Readers’ Digest.
Doel:Do you remember reading any books as you were growing up? Junior high or high school age?
Broecker:Oh, I must have but I don’t remember. I remember my parents, way back, that we read together. I remember The Yearling and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and things like that. And I’m sure I read little mystery books like all kids do—The Hardy Boys and things like that. But I was not a reader. I was dyslexic and I still am and I imagine that may have—I didn’t know it at the time. All I knew is I could never read out loud. That was always a disaster because I’d miss too many words, make too many mistakes. And the more nervous you get the worse you are.
Doel:The harder that becomes. When were you finally diagnosed with dyslexia?
Broecker:I never was. I didn’t even know what it was until my kids had it. So then I realized that it was also a problem with me.
Doel:Okay. So it took that long before you even consciously understood it?
Broecker:That I realized that there was some real physical explanation for it. I never thought about it much. But it made it harder to read for pleasure because it was work.
Doel:Did you like science fiction?
Broecker:No. Still don’t. Hate science fiction. I mean I don’t hate it but I don’t think I’ve read more than two or three. It just doesn’t do anything for me. You know, I do science all the time. Why read science fiction?
Doel:You mentioned sports consuming a lot of your free time. Did you have any other hobbies that you recall from junior high or high school years?
Broecker:No. I mean I must have done things. One big element of my life was my parents’ religious beliefs—which were my fault. Apparently when I was a baby, I couldn’t drink milk and I cried all the time. That about drove my mother nuts. My father was a—my mother had been brought as atheist or agnostic and my father had been brought up Catholic. And when they married she refused to convert. So he was excommunicated. So until I was born, which was reasonably late in their lives—I suppose they were in their mid-thirties anyway—they didn’t go to church at all. Well a woman named Dr. Hess—she called herself Dr. Hess— she was a quack. Nice woman from the Ozarks. She lived across the street. And she used to notice how much trouble my mother was having with me. So she said, “The problem with your baby is that his legs are out.” My mother said, “What does that mean.” She said, “Well, their legs get unequal length and that makes lots of problems.” So she started coming over and I remember from much later because she did this for years. She’d come over and line the whole family up on the rug and she would straighten their legs. So she’d measure them and if one leg was shorter, she’d take the toes and the heel and crank and then the other one she’d just double you up like this and she’d keep measuring until she was satisfied. Now the problem was whatever was wrong with me happened to go away right at that time. So she invited my parents to church. She went to a non-denominational—sort of like a Southern Baptist—church in Oak Park and they were converted. And they were I guess late converts. You know, they really took it seriously. So I spent a lot of time in church in young people’s stuff and my social life revolved around that and I eventually went to Wheaton College. So I guess that consumed a lot of my life as a kid.
Doel:How much time, say in a typical week, would you be involved in church activities after that?
Broecker:Well, Sunday almost all day. I remember during one period, we had a Wheaton College student who was our choir director. They’d earn a little extra money doing that. My mother would always bring him home. So we’d go to Sunday school, church, come home and we’d have our big meal. And the choir director and I and my friends would play basketball. And then we’d all troop back for young people’s service. And I don’t remember if I went to the evening service or not, because there are a lot of services — Sunday school, morning service, young people’s service, and then evening service. And then my brothers and sisters all went to prayer meeting. And I somehow escaped, thank God, going to prayer meeting on Wednesday night. I never went to prayer meeting. But I think I always was involved in some kind of young people’s kind of inter-varsity kind of thing, or Youth for Christ or something like that. Or we would have meetings and since we were restricted in our activities because good Christians didn’t do this, that or the other thing, it forced us in our social lives to be more involved with the other people who had the same restrictions.
Doel:How willingly did you accept those restrictions as you grew up?
Doel:I suppose I’m asking you generally how you felt about them.
Broecker:I actually went with most of them in that it was too difficult to figure a way around them. I’d go to movies that I wasn’t supposed to. I mean simple things. But I never drank or smoked and I don’t know—I was a happy kid. I guess I never really missed the other things particularly. I never felt restrained. I never really was comfortable with the religion. The beating into you of hell fire is that you’re going to burn in hell. My idea was to be the thief on the cross. I thought that was the best way. You enjoy your life and then get saved at the last possible minute. But then somebody said, “What if you get run over by a truck.”
Doel:And you don’t have your cross.
Broecker:Right. So in the second year of college I made a definite break and said no more of this for me. By the time I came here I was pretty much out of it. And it made it a lot easier when I got here. Although [J. Laurence] Kulp is, you know, he’s the perfect Elmer Gantry. I mean you can’t find a better modern-day Elmer Gantry. Somebody who—well I don’t know, maybe he’s worse than Elmer Gantry—professes to be a great fundamentalist Christian but cheats in every possible part of his life. And that’s what drove me away is the incredible hypocrisy. Just awful. I would see it in college. You’d start to learn what these people were really like when they weren’t in church. And then I came here and I started to realize that the people I was meeting in New York were far kinder and more—
Broecker:Yes, that’s interesting. I mean we see that the good old Christian right now is willing to savage the poor.
Doel:When you mention that about your second year in college when you began to reject some of the social conventions, was there a particular?
Broecker:No, it wasn’t the social conventions so much.
Doel:It was the religious.
Broecker:That was a very definite thing. We had to go to chapel every day. I remember as a junior one of the greatest things was that I was a business manager of the yearbook and one of the privileges I had was signing chapel excuses. And the first thing every week is that I’d sign five for me. But they would take grade points off. So you either had to— a lot of the time you’d go in, give your number and then walk out another door if you didn’t want to go. But generally everybody went to chapel. It was only half an hour; it wasn’t so burdensome. They’d have it five days a week. I guess once a semester, there would be a week that was more evangelical. Somebody—one person—would come. Whereas most of the time professors would take turns or they’d have visitors giving a little sermon at the chapel. But then they’d have somebody come for a whole week. And they had this guy come for a week. I have no idea who he was. I don’t remember. But what happened is that after the first service people went up in the choir loft or into the pulpit and they wanted to sort of confess things that they’d done that were wrong. And this turned into sort of an incredible event and it lasted through something like, I don’t know, three solid days, twenty-four hours a day. Everybody went up and waited in the choir loft behind the pulpit in big rows and you’d sort of move around like you would in a line until you got your turn. And professors and students and some people actually were quite changed after that. They really were. Nobody every talked about it. I always waited for somebody to say juicy things— about sex or something—but nothing, never mentioned. You knew that there were a lot of sins that never really came out in the open. And so I had to decide whether I was going to do that. And I decided that I wasn’t going to do it as a hypocrite. Either I really believed it or I didn’t. And I sort of suffered over it. It was probably the first time that I ever thought about anything that seriously. And I said no, I’m not going to do it. And that was the end of it.
Doel:I can imagine that was a difficult decision to have to make.
Broecker:Yes, maybe I started to grow up.
Doel:How did your attitudes compare to others who were attending Wheaton, particularly after you made your decision not to participate?
Broecker:I didn’t become a rebel or anything. I just knew in my own mind what I was going to do. Again, I had a great time at Wheaton. I had really good teachers and I had a lot of fun there. I have no regrets about going to Wheaton at all. It was a good school, and I think for me and my upbringing and everything it was the perfect place to go. If I’d been thrown into an even smaller college which was non-religious, all the people doing all the things that I hadn’t done very much, it would have been much harder on me. So I was in a group of people who were good. I made a lot of good friends and I really enjoyed my time there. I lived with four guys. Four of us shared a house, upstairs of a house. And we were the best of friends for a long, long time. I wasn’t a serious person, I just sort of drifted along. And I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to put on that I was really a dedicated fundamentalist Christian because I wasn’t nor was I going to be. I eventually gave up religion altogether. See, Kulp was very religious. So he encouraged us to go to his church. And I think my wife was brought up with missionary parents and she sort of, I suppose, felt pretty much like I did but maybe lagged a little longer behind me. So we went—I guess since I admired him greatly—to his church. It was the Plymouth Brethren here in New Jersey, which I hated. Plymouth Brethren, you know they don’t use an organ. It’s really boring. You sit in a square. All I would do is look at these two gorgeous twin sisters. That’s the only blessing.
Doel:These are Kulp’s daughters?
Broecker:No, no. These are someone else’s daughters who were at this service, probably early college or something like that. A few years younger than I. But then we gave that up. I remember two of the elders came over to our house and they wanted to convince me to come back to church. And I didn’t want to be too impolite with them, but I remember they kept reading these scripture verses and each time they’d give me the Bible to read it, I’d put it where they couldn’t get it back again. But these guys produced seven Bibles. And I couldn’t believe it. It was like people getting out of a Volkswagen. And I’ll never forget that. I had this big stack of bibles and I don’t know where they kept coming from. But I think that was the end. No more religion after that.
Doel:How many years after your coming to Columbia did that happen, the incident you just mentioned?
Broecker:Let’s see. We still lived in Alpine three or four—
Doel:So in the midst of your graduate training here. I want to get back to that more recent period in a moment, but I’m curious when you were still in high school and actively involved in the church, do you remember being taught about Darwinism and the age of the earth, geological issues? Was this something that came up in the church’s teaching?
Broecker:Well, the church I was in believed in the literal interpretation and they would have— I can remember discussions about whether the days in Genesis were really days or whether they were long periods of time and things like that. And I remember being smart enough to realize that a lot of the sun stopping when Joshua wanted another day to fight his war or whatever it was and the Red Sea— these were pretty bizarre physical happenings and it was pretty hard to believe.
Doel:So you had doubts certainly.
Broecker:Oh yes, I had doubts. But I don’t think we ever got involved. I didn’t know anybody who really argued about the age of the earth or anything until I really came here. But I never had any trouble with that.
Doel:What kind of science courses did you have when you were in Oak Park High School? Are any of them particularly memorable?
Broecker:I remember I had a geometry teacher, Mr. Rossiter, who was a real thinker. And he would go way beyond geometry. I remember my mother used to get angry because she felt he was telling me things that were against religion or something. But I remember he was a very good teacher and I remember the woman who taught expository writing. And I remember all my lovely courses in shop. I did wood turning and I did metalwork where you have a forge that you run yourself. I had more fun in those places. God, I loved that.
Doel:Was the shop particularly well equipped?
Broecker:Oh yes, it was marvelously equipped. We had really good equipment. I made knives and I made salad bowls. We didn’t just dink around. We each had a lathe. It was good. I remember that. Science— I never took chemistry and I don’t think I took biology. I took physics but I don’t remember who I took it from or what I learned. I remember the literary society. And it was a damn good high school. There was no doubt about that. Oak Park at that time and New Trier were the two good high schools in the Chicago area. They probably ranked very high in the country. They were excellent high schools. So I had a damn good high school education. And I remember that three of us got into Wheaton from Oak Park High. And the fourth one didn’t. And the three of us that got into Wheaton were in the top five in Wheaton’s grade average. And the one that got turned down probably would have been better than 90% of the Wheaton students. It was a damn good high school.
Doel:It certainly had that reputation in that time. You mentioned a moment ago your geometry teacher, Mr. Rossiter, mentioning ideas that your mother found a problem. Do you remember?
Broecker:Yes, oh I remember he talked a lot about social issues and things. But I don’t remember now what it was. All I can remember is that I really liked the guy and he was a really good teacher. And that he didn’t spend all of his time teaching geometry and that’s what annoyed my mother. She said, “He’s supposed to be teaching geometry. Why is he telling you all this other stuff?” Well you know, he just enjoyed doing it. I think it was probably good for all of us to hear something else.
Doel:When you were at Oak Park High School, did you stay often for extracurricular activities? Was there much that you took part in?
Broecker:The guy that I roomed with in college and I were managers for the football and basketball team. Because we were both too small to play and we both loved sports. So we were managers. So we’d go to all the games and we’d go to all the practices and we really enjoyed that. It was the best that we could do since we were tiny and would have been murdered. And of course Oak Park was also a really top sports high school.
Doel:Did you get over to the museums in Chicago?
Broecker:I used to go down on the elevated by myself. That was one thing. I spent a lot of time in Chicago that my parents never knew about because we could go for a nickel on the elevated train. We’d go to the Harrison Street Line. There are two lines. But anyway we’d go into Chicago for a nickel. And we could go all the way to the end of the line and go to the Museum of Science.
Doel:Science and Industry.
Broecker:Industry, yes. That was the only one. I never went to the art museums or anything when I was a kid. I didn’t know they existed, I don’t think. The other thing that we did, it was on top of every high building on Chicago because we found that everyone had ready access for fire. So we would just get in on the stairway and you could go all the way up. So we had marvelous times flying paper airplanes off the high buildings. If my mother knew what I was doing, she probably would have had a heart attack. And we used to take marbles and we’d go on the South Side “El” and there would be all these people working on their cars. And we always had this thing that someday we were going to drop a marble and hit one of them in the head. We didn’t think it was going to hurt him but he would sure notice it. So we wasted a lot of marbles but I don’t think we ever hit anybody.
Doel:You probably attracted some attention.
Broecker:Leaning out of the elevated train. Because basically the way it was was if you were out the window, you were looking straight down. On that particular line, there was nothing on the sides.
Doel:When you went over to the Museum of Science and Industry, were there any other particular exhibits or themes that you found interesting?
Broecker:I think I went there sort of for the novelty rather than the content. It was a fun thing.
Doel:It was fun to do it.
Broecker:But I don’t remember any— I don’t have a very good memory in general for the distant past.
Doel:Do you remember going with friends or did you tend to go alone?
Broecker:No, I always went with one of my friends. No, I never went alone. No, I always went with somebody. No, I always had two or three pals that I was—Jimmie Roth and Bill Wilson were two people who lived on my block. I guess Jimmie in the earlier period and Bill sort of in the later period were my buddies. And then when I got to high school, Ernie Sandine who I roomed with in college, we both went from Oak Park High School. So I always had one really close friend. We’d do most things together. Oh, and Willie Warden. I forgot Willie Warden. For about two years Willie and I would take turns living at each other’s houses. He became— actually Willie, I wish I could see Willie, I haven’t seen him for many years—he became the basketball coach at a totally black high school. He was not black of course; he was from Oak Park. And they won the state championship. It must have been really wonderful for Willie.
Doel:In the Chicago area?
Broecker:Yes. One of the tough Chicago high schools. I can’t remember which one, because I haven’t lived in Chicago and I don’t know Chicago high schools. Willie went to our church, the Harrison Street Bible Church, and so we were thrown together from that. The other two guys lived on my street and Ernie was somebody that I met when I went to some religious thing like Youth for Christ or whatever. Where we met. There were about ten of us who would meet once a week in the evening. And so we got to be friends through that.
Doel:Were most of the friends you had in high school those connected with the church?
Broecker:Yes. Most of the close friends.
Doel:You mentioned a number of the teachers who were influential for you in high school. Were there any others when you think back that you feel had? I was curious.
Broecker:No. I also had really good teachers at my elementary school. I had the same teacher for fifth and sixth grades, Hazel Ferguson. And she was a marvelous teacher. Old style. We had to do our swirls. But she really knew how to teach and had a good balance between discipline and humor. And for third and fourth grade I had the same teacher, Miss Bean, I think, was her name. The same thing. These were women who never married I don’t think, you know. They were school teachers and they put their lives into it. So that was four long years. And then I only had a year and a half of junior high. We all skipped a grade, because I was in the last mid-year class and they wanted to get rid of those mid-year classes. And especially our class because I think we had eighteen boys and three girls so we weren’t the easiest class to deal with. I don’t remember in junior high. The only guy I remember is a guy named Hilgernack who taught us music and we never sang because he couldn’t stand to listen to us. He’d read to us Till Eulenspiegel. He’d read us that every day. It was marvelous, because all of us hated music anyway. Or at least— not that we hated music but we hated to do the things we were supposed to do in music. And so he’d read instead. I don’t know how that board of education ever let him get away with it. And I remember we had a— they called them sight-saving classes. There were three kids that were my age that had really thick lenses and couldn’t see very well. And they had a special room for them. I think they came from all over town. And I used to read to them. I don’t know why since I was such a lousy reader. But they used to let us go off in the map room and read to them. And we’d have a marvelous time. I remember there was this long hose that they used and they had a plug-in vacuum cleaner system. And they used to listen through the thing that you put on the floor and I would talk through the other end and my voice would go down this long hose and we’d sit there. This was a great way to while away the morning. I think that was in fifth and sixth grade.
Doel:Did you travel much outside Chicago when you were growing up?
Broecker:I went once to camp on the, what would you call it, on the upper Michigan. You had to go through Michigan. I used to go in the summer to Gull Lake near Kalamazoo because my mother had a friend who had a house on the lake and she used to take me there for a couple of weeks every summer. I really liked that. That was when I was ten and eleven. But I don’t think I ever was west of the Mississippi River. I was in Indiana, a little bit of Michigan and Illinois, and that was it. And Wisconsin. I guess I went to, let’s see — what’s the lake in Wisconsin which is barely over the border—Lake Geneva. When I was in high school, Bill Wilson, this friend of mine, and I got a car from U.S. Gypsum—I suppose the summer between our junior and senior years. And we drove it to Los Angeles. That was a way for them to deliver it to a salesman. And so we had a nice tour of the west because we zigzagged around. So that was my first time where I really saw anything.
Doel:When you were at Lake Geneva did you happen to travel out to Zurpsee’s Observatory? Were you aware of it?
Broecker:I was aware of it. I don’t think we ever went there. No, I can’t remember. It’s been many, many years since I was there. I remember we used to stay in Fontana down at the south end of the lake, which is probably where the poor people lived, and then I remember that you go along the west side to the other town which was more at the north end of the lake and this Zurpsee’s was along the way. I know they’ve had meetings in my field there. I just never happened to go to one. So I’ve never seen it.
Doel:That’s right. I think there’s a campground that’s fairly near there that’s large enough for—
Broecker:Probably. I hate to think what Lake Geneva’s like. I remember Lake Geneva in the ‘30s probably. We used to go there for vacations in the summer. But God almighty, I hate to think what it’s like now. Wall to wall piers. Like Lake Arrowhead. I never saw a lake like that in my life. It looks like it’s got bristles because you stand on the high mountain and look down on it and all you see is all these docks going out. [Laughs]
Doel:When you think back to the time at Wheaton, and I should ask you — although from what you’ve said it’s fairly clear — if you didn’t see any other university or college that you wanted to go to outside of Wheaton?
Broecker:No. I don’t know how I ever got to Wheaton. But I guess it’s because Ernie Sandine was going to go there and we were good friends. And he probably figured out that that was a good school to go to so I applied and got in. And it was close and we didn’t have a lot of money.
Doel:How much did you know about Wheaton before you got there?
Broecker:See, when I was a sophomore, I didn’t know what graduate school was. So you’re talking to somebody who didn’t really look into these things very seriously. I don’t know what I knew about it. It had a very good reputation among the fundamentalists certainly because it was obviously— it’s always been a good school academically and it was certainly right mid-stream of the way my parents believed. So it was right on line. So it was an obvious place to go in a sense. But the most important thing that happened to me at Wheaton was something that happened the first day. And this set my whole life, this first day. They assigned every freshman to a sophomore and the one they assigned to me was Paul Gast, who of course is on your list. I mean as somebody who was here; he’s now dead. But his task was to get me registered.
Doel:This was a kind of buddy system, pairing all the freshman?
Broecker:Yes, it was very good. Often the students know more about the registration than the professors. I’m sure that’s true with me. My students know something about it. I don’t pay any attention to it; it’s a big bore. So he actually worried about me. He realized that I was just a happy-go-lucky guy who wasn’t really intellectually motivated, and when I was a sophomore he asked me one day, “What are you going to do?” And I said, “Jesus, I’m only a sophomore. I’ve got two more years.” I majored in physics and math. He said, “What are you going to do afterwards?” And I said. “Well, I don’t know.” So then when I started my junior year, he asked me again. He said, “Wally, what are you going to do when you get out of here?” He said, “Now you’re a junior. You’ve only got a little over a year, a year and a half.” And I said, “Oh Paul, I’ll think about it.” So I went away and I didn’t think about it. And I came back a couple of weeks later. And he said, “Wally what are you going to do?” Well I had read an article in a magazine about actuaries. I said, “I’m going to be an actuary.” He said, “Oh, that’s really boring.” He said. “You don’t really want to do that.” And I said, “Well you got any better suggestions?” So he got me here for the summer. That was the upshot of that.
Doel:And that was the summer of your junior year?
Broecker:That was the end of that year. He got me here and I’m still here. So I haven’t advanced very much.
Doel:That might be your way to put it. What sort of person was Paul Gast?
Broecker:Well, Paul was somewhat the antithesis of me. He was a thinker, a reader, more serious, not interested in sports and was very much oriented toward his science. He was a nice man. His father was sort of a classic Germanic type. And Paul had a lot of that in him but it had been mellowed a bit with time. He wasn’t quite the immigrant or the mentality that his father had.
Doel:Where had his father been? Was he teaching in Germany or a Germanic country?
Broecker:I don’t know. His father probably wasn’t the first generation, but I bet he was. I don’t know. His father spoke with an accent. I only met his father a couple of times. But Paul would mention his father a lot. His father ran some kind of a greenhouse company where they made greenhouses. So Paul came from a family with considerably more means and culture than my family. And so Paul and I came here for the summer and then my professor said, Kulp said, “You’re wasting your time going back to Wheaton. Stay here.” This was two days before I was supposed to be back in Wheaton for registration. And I said, “Well yes that would be nice, but I haven’t applied. How am I going to get in?” And he said, “I’ll get you in.” And the next day he had me in. I don’t know what he did. He went downtown and got me in.
Doel:I’m curious if you ever found out how he did manage that?
Broecker:You can ask him. I never asked him.
Doel:Okay. I was curious.
Broecker:I mean it was interesting that they accepted every course that I took except one. Now they accepted one full year of Old Testament history and one full year of New Testament history which were crummy courses. They rejected a course I took in criminology and this was the only course I ever took from a social scientist who thought; somebody who was more like my expository writing teacher. A young guy who really got into the nitty-gritty of what you do with criminals. And we had good discussions and it made people think, you know. But they rejected that course. I said, “Well that shows you that they’re not perfect either.” Well, they had no way of knowing. I guess they wanted me to be forced to take my last X points, 30 points, at Columbia and therefore maybe they had to cut something from Wheaton. He got me in. I never passed the swimming test and I never took Contemporary Civilization.
Doel:Had that been a required course at the time?
Broecker:Yes, but I was a senior transfer and it was impossible for me to take it. So I graduated a physics major. But Paul and I came here together then. And we became best friends, of course. But at Wheaton we sort of traveled in different circles. They overlapped, but I mean I was interested in different things than he was. And he was a year ahead of me, which I think in college makes more difference.
Doel:It can make a big difference. When you think back to it, what was it that inspired you towards physics and mathematics as your major at Wheaton?
Broecker:They were easy.
Doel:You found it very easy to do? Broecker. Oh, I liked them too. I had two of the best teachers I ever had in my life: Angela Brandt who taught calculus, a marvelous teacher. Another one like my fifth grade teacher. Never married; it was for life. She would bring the homework back the next day, totally graded, saying these are the things you all didn’t do very well on. She’d go over it and just good teaching. And another one, George Bate, who had a master’s degree and was teaching at Wheaton in physics. He was a fantastic physics teacher who would give us really hard problems that challenged our minds. Actually he came to graduate school too. So Paul and I and George all got our degree about the same time. And he teaches at Whitworth, no, no, no. Westmont College in Santa Barbara [California]. Taught there ever since he left here. Conservative as — he must be so happy now because for years he said there ought to be religious schools and they shouldn’t be paid for by taxes and stuff. I never believed any of it would happen and now it’s all happening.
Doel:That tells you about the contemporary political environment.
Broecker:Yes, right. He was way ahead of his time. But he was a wonderful teacher.
Doel:What do you recall from the physics courses that you took at Wheaton? Did you cover classical physics primarily or did you get into any discussion?
Broecker:No, that’s why Kulp wanted me. I mean by the time I was a junior, I really was wasting my time there. They didn’t have a strong enough faculty. George had left. He was the only really good physics teacher. They had a more senior person named Martin who was okay. But I remember — one thing I did at Wheaton which was really good was I made one of these flip flop circuits for an old oscillator. And we made it on a big board. And those things are really worthwhile. It took a lot of time, a lot of busy work, but you really understood what was going on. What made it all work.
Doel:Was this part of a physics lab?
Broecker:Yes. I think it was a junior project or something. And I think I brought it here with me when I came. No, it was fairly limited, but I think the critical things are calculus and general physics. I mean those are extraordinarily important courses in which you really need to get thoroughly grounded. I came here and took advanced courses and some of the teaching was so bad that at first I thought it was me. And then when they’d go over things that I already knew, I knew it wasn’t me, it was them. They were just so bad at teaching that you really had to get it yourself. They’d throw it at you with thousands of equations on the board with almost no information. Now, you could just Xerox it or put it on a transparency. But these guys would write it all down on the board and we’d sit there like scribes. There’s an interesting story. Paul and I took a course in quantum— no, it wasn’t quantum electrodynamics, just electrodynamics. Electricity and magnetism—which is sort of a four thousand level course— from a guy named Norman Kroll, who was one of these people who would write everything on the board and with very little explanation. And you’d be so busy trying to write it all down that you couldn’t listen to him anyway. And I remember after the mid-term exam, he’d given us a question about the reciprocity theorem which I never want to hear about again because it was totally boring. But we went up and asked him a question and there were like thirty-five people in this class. And he never indicated that he even saw us there. He looked at us and said, “Oh you’re Broecker and Gast.” And we were stunned and we asked him a question and went out. We were sort of afraid of him. And I met him twenty-five years later at a cocktail party. He moved to La Jolla [California]. And I said, “Norman, I took your course.” And I said, “I’ve always had this question.” I said, “How did you know our names?” And he said, “Well, that’s an interesting question. I know the answer.” He said, “I have a very good memory.” And he said, “I would go to the Rogues Gallery and memorize the faces of all the students in my classes and their names so I would know them. And you were the only two that I didn’t have pictures of so that I knew that you had to be the two geologists.” We were geologists then. He said, “If you asked me which was Broecker and which was Gast, I would have had to guess.” That’s a really neat story. I always found math very easy. That’s my mind; that’s the way I’m built. I enjoy puzzles. I enjoy things that challenge my mind.
Doel:You mention building the flip flop circuit when you were in the physics lab. Did many of the experiments seem to be cookbook type when you think back to Wheaton or did you find more of them to be challenging like this particular one?
Broecker:Well, I think that was a whole semester project. I remember when I was in the first course of physics, we all had to do a practical thing and I was supposed to build this spring that lofted a ball and it would follow a parabolic trajectory. We had to do that. I remember chemistry, which I took in summer school, and those labs were definitely cookbook. I hated — what was it — qualitative analysis. The most stupid thing I ever did in my life. None of the tests worked. You couldn’t make them work. So you say, “Now wait a minute.” If this test won’t work when you know you’ve got the thing, how are you going to use it when you don’t know you’ve got the right thing. No, I don’t remember much about labs. I did these things because it was there to do and I did them easily, but I didn’t ever put anything extra in. I suppose I did on those projects because maybe they challenged me a bit to work with my hands. We had an interesting thing. This would have been 1950 or ‘51. Paul Gast and I and two guys, you have Eckelmanns on your list?
Broecker:And Walt [Walter R.] Eckelmann— no, Don [Donald] Eckelmann.
Doel:These were brothers?
Broecker:Yes, but Don was I think—Walt was a little bit too far ahead of us. I didn’t know Walt. But Don was there. And there was this guy named John Knuckles. John Knuckles was the director of Livermore Laboratory up until about a year ago when he was canned. And Knuckles was a real — I mean you want a classic nerd, he was a classic nerd. I mean he’d never dated and he read Glastone’s Physical Chemistry when he was twelve years old or something. And so he and I and Paul and a couple of others were the only ones who took physics and so we were friends. But John organized, on his own, this club. And the club was— we met only five or ten times but he was serious. We were going to go to the moon.
Doel:Is that right?
Broecker:Yes. Let’s see, I was head of iron rocketry. That’s how we were going to get there. Don Eckelmann I think was in charge of geology of the moon or maybe Paul was. No, Paul was in charge of something else—life support systems. I don’t know. But we’d have this meeting and John would merrily lead us into discussions of this. And we all thought it was a bit crazy but we did it just to be nice to him, I think. Because we couldn’t understand. We’re this little group, going to go to the moon?
Doel:Do you remember reading anything particularly about moon or space travel back in that time? Or was it just?
Broecker:No. Knuckle did. He instigated us. I think Paul probably did. I didn’t. I wasn’t interested in that. Truly, when Paul—when I was a sophomore or early junior — mentioned graduate school, I didn’t even know what it was. I’m not kidding. I probably heard the word but I probably thought about it in terms of Wheaton. That this is where you went if you want to be a minister or something. So I didn’t really have any conception of a graduate school.
Doel:I think that’s fairly common among people who grew up in families that did not have members actively involved in high education.
Broecker:That was amazing. I know Wheaton had a tiny graduate school but it was religious. And I never thought about it. I didn’t think about things like that. I’m not the kind of person who worried about the future.
Doel:How particularly did the arrangement come about that you came out to Lamont in your junior year?
Broecker:Well Paul wrote to Kulp and Kulp was trying to pick off students — he can tell you about that— from there. So he got the Eckelmanns and me and Paul Gast.
Doel:How was Paul Gast in contact with Kulp? Do you know that?
Broecker:Well, he [Paul Gast] had been here [Lamont] the previous summer and gone out on the Vema. So he was here in the summer of ‘51. So he said he worked here and he liked it. So he wrote to Kulp and Kuip invited me here, I think, at my own expense. And I flew a non-scheduled airliner. I think we had to land somewhere in Ohio because the weather was so bad and I got here and I didn’t know the difference between Palisades, New Jersey and Palisades, New York. And I had a hell of a time getting out here. I don’t know how I got here, but I eventually got here.
Doel:This was your first time out to this part of the east coast?
Broecker:This was the interview. Yes, it was my first time on the east coast. And so I talked to him. Then I don’t know if he wrote me a letter or told me at the time that I should come. So I drove out here after school was out and I got here June 15, 1952 and Pm still here.
Doel:What were your impressions of Kulp from that first meeting?
Broecker:Well, Kulp was sort of the kind of guy who impressed you greatly, and actually he was a wonderful professor in many ways. I mean, we were doing things that post-docs do now that I was doing as an undergraduate because it was a very thin field and we had a lot of responsibility. He gave us all the resources we needed. You know money, technicians. I had a person to do my typing ever since I can remember. It must have been as soon as this building was opened in ‘54.
Doel:When you first came out, you were over at Lamont for the meeting?
Broecker:For the first two years and then this building was built. He did a lot for me. I was an insecure kid really, and he really pumped up your ego and he was good to his students. He didn’t ever do anything bad to any of us. We started to find out after a while that he had feet of clay—that the guy really had some big problems. He would steal ideas. He just was not an honest man. And I’ll never forget the thing that really stunned me and changed my attitude toward him was that he and Ewing had been doing — now this is important history of Lamont— had been doing radiocarbon on ocean water. Ewing would collect the samples; Kulp would measure them. Ewing, I found out in hindsight, was never convinced that they were doing it right and he didn’t want to publish a paper until they had really repeated the results and everything. Kulp, being really out for fame and fortune, published a couple of papers without Ewing being an author — which forever drew a wedge between them.
Doel:Is that, do you think, what first started the animosity between them?
Broecker:No doubt about that. Well, when we moved to this building, I started a new technique for measuring radiocarbon. They were having a lot of trouble with the old method because the air was loaded strontium 90 and would absorb on that charcoal, you know the carbon block, and it would add radioactivity. And it was really bad years because the testing was getting heavier and heavier. So a couple people had learned how to do gas counting and we went to gas counting. So when we moved in here, we set up a gas counting lab and abandoned the old method. I decided to do something he’d never done and this was where the trouble began. You know Karl Turekian, you’ve got him on your list. He’s another Wheatonite.
Broecker:He had been working down in Schermerhorn and what he did for about two years—I guess he’d never want to admit this any more — is that he measured the sub-samples of all these bottles of ascarites. They’d number the bottles. Ascarite was barium hydroxide on asbestos. And what they’d do was acidify the water at sea and the CO2 would go into this ascarite and get absorbed. But the trouble was the ascarite had carbon in it. It was not blank free. So Turekian measured the amount of carbon in every bottle of ascarite. He did hundreds of these bottles.
Doel:Very repetitive work.
Broecker:But what they’d never done is measure the carbon-14, the carbon ratio in whatever was in there. They assumed it was modern, that it was contemporary. So when they made the correction, which was large, it made the samples much older.
Doel:That makes sense.
Broecker:So the first thing I did is took about ten bottles of ascerite, dissolved them up and measured it. It was dense. So it means the correction went the other way and these very old ages then became very young ages. I mean really young, so young that you couldn’t distinguish them from modern. And actually that’s what the water was out there. It was very young. And Kulp had been away on a vacation and he came back and he was supposed to go two or three days later to Mexico City to the GSA [Geological Society of America]. And he was going to give a talk on this. And of course this is his office and his furniture.
Doel:We’re speaking of the room that we’re doing the interview in right now.
Broecker:Where he was. And I remember he came back and I was in that middle room. That’s where we had the counters. And I came out and I said, “Larry,” or told his secretary who was in there, “I’ve got to talk to you before you go off.” And he said, “I’m very busy and so forth.” And he came in the lab. And I remember having this conversation. We were standing right in front of an electronic rack. And I said, “Larry all this is wrong because of this correction.” And he stood on one foot and the other and he sort of couldn’t believe it. And yes, it must have been a shock to him. And I’ve never been diplomatic. I just said it’s wrong. Well, he listened and then left. And he went to Mexico City. While he was away on his vacation—Ewing by that time would talk to me now and then—and he asked me how things were going and I told him about this. Maybe I shouldn’t have. I don’t know. I don’t think I realized—.
Doel:Roughly what year was this? This is, of course, after ‘54 when the building was built.
Broecker:This was ‘54 or ‘56 — somewhere around in there. You can find out when the GSA was in Mexico City that summer. Anyway, so Ewing knew about this. Kulp went to Mexico City, and gave a talk on the old data. Ewing was in the audience. Kulp gave—you know he’s a really smooth guy and very convincing, a lot of charisma— gave this talk. No caveats, no nothing— saying that the radiocarbon age of the water at this end of the Atlantic was a thousand years old and by the time they got to the other end of the Atlantic it was ten thousand years old. Turns out it was two hundred years. And he gave this talk and Ewing couldn’t believe it. And he came back and Ewing called me in. Re said, “Did you tell Kulp about that?” And I told him what had happened and of course that really was a—
Broecker:Yes, that was very significant. And I don’t know whether I did the right thing or the wrong thing. But you really feel what’s going on here? I think we all thought science was kind of sacred and I think I still do. The last place I think a lot of us would cheat is in science. We might cheat on our wives. We might do this; we might do that. But we’re quite honest about our science and I think we feel it won’t succeed unless you’re honest about it. So that was a shock. And of course as students, we spent a lot of time talking about Kulp.
Doel:Did you feel betrayed at that point? How did you feel?
Broecker:I didn’t feel betrayed, really. I mean I never really turned totally against Kulp because he was good to me, and he obviously was a smart guy. He knew what he was. He wasn’t a charlatan. No way. No, he was good at what he did—I guess I sort of felt confused, but I didn’t take it personally. What I worried about, I remember, I suppose it was about the time that I got my degree, it must have been about ‘58. He went to England. He can tell you when he went to England on a sabbatical. And I had to teach his class and the university agreed to invite a bunch of people. I mean one each week to come and give lectures. It was really very nice. We had [Gerald F.] Wasserberg and [Harmon] Craig and Pat [Patrick] Hurley and, you know, the greats of the time. And I was so afraid. I knew that a lot of these people— not Pat Hurley, but Wasserberg, Craig, people like that— hated Kulp. And we always thought that we would inherit that mantle and that they would hate us. But it turned out that they didn’t. To their credit, they sort of accepted us for what we were, not for what our professor was.
Doel:I’m curious what particularly it was that caused Jerry Wasserberg or Harmon Craig to feel that way about Kulp?
Broecker:Well, I think his quick rise to fame didn’t help. But there were things that were happening in the field that they felt he had — somebody else had an idea and they were working on it. Kulp found out about it and he moved in on it fast and got the money and did it and tried to scoop them. I mean there was a guy named Harry Thode who was eventually president of what, McMaster, who worked on sulfur isotopes. And there was a big to-do about him moving in on sulfur isotopes. I think it was that they liked to beat on people, number one. They still do, both of them. And they were tough sons-of-bitches as young scientists. And I think they needed a whipping boy and they picked Kulp. Now, they didn’t just pick him randomly. Kulp had obviously done some things that were unethical probably. See, I didn’t know, I was too—I wasn’t involved in these deeds, I mean these events. I didn’t know the field well. I was just a kid. And I still can’t put all that stuff in context. I know they were vicious because there was a guy here named Don Carr and Don [Donald] Carr wrote a paper, like a review paper, and in it he actually took a sentence word for word out of a paper that Craig had written. And it was taken word for word and Carr admitted it. And he didn’t reference Craig. Now it was the thing that said that the fractionation between Carbon 14 and Carbon 12 was twice that of Carbon 13 and Carbon 12. I asked Don, “Why did you do that?” He said, “Well, I thought that he said it very well and I copied it.” Now Craig made a huge issue of plagiarism and things. Which is total bull shit. I guess you should change the words but it was something that was common knowledge and it wasn’t a long sentence and it wasn’t all that complicated. It was a small part of this paper. And God knows how he picked it up. He had this incredible memory and he probably checked and said “My God.” And so they picked on him at an incredible level. They watched him like a hawk.
Doel:It’s interesting you say that because of course one of Craig’s mentors was Harold C. Urey, and Urey was also extremely fastidious about priority and credits.
Broecker:Harmon Craig — one of his few good friends was a guy named Devendra Lal, who’s a professor at Scripps [Institute of Oceanography]. He’s Indian. Well, about three years ago, four years ago, Craig accused Lave—who had been for years his best friend, seemingly— of improperly acknowledging a paper that Craig had written. And I heard about this and I wrote to Harmon and I said, “Harmon, this is something that happened thirty years ago.” I said, “You can’t be serious.” I said, “Plus Lave’s wife is dying of liver cancer and it’s not a time to bang on your friend.” And he wrote back and he said that was true but he said Harold Urey had told him the most important thing in life was intellectual integrity and he felt he had to correct this mistake. So he went after this guy for something he wrote—and this was quoting a paper that Craig wrote in ‘58. So he wrote this other paper six years later and it wasn’t—I mean I’ve never gone back and checked the whole thing. You know it may have been sloppy referencing at worst. He actually had this go to a committee at the University of California, San Diego, and they threw it out. I mean it was— and Lave’s wife died of cancer during this time. I mean it was awful. I mean it was absolutely awful. But that was his defense. And I said, “Harmon, that’s a bunch of bull shit.” I have ever since then written Craig off and I won’t really have much to do with him. Because I felt there are sins and there are sins but that was really a mega sin. I mean it was just.—I think there was something wrong with Craig at the time. He must be taking some kind of medication now. I think he’s better. I saw him in San Francisco. I think he was a little bit off his rocker, because he was absolutely angry over this. Well, those guys, that’s right, they were both—Craig and Wasserberg—were Urey students.
Doel:Were both Urey students.
Broecker:And they had this built into them. But they were also really— they’re the vigilantes of the field. They were like the Inquisition. They were going to purify all of us. No sins were going to be committed. And Craig had tried to destroy almost every competitor he’s ever had. I’ve seen it. It’s systematic. And some of it’s absolutely unbelievable. Somebody will teach him a technique and help him get started. As soon as he’s got a foothold, he would turn around and try to prove that all of the data they got from the same method was wrong. I’ve seen it four or five times. So it’s something they do, and especially Craig, I think, does it for entertainment. I mean he enjoys it, instead of whatever else you can do, going out and drinking with your buddies or doing this or that, he tries to—I guess he doesn’t have very much self-confidence in some way or something. He has to destroy everybody who approaches him.
Doel:I know that we’ve got to wrap this up in a few moments. You have to leave. Let me just ask you one quick set of questions. What courses do your particularly remember from that senior year that you took here at Columbia?
Broecker:I remember a thermodynamics course that I took from a professor who was a professor at Barnard, not at Columbia. I remember my first geology course which was from Walter [H.] Bucher. That’s the story about why I didn’t get in Phi Beta Kappa.
Doel:I’m curious why you mention this.
Broecker:I can tell you that in two seconds. Paul Gast and Bruno Giletti, who was a student with us, we hung around together and took mostly the same courses. And we took structural geology and I’d never had any geology. So we struggled through and the first semester we all got B+s. Second semester I tried to register and Bucher said you can’t, you’re an undergraduate, you can’t handle the material. I said, “Professor Bucher, I took the course last semester, you gave me a B+.” He said, “I don’t care. You can’t take it.”
Doel:In the meantime he’s found out that you are an undergraduate.
Broecker:I guess I came to Kulp. I said what’s going on? So Kulp went and got me in. He got me in. We all took it again. They got B+s. I got a C-. He proved his point. I couldn’t do the work. [Laughs]
Doel:What did you feel your relationship as a student to him was during that second semester? Was it harder for you?
Broecker:No, he didn’t ever say anything to you. Just when I got my final grade it was a C-. I don’t know if we had a mid-term or not, or whether he just hung this on me at the end. Everybody sort of just worshipped Bucher as this merry little German guy. I thought he was nuts myself. But I thought if this is geology, I don’t really want any part of it. He turned me off on geology. I went that next summer to the Great Basin Archaeological Congress and I gave a talk on radiocarbon dating to a bunch of archaeologists because Kulp didn’t want to go. And I went at the last minute. And at the end of my talk this guy in cowboy boots with a pipe and a cigar stuck in it came up to me with bowed legs. And he said, “Kid,” he said, he looked me right in the eyes, he said “I can see you know a lot about math and physics but you don’t know a god damned thing about the earth.” He said, “You come with me for two weeks and I’ll change your life.” Just like that. I had never met him. So I said, “Well, where are we going?” He said, “Oh, we’re going to go to Santa Rosa Island. We’re going to go to Pyramid Lake. We’re going to see some really interesting things. I’ll teach you about the out-of- doors.” So I called my wife. And she said, “Well, as long as it isn’t going to cost you anything, why don’t you go ahead.” So I did. And he did. He was a marvelous guy. We had a great time. And he showed me. He was a good geologist.
Doel:Who was this?
Broecker:Phil [Philip C.] Orr, curator of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.
Doel:Why do feel he singled you out for that opportunity?
Broecker:He wanted radiocarbon dates. Nobody does nothing for nothing, right? Everybody’s on the make. No, but he was fun. He was great. We had a wonderful time. He was a real character. Absolute classic western character. He knew everybody and everything. And he could drive his car anywhere through the worst part of the sand dunes and everything else. And we did interesting things together and I got him maybe fifty, sixty radiocarbon dates for nothing. He’s not so dumb.
Doel:A good horse trade.
Broecker:Yes. I don’t regret it. He had as much influence on me as did Kulp. We worked together for four or five years and did interesting things. Wrote some papers together. But Bucher — we started out with [Robert R] Shrock’s sequence of layered rock. It’s like giving you the Webster’s encyclopedia or dictionary to read. You know, a boring, boring book. And he talked for six weeks about how to tell from top from bottom. You know raindrop imprints, ripple marks. Wrong course for me to start with.
Doel:What else do you remember from that course? Did it get more interesting for you as it went on?
Broecker:No. I remember the steno net which I hated. I mean we could do that because that was in our area. That’s what saved us. I guess could nobody else could do it and we could do it. I remember we had a great Canadian assistant who sort of made it fun. I took petrology from a guy named Arie Poldervaart. That was more interesting. Poldervaat was the one that got Gast interested in element abundances. He had a big influence on Paul Gast. I took a course from Arthur [N.] Strahler. I mean these are within the first couple of years. And Arthur he was a good teacher. He’d go and put all of his stuff on the board ahead of time and then he’d go through it.
Doel:This was a stratigraphy course?
Broecker:No. Strahler was a geomorphologist.
Doel:That’s right, geomorphology.
Broecker:I took geochemistry from Kulp. I took mathematical physics, which is taught out of a book by Briorain, in French. What are we going to do, we can’t read French. Even if you can read English most math books are impenetrable anyway. And he was then teaching out of another book that was written in English and didn’t tell us. And we found out near the end of the semester. Somebody found where he was getting his stuff. I said, “What goes on in a major university? Am I glad I went to Wheaton where things may have been simple but at least they were straightforward and you could learn something.”
Doel:You’ve been mentioning a few comparisons between Wheaton and your first year at Columbia. Do other issues come to mind?
Broecker:Well, one thing I had — I took differential equations at Columbia from Mario [George] Salvadori. There were a hundred and twenty-five people in a room — where about eighty of them were smoking — in the evening for two hours. It was an absolutely wonderful course. Nobody ever dozed at all. This guy was just a marvelous Italian. Never had to read a book, nothing. I understood exactly after I could do the problems. I never had to think about it because he was such a good teacher. So that was an example of a really good teacher. I guess the thermodynamics course taught by the Barnard professor was good. He was a teacher. These researchers, Kroll and [Henry M.] Foley and Robert Von Nardroff — you know who he was. Do you know who he was?
Broecker:You know what his daughter did?
Broecker:Well she was one of the ones that cheated when Charlie, you know the movie about Columbia, The Sixty Four Thousand Dollar Question or whatever.
Doel:Oh yes, now it is coming back to mind. Charles Van Doren.
Broecker:Van Doren. Well, it was Elfreida Von Nardroff and her father taught mechanics. And he was good because he was more of a teacher than a researcher. You could tell. And he would have all these little experiments he would do. And he was fun. I enjoyed him and I learned a lot of mechanics from him. But I realized that if I had gone to a major university like Columbia as a freshman it would have destroyed me. I never would have made it. I mean, I wasn’t ready for it. I couldn’t have handled it. I prospered because I had really good teachers who got to know us all, and they were like parents in a sense and they taught well and at a level that I could understand and cope with. And they made sure if there were mistakes that we corrected them. Whereas at Columbia, they didn’t know your name probably. So for me—
Doel:The nurturing was important, the intellectual.
Broecker:And they had some good teaching at Wheaton. I mean teaching where you really spend time grading papers and thinking about what as a teacher you’re doing wrong because people aren’t getting this stuff. At Columbia they have no idea — I mean I probably do the same thing now I suppose. I can’t say. It’s just that when you’re doing research and teaching you can’t put the hours into it that somebody who’s dedicated their life to teaching can. There’s a difference and no doubt about it. Can’t do everything.
Many issues we need to continue on but I know that you need to leave at four o’clock. So we better stop this session. Thank you very much and I should say on tape that the interview and its transcript will not be made use of by others before you receive information from Columbia concerning its use. Thank you.