Oral History Transcript — Dr. Frank Press
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Interview with Dr. Frank Press
Frank Press; July 30, 1997
ABSTRACT: Work at the Lamont Geological Observatory (1945-1955), continental shelf, ocean crust, continental drift; UNESCO appointment to install seismographs in Israel; geophysics curricula at Columbia University; work on wave propagation with Albert P. Crary, Samuel Katz and Jack Oliver; W. Maurice Ewingís career; International Geophysical Year (IGY) (1957-1958); collaborating with Russian scientists; work at the California Institute of Technology (1955-1965), seismology and lunar seismology; director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Earth and Planetary Sciences department (1965-1977); Science Advisor to President James Carter (1977-1981), test ban issues.
Session I | Session II
Doel:Weíre going to be covering a number of issues focused around Lamont, and a little bit into the later period. But Iím aware that your time is tight today and weíre only going to be going until four-thirty. I should say this is Ron Doel and this is a continuing interview with Frank Press. Today is the thirtieth day of July, 1997, and weíre making this recording in Falmouth, Massachusetts. One of the things I didnít get a chance to ask you about in the first interview was your role in organizing the colloquia at Lamont. Was that something that you feel was primarily your idea? A number of people have credited you with being the one who both developed and sustained the colloquium series.
Press:Itís possible. Itís possible. But I donít remember. I have been at so many other institutions since then. And I have been in and out of organizing colloquia. I canít recall which institutions, which roles I played for which institutions. As I think of the crowd that was there in the early days, it would have been natural for me to have done it. But I just donít remember.
Doel:Were the colloquia mostly in house as they began? Or did you have funds to bring in some?
Press:It varied. Most departments have something called a geology club where the students organize colloquia, mostly given on their own subjects of research or sometimes visitors. It would have been a mix. But Lamont was mostly inward-looking at the time. So we wouldnít have invited too many outside people. You see, the Lamont origins are from outside of the field, rather than being part of the field, part of the establishment. Now it is the establishment. But in those days, the establishment were not Lamont people. Of course we had visitors with similar interests, and they were often giving seminars and colloquia. But I donít remember any involvement, or my involvement with the colloquia as organizer.
Doel:How good were relations between the different branches of Lamont as it developed? Say between those of you in seismology and geochemistry or the other divisions?
Press:The focal point was [W. Maurice] Ewing. I mean, Ewing had his hands in every division — even geochemistry. Even though Larry [J. Laurence] Kulp was kind of a junior leader in that. But that laboratory was part of Ewingís show in a sense, although it was more independent than all of the others. All of the groups that dealt with the physics of the earth, or the geophysics of the earth, we all knew what each was doing. Each of us was specialized in terms of instruments and techniques and so on. But it was a small enough total group that so far as the total picture was concerned, for example, the sea floor or the earthís interior, even though we had different divisions, we knew what was going on across the board.
Doel:As you say, geochemistry was slightly removed.
Doel:Was that in part because of the religious convictions of people like Larry Kulp and the others whom he brought in from Wheaton [College] or was it a disciplinary professional distinction?
Press:The geochemists were a separate development of the then Department of Geology. Were we on the campus, if we stayed at the Columbia campus, I think it would have been a separate division. But being out at Lamont, where Ewing was the director, it was sort of a — as I said part of the Lamont spectrum of earth sciences — but removed because of its separate origins. Ewing did not hire Kulp. The department hired Kulp. And Kulp brought his team in from Wheaton College. But the religious aspects I donít think were a factor.
Doel:One of the things I particularly wanted to ask you about was the time that you spent in Tel Aviv at the Weizmann Institute in 1953, when you were installing some of the Benioff instruments. Iím curious how that came about.
Press:That wasnít the Weizmann Institute.
Press:No. It was a UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization] appointment for the government of Israel. The government of Israel requested UNESCO assistance in setting up a network of seismographs. You know, in Biblical history, there have been some very destructive earthquakes there that have destroyed major structures, some of them described in the Bible and other post-Biblical histories. And the Jordan Valley rift, goes right through, you know, Israel. And so they wanted help to set up their instruments. UNESCO agreed, and they hired me. Literally hired me. And I went out there to do that. But it was not part of my Lamont job, it was a separate commission. It was a commission to go out there as a scientist who knew about this stuff.
Doel:Do you know how you were selected?
Press:No. I donít. I didnít apply. They called me.
Doel:What was the experience like?
Press:Maybe [Chaim] Pekeris had something to do with it.
Press:Yes. He might have had something to do with it, but Iím not sure.
Doel:Had you known him before?
Press:Yes. I had worked with him, even when I was a graduate student.
Doel:What sort of a scientist was he?
Press:Excellent. One of the most creative, original and important scientists. Very broad. His interests in geophysics were an offshoot of his main interest in applied mathematics. He worked on theoretical nuclear physics, numerically solved many important equations in theoretical physics. Although he did have a background, now that I remember, at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] in geophysics, where he had an appointment. Iím not sure where he got his Ph.D. as a matter of fact.
Doel:I donít recall.
Press:Might have been MIT. I donít know where it was. Well, in any case, after the war and after a few years here, he was given an appointment to go to Israel and set up two things: an oil exploration program and also a Department of Applied Mathematics at the Weizmann Institute. But I didnít work with him in setting up these instruments, although I knew him, because he was primarily an applied mathematician, and this as I say was a request from a government agency in Israel rather than the Weizmann Institute.
Doel:But clearly your interests overlap quite well. Had you met him?
Press:Yes. My first work was an extension of his work on sound wave propagation in the ocean. He did it in shallow water, and there is a very famous classic paper that resulted. I extended his work to lower seismological frequencies that applied to the deep ocean. He considered the sea floor as a second liquid layer for simplification, and I extended it to a multi-layered rocky bottom. But basically I learned from his methodology and applied it to seismology with great success. A whole new era of earthquake surface waves work had its origins that way.
Doel:I was wondering how closely you were working with him or at least socially had seen him.
Press:Never worked with him. Read his papers. Heíd come by at Lamont, talk to me for a few minutes. You know, probably said, ďThatís interesting,Ē and so on. I was essentially an experimentalist extending his theoretical work, but not as creative as he was. I was, you know, like Ewing, mostly analyzing data where we needed to extend the theory to explain the data. I did that. But essentially he was a master theoretical geophysicist and applied mathematician.
Doel:Clearly you were the theoretician among those who were working at Lamont in the early days.
Press:Yes, but among theoreticians Iím not in the Pekeris class. By non-theoreticians Iím a theoretician, but by theoreticians. You know that joke.
Doel:I hear what youíre saying. Iím wondering. Do you think if you had been in a different environment, other than Lamont, that your career would have gone in a more theoretical direction? Was it in your nature?
Press:No. I was always a tinkerer as a kid. Building experimental equipment. Building transmitters and electronic devices, you know, with my hands. So it was natural for me to do the jobs that I did at Lamont. Although I had a stronger theoretical background than the early crowd, than that old, early crowd. You know, [J. Lamar] Worzel, [Nelson] Steenland, [Jack] Oliver, [Lynn] Sykes and those people. But essentially I consider that my strengths are in data, the acquisition and analysis of geological data, where theoretical work was done as you needed it — to explain the data. There was no separate theoretical group at the time.
Doel:When you look back on it, were you satisfied with the curricula, theoretical curricula, as it was being taught, developed in geophysics at Columbia?
Press:Did you say theoretical or?
Doel:The degree, yes.
Press:Essentially no. And Ewing was not a theoretician. He was pretty interested, but no. Not anywhere near the standards of [Harold C.] Jeffreys at Cambridge and the Japanese theoreticians. Or Pekeris. So geophysical theory had to be self-learned, and of course, physics had to be taken in the physics department.
Doel:I was just curious whether there were any courses that you had hoped to see introduced there or particularly wanted to see brought into the curriculum?
Press:All this is retrospective. As a kid, I didnít know what should be in the curriculum. It was only afterwards. You become a scientist and become mature and you see what the world is like outside of Lamont and you realize the shortcomings of the Lamont training. I donít want to minimize Ewing, what Ewing has done for my career in the sense of his importance in teaching me how to be a successful scientist, which he taught by example rather than in a course.
Doel:One of the things that Iím thinking, too, as you say that is about those you were able to bring in also as research assistants in the early years. Ruth Simon I believe was one of the research assistants that you had, as well as Marie Tharp.
Press:She, yes, there are a number of them, Ruth Simon included. There was a chore in seismology of reading the records and making the picks of the seismic signals. And preparing a bulletin as part of the world data base for seismology use for location of earthquakes. And that didnít require a Ph.D. or professional. One could easily learn that. It was technician kind of work. It takes place in all observatories, and Ruth was a very smart, capable technician in making those picks. She may have gone on to become more advanced than that later in her career elsewhere and become a professional. I seem to remember that she did that. But at Lamont she was a technician and took readings, not publishing or doing research.
Doel:How long was Marie Tharp working under your direction?
Press:Yes. Now, I hadnít thought about. She was also doing that kind of work that I described. But Marie had additional skills in drafting and map making. And then it was natural for her to link up with [Bruce] Heezen for them to do those extremely significant maps that led to the mapping of the sea-floor and discovery of the mid-ocean ridges.
Doel:I was also thinking about the ice sheet work that you began doing in the 1950s, the work with [Albert P.] Crary and Oliver. How did that particular phase of the work get under way?
Press:Iím very proud of that work even though itís so specialized, in ice sheets and so on, because of the theory that I wrote to explain what we observed. That was good stuff.
Doel:I wanted to hear, I wanted to hear particularly about that.
Press:Essentially we became wave propagation experts. Acoustic and elastic wave propagation, even atmospheric gravity wave propagation. We wrote papers on atmospheric waves and so on. And the propagation of waves in ice. Actually, Ewing started that at Lehigh if I recall now.
Doel:Is that right?
Press:And lovely disbursed flexional waves where the theory was well-known and he observed them under a variety of ice conditions and so on. And then the discovery there was something, air-coupled waves, air-coupled ocean waves, air-coupled flexional waves and so on. And thatís the work that I did on Lake Superior. We did it for several reasons. One, it was an interesting problem in wave propagation which Ewing started as I said before. Secondly, it was easy to get support. The Air Force was interested in Arctic ice, and they were supporting so much of our work that it was an easy throw-off to do this, which justified all of their work, including all of our work that they supported that had very little to do with the Air Force but was mainly surface wave propagation in the earth. So it made it easier for them to support our total program for us to do this little thing on the side. And the notion of air-coupled waves applies not only to ice, but also to all sorts of surface waves and seismic prospecting for oil, and explains some other phenomena as well. The Krakotoa sea wave, for example, might be explained as a coupled wave.
Doel:Of course some of the prospecting work was what we had discussed briefly in the preceding interview that you had done with Magnolia. How long did you actually spend out on Lake Superior?
Press:It was Crary and me and, I think, Sam [Samuel] Katz.
Doel:I believe thatís right.
Press:Right. Okay. And we went out in the middle of the winter because of the ice, of course, which was frozen and thick and I could drive a truck out there. Spent a couple of weeks there, something like that. The wind had to be right because if the wind was off-shore, the ice would blow away from the shore and we couldnít get off. It was extremely cold, you know, the middle of winter, Lake Superior. Crazy. But we managed. We were exploding above the ice and below the ice in the water, so we had to drill through the ice. And the contrast between those two sources, air and water, was the thrust of the experiment. And thatís where we discovered the air-coupled waves.
Doel:And that was what you then applied to other phenomena, including the surface waves on Lake Michigan? One particular event.
Press:Thatís right. Exactly.
Doel:Exactly. How did you first get into that particular research problem? How were you aware of that one wave?
Press:It was a front page story in the New York Times about a couple of fisherman on a dock, on a pier in Chicago, on a sunny day, who were suddenly swept off the end of the dock by a lone single wave that came in and swept them off into the lake. Strangest thing to imagine. So we read that.
Doel:We, being you and Doc Ewing?
Press:I donít remember. I read it, but he may have seen it. It doesnít matter, you know. In any case, we read it and it intrigued us. You know, what the heck was this! Was it the same thing as the sea wave in the English Channel generated by the Krakotoa explosion? And so we looked into that, and proposed that it was an air-coupled wave. This time it was a fast moving front, and its pressure pulse moving across the lake. It has to move fast to couple to the speed of an ordinary gravity wave on the lake, which, for the depth of water in the middle of Lake Michigan, is about thirty kilometers per hour. And thatís why itís called a fast-moving front. So to this day, if you have a squall line across Lake Michigan moving fast, theyíll issue a warning. The Weather Bureau will now warn about this, locally.
Doel:Very interesting. When did the idea to begin writing what became Ewing, [Wenceslaw S.] Jardetsky, and Press, Elastic Waves in Layered Media, [New York: McGraw Hill, 1957] when did you first begin thinking of needing to put this together as a volume?
Press:Well, it was a combination of things. The courses — I was by then teaching, and teaching courses in elastic wave propagation. And then, the research that we had done. And the absence of a geophysics book written from our point of view — analytical in terms of data analysis, in terms of theoretical explanations — that all jelled. And the way it worked was Jardetsky kind of walked in off the street looking for a job — as an essentially penniless immigrant looking for a job. And we really didnít have anything for him. We couldnít make him a professor. And, you know, he was essentially a pure mathematician. And so we hired him just to punch a calculator, one of these hand calculators, to do some of the numerical work associated with elastic wave propagation and layered media. Extremely tedious work, knowing full well that he was a very skilled, classically trained mathematician.
Doel:Where was he from?
Press:He was a Russian, high-born. Well trained in Russia and displaced by the revolution. And his wife was a language teacher. They were very cultivated. You could tell that these were very cultivated people, essentially displaced by war and penniless. So we hired him. And then when it was time to write the book, there were certain theoretical developments that we had not yet done. And it was the spherical wave equations that he worked on.
Doel:How did you divide the task of writing the book?
Press:Now, you have to understand, that with Ewing, he was a co-author essentially of all the papers that I wrote at Lamont, and people might jump to the conclusion that it was the typical professor not doing much work and putting his name on the papers. Not so. Even though I did a lot of the analytical work and the writing, he went over every single word, and added ideas here and there and improvements all over the place. And he deserved any ranking, whether it was senior or second author, in that partnership. And so when people see his name on all of the papers that came out of Lamont, well, the guy never slept. And with every paper that he had his name on, he was intimately involved, as I say, word by word, and sentence by sentence, going over it all, even though the first draft may have been written by one of the junior people.
Doel:Iíve heard that from others, itís true.
Press:So the idea was to write the book. I wrote, maybe, three-quarters of it. Jardetsky wrote maybe a quarter of it. And Ewing every word, proof read every word, and made improvements.
Doel:Did the book, as it finally appeared, still reflect fundamentally what you had first thought it would be, or did Ewing?
Press:Yes. Exactly. It did. But the book had a great deal of influence in training a lot of people in this country, but it had the misfortune to appear maybe a year or two before the IBM 650 operated, where all of the work, all of the tough stuff was theoretical and involved equations where there were no exact solutions or where the numerical solutions were so complicated, all one could do was make approximations at the limit, one end or the other. Once we were in the electronic computer age, you could do numerical calculations that explained data obtained for complex geological structures. Nevertheless, thereís a generation of solid earth geophysicists, especially seismologists, who earned their stripes going through that book. Not just at Lamont, but at a lot of places.
Doel:Did you ever think to re-visit the book? To revise it after the newer methods were available? Or did you feel it was better to let it stand?
Press:I just went on to other things. And once the numerical age arrived, there were papers all over the place. Whereas after we wrote that kind of unique book, the numerical calculations just took over to interpret seismograms.
Doel:I wonder how much time, say of annual time, did it take when you were writing that book?
Press:I donít know. It was never full-time. There was no rush or anything like that. We were doing research and writing other papers at the same time. So, it was not more than a year. Not more than a year when you put it all together, all of the parts. It may have been two years of part-time work. But if you add up all of the time, full-time, even less than a year because a lot of it consisted of research that we had already published and then put into this book.
Doel:But what was certainly novel was the integration and the synthesis — the need to bring in new material in certain sections that had not been done, in order to make it a textbook.
Press:Of course, the front end, the beginning equations, never show up as written in a paper.
Doel:Was that the last year that you were at Lamont that you were doing the principal writing of the book?
Press:I donít remember the date of the book. Was it Ď54?
Doel:It was Ď57 actually. At least the edition I have.
Press:Publication date was Ď57. I think it was earlier, maybe you saw a later edition.
Doel:It may have been. Only given that printing.
Press:Because I donít recall working on the book once I went to Caltech in Ď55. Thatís why I remember Ď54.
Doel:How difficult was it for Ewing to accept your decision to leave Lamont?
Press:He was disappointed. You must have already gotten the impression from all of your conversations that Ewing was an extremely competitive scientist. Well, that was true. It was him against the world. Not in a mean way. It was just the competition. If youíre not first, youíre nothing. And so, so every other laboratory was a competing laboratory. Caltech wasnít much viewed that way by him, because they were doing other things. They were doing continental earthquakes in continents and locations we werenít investigating. So, where Scripps was in that category, Caltech wasnít. So I didnít become the enemy, so to speak, so much as that I just disappointed him in ďbreaking up the team.Ē So he expressed his feelings of great disappointment. But there was no such thing as animosity or breaking off relations. I became a competitor, but not a terrible one. And other people took up my work at Lamont and did it very well.
Doel:Jack Oliver was, of course, one of the principal people who did. But you had been in touch with [Perry] Byerly at Berkeley prior to the time of the final offer, of full professor at Caltech.
Press:He explored the possibility that I might come out to Berkeley. But it never went very far. I donít remember the details of that. How did you know that? Was it in some letters or something?
Doel:Some letters I saw.
Press:Okay. I donít remember how far it went.
Doel:I was curious how you felt about all that.
Press:Where did you find those letters? In my archives at MIT? Or?
Doel:Thatís one source. And there were some others in other collections. But yours also.
Press:Yes. Okay. I donít know why it didnít go. It may have gone as far as an offer, and I might have declined. I went out to Berkeley, and there was just Byerly and some graduate students — whereas at Caltech, they had, you know, a great laboratory.
Doel:Extremely active and diverse department.
Press:And the chairman, Bob [Robert P.] Sharp was a Pied Piper. He just knew how to hire people.
Doel:Iíve heard that.
Doel:Thatís an excellent phrase. It fits well.
Press:Built from nothing, a great earth sciences department that to this day survives, as either number one or number two. He hired young people, and his judgment was always so good that these young people are now very famous scientists. He rarely made a mistake.
Doel:I sense you came to know him fairly well on a personal level as well.
Doel:Sharp. When you were there. Or did he stay?
Press:He was aloof — friendly and cordial and all of that, but hard to really know. No just fooling around, you know.
Doel:You mentioned the atmospheric wave propagation work. I wonder how familiar you were with Ewingís own investigations in that area.
Press:They were classified works.
Doel:They were classified?
Press:So I didnít know much about them. And ours was not classified. And I think ours were more along acoustic gravity waves than sound waves. He was looking at the higher frequency propagation.
Doel:This was also communications.
Press:He and Crary. He and Crary [voice is drowned out]
Doel:Did you know some declassified materials that suggest that one of the balloons that he was flying may have been involved in the supposed crash of an alien super craft near Roswell?
Press:Did you mean when I read that in the paper?
Doel:Yes. It was carried by the New York Times, among others. When you look back on it in retrospect, were there other contributions that you made in the Lamont years, scientific contributions, that you feel are particularly significant?
There were some papers we wrote with researchers at GSI, Geophysical Services, Inc., which later became Texas Instruments. That later became the basis for understanding the noise and reverberations in seismic prospecting off shore. I think those mattered and were important. The work on the continental shelf was very important. And that, of course, Ewing had started before he came to Columbia. I think the most important work was the deep water seismic prospecting that proved that the ocean crust was distinctly different from continental crust. My role there was just as a member of the team. I built the amplifiers.
I designed all the low-frequency amplifiers that were used with the naval hydrophone. The experiment was straight-forward — explosions and seismic wave recordings. The analysis was very clear that a continental type granite crust was absent. We also verified that with seismic surface waves independently. And Ewing and I wrote a paper based upon that work, which I think I cite in my geology textbook [Frank Press and Reymond Siever, Earth. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1978]. In this undergraduate text I muse that every scientist should be allowed to withdraw one paper that heís embarrassed about. And it was that paper that Ewing and I wrote, ďOn the Permanence of Ocean BasinsĒ that I cited. And I think that we were led astray because the sea floor is so profoundly different from the continental crust. So there was no way to transform a continent into a deep ocean, or vice versa, on so large a scale by a known geologic process.
So fundamental a difference implied permanence ó or so we thought. Thirty kilometers of granite as the foundation of continents and none on the sea floor. That had to be something of evidence of stability and permanence. And, of course, itís just the opposite. It fortunately was published in a paper, in a journal that most scientists donít read. It must have been some meeting at the Museum of Natural History or something, or the New York Academy of Sciences, I forget. But in any case, it was a great mistake that no one remembers but me.
Doel:Of course, not only at Lamont, but in broad ways, that point of view was very commonly held in the community at the time.
Press:At Lamont, yes. Also on the Columbia campus in the geology department, at Lamont. In fact, it was the establishment view at that time.
Doel:You know, you raise an interesting point in terms just of philosophical systems, whether there wasnít a greater adherence to a more traditional form of uniformitarianism that was at that time inclined against continental drift. One thinks for instance that impact cratering was not widely held as being a likely or as widespread important geological phenomenon at that time.
Press:Yes. Well, that was the classical view that catastrophism was a too easy and a wrong explanation of geology. And since we donít see catastrophes today, uniformitarianism prevails. The lesson is that if you donít admit departures from generally accepted concepts, you miss important discoveries. If you want to get into the whole area of sea floor spreading and continental drift and Ewingís role in all of this, I mean, youíve gotten this from the interviews with everybody else, Iím sure.
Doel:Iíve gotten some of it. Iím curious, from your own perspective, whether you, clearly in writing your textbook, youíve read a number of the accounts of it. Are there any ways in which your views differ from many that have already been put into print? About Columbiaís views and Lamontís views towards continental drift initially?
Press:No. I mean, Ewing in the early days was wrong. And all of us studied the geology from [Walter] Bucher and [Marshall] Kay and they were traditionalists. And so we had all of the biases of that establishment. So the pioneers of continental drift and sea-floor spreading were other people such as the people at Cambridge: Teddy [Sir Edward C.] Bullard, [Fred J.] Vine and [Drummond] Matthews and [Harry C.] Hess at Princeton and all of the others. However, after the basic concept of continental drift and sea floor spreading was advanced, it was taken over and expanded by Lamont, by Lamontís massive amount of data that had been put together. Data of all kinds, not only interpreting the magnetic anomalies, but the seismic work and plate tectonics concepts of [Lynn] Sykes, [Jack E.] Oliver, Neil Opdyke, James R. Heirtzler. The geological maps of Heezen, although Heezen had some crazy idea of an expanding earth. These are all Lamont people who were leaders in making plate tectonics the modern paradigm.
Doel:Did Heezenís idea have support from any other quarters in Lamont?
Press:Not that I recall.
Doel:He was alone, more or less?
Press:Heezen was kind of crazy. I mean, he was not a great scholar. But he was a great mapper — I mean, he worked night and day compiling sea floor topography. And you have to give him credit for fantastic maps of the mid-ocean ridges.
Doel:It clearly was pioneering work. But he and Tharp and in some sense people like Sam Gerard were coming in from a geographical tradition. Much of their training was —
Press:No. Heezen was trained in stratigraphy. Was it at Kansas?
Doel:He had been out in the mid-west, I think.
Press:No. It wasnít Kansas. He fled from a family turkey farm, hated to eat turkey.
Doel:Iíd have to double check that, but it was certainly the mid-west.
Press:Some place there. But the reason I say that is that his undergraduate work was in stratigraphyÖSo he was more than a geographer.
Doel:It seems clear that Ewing put a great deal of faith in what seemed to be the undisturbed layers of sediment as a very important factor mitigating against drift. Is that a good explanation?
Doel:Did you know Harry [H.] Hess well during the 1950s?
Press:Yes. You see, I was both a graduate student and a very young scientist in Harry Hessís period. But I interacted with him a lot. Never wrote papers with him, but I saw him at a lot of meetings. The guy was a scientist of great stature and everybody respected him. He saw the big picture, in the tradition of [Arthur] Holmes. Of course Holmes saw it before Hess did.
Doel:Holmes contributions were really quite critical.
Press:In my new book with Raymond Siever, Understanding Earth [New York: W.H. Freeman: 1998], thereís a lot on that history as a lesson in the philosophy of science — or the scientific method: why continental drift was rejected for all of those years, why [Alfred] Wegener was just a lone voice, who had some support in Australia and South Africa, but not much else. And what was lacking in his arguments that failed to convince the world of geology that he was right? But thatís all there in my book. But you can get that better in Tony [Anthony A.] Hallamís definitive book on the history of continental drift.
Doel:Yes, in Hallamís work, as you mentioned earlier.
Press:Exactly. Hallamís book.
Doel:Iím curious too, when you think back to your time at Caltech, how important was the IGY [International Geophysical Year] for research in that department?
Press:The IGY was of great importance for a number of reasons. For one thing, you donít easily get scientific cooperation across the world. For the first time there were meetings, IGY sponsored meetings, that were international in scope. Where even young people could go. And, of course, it opened up Russia. You see in Russia, people couldnít travel and they wouldnít let you out of the country. But with an international treaty concept, supported by some sort of compact between nations, then, of course, Russia has to be part of that. And so we were able to go to Russia, and then, the Russian scientists were able to come out. And this was a first. One of the great contributions of the IGY was to open the Soviet Union to scientific interchange. Before that time, it was extremely dangerous for them. You know the story of the whole astronomical staff at Leningrad, at Pulkovo [Observatory]. They were wiped out because some dissatisfied graduate student reported the presence of foreign literature. And so the police raided and they all disappeared. So, you know, it was worth your life. But the IGY legitimized cooperation between Russians and Westerners ó meetings, sharing of data, joint papers. So that was very important. And then the notion of a cooperative, integrated experiment with world teams working in different regions and then sharing their data. Extra money was made available. It became very easy to obtain funding because of reduced bureaucracy in its allocation. So this was all quite important.
Doel:Did you have an invitation to go to the Soviet Union prior to the IGY period and the more open situation?
Press:I donít remember. The International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics [IUGG] — which of course, was heavily involved with the IGY as well — they met every three, four years. And, of course, we all went. The Russian scientists were able to come out and go to the first meetings, we saw them both in Toronto and in Rome in the fifties. I think they wouldnít have been allowed out if not for the IUGG and IGY.
Doel:And clearly after [Joseph] Stalinís death, the international climate was much improved.
Press:So I donít remember who or what were the auspices of my of my first trip to Russia.
Doel:Do you remember roughly when it was?
Press:To tell you the truth, Iím not sure ó but probably the mid-fifties.
Doel:Just wanted to bring back to mind places, institutions that you visited or that you met directly as a result.
Press:Well, quite a few of them. It was Moscow and then Leningrad. And the Crimea, Tbilisi, Georgia. Then Tadzhikistan not too many years afterwards. These were visits to geophysical laboratories either run by the Soviet Academy of Sciences or the Academy of a particular Soviet Republic, institutions like that.
Doel:What were your impressions of their experimental equipment compared to the U.S.?
Press:They had traditional equipment. Nothing state of the art. Nothing too fancy. I think between Caltech and Lamont, we were pushing well beyond what they could do. And then once the computer age opened up, they were left completely behind.
Doel:What in terms of theoretical work was there? Iím wondering in a general way, how well aware you were of Russian publications in the 1950s?
Press:Not much. We were more influenced by English, French, Japanese.
Press:They published in English very frequently. And they were — weíre talking especially geophysics papers — were very important to us. And in England of course, [Harold C.] Jeffreys was the master, and [Robert] Stonely was strong. And in France, [John] Coulomb, that whole school in France. Nothing much in Germany since Gutenberg and others, they were either killed off or emigrated. And the Russian work was interesting, but not terribly important in our education. At one time we all got excited about Russians working in prediction of earthquakes, but that turned out to be not well designed experiments so we couldnít evaluate what they had.
Doel:That was in the 1960s.
Doel:Those meetings. Jack Oliver had been involved in that as well as Lynn Sykes.
Press:Not with me, although they may have gone over. Mostly this was while I was at Caltech that I visited there. But Iím sure that they were there on their own many times.
Doel:Did that become a research interest of yours or something that you entered into?
Press:Particularly. Yes. It did. I had a Russian friend, Professor V. I. Keilis-Borok — Volodya we called him — who I wrote several papers with. And he introduced me to one of the worldís great mathematicians, a man named [Izrail Moiseevich] Gelfand. They introduced me to a lot of techniques in computer learning and prediction that I used subsequently in my other work. I learned that technique from them. That was a very valuable contribution. But that came much later — after I got to MIT.
Doel:I think, given the nature of the time available to us today, itís probably best not to get deeply into your working at the panel of experts at the nuclear test detection conferences.
Press:That didnít have much to do with Lamont or Columbia in any case.
Doel:Iím just curious in a general way. How much time did that involvement come to take and what influence did you feel it had on your subsequent research?
Press:It didnít take much time. It was something like three months in Geneva, for two years in a row, plus committee meetings in the United States. And yes, of course, it influenced some of my work. I wrote some papers dealing with distinguishing earthquakes from explosions. But the important part of this work was to design a world seismograph network — state-of-the-art and standardized, which today is the whole business of modern seismology, and the worldwide seismic system essentially grew out of that. There was a classified network as well. And those instruments were the basis of the next generation of seismographs — the basic tool of modern experimental seismology.
Doel:No, their influence was enormous in terms of the 1960s work.
Press:This panel, I donít know who chaired it. I might have chaired it with, whatís his name at UCLA?
Doel:It should come to my mind too.
Press:The guy who testified against Oppenheimer. Oh, very famous earth scientist. Okay, weíll think of it.
Doel:Weíll think of it. Weíll add that to the transcript later. Iím blocking on that. Oh, Griggs, David [T.] Griggs.
Press:Griggs, David Griggs. Good for you.
Doel:What was David Griggs like in those days?
Press:I really enjoyed him. I didnít like his politics much. But he always had a smile on his face, always was enthusiastic, always was throwing out ideas, you know, and had some interesting experiments going, in terms of understanding plates and plate motions and viscosity in the mantle — convection in the mantle.
Doel:That had been his work from Harvard days.
Press:Yes, he was a member of the Society of Fellows at Harvard.
Doel:Harvard Society of Fellows.
Press:Right. Exactly. And he was exposed to [Francis] Birchís influence in laboratory experiments.
Doel:Iím wondering too, you had mentioned, in passing, in the last interview, that was something that we didnít get to. What it was like to be a liberal in the ďEwing White House,Ē within the Lamont community. And Iím wondering what things came to mind when you first said that.
Press:Well, I donít know what they talked about when I wasnít present. But whenever we got into politics, it was horsing around, you know. And me on one side and everybody else on the other side.
Doel:It really seemed pretty much you versus most of the others.
Press:Yes. But if it got too rough, Ewing would step in and make a joke out of it. Not to let it get too serious. But they knew where I was coming from. He was an extremely conservative guy. And he, Ewing, would say ďLetís drop the atom bomb on Russia and stop all this bickering.Ē It was that kind of very primitive, extremely primitive, fundamentalist — I donít mean religious — philosophy. Simple solutions. There were the good guys and the bad guys.
Doel:That was his theoretical concept.
Press:That was his, you know, people from Texas, Texas arrogance, especially from Texas. He was one of them. Worzel certainly went along with that. But donít get the impression that there was rancor or hard feelings. There wasnít in this regard. And Ewing, Ewing essentially respected me. Look, he proposed me for president of his, of Rice University, his alma mater, his favorite place.
Doel:Is that right? I wasnít aware of that.
Press:And I went down there with him, and at his insistence for an interview with the board. And, so, I mean he wouldnít do that without showing a basic understanding of, you know, that we were different from each other but, nevertheless, he respected me, as I respected him.
Doel:Roughly when was that?
Press:Oh boy. It was after I was at MIT.
Press:After I had become chairman of the MIT department, but I donít remember what year. It might have been early 1970.
Doel:How interested were you in that possibility?
Press:I was curious. I donít know if I would have taken the job. But I took a look at it. Itís a good school. Itís a quality school for the southwest, not easy to get into to. Itís based on a very nice concept of a private school. Everybody goes free, because of the nature of the endowment.
Doel:There certainly were challenges at Rice. Keeping in mind that our time is tight today, Iím curious how well the relationship worked between Caltech and Lamont in developing the lunar seismographs that were developed in the very late fifties and into the sixties?
Press:There was a little bit of tension there. But we had our own money and we were dropping seismographs out of airplanes, and making an impact resistant instrument and so on. Our instruments never went. But I still was a member of the committee. And why our instruments never went and the Lamont instruments, basic instruments, did, I donít remember that history, how that choice was made. But we were doing parallel development. They might have incorporated some of our things in their instruments, but Iím not sure now. Youíll have to go back to ask — who was it, Gary Latham, Iíve forgotten — ask Gary and he would know the details. But I was still a member of the team and was part of that experiment when the first signals came in, analyzing stuff.
Doel:Did these data provide any surprises for you?
Press:Oh yes. The high ďQĒ of the moon was extraordinary to see. Both the lunar earthquakes and the artificial earthquakes that we induced with impacts, of producing signals that didnít decay as rapidly as they do on earth because of its low ďQĒ absorption. So the basic dryness of lunar rocks, the lack of water throughout the moon that enabled seismic waves to propagate with so little absorption was a big surprise. Nobody expected that. And also the work on the correlation between lunar quakes and tides was very nice. Such correlation is insignificant on earth, but the only source of earthquake strain on the moon, was the moonís tidal yielding.
Doel:Iím curious if you remember debates over the claims that have been made by Eli Kozagraf from the Soviet Union that his data suggested that the moon might still have pockets of volcanic activity. I remember in 1958 he announced he had spectral evidence of interruption of the alphonsus. I was just curious if you had word of that.
Press:No, I donít remember.
Doel:Most of you that within the group, the experimental team, expected the moon to be basically geologically dead. The surprises were more of the particular properties than the?
Press:We were not surprised that the moon was geologically dead, except for these moonquakes. There are no big quakes on the moon, no tectonic substance on the moon, and these quakes came from deep within the moon where the tidal stress was greatest.
Doel:How satisfied were you with the relationship between the divisions of planetary sciences at Caltech and the planetary research being doing at JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory]? Did you feel that Caltech was moving fast enough into the field of planetary science?
Press:Well, thatís a curious question. JPL was a great resource for those people on the campus who wanted to do experiments dealing with the moon and planets. They were helping us with some of the lunar instruments we were developing. I wrote a paper with a JPL scientist [Marcia Neugebouer] dealing with the effect of meteorite impacts I believe on the moon and on the earth. But when it came to the Apollo Program and when it came to, of course, all of the later work on the planets, the Caltech-NASA relationship came to be extremely important, especially in geochemistry, with both the extraordinary laboratories of [Gerald] Wasserburg and others that could analyze the lunar rocks for trace elements, date them. But that was later. That was when I was at MIT. The JPL-Caltech campus connection grew over the years, to today, where it is very intense. The director of JPL is a former chairman of the physics department at Caltech. JPL wasnít that much involved with the Apollo program. But Caltech faculty on the campus were involved in training astronauts and of course in the analysis of lunar rocks.
Doel:Did you know Gene Shoemaker?
Press:Yes, indeed. Gene came to Caltech after I left there. He was chairman there and then a professor there. But I knew his work all along and he knew me, although we never worked together.
Doel:Shoemaker was not there until about 1969.
Press:Right. And I left Caltech in 1965.
Doel:I wanted to ask you what inspired you to take the offer from MIT?
Press:To leave Caltech?
Press:A couple of things. For one, [Jerome] Wiesner, Jerry Wiesner was another Pied Piper. And I had been on President Kennedyís Science Advisory Committee, as a very young guy, when he had been its chairman.
Doel:One of the youngest members at that time.
Press:Yes. Maybe [Richard] Garwin was younger. Iím not sure. But that doesnít matter. The important thing was I got to know Wiesner there. And he thought of me, after Cecil [H.] Green gave him that great building. He knew he had a weak department that he could either abolish and end the earth sciences at MIT or create an entirely new one. So he gave me carte blanche and a million dollars, which in those days was a lot of money to build a department.
Doel:It sure was.
Press:To transform that department into a modern, top flight department. In those days, you could ask faculty to move and get them jobs elsewhere so they werenít out on the street. And so I did just that. I had a lot of vacancies because a lot of people left. With these newly available slots I could build a very good department, which I did, with good support from the MIT administration. At Caltech I was director of the seismological lab, which was a great job for the time that I did it, but I wanted to do more in the broad area of geophysics, rather than just seismology. And so I proposed for Caltech to get into oceanography and that sort of thing because I had been an oceanographer early on. But that didnít fly or sail! And with MIT and the Woods Hole connection, I could see prospects for a very broad geophysics department at MIT.
Doel:So there were some frustrations in trying to build the department at Caltech in the way that you saw as the right direction.
Press:To break out beyond seismology. And I couldnít do that there. Also Iíve moved approximately every ten years or so, ten or twelve years or so, because itís kind of rejuvenating. Prove myself all over again in different circumstances. Whereas at Caltech, the luncheon conversation was always the same and the gossip was always the same. Of course, I was very productive there. But after ten years, I was ready for a change. So MIT offered a new challenge. A brand new, spanking clean building. Very good support from the administration with a charter to build the department. We were close to Woods Hole, and after all I had gone to sea from Woods Hole very much in my earlier years. For all of those reasons, I moved.
Doel:Was the building, the Green building, effective for integrating an earth sciences department in the way you wanted it?
Press:It was poorly designed — I didnít realize this at the time — it was beautiful on the outside, the tallest building in Cambridge — spacious. But a vertical building, narrow — youíve seen it — is not good for communication. So we had an endowed, catered coffee every afternoon. Everybody showed up, all the students, all the faculty. Really, they did and there was great conversation, scientific interaction.
Doel:That can be very important.
Press:They all came, every day, everybody came. Not because they had to but because they wanted to.
Doel:Iím curious when you think back, were there experiences developed from the Lamont period that you tried to apply at MIT?
Press:Yes, throughout my whole career, yes. And this is Ewingís influence. A sense of being competitors. A sense of doing something where nobody had done it before either geographically or with an instrument, or with a new field or laboratory method. How to write papers and publish them and push your ideas. Ewing had a great influence in that respect. Just the enthusiasm and the dedication that he imparted. No such thing as a part-time scientist or a dilettante: you have to get your hands dirty, get involved. Itís hard work, very time consuming. And Ewing was the role model for all of that. Iím sure he wasnít unique among scientists, among professors and really great teachers and mentors. Those are qualities I think of in people who stand out as he did.
Doel:When you looked over the institutional landscape of the earth sciences in the U.S. as chair of the department at MIT, how did Lamont seem compared to where it had been a decade earlier?
Press:Well. Donít forget, beginning about Ď65, beginning late in the 60s and early 70s, the Lamont team really started to develop, all of the sea-floor magnetic data there and the correlation with the ages of sea-floor sediments. The seismicity of mid-ocean ridges, and the fault-mechanism relationship to plate-tectonics there. Certainly the mapping, the continued mapping of the sea floor. The heat flow experiments. I mean, nobody could touch them in comprehensiveness. So I admired all of that. The tragedy is that Ewing doesnít go down in the annals of history as the discoverer of plate tectonics. He had it all there. He had all the data there. He just didnít see it. And also the tragedy is that in the later years of his Lamont life, the acrimony started to grow between Ewing and [Bruce C.] Heezen, between Ewing and the Columbia administration. And he found that he was spending more and more of his time, as I could see at a distance, lashing back. His energy went into that, sapped the energy that could have gone into science. But it was, you know, it was a great place nonetheless. And today, theyíre very strong, one of the best in the country.
Doel:You were as I understand the number one candidate the search committee identified to replace Ewing among the external candidates in 1972. Tell me what you thought about that offer when it was made to you?
Press:Was an offer made to me? How do you know?
Doel:According to what Iíve heard from a number of people who were on the search committee as well as some of the records that have surfaced.
Press:I donít remember that an offer was made.
Doel:Do you remember discussions?
Press:No. Never went for an interview. I donít remember.
Doel:I wonder if you may have indicated to them that you werenít interested in being considered.
Press:Maybe. Maybe that happened. But I donít remember any discussion or negotiation with the higher administration at Columbia about taking that job. Who did they find? Well, Manik [Talwani] took it for a while.
Doel:Was acting and then.
Press:And then that fell apart. And then is that when Barry [C. Baring] Raleigh came in?
Doel:Neil Opdyke was interim. And then Barry Raleigh was appointed director.
Press:Thatís curious. I donít remember any serious discussion. Itís possible somebody may have hinted to me, ďAre you interested?Ē, and I said no. That could have happened. But I donít remember a formal offer.
Doel:If you think it may have happened that you had indicated that you werenít interested, did you sense that it was not the kind of challenge that was appropriate for you?
Press:I just donít know. I donít have any memory of serious consideration. And it could have been that I wasnít interested and I kind of tossed that off saying, ďNo, get somebody else.Ē Or ďIíve been there.Ē That could have been. It may have been that I was turned off by the Columbia administration, by bickering between Ewing and the Columbia administration. And I didnít want to get involved with that.
Doel:Did you know Bill [William] McGill, who was president of Columbia?
Press:Iíd met him. I didnít know him, since I wasnít there when he was president; I didnít know him in that role and whether he was fair or not. And what I did know was this: I knew that Ewing would be a very tough cookie for any president. By that I mean he wanted to be left alone. He wanted to keep his overhead, didnít want any taxes placed on his sources of money, didnít want them to say this is inappropriate for a university to do, like classified research. He felt that he never received much support in terms of jobs and funds. And he had to do it all himself. He couldnít see what the value of Columbia was for him. As far as the administration was concerned, they had a recalcitrant laboratory director, who didnít want to play according to the rules that everybody else in the university had to subscribe to. But since I saw this only at a distance, youíd have to ask Worzel and people like that. Worzel would give you the Ewing viewpoint, you know, that side of it.
Doel:Were you already in closer contact with Ewing in those days? You mentioned that it was probably 1970 that he had promoted you for the presidency of Rice. Were there others that you were close with at Lamont during those years?
Press:No. There was nobody there. I have a stronger friendship with Jack Oliver now. Our families do things together. And Iím going to see him at a jazz festival Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Doel:Iíd heard that, in fact, off tape that Billie made —
Press:And, you know, weíre very fond of him and his wife, Gay. You know I was a visiting professor at Cornell [University] in recent years, so itís a much closer relationship now in terms of friendship, than during the Lamont days. So, the answer is no about connections to Lamont at that time. Of course, I would have known them all from meetings at the Academy, committees, and, you know, geophysics and seismology societies, places like that. But no strong interaction, other than pleasant exchanges. However the Presses and Worzels have stayed in touch as family friends as Billie has always been very fond of Dottie Worzel and their daughter Sandy and vice versa.
Doel:Is it fairly well-known among the broader disciplinary professional community the extent of the difficulties between Heezen and Ewing? Did it affect peopleís perceptions of the strengths of Lamont as an institution?
Press:I donít know. Youíd have to ask a lot of people. Heezen was respected for those maps. Although he had, as I told you, that crazy idea of an expanding earth and so on. He wasnít thought of as a deep scholar by the outside community, but he was respected. Those maps were very, very important. And then his career took off in different directions. The unpleasantness when Ewing tried to get Heezen fired and so, Iím not sure how much the outside world knew about that. I knew about it because, you know, I did follow what was happening at Lamont, having come from there. Iíd ask about it. But all of that terrible rancor that happened, and that internal Columbia commission that looked into it, Iím not sure how visible that was on the outside. It wasnít a secret. People knew that there was a big problem there. But just the details and what the accusations were, and who was right and who not, I donít know.
Doel:Being mindful of the limited time we have today, I wanted to ask just one or two last questions in this interview. When you became President Jimmy [James] Carterís Science Advisor, did Lamont play a role in any of the major decisions that, or in any decision that you had to make. Was there any sense, I suppose Iím asking, in which there were any connections?
Press:No. I might have gotten letters from Wally Broecker saying, ďThereís a terrible thing happening at the National Science Foundation.Ē Or Ewing might have called me on occasion about one program or another. But the people at Lamont were not involved in the kind of issues that I had to address as Science Advisor. The broad policy issues had nothing to do with Lamont and its problems.
Doel:I was just thinking, Lynn Sykes was involved by that period of time in test ban and verification studies.
Press:Yes, but when I was in the government, that wasnít visible at my level. The test ban is important. The importance of the test ban, of seismic monitoring of the test ban, diminished over time. Because it became more a policy issue, a policy decision rather than could you monitor or could you not monitor. In the early days it was, ďWhy have a treaty to begin with, if the Russians could cheat?Ē In the later days it was more, ďThis is something we want to do; could we get a treaty through the Senate?Ē This, the monitoring, was good enough to deter the Russians from cheating. So that was no longer the issue. The issue was these other political judgments. Was it good for our own weapons development program to have a test ban? Could you provide a reliable stockpile without testing? Things like that, rather than the detection. By those days, we knew what we could detect. And if the Russians cheated, it would be very small, and they probably would be discovered. So even though Lynn Sykes might have been involved with continuing discussion, and then Paul Richards in later years, working for the Arms Control Agency, the issues were policy issues rather than technical issues for me. Even though the technical capacity kept growing.
Doel:Iím curious how much you felt politics interfered, or played a role, in what were fundamentally seismological questions relating to detection of nuclear explosions when the issue was still very much a technical one, in the 1950s, early 1960s?
Press:Well, they did. Politics in another sense did. Those that opposed the test ban provided funds for laboratories and organizations and scientists to prove, you know, essentially to show, to demonstrate technically, that cheating could occur.
Doel:Youíre thinking of the weapons labs?
Press:And the industrial contractors. And then on the other hand there were the academics — I donít think on ideological grounds, but simply because they said, ďWhat the hell, letís see what can be doneĒ — and they always kept finding ways of distinguishing explosions and pushing the threshold of detection down even for those clandestine techniques of big holes and so on. The shift to higher frequencies and more sensitive instruments. And then they proposed putting instruments all over the Soviet Union and the United States so that even a decoupling experiment could be found and all of that. So you had your two sides in a sense. Those who wanted to continue testing and didnít want a treaty which would stop their testing and their source of funds, and those academic scientists who said, ďNo, this is possible; look, weíre pushing this data, the art ahead very rapidly. And the threshold of detection gets smaller and smaller.Ē And what should have happened is what Carter did — Iím sorry [President William] Clinton did. Carter didnít do it because [James R.] Schlesinger and [Zbigniew] Brzezinski were too hawkish and they all realized that they could never get it through the Senate. So there was no use doing it. And then the lab directors would come in and tell the president, we have to test to validate the nuclear weapons stockpile. But what Clinton did was just say enough is enough. By executive order, he said, weíre stopping — treaty or not weíre stopping — and that if the Russians continued testing, weíll resume. So even without a treaty, we just stopped.
Doel:Had you advocated directly to Carter that that was probably the best way to proceed? Just make an executive decision?
Press:What I did with Carter was to tell him that my best judgment, the threshold for detection and identification was very low. And I brought in some people who were former laboratory directors who told him that there are other ways to validate stockpiles, to make sure that these weapons that were stored would work without testing.
Doel:An actual test.
Press:Right. And so I brought former laboratory directors and bomb designers who would counter that argument. But Carter was faced with Schlesinger and the director of Los Alamos coming in and telling him that they had to test, and then I would tell him about the thresholds of detection and alternate ways of discrimination. And with great doubt about whether the Senate would ever approve a treaty — the laboratory directors had their own lines into Congress — he didnít want to push it. And then when the Russians invaded Afghanistan, all discussions of the matter stopped.
Doel:Clearly that was a critical turning point.
Press:Thatís right. Ended everything. All discussions. Okay —
There clearly are many issues of that sort to probe further, hopefully at some point. But let me thank you for this long interview again today. And you will be receiving a transcript.
Session I | Session II