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Interview of Gordon Jacoby by Ronald Doel on 1996 March 12, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/22892
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Born August 14, 1934 in Fitchburg, MA; describes his father's influence as a mechanical engineer. Dropped out of Vanderbilt University to join the Marines in 1953; comments on his marine service and experiences. Finished undergraduate education at Columbia in geology, instead of mechanical engineering; received bachelor's degree in 1962. Discusses his experience in Columbia's General Studies program; describes his coursework with John Imbrie. Comments on his graduate thesis; discusses his work in Arizona on hydrology and its political nature, esp. the Lake Powell project and the Arizona Project. Began tree ring analysis with Charles Stockton in Flagstaff, Arizona, 1972-1975; describes the status of paleohydrology as a field. Details the development and growth of the Lamont tree ring lab.
This is Ron Doel and this is an interview with Gordon C. Jacoby.
Jacoby, thank you. And we're recording this on March the twelfth, 1996 at the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York. And I know that you were born on August 14, 1934 in Fitchburg, Massachusetts but I don't know much about your family and your background. Who were your parents and what did they do?
Well my father was a civil engineer and worked in bridge building and construction, design I should say of various industrial buildings and things like that. And my mother was English and she was primarily just a housewife, a dying breed these days.
Where had your father done his training?
At MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology].
Did you and he talk about that? Was that something that — an interest that he shared with you?
Yes, I was interested in engineering myself. In fact I was thinking of mechanical engineering at one time and evolved from that into geology.
But that was later on, that was certainly after high school that you were thinking about that?
Did you get to see any of the buildings? Did he take you, your father, to sites where he was working?
Yes, we saw some of them. In the — I guess late 40's and stuff. Some of them down in Northern New Jersey and places like that, that were not too far from where we lived and we went to look at them on occasion.
When you say northern New Jersey, did you move then from Massachusetts?
Right. I grew up in northern New Jersey.
Okay. How old were you when you moved out?
Oh about three or four I guess.
Yes. So you particularly remember then that northern New Jersey was the rung through to high school.
Yes. And at that time northern New Jersey was one of the biggest truck farming areas in the country. Some of the best soil; the glacial ecrustrian soils of northern New Jersey were some of the richest farmland in America. And now of course they're all shopping malls and housing developments and things like that. All of that is gone. But they used to grow all these vegetables almost right up to within a few miles of the George Washington Bridge, and take them into the city. In the '40s that was still going on. Of course after World War II that rapidly started disappearing with all the influx of people and shopping malls and everything. Somewhere either under all that asphalt I think is rich soil somewhere, unless they carted it off somewhere.
It doesn't seem that this happens.
It's covered up some of the best farmland in America.
Right. And something very similar happened in southern New Jersey as well as the Philadelphia suburbs expanded. What sort of house were you living in when you were —?
Just a standard middle class, I guess, single house in a town called Ridgewood.
Yes. How big was your family?
Three kids — a brother and a sister and myself.
Where were you among the three?
The youngest of the three.
Did your older siblings have an interest in science or engineering?
My brother got a degree in mechanical engineering and he did that for his career. My sister went into English and then she got married and had kids, did the whole family thing.
When you were growing up, did you find that you had any interest in science or was that something that you got —? Did you have it already by the time that you were in high school?
Not too much, as I say I was more interested in mechanical engineering, that sort of thing. I was interested in nature on a very casual basis. But I guess my main vocation was mechanical, working on cars and stuff like that. [Interruption] That was going to be a long conversation.
I appreciate it. You say you had a casual interest in nature. I'm curious what you meant by that?
Well just you know in summer camp or Boy Scouts or whatever; you'd look at trees and plants and things like that and rocks and minerals, just, you know, very low-key sort of basis. On these camping trips and things like that — that's about the extent of it.
Did you collect minerals at all when you were growing up?
Not really, no. Just idly look at things, wander about and talk about nothing. There was no latent or whatever you want to call it interest beyond that.
Do you remember reading a lot when you were growing up?
Yes I think I read quite a bit. C.S. Forrester and I think it was, about oh John Paul Jones, the whaling industry and things like that. And some of the things about, called Two Little Savages. I think it was about these young kids had learned all these crafts and things to do in the woods. And I'll say Kipling, I'm sure it's not Kipling, but someone else.
I don't remember either, but the title after forty years or more, is the first time I recalled it. What was schooling like for you in the '40's? Did you have any memorable teachers, say prior to high school?
Not really. There were so many different layers; the standard classic teachers of the old days, a lot of them spinsters. Good, decent, not too exciting, people who tried to teach us little brats about things. None of them really sort of you know a mentor or something like that.
Did that change at all in high school?
Not really. There were no high school teachers who were inspiring that I can think of.
How much science did you get exposed to in high school?
This is Ridgewood High School, whatever it was called?
No. I went to a prep school for my last two years.
You know the standard chemistry, physics and I guess biology, which was one of my poorer subjects I think. I think I took that; it might have been in junior high that I took biology as a matter of fact. Yes, I think it was junior high.
Poorer in the sense that the teacher didn't engage you —?
No, I did poorly as a student. I didn't pay attention and study. I ran into problems early on, partly because of my mother's English upbringing or something, I was a proficient reader and had certain basics at my command early on. So I got extremely bored early in school, developed terrible study habits because I could do the work quickly and then I'd just gaze out the window and daydream. I developed these really terrible, just terrible study habits. It's a miracle I ever got a Ph.D. It's just; it's with me today this really poor sort of study habits.
You could breeze through essentially and —
At that level.
At that level without worry.
As I got to higher levels it came back to haunt me, these bad habits.
What was it like in the prep school that you went to junior and senior years?
It was just standard school stuff. The courses were I guess maybe reasonably demanding but I just didn't particularly care for it. Very sterile environment I thought.
Where was it?
In the Petty School in New Jersey.
Was it up in northern New Jersey?
No, it was down in central New Jersey.
How much science did you get exposed to in the curriculum?
There was, as I mentioned, the standard chemistry and physics.
That was at that school; and mathematics?
Yes, math, algebra, that sort of stuff. I think, I don't think we were even introduced to calculus. I'm not sure about that. I think it was the math up until that level I guess.
Typically until that period calculus didn't come in until —
Till College. And you say biology wasn't part of the curriculum there?
It may have been an elective that I didn't choose or something. I don't remember taking any biology at all. Chemistry and physics were mandatory. I'm not even sure they had biology now that I think about it. No, it was just your standard chemistry, physics, math, history, geography, and such stuff.
What were you particularly interested in generally in those years? Did you think of the sciences as a potential career or were you still thinking of mechanical engineering?
No, I was primarily occupied at that time with getting out of school.
That's a typical preoccupation.
And under peer pressure or whatever you would call it, I applied to college and went for about six months and then I quit and joined the Marines.
Where did you go for those six months?
To Vanderbilt [University] in Tennessee.
Why did you choose Vanderbilt?
Just to go to a different area and see a different part of the country.
Did you consider other schools?
Brown [University] and maybe Bucknell I think it was. And they seemed to me they were just going to be another replica of the kind of prep school environment. Just you know the same sort of standard type campus in the northeastern region and so I figured I'd try to go somewhere else.
But Vanderbilt didn't appeal?
It was nice enough but I you know I still found myself back in school again. So I decided to go somewhere else.
What made you choose the Marines?
Oh, too many movies I guess when I was young, whatever.
Which ones are you thinking of?
Oh John Wayne movies, all the stuff. You know growing up in the 1940s I saw a lot of movies and things like that.
How was the Marines?
It was a very interesting and educational experience. It shows you aspects of life that you don't see otherwise. I was never in combat or anything. I was over in Korea after the war.
I was going to ask; this would have been about '52 or so that you went into the Marines?
Yes, '53 to '56. You see aspects of life and society and people that you don't see in prep school or whatever. It's a widening experience as far as that goes.
What was the most memorable part of that experience?
I was a tank driver and we got to be good friends with the crew. I drove what's called a retriever which goes out and fixes other tanks that get broken or stuck or whatever. And we were a good group of people, three or four guys that worked well together, and each complemented each other and were quite effective. We were a good professional working team that functioned well together. We had a good reputation as being the best crew in the division. So that was kind of positive.
Did that feel different for you compared to the kind of social experiences you'd had up to then?
Well, it's always nice to, I guess, feel you're a competent member, part of a good team or something in any aspect of whatever it is you're involved.
And you say you went to Korea?
At the end of that period.
I was there in I guess '54 and '55 parts of those years. It was just occupation duties no real action going on.
What's it like to be in another country? Did you travel much when you were growing up?
Have you been back to England for instance?
Went back when I was three years old or something and I don't remember much of anything. We went to the beach by the white cliffs of Dover, I remember that. And the changing of the guards, and that's about all. We went back and forth by ship, which was the mode in those days.
When you got nearer to being out from the service, what were you thinking to do?
I was thinking of being a mechanical engineer. I realized I probably I should finish college so I was thinking mechanical engineering. And I was then tended to an interest in geology and I took a swing over to geology and then finished up in geology.
I'm curious how that happened. How did you get interested in geology when you think back?
Well I guess it was just developing a better appreciation of the natural world around us or something; it seemed more fascinating to me than machines or whatever. So I sort of veered off in that direction.
You went to Columbia [University]?
This is where you went after the Marines? Had you thought to apply elsewhere? Or had you applied elsewhere?
Actually I had a very checkered undergraduate career. I went back to Vanderbilt because my grades weren't so hot and picked up my grades. And I went to MIT for two years in mechanical engineering and left there and then went to Columbia for geology.
So you knew by the time you went to Columbia that you were interested?
Yes. And one of the more challenging things I had to write was — to get back into General Studies, because you'd had kind of a varied career like this you've got to write an essay showing how you found your way and are going to really perform. So I had to write this whole thing about this whole business. So they let me in. That's why I liked General Studies because it was more oriented towards people who weren't kind of in the normal flow of things. And it was a good institution in that regard.
I suspect it was an interesting peer group.
Yes, except when I went to General Studies I was working to support myself and living in the city. So I actually, for the two years it took me to finish up there including summer school, I was working and going to General Studies and eating and sleeping — that was about it for two years. So I didn't really get to know or participate in anything on campus as far as activities or things like that. I had a very monastic existence for those two years.
What was it when you were at MIT that convinced you that mechanical engineering just wasn't —?
I don't know, that's sort of intangible.
You just became [inaudible].
Yes, that wasn't really my interest.
When you think back on, had you had exposure to geology way prior to deciding to take this?
I mean just in various travels and stuff here and there. I guess I started getting more of an interest in rock forms and land forms and things like that. That was something to get more involved in.
Had you done a lot of hiking very much?
Not too much. Mainly just traveling by car whenever. And just living in part of pastoral environments really helped develop an appreciation of things like that.
Did you find it difficult living again in the city environment at MIT in Cambridge, Boston?
Yes, I didn't care for the city. Like when I came back here to Columbia, I would not have come back to go live in the city but out here it's not like that. I don't care for the city. As a graduate student in Columbia for the first couple of years I lived in the city. It was tolerable I guess.
How long was the General Studies program? Was it for two years?
Well I had a little bit of cumulative credit from other institutions. It took me two years to finish it. I had just barely the minimum number [of credits] to qualify for geology. So I squeezed those geology courses into two years.
Had you had any geology courses prior to coming to Columbia?
Who were your first teachers in geology?
Well, fortunately one of the first was John Imbrie and he solidified my interest in geology; a very inspiring teacher. And he, of course, was here for a while and went to Brown. And without mentioning any names there were other professors in the department at the time that I think might have had the opposite effect because they had a very traditional, conservative approach to geology. I think they probably would have been less inspiring. Are you familiar with John Imbrie at all?
I may have read his work.
Well he's the rare person; he's an excellent research scientist and also outstanding teacher to deal with students and inspire them and present them with the scientific material in a very palatable and interesting form. His enthusiasm for the earth's system and things like that he conveys this to the students and so —
What are you thinking of in particular when you recall taking courses from John Imbrie?
Just exactly what I just told you. The idea, the substance, the science was there, but also he'd really make it exciting and palatable to you. Whereas some of the professors are — they have all the facts and they're organized but it's just bland. Nothing, were as he put it together and was inspiring.
Of course at that point this was probably better perceived in retrospect than at the time but there was a big division between those who were the newer group brought on in the earth sciences, geophysics, versus those who were in the traditional department who had been there.
Who were emphasizing the more traditional approaches to geological sciences? How often did you see — did you see Imbrie mostly in class or did you also see him outside?
Just in class. Yes, I took introductory which was a two semester series from him and also paleontology.
Also from John Imbrie?
Do you remember what topics came up in the two semester series? Did he talk for instance about the very contemporary issues; Hess's paper in sea forestry?
Well this is actually kind of just the end of that era. They were still talking like the geosyncline theory at that time. And [Alfred] Wegener's paper, the original German paper, that talked about some aspects of plate tectonics — didn't call it that at the time — continental drift. It was very controversial and these ideas were just beginning to see the first elements of the revolution. And as a teaching assistant, because I was a teaching assistant for the first couple of years I guess when I was a graduate student, and we would teach this geosyncline theory, by lab exercise and things like that. Let's see the last time I was a TA was in '64 or '65 or something. That was the last time I taught the geosyncline theory in that last year. It was all we knew, and even though it didn't quite explain everything; you taught it, and kind of read it and you passed it on. Then I didn't do any more teaching assistant stuff and the revolution occurred, that whole change.
Yes. I'm really interested in generally what issues John Imbrie was teaching in the seminar. I assume he's covering geology in the broadest sense.
Yes. I guess the first semester was physical geology, rocks and things like that which can be very, very dry. But he would make it dynamic and interesting how they were formed.
How did he do that in particular? Is there a particular memorable instance?
I'm not sure. He a lot of times somehow related it to something in the real world of contemporary experience. But it's tough to pick out any specific instances for you, but he made it from just something sort of esoteric thing, into something related to your life experience. So he'd tie these things together. That's what did it in both the physical geology and the historical geology. And he'd present things in kind of a rational way that made sense, so rather than kind of rote memorizing or something; he'd start you on a flow to see how the whole thing works which is much easier to deal with.
Then just, here's a chart, memorize it. He'd organize it so you'd kind of see the flow of things.
Indeed that was still in certain circles the pedagogic style in geology. What sort of topics did he cover in the second half of the course? Did he get into, in the broadest terms, new theories of the earth? Did he talk about astronomical work? Of course in the 1950s there was a lot going on in terms of the whether the earth had ever had a molten phase or not.
I think he touched upon probably — I'm semi guessing now — the different ideas of the day; but nothing or anything particular about it. At that time I do recall the age of the earth was believed to be five billion years, radio carbon dating, and things like that. People felt pretty firm about that. That's gone up to twenty and is back now down to fifteen the last thing I read.
As far as the age of the universe itself, yes. But indeed as you say it was the mid-1950s and [?] Petersson's work. Some other work here at Lamont [Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory].
Lamont had some — as some people here can tell you better than I can — Some of the senior people at Lamont were physicists who resisted the idea of rocks moving and flexing and flowing. Some people had some of the earliest, best ideas, but the powers to be, the physicists, were slower to allow these ideas to be accepted and widely used. So Lamont was sort of a dichotomy at the time. I'm sure some of the other people you'll talk to can give you insights into that. So it was a very dynamic time anyway. You've probably talked to Walter [C.] Pitman or are going to talk to him? Walt will give you a much better story than I can of those aspects.
I'm still curious about what else you experienced at Columbia at that time. You had your bachelor's from Columbia in '62?
Just to keep that straight. What other classes did you have? You mentioned Imbrie's paleontology.
I took some courses from Ralph [J.] Holmes in mineralogy and of course Harry Colderheart in petrology. I took a gemology course from Holmes, because that was offered in evenings and I could work and make that class. It didn't really help me very much. It was just points, points towards a degree. That was really about it. As I say it was minimal, just enough to qualify for geology.
Did you have any courses with Wallace [S.] Broecker?
No, maybe those were graduate courses. I think they were.
Did you have much exposure to any of the other sciences at Columbia at that point or was the demand of taking —
I had to take — I was okay in physics, I didn't have to take any courses in that. I took one chemistry course; qualitative analysis I guess it was; a required course. I did okay.
Do you remember any visitors? Did you attend any lectures when you were an undergrad? Did you get involved?
You mean undergraduate?
I don't think so. As an undergrad I just would get to my classes and either go to work or go home and sleep.
Probably didn't have time for anything like that. As you were getting near the end in '62, did you think about going anywhere else or did you feel that you were interested enough to want to go on and stay.
Well I applied to Stanford [University] and wasn't accepted. So I applied to Columbia and the main reason that I got into Columbia probably was that some of the people on the admissions committee knew me and how I was doing, and so I got in.
What intrigued you particularly about Stanford?
Just its reputation and the west coast idea was the main thing.
Had you known much about the department?
No, nuts and bolts of the department. More or less a good reputation.
Of course it was just about '62 that the earth sciences emerged at Stanford. The reorganization had taken place.
That was something I wouldn't know about.
It didn't cross your radar screen at all?
I just got the catalogue and you know heard some things about it by word of mouth and that was it.
That and Columbia were the two then.
How different did it — I'm sorry, go ahead. You looked like you were about to: I didn't mean to step on your words. How different did it feel being a graduate student at Columbia compared to the undergraduate experience?
Not all that different actually. The courses were more intense. Being a TA was also an interesting experience. I thought in some ways they should have maybe done more preparation as far as getting TAs into kind of an operational mode rather than just saying here's the book, you go into the classroom and that's it. You're kind of winging it; developing teaching skills or not developing. But I thought they should've maybe given a couple rehearsals or something to kind of bring you up to being a better teacher. But I'm sure that happens everywhere.
Certainly until very recently. How did you find teaching?
It was sort of enjoyable but I got to points where I wanted to follow the Imbrie model, and get every student turned on. I'm sure he doesn't turn on every student, but to get the message across, and to get everybody interested. I realized after a while there's a certain ten percent that you write off, that you can't do anything for, to or with. And you don't worry about them. And that bothered me. It seemed so fascinating to me, why can't I get it across to these people. So I was a little frustrated with that sometimes.
What things were you doing to make students interested?
Probably not very — because it is so fascinating to me, why shouldn't it be fascinating to any thinking adult and obviously it just wasn't. Then part of it is teaching skills. It can be partly a learned skill but if you don't have any introduction to it, you probably may think you're performing well but you're actually not. I was a visiting prof at Dartmouth later on after I got my degree.
Right, that was in about '73 or something like that?
Yes. And that was kind of interesting too except I taught in one of these intense semesters where the whole semester is condensed to about ten weeks or something, some really short intensive thing like that. I was teaching an introduction to meteorology course. And I'd never taken meteorology myself. I had a hundred and fifteen students and so I was reading five textbooks and making up silly notes each night in advance of this. Eight o'clock next morning I had to face these hundred and fifteen students and tell them about meteorology and I was barely one page ahead of them all the way through the semester. In fact one lecture I ended about five minutes early because I didn't know any more. “Well that's all we'll do today." That was it, because I didn't know any more to carry the next five minutes. So it was nip and tuck but all the students seemed — They passed out these course evaluations things and all the students seemed to think it was a good course, well presented, except one student who said the professor, "seemed a little bit nervous."
If those students only knew. But there is something to be said for learning at that freshly; one teaches it perhaps differently.
I think I probably learned more about meteorology than any of the students did.
How did it happen that you got in that position to be teaching a course in an area that clearly you had the skills to teach but it was —
People go on sabbatical and they have these kind of rotating courses that become orphans when somebody goes on sabbatical. The two they had there was; geomorph which was a piece of cake and introduction to meteorology. And so this former Columbia person, Chuck [Charles L.] Drake was up at Dartmouth. He invited me up there to fill in the semester and said about meteorology and I said oh yes I can do that. So I did. Not that much background. I studied up a little bit because they were doing an evaporation study on Lake Powell project that I had read about dry air and things like that type. I bluffed my way through the phone interview and did it.
Who's the phone interview with? Was it more than Chuck Drake?
Leonard Stauber. He was the chairman at that time.
We were talking a moment ago. I was interested when you said communicating that real fascination that you had in geology to the students when you were teaching as a TA at Columbia. What was it that you were finding by then to be really fascinating about geology?
It's the same like understanding how an engine works, a machine works. Understanding things about how land forms are developed, things like that, so we can understand how the system works in the earth around you, and feeling that other people should be fascinated by the same thing too.
You were really interested in this system; the way in which the entire broader processes work.
To a certain degree yes. Not the depth that some people are — I'd say broader than I am in all the different aspects of the earth's systems. I've gone down to focusing on, well at one time hydrology and trees. They're complex enough so the Renaissance understanding the entire system, you pick out aspects of it.
That was what you felt the enthusiasm to communicate. There are a number of things I'm thinking about at this point. How was it that you started thinking about your degree, what you would actually write on as a thesis? How quickly did that begin to emerge?
Arthur Strahler was the major professor and he had a colleague or someone who was down in the USGS [United States Geological Survey] in I guess Reston [Virginia] at that time.
That would have just been pretty new at that time.
Yes, before they — It may have been when it was still in Arlington because it used to be just across the river from D.C. I think it’s Arlington. And he'd done a study showing that if you study the land forms a certain way you could then predict what the stream flow was going to be. And that seemed really fascinating to me to be able to study the land forms and predict the stream flow. And his one paper that he [Strahler] did this successfully, apparently from this paper, I thought I could take that ball and run with it and develop sort of a model for a — He did it on just a couple of watersheds in Virginia. I could apply this to a larger area and really develop this whole concept. And one of the first things I did was prove to myself his paper or something was all wet; that it just didn't work like such a nice beautiful simplistic model, as he had found in his work. And so I bungled along for a number of years just to see if this thing really worked out that simply. And then I came out with a few simple parameters that were not very astonishing. And at that point I just wanted to get the paper and get my degree. So I put it together and got the degree and that was it. But I was very disappointed, because it really wasn't — it wasn't sort of what I started out to prove or find out.
You were finding that the research program just didn't work in the way that you had hoped that it might as a tool?
Yes the original idea of having these few measurable parameters really gives you great insight on this stuff.
Did you spend all your graduate time at Columbia or did you go somewhere else?
I went to Arizona for a year. They started hydrology and they had this one visiting professor came out one semester a year. And I was interested in the geology of water resources. And Arizona set up this program. That was in the '60s when there was a severe draught here in the east and everybody was talking about water resources. So it seemed kind of a fascinating area. But Columbia didn't have the depth of courses and things in that area and so I went to University of Arizona for a year. They had built up this great department. But what they had done — a lot of their professors were on two year leaves of absence from USGS to set up this great department. They were really good people, but after two years they all left. And so, the department collapsed back to a skeletal staff of a few people who were maybe less than great and wonderful.
You were saying on the other side of the tape about the department in Arizona collapsing. What year, just to know, were you out there? Was that '69?
I'm not really sure; '65 or sixty something.
Do you recall who had come in from the Survey? Who was there at the time?
I don't recall any names.
There were some of the big people from the Bureau of Water Resources.
Yes. Good teachers; really great depth of knowledge and things like that. And so I decided well this isn't going to work out, I'll come crawling back to Columbia to finish up there.
Had you thought to stay there if it had worked out?
And so I just came back here and finished up my degree here.
Out of curiosity. During that period of time, had you already read works by Rachel Carson or —
I read that somewhere not too long after it came out. It was sort of interesting but not all that, didn't excite me all that much. It sort of evolved because one of the ideas of the study of hydrology and things like was, "to make the deserts bloom,” used to be the common expression. And as you understand more things about the environment and things like that, maybe you come to the conclusion that maybe the deserts aren't destined to bloom. Maybe they shouldn't bloom; they should be left alone and resources are allocated to something else: So evolution in environmental perspective.
Applications of science and hydrology.
I was wondering if you were coming to that perception already during your graduate school years or whether that was.
I think a slow evolutionary basis probably was moving in that direction.
Who became particularly influential for you when you came back to Columbia? Did you have anyone that you thought was a mentor?
Not really. Arthur Strahler was a good teacher and everything, but he actually retired. He wrote some very successful books and so he retired and he was I guess gone the last two years that I was finishing up. It's like I did it by correspondence — the end of my time. And I got some support from the Geological Survey for two years.
Was it a Penrose grant?
No just a — it was something — I wrote letters and said what I wanted to do each year. And partly through this person who'd been a student of Strahler's or a colleague of his or whatever, they supported me for two years. And then I ran a computer at night for another year and then got involved in a project called the Lake Powell project.
And went on from there.
I've heard a little about it, but wanted to hear more.
Well it was the idea to study Lake Powell. Of course, one of the controversial things about building the Glen Canyon Dam was flooding this area. And so it was the idea of the Lake Powell project, I guess started by Orson Anderson who used to be here.
Now out at UCLA [University of California at Los Angeles].
Right. And the original proposal was, I guess, turned down once or whatever. And so Orson got me involved and I rewrote the hydrology part of it and some other parts were cleaned up and beefed up and it got funded and went on for about, let's see, for six years, or something like that. I'm not sure. And it was studying the effects of building a dam in this area and how it changed the natural system and what the water losses were and things like that. And the —
So, it was comprehensive study of the entire water system.
Right. More than the water system, and geology and it had social sciences aspect to it where people had —
That's right. That's right.
Interviewing various residents to see what their effects were and all these sort of things. And so it was an interdisciplinary project which combined a lot of different —
As I recall, Orson Anderson convened some of those meetings that brought in the range of people.
Right. And in doing some of the water aspects, I heard somewhere — I can't really cite a specific reference — this idea of using tree rings to find out about water supply. They realized first you have to know how much water is going to come into this reservoir. And I heard somewhere this concept of using growth rings of trees to estimate stream flow. And so I went and talked to Chuck [Charles] Stockton at the tree ring lab in Arizona and he'd been working on the Colorado River flow. So in the next contract that I put in, I put in a subcontract for us to work together on this. And so then I started working with him, looking over his shoulder, learning about tree ring analysis.
Right. Had you heard about that at all when you were out in Arizona earlier? Had you heard from Douglas?
No I'd heard about the tree ring lab and even took up rock climbing. And one of the first people I went out with was Tom Harlan who was one of their super techs, as I call them, who worked there as a research assistant. And so I heard about the tree ring lab but it didn't really register, or maybe it did subconsciously I don't know where. Later on I had this idea that tree rings have an application here. Where I got the original idea from I just don't recall. But I knew of the laboratory as a place to go and look into it. And so working with Chuck [Stockton] I really became fascinated by what a great tool these trees were in trying to unravel some things about natural environment. And so I started doing, messing around with taking tree cores and mounting and looking at them in the evenings. I was in Flagstaff, Arizona at the field station and learning about it. And that's when I started learning about Douglas and some of the techniques and things like that.
Just to be clear on this. When were you in Flagstaff? Your technical base was UCLA.
Yes. '72 to '75.
And so you spent that period really out there.
Yes. I'd go to UCLA for maybe a couple of months a year. Go to Los Angeles for a couple of months a year. Touch base, write a proposal; get out again.
No teaching responsibilities.
Did you miss it?
No, not at all. So I became more intrigued with the tree ring aspects and I thought it might be another nice career move or something to go into that. So I looked around a little bit and realized it's a very small market for tree ring scientists. And so I heard indirectly there was interest here in doing tree ring analysis for climate studies. And so I rather rashly wrote back and said well I know about that stuff. I can do it. Sort of like the meteorology course.
Who did you rashly write that letter to?
Okay. How would you know about, had you met him during the time that you were here?
I had met him. Actually he was on my orals committee and I just heard about him. I never took a course from him. I just heard about him from other students. I guess Wally was eager to get someone to try and get this thing off the ground, so he didn't ask too many questions. He just said okay come and do it.
Just before we get to that period and your arrival here at Lamont, what in particular, what questions were you particularly wanting to answer in that while you were out at Flagstaff? What was the research program you saw as most promising?
Well what I was involved with there was working on the sort of the water budget for the lake which is 1) the stream flow input, 2) how much is going in bank storage infiltration around the reservoir, 3) evaporations. In the evaporations I dabbled a little bit in meteorology. And the bank storage was just kind of a standard — I didn't get into some really exotic equations, because the system is so complex that it was simple in that we could make — You had this humongous equation and because of the change in geology and various other things, they'd be worthless, only a gross approximation of what was happening.
Throw off a lot of the terms.
Yes. So I made a very simple model of the infiltration and monitored some of the parameters to estimate evaporation and the water budget of the lake. The most fascinating thing was the stream flow and the input. Of course this was highly controversial, a really political hot potato, because the western states and the federal agency The Bureau of Reclamation want water projects. That's a real need out there. So that's what [President James] Carter ran into a buzz saw when he tried to scuttle these after his first months in office. And when we started showing them that there wasn't as much water as they would like to have believed, people were very upset about this. It was controversial and a lot of complaints about it and things like that. But it was much more solid evidence of what the real regime was out there. But it was unpopular for a lot of people who didn't want to hear that there wasn't enough water for all these grandiose projects and things.
Sounds like you're talking particularly of politicians and local civic leaders.
How controversial, or was it controversial, among your colleagues over the interpretation of these data?
Not too much except there's a school in hydrology called stochastic hydrology which likes to use pure statistics based on the measured data set and establish from that core data set what the variations could be with no admission of climate change for these lower frequency climate variations. And stochastic hydrologists felt extremely threatened by this idea of paleohydrology of quantitatively estimating stream flow using some other entity. It happened to be trees, but no matter what entity it was, they would have been paranoid about it. So they hated this idea and many wrote disparaging comments about it. So in that group it was decried on a procedural basis and also in some ways the results. But I think they just sort of lost because — they complained. One thing about Chuck Stockton is that he didn't publish very much about these things. You know, he and I would present them once in a while at meetings and so there wasn't maybe the real sorting out that there should have been or could have been.
You were certainly co-authors in front of the Lake Powell study.
Right. I think in one of the early publications, maybe in Water Resources Review or — Two papers on —
The first one that I see that you co-listed with him is '74: “Water Budget at Lake Powell and Its Relation to Surface Water Supply in the Upper Colorado River Basin.”
Yes I think that was a triple-AS [AAAS — American Association for the Advancement of Science].
That was a triple-AS meeting.
That was a triple-AS meeting in San Francisco. This one down here was a meeting in Arizona that provoked an editorial in the Tucson paper and —
Oh that's interesting, the '75 one.
At the end of my talk I think there were one or two agency people in the audience actually jumping to their feet and yelling; an interesting scene. I think I was predicting hydrologic bankruptcy with relation to these ideas and real stream flow. And so that got a lot of people excited.
Just to be sure, which agency did you have in mind?
Oh somebody from the California Water Board. That's not really the exact name and I forget the person's name. And someone from the Bureau of Reclamation I think.
One thing that you've made clear is that a great many people were paying attention to these data and these arguments and your research.
Well there was the real thing then about water and energy, because all the energy facilities planned for the southwest are enormous users of water. Quite a number of those facilities that were on the drawing boards have just faded into history. It's the tempo of development has changed and a lot of the water projects have faded. I don't know if it's a result of Carter's ill-advised attempts or just because reality crept in as someone, off the record, admitted to me, “We've done all the good projects. These other ones really probably can't be justified.” And so it slowed up enormously since then. And again, as you mentioned earlier, environmental awareness and things like that. There are more people looking at these. It used to be that the government would just plan a huge big water project in the west somewhere and everyone would say, oh great, and there was no real second thinking about what it really was. So, there has been a change in kind of an attitude I guess in some ways.
Of course by the early 1970s the law was already in place. I can't remember as I speak the acronym for it, it was in there.
NEPA. It was part of the EPA [?] authorizing legislation. Was this all part of the NEPA style evaluations?
It could be. I'm vague about the particulars now because when I really committed myself to get into the tree ring business, for about a year I faded out of keeping track of what's going on in the Colorado River Basin.
Who were regarded as the leaders of stochastic hydrology at the time?
A guy named [?] Mitalis. And there was a guy who, forget his name now, died of a heart attack in his forties at Arizona. I did Arizona another time and let's see, it was his class and a friend of mine was a guest lecturer to the class and I came in at the end of the class, and my friend saw me come in and he'd just covered some of the hydrology and he invited me to go up and say a few words, which I did. And of course this set the professor's class on fire and he and I had this nose to nose vigorous, but polite, discussion in front of his whole class and neither one of us giving an inch. And finally we just kind of agreed to disagree and that was it. One of his students whispered as he walked by me, "good job," or something. [Laughter] And I left the class. But they were just absolutely stonewalling about this being a valid concept at all. On their behalf you have to say that the tree ring time series do have different characteristics, because it is a biological series from stream flow measurements. Statistically they would have slightly different characteristics. And so conceding that it still can be very predictive of the other knowing that certain distributions as far as the mean level shifting and things like that, they do a quite good job. So it's not totally pure faultless procedures, but it does work and has certainly some credibility and validity, whereas the pure hard core stochastic — Steven Burgess I guess is still one. I met him a couple years ago — who just are absolutely dug in and won't give an inch about paleohydrology being able to contribute much. So that's probably ongoing clash I guess. Well it seems that people have a much broader awareness of the fact that climate does change and how these low frequency variations and can be influenced by volcanism and these various other things. So that's become more of a reality and so that people have to include — even the Forestry Service — they used to have site classification for good, bad or indifferent places for wood production. And up to ten or fifteen years ago they never said anything about climate. Now some of the more enlightened text books are saying they have to introduce a climatic factor in their site evaluations of tree growing locations. So a kind of credibility is sort of spreading about these things. And I honestly don't really know if you had to say what the status of the war between stochastic and paleohydrology is. I'm not quite sure but I think it's evening out I guess. There is more acceptance of the tree rings.
As you look back on it, when did the tide seem to turn within the communities that were interested in the results from these groups?
I don't know because it's getting into the more paleoclimate aspects and specifically temperature. I just have not seen or heard as much about these protests in literature that was say ten years ago to take a point or something where things changed.
It's interesting that it really is continuing in your views through at least the early 1980s and it's still lively.
Oh yes in the '80s.
Did politics enter into those debates? Did it seem — and this is admittedly a difficult question to ask, but did those whose methodologies incline them towards the — let's say towards stochastic view, tend to be the ones who favored more development as opposed to those who felt other —?
I don't know. I'm not sure it'd be fair to say that. I don't think they, I'm not sure you'd say they really have one particular leaning or the other. Just that in the Colorado situation that I was closest to, the Dendro-hydrology result lowered, substantially lowered, the supply which had reverberations worldwide. Whereas the stochastic methods tended to in fact they were used to show what the supply would be. So as a group their resource is higher than as a small subsection, tree ring people — It was Stockton and myself originally — showed there was a smaller supply and this was unpopular from as I said, the politicians and developers and things like that. And the big thing of course was the central Arizona project. I went to a hearing on that in Washington some years ago and there were people there, lot of representatives from the west. I gave a five minute talk about what the flow was. And Morris Udall was there and although he was largely an environmentally aware representative, he was also a survivor on the political scene. He caved and endorsed the project. There were people there who were supporters of his, from Arizona, and they were almost in tears at the end of the hearing because they felt he'd sold them out. And so that was kind of interesting. But he just. There were so many people in Arizona who wanted to see AP, that if he had condemned it, that would have been his last term in office. So water in the west is a pretty hot issue. Still is in some ways. So I jumped from that into estimating what the temperature was. And that's been another new controversy between the groups.
I'm curious what your discussions were like with Wally Broecker about that. You heard about Lamont's interest. How much had you known about Lamont? Clearly you were in the department.
The last two years of graduate school, because Strahler had left the area, a friend of mine just found an empty office up here and so I snuck in. I was kind of mooching off them or whatever you want to call it. Bruce [C.] Heezen was one of the leading sorts of scientists of the early days of Lamont. This guy I roomed with down in the city for a while was one of Bruce Heezen's top students and he'd do the crew selection to go out on the cruises. And he described these cruises as being great. You'd go to the Caribbean and your expenses were paid and you spent a couple of days in port before and after the cruise and all these other glowing tales of how great and wonderful it was to go to sea. If you're a poor graduate student who can't get around much, sounds great. So I went out on the first cruise even though I had no interest in submarine geology at all. But this friend of mine said Bruce is very demanding and aware of what's going on. He wants people to really — because Bruce was a prodigious worker himself; worked tirelessly. And if you want to be in with Bruce, you better do the same.
This is; when is this?
This is in the late '60s. So I went on the Eastward, a small ship, from Jamaica to Puerto Rico and just busted my butt for ten days of the cruise; made about every station night and day. Always up there working. At the end of the cruise, Bruce said, anytime you want to come on a cruise again, Gordon, it’s okay.
That's a high compliment.
I passed my test so to speak. And I was seasick and began to wonder whether if it was a plus or a minus, this whole cruise thing. I went on about three or four other cruises. Saw some interesting places.
Where Heezen was chief scientist or —?
How well did you come to know Heezen?
Not all that well. Just you know — you'd talk a bit on the ships and things like that. And Bruce was a bit of a maverick at Lamont too, as I’m sure that people have told you. He had sort of a clash with [W. Maurice] Ewing and so Bruce had difficulty getting time on Lamont ships. So he'd get time on the Eastward which is a North Carolina ship and because ship's time was so important to Bruce — that's why he was driven to get every minute for science that he could out of a cruise — and drive himself and everybody else without.
Ironically not unlike what Doc Ewing did on his own ships.
Did he talk about the conflict with you?
Not really very much. Although he seemed at one time to be — he claimed he'd written what would've been one of the earliest definitive papers on some plate tectonic concepts that Ewing sat on for more than a year. And I'm not sure exactly — maybe someone else, in fact, Walter Pitman might have better details on this story. So it seemed like Bruce was kind of bitter feeling that because of Doc Ewing sort of stonewalling this thing, because of his physics mind set, that he, Bruce, lost out on getting more of the glory for these concepts. Don't look to me for the truth. Get it from Walter Pitman who had a better insight. One night, really late in the evening on watch or something, Bruce and I were playing bridge and he told me about this story. That was my only insight into it.
What are your impressions about Lamont during those years when you were out here?
It was very, very dynamic, a lot of things going on. A lot of the students — and the same thing is happening now. A lot of the students were really involved with new findings and exciting research because there was so little known that every cruise would find out something very different and unusual. So very dynamic in that respect in that the young student population was as involved as the senior scientists in making these new discoveries.
Where were, I beg your pardon — where were you located on the campus when you were out here?
Oceanography. How much contact did you have with the other divisions? Of course by then Lamont has already begun to segregate out into the different departments.
Not too much because I was really involved in the geomorph, trying to finish that up. And then Orson Anderson was in the seismology building in geophysics so I got involved with them a little bit. Got to know a few people in that area. But mainly the submarine geologists, Bill [William] Ryan, [Jeffrey] Fox, and Walter Pitman, and so it was those people that I knew at that time.
I'm curious whether you had much contact with the geochemical people? Broecker was of course in a separate building.
Very little I think.
Did you have much contact with people like Bill [William L.] Donn?
Only after I came back to start the tree ebb work. My contact with him was some common interest in climate and things like that.
I realize your interests didn't quite overlap in the way that they did when you returned to Lamont, but I was curious in general who you came to know, particularly well, during those two years when you were finishing up.
Mainly just the people I mentioned.
Had you had an interest if it had worked out to have stayed with Orson Anderson's group at UCLA or did you feel you were ready for a change?
No I think I was ready for a change. And I didn't really like the Los Angeles area. And I knew the Flagstaff situation was going to collapse.
Did you have contact with any of the other scientific groups out in Flagstaff?
Well the University of Northern Arizona, a few people there. I didn't really have that much contact with them. The research center that was at the museum there has kind of atrophied. A friend of mine was back there last year. The museum is in still in good shape, but the research center is kind of faded.
But that had been a strong facility about twenty, twenty-five years ago. Of course the other research facilities were in a very different field. The Lowell Observatory works in astronomy.
Yes, we used the Lowell computer at night for a while in the evaporation study to process some of the data, things like that.
And we got permission from them to — we bought them some hardware and so they let us use their computer. The evaporation study was kind of weird because we had a — I don’t know the number — a very expensive instrument package, battery run and all the rest of the stuff, with all these cords and things like that, Microprocessors on it. And it recorded to a little like a 1995 Sony cassette recorder. And it ran okay in the warmer periods but in the winter periods the grease on the capstans would congeal and slow the speed. Since this was a frequency based recording system, you lost all your data. And we had to take that data and take it to the observatory and crank it through and it would interpret and print out a paper tape. Have you ever dealt with those or seen those? They're really archaic. And the paper tape you'd have to read into the computer. It was at least fifty percent data loss I think in the whole research. Not like the data loggers of today. So you worked with them but on this kind of functional basis. And the USGS [United States Geological Survey] was there in Flagstaff and some people in the water resources division, I talked to them a few times; and the people at the museum, their biologists, and archaeologists.
USGS in Flagstaff was principally the branch of astrogeological studies, was it not? Or was that separate, the group of geologists?
I think they were one of the larger groups. I think they may have been in a single building or something or complex. And I went there maybe a couple of times and they had some pretty fancy instruments for looking at aerial coverage.
That's one of the things I'm curious about, whether those techniques overlapped at all.
Well, they did an aerial survey of the lake, which was of marginal value, but someone in Air Force it for the project used. And they were sort of interesting photographs to look at, but I'm not sure that scientifically they were all that valuable. Oh that's right; they had a person who was a structural geologist from Texas A&M [University]. He used the air photographs to map some lineations and fractures of the rocks. The original flight plan showed the lake with these nice evenly spaced lines going back and forth across like this. He looked at all the photographs and plotted the real flight lines and they were like this. They're all spaced.
Right and I should say on the tape, you're drawing two sets of lines; one in which there's and very much in a rectangle as opposed to intersections inversions, diversions.
Some of these things don't really relate to the history of Lamont though. That's sort of the evolution of science and other applications.
They're also what experience you're bringing to Lamont when you come out here. That's one of the things I was also curious about. When you wrote to Wally Broecker and advertised yourself as someone who knew tree ring studies. Would Lamont be interested in that in its application to climate change?
I think I said in the letter that I'd heard that Lamont had this interest in tree rings and I went on actually to describe, and I guess that was it. And then Wally sent me the proposal that they had sent in to NSF [National Science Foundation]. And what NSF did at that time — there was this increasing interest in trying to use tree rings for paleoclimate studies. And there was one laboratory, a laboratory in Tucson that was involved with this. They seemed to be primarily focused on the American southwest. Which is interesting because the early pioneers, Douglas and some others, had gone all over the country and dated trees in various different geographic locations. This broad sketch had actually kind of shrunk down to primarily a southwestern studies or a fixation. And some people even questioned whether it would work east of the Mississippi whereas Douglas had shown in his early books that he could date in New Hampshire. And but there are certain — oh fundamentals — dogwood had evolved this way. And I had learned about these ideas and things like that from Chuck Stockton and from reading various things like that. And so I kind of knew these fundamentals so I could take the proposal and rewrite it putting all of this stuff in there and making it much more palatable to a reviewer, because you knew every proposal you sent in about tree rings was going to go to Arizona.
So therefore you'd make the proposal palatable to Arizona. Also put it on a better scientific basis which was good.
Was there a separate office that had emerged for studies of that sort or was it still part of the general?
I think it may have been more general. I'm not sure when the climate dynamic section — I think climate dynamics may have been just being created at that time. And so what I did I guess was — I'm not sure quite what the sequence of this was. So I revamped the proposal and it went in again and I think I came here and did a seminar in geochemistry and either before or after went back or to via Washington and went to the climate dynamics or its protoclimate dynamics group and talked to Gene Bearly about the research and things like that. And I went back to Arizona and then it got funded. And what NSF did at that time: They had an interest in the idea of learning about past climates from trees, but they didn't know who was going to perform in this area. So they gave grants of fifty thousand dollars apiece to about half a dozen institutions and then the next year more money to fewer and then sort of a —
A weeding out of.
Process. And we were one of the survivors of that process after two or three cycles.
You were saying as we ended that last tape that Columbia was emerging as a survivor. What do you credit in the work that you were doing once you got here that brought that?
The one thing I did is to immediately get on our team was Ed [Edward R.] Cook who was from Tucson, had a master's degree from there. He knew all about the nuts and bolts in tree ring work because my credibility is like the plate tectonics thing. The Tucson lab is going to review every proposal and they felt if you didn't have the dogma down, you didn't know what you were doing. And so we went out of our way to get that down pat, not make any waves in the first little iteration — solid nuts and bolts tree ring work. My credentials of course were about zero. I'd never published a paper in tree ring work. They knew of me because I'd been down to work with Chuck [Stockton], but I'd never actually done anything whereas Ed Cook was a nuts and bolts tree ring person; had a degree from that institution. And we produced chronologies, produced studies, and produced results for them to see on the next proposal or whatever else it was. One of the other persons who tried to fill in on the tree ring stuff was Leona Libby. And she was so captivated by the isotope business that she just plunged off on that without doing homework or getting her nuts and bolts tree ring science down. And so that hurt her a little bit. And some of the others were in the same position that they didn't really get the fundamentals under control. So that is a major thing. Also to start up in a different scientific enterprise, it seems like you do have to do your homework, get some solid reasoning behind it. Then you can start innovating and doing some other things. The scientific establishment is, I guess, conservative in some ways in that regard. If you plunge off right away as doing nothing but innovations without solid nuts and bolts behind you, it's difficult. But then we started, after we'd been around for a number of years, you know then we'd start putting our own ideas and things like that in it. So it's sort of like an apprenticeship; forced because of the mechanics of funding and who your reviewers are going to be.
Right. It seemed that was a very astute way to proceed.
Yes. It's a question of survival.
Yes, indeed. It was relative to succeed as well either. Did you find — you and Ed Cook — at that time that you were in at least initially in substantial agreement with the results Arizona had produced or did you find that increasingly your views diverged from theirs?
I think as time went on, we began to feel that they were somewhat narrow-minded. The way things were done in the southwest and a little bit, this can happen in any science, I think, just one laboratory being the key laboratory that the science can tend to get narrow minded; this sort of thing. So I was more willing to try other different things. And with a number of failures of course, but sometimes things would work out. And we were sort of open to that. Another thing that was healthy about the Lamont environment is that when I would give a seminar or talk somewhere, if I made some statement that I knew to be true because I had some evidence and even if it was the Tucson mentality, people at Lamont who knew nothing about the Tucson philosophy would challenge you every step of the way. And so you couldn't get away with anything so to speak.
That's really interesting.
So every statement I made, no matter how simplistic or fundamental it was, I could expect to be challenged by someone at Lamont, who would say well how do you know that. And you had to know why this concept was valid. Not because well the people in Tucson do it this way. That's no good. You have to you yourself explain why this particular procedure or concept is valid. And made me think a lot more and sharpen my understanding of the science; and so it was healthy. But I just couldn't get away with anything. I had to right away know where I was coming from; stimulating to say the least on some occasions.
You mentioned a moment ago that increasingly you found the Arizona vision to be a bit narrow. I'm curious what you're thinking of when you say that.
Well in particular was that — these came from various people. One — that you can't work with maritime trees. That trees on coast lines or maritime environments were no good. Trees in the northeast weren't any good because it's you know better soil and moisture and climate conditions are more amenable for tree growth, so you're not going to get signals there. Various things like that. It was just kind of the way they understood things to be. Each one of these had to be examined itself and you find out well you can date these trees in maritime environments. They're not as great other places. And that you can work with eastern trees. Like going to Alaska; I guess the very first time I went up there to core trees I had this kind of vision of what the climatically stressed site was in the American southwest. And I learned very quickly forget that; just throw that out the window. You're in Alaska; you'll start thinking like an Alaska tree of what's really a stress site for you and you change your whole mental picture of what's up there. So this kind of on the job training, I guess, you'd call it would develop these appreciations that you would not learn or read about from some of the original publications and things. [?] Giddings who had done some early work in Alaska trees. He had made some very long chronologies and shown a sensitivity to some temperature and certain ideas. But then he got bored with trees and he went more back into archaeology and then unfortunately died in an automobile accident. But he laid some of the foundations for this. He was one of the persons working in northern trees.
It sounds like one thing that was happening was that you were increasing your own geographic range particularly after coming to Lamont.
Yes. Well I had been to Alaska on previous occasions and was fascinated by it. I went back there again largely on a backpacking trip and took along some tree cores and did a little bit of sampling afterwards. From that sampling I learned that the situation was very, very different up there. So the next time I went back I started thinking from an Alaska perspective of what I should be looking for.
Two things I'm curious about on the transition. When you and Wally Broecker were talking about developing this opportunity, were there any things that you asked him particularly for that you wanted as tools to develop in bringing a program, starting one here?
Well yes. At that time there was an experimental lakes program that had some, I guess, good resources as far as funding goes. We were just starting out, without too much. And so I didn't approach him on this, I just — Ellen Cox who used to run geochemistry – and I'm not sure I discussed this with Wally or not. Maybe I did; probably did. They said you can't have a laboratory without a measuring machine so you've got to get a measuring machine. That was two thousand dollars or something at that time. And I started badgering. But I seem to recall dealing more with Ellen Cox more than Wally. Look this is something you have to have. If you don't have it, no laboratory. She said, okay we'll do this and we'll put this on this other contract. So then we got a measuring machine. We hunted around for a microscope and I finally bought it out of my own pocket, a two hundred dollar microscope from Edmond Scientific. We used that to generate our first chronology.
And Edmond Scientific was as a supplier, their instrument was as good.
No it was a piece of shit. Excuse me for the language. It was garbage but yes you could.
It was just enough to do it.
It was just enough.
It was my own money after taxes so I just did it. And so as soon as we could we actually got another microscope some months later but to just get off the ground. And in some ways — I think in part of it is there maybe the Marine training may have helped me, because in the Marines we always had to have second hand equipment. Some of the stuff, even the food, was left over from World War II and the word scrounging, if you're a good scrounger, that's the way to survive. And I somehow was in that locality for a long time. And so we'd scrounge around Lamont to find things. Someone was throwing out a desk or was throwing a file cabinet or table or something, we'd come and take it and equipped our laboratory mostly by scrounging rather than — In hindsight, you think of some people who come on board now and right away they want a fifty thousand, a hundred thousand dollar budget to set up their laboratory or something. Maybe I was too humble. I came here, just started scrounging. Or buying a microscope myself and got things together. But I never, except for the measuring machine, I don't recall going in and negotiating, demanding or getting anything. When I came here, I still had the last tail end of some contracts on the Lake Powell project so that helped with my support for a while. This of course, with inflation and everything else like that, the fifty thousand dollars a year could pay — There was a guy named [?] Sharman who's an organic chemist who was working, Ed Cook's salary, some laboratory supplies, half of my salary. It seemed to go a long ways. And now those numbers are very, very different.
Fifty K grant now doesn't go much at any stretch.
Yes. It's astounding. Of course it was twenty years ago. And of course then we started applying for more grants and the totals went up.
Before we get into, and I don't want to keep this going too much longer right now. But when you first were at Lamont, it was still run by Ewing and when you came back, Ewing and many of the, some of the key people at least in his group, were gone. And it was under — Manik Talwani was still director, wasn't he?
When you came back? What were the differences? What seemed to you to be changed through that transition?
I'm not sure I was really into Lamont enough to sense those changes or things. One of which I did see where you can overlap that evolution was the — the machine shop I guess at one time was one of the most innovative places producing hardware for submarine geology and things like that. And at Lamont it's the forefront of that. And I think it seemed like when I came back the new move I guess was electronics, electronic equipment and things like that and the natural mechanical hardware wasn't as crucial and so it was sort of atrophying I guess. And in some ways because I used to — like in the case of measuring machines. I still had my interest and ability in things mechanical and so I'd make things. Like if I wanted a tool to do something or process trees, I'd go to the machine shop and then make the things, or work the design or something making these tools. And so I became aware of this change in that stuff.
That's an important shift. How often would you see Manik Talwani when you came back?
Oh. Not very often. Let me just sort of critique myself I should say — Sort of a hermit lifestyle down in the tree laboratory off campus. I wouldn't have as much contact with people up here as you might thing for the time spent and vice versa. I could say like when [C.] Baring Raleigh was director he came in the tree ring lab once in all of his tenure here to make a phone call.
Is that right?
That's the only time he'd ever been in the tree ring lab.
How did you feel about that?
In some ways it annoyed me a little bit. But you know since I'm happy to be left alone, I avoided a lot of the flack and turmoil and stuff like that that went on. Although I guess we had our tenth anniversary and I sent him a written invitation to come down and join us and never even got an RSVP from him. So, I thought, that was poor form on his part. But I was more or less happy to be left alone I guess in some ways. But it's not good scientifically. I think moving up here for the health and integration of science is definitely an overdue move for me.
We should put on tape that we're referring to the fact that you're now in what had been the old machine shop which was very recently refurbished. You've been in here since January of 1996. Much more into the central part of the — You mentioned that when you came back you had much more contact at that point with Bill Donn and the sort of work that he had done, of course, with Ewing concerning climate change.
Well not that much. I had, let's see, zero contact before I went away. When I came back, we would have seminars just within the tree ring people at one time. He attended one or two of them cause of his interest in climate. And that was really about all; so there wasn't that much contact. And he and I would every once in a while bump into each other and talk a little bit. And he got concerned, I guess, cause he had done I guess some Navy research that had faded out of being supported or something. So his funding was not that great. And he would grouse about that once in a while, understandably. So he and I didn't have that much contact.
When you think back, who were the ones that you had the most contact 'with as you began pulling the tree ring lab together?
Let's see. Well we were part of geochemistry for a while. Jim [James] Lawrence who was there trying to do isotopes on tree rings. And that didn't work out as well as we had all hoped at one time. And I felt it was enough to do with the other tree analysis so we kind of, we split that into separate contracts — one for isotope and one for tree analysis, and including density that was a third contract. We just proceeded following those. On the machine shop thing though one thing that probably will upset the Columbia people if they review this is that this company that made the tree measuring systems, they started getting very, very expensive. And not being as good as they should in some ways. And they went to a rotary encoder to attach to their measuring machine. The rotary encoder would send a pulse to a computer that would count pulses and give you dimensions of the translation. From an engineering standpoint going back to my engineering ideas, I could see right away that the rotary encoder was not the best way to do it. The best way is if the linear encoder was affixed directly to the measuring states that were purely positional with no backlash in gearing system. Go from a translational motion to a rotary motion. And so I bought this linear encoder from the company, Teledyne Gurley, and I bolted this linear encoder, made a piece up in the machine shop, to a measuring stage. And this would put out a square wave that could go to the game court in an Apple Two computer and this is mentioned in this paper.
Yes but which one are you referring to? You're on the second page.
Here it is.
Okay, 1982 publication — "Notes on the Microcomputer Measuring Machines". It was on a Tree Ring Society newsletter.
And I bought the linear encoder from Teledyne Gurley and for the slide mechanism I found an industrial company, Bellnex Corporation, that made these translation devices for all sorts of industrial applications. And they sold for about a fifth of the cost of this Henson device made just for tree ring things. So by putting these things together I made about three or four measuring machines for our laboratory to use, and after this paper was published about half a dozen other people at other universities made machines based on this design. And I never patented it or thought of a patent or anything and over the last three years the Bellnex Company has done this — put linear encoders on their machines and sold these as measuring machines to the tree ring lab. They sold seventy over the past several years at around twenty five hundred bucks a pop. And you've of course gotten the electronics improved so that it's flow compatible and things like that. But the basic design is what I did in this '82 paper. And that's now, in the Americas anyway, become almost a standard measuring machine. And it seems to work very well.
Had you thought at all about patenting the machine?
I think about it now and kick myself for not doing so. But at the time I just thought, hey this really works and I'll tell people about this neat idea I have. And that's as far as I took it. In hindsight I probably should have. At that time the university wasn't as keyed up to this idea. About the form I had to fill out and send in about inventions or things like that. But it's a case of getting an idea and seeing it evolve into being kind of one of the standard machines used in the field. But now it's the Bellnex Company and a very few people I think that — the Bellnex people are very friendly to me. Of course they got a great idea and didn't have to pay a nickel for it. But they wouldn't give me a free machine. I kid the salesman about that but he's in a profit making organization so that's it. And yes that was a combination of engineering background and interest in tree ring analysis that I was working on.
How quickly did the tree ring lab grow?
Very, very slowly. It was a gradual evolution. I think the key point was when they got, they had the one contract and it was increasing value. Then we got the second contract to work on X-ray densitometry system.
Is that also NSF [National Science Foundation]?
Yes. And that brought together enough of a core to give us a momentum. But it still was three people. And this just has evolved rather than any kind of threshold that suddenly something turned around or whatever.
Has it been continually growing since the founding?
There have been some flat spots I think. And I'm superstitious enough to never want to plot out exactly how things are going. Just like counting your money when the cards are still on the table. After I look at these things maybe I'll kind of go through, maybe when I retire and I might through and see what it looks like. But what is involved now is that one contract.
Okay, we're looking behind on the wall where your desk is at a series of —
There are thirteen to fifteen, depending on how you want to count them, different sub-projects and contracts or things of various sizes from what they call a big bread and butter one and other ones that are much smaller to ones that actually we're losing money on. So to cover all these things there's a lot more different involvements.
Has NSF tended to remain the principal funder?
It is the principal one. But the one application in the dating of earthquakes is something that I've had up to a quarter of my support; it was a third of my support one year. Now it's down to maybe a couple of months. That's using tree rings as a tool to date prehistoric earthquakes. That's something we're virtually the only group that's had success in that, in discovering, dating undocumented earthquakes. So I've got another new application.
How recent is that?
Our first paper I guess came in '88 when we actually found something new.
What have been the biggest changes in looking back from the present for the tree ring laboratory here? Either in terms of the research direction or just the way in which you find it to do science in the shifting environments.
Well it's not just the laboratory here in some ways. When we got going, for a while there was Tucson and ourselves and just a few other stragglers. Now there are quite a number of people doing tree ring work in many universities in the U.S. and throughout the world — in China, in Russia, in Germany, in Spain, Portugal, France, and a lot of different places, UK. A lot more people active in the field, and that affects you in that it makes you a little bit maybe more driven, you've got to find something and get it out because there's a lot of other people in the field. And if you have some aspect you're looking at, you'd better do it and get it out because people aren't going to wait. They're if they think they've got something worthwhile; they'll go to the same area and. It's different say it's competitive. Though it is competitive in a way, but just a much more active and dynamic field. And of course the computer era has affected it enormously. Communications and things like that. The tree ring lab forum has three hundred people, three hundred subscribers so they go back and forth about different things. A lot of it is, I think unfortunately eighty percent of it probably is kind of drivel, but there's twenty percent of stuff that you really should be aware of and keep track of. So the pace maybe has increased. And one thing, one of my naive ideas years ago was to get a Ph.D. and sit back and be on cruise control and people want your services. And that's totally blown away. Now if you have a Ph.D. and you're towards the later stages of your career if anything you've got to be up and running more often than before. So it evolved into a more frenetic regime rather than a cruise control regime. But that's true probably across the board in all the sciences.
Although as you say the pattern is very different from different sciences. In this area there's been a growth in it — The more complex landscape of institutions.
A lot more activity.
I'm curious how many of those, when those other places that you mentioned or alluded to were founded, how many of them had, were, or are populated from people who came out from Columbia? Who either you trained directly or others through here?
We'd actually, because the curriculum of the department is the geology department, we had only one student and she is still here as a research associate. And most of the proliferations of laboratories are people who have evolved. One of two of them from Tucson, but a lot of them have sort of learned from other things on their own and developed these techniques and things. It's interesting, even graduates of Tucson, it’s surprising how few of them go into tree ring work at another institution. A lot of them go to other fields. It's kind of curious that you don't see — Because they have a curriculum that you can get degrees in tree ring studies, very closely allied. Here, the one student we had, Roseanne, even though she came with a master's in botany, she had to go all the way back to square one and get a master's in geology, real classical geology, progress from there into atmospheric sciences, aspects of using tree rings as a tool in her field. Now the curriculum is somewhat more liberal. One can go into atmospheric sciences or things like that — but at the beginning — and then go on from there. So it's somewhat improved quite a bit. I used to actually just be totally pessimistic about getting students because of the restricted curriculum. And now it would be much more appropriate to try and attract students. So we can't claim that we're some fount. People will come here and do sort of apprenticing for a few weeks or a month or so and then go off and try and do stuff. Someone was here just last week and they're from the University of Alaska. So they're going to go back there with their skills and their abilities improved to go back and do work at their laboratory. That not a student, but a person comes through and gets some on the job training.
Yes. And the important point is the different pattern that one sees in other fields represented.
When you look back what seemed to be the — what are the main accomplishments that you're gladdest about?
The one thing I'm sort of making progress on has been controversial is the idea of getting long-term annual temperatures from trees. This has been very controversial because some people have gone to similar locations and they just don't get the signal; they can't see it. And it's like the person that gave me that bell.
You're pointing to a large bell hanging here on the shelf.
He's done a transect, in fact I went with him, to transect across Canada. And he'd done transects in Alaska, down the Rockies and even in Russia. And he doesn't find the same low frequency signal of annual temperature in the trees. And he feels that I'm somehow just wrong or something is flawed in what I'm seeing and what he's not seeing. And so there's this ongoing debate all through quite a few years. And I keep this idea that he's got to choose your trees and your site very carefully and in recent years there've been a couple of other researchers who have looked at the trees and found what I see in the trees. So there seems to be a gathering agreement by a few other people to see the same annual temperature signal. And also last summer I went to a place where he had sampled trees in Canada and a set of a model of a mountain. And he sampled his trees at the beginning of the trees going down this trail down the mountain. And I stayed at top of this mountain and sampled the trees that were used to be the survivor trees. But in the warming they're now trees covering the top of the mountain, but these are all younger trees. Within this younger forest, there are older trees of the former tree line; the survivors are growing as high as they possibly could. So I sampled these by going around the mountain instead of down the trail and showed that I got by staying high in the stressed area, most stressed area, I got this low frequency signal that he did not see in his trees going down the trail to lower elevations; you know it's I think five hundred meters or so. And so this has been ongoing for a number of years, but 1 think the evidence is beginning to build that if you do this more careful work and are more stringent in your selection of locations to sample trees, you can get this, which is much more valuable information to get an annual temperature information than just a summer temperature from the trees. So this is gradual shifting and we published several papers on this. And they've been quite controversial and have a hard time in the review process. And I see this now changing, but it's going to take a while. It's like the stochastic business we talked earlier. That the evidence will eventually show that there is this low frequency available and you can get more information from the trees with this more careful field approach.
And so that's sort of gratifying to see that. And one of the classic things — we went to Mongolia this past year. And we diagramed some of the age at the meeting. And we have this reconstruction of the Arctic temperatures based on trees at the tree line in North America, Scandinavia and western Russia. So we went to Mongolia and cored trees in a mountain site, tree line in Mongolia and pulled the first core of the first tree, and it looked exactly like this curve that we have that showed the same fluctuations. And so that one of the high points in my kind of career you might say was seeing this signal that had been controversial and argued about. So I feel an important piece of evidence that's going to reinforce the idea of what you can get out of the trees. This is sort of a major theme I guess that will develop. And it's got a way to go but I think the momentum is building behind this idea.
Were there relations with other units of Lamont that you particularly wanted to build but just found for whatever reason were so difficult to build or maintain?
No. I think that's largely my fault. I'm not as really gregarious as I should be so I think it's more a personal thing rather than people being unreceptive or anything. Oh there are occasions, there are some people who are very, very busy and I'm guilty of this myself, you'd like to work with someone but you really got to tend the store so maybe things slide a little more than they should. So it's partly that, but also partly the person.
Right, right. One thing, one more question at least that I wanted to ask you, but let me just ask you right in the moment, are there any themes or issues that we haven't spoken about today, that you particularly wanted to raise?
No, nothing I can think of that's appropriate. You're concerned about the future of Lamont because you've invested something into getting things going and with today's attitude towards science and funding and things like that, there are ominous signs in some areas or maybe Columbia's shifting its policies which could be a positive thing. So things are a little bit in a flux right now and I don't know which way it's going to go. Certain things can make you optimistic; certain other things to be concerned about. So maybe it's just a sign of old age or something wondering about these longer term perspectives. How things are going to work out. Not for myself, but how can Lamont attract younger people to keep itself going.
Yes, certainly a shared concern. These are in many ways extraordinary times. Let me ask one last question. In terms of your personal outlook, I'm curious if you've had either very strong religious convictions or other convictions that you feel have been important in your life?
Or guiding you in any sense.
No I think that — In some ways I appreciate the varied experiences I had early on in my life that gave me somewhat of a different perspective from someone who's been an academician through early years. Even sometimes you can do things. Of course everybody feels they have a better perspective than the next person, but I feel my broader appreciation helps me out sometimes.
Okay. Thank you very much for this long session that we had. And you will be receiving a transcript of the interview from the Columbia University Oral History Research Offices as soon as they're prepared. Thanks very much.