Charles Archambeau

Notice: We are in the process of migrating Oral History Interview metadata to this new version of our website.

During this migration, the following fields associated with interviews may be incomplete: Institutions, Additional Persons, and Subjects. Our Browse Subjects feature is also affected by this migration.

We encourage researchers to utilize the full-text search on this page to navigate our oral histories or to use our catalog to locate oral history interviews by keyword.

Please contact [email protected] with any feedback.

Interviewed by
Kai-Henrick Barth
Interview date
Boulder, Colorado
Usage Information and Disclaimer
Disclaimer text

This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the American Institute of Physics.

This transcript is based on a tape-recorded interview deposited at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. The AIP's interviews have generally been transcribed from tape, edited by the interviewer for clarity, and then further edited by the interviewee. If this interview is important to you, you should consult earlier versions of the transcript or listen to the original tape. For many interviews, the AIP retains substantial files with further information about the interviewee and the interview itself. Please contact us for information about accessing these materials.

Please bear in mind that: 1) This material is a transcript of the spoken word rather than a literary product; 2) An interview must be read with the awareness that different people's memories about an event will often differ, and that memories can change with time for many reasons including subsequent experiences, interactions with others, and one's feelings about an event. Disclaimer: This transcript was scanned from a typescript, introducing occasional spelling errors. The original typescript is available.

Preferred citation

In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:

Interview of Charles Archambeau by Kai-Henrick Barth on 1998 July 24,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,

For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.



The interview focuses on Archambeau's geophysical training at the California Institute of Technology and his career as a seismologist, covering the period before 1970. Major emphasis lies on his involvement in issues related to the seismic detection of underground nuclear explosions and his advocacy for a nuclear test ban treaty. He discusses the Department of Defense's "Project Vela Uniform," which aimed at improving seismic detection capabilities, and he describes Vela's impact on his career on seismology in general.


How did Archambeau become involved with seismology at Caltech? He was a physics student at U of Minnesota, went to grad school at Caltech in 1959, he had a background in geophysics; he was attracted to Caltech because of Caltech’s reputation and the presence of Frank Press; before coming to Caltech he had not been exposed to seismology

How was his research affected by Vela? His was one of the largest classes to arrive at Caltech in geophysics: most of his colleagues agreed that if not for Vela and the money that came in, they would not have gotten an education at that level, because most of his colleagues could not afford to go to Caltech on their own, so they were supported under contracts from the DOD; so the whole graduate career was as research associates working on problems that were of interest to the DOD and CIA and others; other graduate students: Ari Ben-Menahem, David Harkrider [?], Nafi Toksoz, Don Anderson, Robert Phinney, Bob Kovach, Jack Healy, Stewart Smith; just about every seismologists went through Caltech for some time, as visiting fellow, postdoc, or grad student; another phase: students of these people

He worked for United Electrodynamics [UED] and Teledyne (1962-1966).

UED absorbed by Teledyne, they got contract for operating Vela Uniform Center, data center in Alexandria; he worked for them because he needed the money; he promised them to work for them after he was done if they give him some lo ans: they did; paid his way through school; he spent two years at the Data Center

Job assignment: he was staff scientist; he came in at a fairly high level; signal processing techniques, arrays, but also general studies of the structure of the earth, defined more accurately the signal propagation characteristics through the medium in order to be better able to do the monitoring of nuclear tests

Interaction with USGS [U.S. Geological Survey] with [Louis] Pakiser? Cross fertilization, but no intimate collaboration, one knew the other
1. Origin of signal processing with LASA [Large Aperture Seismic Array]: Bob Frosch: but seismic array turned out to be much more difficult process than underwater acoustic array; but it worked and became powerful tool

Archambeau was from very poor mining, immigrant family, he had no clear idea what he wanted to do exactly, no books in his home, no tradition of learning in his home; his high school experience: boring, but College was revelation, he read a lot of history, but no clear idea were to go; started out with geology, but turned out that he is not a good geologist; switched to geophysics, liked the physics and electrical engineering, double major; when he got to Caltech he “was a blank sheet almost;” he didn’t even know what research is

Areas of specialization: he says he was interested in everything, general interest in physics, geology; never very focused at that time

Did he have political interest in test ban issues at that time? Archambeau: sure, he felt strongly about it; he feels that US government partially responsible for the Cold War; he thought that there was a pattern of making it sound a lot worse than it actually was; A: we knew a lot of Russians; he felt always political; his father involved with Unions; always strong liberal family

Interaction with others at Caltech at that point on test ban issues: most of colleagues similarly inclined (he felt stronger about it than anyone); Frank [Press] thought more or less the same than Archambeau, but Archambeau says that Press also a lot more passive than Archambeau

His interaction with [Hugo] Benioff and [Charles F.] Richter? Benioff had retired at that time, Richter never really politically involved; Benioff urbane man, funny witty bright guy, but not that committed as a scientist, unlike Gutenberg, who was old school scientist; Richter was in the shadow of Gutenberg, quirky personality, but not political type, not really interested in test ban issues

Were there concerns about DOD contracts? Yes, there was some: Jim Brune objected working on government contracts, because he thought they were misusing the research and they didn’t really want to solve the problem, so it was just a charade; Archambeau: to some extent there was some truth in that, but no conspiracy or to make bad use of the science

Archambeau says that [Carl] Romney had a cynical view of detection problem, that many people had this cynical view: cynical in the sense that he [Romney] was just doing it because there was a lot of money there and power and prestige; in Archambeau’s view Romney didn’t care whether the problem got solved or not; according to Archambeau Romney did not believe that there was a solution to the detection problem; Archambeau thinks that Romney didn’t care about a solution, that he was a total cynic on this issue; Archambeau doesn’t believe that Romney really wanted to solve the problem; Archambeau says that Carl [Romney] and AFTAC [Air Force Technical Applications Center] people discouraged him from looking into particular area, particular issue, which Archambeau knew he could solve: Romney
said it won’t work; Archambeau: that was a lie: Romney hadn’t looked at it; Archambeau: AFTAC followed the obvious, but didn’t develop creativity to solve the problem of detection. Archambeau: If you really want to solve a problem you have to be very creative, and it was obvious they weren’t. Archambeau: they (Romney and AFTAC) were not really interested in solving the problem

Archambeau: Press did try to solve the problem; Archambeau: Press moved early on from scientist to administrator and policy maker, so he dabbled around, did some science, but then he did something else; Press and Oliver, very smart; but Oliver was a lightweight as far as science was concerned; they didn’t really work focused on the detection problem; they would argue that it was not a scientific but a political problem; Archambeau: they just took the money, educated some students, they got cynical; Archambeau: and good work was ignored

Contact with ARPA [Advanced Research Projects Agency] officials? Archambeau: didn’t interact much with those people, more with scientific people, with Carl Romney, Frank Press

Archambeau: at times found himself of the opposite side of an argument with a former student; when he did the work in Russia, some of his former friends thought that he was nuts; mainly these critics of Archambeau were concerned about losing their contracts;

Archambeau: to do certain things that were perceived as being disloyal to national interest could cost you your contracts; basically problem of “don’t bite the hand that feeds you” (primarily during Reagan era: program with the Soviets drew a lot of criticism: Richard Pearl); many seismologists got scarred about that, didn’t want to be involved; Jim Brune, Jack Evernden worked on these issues

On Evernden: Archambeau: he is a madman, and a friend; he is very smart, but not very well trained, disciplined scientists, but brilliant with volcanic temper; for Evernden, this was major motivation: to solve this detection problem; a lot of Evernden’s work dismissed by others, always in too much hurry to write it up carefully, but always good ideas;

[from memory: I asked Archambeau, whether Jack Ruina’s evaluation of Evernden’s work made sense (R. had said in an earlier interview with me that Evernden solved the seismic detection problem and that he had contributed more than all the effort under the multimillion dollar program of Vela Uniform): A said that that was a silly evaluation, because Vela produced the ground work Evernden built on]

Archambeau: he and his grad student colleagues used to kid around, saying, if not for Vela they wouldn’t get their degrees; probably true; Archambeau thinks that the Vela money did a lot of good; a lot of it was wasted, also; most of the money went into equipment; arrays, LASA; says that [Jack] Ruina didn’t really understand the technical issues; Archambeau: there were some really difficult things to solve: mathematical difficulties, tomography, inversion, why does a spectrum of an earthquake look the way it looks; very difficult problems: non-linear, non-unique etc. ; some had incredibly simplistic views, some thought it’s so complicated you never solve the detection problem, it seems hopeless; Archambeau: it’s not hopeless, it’s just a hard problem; Archambeau says that many people said it was easy to solve and that only politics prevented an earlier solution: Archambeau: it was not that easy; Archambeau: thinks that Romney thought at one point that Evernden might have all the answers and supported him, but then over a period of time they had a falling out over various technical issues, but mainly over political issues; they both thought the same way, oddly enough: same kind of scientific training, Evernden a lot quicker; Archambeau thinks that Evernden is some kind of genius; but in some areas he could be idiotic

Archambeau: Vela had tremendous impact: small field, not many people involved; Vela caused the field to grow enormously; no competition: the oil companies weren’t putting money into education of scientists; Vela’s major impact: make that field flower, building it into a real viable science that made contributions to society (like earthquake prediction, how you find oil, nuclear plant reliability, nuclear waste storage: seed money came from Vela); influence still seen today; Vela spinoff was enormous and it’s still going on: for example, tomography, direct outgrowth of Vela (Archambeau wrote first paper on body-wave tomography in 1965 when he worked at Teledyne: “Fine structure of the Upper Mantle”); Archambeau emphasizes the number of people who were educated under Vela;

Which areas of scientific research were de-emphasized and which were emphasized as a consequence of Vela? A: Studies of sources, never really done before except first motion studies etc.; he said that this followed from interests of scientists, not from Washington guidance; A: AFTAC did work in a kind of primitive way: mainly old school (besides Romney it was Frank Piotte); A: Romney smart man, not too strong in science, but talented guy, he had insight into the problem; he could sort through information; A: Romney “misused some of the science for what he thought were important political ends” ; AFTAC didn’t really impact the scientific work, and they were slow to make use of the scientific results; not uncommon neglect of important results, because AFTAC didn’t recognize them as being important;

Who was at AFTAC who could have digested the scientific results besides Romney and Pilotte? Archambeau: there were some middle level guys who were pretty good (Eisenhower [?] and a couple of other guys), but they were so low in the organization that they had almost no input to major decision making; Eisenhower was trained inside the Air Force, not a Ph.D., he picked it up as he went along, but he was outstanding, says Archambeau, and he made a lot of contribution, but they were under the cloud of secrecy

Archambeau had clearance, worked with AFTAC, but not at AFTAC like Jack Evernden did; Archambeau was on one floor of the Alexandria center and Evernden on another; Archambeau thought that Evernden was kind of crazy; Evernden wanted to solve the problem and felt that nobody else really wanted to solve the problem of detection; A: in part Evernden was right: they didn’t care if you got a nice result: they were just plodding along

Archambeau: the government didn’t have the mindset of “We don’t want to succeed” but many scientists had that mindset, but it was individual, it was not organized, it was not a plot, not a conspiracy; A: Romney wasn’t that much interested in the science per se, he was more interested in making the organization function; Archambeau emphasizes again that he thought that Romney was cynical about the whole problem

Problem of access to data: most scientists would not know what he [Romney] was saying in congressional testimony, because it was classified; but Archambeau was on the AFTAC review panel: Archambeau was one of six people who reviewed AFTAC work; Archambeau wrote a classified document on AFTAC’s role in this whole program as Archambeau saw it (it’s in the Congressional Hearings, but in the classified part: Archambeau had to retrieve all the copies; it’s still classified today, all attempts to declassify it were unsuccessful); I asked about who else was on the AFTAC review panel: Archambeau is not sure whether it is classified information; Archambeau was fired from the AFTAC review panel after the report about what he thought was wrong with the panel (report is mid- 1970s or early 1980s; Archambeau was on the panel for about 4-5 years); it was a review of AFTAC, CIA actions concerning the alleged Soviet violations of the TTBT [Threshold Test Ban Treaty]:
testing above l5Okt for example: Archambeau thinks most knew that that was not the case; but adds that some were ignorant enough not to know: those people didn’t look at data; A says that AFTAC always got the desired results out of the AFTAC review panel except for him; Archambeau: always said that AFTAC is doing this and that wrong; he was isolated: all others against his position, with the exception of Evernden, Sykes; Evernden, Sykes, Archambeau were the primary people to push for test ban in mid-1970s; some accusations that these three did work against security interests of the US from others;

Archambeau: Cold War went on for a long time when it didn’t have to; A: they hid it from the Congress, from the public, and they (people who were running the government at the highest level at that time: most of the high level people at the Pentagon, at the CIA, and most of the people at AFTAC) misled everyone: all the hype about defense budgets; Archambeau: typical hysterical reaction to a threat

What about the seismologists in the 1960s? A: most did just basic science, took the money; but all seismic research was of interest for Vela;

Archambeau very critical of LASA: LASA very expensive, was silly, mammoth overkill, and they wasted a ton of money, and they could have avoided; according to A, academic seismologists didn’t think that LASA was a reasonable idea; A: the people “in the know” felt that LASA was overkill, because crust of the earth so much more complicated than ocean [where LASA concept had worked: ARTEMJS]: coherence would be destroyed over large array; Romney was against LASA, but not for the right reasons, says A: he had his own program, his own agenda; Romney was vindicated in his position, but not for the right reasons

On LASA: [Frosch et al.] dismissed Romney’s objections, arguing that he hadn’t tried it out; Archambeau: they [Frosch et al.] could have done it for much less money; they were looking for a window into the earth; the Russians actually found such a [quite homogeneous] site, their answer to LASA, but it was much smaller (Natalya Dushkin [?])

Archambeau at UED and Teledyne: Archambeau theorist, but in practice not limited to theory: he learned about signal processing, not so much theoretical, more applied

Experience with computers when he came to UED: Caltech had first big IBM mainframes; Bob Phinney and Archambeau were first users in 1959, IBM 709 came then; A says that not even the physicists were using the machine before the geophysicists and seismologists, first to use the big machines in the academic community in a big way; A: geophysicists started with computers in about 1958; influence on computer code from experience of oil exploration or [John] Tukey: Archambeau: Tukey was important, John von Neumann, that whole group, Bell Labs; at that point Archambeau and other geophysicists were computer novices; wave propagation, finite difference stuff, big problems, wrote some big codes, for example, predicting wave-fields from complicated sources like earthquakes (Archambeau tells about difficulties of getting code to work, and how Shelton Alexander, a friend of his and office mate, helps him solve the problem); he finished Ph.D. and started to work at Teledyne (was so poor that he had to send his wife and three children to her parents in Minnesota, because he couldn’t support them)

Teledyne paid well, $18,000 then, now would be about $130,000 [a lot of money], [but he stayed at Teledyne for a year and a half] then he was offered a job a Caltech with tenure, so he took it; Caltech was just more interesting and all his friends were there, Don Anderson was there; Anderson and Archambeau hired Harkrider; Helmberger;

Frank Press had all these graduate students: Archambeau, Harkrider, Don Anderson, and others

Archambeau left Teledyne because we wanted to be with exciting colleagues scientifically

MIT was no option for him then, was considered an engineering school by most scientists; physics department at Caltech (Feynman, Gellman) was incomparably better than at MIT; Princeton and Berkeley the closest thing to Caltech; Caltech was run by physicists; Archambeau: Caltech has this mindset: very provincial, amazing lack of broad cultural interest for so many brilliant people: no interest in politics, no interest in local culture, like a monastery: all they talk about is their science; geophysicists and seismologists were different: hardest drinking, biggest party people (especially Harkrider and Archambeau, says Archambeau); A most of his time in the [Caltech] SeismoLab, like a bunch of kids living in a big mansion; others who were at the SeismoLab at that time:
Harkrider, Benioff, Gutenberg, Richter, Press; like a family, everyone knew everybody’s private business; really isolated, rarely went to campus, rest of their graduate career up in this isolated mansion up in the hill

Connection to the Berkeley students?

Archambeau: sure, we knew them, also at Columbia (Sutton, Sykes, etc.); Lamont, Berkeley comparable status to Caltech; seismologists from St. Louis also accepted as reasonable scientists; Harvard was out, Leet was dismissed; then Penn State (Shelton Alexander) and Princeton came on; Utah and Nevada: Archambeau and his Caltech colleagues didn’t pay too much attention to them; critical mass at Caltech, or Lamont, or Berkeley; Leon Knopoff (friend of Press’s) came to Caltech in Physics for a while, but went back to UCLA; contacts with Lamont: Paul Pomeroy, George Sutton, Jim Brune; in total a pretty small group

Vela was major source of money, and many of Archambeau’s colleagues specialized in Vela related work

More money from NSF after Alaska Earthquake in 1964; reached at peak in the 1980s

Militarization of seismology in the Cold War? A: Seismology might be a counterexample, doesn’t really fit: seismologists did a lot of basic research and it was germane; A: “it was hard to do something that wasn’t germane”

The RFP’s (Requests for Proposals, from ARPA, DOD, AFOSR etc.) of those days:
basically everything one could think of was on there; basically: “if you work in this and this area, send in proposals”; would list for example: source theory, earth structure, very general areas, array processing, signal processing, they had a whole shopping list of tasks they wanted addressed; these RFPs are published in the Commerce Business Daily, but sometimes directly sent to contractor: at Caltech you would get invitation Request for Proposal sent to you, and you could respond or not, and then you could pick and choose what you wanted to respond on; A: the guys in the government learned pretty fast what were the important problems, because they interacted well with the scientists, they went to the meetings, they held meetings [VESIAC meetings, AGU meetings]: Bill Best, Carl Romney, Norman Haskell: they were the interface with the scientists; (policy makers would not come to those meetings)

Funding policy of Best, Romney, Haskell, Bates: any differences? A: Because of their jobs they had different obligations, different mandates (AFTAC had different mandate then AFOSR); Romney didn’t fund much, he funded mainly industrial stuff, systems development; Best’s mandate was to go to the Universities and high-tech companies and get basic research funded; they didn’t use terminology of Vela task X, but the 6.1,6.2., etc. terminology; A: everybody (Best, Romney, Haskell, Bates) had a different agenda

Best funded primarily basic research; A: Best used to say (with too many drinks) he just supports the young guys to give them an education

Best identified very closely with the seismologists, he called them “his people”; he tended to fund things he thought those people would be beneficial to education and more basic research goals that Vela had; his mandate was to get the basic research done; Best accomplishment: to educate many smart young guys to go on

Haskell: Archambeau: he was more of a scientist than the rest of them, far more talented than any of the other people at that level, he was primarily a scientist and only secondarily a bureaucrat; he played a correspondingly muted role in the control of were the science went; he never had a lot of money under his control,

In the 1960s, how would Archambeau choose to who to address a proposal with the choice of agencies such as NSF, AFOSR, ARPA, AFCRL etc.: Archambeau: depends on how much money is involved, how are the probabilities of getting something and do they have any tasks on their Requests for Proposals, that you can do and you are interested in; you picked those you were interested in; you wouldn’t pick those where the competition was too stiff and where there was little money and everybody would apply and the panel which would decide over the proposals was populated with your “enemies” (competitors); scientists have long memory; usually one knew who was on the advisory panel; all had panels; small field

In case you find something on the wish list you write contract proposal and send it in: what happens then? Archambeau: It goes to the panel, they review the proposals, the contract manager sits there, listens and moderates; proposals are ranked; I asked about “blue painting” of proposal: A: of course, everyone does that; A: you try to fit your interest into what they want if possible; but the review panel is a bunch of your own colleagues who do the same thing [and recognize if it’s too far out]; Archambeau can’t remember a Caltech proposal being turned down, they came back and were modified, but not turned down; [I asked about Press’s suggestion of a Seismological Center, which, if I remember correctly, was turned down; he didn’t remember]; Archambeau remembered a big contract, about $2M, which was a boondoggle, complete nonsense: all they did was to store data, says that Press got all that money just on the strength of his name, nobody did anything, complete waste; before the central seismic facilities were in places, Teledyne was still running that center [he can’t remember to much about it]