Louis C. Pakiser

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Interviewed by
Kai-Henrik Barth
Interview date
Denver, Colorado
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Interview of Louis C. Pakiser by Kai-Henrik Barth on 1998 June 15, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/5902

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The interview focuses on Pakiser’s training at the Colorado School of Mines, his career in geology and seismology with an emphasis on his crustal studies in the 1960s. During this period Pakiser headed the crustal studies branch of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and contributed to the Department of Defense’s “Project Vela Uniform,” which aimed at the improvement of seismic detection capabilities.

  • Pakiser’s education and professional training:
    • graduated from Colorado School of Mines in 1942, degree in geology with a geophysics option; than he worked in the oil industry for several years, went to work for the USGS in about 1952; P did graduate work at Stanford (never received Ph.D.) in applied math, graduate work at the U of Colorado in applied math; didn’t get Ph.D. because he had already a responsible position at the USGS; his professor of geophysics was Carl E. Reiland, P learned a lot from him; James Boyd taught him geology (Boyd later became head of Bureau of Mines)
    • P’s interest in geological and geophysical topics: P's brother in law was graduate of Colorado School of Mines, and P decided to go there too; P found out that he was mostly interested in geology and geophysics; degree in geology, and geophysics was a subspecialty; Colorado School of Mines had emphasis on oil exploration and mining; P feels that the School of Mines was very strong in math and applied physics, very difficult school to graduate from; P didn’t consider as an undergraduate to go to programs like Berkeley, Caltech; later he got interested in Stanford and U of Colorado; P thought that School of Mines was the greatest place in the world
    • Flavor of School of Mines: very strong in exploration, very strong in applied geology and geophysics, good school, emphasis on practical matters (now he is a little bit discouraged that they don't care too much about more fundamental questions)
    • How many people in his class: maybe 150; was there a specialization in crustal studies already? P.: not in crustal studies; but seismic exploration, electrical exploration, gravity, etc, but no academic interest in crustal studies per seat that time, and virtually no earthquake seismology at that time
    • Carter Oil: P was recruited just before the war, worked for them in Oklahoma, worked on a seismograph crew, preliminary processing of the data was done in the field then; recording seismic waves from drilled holes and explosives, very primitive, but rather interesting; P felt that he learned a lot from Carter Oil experience; he got an opportunity to become the National Executive Director of the American Veterans Committee and he left Carter Oil (left around 1942-43), and then went into the army
    • War service: made maps for General Patton's third army: used aerial photographs, mainly revising the excellent German topographic maps, brought them up to date; first in England, then late 1943 to Europe
    • Then he went back to Carter Oil: pretty much the same work as before the war for him; main revolution in geophysics came later
  • Why coming to the USGS in 1952? P.: most convenient thing to do, because it was in DC. P was kind of interested in becoming an administrative manager, and he moved into managing geophysical programs and doing geophysical research (P. says that nothing he ever did was planned, it just happened); in his early days at the USGS he worked with Jim Bawsley (sp??), Hank Josting (sp??); P worked with a lot of geologists like Jim Gelui (sp??), Bill Ruby (sp??); Bawsley probably the major influence on P's career; not so much contact with academic geologists at that early stage; quite a bit of contact with industry: wanted to know what the oil companies were doing in geophysics: they were willing to talk to USGS people and they learned a great deal from the oil companies; companies like Exxon, Mobil, Amoco, all very cooperative; not cooperative was Texaco (did not want to reveal what they were doing); oil companies told them what they were doing and would let them look at some of their maps and cross sections
  • In his early USGS career P did a lot of gravity work and magnetic; seismic work came later
  • What kind of scientific questions was he working on then? Regional geology, regional tectonics, interested in basin structure; P didn’t get interested in crust and upper mantle until quite a bit later with Vela: Vela was another shaping factor in his career
  • USGS received its initial funding from AFTAC [Air Force Technical Applications Center] as part of Vela (P: they had all that money and didn't know what to do with it); Bill Diment became the USGS chief of theoretical geophysics, wasn't available for Vela jobs, so P was chosen; P had no previous experience in this kind of work, not a bit, and he saw the opportunity and he took it; P was not involved with IGY [International Geophysical Year] crustal studies at all; before Vela no contact with Merle Tuve; Vela brought Pinto crustal studies; P: feels that it's a strange thing that he was selected to that job, because USGS didn’t have any equipment, he had no previous experience: but USGS had the reputation of a first rate scientific organization; Vela might have looked around for someone else to do it before they came to USGS: for example U of Wisconsin (P doesn’t know the full story, but ARPA and U of Wisconsin couldn't come to an agreement on how the program would be conducted, and so Charlie Bates and Joe Berg came to USGS, and P said: Sure we do it the way you want it
  • At that time at U of Wisconsin: Steynhart, Meyer, George Woollard (sp??); they had a lot of experience in long-range refraction profiling, Bob Meyer very experienced in it (USGS knew nothing about it, except in general terms); why not ARPA with Carnegie and Tuve? P thinks that ARPA wanted an organization with large resources that could take on a program of this magnitude and USGS had the resources
  • How would the selection process work? P: it was complex and he is not sure how it actually worked: says that Frank Press was very strongly involved in that (Press and P close friends and Press had a great deal of influence on Vela program); P doesn’t know how ARPA chose USGS, thinks that Bates and Berg had a lot to do with that [ask Bates!]; P knew Press from cooperative field work between Caltech and USGS before Vela, before 1960: gravity work, seismic refraction work, upper crust and basin structure, and a few experiments attempting to record reflections from Moho, but mainly shallow stuff for structural analysis of Basin and Range; Press did some long-range refraction recording, from NTS shots
  • USGS Crustal Studies Branch: P had about four or five people assigned to this branch (he was chief): John Roller, Wayne Jackson, Jack Healy, later Jerry Eaton (Berkeley Ph.D. and worked at Hawaiian Volcano Observatory): in general small group of people, originally stationed in Lakewood, CO


  • ARPA Order fairly detailed; initially USGS had no seismic equipment, no capability in seismic methods; initially did a number of gravity projects [with Vela money??]; Dave Hill worked with P., P went with a young geophysicist who knew a lot about instrumentation to tour the country: visited U Wisconsin and Carnegie and drew up the specs for refraction equipment: lucky to get a contractor who made wonderful equipment (Fred Hiefer [sp??] developed the equipment); geophones of 2 cycles: 6 vertical and two horizontal seismometers over a 2.5km distance; in the end 10 trucks; nuclear explosion at NTS (about 1962-63): USGS got their trucks out and recorded the explosion with seven trucks (quite an accomplishment): measured crustal thickness in the Basin and Range Province; P: USGS was fairly fast to get into the act; USGS started out with gravity and in less than a year [after Vela contract began] USGS had seismology going; USGS didn’t do any instrument development itself (Don Hoover was the young geophysicist, who knew a lot about electronics and he drew up the specs, and submitted it to companies for bidding); Dresser Electronics was involved; Stanford Research Institute: USGS was in contact but didn’t do anything with them


  • Refraction vs. reflection: reflection shooting hadn’t been developed at that time (Vibroseis), and refraction comparable easy: then mainly refraction shooting; at that time, P says, they thought that reflection might be impossible: that you couldn’t get near vertical reflection; P was not involved in reflection work
  • In preparation for USGS refraction work P read Gutenberg, Byerly, Tatel and Tuve, talked to people at Wisconsin and Carnegie


  • Interaction with Berg and Bates: they would show up every now and then or P would visit them at the Pentagon, very friendly interaction; seeing them about once a month or six weeks and frequent correspondence, and frequent phone calls, technical reports: P: Berg and Bates very easy to work with; big ARPA order 193, support went down in the late 1960s; director of USGS at that time was Tom Nowlan (sp??) and he decided that crustal studies should be a permanent part of USGS program, and USGS picked up support for crustal studies as support from Vela phased out


  • Worldwide net operated by USGS now
  • Interaction of P with Press, Oliver, Herrin? P: very close with Press (he supported P’s group strongly): P says that Press admired USGS, Press helped a lot as an advisor, but not directly involved in the program: Press later became chairman of [Crustal Studies ?] advisory panel; when National Center for Earthquake Research was organized, Press was head of the advisory panel; no direct working relationship with Oliver (but got friendly assistance), less close with Press, but P consulted people like Oliver quite regularly; Crustal Studies Branch didn’t get along very well with Berkeley and Byerly, because USGS put a seismograph network along San Andreas fault (very accurate for earthquake location), and he felt that that was his turf and so he didn’t appreciate the USGS doing that (no real unfriendliness); P: Berkeley net was very useful for regionally studies, but they were widely separated and couldn’t do the things the USGS net could do: USGS could locate hypocenters within a km or two; USGS completely changed how seismic studies were done along the San Andreas fault (USGS stations there put in about 1965-66, with some Vela support)
  • Question of relevance of Vela crustal studies to monitoring problem: P: that’s probably one of the biggest weaknesses: it wasn’t examined too closely for relevance; and the Crustal Studies group pretty much decided what projects to pursue; the general relevance for nuclear test location we needed knowledge of the crust and upper mantle and certainly that was useful information; a nuclear explosion at NTS, even a large one, didn’t transmit seismic energy very far, because the lithosphere is soft and hot there; compared to that: chemical explosions in Lake Superior of 10 tons and they transmitted seismic energy as much as nuclear explosions at the NTS: so it revealed a great deal about cold, brittle crust and upper mantle east of the Rockies and the soft, hot crust and upper mantle west


  • How did people inside the security apparatus react towards Lake Superior results? P: the experiment was 100% supported by ARPA and they were very interested in the results, which were very surprising (extremely well coupled shot); the softness and the high temperature of the lithosphere in Basin and Range Province made the transmission of seismic energy very inefficient; P knew at that time about the geological structure of the Russian test site, but he was not involved in that (Jack Evernden did a lot of this)


  • On Jack F. Evernden: P: Evernden is a brilliant man, but he annoyed a lot of people; P: Evernden is one of the finest public servants P has ever known, but he is a little abrasive; P regards E. as the principal brains behind nuclear discrimination (P thinks that E. should have been elected to the NAS, regards him as a brilliant scientist: says that E. was never able to override the challenge against him by a 2/3 vote [Evernden told me that a single vote, from Griggs, blackballed him]; P regards E. as a great friend of his; P: radioactive age-dating was E’s strength in the beginning (radioactive age-dating of early man)
  • Interaction with Romney: original Vela grant for Crustal Studies Branch came from Romney, so P had quite a bit of interaction then, and later in some meetings together; P remembers that Romney took a very negative view of the possibility of nuclear discrimination;
  • Discrimination work and test detection: P only involved on the fringes, recorded nuclear explosions: P’s group studied earthquakes triggered by the explosions, aftershock sequences (late 1960s; Bob Hamilton and Jack Healy (sp??)); got involved in manmade earthquakes (under his management): succeeded in turning earthquakes on and off by varying the pressure in a group of wells given to them by Chevron; Berry Rowley (sp??) and Jack Healy did that work; Chevron gave access to four wells, and USGS group would increase and reduce the pressure and found that they could tum earthquakes on and off (“lubrication”)


  • USGS and USCGS: P: quite a bit of interaction with Dean Carder; competitive relationship, competing government agencies (P: competition is good, raises performance level of both organizations) and later USCGS seismology was incorporated into USGS (about 1972); USGS moved offices out to Menlo Park and established National Center for Earthquake Research; P felt that USGS outdid USCGS, that USGS was very competitive


  • Vela U impact on crustal studies: P: overwhelming; capability USGS acquired in crustal studies came directly from Vela U support; P: there wouldn’t be any capability in crustal studies without Vela U
  • Pakiser and five people in the beginning in the Crustal Studies Branch: P: we expanded rapidly to a 100 people during the 1960 [!]: geologists, geophysicists, occasionally physicists, highly trained people, people like Jack Healy, Dave Hill, Jerry Eaton; initially prime job was crustal measurements, depth-velocity etc;
  • Was there guidance by Bates to focus on Basin and Range Province? P: yes, Joe Berg pretty well drew up the initial task and he suggested profiles that the USGS should complete and P’s group followed that and as the group expanded they conferred and consulted with Berg and their own ideas entered into it a lot more; Joe Berg was very instrumental in how USGS would approach the problem; P said that there were not really any tensions between ARPA and USGS in these matters, because Berg and Bates were so easy to get along with, never a real dispute
  • Did the Vela assignment change over the years? P: it changed a great deal: we recorded explosions when they were testing decoupling in Mississippi, so missions changed in that direction (Salmon?); ARPA came and asked that USGS set up some stations to measure the shot
  • To what extent did Vela change trends in crustal studies? P: before Vela, crustal studies were primarily concerned with the thickness of the crust (depth to Moho) and it gradually evolved to interest in upper mantle structure, the total lithosphere
  • Influence of Upper Mantle Project [UMP] and Vela U in comparison on crustal studies [both were around in mid 1960s]: P: it became more oriented towards UMP as Vela phased out; P thinks that UMP was NOT totally independent of Vela (thinks that UMP was initially supported by Vela), but leadership was independent; P: genius of USGS program was picking up its own support when Vela support was phased out: very smooth transmission; P: it took a great director of the USGS to do that: Tom Nowlan
  • [P recommends again his GSA Memoir 172 as reference]
  • Interaction with Carnegie and Wisconsin and Michigan in the 1960s: P: not much with Michigan (friendly relations though); Wisconsin: friendly competition (P thinks that they felt that USGS had usurped their program, and they showed USGS how to do things); same relationship with Carnegie (P likes Tuve very much, high respect: but apparently Tuve regarded the USGS as interlopers, because they started out with nothing and in short time USGS was dominating the scene)
  • P doesn’t know why Carnegie or Wisconsin didn't become ARPA’s favorite crustal studies contractor, but thinks that Woolard was thought by ARPA to be the likely leader of this program, but Woolard had ideas different from what ARPA wanted, and USGS was willing to do what ARPA wanted USGS to do; Wisconsin got very little funding out of Vela; Woolard wanted to run a transcontinental geophysical profile, and that was not what ARPA wanted: they wanted to study the area around NTS, and USGS was willing to do that; P: we probably aced Wisconsin out by being willing to do what was wanted by ARPA
  • Was Basis and Range Province already a hot topic in the 1950s? P: yes, not only since Vela; Tatel and Tuve, Press, Joe Berg, did some of the original refraction measurements in this region, so there was a lot of early work done there
  • Expectations about crust and upper mantle in the Canadian Shield were that it would be uniform and easy to study: Lake Superior experiment showed that this was wrong: very complex and non-uniform, big surprise; Lake Superior was chosen because everyone assumed that crust and upper mantle there would be very easy to study: it turned out to be everything but easy


  • GNOME shot: P wrote a paper about that, but doesn't remember any specifics
  • P says that there were a whole list of nuclear shots which played a role in crustal studies; P says that USGS would get classified info about when a nuclear test would be conducted; P had Q-clearance (says that it took 32 months before he received the clearance, because he was a raving liberal and they didn’t really trust P; P emphasizes that he had a strong record of opposing the communist party; he got clearance from Dept. of Interior, from DOD, qualified for Top Secret, but still AEC would not give him clearance, mid 1950s; but apparently Tom Nowlan pushed P’s clearance through)


  • P: the whole field of solid earth geophysics was revolutionized by Vela U, and Bates presided over it; P says that Vela shaped crustal studies more than UMP: UMP picked it up and continued it and oriented it more towards research perhaps, but without Vela the UMP would never got of the ground; Vela U was absolutely crucial, through the early 1970s; P left Menlo Park in 1971 and Crustal Studies Branch was still receiving some ARPA support by that time, but it had phased out by the end of the 1960s pretty much
  • Results in crustal studies under USGS: how would P summarize major results coming out of the Vela U supported work of Crustal Studies Branch? P: we learned a great deal about the structure of the crust and upper mantle in Western US, some very fundamental work (some little work had been done by Press, Joe Berg, and Tatel and Tuve, but not much was known); knowledge of crust and upper mantle in Basin and Range Province, and later the contrast in crust and upper mantle structure east and west of the Rocky Mountains: Rockies important boundary: everything to the West characterized by soft, hot crust and upper mantle, and everything to the East is cold, brittle crust and upper mantle: that came out of Vela U; also determinations of boundaries within the upper mantle: 350km discontinuity etc.
  • In ARPA Order 193 reference to shadow zone and first motion studies: does P remember any work on this? He recalls shadow zone at shorter ranges, but not the 2,000km shadow zone


  • Did P keep any records from this time? No, he really didn’t; says that most is summarized in publications like GSA Memoir 172, but he has no records


  • How important were underground nuclear explosions for crustal studies in the 1960s? P: extremely important: wonderful sources of energy; P didn’t like the idea of nuclear testing and he would have signed the moratorium much earlier; [I asked why no reference in any of the crustal studies papers to the Press-Griggs paper “Probing the Earth with Nuclear Explosions”; he didn’t really reply, talked about Griggs instead: says that Griggs was wonderful man, full of contradictions]


  • Lake Superior experiments: first series in 1963: Wayne Jackson, who was one of P’s managers, was in charge of that, USGS coordinated the whole program; USGS set off the explosions; US and Canadian academic institutions participated very cooperatively; USGS got along well with Wisconsin on this experiment; Carnegie might have been involved in it; Steynhart was involved in it; second series in 1964, and Early Rise in 1966 (P remembers that the co-authored a paper with H.A. Meyer (sp??) on that); there again field work coordinated by Wayne Jackson; Vela was involved in that, with Joe Berg and Charlie Bates (P doesn’t remember who succeeded Bates and Berg on the ARPA side)


  • Management structure in Crustal Studies Branch: people like Jeff Healy and Wayne Jackson did some of the contacts with contractors (this was primarily P’s responsibility); very loose organizational structure; P: you just can’t have command science, it doesn’t work: he let it function as a free wheeling organism that needed an occasional nudge in this or that direction to keep it on the ball, not a tightly managed organization; when Bates and Berg would visit, they would see P, Healy, Eaton, Jackson, Berry Rawley (not involved in Vela)


  • P’s involvement in test detection work: P was in the meetings were detection work was discussed, and he says he wished his group would have contributed more, but Jack Evernden did that; P feels that Evernden solved the problem (talks about Ms-mb), together with Lynn Sykes (Sykes apparently nominated Evernden for NAS twice); P credits Evernden with really cracking the problem; Evernden managed for a while the Vela U program, so P went to E. to ask for support (says that E. managed Vela U after Bates [Bates left in 1965, and Evrnden came in 1968 or 69, so there must have been someone in between; who?? Lukasik?]) P says that USGS got quite strong support from Evernden


  • P: all of the Crustal Studies Branch results were received positively, USGS didn’t get a lot of criticism; later on they discovered that there were all kinds of holes in the data and interpretations; P emphasizes that he feels that USGS should have done more about the detection problem, calls it one of the weaknesses of the Crustal Studies program; it was in the job description of ARPA, but his group was never able to come to grips with that problem: his group never made a major contribution to nuclear discrimination


  • Where USGS crustal studies results picked up by others for detection problem? P: Yes, by Eugene Herrin (no close working relationship with P’s group), very creative scientist; P emphasizes again that this was main weakness of his program that it didn’t contribute enough to ARPA’s main task of nuclear discrimination; his group’s data were used, propagation paths etc.; says that they were not smart enough, but Evernden was; question of preferences: he says that his group was not easily diverted from its main interest [crustal structure]; says that Jack Ruina was probably a little critical of USGS’s crustal studies program, that it really didn’t tackle some of the major problems; Ruina felt that the USGS program should be more mission oriented
  • How did people like Jackson and Healy feel about the test detection work: P: Jack Healy felt strongly about it and felt that they should do much more about it; Jackson was the field manager (P calls him an operational genius), but main interest in putting in seismic networks, managing field programs (P recommends that I should talk to Jack Healy: P says that Healy was one of the major influences on the program, but that he couldn’t finish a paper; so Berry Rawley finished a paper with Healy: recruited Dave Griggs and Bill Ruby (sp??) and Healy ended up as number one author; turned out to be a great paper; aftershock sequences from NTS explosions: Jack Healy would not finish it, so Bob Hamilton would take it over); P: Healy is a very imaginative scientist, worth talking to (Healy very interested in earthquake prediction, feels that we failed)


  • says that all seismologists are disappointed about what came out of the earthquake prediction work; P had worked with Press in developing a program for prediction, and produced that document “A ten year program of research” [NAS?] Then a great deal of hope, but that hope has not been borne out; Healy is one who continues to have hope (P doesn’t have so much hope, but wouldn’t say it’s impossible: USGS is continuing to look into prediction, but not as a major activity
  • Alaska earthquake and prediction: P says that there was a strategy to move from Vela to prediction work; P: Crustal Studies Branch decided to move operation to Menlo Park from Colorado after Alaska earthquake and set up the National Center for Earthquake Research, because they wanted to capture the opportunities that earthquake prediction offered in terms of federal funds; [I noticed that a lot of people who worked in monitoring work in the early 1960s appear in the Japan-US conferences on prediction in the late 1960s: P confirms that]; P: the interest in earthquake prediction increased awareness not to build directly on San Andreas fault, so it influenced public development quite a lot, even so prediction was not successful


  • Vela carried over into National Center for Earthquake Research (was part of the USGS, part of Office of Earthquake Research and Crustal Studies, P was chief of Crustal Studies); who was P’s boss in the hierarchy: Chief Geologist, Hal James; P was at the office level is above the branch: branch, office, geologic division is the highest


  • His involvement in professional organizations: AGU (P was very active here, seismology and geodesy sections), GSA (very active here), SEO (P never terribly active there, not even a member now), not member of SSA anymore, never particularly active, but went to annual and regional meetings; AGU was growing fantastically in the 1960s; P.s primary interest in geology and he was always more interested in GSA than AGU or SEO
  • P’s time after he left National Center for Earthquake Research: P left in 1971, moved to Colorado, became chief of Branch of Seismicity and Earth Structure (later became branch of Global Seismology); P also responsible for the National Earthquake Information Center in Golden for several years
  • His scientific interests in the early and mid-1970s


  • P retired officially in 1979
  • People from NOAA (former USCGS people) were transferred to Branch of Seismicity and Earth Structure, and P was responsible for absorbing these people into the USGS, some become very good friends, like Bill Spence (sp??)
  • [P recommends that I should talk to Jack Healy and Dave Hill at Menlo Park, still there; Jerry Eaton is there too]