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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Wallace Broecker by Ronald Doel on 1997 May 8,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Childhood and upbringing in Chicago [Oak Park], recollections of family members; involvement in religious activities as youth; attends Wheaton College, recollections of courses and social environment at Wheaton; early interactions with I. Laurence Kulp and Paul Gast. Transfers to Columbia University; early impressions of Lamont Geologica 1 Observatory [LGO]; impressions of relations between Kulp and W. Maurice Ewing; recollections of conflicting interpretations of C-14 ratios in ocean water samples; impressions of Harmon Craig and Gerald Wasserburg; interactions with Columbia University geology faculty, including Walter Bucher. Impressions of graduate and undergraduate teaching at Columbia; recollections of Hans Suess; impressions of relations between LGO geochemists and Lamont scientists in other fields; recollections of Heezen-Ewing tensions and Heezen presentation at 1965 meeting of the Second International Oceanographic Congress (Moscow); relations with Ewing involving promotion and tenure and impressions of Ewing’s intellectual domination at Lamont; role as faculty senate member at Columbia University; recollections of proposed relocation of LGO; impressions of funding shifts involving oceanographic research, l960s-l970s; recollections of experiences onboard Vema; recollections of Henry C. Kohler. Also mentioned: Thomas Aitken, Jacques Barzun, Michael Bender, Bobby Fischer, Tom Chapin, W. Theodore de Bary, Fred Donath, James Dorman, Charles L Drake, Walter R. Eckelmann, Rhodes Fairbridge, Arnold Finck, GEOSECS program, Bruno Giletti, Billy Glass, Ralph Halford, Patrick Hurley, John Imbrie, International Decade of Ocean Exploration [IDOE], John Knuckles, Norman Kroll, Polykarp Kusch, Devandro Lave, William J. McGill, Jack E. Oliver, Neil Opdyke, Philip C. Off, Arie Poldervaart, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Robert R. Shrock, Boris Spassky, Sterling Forest [NY], Arthur N. Strahler, Lynn Sykes, Taro Takahashi, Manik Talwani, Charles Tucek, Harold C. Urey, George Wetherill, Joe [J. Lamar] Worzel.
This is Ron Doel and this is a continuing interview with Wallace Broecker. Today is the eighth of May, 1997, and we’re making this recording at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York. You know one of the questions I never got to ask you in the last interview was whether you had seriously thought of going to any other place for your graduate training. It seems natural that you would stay at Lamont.
Not a bit. No. I was so naive and knew nothing about any competition that I got here for a summer. As I said before, I came in the summer of 1952 and by some time in 1953 I was running the radiocarbon lab. So, I mean, the opportunity was obviously so enormous, and Kulp, you know, was clearly going to take care of me. And I liked it here. I liked the East. And never wanted to go back to the Midwest. I didn’t, you know.
It seemed a natural progression but I just wanted to make sure that—
— that there hadn’t been other institutions.
Was there a difference when you moved from being an undergraduate to a graduate student when you look back? Or did that seem to be pretty seamless?
Well, one thing I noticed is that the teaching in some cases, and the physics department at Columbia, was horrible. That things that I had learned before when retaught, you know, I started to realize that it wasn’t me, it was that if things are taught properly you can learn them, and if they’re not, it can be very confusing. And so I had a couple of professors who were really lousy teachers. And so that, you know, that made it somewhat more difficult, but I liked the work here. And so I don’t—I think it was different than if I’d come here on my own as an undergraduate with no protection. I mean I had friends who were taking the same courses who were also here, and so, no.
Who were the people you were closest to when you were in the graduate school?
Well Paul Gast.
Paul Gast, of course.
He, you know, was the reason I was here.
Bruno Giletti, who’s a professor at Brown. He and I started here the same day. Paul Damon, who’s a Professor Emeritus now at Arizona [State University]. John Knuckles who was in the physics department, also from Wheaton, he later became director of Livermore National Lab. George Bate who was my Professor of Physics at Wheaton, but he had only a master’s degree then. He came here for a Ph.D., and we were quite close.
That’s interesting. So he came here at the same time that you were, roughly.
He came a year earlier. So he ruined my junior year at Wheaton by not being there. They didn’t have much of a physics department without him. And then he went on to teach at Westmont College in, in Santa Barbara, California. To a lesser degree Walt Eckelmann, whose name you have probably come across. Karl Turekian. Early in my graduate career, Karl was working downtown and he was a couple years ahead of me. Later on when we opened this building here, he moved here. And then he became, you know, we became closer. Chuck Tucek was a technician who helped build the radiocarbon lab. I worked very closely with, Tucek. He’s now does radiocarbon work at a radiocarbon lab at Tucson [University of Arizona] as a technical person. I guess those were the main ones.
I’m wondering which of the geology courses that you took in the Ph.D. program were particularly memorable?
Did I tell you about Bucher’s structural geology?
I don’t think so yet.
Well, my first course in geology ever was Bucher’s structural geology. Now Bucher was supposedly, you know, a famous scientist and a great teacher. And he started out teaching us from Schrock’s handbook of layered rocks which is like reading the Encyclopedia Britannica, except worse. And he talked about top and bottom for about half a semester and rain drop imprints and ripple marks and.
That’s right. That’s right.
So I got, Paul Gast and I and Bruno all took the course. And we all got B+s. When I tried to register second semester, he told me I couldn’t take the course. And I asked why. He said, “You’re still an undergraduate,” which I was. Because I was a senior. And I said, “Well, Professor Bucher I got a B+ last semester.” And he said, “You cannot take my course.” And, you know, I really got pissed off. I said, “You know, there’s absolutely no—“ He says, “I do not teach undergraduates.” So, I went to Kulp and he said, “Hey, wait a minute.” I mainly wanted to take it because I could have the protection of Bruno and Paul, you know. We could suffer through it together. So he let me in. They got their B+s and I got a C-, which probably prevented me from getting into Phi Beta Kappa. So when I eventually, a couple of years ago, was given an honorary Phi Beta Kappa, I told that story and everybody laughed. So we did probably the same work the second semester as the first, but he was going to prove I was an undergraduate. That bastard. I really—
I meant to ask you. Did you have any courses directly under Ewing during—
—during this time?
I didn’t. Ewing never taught.
Didn’t he have an occasional seminar or something?
Well, he may have had a seminar, but during that period that I was a student, Jack Nafe taught most of the courses. That was a complaint that, you know, students got almost all their — not that he was a bad teacher, but that they weren’t getting much diversity. I don’t know if [J. Lamar] Worzel taught very often. He probably taught a course in gravity. But, no, I didn’t take any geophysics from anybody.
Did you have classes from Jack Nafe?
No, I didn’t take any geophysics.
None at all?
No. I took physics, geology and geochemistry. Took geomorphology, petrology, mineralogy. A number of physics courses even during graduate school. I took radiochemistry, and chemistry. I took — it was basically a statistics course — it was like a strategies for measurements course, analyzing measurements given by one of the chemists. Thermodynamics in physics, not in chemistry. Oh, I took chemical physics in physics, I mean, in chemistry. So I guess I took about half of my courses out of the department. I took differential equations from the engineering department. So we had quite a, I think more of a mix of courses outside the department than people do now. Of course, we had less within the department.
One thing I was curious about, did you have a chance to travel to other research facilities during those, the years that you were a graduate student? Did you get out to Scripps or to Woods Hole [Oceanographic Institute]?
Well, I certainly went to meetings, and I had that one visit to Washington for the lab of Hans Seuss when I was, that was very early.
Do you remember when that was?
That was early in the 1950s?
That was the one that told me to be “dynamic incompetent.” Well, we went down there to—we were doing solid carbon, and it was getting difficult because nuclear testing was loading the air with strontium 90 and cesium and they would tend to get onto the solid carbon and produce, especially the strontium 90, would produce false counts, background contamination. And so people had started gas count, and one of the people was Hans Seuss at the USGS [United States Geological Survey] and he made a settling, and so we went to see how he did it. And while we were there, Kulp had gone out to the men’s room or something, and he said to me, he said, “You know, young man, a lot of scientists are ruined because they become administrators. They make lousy administrators and good scientists are lost, they never get back.” And he said, “You have got to avoid that.” And I said, “Well how do I do it?” And he said, “Be a dynamic incompetent.” And I said, “What does that mean?” He said, “Three or four outrageous acts every year.” So I—
Have you lived up to that?
Worked very well. [Laughter] So that was one visit I remember.
What were your impressions of? I don’t mean to interrupt you. Go ahead.
I’m just curious what your impressions were of Hans Seuss. How well did you get to know his research program when you visited?
Well, you know, one of the things you have got to realize is that our professor was generally hated by everybody on the outside. Which made it more awkward for us in our early student years to have much to do with other labs because they felt he was an idea thief. And so we weren’t particularly welcome. Paul Gast did a lot of work down — his research — at the geophysical lab in Washington. And they welcomed him. He did fairly well. I guess I didn’t really while I was a, until near the end of my student days, I didn’t really visit many labs. I went to a lot of meetings. And one year Kulp went to England for a sabbatical and he got the university to put up money to bring eight or ten of the most prominent geochemists here for a week. So we had Wasserburg, Craig, Hurley, Winchester, and I can’t remember all of them. But that was really good because I had a week with each of them. And, you know, so I got to know them that way.
That must have been an extraordinary experience.
That was really good. That was really good. And we had good students here so that people that came really enjoyed it. So I suppose it wasn’t until I got my Ph.D. that I started to see other labs.
And this was while you were still getting your Ph.D. that Kulp had gone to England for that sabbatical?
Yes, that must have been. That was the first year I taught. Because I also had to teach a course in chemistry for geologists. Thermodynamics physical chemistry. So I had never had physical chemistry, you know, but I had taken thermodynamics. And so I had to really learn on the job. And then eventually I wrote that book, Chemical Equilibrium, because I taught that course for twenty or so years.
When you think back to that time when Wasserberg and Craig and Hurley and others were coming, were there any particular memorable moments, times when? Did it influence the research or the ideas that you had in ways that you think about now?
I don’t think their visits did as much as reading papers that some of them wrote. I mean they were more mathematical. It sort of alerted me to how to go about thinking about simple models for earth systems.
A broader integration of systems?
Yes. I remember I derived a thing for lead isotopes all on my own. And I was so proud of it. And Paul Gast said, “Well, you read this journal, George Wetherall just published the same kind of thing.” And I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, it reinforced that I could, you know, think at the same level he did. And Craig wrote a paper on box modeling which really impressed me. You know, a new way of thinking. Just it wasn’t — nobody here was talking about that. And it was a very nicely organized paper — mathematical. Not difficult math, but that had a big impact on me. So more by reading things than by actually meeting people.
What range of journals do you remember reading at that time?
That one paper by Craig was in Telesis. And then, the predecessor to JGR [Journal of Geophysical Research] was what, Transactions to the American Geophysical.
Indeed, right. So these were, for the sort of field that you came to settle in, it seems the results were scattered over quite a few journals.
Because there was no Geochemic Acts and there was no Earth and Planetary Science Letters. People published in Geology or they published in the Bulletin of the GSA. There was one other, but I can’t seem to remember, that people would put articles on radio isotopes in. But I mean there was nothing, you know, for radiocarbon in the ocean and things like that. I don’t even remember where my papers were published.
I’ve just pulled your CV out and looking at the earliest papers, there’s wide spread between Nucleonics.
Yes, we used to publish in that. Nucleonics used to pay us. We liked that.
Is that right?
So we’d go to World Series games and stuff with the money. They paid. It was a reverse page charts, they paid you by the page.
Very interesting. That was unusual, even for that time.
Very unusual. Yes, that lead 210 half-life thing I think was in Nucleonics, one of the early papers.
That’s right. That is in fact your first paper and I was curious how that one came about. You’re a second with Kulp and also with Ekelmann.
Well, I helped with the measurements. As I remember, we needed to do that, we did it by measuring radon. I remember the decay product of radon. And we went to the U.S. Radium Company downtown to get radon samples. And I remember they would come out, down a little chute into this leaf electrometer, a really crude instrument. And the technician that measured them was missing two fingers and we asked him why. And he said, well I’m a little sloppy. I do my calculations while the radon is still around. So he had actually lost his—
He lost his fingers?
—to radiation, yes. And we then — that gave us a mole number of atoms of lead 210. And then we measured the radioactivity of the lead 210, I guess, to get the half-life. I think that’s the way we must have done it. So I think it was an idea of Kulp and Eckelmann and I just helped with it. That was not my own.
I was just curious if you played a role in writing the paper itself or was it more in the measurement and gathering of the data?
I suspect that Eckelmann and Kulp did most of the writing, but I don’t remember. I may have helped. I mean, I don’t think they just stuck my name on it. I certainly was involved in arguing about the accuracy and the technical points. I remember that. So it was more than just being a technician.
How did that work? Did you argue it through once Kulp had written a draft up?
I mean Kulp was a kind of guy that you could interact with freely and you could argue with him. And we were a very open group. There was never any problem with people hiding results from their colleagues or holding back. I mean, my god, we used to stand on top of the tables and shout at each other. I mean, if anything, we were too interactive. We really took science seriously and we had a lot of seminars and a lot of discussions. And we, since the field was small, and the subject material was, even though broad, kind of simple, we each knew quite well what was going on in the fields that others were working on because Kulp had people doing lead isotope measurements, strontium isotope measurements, carbon 14, strontium 90, and we were pretty well versed in all of those things, plus probably everything that was going on in geochemistry because it was pretty simple in the fifties. So yes, we had a very good group. It was a very good training, it was inspiring.
Do you have money to bring in geochemists from other places to talk here?
Oh yes, yes. I don’t think we’re ever limited that way. A lot of people come through here. And we hold these mini-conferences, you know, for things that I’m interested in. If I’m interested in something, I’ll just hold a mini conference.
Get four or five of the people that know the most about it. No, that’s never been much of a problem. We have, if anything, too many seminars at Lamont in general.
You thinking more of the present period or even back in the 1950s?
We’ve always been a place with a lot of—I think what was missing during those early years was that Kulp and Ewing hated each other and that meant that — you asked why I didn’t take courses in geophysics. Well, geochemistry was sort of a world unto itself. And we didn’t interact strongly at all with the people that were under Ewing because in Ewing’s group he was the dominant person, and he wanted to know what everybody was doing. And they did, you know, pretty much what he wanted. I think Kulp gave people much more, you know, a longer leash to do what they wanted. And I think he probably in those days produced better students because of that. Although Ewing certainly produced some good students.
You mean compared to the 1960s when things began to change.
Well, they didn’t really start to change much until ‘66 or ‘67. It was the first twelve years that I was here. We used to call this North Vietnam.
Is that right?
Oh yes. And Ewing’s eventual wife Harriet, we called her Madame Nu.
I hadn’t heard that before.
Well, we did in geochemistry. Because she more reflected his feelings than he did. I mean, he was a polite man in general although he could lose his temper and be a real beast. But she would filter all of his calls. And sometimes she’d be very friendly and sometimes she’d just be totally icy. And it was clear from the first five words what mood she was in that day. And so we were—like Mike Bender who was one of my early students, he’s been at URI [University of Rhode Island] and he’s now moving to Princeton [University]. We were working on manganese nodules, and he wanted to look at some of the deep sea photographs. And Ewing had, you know, zillions of them because they took camera stations almost every time they stopped the ship. And he wanted the camera stations for a leg that Taro Takahashi and I had run. And he went in and asked for them, and Ewing yelled out of his office to his secretary, “What in the hell does this pirating bastard want my photographs for?” And here was this guy, just a student, you know, and I don’t know if he got to look at the photographs or not. But that was par for the course. That was his stuff. And we weren’t even, you know, unless he wanted us to— we couldn’t even look at it.
Really interesting. Is this the mid- 1960s? Already the time?
Yes. Probably later in the sixties. It was probably more like ‘67 or ‘68. The Vietnam War must have been well underway. About the time, within a year of the big bust at Columbia in that period. Because that’s when Mike got his degree around in there.
So it’s around the same time that the [Bruce] Heezen, and [Marie] Tharp controversy was going on.
Yes. Yes. So there were — first of all it was mainly Kulp, but then Heezen was added to the list in ‘65 or whenever that Moscow thing happened.
What was that Moscow event? I’ve heard that from a number of people. I was curious. Were you at the Moscow?
Yes. I was the only one that heard that paper in Moscow. There had been some interest in looking for reversals in cores. Arid I remember Taro and I when we went to Tokyo, on the Hawaii to Tokyo trip, took cores for this. And actually John Foster, who was working for Neil Opdyke, measured them. And we got what today would be a raggedy record. It showed the Bruns Matayama magnetic reversal but it had a lot of noise in it. And I remember Ewing was furious because we really pretty well ruined one red clay core to get these samples because we had no decent way to punch them out and so we had to stick tubes in and then pull them out. Which meant you not only got the tube but you got — and then we threw all that away. So the core got pretty bad. And then we sort of gave up on that and then just a few months later, probably we went one summer, and then probably the next summer, Billy Glass, who was a Heezen student, and John Foster did an Antarctic core and got a beautiful record. And the reason was that it was higher latitude. And they wrote a paper on this. And I had a pre-print of it in my briefcase when I went to Moscow. And I got there, and I had marked on my program papers I wanted to go to hear. And there was a Russian giving a paper on I don’t know what, and I went into his talk and I did a double take because the man in the room wasn’t the Russian that was supposed to be talking, it was Heezen. And I looked at my program and Heezen wasn’t on the printed program. So what I guess had happened is that the Russian’s talk was canceled and Heezen, who had also got a pre-print, had got himself on the program. So he was giving this talk. And I just pulled the pre-print out, and he had made slides of all of the— there was no overhead in those days— slides of all of those figures and tables and whatever it was. And he showed them all. And at the end, he said there hasn’t been a magnetic reversal for seven hundred thousand years, we’re overdue for one. And in that early paper Jim Hays here had claimed there were extinctions that occurred at the time of these boundaries. So Heezen said that man may be the next one to go extinct. And of course then he had a press conference, and every newspaper and magazine in the world published something about this. And of course he got most of the credit. He was not an author on that paper. But the paper was—the senior author was one of his students. So he used that as an excuse. To my knowledge nobody had given him permission—I mean of the authors. They were totally surprised that he had given this paper. And of course everybody was really upset that he did that, and that was when Ewing tried to break his tenure. That was the main.
You feel that was the real breaking point? There’d been tensions before.
Oh, there’d been tensions before, sure. But, you know, they’d done a lot of cooperative work. And they were a good team. Because Heezen had the imagination and Ewing had the drive. Although Heezen had a lot of drive too. But, they were—maybe Ewing was also angry. Heezen gave a talk that had Ewing’s name on it at the UN conference which tried to explain the global ridge thing that they’d found by an expanding earth. That the earth had gone up until the Devonian or something and then all of a sudden it got pregnant and increased its volume by a factor of eight or something because he wanted basically to have the surface small enough that the existing continents covered it all. And then this happened, and the continents got spread out.
It’s a pretty extraordinary curve.
Yes. And for Ewing, a physicist, to put his name on this was rather bizarre, Because there was no—I mean, your intuition would tell you, there’s absolutely no way the earth could have been that dense in the first place. And if it were, of course, why would it stay that way for such a long time and then very late in its history decide to do that? You know, it wasn’t as if it had grown slowly, it would have— they wanted this to happen all in one fell swoop, to create this ridge crest. Because they—geophysicists—couldn’t cope with continental drift. So this was a way to avoid continental drift. So they had in a sense the right idea to create the ocean basins, but they didn’t have the idea that you could get rid of crust at the same time.
When you said “they” a moment ago, who here accepted Heezen’s idea of the expanding earth?
Nobody. Everybody thought it was bizarre. Now, he may have. You know, Ewing’s a busy guy. So you could imagine he said, “Well I’m going to give a talk on this” and Ewing didn’t pay much attention. I never heard any repercussions. But it could be that Ewing, you know, heard by the grapevine that people were laughing at him for giving this paper. I don’t know. You know, if I were a senior geophysicist, I would have laughed at him.
It sounds like that Moscow meeting created a lot of hard feelings back at Lamont once he did that. Was that your impression?
When Heezen did that?
When Heezen had given it?
Oh yes, the faculty voted—and I regretted voting positive—to break his tenure. Because we thought it was really— that that was really bad. It was sneaky in that he—and to say that because it was his student. If he had any connection with the paper, he should have had his name on it. So his only connection was that he was nominally the student’s advisor. But as far as anybody knew, he had nothing to do with the research you know. Now maybe he’d encouraged the student to go do it. Who knows? I mean those are things that only Billy Glass would know for sure. Oh yes, there was a lot of anger over that. But that was in the beginning of the summer, and this went on. And Ewing was trying to get rid of him. And on Labor Day, I came up here. And I knew Ewing was always in his office on holidays and he didn’t have Harriet there to protect him. And so I went over there to talk to him about Heezen. And he said, “Wally, what’s the problem?” And I said, “Well, after seeing all this in action, I’ve decided it’s pretty much equivalent to a lynching.” [Makes noise like an explosion]
Your hands are telling a story.
Yes, well he was angry. And Chuck Drake had told me. He said, “Wally, you’re going to have a show down with Ewing because you’ve got a big mouth. But he’s got, he’s the world’s greatest verbal counter puncher, and he’ll tear you apart. So when you have your show down with him, shut your fucking mouth.” So we glared at each other across the table over there for forty minutes — forty-two minutes, I timed it.
Did you really?
In fact my dog, beagle dog, disappeared. We didn’t get him back for two weeks. My wife was furious. What did you do with the dog? Well I was just going to talk to Ewing for a couple minutes. I left him out in front of the building. He was gone. [Laughter]
This is extraordinary. You literally were locked in a stare with Ewing over this issue.
And he had — well, he had accused me of being a lily-livered bastard. I mean that’s what he said in response. And the trouble was that I was at Cal Tech [California Institute of Technology] as a visiting professor and they wanted to hire me.
You had gotten an offer from them. That was ‘63 wasn’t it?
Yes. And at that time, to come back here, I demanded to have a full professorship because I just needed the money more than anything else. And so we had a meeting with Jacques Barzun. Ewing and I and Barzun and whoever the dean was. And we —.
Was that Polykarp Kusch at that time?
No. No. This was. He was provost.
Was provost prior to Barzun?
I don’t know if it was Fraenkel or Fraenkel’s predecessor. But.
What happened at that meeting?
Well, Ewing. I wanted two things. A full professorship and to hire Paul Gast back from Minnesota. Because I said that Kulp, meanwhile was not doing as much as he did, and that he really tossed an awful lot of the responsibility for this huge enterprise to me. And I said, “I can’t handle it. It’s too much for me. And I need another person.” And so Ewing wanted to get rid of Kulp. So he wanted, in this meeting, for me—he essentially put words in my mouth. He said that Kulp was really running his company and doing nothing in geochemistry. And I said, well, that’s not quite right. He is running a company, and he’s probably putting more, like most professors at Columbia do, as far as time. I said, it’s not that he’s doing nothing. He used to be like you are Doc, a sixteen-hour-a-day man. He isn’t any more. And I said that’s the problem. It took a sixteen-hour-a-day man to run the place. So Ewing was furious because I undercut him. But I wasn’t going to, you know, I wasn’t going to lie for him. I mean Kulp had been — he put me in a very difficult position because I didn’t know that this was going to happen. But boy, he remembered. And so in this meeting when he said that, I said, “Okay, if that’s what you think of me I’d better go somewhere else. I can’t work with a director who thinks I’m a lily-livered bastard.” And that was forty minutes. And then he withdrew to the point minimum — as if to indicate, “Well, I don’t want you to leave, but I’ll hate you forever.” And so that we came to sort of an accommodation where he had to admit he wanted me to say. But it was never the same. I mean he held that against me, of course. Because he knew he didn’t have control of me. Re wanted control of people. And once he knew you were not afraid to stand up to him and you’d say, “Well, I’ll go get another job, and it might be difficult, but I’ll get one. I’m not worried about that.” And I wasn’t. I could have. I knew I was marketable and could get a job. More or less wherever I wanted. So, yes. So Ewing couldn’t control Kulp or Heezen and that was part of the problem. The other part of the problem is that Kulp did do some really bad things. I mean he did some very good things; he also did some very bad things. And so, I mean, Ewing had his reasons for— Heezen did some bad things too. But Kulp and Heezen were both very good scientists. They were really smart people who did a lot. And probably a lot of Lamont’s reputation today is only because Ewing had those two guys here, you know, who weren’t his robots. A lot of the other people were totally domineered by him. Not that they weren’t good scientists, but they weren’t as good as they would have been. [cross talk]
Had they not been — who do you feel were in that group? Who really were dominated by Ewing’s presence.
Well certainly Worzel, [Henry James] Dorman. I think Jack Oliver was the first one, the next one to pull away and make it clear that he would run his own empire. So Oliver. Chuck Drake. I think Nafe probably didn’t do much research because he didn’t want to be dominated, you know. Maybe that was the way Nafe avoided it. I don’t know. I was never close enough to Nafe to know.
But when Oliver put up the building here and moved the operation—
—you mean that was the intellectual break.
He really became independent. And then Lynn Sykes, you know, was his student. But those people all left eventually. [George] Sutton. I never knew as much about Sutton. But I would guess, you know, he was in the same situation. But I think it was more so the people who went to sea and did, you know, seismic work at sea or gravity work at sea.
Was [Manik] Talwani in that group?
Yes, he was. He was in the gravity. So he was sort of Worzel’s student. I think Talwani, until he became director, was not as powerful a figure. I mean he really surprised everybody by stepping in and stepping forward for the first three-quarters of his directorship. He was very good. And he stepped in at a really difficult time when Ewing pulled out, tried to take the ships, tried to take everybody with him. Talwani really handled it well. And so. But it’s hard. Talwani was a little bit younger and so it was never clear to me how independent he was. Because there’s no— you know, I wasn’t that interested. And I guess it was harder to tell. Because Worzel was still here. And there was a definite hierarchy of people.
You mentioned a moment ago, when you had the meeting, the new provost at that time, Jacques Barzun. How much interaction did you have with him? Did you get a sense of what he thought of Lamont?
Oh, I imagine he hated it. He wrote the book, Science: the Glorious Entertainment.
Indeed he did.
He was a pompous bastard as far as I was concerned.
What sort of things do you remember?
You know, I’ll tell you. I had no other interaction with him except a very interesting one. This is a funny story. I don’t know if I told it to you before. But John Imbrie became our chairman and he took a sabbatical in Edinburgh [Scotland]. And I wrote him a letter, hand-written letter, on plain — no, no it was typed, it was typed. On plain paper, no letterhead. [Interruption for side talk]
We’re okay. We have a few minutes left.
Okay. And I sent him this letter from Barzun. And it said, “Dear John, I am embarrassed to have to interrupt your sabbatical, but a terrible thing has happened.” He said, “One of your brash young professors came into my office,” and he said “I didn’t mind him kicking around my waste basket, but when he dented my fifteenth century shoehorn that was too much. And because of this I’m, I’m going to”—I don’t know what I said— “cut down the geology department to four people.” And I named Rhodes Fairbridge and our administrative assistant, Mrs. Sussman, and I don’t know who else. “And other people are going to have to go, and probably especially the ones that did this terrible act.” And I said that — oh, it was Ralph Halford who was the dean then. I said, “Ralphie made me promise not to tell you the name of this person, but if you go to the great castle in Edinburgh, there’s a plaque just inside the main door bearing his villainous name.” And then I said a couple of other things. Okay, I never got anything back from this.
You mailed this to John?
I mailed this to John. And then about a month later I had to call him. Fred Donath, who had come here the same time I did, we were sort of fairly close friends, was going to leave. And you know I thought we’d try to keep him. And so I called up John. And at the end of the conversation I said, “By the way, John, you never answered my letter.” And he said, “What letter?” And I said, “The one from Barzun.” And there was this terrible silence on the phone. I said, “John, you didn’t.” Never talked about it. And so he came back about a month later and I figured out he must have answered that letter. So I went to Barzun’s office and said, to his secretary, “I think, you know, Provost Barzun got a letter that he doesn’t understand from Imbrie.” I said, “If he’ll trade copies of it, I’ll show you — him — the letter that triggered it.” So I went back the next day and there was a copy of Imbrie’s letter and I gave him a copy of my letter. I mean I gave it to the secretary. I never talked to him. He probably thought we were really nuts after this. But Imbrie, who writes extremely well, wrote like a three-page letter. And he said he’d gone to the castle and there were two plaques, Wallace and Bruce. And so he said, well, you know, it could be Broecker or Heezen. And he analyzed our characters, and then he said, “Well, probably it was Broecker.” And then he defended me. Said you can’t fire him or anyone [Laughter]. And so when I got this letter from Barzun, I came over and Imbrie was sitting — have you been at Schermerhorn?
Well, our department office was just to the left of the main door, you know, and it had a big window. And the chairman used to sit with his back to it. So I came up and put it on — the letter on — the glass and knocked on the window. And he was sitting there, and he turned around and saw this letter. He went running out to get Marge, who was his secretary, because he never dreamed that I’d get — she must have had a copy. So I don’t know what happened to Marge. She probably said, “I didn’t give it to him, I didn’t give it to him.” And he was so embarrassed. I mean — [Laughter]. That was my only other dealing with Barzun, but I never, you know — I had read a couple of his books.
Let me just pause to.
And Science: the Glorious Entertainment really annoyed me. Because basically in that book he blamed everything on science. You know, row housing, every bad thing about society he sort of attributed to scientists. Well, you know, that’s hardly the case. You know there were people making money off of using engineering, basically, but not really science.
Did he seem to be an exception in Columbia, or did he come to represent the views of the campus administration?
Well, I had a couple—I think he typified the humanities, although I suppose he was more of an extreme. I mean, I’ve always remembered— I go to Columbia College faculty meetings about one every ten years. And, you know, I think nothing has changed. These very articulate, pompous people sitting there in judgment over courses and things. And, you know, it makes me want to vomit when I hear some of it because it’s just, nothing ever seems to get done. Bickering over minor things and I think there’s always been somewhat of a war between the sciences and humanities, probably at a lot of universities. The humanities have always held very tightly to the undergraduate program, and maybe for better rather than worse. I mean, I’m not judging, but that was their turf. And so I imagine it made a lot of difference to them who was provost. I mean you have Kusch who was a physicist on one hand, and then you have Barzun, and deBary was provost, and he was a lot like Barzun. He’s an expert on, what, Japanese history or art?
I believe so.
But he—I remember I had a student, Taylor Lee, whose wife got her Ph.D. at Harvard from deBary’s— I think the person who was at about his level. I mean they were the two big wheels in this field. And I wrote him a letter, and asked him if he would talk to her about what she might do at Columbia. He didn’t even answer me. And she tried to see him and he wouldn’t even talk to her. And I thought that, you know, how ungenerous can you be? I mean this guy at Harvard was no slouch. I mean, they may have been bitter enemies, but that was, I thought, terrible. But when they started the Senate, he got the idea that he needed somebody from Lamont. He needed somebody who was more from the liberal wing. So he heard about me from somebody, and he called me up one day and said, “Could you come in this afternoon? Well, I was here and I had shorts on and a t-shirt and no socks, and probably, you know, tennis shoes. And I went in there and walked in. Here this guy is in a three-piece suit sitting in his office, you know, with all kinds of bric-a-brac around, and I felt like two cents. And what he wanted to tell me is he wanted me to run for the Senate. But then — which I did, and I served for one term—I decided that that was just like going to the College faculty meeting. It was just a big debating society, you know, and well, I guess it added to the enormous inertia the university had already. I mean, maybe it prevented bad things from happening, but —.
I was going to ask you if you thought you had helped Lamont in any way by serving.
No. Zero. [Laughter] I mean, I don’t think any issues that came up would involve Lamont. You know, I wasn’t—I’m never into that kind of thing anyway. If I get on one issue I’ll—but I don’t like this—I’m not good at fielding a broad range of issues that come up at a university. I just don’t enjoy it, and I’m not patient enough to try to understand all of the issues and it often seems to me there’s no solution to the problems anyway. So I thought it was fun to go, and I was honored. But as soon as I could get off of it, I got off of it because I never remember anything that I felt was important happening at any of those early meetings. What the Senate has done — that was a long time ago. Twenty years ago.
Back in the 1970s.
It’s in the 1970s that you recall serving on the Senate? We can check on that.
I mean it was the first year of the Senate. So that’s in the record somewhere. I don’t —.
Sure, that’s fine.
I don’t know. It was, oh it was before Ewing left. Yes. Because [William] McGill, that’s right McGill, had a meeting, or a buffet dinner, for all the Senators and Ewing wanted to pull Lamont out of Columbia and move to Sterling Forest. I think that was the move. And I remember sitting on the stairway with deBary trying to explain to him that this was a bad thing. And we had something like chicken-a-la-king and I stuck my fork in at the chicken-ala-king and I’ll never forget, and I made some gesture like that—I hit the fork and it went about, it seemed to me.
It loops in the air.
Well, it was way in the stairwell. It went up at least one story. And, you know, both of us were— and it landed right in the middle of his lap. [Laughter] Which I thought, “Oh boy Broecker, that’s the end, you know. He’s probably going to say, “These guys are a bunch of Huns up at Lamont, let’s get rid of them.” [Laughter]
I was curious how much support there was for the Sterling Forest initiative. That had actually been discussed back in the sixties, hadn’t it, at least initially?
Well, there was—let’s see if I can get my meetings straight. The only time any of us were ever invited to Ewing’s house—maybe his close associates went there now and then, but that was, you know, the director’s house.
The director’s house.
We were invited to a meeting that was to vote on this. And that was a very interesting meeting. And you probably can find out about it, you know, from a lot of other people. But the issue was to vote to move, to separate from Columbia and run Lamont independently. I can’t remember whether that one thing was to stay here, I guess, and just be separate. And Ewing thought in the long term, you know. He was a good long-term planner. Getting all these collections from sea, and he knew how things would be valuable. Well, he built a senior staff which really got nothing. They were all soft money. There were no — now the senior staff has a few benefits, it’s much better. But then they had nothing, no back-up, no nothing. But he felt that they would always vote with him. So if there was ever an issue like this one, they could out-vote the faculty, which he didn’t like. He felt anybody on the faculty was — he didn’t really have control of them because we had tenure, for one thing, and so he couldn’t fire us. So he had this meeting, and I think he thought that the senior staff would vote with him. And there were a lot more senior staff members at the time than there were faculty, so he would win the day. But it was interesting, Arnold Finck, who was our administrator, got up and said, “Well, this place could go under with cash flow because we wouldn’t have any, Columbia now essentially smoothes over the budgetary things.” And he said, “I don’t think we can do it.” I think Ewing was stunned. You know, his own man.
I can imagine. That was a brave thing for Arnold to do.
And then a number of the senior staff got up and said that they didn’t think it was a good idea. That they really liked being with the university. And there was a vote and the vote was heavily to stay. I mean this was the end, I guess, the beginning of the end for Ewing. And I can’t get all those dates straight because there were a number of initiatives. See, they had said that he could not continue after seventy-five, sixty-five. So he was thinking of putting Worzel in as a puppet and nobody agreed to that—the faculty, the senior staff, or Columbia. So that was out. He, then, his only other option to remain in control was to move the thing. And so he tried these various—and this was a show down. And I remember walking out and we were in that living room. Have you been in that house?
No, I haven’t.
Well, it’s got a big living room which is on the north side. And you come through, there are double arches on either side of the fireplace. And I was coming through the arch into the dining room which is the middle room, and Joe Worzel was leaning against the inside of the arch, and as I went by, he said, “You ungrateful bastards.”
That’s what he said to those of us who were coming through at that time. There must have been forty or fifty people there.
And this is after the vote had been taken?
After the vote. And, you know, he realized that Ewing had been defeated. And so he said, “Ewing’s done all this stuff for you. You should stand up and vote for him.” Well, the issues were more complicated than that. So that was a real Waterloo for Ewing.
And was that within a few years of his departure for Texas?
I would say within two years. But, that’s an interesting date to get. Those are the things that —.
It’s either the very late 1960s or very, very early 1970s, or even 1970, that he does leave.
Right. I mean, there must be some correspondence or something about this Sterling Forest initiative. There must be some records of that.
Some of that in fact is in the Ewing papers.
Right. Because he went through a sequence of trying to do that, and then, I guess, when he realized that wasn’t going to happen, then his next idea was to move to Texas. And I think that all happened pretty quickly. Because he was up against the wall. That he had to leave the office by sixty, when he was sixty-five. So it would be interesting when the clock, his sixty-five clock, ran out. You know, did he leave while he was sixty-five or sixty-six?
It might have been seventy at that period of time. But if it was sixty-five, actually, it still would have —.
Well, maybe it wasn’t.
It still would have —.
But whatever, there was a limit, and the university — which was very generally upset with him because he caused so much trouble downtown — they were going to enforce it.
They could have made an exception, but in this case, they chose not to.
They probably—I don’t know what the rules were, but it was clear they weren’t going to make an exception with Ewing. And I don’t think people here would have. I suppose people here would have accepted an exception. I don’t think that people were that unhappy with Ewing’s leadership, although he had become more and more isolated in his last years here.
Because of Harriet primarily?
Well, Harriet didn’t help. But he had an inner group of technical people who sort of went out and did his bidding on the ships. And he really started to be in— they were the only ones he seemed to deal with. And so he just became so much more isolated.
Which people were these? I was wondering if you— [cross talk]
Tom, what’s his name?
Aitken. He was one of the key ones. He’s still around, isn’t he? You should ask him who those people were. He had six or seven of those people who were non-Ph.D.s and who really knew how to do things at sea. And they worked well because Ewing had carried out—it was also sort of the end of an era where NSF [National Science Foundation] was no longer going to fund him to drive around the world in a ship every year and do the same thing day in and day out, which is what—he really didn’t do much innovation. Well, some, the air guns and so forth, but they got more into projects than wanting people to say, “Well, look, I’m going to go out for a month to do this.” That was totally against the Lamont system.
You know, I’m curious. When do you date that? To the early 1970s? That shift in NSF?
Oh, I imagine it was gradual. I was the first one ever to be — now this date I remember—to be chief scientist on a Woods Hole ship that wasn’t a Woods Hole scientist. And that was in September, 1972, and I remember getting big lectures from Derek Spencer saying, “Wally, you better tow the line because this is a test case.” And I remember that was when [Robert J.] Fischer beat [Boris] Spassky in Iceland and we went to the last match because we were waiting to go out. And when the match was over, nobody was paying attention to the chess board and I was going to go steal one pawn. And it was in a field house, and I was going to run out the doors and back to the ship and put it in a barrel. And I almost did it, and then I said, “Oh my god, you know, they’re bound to catch me and then Woods Hole’s going to be eternally embarrassed.” [Laughter] Otherwise, if I was just an ordinary member of this expedition, I would have done it. I mean I’d have given it back eventually, but it would have been written up in all the newspapers and so forth.
And this would have been of the four outrageous acts for the —.
Yes. Right. But I restrained myself because I was the first. So that’s — you can see that with the start of IDOE [International Decade of Ocean Exploration) I suppose they started doing business somewhat differently. That it was the projects that were inter- institutional, is that what you’d say, rather than so much institutional. And therefore the ships gradually got taken out of the hands, in a way — the ship’s scheduling is now done centrally, right?
But that must have taken ten years to
That’s interesting. So it was more of a gradual evolution.
Yes. And I’ll bet you Ewing, you know, and even Talwani probably, fought it. Lamont was always the maverick as far as running ships. It wasn’t that Ewing ran the ships so cheaply. I was talking to Dick Barber and he said that everybody hated him [Ewing]. But he said he ran the ships for a small fraction of what we ran the ships for, as far as any kind of shore based —. [Henry) Kohler ran the whole ship. He did everything. And he ran it as a business. I don’t quite understand what the arrangement was. The guy— he just died you know. Did you interview Henry?
Well, I don’t know the details, but he and Ewing really ran the Vema, for a small price. So they couldn’t touch him. Because Ewing and Kohler said, “Why are you complaining?”
In part because it’s under the Panamanian— it was under a foreign registry.
Yes. They didn’t have union crew. But Barber said, you know, we had a sizable shore office to maintain the whole thing. Lamont had one person, something like that. Almost nobody. So that our overhead for less ship days was four times what Lamont’s was. Dick said it was really embarrassing, but they didn’t know how else to do it. He said that Ewing was so much into it that he — and he had Kohler. And he and Kohler, I guess, must have worked very closely and admired each other. You know I was with Kohler in the South China Sea when Talwani was director. It was Robbie Togweiler and my son and one technician. We were the scientists. And we were doing water samples. And we about killed ourselves. It was terrible because the Verna had no thrust, and we were working in areas of strong surface currents, so it was terrible wire angles. We had to build a special platform, so we could get right up to the sheave (pulley), and to get the nisken bottles off of the wire, Robbie had to lean way out and flip the one latch from afar so that we could get these water samples back on board. Because if you were not on deck level they would have been out in the middle of the lawn out there. They were way away from the ship.
That’s a good ten, fifteen feet.
So we got done three days early, or two days early, and I said, “Well, why don’t we just go in a day earlier?” Kohler said, “I have never in my life gone in a day early, nor will I ever.” And I said, “Well, okay, get in touch with Talwani and figure out what to do. I’m done. I’m going to go to bed.” And so he went out and Talwani wired him three things that they might do, which didn’t enamor Taiwani to me. He should have told him, “Well, why didn’t you go into port.” And one of them was to take a core on the continental margin. And I remember they took the core, but they bent the pipe, and he made the deck hands—they all wanted to get ready to go into port — straighten the pipe out in a terrible storm. And so everybody was — and of course, everybody knew that I didn’t want to take that core. I said, “I’ll have nothing to do with it. You decide where to take it, you take it, it’s yours.” And it was a shitty core. It was all full of sediment, that had looked like it had sort of.
You couldn’t trust it.
No, it was clearly a lot of, slumping of sediment and stuff. I don’t know if you, but there was no—it was just plunked down. I don’t even know what the topography was like. But that was Kohler, boy he, he was like— he would have been good in the British navy during the eighteen hundreds. He would have kept a crew. You know, he would have whipped them and done whatever he had to. They probably would have mutinied for him. He— I remember when we got on in Taiwan, no in Singapore, the first morning I went to breakfast, there was this beautiful stainless steel thing full of rhubarb, and it looked—I love rhubarb, you know, really nice— so I started to take some, and everybody in line behind me started to laugh. And I said, “What’s wrong?” They said “It’s rancid. It’s been there for twenty-five days” or something. And I said, “What do you mean, rancid?” And they said, “Yes, Kohler says we have to eat everything before we get anything else.” So I took it up and dumped it in the ocean. [Laughter] And then the next thing that happened was the next morning came down and the only cereal you could get was out of these multi-packs. And the officers would order so they’d get the corn flakes or whatever was good and we’d get the rice bubbles. Everybody hated rice bubbles. So that there were like fifty-six rice bubbles and nothing else. That’s all we had. And so, I picked up all the rice bubbles and threw them overboard. This did not really enamor Kohler to me. Because we’d been out together before and got along really well. But I couldn’t stand this stuff. I said, “This is nonsense. Why do you want to make it so miserable for the scientists and crew by little things like that?”—you know, just exerting his will over people. Crazy guy. A lot of people liked Kohler here, but I— and he’s a good captain. But, Jesus. I mean, what spoiled me was going on somebody else’s ship and seeing that you could live like a human being on these other ships. You didn’t have to put up with this terrible, terrible.
Interesting. You mean the Conrad or do you mean other ships?
No, no, no. I don’t know. The Conrad had its own problems. But I had, I didn’t ever sail on the Conrad, never. So I. No, during GEOSECS [Geochemical Ocean Sections Study] I went on the several Woods Hole ships and several Scripps ships. They had much better food. The captains were normal people who— they had their idiosyncrasies, but at least they didn’t have this cruel streak in them like Kohler did. Kohler was cruel. So, I guess then when I went back—the first time I went out with Kohler, I guess the first two times, that was the way it was. I didn’t know any different. After going on these other ships, I just wouldn’t put up with that any more. I said, “How can you do this? How can you run a ship like that” Petty things. I mean, if you know people don’t like rice bubbles, why in the hell do you buy them? Why do you want to make them eat rice bubbles? Ruin the— because they’d have rancid eggs. It wasn’t as if you had six other choices for what to eat for breakfast. And breakfast on a ship is really an important meal. [Laughter] They used to serve salt cod every Wednesday. That was in the early— they gave that up I guess. But I’ve got to go.
Okay. I promised you we’d bring this to a close. Thank you very much for this segment of the interview.