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Interview of Jack Oliver by Ronald Doel on 1996 March 8, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/6928-1
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Family background and early education; influence of his high school football coach, Paul Brown (later founded the Cleveland Browns); football scholarship to Columbia; Columbia University (1941-1943, 1946-1953); Military service, Navy (1943-1946); courses in physics, earth science and geology taught by I. I. Rabi, Polykarp Kusch, Charles Hard Townes, William J. Rainwater, Willis Lamb, Shirley Quimby, John Dunning, W. Maurice Ewing, Walter H. Bucher, Marshall Kay; accepting job with W. Maurice Ewing at Lamont; work on atmospheric acoustics with Albert P. Crary and Norman Haskell (late 1940s); people he worked with at Lamont, including Frank Press, Richard S. Edwards, Charles Drake, Charles Officer, Bernard Luskin, Ivan Tolstoy, J. Lamar Worzel; social life at Lamont, centered around Angelo Ludas; Lester King’s debate with Walter Bucher about continental drift; participation in professional societies, including the American Seismological Society, Geological Society of America, American Geophysical Union, American Physical Society, International Union of Geodesics and Geophysics; meeting Beno Gutenberg and Charles S. Richter; work on model seismology, surface waves, nuclear test detection.
This is an interview with Jack E. Oliver. We’re recording this at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York and today’s date is the 8th of March, 1996. I know that you were born on September 26th, 1923 in Massillon [pronounced Ma-‘sill-un], if I’m pronouncing that correctly —
No! It’s Massillon [pronounced ‘Mass-a-lun]. [Laughs]
Those things are important. Ohio. But I don’t know much about your parents or who they were and what they did. Who were your parents?
Well, my parents were — oh, let’s see. How shall I put it? Mostly descendants of German immigrants. My mother was formerly an Ertle, which has some significance, as we may come to later in this interview. Anyway, that side was all German. My father’s ethnic background was somewhat mixed, but heavily German as well. They both had been born and raised in the vicinity of Massillon. My father was from Canton, actually. They definitely were not well-to-do people. During much of my childhood we were what would be classed now as poor. I suppose if you’d asked them at that time, they would have said they were middle class, but in fact we had some pretty tough times.
Because you were ten years old in the midst of the Great Depression.
That’s right. And it was not only the Depression. Before that my parents were separated for awhile, and my mother had only me to take care of and it was tough going. I can remember a lot of times when a can of Campbell’s soup was our meal for the day. [Laughs] I was an only child for seven years. Then my parents came back together again, and my brother Bill was born. The family stuck together after that. That was then during the Depression, essentially beginning in the early years of the Depression. That was not good for us economically, either. First my father had no job; then he managed to get a job, through political circles, with the county, working on the highway. He had that for a number of years. Then when I got up to near high school age, he got a job running the sporting goods department at a local hardware store. And that was essentially his home base during the time when I was in high school.
What was he doing at the time you were born?
When I was born — let’s see. He had grown up in Canton and started to work in the steel mills. He had an accident in a steel mill, and he was badly burned. Of course you realize that Massillon, and Canton where he had grown up, are both steel towns. That was their main industry. So he worked there, and he was burned and that took him out of the steel business. Of course, I don’t remember exactly what he was doing when I was born, but I think that he was in some job like a salesman in a shoe store. Something like that. That’s about all I could guess. He may have had some other salesman job along the way.
I don’t think we recorded the exact names of your parents.
My father’s name was Chester L. Oliver — Chester Lawrence Oliver. My mother’s name was Marie Isabel Ertle.
What sort of house were you living in when you grew up? Did that stay the same through that period?
Well, when I was born, I think we lived in one half of a duplex that was rented, but when I was about two years old — I think it was — my parents got a new house. And the way they got it, I think, was largely through funding by my grandfather on the Oliver side. The lot was given to us by my grandfather on the Ertle side. My great-grandfather Ertle had been fairly prominent in town, and so he owned a large tract of land. As the town began to expand, it was divided up into subdivisions and eventually into a number of lots. So all the descendants of grandfather Ertle each got a lot. My mother got one of the last, and that’s what we lived on. And in fact, the name of the street that we lived on was Ertle Avenue for that reason.
It gets a little more interesting. I don’t think we want to get into this at the moment. It gets a little more interesting later, because, so far as we scientists know, the first person to have the idea of continental drift was a cartographer named Ortelius, who in 1596, I think it was, published the idea, clearly stated, in a Latin publication. Ortelius was the Latinized version of his name, and the other version was Ortel, which of course is probably the same as Ertle.
Using the umlaut in spelling. [Crosstalk]
That’s right. So I was intrigued for awhile by the possibility that I might be a descendant of the man who had the first idea about continental drift. [Doel laughs] I pursued this somewhat, but now I think that he actually lived in Antwerp when he had the idea, and my ancestors didn’t come from there. They came from Bavaria. That’s where Ortelius’s ancestors came from as well, so I think we may be related back along the way. [Crosstalk]
Could have been more distant.
But I don’t think I’m a direct descendant of Ortelius. [Laughter] I wish I could tell you I was. It would be a lot of fun. Anyway, that’s the Ertle side of the story.
I’m curious — was there much talk about science or technological things at home, as you grew up.
No. None. My father — he went to high school. I’m not sure that he finished high school. I think he may have, or he may have quit in the last year of high school. He went to high school in Canton, Ohio. So he had no technical background. My mother went to a girls’ school. We were Catholics, incidentally. My mother’s family, particularly, were strongly German Catholic, so she went to a girls’ school, which was called Mount Marie Academy. I think it was more or less equivalent to a high school, but only a couple of years of high school. She learned how to be a secretary or something like that, a job which she never did. That was her education. So neither of my parents got beyond high school, and I’m not sure you can say either of them even finished high school. So there was no talk of science at all. When I went to school, I went to a Catholic grade school — St. Mary’s Grade School in Massillon. For eight years. I got very good training there. We had nuns who were pretty strong disciplinarians [laughter] and who kept you on the right track. I got very good training there in English and in basic mathematics. As far as I can recall, though, there was never any mention of science or the word science. I can’t remember — no, I’ll put it this way. I can remember distinctly the time when I first understood what the word “science” means. That was in the ninth grade, when I went to Longfellow Junior High School.
Was that a public school?
Yes. I switched into the public school system after the eighth grade. In the ninth grade I took a course called General Science, and in the first few weeks the instructor did an experiment. He got a pump, and he pulled the air out of an old oil can; and of course it collapsed. So he asked us why it collapsed. We were all kids, you know. We said, “You sucked the air out of it. It collapsed. You sucked it in.” He said, no, that wasn’t it. He had created a low pressure area inside, and the pressure outside had pushed it in. At that particular moment, I can distinctly remember, it dawned on me that there was a way of thinking about phenomena that I had been interested in for a long time. And that way of thinking was called “science.”
When you say that it’s “something you were thinking about,” what comes to mind?
What was I thinking about before then?
Well, I was always a kid that was kind of curious about things, and I was always interested in how things worked and that sort of thing. But I was always developing my own way of reasoning about these things. For example, when I was a kid in maybe the sixth grade my cousin, who lived up the street — another Ertle descendant — they decided to build a tennis court on their land. So they got all the kids in the neighborhood to go out and help do the work. We went up there, and we moved the dirt. We worked hard during the day, and then at night his father and a couple of other men would come and do the things that we weren’t capable of handling, as kids. I got terribly interested in things like levers, because it’s glacial terrain out there. You find these big boulders in the soil, and it was hard to get those boulders out of the soil. So I was always trying to figure out a way to make a lever or make a compound lever — one lever lifting the other lever — and so on. Those things always intrigued me, and I’d always come up with some crazy idea of how to do that. For awhile — I guess I should tell you this story [Laughs] — the parents would come home, and I’d spring some of these ideas on them, and they started to call me by a nickname. They called me “Batsy.” They said, “God, here comes another one of his crazy ideas!” So I got to be known as Batsy for all these ideas.
Did you say your parents?
No, not my father. This was the parent of a cousin and also a couple of other men that lived in the area. So finally one time, there was a great incident. After the tennis court was built they put a fence around part of it, and they kept trying to anchor the ends of the fence; and they buried things in the ground. The anchors kept pulling out of the ground, and they didn’t know what to do. They buried them more — deeper — and put them in another place and so on. But it didn’t work; the fence always kept pulling the anchor out of the ground. So one day, as a kid, I came to them, the adults, and I said, “You guys are wasting your time. Why don’t you just connect the two posts together with a wire between them?” [Q. laughs] they said, “Oh, another batsy idea. Ah, ha, ha.” But that night the father thought about it, and he thought maybe that would do it. He went out and put on the wire, and it worked perfectly. So they stopped calling me Batsy then. [Laughter]
You must have felt vindicated.
That was a triumph of my youth that I obviously haven’t forgotten.
This was prior to the time that you were in ninth grade?
Yes, this was about sixth or seventh grade. Something like that. I didn’t know anything about science.
Did you have an interest in other areas? I realize not in a formal sense, but were you interested, say, in the field of geology or in astronomy?
No. Geology didn’t become a part of my life until after I had a bachelor’s degree — after I began graduate school. Astronomy — oh, I was kind of casually interested, but not much — because I was never taught much about that subject. I was always sort of a dreamer as a kid, and I had a tree behind my house. I’d climb up in the tree. During the summer, of course, when the leaves were on the tree, nobody knew I was up there. I’d do a lot of dreaming up there, and I dreamed about stuff like — oh, you know, if I learned about the guy who developed the vaccine for yellow fever in school, I’d come home and that night I’d dream about what I was going to do and cure when I got to be [Laughs] old enough to do things like that. So I in my mind — I developed the cure for malaria or something like that. [Laughs] I did a lot of that kind of thing. I can’t remember all the different subjects.
Do you remember reading a lot when you were growing up?
Yes, I read a great deal. I can remember a time when I was in about the third or fourth grade — in fact, I wrote this story up for my high school paper one time. I was in about the third or fourth grade, and I went to the library and took out a book, with the help of the librarian. It was on sports. You’ll see there’s a lot of a sport in my background coming up here.
I wanted to ask you about that.
That’s a big thing — a big factor in my life. But anyway, I read this book on sports, and I took it back to the librarian. She said, “Well, come on. I’ll show you how to put it back in the stacks.” She took me in, and here was this stack of books about six feet high and several feet across. She found this gap there, and she put that book in there. She said, “Now you can read these other books on this shelf, if you want to.” I looked at those books, and thought, “My gosh! I read one of these; I can read the whole bunch of them.” Then I thought, “Well, maybe I can read the whole stack!” [Laughs] That was another special moment in my life. So I did. I read all the books on that shelf anyway. [Laughs] I don’t know if I read the whole stack. That got me into reading very heavily, and there was hardly a day at home when I didn’t read a book of some kind.
Were any books, as you think back on it, particularly memorable for you?
Well, sports were big books for me. I read Frank Merriwell at Yale, and there was another series of books on sports that — I can’t remember the author’s name now, Barbour (?) perhaps but he was a well-known one. I read every last one of them. I also read books on the Boy Scouts. Pee Wee Harris was one of the Boy Scouts, and there was a whole series of them. So those are the books that — oh, Swiss Family Robinson sticks in my mind. I found a copy of that up in our attic, I think it was, and sat up there and read that thing, and my parents didn’t even know I had it. I don’t know — I can’t remember any others.
How was the high school library itself, as far as what it held? Was that something you made much use of?
The high school library was not a big factor for me. The town library was.
Was it a Carnegie-funded library, by chance?
I have no idea.
At that period of time and in that area, many were. [Crosstalk]
To go there now they have a nice modern building, but at that time it was in an old house in a rather distinguished part of town. One of the — you might call it — the “mansions of Massillon.” It had been given over to the library. [Loud, high-pitched squeal, possibly feedback] Am I giving you too much information here?
No, you’re not. The machine is not — don’t take that as any kind of a retribution from our — [Laughs] no, this is all quite interesting. I was curious if any — you’ve mentioned a number of people who were mentors of sorts or who helped to feed your curiosity. Were any teachers particularly memorable?
Yes. In high school, the memorable teachers, so far as science is concerned, started in the high school. There was the one in the ninth grade who did the experiment, but he was not particularly a great scientist. In high school I had a woman named Alma Digel who taught the advanced mathematics courses and physics. She was a big factor. There was another woman, who taught the beginning math course — plane geometry — named Harriett Davis, who was also a big factor. They were both dedicated teachers. They were women who devoted their lives to teaching kids and never married. They did their job and did it well. They both had an influence on me. Then there was a chemistry teacher, named Bob [Robert] Henderson, who was a pretty good scientist, I think. I think he was getting an advanced degree at Western Reserve or somewhere at about that time. He left shortly thereafter, so I think he got a Ph.D. and then left. Something like that. He was really a good scientist and got me interested in chemistry. The other [Laughs] — were going to get into another subject now. The other person in high school who had a tremendous influence on me was the football coach. You have to understand what football was like in my town. By the time I got to high school this football coach was in control of almost everything — the town, the high school, the people everywhere around.
How do you mean that?
He influenced everybody. He changed that whole town from an ordinary steel town into an incredible place.
In terms of his energy and what he did in using the team?
In the first place, he was smarter than everybody else. He was extremely perceptive. He understood what it took to influence people. He understood how people reacted. While I was in high school we had a football team — which I was not a star on, incidentally; I don’t want to come off as a big star here. But I was on the team, and when I was a senior I played quite a bit. We had a team when I was in high school that every year won ten games and lost none, playing the best football teams in Ohio and that part of the country. If there had been a national champion then, I’m sure we would have been the national champions. We were extremely popular. We drew more people to our games than any athletic team in Ohio except for Ohio State [University]. We had a town of 30,000, and the stadium seated 20,000. It was big-time entertainment. The band was sensational. The football team was sensational. People came from miles around. They came from Western New York to Ohio to see us play football.
What was the name of this coach?
[Laughs] If you know anything about football, you’re going to recognize his name immediately — because his name was Paul Brown. He eventually became the coach of Ohio State and then the founder of the Cleveland Browns, which he made into the professional champions. Then he also started the Cincinnati Bengals, which he took to the Super Bowl once before he retired from coaching. So he was one of the best known, most prominent and probably the smartest of all football coaches. And I was just fortunate enough to have him in high school. Now as I say, I wasn’t that great a player, but our team was so good that at the end of the season colleges came from all over the country to recruit our players. The very best players got the attention of the big football factories — Ohio State and places like that. I wasn’t that great a player, but I had good grades. I had the best grades on the team, so got the attention of the Ivy League. I could have gone to Harvard [University] or Cornell [University] or Columbia [University], where I finally went. So here I was, a poor kid, who had no hope of going to college with financial help from his parents, and I got my chance to go to a super school. I had to work, of course, to get through, but nevertheless I made it, without help from my parents. So football was a big factor in my life. Furthermore, it was not just a matter of getting enough money to go to school. Football influenced my attitude completely. I mean, — everybody says this over and over again, if you’re in Massillon — Brown injected a “winning spirit” into that town. Into the high school, into the people and everything. So at the high school we had the best band in the country. The speech team won national championships. A classmate of mine was the national champion in debate. He won a full scholarship to Harvard. [Laughs] The drama club was superb. I mean, everybody just had the feeling that if you came from that high school, you were going to do it right and you were going to do it well. So that was a big factor in my life. A very competitive spirit, but also a self-confidence — self-esteem, I guess they’d say nowadays.
It sounds also that you’re describing a close-knit community as well, in terms of the support — or did you not find that?
It was a close-knit community, but it was a close-knit community because of the influence of Brown. He started a few years before I got to high school, and he began to build this enthusiasm, and organizations were developed. They had a boosters club for all the parents and adults to be in and support the team and so on. It was very tightly knit. I mean, players were not allowed to smoke ever or date girls during the football season, and I will guarantee you, if you smoked anywhere in town, somebody would see you and report you to the coach. [Laughter]
You knew the rules.
I mean, the town was united behind that operation. It was a special kind of thing.
When did you start getting active in sports? I presume it was prior to the time that you entered high school.
Basically, I started in the ninth grade after some low grade pick-up activity earlier. When I was in the eighth grade at the Catholic grade school, they announced that you could try out for the football team in the ninth grade — Longfellow Junior High School — and so I did, and I made it. I wasn’t very good. I was fairly awkward at that age, but I was fairly big, so that they took me. I made that team. I was the starting center on the ninth grade team. There were three junior high schools in town, and they were all geared to feed players into the high school. So I went down to the high school, and I made the team, barely, in my first year.
Was the first year in high school tenth grade? It was one year only that you were —
Yes, it was tenth, eleventh and twelfth in high school.
Were you active in other sports, Jack?
In high school I didn’t participate in any other sports formally. I loved basketball, and I played a lot of basketball outside. I tried to get on the basketball team, but I couldn’t make it; there weren’t enough places. But I got better at basketball, and — of course, when I went to college I was mostly a football player, but during my years in college I had to go into the service in World War II for three years. During those three years I was a basketball player. [Laughter] I played on some very good basketball teams in the service. Not so much in high school.
How much would you see Paul Brown outside of the school during the time that you were in high school? Did he have a group of students — players — over to his home, for example? Would you do that sort of thing?
Not to his home, no. He lived not far from where I lived. Sometimes he’d give me a ride home, when we were having practice in the summer or something. Also, each year before the football season started he would take his sort of core group of players — the seniors and the real players — on a trip up to Canada, to a lake, and we’d fish up there on the lake as a group. That was his effort to make a rather tightly-knit little organization. It worked I think. It was all perfectly legitimate. This is not one of these underhanded things that you do or hear about now. This was all open and aboveboard. Brown always played by the rules. He insisted that everybody play by the rules. He didn’t try to cheat. “This is the way we’re going to do it. We’re just going to do it better than everybody else.”
When you first got involved in sports, did you recognize that later it might be a means of going to college?
Yes. I knew that when I was trying out for the team. I always wanted to go to college. Well, since I was a kid, I had the idea that I wanted to get away from Massillon. The reason was, I think, that early in the Depression there was a bad strike at the mill, and several people were killed. I sat there — I’m a little kid, you know — I thought, “Gee, everybody in this town is going down to work at the steel mill. I don’t want to work at a place like that. I want to get out and do something. I’m going to try to go to college to do it.” And since I was always a good student — I mean, I won the gold medal in the grade school and stuff like that — I was always encouraged by my teachers to go to college. Beginning about the fourth or fifth grade the nuns all said, “You’re going to college.”
So you had a lot of reinforcement for that.
Yes. But then there was a question — how to fund it — and as soon as I saw the football team opportunity, I seized on that.
When you were in high school — I just want to make sure that we do cover this — how much mathematics did you complete? You mentioned a number of teachers, but —
I took mathematics, I think, every semester in high school, so that ran through what they called “college algebra” and trigonometry. There was no calculus in high school then. Trigonometry was, I think, the highest level course.
Did mathematics come easy for you?
Yes. We had a little core group of people who sort of “got it” readily, and I was one of them.
What other subjects among the sciences — really among all the different subjects — intrigued you particularly in high school?
Physics intrigued me a great deal, and so did chemistry. Both of them are my thing. I took biology as a sophomore. I didn’t have a particularly good teacher, and I didn’t really take to biology as much as I wish I had. If I had it to do it over again, I would have taken more biology as I went through school. But I didn’t. Chemistry and physics were my subjects. There was nothing else to — well, I don’t know if we had a course in astronomy or not. There was a kid a few years ahead of me, who worked with a teacher and built a telescope in town, but I never got involved in that or had much to do with it. The other factor that sometimes got me interested in science was the Boy Scouts. I was very big in the Boy Scouts. [Laughs]
Tell me about that.
That started when I was just old enough to be a Boy Scout. I guess when you’re 11 they let you start going to the meetings. You couldn’t officially become one until 12. So that’s what I did. I worked my way through the Boy Scout Handbook and got my merit badges. Eventually I was an Eagle Scout, which meant, of course, you had to have the athletic side and you had to do things like — oh, drawing a map of an area. That was my first introduction to mapping, really. Then during the summers we’d go to a Boy Scout camp. At first my parents couldn’t afford that, but I won a free week at Boy Scout camp, by selling chances for a raffle, or something like that. So I got to Boy Scout camp. Then after that I went for a year or two in which we managed to get the money. I think it was six dollars a week or something like that. [Laughter] But we got that money. Then when I was at camp, I was always organizing the other kids to do something or other, so they saw some sign of leadership and offered me a job as a counselor, and for several years, including years when I was in high school, I was a counselor at the Boy Scout camp and eventually assistant director, or something like that.
Was that all during the time during high school that you moved up?
Did you stay active in that organization afterwards in any capacity?
No. I haven’t told anyone that I was an Eagle Scout for I don’t know long. [Laughter] I don’t know why it came out here. I guess it’s the tape recorder that does it.
It sounds like that occupied a pretty good part of your summers during your high school years.
That’s right. That and keeping in shape for the football team — coming early in the fall for football practice — took up my summer.
How many weeks in advance would you come in for the football practice?
I can’t recall, exactly. I’m confused now between high school and college. I think in college we could start the first of September, even though the classes didn’t start until the third or fourth week in September. High school I can’t recall. I think we had a week or two in which we had the two-a-day practices, and that must have been before school started. Two weeks, I think it was.
You mentioned earlier Bob Henderson, your chemistry instructor who went on to do other work in the sciences. Did you have talks with him about a career in science? Was that something that came at all during that time that you were in high school?
I think I had talks with him and a few other teachers. I took chemistry as a junior, and then as a senior, Henderson offered me an opportunity to take what they called “advanced chemistry,” which really meant you were a lab assistant in the other courses. I did that, and there only about five or six kids who were lab assistants. So we were kind of an internal group in chemistry. Now in those days, when you talked to somebody and said you liked science and mathematics, they didn’t say, “You should be a scientist.” They said, “You should be an engineer.” So I was strongly encouraged to be an engineer, and often, because I had sort of that extra year of chemistry, it was a chemical engineer. When I started college that was my intention — to be a chemical engineer. It didn’t last long, but it started. [Laughs]
Indeed, and you’re quite right — that was a pattern very typical of people from that generation who went into the sciences. [Crosstalk]
Well, science wasn’t really thought of as a career for most people.
Were there any chemical engineers or engineers or related fields in the town that you knew personally?
Essentially none. I may have talked with one or two casually. The only engineer in town that I knew was a civil engineer, who worked for the city and worried about where the sewer pipes ran and that kind of thing. I worked for him one summer later on for a short time.
Were there any science clubs or similar activities in high school?
I think there was a biology research club, but I didn’t join that. I joined the camera club, and I learned how to do photography. I liked that. I got a camera for — I think it was my graduation present. No, it must have been before that. Anyway, I had a camera. No, I didn’t belong to many clubs. I wasn’t really very strong socially in high school. Football took up a lot of time and the other stuff. [Crosstalk]
I’m sure it did. You certainly had many things going throughout the full year. I was just curious. Were there any friends who happened to share a similar constellation of interests in science or were particularly close in sports for you?
There was one other football player — a guy named Dick [Richard] Kingham, who was a good student, and he became an engineer. Most of the other people, so far as I know, were not inclined that way. I had some good buddies, who went in that direction. My high school now has a program which they call the “Distinguished Citizens Program.” In that program they pick a small number of people and designate them as Distinguished Citizens. Then they’re invited back to talk to the kids. The purpose is to get these people who have gone to Massillon High School and had careers elsewhere to come back and let the kids know that there are opportunities outside of the local ones.
You had mentioned to me off tape, when we started, that you are going back. In fact, I assumed as part of the program. [Crosstalk]
Yes, that’s why I’m going back. I was made a Distinguished Citizen some years ago. I was in the first group of three, actually. I’m very proud of that. But this year there’s another fellow from my class who is being made a Distinguished Citizen. His name is Don [Donald] Kipfer. He was not an athlete. He was a clarinet player in the band. He was a farm boy and a very rugged kind of guy as well. He was much inclined towards science and engineering, and he ended up going to West Point during World War II. He became an Army officer, a colonel, and he did many things that I’m going to be hearing about when I go back to the High School, when he’s inducted into the so-called Hall of Fame. So he was one of them. We had another buddy, who lived near Kipfer. Another farm boy, Warren Weffler, who got a degree in engineering and stayed around the town. Then I had a good personal friend by the name of John Friedrich, who I spent a lot of time with in high school and who I hadn’t seen then for 50 years. He showed up at the 50th high school reunion, and it turned out, sure enough, had gotten a chemical engineering degree at Northwestern. He was one of the other people who was a teaching assistant in the advanced chemistry course.
I was just noticing, as you went through those names, the number of German descendants.
Yes. There are a lot of German people in the Massillon area. They’re not all German, though. There are others. A lot of Italians, a lot of Eastern Europeans, and a lot of blacks. We have a really good mix of different kinds.
I wanted to move into the decision on what college you would attend, but I wanted to ask first if there was anything else that, as you looked back, you found particularly important or memorable for you in the high school years that we haven’t mentioned.
I think I’ve hit most of the main ones. I’ll probably think of one [Laughs] after you leave. I think those were the main ones. [Crosstalk]
You’re welcome to add things onto the tape.
I did talk to some other teachers, particularly about my choice of college. Of course, Columbia was so important, with its Teachers College, that some of my teachers had gotten Master’s degrees there, so that gave me a little insight into Columbia.
You mentioned Harvard was another possibility. Cornell.
Yes. The colleges that I really considered, or that approached me, were three Ivy League schools — Cornell, Columbia and Harvard — and Case. Now at that time it was not Case Western Reserve; they were separate schools.
They hadn’t yet merged.
Yes. Case was the engineering school, but it was, I think without question, the best engineering school in Ohio. So I got a lot of attention from Case — from not just the football coach, but also the fraternities. The fraternities were trying to recruit people, so beginning at the time I was a junior, they would drive down and take us up there for the weekend, and I’d stay at their fraternity. People like Kipfer and Weffler, whom I mentioned — I remember we made one trip up there together one time. We’d go up there, and they’d show us around the fraternity and around the school and have a party sometimes that we’d go to. So I had a real interest in Case. Then it came time to see how we were going to handle the funding and [Laughs I think I got a scholarship — now remember, to go through college in those years it cost, oh, about $900 or $1,000 for everything. So Case gave me a scholarship for $200, and the football coach said, “Well, we’re expecting you here.” I said, “What am I going to do for the rest of the money?” He said, “Don’t you have anything?” “No.” He said, “Well, I’ll let you sleep here in the gym.” And he showed me a little room, which was right next to the basketball court. I said, “What am I going to do when they have games and I’m trying to study?” [Laughter] He said, “Well, it won’t bother you.” But anyway, the finances at Case were not strong enough to take me there. That left the other schools. I was strongly encouraged to go to Harvard by Paul Brown, because he insisted that his players go to college and get the best possible education they could. He saw me as a guy who could get through Harvard. Incidentally, the first thing Brown did when football practice started in the spring — the first time he got the people together — he sat them down in a classroom and he passed out an I.Q. test. Before anybody had done anything. You had to do well on an I.Q. test, or you didn’t play on his football team.
That’s very interesting. Do you remember what kind of test it was, as you look back on it?
No, I don’t.
What kinds of questions were in it?
Just like an I.Q. test. I took another I.Q. test somewhere up in Cleveland, I think, later. It was the same kind of a test. I can’t remember the details, but they were not football-oriented questions. But I would usually win that or come close — I think I won or tied for first most of the years. So he thought of me as a guy who had a chance to go through Harvard, and he thought that would be, I guess, a feather in hi cap as well as in the high school’s cap, to get a guy through Harvard. But I never looked at Harvard too seriously, because I had in my mind that Harvard kids were all well-to-do and of a different social class than I was accustomed to, coming from this steel town.
Sure. You knew enough about Harvard to know that.
So I didn’t want to go to Harvard. Secondly, there was nobody at Harvard from my home town, ahead of me there. I didn’t have any role model. At Columbia it was different. There were two fellows ahead of me from Columbia, both of whom had been football players at my home town, both of whom were working their way through school, both of whom were engineers of one kind or another. In fact, before those two there were a couple of others. One guy was in graduate school that had been in the same circumstances. So when I went to Columbia, first they gave me a scholarship. It was $500 a year. Tuition was $400 at that time. They promised me two jobs [Laughs] for a total of four hours a day — one job to earn your meals and one job to earn cash for your room. The fellows ahead of me had done that, and it was a tough go. I mean, there wasn’t much time for sleep. Nevertheless, I knew I could make it that way, if I could do as well as they did. So that was my deal at Columbia. Now while I was in high school, of course I got a lot of literature from various colleges, and I went through it very carefully. I finally decided that Cornell was my number one choice of school. They had a very strong program in chemical engineering then. They had just built this building — it’s about a block away from us here. They were well-known for their chemical engineering program, and a nice campus. I thought, “Boy, that’s a school I’d really like to go to.” At first, I didn’t have any tie with them, and then finally I was contacted by Cornell, and an alumnus drove me down here one weekend to see the campus. Of course, it was beautiful. But he put me up in his old fraternity. I had a room that was occupied by some fraternity brother, but he was away that weekend. I looked at that room, and I opened the closet, and it was wall-to-wall sport jackets. Well, I had one sport jacket, which my uncle had given me after it had gotten a little frayed [Laughs] at the cuffs. I thought, “Well, I’m not going to fit too well into this society.” But I still liked Cornell. Then I talked to the football coach, who was a big-time coach, of course. Cornell was big time in football at that time. I talked to the football coach, and there were two things there that I didn’t like. First, Cornell was so good in football that I thought I wouldn’t be able to make the team. I was wrong, because I ended up playing against Cornell a couple of years later and we beat them. [Laughs]
But you didn’t know that at the time. [Laughs]
The coach also made an arrangement with an alumnus who agreed to pay my way through Cornell. Now that was legitimate in those days. That was not an underhanded deal. That was something that was permitted by all the rules. The alum was going to pay my way through while I studied chemical engineering, and he’d even give me a job after I got out. It seemed like a great deal. But I was pretty idealistic at that time. I still am. [Laughs] I thought, “Gee, I really don’t want to be indebted to this one guy for life.” I had the other choice of Columbia, and I chose Columbia — the hard-working choice. Of course, the way it all worked out, Columbia provided me the critical contacts for my later career, so that without knowing it I made a very good choice. [Crosstalk] But those were my opportunities. Those were the reasons for making the decision.
That’s very interesting. Did you graduate in 1941?
From high school, yes.
The U.S. was not yet involved in the war.
That’s right. The war began during my freshman year.
Exactly. The beginnings of the war didn’t really influence your thought about choices of college? [Crosstalk]
No, it didn’t, because we didn’t think we were necessarily going to get into that war then. Maybe people who were smarter and knew more about it did, but the people I talked to didn’t know that.
One of the questions I meant to ask you was — were either of your parents or your family strongly religious?
Oh, yes. My mother was a very strong Catholic. That was a strong influence on me. I’m a Catholic now.
Was your father Catholic as well?
My father was not originally. I think he converted when they were married; but he really didn’t stick with it.
Your mother was the stronger spiritual force then.
Yes. The whole Ertle family was strong. It still is.
What were your impressions of Columbia when you arrived? Had you seen the campus prior to your arrival?
Let’s see. How did I get there the first time? I think I took the train the first time. Somebody met me at the train station, and we took the subway up to the campus. I got off the subway — you know the Columbia campus. I got off and I looked at Low Memorial Library, which is a kind of building that I had never seen before. I mean, that looked to me like something that was reserved for monarchy or something like that. So I was overwhelmed with the idea that a poor kid like me from this steel town could possibly be thought of as attractive to this place. Or at least admissible to this place. Yes, I was impressed by the campus. Then I think I was shown around the campus, largely by one or two of these fellows who had been on the football team at Massillon and who were ahead of me. They gave me an inside look at the campus.
What was the course of study like during the first year at Columbia?
Terrible. I don’t know how I survived. Well, I do know how I survived, because [Laughs] I’ll tell you the story of how I survived. But first I had to take what they called the standard program for Columbia College kids — The Humanities and Contemporary Civilization. These were courses in philosophy and economics and humanities and things that I had had almost nothing of in high school. These were just completely new things to me. Here I was working two jobs. I got up in the morning to work two hours for my meals. Then I went to classes. Then I went up to the Medical Center at 168th Street to work in the library for two hours, to make money. Then I went up to Baker Field for football practice. [Laughs] I came home and ate and started studying at about 7 or 8 at night. I never got much sleep. I don’t know how I did it. And here I was taking these courses that I didn’t know anything about. So for the first half of the first semester I was in trouble, and when the first grades came out, my adviser called me in. He said, “Look here. You got a D in this course, and a C in this one here, and an F in this one. I was just about to put you on the list for probation.” He said, “I felt I had to put you on the list for probation. Then I looked down at the bottom of your record here, and I came to this tough course in math, and you got an A.” He said, “Now all my other students are getting A’s in these other courses, and they’re flunking the math course. You must have something we need at Columbia! I’m not putting you on probation.” [Laughter] So that’s how I survived the first half of the first semester. At the end of the football season they had a dinner for the freshman football players, and the coach said, “Well, this is a wonderful group of students we have on the team this year. Only one person was in danger of being put on probation.” [Laughter] And that was me. The next year when I was on the varsity, I won the cup for having the best grades on the football team. But anyway, by the end of the first semester I was getting those courses under control. So I got them all up. And I kept getting the A’s in math, and I got up to the B’s and C’s level in the other courses. I didn’t really have any trouble after that. That was tough.
That must have been very difficult, though, after having done well through high school, too. Adjusting can be difficult. [Crosstalk]
Yes, it was difficult. I was in with another type of kid, though. There were a lot of New York area kids, and they knew the social sciences and humanities. They knew that stuff cold. But they didn’t have — I don’t know if they didn’t have the background, or the ability in the math courses — but I was able to excel there. Some of them did, of course. So it was very tough my first year.
Did you begin taking courses in chemical engineering as well?
Not the first year. No. At that time they had a program — it was three years of what they called pre-engineering, and then two years of engineering, for a five-year degree. I think you got a B.A. and a B.S. or something like that. I was planning to do that, so I was essentially in the College of Arts and Sciences, taking a few courses, like math, that were pre-engineering. I didn’t take any science courses my first year, though; the second year I did. That’s how I got the cup on the football team. [Laughter]
How was the second year? Were any of those courses particularly memorable?
Yes. Second year I took my first course in beginning physics, and that was given by a guy named [Robert] von Nardroff, who later got into trouble when his daughter [Elfreida von Nardroff] got into trouble on “The 64,000 Question.” [Laughter] But that was very interesting for me, because he was probably the best teacher of beginning physics that anyone could have. He was so well organized, and he just presented everything so clearly that you could learn it. I think on the first exam he gave I knew everything. I got 100 on the exam, which was unheard of. Other people were getting 20’s and 30’s. I got 100. Everything was right there. So for a time I thought of him as the best physicist that the world could ever have. Then later, of course, I found out he was there essentially as a teacher and the real super physicists who were winning the Nobel Prizes were somebody else.
Right. But it takes a while; I would imagine that — I should ask you directly. You didn’t know, for instance, immediately of people like [Isador I.] Rabi and others who were on the faculty.
I didn’t know Rabi then. I got to know Rabi later.
Indeed. But he wasn’t someone that you would see, as an undergraduate, or know about.
No. I had no idea about things like that then. This was a big lecture class and a lab, I guess, and not much personal contact with anybody. Although one thing about von Nardroff — he loved football. So I was up there playing football — I guess it was when I was a sophomore, and I see this guy sitting on the bench. It was the physics professor. [Laughs] He liked it so much they gave him a special little tag, so he could sit on the bench. [Q. laughs] but I don’t think he even knew I was a football player, and I don’t think I got any special attention for that reason.
You really didn’t talk to him directly outside of class at all.
What other classes were you taking in your sophomore year?
Well, I took chemistry that year, and that was a good course for me, too. I did well in that. I can’t remember. [Clifford D.] Carpenter, I guess, was the name of the professor who taught that. He was an old guy, and he wasn’t as good a teacher in a formal sense as von Nardroff was, but I got the chemistry all right. Then I took the second parts of things like Contemporary Civilization, which by that time had turned to economics. I liked that a little better than some of the early stuff — the philosophy that I’d taken. At that time I did. Now I’m delighted that I took those courses in philosophy; but at that time I wasn’t too keen on it. I took a math sequence — started in freshman year as analytic geometry and then became calculus for about three semesters. I took all of that over two years. I took French — had a good teacher there. I did well in French, because I started out not knowing anything. Nearly flunked out my first year. Then the third semester I did very well, and was allowed to take the proficiency exam. I passed, so I got through French in a year and a half, [Laughs] even though I’d done poorly at first and even though most students took two years. I think I took a course in writing — an English course in writing. But it was just a one-credit course. You had to write a term paper or something. It wasn’t much. In humanities I took art and music. That was my first exposure to classical music and that kind of thing. I went downtown in New York and wrote papers on cathedrals or that kind of stuff.
Did you spend a lot of time in your Columbia years in the museums and elsewhere in New York? I was curious if you had gotten to a museum. [Crosstalk]
Not unless the course work forced me into them. Yes, I had to go down to the Metropolitan, I guess, to write one term paper in that course in humanities. No, I didn’t take much advantage of those aspects of New York. I went there occasionally — maybe because I’d have a visitor some time or something like that. I didn’t really do much. Usually I’d take them to the Statue of Liberty. [Laughs]
This is interesting, though. You didn’t really have much contact either with the Natural History Museum or the other museums?
No, not in those days. When I had an evening off on a weekend, if I had any money, I might go down to one of the big band performances at the local theaters. That was the entertainment. [Tape recorder turned off]
We’re resuming after a very short break. You were mentioning courses and those that you’d come in contact with in the first two years that you were at Columbia. I’m also interested in the last two years. Who became the people that were most influential for you in the latter two years? Or were there any who really stand out in the first two years?
Now you’ve got to remember I went two years to Columbia, during which the war started. Then I had to go into the service — at the end of my sophomore year. So I spent three years in the military.
So that started by the summer of 1943.
I started in military service in the summer of 1943, right. Of course, the campus was already affected by the war. There was midshipman everywhere. I had tried to join the Navy, actually, much earlier, but I couldn’t pass the eye exams. So I decided — since I was going to go into the Army, I would wait to be drafted. Since I was a pre-engineer, I was deferred for awhile. So mid 1943 I was drafted, and they promptly put me into the Navy. [Laughter] That’s the military for you. I went into the Seabees, which were the Navy construction battalions. In my two years before the war I had started out as a chemical engineer, but I changed my mind several times. I had been a metallurgist and a mechanical engineer. Then when I went into the service I did civil engineering. I was a surveyor and bulldozer operator and construction worker.
What were the theaters that you were in?
I was in the Pacific. I was in Hawaii and the Philippines — about two years overseas. But I was doing civil engineering and construction work anyway. And surveying. I worked with a lot of civil engineers. I kind of liked civil engineering; but I also was thinking about my future during this period, so when I came back to Columbia, I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to go into civil engineering or into physics. I came back in the spring of 1946 for just a day, and I went to see the adviser in civil engineering. He wasn’t in that day, [Laughs] so I went to see the adviser in physics and became a physicist. That’s just what happened. [Crosstalk]
Some things hang. Yes. Were there others in the time of the service who you talked to about your career? Or did you come in contact with people who were in various fields of engineering or science?
Not much. Remember, I was an enlisted man. My officers were generally graduates in civil engineering, but I didn’t associate with them very much. I played a lot of basketball in the service, including some fairly high level basketball. One of the coaches of our team was a civil engineer, and I talked to him somewhat. He encouraged me to get into civil engineering, but I didn’t feel a strong influence from any of those people.
I was curious how the physics came to be one of the other options.
I think it was because I liked it so much in high school and in my sophomore year in college. I just liked physics. As I say, I started back at Columbia in the summer of 1946. I took a course in beginning physics then, to cover some parts of physics I hadn’t covered before. I liked that and did very well in it; and so I was committed to be physics major by that time. That’s when I first met Rabi. I went up to see him and talked with him about it. No, that’s not when I first met Rabi. That was later. I met Rabi when I was trying to get into graduate school. See, I only spent one year after the war as an undergraduate.
Right — because your degree is 1947.
That’s right. I got credit for the summer school, and I got some credit for being in the service. It amounted to about another semester. So I got out of college after essentially three years of college. And without some of the required physics courses. [Laughter] But during my senior year I went to see Rabi. I was on the football team then. I was doing much better in football, incidentally; that was my big year in football.
I want to hear about that, too.
Okay. But anyway, I was on the football team when I went to see Rabi. I said, Well, I think Pd like to go to graduate school in physics’ He looked at my grades. They had test scores on me, and they were pretty good, I think. He said, “Well, your grades aren’t too good here during football season. You’ll have to get them up by the end of the semester. If you do, you’ll be admitted to graduate school.”
He meant at Columbia.
At Columbia, yes. So I did get those grades up that semester, and I did get admitted to graduate school after that first semester.
Let me get back to — there are other things I want to ask you about during that senior year. But were you thinking particularly to return to Columbia, or were you looking at other universities as possibilities?
When I was in the service — well, of course the G.I. Bill came out, so my financial situation suddenly changed. I could go anywhere. I thought about changing, and the only thing I ever did about it was to write a letter to M.I.T. [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] because I knew that was considered to be best school in engineering. I thought “Well, if I can get into there, I might go.” I wrote a letter to M.I.T., and they said there were so many veterans [Laughs] trying to transfer to M.I.T. that they weren’t going to take many transfers — so I didn’t have a very good chance. So I went back to Columbia. That was true in general. A lot of schools had the veterans coming back, and they weren’t taking as many — I mean, they were giving priority to the people who had been there before.
So there really were advantages in staying in Columbia? [Crosstalk]
Yes. So that was all I did. And as I say, I’m eternally grateful that I did.
Again, as you say, too, that’s also what you realize in hindsight.
Who else was memorable for you in terms of teachers or mentors in your senior year?
My senior year I took a physics course with Polykarp Kusch, who was a Nobel Prize winner. He was very impressive as a teacher.
What was particularly impressive about his teaching style?
Well, I don’t know if you ever knew him. He had a very deep voice, and his father had been, I think, a minister. He had somewhat of that “oratory” style about him; but he nevertheless — when he picked a subject, he just went into it in extreme detail and made sure you had everything just right and you understood everything about that problem. I thought that’s the way good physicists operated, and I liked that. So he was one of them. I’ve forgotten which courses I took as a senior now and which ones were graduate school. [Crosstalk]
I’m sure it blurs now.
But while I was at Columbia in physics, either as a senior or in my first two years of graduate school, I was taught by a total of five Nobel Prize winners — who would win Nobel Prizes. Including Rabi, who was really just my adviser. There was Kusch and Charles Townes, another Nobel Prize winner, who was also a very good teacher. [W.J.] Rainwater won the Nobel Prize.
He also was in the physics department.
Also physics. Then in my graduate years — first or second year; I’m not sure which — I had Willis Lamb, who also won the Nobel Prize. He was a very good teacher. I liked him, too.
Did you have courses in other sciences, or, given the compression of courses —
Not much. Just math and physics. I wish I had now, but I can’t complain about it. Of course, I ended up as somebody whose training was primarily in physics and working in geology; so in a sense I’m more interdisciplinary than a lot of people. But as I’ve gotten to the higher levels of science, I’m asked about questions of greater and greater breadth; and I wish I knew more about some of those things.
That’s been, of course, one of the situations of the earth sciences at the moment. Indeed, that’s a good point. When you were studying physics at that period of time — I’m just curious in a general way how much emphasis was put on atomic theory, given the development of the bomb? Was that something that was widely discussed on campus in the courses?
I’d say that that had an influence on what was taught, yes. I mean, we still got good, solid classical physics. I didn’t mention one course I took, which was analytical dynamics. It was given by a professor named [Shirley L.] Quimby another very good teacher. It was purely classical physics. But when I started taking courses with — well, Kusch during the war worked on microwaves, and he taught us a little bit about that. People like [William] Havens and Rainwater were people who had been young physicists in the atom bomb business, and you could sense a — oh, John Dunning was another guy who was very prominent. I took a course with him. He constructed the first [nuclear] pile at Columbia or something like that; so he had that. Yes, we got a dose of that. I don’t think I’m very good in what you’d call modern physics now, but I had some of that.
How much do you remember learning about quantum mechanics and the new physics in your courses?
I took courses which would be called “introductory” to quantum mechanics, so I knew what Schrödinger’s Equation was and stuff like that; but I never took the super-high-level course in quantum mechanics, in which they found a zillion solutions to Schrödinger’s Equation [Laughs]. So I knew what it was, but I wasn’t really a practitioner. [Crosstalk]
So you had a bit of an introduction to matrix mechanics — things of that sort.
Yes, I had matrix stuff in the analytical dynamics course. I wasn’t particularly good at that. I don’t think of myself as strong in theoretical physics; but I did have the exposure to it.
Do you feel more comfortable with experimental approaches?
Yes. You know, they say there are two kinds of people in science: the ones who think in a physical way and the ones who think in a mathematical way. I think in a physical way. No question.
Of course, that can be overstated, too, in that people do move readily between the two. [Crosstalk]
I’m just curious — when you look back on it now, whether you found indeed that you had sympathy particularly towards —
I loved the intuitive approach. I loved to rely on my intuition and to understand things in an intuitive way. So when I went in and I heard some guy like Quimby or Kusch or somebody solving some Maxwell’s Equations or something like that, my goal at the end was always to be able to understand what he found in that solution of the equation in an intuitive, physical sense. If I couldn’t do that, I didn’t think I was learning physics.
Were there any lectures by outsiders coming through Columbia that were particularly memorable? Were there many people that came through the campus that you heard speak at the time?
I remember Harold Urey came through one time. I can’t remember when that was.
That might have been the beginning of your graduate training.
It might have been a little later, too. He came through and spoke on the Columbia campus, but it was about geology and planetary geology and cosmology that he was interested in.
Almost certainly that would have been later — because he really got interested in that by 1949 or 1950. [Crosstalk]
That was later than when I was at the school we’re talking about here. Yes. I can remember Niels Bohr came for a lecture one time. I didn’t hear the lecture, but I rode up in the physics building in the elevator with him, [laughter] and I was really impressed by that. I’m pretty sure it was Bohr. But when I was an undergraduate, I wouldn’t go to the physics department colloquia. They were too tough for me.
I’m curious too; do you remember at that time whether people were talking in a general way with the advanced undergraduates about styles of science? Certainly World War II and the funds that had flowed in changed the practice of physics.
I would say some of that came out of these teachers I’ve been telling you about, like Kusch and Lamb and so on. They all had a little different idea, you know. That was part of the fun — to see how each guy approached science in those days. But, yes, there was some of that there. Not so much that they would get up and give a full day’s lecture, but it was just stuff that came out casually, as they went along. Yes, that was an important thing — the styles of science — partly out of general interest, but partly because all of us were thinking of going into graduate school and doing something, and we were trying to decide what part of physics we wanted to get into.
What were you thinking of particularly as interesting?
What was I thinking of?
Yes, as options that seemed open to you at the time.
Frankly, I didn’t have a part of physics that seemed especially appealing to me. Some of my friends were doing molecular beams with Rabi. I went up there, and I looked around at what they were doing. Mostly what they were doing was painting glyptal [resin] on the apparatus, to seal up vacuum leaks. I could see myself doing that kind of stuff, but on the other hand, it kind of paled by comparison with geophysics, when I learned something about that a little later. [Crosstalk]
When did you first become aware of [W. Maurice] Ewing or geophysics?
Well, I used that story in the introduction to my book.
This is the new book that isn’t yet published.
No, that’s this book: The Incomplete Guide to the Art of Discovery [Columbia University Press: New York, 1991]. Well, that starts out with football. [Laughs] I’ll tell it to you very briefly. When I was a senior, I was playing football, and I came into Kusch’s physics course one day, with my hand all bandaged up. Somebody had stepped on it during the game, and I had a lot of liniment on it. So you could smell the liniment all through the classroom. There was another kid in the class whom I hadn’t met up till then. He was a wrestler, and he recognized this smell. So he came up, and we started talking. We became friends. It was a guy named Dick [Richard S.] Edwards. We became friends; I kept seeing more and more of him after that — all through this athletic connection. See, in those days in a physics course nobody knew if there were any athletes in the class. Athletics was not something physicists even considered. They would now, but not then. So anyway, we got to know each other through athletics. Then sometime later, after the course was over — I guess it was maybe a year later — he overheard me say to someone else that I was looking for a job, and I needed money. He came up to me and he said, “I know where you can get a job. Come with me.” This was the first year of graduate school — because I graduated in 1947, and I started working for Ewing in 1947. I worked that summer at the Naval Research Laboratory [NRL} in Washington. They had a program for young people studying physics, to come down there and work for the summer. So I did that.
What were you involved in particularly?
I was kind of in materials there. They were developing materials which they hoped sooner or later would be used for armor plate. So we fired bullets into these different materials and studied the shapes of the craters and stuff like that.
That was a major area of concern.
Yes. It was good basic physics, but at the same time it had a military end in mind. Anyway, in the fall of 1947, in my first year of graduate school, I was taken over to meet Ewing. This is all in the book. I went into meet Ewing, and I spent about 5 minutes with him. He said, “Okay, I’ll hire you.” I was astounded, but I was delighted. So I got up and I walked out of the room; and when I opened the door, I saw this sign that said, “Professor of Geology.” I thought, “Gee, this guy thinks I’m a graduate student in geology. He doesn’t know I’m a graduate student in physics. I’ve got to go back in and tell him.” So I went back in, and I said — this is almost word for word what happened. I said, “Professor Ewing, I’d love to have that job, but I’ve got to tell you — I’m a graduate student in physics. I’ve never studied a course in geology in my life.” Ewing says, “Well, that will be two of us!” He never studied any geology, either. [Laughter] My mouth fell open, you know, but at the same time that had a big impression on me, because I realized somebody could come into that field from physics and do well.
Let me get back to that in a moment. I wanted to end generally on your undergraduate career. When you looked back on it, in general did you feel that your exposure to the laboratory work in physics — did it seem more of a cookbook style, or did you feel that you were understanding what was involved in research?
I didn’t think I understood much had to do with research. I thought I understood some physics better than I had. I was learning a little bit about how to handle scientific instruments and stuff, too. But I didn’t think I was getting close to research — because those courses I was telling you about that were taught by Nobel Prize winners did not have laboratories associated with them. Only the beginning course had a laboratory. I did take some kind of a laboratory, which was primarily about different physics experiments, with emphasis on precision of measurements and how to use statistics with your data and that kind of thing. But none of this was oriented toward research.
Did you have much time to continue any of the outside-of-classes reading that you had been doing in high school and as an undergraduate at Columbia?
As an undergraduate?
Gee! In the first couple of years, no. [Laughs] You know, I took one course where you had to read a book like this every week.
You’re holding your fingers about an inch apart.
I was playing this football and working these jobs — no, I don’t think I read anything outside of the assigned work the first couple of years. No, all my expansion in those years was decided by Columbia, not my initiative.
And that was pretty much the case, too, in the last two years?
In graduate school?
Well, undergraduate and beginning graduate school.
There was only one more year of undergraduate. Yes, I guess that was true. I didn’t do much outside. I was working jobs and still playing football. In fact, I was trying to play basketball, too, see — because I got to be -– [Crosstalk]
Sure, you were playing basketball during your service years.
I went out for the Columbia team in basketball. By this time I was a pretty good basketball player, and Columbia had a very good team that year. I would have made the team. The coach told me I would have been on the first five, but I just couldn’t handle the basketball and football and physics. I had to drop basketball.
You were about to tell me some minutes ago, too, about that last senior year on the football team, which was particularly memorable for you.
Oh yes. Well, in my freshman and sophomore years I made the team and I played a lot in those years — partly because it was the wartime years and guys were disappearing. I was a starter some of the time, but I wasn’t really a strong player on the team. I wasn’t really one of the inner circles of strength on those teams. But when I got to be a senior, I had matured a bit physically during the war and I gotten a lot faster by playing basketball and so on, so I did have the feeling I was more in the inner circle of the football team in 1946. We had a pretty good team. We were 6 and 3, which is an outstanding record for Columbia. [Laughs] And we played some of the best teams in the country. We played the great Army team with Blanchard and Davis and so on, and I started in that game. I had some good experience. You know, I was tackling and blocking these guys who were getting all the publicity. Then there were two games where in the last quarter I blocked a punt which led to the winning score. Against Navy and Yale [University]. Well, for a lineman — I was a tackle, you know, and tacklers and you never get much attention — those are about the best things you can do. So those were very satisfying things for me. They’re all forgotten long ago now, but for me I felt that was I was a real participant in what was going on in the game in this last year more than I had in some of the others. And I could have played another year still, and it hurt me to not do that. [Laughs]
Having lost, essentially, the year as an undergraduate that you would have been eligible for.
Yes. I could have stayed an undergraduate that year, and I would have been eligible for sports, but I didn’t. I just gave up that year of eligibility.
Was it a fairly tough choice for you at the time?
In a way it was. You know, football is kind of double-edged. On the one hand, you have to practice hard every night of the week. It’s tough. But it’s fun to be in the games and win the games. So I had to give that up.
What sources of support were you thinking about when you did begin graduate school at Columbia?
Well, I had the G.I. Bill then. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the G.I. Bill, but you got 12 months, plus the number of months you had in the service.
That’s quite right, and you’d had —
I had 12 months, plus 31 months of being in the service. See, that was 40-some months; and the academic year only counted as 9 months. So I had essentially 5 years of school supported by the G.I. Bill. So that was a factor. Then I usually had a part-time job, too. Of course, when I got the job with Ewing, then I got paid as a kind of a graduate assistant. [Crosstalk]
But that was part-time work, of course — for pocket money and to cover incidentals. That’s what you had been looking for?
Yes, the G.I. Bill didn’t quite cover everything. You needed to get some other source of money.
That’s particularly what I had in mind — how much work you really needed to do, to be able to survive with the G.I. coverage.
You needed a little more than what the G.I. Bill — the G.I. Bill paid what — 75 bucks a month, I think. [Laughs] Room and board. Well, you probably needed about 125 or so.
Okay. Maybe about 60% at least, at a school like Columbia. We may need to break some of this into the post-lunch break — if we take a lunch break. I want to make sure that we at least flag on the tape where you have published on some of your recollections on Lamont or Columbia, particularly if it’s well documented, as we go through. We probably ought to cover some of the things that are in the manuscript that you have in press right now, at least to call attention to that in the same way. We’re resuming after another quick break, and one of the things that you mentioned in that break that I think we should have on tape. You mentioned that some of your earlier readings included the stories of Horatio Alger.
That’s right. My grandparents on the Oliver side were sort of — I guess their parents had been — Pennsylvania Dutch or something like that. They had a bunch of books in the attic or somewhere, and they were, I guess, early twentieth century books. They got them down when I was a kid, and they turned out to be a collection of Horatio Alger books. So I read all of them: Strive and Succeed, Paddle Your Own Canoe, and stuff like that. As a small boy, I’d go over to visit my grandparents. They didn’t always have anything that exciting for me to do, so I’d just curl up near one of the radiators in the wintertime and read one of those books. So I always had the American dream, as Horatio Alger expressed it, [Laughter] in my mind. I was this kid who starts out shining shoes and becomes president of the company and so on.
I’d like to ask you, too. Your brother was seven years younger than you, but as he was moving into the middle school years when you were in high school, did he have an interest in the sciences or engineering?
Not really, no. He’s a good, bright fellow. He was a fine basketball player, and when he became of college age, he got a scholarship to Columbia as well. He went to Columbia about half a year or so and didn’t like it very well and left and never really finished college. He now has 9 children, [Laughs] so that kept him busy for his life.
But he’s got a lot of that sort of inquisitive attitude. He’s always curious about something or other and looking at something in history or something in some detail. So there are some similarities between us but some differences as well.
You’d also mentioned a short time ago your first introduction to geophysics at Columbia came when you made application to Ewing for the position and that first interaction with him over that.
You do mention in the manuscript of the book that you are now preparing with the AGU [American Geophysics Union] — but I’d like to explore a little bit further. You were developing your understanding, then, of geophysics, once you got involved in that project, by reading.
And one of the books you had mentioned that you read was George Gamow’s Biography of the Earth.
That’s right. That was the first book I really read that was anything like a book in earth science — it wasn’t really strictly about earth science. I ran across it in the bookstore, and thought I ought to try to learn something about the earth and earth science, since I was working with all these guys who were doing it. [Crosstalk]
Indeed, were there other books that you recall reading around that same period of time, in addition to Gamow’s?
You’re making me think now of books that I started to read when I began to take classes in earth science. I can’t remember any that I read, particularly, before that. I guess at one time I bought a little set of books that had articles on the philosophy of science, and I read a number of them. There was stuff by Descartes and some other philosophers. I mention that, because although I had studied some of those philosophers when I took my freshman and sophomore courses at Columbia, it hadn’t really begun to sink in till after the war and I was getting into graduate school and so on. So I did read some of that about then, but I can’t remember a chronology. Gee, what else? They’re probably on the shelf here somewhere. I don’t throw them away.
You’re pointing over to a series of three large shelves here in the office, of six feet or so. [Crosstalk]
On this side, three, yes. Total of five. There are some on this side as well.
Even just to think, particularly, of Gamow’s book — you mention — and this is something I’m sure we’ll cover when we talk a little bit more about drift and the emergence of plate tectonics — but one of the things that intrigued you in the book was his discussion of the possibility of the continents having fit together at a previous point. Were there other broad themes in the earth sciences that his book made you curious about, when you think back?
That’s the only one that sticks in my head — because, of course, that became the doctrine after awhile. I’ve looked already through these shelves that you see here [Laughs], trying to find that copy of Biography of the Earth. I can’t find it. I’d love to get one and go through it again, just for that reason. But nothing sticks in my mind right now especially. It’s so long since I read it that I just don’t remember it.
How else were you learning about the earth sciences in that period of time? Do you remember, particularly, any conversations with others — either other graduate students or others on the faculty about questions in the earth sciences?
Yes. I worked for Ewing for a year or so before I started taking geology courses, I guess, and during that period I mostly just talked to people about their projects. Remember, some of their projects were not what you’d call strictly geology projects. The one I was working on was propagation of sound in the atmosphere. It involved flying balloons, of all things. There were people working on gravity and so on, which really didn’t have much to do with details of rocks.
I should have phrased that more broadly — about the earth sciences. Because clearly that, as distinct from physics, was the “new terrain,” so to speak — the new sense of disciplinary issues and questions.
I was curious, when you think back on it, how you came to understand the currents of thought?
I started to take courses. The first course I took in geology was a graduate course in structural geology by Walter [H.] Bucher. It was up in the 100-level courses that normally you wouldn’t take until you’d been an undergraduate for a few years in geology. He was a very far-sighted individual, and he encouraged people who came from other sciences to take his course. I got in there, and among other things, he used his book, which he had published a few years before and in which he tried to quantify geology a great deal. He had some specific laws that he stated.
This is the book in which he listed the “laws of geology.”
The “laws” and the “corollaries” and so on. He was, I think, influenced by the progress that physics had made in organizing its science, and he made an attempt to do something like that in geology. By the time I took his course, he was using the book in another way. He was showing it to his students and saying, “Now look! This is what I thought here and here and here. Every last one of these things has been proven wrong.”
It was really very big of him to do it and use it that way. So we started going into these things, and we started saying, “Well, if he got it wrong here, what can we do to get it right?” It almost always came out that we had to observe something about the Earth that hadn’t been observed before. That made a big impact on me, just as Ewing’s intensive efforts to make observations of the Earth made an impact on me. So I became indoctrinated very early as a dedicated observer or believer that this was the time to make good observations of the Earth. And that, of course, was dead right! [Laughs]
That’s a very interesting point. I recall Chuck [Charles L.] Drake, a number of years later, was working directly with Bucher on a possible re-edition of that book.
Well, okay. You mentioned Chuck now. I was just about to mention him, too, because he and I were very close friends in graduate school. We came into Ewing’s group at about the same time, and we took this particular course together. We were buddies, and so when I needed to have some background in geology, why I’d ask Chuck, and he’d provide it. So he had an impact on the geological side of my education. In fact, in the first paper that I ever wrote, Chuck and I were co-authors. It was about seismic work in the area around Long Island.
That was “The Geophysical Investigations of the Emerged and Submerged Atlantic Coastal Plain.” [Crosstalk]
That’s the one. And if you look at it, a lot of it is seismology. I was the prime contributor to the seismological part. Another major part is the geology, and Chuck was easily the major contributor there. We got it together somehow, and the paper seems to have survived all right. So Chuck was a factor in my geological education.
Do you remember any particular conversations with him about geology or the earth sciences?
Well, it wasn’t very profound, but I can remember the first day I took a class when Bucher mentioned something about the Triassic red beds. I said to Chuck, [Laughs] “What the heck is he talking about? What’s ‘Triassic’ and what’s ‘red’ and what’s a ‘bed?’” [Laughter] It gives you a demonstration of my level of knowledge at that time. But he told me very quickly, and I went out and got a time-scale and learned it soon after.
Now of course we are talking about the time that you are taking geology classes — and earth sciences classes, more broadly — as a graduate student. When you took a class like Bucher’s, did you learn more about the geology from talking with fellow students in the class, or do you remember reading other textbooks to gain that broader understanding of issues?
Well, somewhere along the way I bought an elementary text in geology and read it. And in fact I did the same thing for geophysics — for exploration geophysics. I never took a course in exploration geophysics. I bought a copy of [L.L.] Nettleton’s book. There were only two textbooks in exploration geophysics then. I bought one of them, and I studied that in detail on my own. That’s my knowledge of exploration geophysics, and as you’ve probably noticed on the walls of the hall out there at Cornell, we have a big program based on exploration seismic techniques. We study Tibet and so on. I was the originator of that project. [Laughs]
That’s interesting. Of course, we were talking about a much more recent project. [Crosstalk]
Nettleton’s book was one of the classic ones. That was the McGraw-Hill book, as I recall. [Geophysical Prospecting for Oil].
I think that’s right. So that was my first introduction to geophysics — through a textbook. In geology, I can’t remember what elementary book I looked at. Sorry.
There were quite a few, of course. More so than in exploration and geophysics.
Well, Bucher — I might say this: In addition to his formal course he also had a little seminar. He got about half a dozen of us, about half of whom were physicists and the other half of whom were geologists, and he purposely tried to provoke us to work together and think of solutions where techniques from physics might solve problems in geology. So there was that kind of interaction there, and, of course, I learned some geology in that course. The other guys, I hope, learned some physics. [Doel laughs]
What sort of problems did he set out? Did he raise, for instance, the question of the expanding Earth? Did something like that come up as an issue?
I can’t remember that coming up. I can remember things like the Alps. He had a background in the Alps. He had studied in Europe, and he lived in Europe a long time. He was always concerned with the large over thrusts in the Alps, and how they could come about, so he had an interest in how seismic techniques might be used to investigate some of those problems. Well, of course, that’s just what this big project that I’m telling you about now is doing - except that we’re going to look deeper into the Earth than what he had in mind. But his idea, that he suggested one time — a real wild idea — was based on the seismic work that Ewing was doing at sea — where you make an explosion or some disturbance near the surface, and then you study the sub-bottom from the echo. His idea was that we might get a balloon and drift over the Alps and set off some explosions in the air [Laughs] and get some soundings from the balloon. Those of us who were in physics quickly assured him that that wouldn’t work too well. He just said that in order to provoke us, I’m sure. But it shows that he was —
That was also his scientific style, wasn’t it, in a way? To think it out.
It was his scientific style, and he recognized that he didn’t have strength in physics. He was trying to get as much as he could, in any way he could, including talking to students. He was good; he was a very stimulating professor. Perhaps most stimulating professor I’ve ever had. He left us convinced that if, in our careers, we went out and observed the Earth thoroughly and wisely, we’d make big discoveries. And we did! [Laughs]
You mentioned Chuck Drake was in that class. Who else do you recall in that particular class?
Well, I think Karl [K.] Turekian, a very good scientist at Yale now. Gerry [Gerald M.] Friedman, who is sort of a sedimentologist at R.P.I. [Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute], was in the class. Oh, gee, I’m going to leave out some here that I should —
You can always add to this later, on the transcript, if you want.
But there were a number of people in that class who became well-known scientists. I don’t know if Walter Beckmann was in that class. Mark [G.] Landisman maybe, who is a professor at Dallas. There are some other well-known ones in there; I just can’t think of them.
I’m wondering — another major issue just before that time —
Howard [J.] Pinkus was the teaching assistant.
I was thinking, just in that moment, of David Griggs’ work on orogeny and convection currents. Was that the sort of thing that would also come up in discussion? Or do you remember if it did, in Bucher’s seminar?
That came up when I was in some course in which we used Umbgrove’s book on Pulse of the Earth. I think Griggs’ model is in Umbgrove’s book. But a lot of the other big ideas — like [Alfred] Wegener and [Felix A.] Vening-Meinesz and so on — they were all in Umbgrove’s book. That was in a course — I think it was led by Bucher, all right, but I can’t remember whether it was that beginning course or something else.
What was the variety of courses that Bucher offered at the time? There was that advanced introductory —
Well, I took his “structure” course and “advanced structure” or something — graduate “structure” course. And I took his seminar. I’m not sure. I think I took another course with Bucher, but I can’t remember what it was called. When I started to take courses in geology — of course, I began taking courses in geology when I was still formally a graduate student in physics. When I decided to switch to geology, I went to Charles [H. Jr.] Behre, who was student advisor at that time on the faculty. I said, “Well, I’m from physics here. I can’t take everything. What courses should I take?” The advice he gave me was to take one course with each of the prominent professors in the department — not to try any systematic study of this, that and the other thing. Just learn what those people thought. That was good advice. I’ve given that too many students since then. So I took courses with Marshall Kay; Paul [F.] Kerr in mineralogy; Arthur [N.] Strahler in geomorphology. But Behre was so modest he didn’t encourage me to take his course. [Laughter] I wish now I had.
Behre was doing economic geology, wasn’t he? [Crosstalk]
Yes, he was economic geology, but it still would have been a good course to take.
What do you recall from the other courses and seminars that you did take in geology — either Kay’s or Strahler’s courses?
Well — I think this is correct — I recall the types of people and their styles more than the content of the courses. Marshall Kay, for example, had an unusual brain. Very unusual. He could just remember everything. He was a stratigrapher, so he could remember the name of every sedimentary bed in the whole world. It seemed that way anyhow. In fact, there’s a good story about Marshall Kay. When he was in grade school, I think, he went to a tiny, little school in Iowa. It had about 8 or 10 people in the class, and of all things, one of the others was Phil [Philip B.] King, also a well-known geologist with a great memory. They played little games. They would get railroad timetables for the country and memorize them, then challenge each other to see how many they could get right. Well, Marshall’s brain was just exceptional. He had this great memory, and then he tried to organize his information in ways that did not always become popular, but at least were very thoroughly thought out. His son, incidentally, is on the Cornell faculty here now — Bob Kay.
I didn’t know that. What does Bob Kay teach?
He’s a geochemist/petrologist. In that area.
Okay, interesting. I didn’t know that. And it sounds like as you think back on it, Bucher’s course was very different from the majority of the other courses in geology —
— that you took in the earth sciences.
They were all different I’d say.
I was curious in that you mention Bucher’s course first.
Well I took that course first, and of all the geology professors, other than Ewing, he was the one who had the strongest influence on me. So that’s why I mentioned him. Of the others, well, I don’t know. There are some things in those courses, but often, as I say, I didn’t learn the content as well as others might have, but I learned the way those people thought and operated. Good training though.
What kind of interaction did you actually have with Ewing during the first period when you began working as a research assistant?
Oh boy. [Laughter] Well, when Ewing hired me, he had this contract to do this work in atmospheric acoustics.
Turned out I was the only guy working on the contract. And so after a while and no contact with Ewing, I realized I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing. I had just walked into the place, I didn’t know what I was doing and I tried to get in touch with Ewing and he was gone on a trip somewhere. And I asked around of the other people “What am I supposed to be doing?” They didn’t know anything about it. So I went to the secretary and I said, “What am I supposed to be doing?” And she said, “Well I don’t know; I’ll get you the proposal.” So she got the proposal and I read that and tried to figure out what was going on and got some papers that were referenced and I tried to read them. And I really didn’t see a lot of Ewing. But when I finally did get to see him, I asked him what I should be doing. And he liked to give his students a lot of independence. But he realized I had to get a start. So he sent me down to the group which is now a part of Air Force Cambridge Research Labs but that time it was in Red Bank, New Jersey and that was the part of the government he was contracting with. So I went down there and spent a little time there talking with two people who became well known geophysicists — one was Albert [P.] Crary, who was one of Ewing’s former students who eventually became chief scientist for the United States in the Antarctic.
And whom I did my Arctic work with. And the other one was Norman Haskell who was a very solid theoretical geophysicist who did some of the best work on viscosity in the earth’s interior. And so I got with them, particularly Crary, and tried to figure out what it was I was supposed to be doing. And then finally —
What were your impressions of them?
Of those guys?
Well they were completely different kinds of people. I got to know them both very well because I worked so much with Crary in the field. In very close spaces.
Right. Indeed in a short time you became joint authors.
Oh yes, yes. He was great. He had more physical stamina than anybody I’ve ever met. Be up at five in the morning and working right through until late at night. And he worked us like that. I think the reason he asked me to go to field with him — well, there were two reasons. I think one was that I was a former football player; I could stand the hard labor. And the other was I had a toolbox that was a different kind of tool box. It was all full of spare parts and so if you needed spare parts, I had them.
You literally. [Laughter]
No, he liked me as well as a beginning scientist. We got along superbly and I have nothing but admiration for that guy. He took the tough jobs in places nobody ever thought about. Just great.
But you raise an interesting point there in that geologists often talk about athletic ability because it’s critical particularly for those who spend a lot of time out in the field.
Yes, yes. That was an important factor. You know I went up working on the ice with him. It’s hard. I mean you got these big ridges of ice you have to climb over and pull sleds over and it’s twenty-five below zero. And you build a little tent or an igloo and develop films at that temperature. And there was misery. But it was great. I mean I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. And he also had the personality which just never allowed you to be sorry for yourself. He always said just the right thing that made you go ahead and do your best.
Remember anything particular when you say that?
Oh gee if I thought about that I probably could. It was always — I don’t know; I can’t think of any particular things. It was always “don’t feel sorry for yourself” in some coded way. So he was wonderful. Norman Haskell, on the other hand was completely different. It was almost impossible to talk with him because he was so involved in his world of differential equations and solving the equations. He’d seclude himself off somewhere. And if you wanted to see him, the people in the office would say, well at about ten-thirty he’ll come out to sharpen his pencils, maybe you can get him then. He’d come out and sharpen the pencils, you’d ask him something and he’d say, “Whoa, whoa.” So at first I was, like most people, put off a bit by Haskell. But then when the nuclear test ban treaty got going, he was one of those seismologists in the delegation at Geneva, as I was.
And we spent day after day sitting as far apart as we are now, talking about —
Which is about three and a half feet?
And I got to know him very well and he opened up and he and I became very close friends. Nothing but respect for him. But he was a different type of a guy. I liked him very much.
When precisely was it that you went down to Red Bank to do that? Was that very quickly after you got the contract?
Yes, it must have been. Oh, I can’t say for sure. It’s probably about 1947, ‘48 maybe, ‘48.
Was it summertime or during the academic year?
I think it was during the academic year but approaching summer. Another thing I did which I haven’t gotten to yet in connection with that project was to get in touch with some scientists at NYU [New York University] who were the balloon flyers essentially.
In that department of meteorology and oceanography?
Yes, that’s it. Charlie [Charles] Moore was one of them. He is a professor, or was, out at Socorro. And they were flying the balloons and my plan that evolved was that I would build an instrument which — well, first I spent some time in the field flying balloons and learning how the project worked. And they were flying mostly microbarographs to study the sound. But then I got involved in the vertical oscillations of the balloons. The balloons were supposed to stay at a constant level but they didn’t. Pressure changed a little bit. So I built what essentially was an accelerometer to measure those vertical accelerations. And I did that working with them and with Crary. And then finally flew it on a balloon. It didn’t work at all. Funny story. I spent the whole year working in the machine shop, building this instrument. And since I was connected to seismology, I knew about how seismologists recorded their data on smoked paper. So in my instrument I had a little drum with smoked paper on it and the record was made by scratching the trace on smoked paper. So I flew the balloon from New Mexico and it came down in Texas. And a rancher in Texas found it and he saw a little sign that said if you return this device in fairly good condition you get a reward of twenty- five dollars or something like that. So he looked at it and it all looked good to him except for this dirty smoke on the drum. So he wiped it all off and obliterated my record. [Laughter] My year’s work. [Laughter] But he got his twenty-five dollars I guess.
That’s the last thing that one would think about putting that label on the — oh goodness. But you spent time actually then in New Mexico?
Oh yes. In New Mexico. I went down there a couple of summers. Once with the NYU group primarily and once with Crary. And then I went to Florida where they were also launching balloons. See they were trying to listen to the missiles taking off from that area.
And so I went down to Florida for a while and there were a bunch of civil servants down there flying the balloons and the instruments. But they didn’t know why they were doing it. So Crary sent me down there to make sure no valuable data got misplaced.
In truth it turned out to be a good move. Some of it was being misplaced.
Misplaced or deliberately released to delegations?
No, no. No there wasn’t anything underhanded.
It was just laxity and —
Yes. The actual scientific data, they’d leave a roll of it in the glove compartment of the vehicle that came out of the auto pool. So you had to hunt through the whole auto pool to recover the data. No, there was no highly secret data involved.
It was very much an experimental studying technique at that point. I was just curious when you mention that too because many of the groups were going to New Mexico to take advantage of the V2 flights.
And the V2 instrumentation. There was a fellow who — and his name escapes me in the moment — [Viktor] Regener — had been in the upper atmospheric studies, not particularly in this area. Did you come in contact with other members of the broader group doing atmospheric studies?
Not in general I didn’t. Let’s see. See I wasn’t that much of a scientist then. I was just a kid starting graduate school. So I didn’t carry any weight on any of these projects from the scientific point of view, except I at least had a scientific upbringing which set me apart from some of the others. No, Crary was, I guess, the scientist I had the best connection with. See, the way Columbia got into this project initially was as a consequence of Ewing’s work in the ocean. Because Ewing found the SOFAR [Sound Fixing and Ranging] channel.
Right. The sound wave channel.
The sound wave channel and that’s there because there’s a minimum of velocity at a certain depth. Well the same thing is true for the atmosphere. As you go up in the atmosphere, the velocity goes up for a while and then goes down for a while and then goes up for a while. So there’s a sound channel up there as well. So that’s what we were investigating, that sound channel. And the typical atmospheric physicist didn’t think much about the atmosphere in that acoustical way.
Was that, the project, considered classified at the time that it was written?
Yes. I think so, at least parts of it.
It makes sense given the SOFAR work was also classified.
I think it was, well now wait a minute. I’m telling you something which is not quite correct here. I think that general idea was classified, but the work that I was doing, as far as I recall, did not require security clearance at that time. I don’t think I had a security clearance at that time. I might be wrong about that because I’ve had security clearances.
But I don’t think I did have one at that time.
Sure. Do you recall when you first did, was it prior to the time that you began the work on, involved with the test ban treaty?
I don’t remember. Just don’t remember. I sort of doubt that I had one then because, although some of the work we did in Alaska had to do with sound and the atmosphere and so on, but I don’t know if that was classified. I think it must have been when I got involved in the nuclear test detection that I got the clearance.
So the mid to late 1950s then rather than earlier?
I think so, okay.
It’s a long time back.
Make sure that’s qualified on the tape because I’m not sure about that.
Sure, sure. No, you’ve made that clear. Did other, do you recall whether other graduate students at the time did have security clearances? I believe some needed it for particular projects in which they were working at the time.
I don’t know for sure. Joe [J. Lamar] Worzel had worked on that kind of stuff during the war with Ewing.
So he probably had a security clearance. I don’t know about guys like Chuck [Charles L. Drake] who went out in the submarines. I don’t know if they had to have a security clearance to be in the submarines or not.
I was curious if that was something that you happened to remember coming up in conversations whether the need to have the security clearance troubled or became —
Whether that was a factor?
Became a factor for any of the students.
I don’t think so. In general what we did was not, not secret work anyway. We were doing some science which might have some connection with some secret. As a general rule, security wasn’t a problem for us. I can’t remember how I got into an Air Force base, like Alamogordo [New Mexico]. I must have had something to identify me somehow, but on the other hand I wouldn’t get into the highly classified areas. No, I don’t think I can help you too much there.
Sure. And this was also in the late 1940s, ‘48, and ‘49 that you went out there?
In that period of time. Okay.
I think in 1949 I went up to Alaska with Crary in the summertime. Worked around Fairbanks incidentally. Set off explosions at Fairbanks and flew out about a hundred and fifty miles to different airports and recorded them with microbarographs. And we tried to do a, kind of a radial pattern around Fairbanks in order to determine the difference between temperature effects and wind effects in the atmosphere.
What season were you working at?
That was the summer.
That was the summertime?
Then Crary got interested in the cold weather part, in the Arctic part, and we went up there shortly thereafter during the cold weather season. Our big expedition.
Looking at, what I’m doing is looking through a chronological list of your publications right now in that period, and you did publish with him, “Geophysical Studies in the Buford Sea,” which was in the AGU.
Okay. That’s after.
That was the second year. The third time I went up there with him when we —
— we were up there in the cold weather.
Right. You’re quite right. My card covered what is actually listed here as your first publication which was a combined one with Frank Press, Crary, yourself and Samuel Katz. Which was the, “Air Coupled Flexural Waves and —”
Okay. We’ll see, that was connected. Yes. Okay. I had a little assignment to study elastic waves in ice. That was because of Crary developing an interest in ice. And they were interested in ice at that time nominally, or at least the military reason was that planes were flying over the Arctic Ocean and if they were forced down, they didn’t know where to land. They didn’t know where the ice was thick and where it was thin. And they thought there might be ways you could drop an instrument on the ice and determine the thickness. Crary and Ewing back in the 1930s had done some work on flexural waves in ice on lakes in New Jersey. So they wanted to extend this and see if there was something there that could be useful. So I was going to find a lake near Lamont where we could do some work in winter time. And I found one at Palisades Park. But that winter it didn’t freeze. So we didn’t have any ice. And along about January or February we decided we had to do something about that so we went up to Lake Superior. I got a truck and loaded it with a bunch of seismic stuff. And Sam Katz and I drove up there and Frank Press came up and Crary came up. And we went out on Lake Superior, fired some explosions, and listened to the waves in the ice. And we found this peculiar wave that turned out to be a consequence of the air waves coupling with the flexural waves in ice as it went along. So we were all up there in the field when the observations were made in which we discovered this. But I didn’t know enough about the wave guide theory in those days to develop a theoretical understanding of it. Frank Press and Ewing did, so they did that part and came back and we all got our names on the paper because we all made some kind of a contribution.
I think it was obvious — intuitively obvious — in the field though that it was a phenomenon like that. It’s just that the rest of the math theory had to be worked out.
I was curious of your impressions of Frank Press too as you came to know him.
Well. All of those guys of that era, most of whom became well-known scientists eventually, were different from one another of course. Frank was not the outdoor type as a youth. He grew up, in Brooklyn I think, in New York City.
Went to City College and studied physics. And then he came to Columbia with the idea that he’d study geophysics and he was there waiting when Ewing came along. And he was very well trained by that time through Columbia’s physics department and City College which had a good physics department. He was very well trained in what you would call mathematical physics. Super. And he was able to blend with Ewing very well. Ewing was a Texan, you know, and outdoor-observation oriented, and those two guys just got along very well and they turned out this great bunch of papers. So Frank was very savvy. He wanted to know what was going on all the time. And he recognized that he didn’t have much field experience and he started going on cruises and doing field work. And of course being as smart as he is, he got good at it very quickly. And he gradually developed his ability with mechanical things and experiments and so on that he hadn’t had before. So I had a lot of respect for Frank Press, partly because he could do all these things that I couldn’t at the time and partly because I could see he was very savvy about learning all these new things. So when it came time for me to pick my thesis area in geophysics, after knocking around through the balloon flying, and work in the Arctic and so on, I picked seismology for two reasons. One was that most of the other guys were working on ships at sea, and I knew from my Navy experience that I got seasick. That was one factor. But the other was that I could see this guy Press was obviously one of the very smartest, if not the smartest one of the bunch, and he was working in seismology. And I thought ah, this must be a field that’s got some potential. So in a sense that influenced me to make my choice of fields.
That’s very interesting. Yes. Indeed as you say, your experience had not been principally in earthquake seismology.
Oh no, no.
Up to that point at all.
It was in explosions and atmospheric studies.
That’s true. You had done.
They were waves in a sense, but it wasn’t in earthquake seismology up to then.
Indeed. And you’re quite right to point out that your Naval Research Lab experience was peripherally in —
Yes, that was somewhat along those lines. The waves in ice were somewhat analogous to the waves, the surface waves in the earth, because they’re both in sense guided waves. They’re like wave guides.
When you were down in Washington for that summer with the NRL did you meet any of the people who were at the Carnegie Institution?
No. I was staying at some boarding house there and just got to my work place. There were a few physicists I met during my time with NRL.
And it was just Reich, within that operation. Because of course [Merle] Tuve was getting interested in that phase of —
Yes. Well, Tuve was a great guy. But I didn’t have any ties there and no way to meet him. I didn’t run across Tuve until maybe a year or two later at meetings of the American Geophysical Union.
Who else stands out in your mind among that early and founding group of graduate students of Lamont when you think back? Who did you come particularly close to?
Who did what?
Who did you feel particularly close to?
Chuck Drake was probably my best friend at Lamont. Dick [Richard S.] Edwards was a good friend of mine. He eventually dropped out, and he became the port captain up at Woods Hole. He liked the marine work. He’s an old navy man. So I was close to him for a while when he was there. Oh gee, of the other guys, I knew them all pretty well. We’d sit around and eat lunch together and things like that. Gordon [R.] Hamilton was a guy I knew well. Sam Katz I knew pretty well. Paul Wuenschel was a guy I knew, I knew him pretty well. He went to work for Gulf Petroleum, Gulf Research I guess you called it. Later on Chuck [Charles] Officer came and I got to know Chuck pretty well. Bernie [Bernard] Luskin was an engineer who dabbled in geophysics for a while. Ivan Tolstoy was around then. He was a character.
What are you thinking of when you say that?
Well Ivan had his own mind and he studied geology in school and during the war he was in some kind of French underground or something like that, and so he had an adventuresome life, and then he got out and became a real expert in what you’d call mathematical physics, or mathematical geophysics. And he wrote a number of textbooks based on very sophisticated mathematics.
But you never knew what he was going to do next. Unpredictable. Yes. But he was a smart guy. Very unconventional. Milton Dobrin was around then. He was an older guy who was more experienced and he wrote one of the great textbooks on geophysics after Nettleton.
There were very few of them in that early period.
Yes, that’s so. His was a big hit, a best seller. I’m afraid I’m leaving out somebody and I’ll kick myself for it later.
Well how about, did you meet, how well did you know Bruce [C.] Heezen?
Bruce Heezen. Okay, yes, Bruce. Well Bruce I knew pretty well because we were essentially contemporaries. We started with Ewing at about the same time. And we all went through Lamont together and so on. But Bruce and I were never very close. I think largely because I was in sort of the physics side of the operation and he knew almost no physics whatsoever. No physics or math. So he was kind of our geologist but he was apart from us in classes and when he worked for that reason. So that was a big factor. And personally he and I weren’t as compatible as Chuck Drake and I and so on. So we were separated in that way. But I knew him pretty well.
It’s an interesting comment that although there is a unifying dimension of Ewing’s early group in that it was broadly the physics of the earth and physics of the ocean floor, but it was still much easier to deal with those who had comparable training at least in some ways. Is that a fair way to put it in the graduates?
Yes, I think it is. I think it’s fair to put it that way. On the other hand, there wasn’t any wall between the disciplines, and there wasn’t any, in any sense, a barrier there. If you tried to learn something in another guy’s field, generally it went pretty smoothly.
How much did you socialize after hours?
Oh a lot. Lots. You must have heard about that from people at Lamont.
I’m interested though particularly in that pre-Lamont period, prior to the time that you went out.
Okay, the pre-Lamont period. Okay. Well the key guy socially was the machinist, Angelo Ludas.
I was going to ask. Was he the one that you were involved with when you mentioned going to the machine shop to develop the instrument that you were flying, the barograph?
Well, he was the head of the machine shop. He was trained as a machinist. He finished high school I think, that’s about all. But he just had the greatest personality. He was always full of humor and he was always ready to help the students and he had admiration for what we were doing even though he didn’t understand it. But he was always trying to make us into good instrument people and good machinist people. Okay, I’m still on Angelo Ludas. Furthermore, he had such a sparkling personality that everybody just sort of clung around the guy. And he was the center of all our parties. After work sometimes we’d sit down and have a beer or something like that. And there’d be a big party and we’d just sit around shooting the breeze and it was a very congenial group.
That’s very interesting. I heard about that particularly in the Lamont period, but this happens still in New York?
Oh yes. This is in New York. Yes, he came. He was the key guy in the organization. No question about it. And he was very aggressive about adding to his machine shop. So every time he’d find a surplus piece of equipment that was available, he’d figure out some way to get it up there through a military connection or something. So he developed a first class machine shop. I mean not just a dinky little Sears & Roebuck milling machine or something. He got the best.
How did, what kind of work did he have that allowed him to do that?
I guess there were probably other people at Columbia who eventually got him on lists where you found out about surplus equipment. And he’d just pour over them and when he found what he thought he needed to make his stuff go, he’d get it. And we had other people there, just to go back to my football days. We had a doctor for the football team. A guy named Dr. Hudak, Steven Hudak. He was a very nice man. He took care of all the football injuries, he came to the games, he’d run out on the field when somebody got hurt, and so on. And so I knew him in that connection. And one day as I walked into the machine shop at Columbia there, the geophysics machine shop, I see this figure huddled over a milling machine, and he’s working away. And I thought gee we’ve got a new machinist. And I recognized him. Here it was, it was Dr. Hudak. And then it turned out Hudak was doing research on joints, artificial joints, and he didn’t have plastic in those days, he was machining a piece of Monel I think. Monel is notoriously hard to machine. Here he was trying to do this thing and make a ball-and-socket joint for some knee. He was doing research on that, on human joints. And somehow or other he got in with Ludas’s machine shop and did that work there. So that’s the kind of thing that was going on around us all the time. Well, then the parties. At lunch time, we’d often sit around in the office there and somebody would go out and we’d order sandwiches. If you had a dime, you got a salami or Swiss, if you had fifteen cents, you’d get salami and Swiss on rye or something like that. And then we’d sit around and shoot the breeze. Sometimes Ewing would join us. So we got to know each other pretty well personally.
How often would Ewing actually take part in it? Would he?
Oh I can’t remember exactly. I can remember a lot of those luncheon sessions when he was there. But a lot of times when he wasn’t there as well. So.
It was occasionally only.
Maybe a third of a time.
Or a fifth of the time or something like that. Sometimes he’d be busy and he’d just stay in his office while we wasted our time.
It sounds like it was a mixture of talking shop as well as just socializing.
Oh yes, sure. Of course Ewing was around in those days. I mean he might be out looking over your shoulder every once in a while when you didn’t expect him. He was in through the lab and so on. It wasn’t as though you couldn’t get to see him because he was some high level person. He was there. Go in late at night and he’d be there. If he wasn’t too busy, you could get his time. Ewing, as I’m sure you’ve heard already, worked fantastically hard. I mean he was just completely dedicated to his work, and he was either thinking about it or doing something about it from morning to night.
Oh indeed, many of his students and colleagues have written about that, that part of his personality.
He inspired all of us in the process, in addition to doing a lot of work.
One of the critical events that led to Lamont was the offer that had come from M.I.T. and the Heddy Green estate. Were you part of the group that actually —?
— went up or took part in the discussion?
No. I know that story, but I wasn’t part of it. I can’t remember who they were but there were about four or five of them. Must have been Worzel and Press.
That’s right and [Nelson] Steeland was also.
I think Gordon [R.] Hamilton was too.
That’s probably it. I think there were five of them, total group.
Right. Do you remember discussing that with any members of that group?
What, you mean afterwards?
Yes. What they had thought about the MIT offer?
I think I did discuss it with one or two of ‘em. Maybe Gordon Hamilton or somebody, but not in great detail. But I think the story is, you must have heard the story. After it was over they had a vote — you know the story.
Then the vote was unanimous.
Weak or strong for Columbia or MIT and it was four weak or five weak for Columbia I guess, something like that. It was unanimous but —
But weak, yes.
Yes, I guess we knew they were going up there then and were wondering what our fate was, whether we’d finish school at MIT or Columbia. But I wasn’t part of it.
Do you remember how you felt about it, the two options as you saw it at the time?
Well, I was not unhappy with Columbia at that time. On the other hand, I had some respect for MIT. So I didn’t think I would be unhappy there either. I was single and it didn’t matter that much to me actually. I think I was more dedicated to the kind of work we were doing than either university particularly. If I thought we could do it better at one or the other, I would have chosen that one.
This might be a good time for us to; we’ve been talking for a good while. Let us take a break and we’ll resume. [Interruption]
And then there was the singing from time to time, that was a big part of the parties. We also had some people that played musical instruments and played them in just such a way as to stimulate that kind of singing. Chuck Drake was one. He played the clarinet, played it very well. And also had a little whistle like thing, a sort of a sweet potato that he carried around in his pocket and played whenever the opportunity arose. And he could play any kind of music and he could put in the little clarinet-like mix everywhere and just added a lot to the music. Jim [James] Dorman, when he came to join us, was a piano player in name but he also had a ukulele and he played the ukulele in such a way that everybody just had to sing along with him. He made enough mistakes so that nobody felt self-conscious but he played tunes well enough so you could recognize them and he could play any kind of a tune in any kind of a key. I roomed with Jim for a while and I can remember that occasionally he’d be in the shower singing a song and suddenly the shower door would burst open and Jim with no towel around him or anything else on would rush over, grab his ukulele and start trying to find the right chord so he could finish that song properly. [Laughter] Well then we had some other musicians from time to time. Jack Northrop played the piano. Harriet [G. Bassett] Ewing sometimes played the piano for us.
And this is Ewing’s second or?
Yes. This is Dr. Ewing’s second wife, Harriet. And well again I mentioned at lunch that I have a tape of some of these performances which were made especially to record the musical talents of the Lamont crowd. And I have the tape now, it’s one of the old seven and a half inch reels, but I don’t have a tape player anymore. So if somebody’s got one of them and wants to hear Lamont talent of the past at some time, they can do so.
I think that would be a very interesting thing to preserve. I very much hope that that’s going to happen. Good. As I say I’m glad that we have that recorded on tape. Were there ever any musical events of that sort that happened that weren’t stimulated by Angelo or was that very much what Ludas helped to promote?
And you’d say too that this was what happened both at Columbia prior to the move and also continued at Lamont.
Yes. Well we had different kinds of parties. We often had parties maybe at the end of the day on Friday of the week. After everything closed down, we’d sit around in the machine shop or somewhere in the lab and have a party. And that usually lasted for a while and developed into some kind of a sing-along or something. Angelo was often a part of that. However, we also had other parties. Sometimes at the homes of people and usually they would eventually end up as a singing affair as well. And sometimes Angelo wouldn’t be at that, but nevertheless, we would still go that way. We did a lot of singing — not all of it good — but it was happy singing and there was often a little bit of beer drinking and liquor going along with it. So Lamont parties were really, really great because they added so much to the esprit de corps around the place. We literally — this is a cliché — but we literally felt like a big family in that sense. So music was a big part of the early days at Lamont and before Lamont.
One thing I want to make sure we cover on a slightly different track. Were there any other courses or seminars that you found particularly helpful for your career or memorable that you took during your graduate years at Columbia?
You mentioned and I think this is also off tape that the seminar that you had with Ewing —
— was the one that defined your sense of the class.
Yes. Well the seminar in geophysics and Ewing’s course in advanced geophysics was the big course that a geophysicist took in his graduate years. And it lasted for a year. And in a sense your class going through Columbia was defined by the members of that particular course. When I took it, the people in the course were Chuck Officer, Jack [J.G.] Heacock, Bernie Luskin and me, the four of us. And that course was given by Ewing but he didn’t lecture in it. He just assigned sections of textbooks and we were responsible for going home, learning that part of the textbook, and coming in to the next meeting ready to give the lecture ourselves on that part of the text. And when we did, the other people in the class and Ewing would comment on it and criticize it, criticize us on it. Sometimes Ewing would embellish it with some story that he knew about that subject. And it was just great. Because it wasn’t a set of formally prepared lectures, it became a very personalized kind of approach by Ewing. And we got to know I think the inner Ewing as a scientist through that course as well as through anything else that we did.
In the way that he would work out problems and talk about approaches, methodology, the fate of the field.
Yes. If we got stuck, he would help us, but even more than that, he would tell us about related things that were not in the textbook but that were important and particularly those that were important in modern day geophysics as opposed to what was important when the textbook was being written.
Okay. One other thing you mentioned at lunch was that you didn’t ever know going into the seminar who he would call on to give the presentation during that week.
That’s correct. We never knew. He just picked someone. And in fact I used that technique later when I was teaching at Columbia. And I just had one of my former students, Lynn Sykes; send me a letter saying he learned a great deal from that style of course as well. So that was a very good thing for us, yes.
Do you remember what you presented on yourself when you look back?
No. I remember we used [Keith Edward] Bullen’s textbook on seismology and we got different sections of that. Another thing that I remember very well is that we went to the course one semester and Ewing brought the textbook in and the textbook was in French. It was [R. P. Pierre] LeJay’s book on French gravimetric, English “gravimetry.” And the whole book was in French. Ewing didn’t read French very well, I’ll tell you that. And I had taken a year and a half of French as an undergraduate so I knew about as much as anybody did. Nevertheless, we struggled our way through. We had to look up all the technical terms, which none of us knew. And we figured out in detail what that Frenchman was saying about gravity in a very sound scientific fashion.
That’s interesting. Was that the onetime where you were in a foreign language for a textbook that you recall?
That’s the only time I can remember that we used a foreign language text in that class. We might have had to look up articles in some courses in French or German usually, but that’s the only time we used a foreign language textbook.
That I can remember.
Yes, yes. I’m curious do you remember what other textbooks were being used in the course? You mentioned Bullen’s text of course.
Well there weren’t many others because —
There weren’t that many.
There weren’t many texts in geophysics at that time. Bullen’s text was important. I can’t recall if we used [Harold] Jeffreys’ book on the earth or not.
The Earth [Its Origin, History, and Physical Constitution].
We probably did. In some course I’m sure we used that. Le Jay’s on gravimetric. There was [Perry] Byerly; Byerly had written a book on seismology and I think we may have used that although I’m not sure of that for that course. There wasn’t much else.
Did you read articles at other points, groups of articles, where there weren’t textbooks available?
I think we did, although I don’t remember specific articles for that course. I can remember some specific articles but I’m not sure that was the course that we read them in.
Okay. I want to get back to that as a point in just a moment. But was it Ewing entirely who determined what the subjects would be, or did you as graduate students also raise topics that you wanted to cover in that course?
Well, as I recall, when we started out, we started with Bullen’s book and Ewing picked that out for us. But at that time, you see that was the first course in geophysics for all of us, first formal course in geophysics for all of us. So I at least didn’t feel confident to say, well we ought to be studying this or that.
I didn’t have that kind of a comprehension of the subject. I don’t think the other people did either. Chuck Officer maybe. He’d already done some underwater sound work at Woods Hole before he came to Lamont. He knew the texts in underwater sound.
You mentioned a moment ago that certain articles did come to your mind when you thought back. Which ones were they?
Oh gee. Well one I mention in my book that is in press now was the famous paper on the geology of the Basin! Range problems by Gilbert.
Yes, Grove Karl Gilbert.
Grove Karl Gilbert, right. And the reason I mention in the book and the reason that I remember it so well is that I read that paper and I thought it was a magnificent paper. But I was kind of discouraged because I thought “Gee, I’ve come along here too late in earth science.” All these great things have been done. Can there be anything left for me? And I think some of my fellow students felt the same way. But of course what we learned was that there were all kinds of things waiting for us just down the way. And we were too naive, or I was too naive at least, to recognize that at that point. Oh some others. Oh gee. One author we studied a lot of was [Felix A.] Vening-Meinesz. We used a number of his original papers. He did gravity and of course he’s the man who invented the submarine gravimeter.
Right. Had you met him or when did you, did you run into him at Lamont?
I have met Vening-Meinesz. I think I met him actually before Lamont was founded, although I’m not sure of that. But he kept showing up at our quarters when he’d go through New York, he’d stop to see Ewing and we’d get to shake his hand, but I never got to know him very well.
Right. Of course he was so widely known for the submarine work. Gravity work. That was one of the other questions I wanted to ask and it may blur between the pre-Lamont and the Lamont days, but do you remember any colloquia or visitors in particular? Those who came in.
From outside to talk to your group.
Well the one that I remember best is a little later, after, you talking about pre-Lamont now or?
Well I’m thinking particularly pre-Lamont but if it comes to mind earlier.
Well the one that I remember best, and again I wrote about this in my book, was a visit by Lester King from South Africa. Lester King was a very distinguished geologist. He lived in Durban, South Africa. But he was a continental drifter at a time when most North American geologists were not continental drifters, but were opposed to it. And that was a memorable occasion because they set up his visit up as a debate over continental drift with Lester King taking the pro-side and Walter Bucher taking the anti-side. And the debate then unfolded before this group of faculty and students, all of whom had been trained that continental drift was not correct. And Bucher gave a much weaker case than I was accustomed to hearing from him, having heard him talk about it in class and so on. So that there was no question that Lester King won this debate hands down. And I think it’s somewhat to Bucher’s credit that he did that intentionally trying to stimulate the students.
Oh, he had done that deliberately?
I think so. I think he did, yes. That’s my view because of the way it sounded to me. But maybe other people had a different idea. He never told me that. Anyway for several months after that, the whole student body, graduate student body, was stimulated to talk about continental drift. And this must have been in the, oh gee, in the 1950s some time. And I would guess maybe mid-1950s. That was a time when we all looked into this matter of continental drift, semi-seriously at least. Well at the end of that period, almost every last one of us, I think every last one of us, all went back to becoming fixit, saying well there must be something wrong with this idea of continental drift, because everybody else around us says it’s incorrect. But nevertheless that was a good thing for us — memorable thing.
I wanted to come back on one other point related to that. Do you remember what additional readings you came across when you began debating amongst yourselves over the possibility of drift? Were you reading, for instance, some of the arguments that Reginald [A.] Daly had made? Were you familiar with Daly’s work?
Well, to start with, I can’t remember exactly when it came up, but Dover Publications put out a reprint of [Alfred] Wegener’s book on continental drift. I don’t know the year that that happened, do you?
I don’t recall.
Well when that came out, I immediately bought a copy and read it. I can’t remember whether it was early plate tectonics or before plate tectonics or not. So at least we paid attention to that book. Daly, oh yes, gee I’m glad you mentioned Daly. Daly’s book was used in Ewing’s course.
Oh, is that right?
Which one in particular was it?
It was Strength and Structure of the Earth, I think it is.
I think that’s one of his titles.
I think that’s the one.
I’m thinking of particularly Our Mobile Earth, which was the one —
No, I know Our Mobile Earth. I think this was Strength and Structure of the Earth if I’m not mistaken.
I can look it up.
We can look it up too. That’s fine.
Anyway that came up in the context of gravity and lithosphere. See at that time there were two distinct systems of nomenclature for the same part of the earth. There was the crust, upper mantle and mantle and there was the lithosphere-asthenosphere thing. When you talked about seismology, you talked about the crust and the mantle and so on, and when you talked about gravity, you talked about lithosphere and asthenosphere. I remember puzzling over this when that happened in class. I didn’t know why they had to use those two different systems and never relate one to the other. Well anyway, Daly’s book was what Ewing used to introduce us to the lithosphere story as it was known then. And I think probably we read Haskell’s story on viscosity of the mantle, or it would have been the asthenosphere in this model at that time. And of course we read Daly’s stuff on glacial rebound and we read other books on gravity or papers on gravity. I think [John] Hayford was one. Hayford was, I believe, a Coast and Geodetic Survey scientist who did gravity studies. So we got into the lithosphere-asthenosphere story through that course. That helped us, helped me personally, a great deal when we got into the idea of the lithosphere being thrust down into the interior.
Yes, yes. This of course is something that developed in the 1960s.
Yes, that came later.
Yes. And you had mentioned in that same manuscript that you had already met Lester King.
By this point.
Because you had traveled to South Africa and installed a seismograph. One of the interesting stories that you relate in the manuscript is that you saw his plastic scale models of the continents which he had sliding along on his model of the flow. One of the things that intrigued me about that was that in seeing that, I think you were also exposed to his style of research, and that has a much more qualitative feel to it than some of the work that you were familiar with — certainly from the physics training that you had. Or did it not seem to you coming from the — I’m curious how you received that kind of reasoning that he was arguing?
Well before Lester King took me to the lab to see this work being done, he took me on a geologic field trip around the Natal Province in South Africa. And he was clearly a very fine geologist. He could recite the geology of South Africa and Africa and South America and so he had a great background of information. You might have called it qualitative, but nevertheless it was a huge source of facts.
No, I don’t mean to put it in any kind of pejorative term.
But then when I saw his lab, he had a woman there. As I recall she didn’t speak English very well. And so she couldn’t explain much of what she was doing, and he just kind of gave me a casual look at it. And he said, here’s what I’m doing. And so I didn’t quite know how to probe the subject more deeply. I didn’t even know if I wanted to because I thought working on continental drift wasn’t respectable, and I had to be careful what I said and so on. So we didn’t go into that subject very deeply then. I’m not sure what the woman was doing after she tried to fit these continents together, matching up the geology or what, I don’t know.
Yes, I was curious.
If you did hear about it — because presumably it did relate to some of the botanical programs or the other kinds of geological as well as —
Very likely it did. I know he knew the geology of South America and the reason he knew it was he was trying to connect it up to that of Africa. So I’m sure that was all there, but I didn’t see it myself. If I remember correctly everything that happened back there — in 1954.
I’m curious. You mentioned that both in the book manuscript and just now the ferment that followed at Lamont after the presentation. Do you remember any arguments that were advanced particularly by fellow graduate students and the younger colleagues there? Were there any who weren’t persuaded by King’s arguments?
Who were persuaded by?
Who initially weren’t? And then I’m curious those who were persuaded what they found most.
I don’t think anybody was persuaded. They just thought King won the debate. But they weren’t persuaded that he was right. You know winning a debate doesn’t necessarily mean —
Indeed. Those are two different things.
And I don’t think anybody was persuaded.
Okay. That’s a good point.
Not that I know of anyway. Now at some time, I think it was probably a little later than that, I think Bruce Heezen got onto the spreading idea.
Right. The expanding earth.
Yes. But he got, in essence, sidetracked into the expanding earth hypothesis. But he was interested in the idea of spreading and I think, if I remember correctly, he heard [Harry H.] Hess’s first presentation of that at some meeting somewhere.
That’s what Marie Tharp recalls.
Is that what she said? Okay. I’m sure she remembers it better than I do, but I remember something like that. So he was on to the spreading thing, but on the other hand he didn’t like the other side of the story of divergence, i.e. convergence. Now you’d have to remember in the geology department, at the time before Lamont was formed or shortly thereafter, there was a South African. It was Arie Poldervaart. He was a petrologist. And he I think was a drifter. I never took his course, and he was pretty quiet about it. But I believe it’s the case that he was a drifter. Chuck Drake knows about that more than I do. So I didn’t know Arie too well. And at least we had one guy with the right kind of a background to be a drifter there. Then the next one that showed up at Lamont, and I don’t know if he was there for King’s lecture — I don’t think so — was Neil [D.] Opdyke. Opdyke had been trained in England under a drifter, [S. Keith] Runcorn, and they worked in Africa and so on. And so he was a drifter when he came to Lamont. I don’t know if he was there for Kings Lecture.
It might have been later.
It was later.
Given that Runcorn’s work —
Opdyke was later I’m sure. Because he came about 1960, yes.
That would have a good six years later.
Right. Something like that.
I was just curious though if you recall anyone who, just listening to the debate, found King’s arguments unconvincing, or whether many or whether it seemed that most people were indeed intrigued enough to question the prevailing thought?
I don’t remember any serious questioning at any level other than just shooting the breeze around the laboratory.
Well, wait a minute. I’m just trying to think if Frank Stehli was around then. Do you know the name of Stehli?
The name’s familiar.
Yes. He was a student at Columbia and he went to I think Caltech after that. Went to a number of other places. He got involved in the continental drift a bit later using paleontological evidence on diversity at different places around the earth. And he concluded that the continents had not drifted, if I remember correctly. So I don’t know if he was stimulated to do that work to some degree by that debate or not. And I’m not even sure he was at Columbia at that time, but he could have been. He is about that vintage.
How, either around the time that you got your degree or while you were still primarily at Columbia, how well did you know the other centers of seismology as that became the field that you were concentrating in. Did you know [Beno] Gutenberg and [Perry] Byerly for instance?
Oh yes. Oh yes.
How did you first come to meet them?
I think, if I remember correctly, I met Gutenberg first and probably Byerly first as well, at meetings of the Seismological Society of America. At that time that society was rather small so the annual meeting had about thirty or forty or fifty people. And I got to go there when I was still a graduate student. I can’t remember what the first year was, but maybe ‘49 or something like that. It was always in the West. And so I can remember that at one of my first meetings, I was walking back from the meeting place to the hotel and Gutenberg was going the same direction and he just struck up a conversation with me. I was very impressed. I didn’t know anything and he knew I didn’t know anything. But nevertheless, he was willing to talk and ask about what I was doing and things like that. So I met Gutenberg that way and met [Charles S.] Richter that way. I met Byerly at the meetings. I can remember once I gave a paper at one of those meetings and I showed some graphs and things. And after I’d finished the talk, Byerly said to me, “Young man, don’t you have any raw data to show us?” I hadn’t shown any seismograms, but for every lecture I’ve given since then, I do. [Laughter] He was so outspoken about it. And then of course there were famous feuds going on between Byerly and the Caltech people and they always surfaced at these meetings. That was stimulating.
Of course one hears about the dividing line of whether the northern or the southern university would be the one to investigate earthquakes. What other conflicts do you recall when you think back between?
Well, let’s see. One I can remember had to do with the depth of earthquakes. Gutenberg and Richter claimed they were all around fifteen kilometers or something like that, or at least that depth or shallower. And Richter gave a paper on that subject one time. Byerly was on the other side of the argument. At least he was more open minded about it. Richter gave a paper one time, and he ended up where the conclusion of the paper was that either the earthquake was at a depth greater than fifteen kilometers or else the velocity of sound in the rock there was infinite. And Byerly leaped to his feet and he said, both of those things are equally impossible to you, aren’t they? [Laughter] Of course everybody noticed that comment at that point.
So that went on. Another thing was that the Eastern Section of the Seismological Society had meetings then. And so I met at those meetings people like, oh, Father [James B.] Macelwane from St. Louis, who had written a famous textbook on theoretical seismology. Which I remember having. I don’t know whether we used that at all in Ewing’s class or not. And then there were people like Ernest Hodgson and his son, John [H.] Hodgson from Canada.
I began to meet the Canadians at those meetings. So, yes I began to meet the seismology community in that way.
Was ‘49 roughly the year in which you started attending professional meetings in the earth sciences?
I believe so, yes.
What other meetings would you go to besides SSA?
Oh, the big one was the American Geophysical Union meeting in the spring. They only had one meeting then; it was in the spring. It was in Washington. And we went down there en masse. And we didn’t have any money so we’d go to this little hotel — I forgot the name of it — but you could rent a room for about six or eight dollars and we’d have six or eight people in there. Or we’d stay at, I stayed at the YMCA, I think, it was about two bucks a night there. And then we’d eat just whatever we could scrounge up. But we attended those meetings almost every time. I rarely missed an AGU meeting.
Did you attend any of the other more specialized societies? Any of the SEG meetings [Society of Exploration Geophysics] or the?
I attended the Geological Society of America when it was nearby, in New York. I can’t remember the other places, Philadelphia maybe. But I wouldn’t go to them if they were a long distance away. The SEG, I can’t remember when I attended that for the first time. Somewhere in the early ‘50s I imagine. I also, at that time, attended meetings of the Physical Society when they were in New York or handy. In fact I think I gave a paper one time at some meeting of the Physical Society fairly early in my career.
I think they had a section on geophysics, and I did something. I’ve forgotten what.
That’s interesting. What were your impressions of the AGU as an organization when you first started attending? What was it like then as a graduate student to take part?
Well, in some ways it seemed a little less organized than the meetings of some of the other societies. And although that looked a little like a negative in those days, it turned out to be a great positive for them. I think they set up the AGU with different sections and different specialties. And some of the sessions were poorly attended. And they would sometimes allow papers that were given by real crackpots, for one reason or another.
Are you thinking of someone or anyone in?
Yes, but I’m not going to mention any names. But there were strange papers, wild papers. But that turned out to be a blessing because when plate tectonics came along, they captured all of what seemed far-out papers and were really leading the way for us. So AGU was a good meeting to go to. You could pick out things in your specialty or you could probe around and see other related things going on. You could meet all the people who were half physicists and half geologists or various fractions of each. Yes, it was a good meeting.
How accommodating did you feel GSA [Geological Society of America] was in those years following the war to geophysicists?
Okay. Well you’re talking to a former president of GSA so I think highly of the GSA. However, there were a couple of things about GSA that happened that might be relevant. One was that in the ‘30s and running up into the ‘40s and I guess into the ‘50s, the Bulletin of the GSA was very open to papers based on seismic studies. Ewing’s work in the deep sea and so on appeared in the Bulletin of GSA. And that was really convenient for us when we were at Columbia because the headquarters of GSA were about a block away and we’d just take a manuscript over there and drop it on the table. The one we talked about earlier about Long Island was handled in that way. Never mailed it, just took it over and handed it in.
Okay. That’s interesting, yes.
But I thought there came a period a little later when the editor, or somebody, became a little less receptive to the geophysical, the purely geophysical, papers. And that I think was unfortunate because GSA missed a lot of the early plate tectonics stuff for that reason. So I think if they had to do it over again, they would have been more open and tried to incorporate all kinds of fringe developments in the field into their journal. I’d encourage them, and any other society that asked me for my advice to do that today. I think that’s where AGU had the advantage. They encouraged all kinds of fringe things.
Did Ewing talk for instance about the interdisciplinary committees that were set up under the auspices of the IUGG [International Union of Geodesics and Geophysics] as well as the AGU in the 1930s?
Did I hear talk?
Did he talk to you about the early work that he had done?
Under the auspices of the AGU. Because that seems to be, if I’m not wrong, an example of the sort of development you —
Well I think that some of those contacts that Ewing had through the AGU with Richard [S.] Field and George [P.] Woollard — who was an old colleague of Ewing’s — and I guess Bucher to some extent — Walter Bucher — they were factors in his decision to focus on the ocean basins as the big frontier and to do some of the kind of work he did. I think they were important. In fact even running up into the ‘40s and early ‘50s, when I was just going to the AGU meetings as a student, I would often hear Ewing talk in a second handed fashion about what was going on in some of those sorts of steering committees. Yes. Yes, I think that was a factor.
When did you actually make the move out to Lamont? When did that occur?
Did I personally make it?
I made it at about the end of the spring semester of 1950. I remember that date specifically because I had to buy a car. And I bought a Chevrolet, a 1950 model, the cheapest model they had.
But you were able to get a new car?
I was, yes. I saved up money when I was in the service. That’s where I got the money.
Interesting. How, what were your — you had been out there presumably for, you had seen it?
Oh yes. I had visited it for a year or more before that.
What were your general impressions of Lamont? Do you have any particular memories from that first trip that you took out there?
Well, for my first one, I guess everybody’s impression was about the same. At that time I had, you know I had come out of this small town in the Midwest and lived in New York for a while and I was getting pretty tired of the big city. And I never considered it too seriously, but I did think about the possibility of going somewhere else to finish my graduate career. I wanted to get out of New York City.
To get out of New York.
Yes. So when Lamont showed up, it was a great, I thought it was a great blessing for us. And just a chance to get out there and be free to go where you wanted to go without running into crowds was a big thing. So I liked that part. And of course I liked the room and the accommodations. Well the accommodations in a way. We didn’t have many facilities out there at first, but at least we had some place to spread out, and use tables to put your data out and so on. So I liked all that. And Chuck Drake I think moved out about the same time. He got a new car about the same time I did; first car about the same time I did. So we’d take turns driving into the campus for classes.
How difficult did you find that to manage? The split between having the research move essentially out to Lamont and the teaching stay on campus?
It wasn’t too bad for me because by 1950, soon it was 1951; I was pretty well through many of my classes. So would I usually only go in for maybe two days a week, something like that. So it wasn’t too bad. I didn’t find that a serious problem. Some of the other people who had to take more courses on the campus were bothered more than I was. Yes.
At that time was the auto more or less the only way that one could get back to the campus or were there other routes to the university?
There were other ways. There was a bus which stopped out on 9W near Lamont and that you could take into 181st Street. Or 168th I guess, 168th Street I think that was.
The connection onto the A line.
Yes. And so that was one way. And then there was something called Shanks Mare. The veterans of World War II who were going to school at Columbia, married ones, were often housed at an old military base out in Orangeburg, New York, a few miles from Lamont. And all of them didn’t have cars. So they invented a system of transportation where you could go down and wait at one particular corner — one in New York and one out in Orangeburg. When somebody with a car came along, he’d stop and pick up everybody he could that was waiting and they had to pay a quarter to go in. So that was cheaper than the bus fare and also ran more often. And it worked very well. Since it went past Lamont, we could take that and hop out at Lamont.
So you simply had to stand in a particular place to?
That’s right. Shanks Mare. Camp Shanks was the name of it. That was the camp.
That’s interesting. Were there any? I’m sorry, I didn’t.
I was just going to say one thing. You remember in 1951 or so I took off from Lamont for six months to go up to the Arctic and work at Air Force Cambridge.
So I wasn’t even around to worry about the transportation then.
That’s something I think we ought to get to almost directly. I was just curious if thinking about that time prior to when you did go up to Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories, were there any aspects at Lamont that you found frustrating besides the commute occasionally to classes in terms of facilities or organization?
Well, there was no library. You had to get everything from the library on the main campus. I think after a while we devised a way to have materials sent up to Lamont, but for a time at least I used to go in and use the library on the campus. There weren’t any computers then. We got some electric calculators and that was what there was. The machine shop, it took a while for that to move up to Lamont, but eventually it all came up there and we had a better machine shop there than we had had in town. We didn’t have access to certain stores of electronic equipment and so on. It was all tubes and things in those days. On the campus, I think there was a place in physics where you could go and get anything but we didn’t have that at Lamont. So that kind of thing was a problem. And the general lack of proximity to places in New York where you could have something delivered in an emergency was tougher.
I’m thinking also in terms of the kinds of contacts with colleagues or fellow students in other fields. Did that matter to you or did it not really seem to be an issue once you moved?
That didn’t matter to me much at that time because when I was at Columbia, I was at such a low level that I couldn’t go around and have lunch with people from a bunch of different departments. However, later on in my career, as I got on the faculty, then I recognized that at Lamont I was talking mostly to earth scientists and when I moved from Columbia to Cornell that was a big change and it was a nice change. I appreciated that.
We should put on tape that you’re talking about the mid- 1950s when you become part of the faculty.
And then 1971 when you moved.
That’s right. 1971 I moved to Cornell. [Tape Distortion] Well, I don’t mind if you don’t record it, but I hope you don’t think there are two recordings of me, and I’ll say something that can be — [Laughter]
We are most definitely recording. This is an appropriate time to talk about how it happened that you became part of — when you spent the six months both with [Alfred P.] Crary and generally with the Air Force and Cambridge Research Lab. How did that come about?
That came about because of my association with Crary — through the balloon flying acoustic project. We just got along well, and then he invited me to go along with him. As I said, there were only three in the scientific party, and here was this chance. These were the first plane landings ever made on the Arctic ice for scientific purposes by the United States. There were only some emergency landings previously and a few others and so on. That was a big thing, and it appealed to your sense of adventure as much as your sense of science. I loved working with Crary. He was such a great guy. So I wasn’t about to turn him down. And Ewing was all behind it. Of course I asked Ewing if it was all right. He was all for it; he believed in his students getting diverse kinds of experience like that.
During those six months, how was your time effectively spent? Part it, of course, was in the Arctic. Did you actually spend some time in residence in Massachusetts?
Yes, at that time they were up at — Watertown, I guess it was. In those quarters.
That’s right. It moved around.
I went over there, and we mostly worked on getting our equipment ready to go to the Arctic. That was about it. We got the equipment ready, and we had to sit around and wait a bit. The initial idea was to put a camp up on the Arctic ice pack. They didn’t know then about the thick chunks of ice that are now known as “ice islands.” They didn’t know about that then. So they were going to put a camp on the normal Arctic Ocean pack ice, which are only five or ten feet thick. The Air Force was supposed to go out and put that camp up, and then we were going to come up and occupy it and do the scientific work. So the Air Force did that, and when they started this camp, a storm came up. So they flew all the people back on land and then never could find the camp again. Apparently, it sank; it went into the ocean. So when we, the scientific party, got up there, there was no camp and they weren’t so enthusiastic about having such a camp any more. So we just stayed at Barter Island. And then we’d fly out for the day onto the icepack, find a place to land, land and do our work, and fly back. They’d usually fly about as far as they could with, oh, a C47 airplane [transport plane].
It had skis on it? [Crosstalk]
It had skis on it, but usually we’d find — you know, the wheels stuck down through the skis, so if you got into deep snow, you’d be on the skis — shallow snow, and you’d be on the wheels. Usually we’d find a — we’d have to hunt around for nice smooth ice — fairly fresh lead, and relatively thin ice, so we could chop a hole through it on landing. In that case there usually wasn’t too much snow, so we could land directly on ice. If there were no serious cracks, or no pressure ridges or thin spots, it was a beautiful, smooth runway. [Laughs]
Were there any real difficult moments, just in terms of logistics or safety in doing this?
Well, I don’t know. Not really. We flew up to Alaska with an Air Force crew that was based in Massachusetts. In their plane. Then we traded that plane and that crew for a crew from the Tenth Rescue Squadron from Alaska. And those guys were experienced at landing in strange places, believe me. [Q. laughs] So we got one of the pilots from the Tenth Rescue Squadron. He knew what he was doing, and he always landed us safely, although I asked him one time how long a runway we had to have to take off with that plane. He said, “Eleven hundred feet.” Well, one of my jobs was surveying and I had my instruments. Once we got out on the ice — [thumping noise] I got out my instruments. So one day we landed [Laughs] in this one little patch. It looked pretty small to me, so I measured it. I forget — it was 800 or 900 feet. He got it up, going as fast as he could, and then he, I think, he put the flaps down or something, to give it a sudden lift at some point. We got up. So we never had any serious accidents. However, the same year the Navy started up a program similar to ours but based at Point Barrow, and they lost a plane that went through the ice. I mean, the wheels went through the ice. I don’t think they ever brought that plane back. I’m not sure, but they did have a serious problem. So I think those were the first plane landings for scientific purposes in the Arctic by the United States.
What measurements were you doing at that particular time?
Well, we did everything we said we would do. The first base [tape recorder turned off]
We’re continuing again, after —
Sometimes when the spool gets down low, then it’s harder to pull the tape off. If it’s a little sticky or something like that, it won’t work.
Right. But things of this sort shouldn’t be happening for a machine of this quality or tape of this quality, either. So I apologize again for the problem that we’re having. You were in the midst of describing —
The current measuring. We tried to measure currents, by lowering a sphere fastened to a cable to different depths in the water. Then we’d measure the angle of the cable and that was related to the drag on the sphere, and hence to the current. Of course we measured things like temperature, magnetic field directions — nobody knew much about the magnetic field orientations in the Arctic at that time. And water depth and gravity.
And then we measured the seismic waves traveling through the ice pack. And that was an important part of the study because of the attempt to develop an instrument to determine that remotely. Oh, and we did a navigation. That was a bit of a trick up there at that time. There weren’t any electronic navigational tools. We had to shoot the sun if the sun was out. We did just about everything we could in that short time that was available to us. Measured the thickness of the ice mechanically. The whole works. I can’t think of anything else.
Did you actually try to write up some of the results when you were in the field, or did you wait to do that when you came back?
We waited to do that till we got back. We tried to analyze the data once we got back to the base. We’d try to do some preliminary analyses of the data to make sure things were working all right and we were getting something interesting. But we never got to the write-up stage in the field. But we didn’t just pack the data away until the next summer.
When you actually began doing the work, since there were a number of you involved and the papers that came out of that contained a number of authors, how did you split the responsibilities? How did you divide up these early drafting authors?
Well, there were only three of us. There were three people working in the field. And one of them [Robert Cottell] was a great guy, but he was an engineer. He really wasn’t into the scientific side of the thing. So that left Crary who was an experienced scientist and me, a graduate student. Crary knew of my interest in seismology and he let me work up the papers on the elastic properties of the ice. And you mentioned that paper. And so he let me do that. And he let me write it up and he had comments on it and helped me with it, but that was basically my paper. The rest of the stuff that came out was Crary’s. And if you asked me now, I can’t remember how much of what we selected came out in scientific journals and how much was in Air Force reports or something. But I think there may be another paper that I’m a co-author on that Crary’s the lead author on. Probably had most of the other information. Is that right?
Crary is lead author in a 1952 AG Trends paper that was co-written by you as third author and R. D. Cottell.
Cottell’s the engineering guy.
But I wrote a paper on something like elastic properties of sea ice or something like that, Arctic Ocean ice or something like that.
You were indeed. There’s a 1954 published paper also in AG Trends. You are first author and then Crary and Cottell. “Elastic Waves in the Arctic Ice Pack”.
Okay. Same season.
How well received were those papers? Did you get a lot of feedback, given the newness of this kind of work, from others in the community?
The idea that people could go and land on the Arctic ice pack and do something useful was, I think, well received. It was an eye-catching result. We got some publicity and I think the Navy people got some publicity as well, and so it suddenly became recognized that there was a part of the world that humans had hardly ever been to. You know, even the Eskimos didn’t go up there. So it was like, in a way it was almost like an expedition by Sir Hubert Wilkins or somebody like that, for these people who were Arctic buffs. The ice flow work itself, well I think it was interesting to some people to know that the ocean was deeper than it was thought by some and so on. That was interesting. The stuff on the elastic properties of the ice was mostly just of interest to those people who were trying to develop this remote way of determining whether it was suitable for landing. So it was not a big thing scientifically. The air coupled wave based on the Lake Superior data, which also appears in this, was a matter of considerable interest partly to the petroleum industry, because it turned out you could get air coupling under certain conditions on land as well. So that paper was of some interest. But the properties of sea ice — that wasn’t a big thing in the scientific community — but there probably were some people who were interested.
How much contact did you have with the petroleum industry in those latter years of your graduate work? Was there much?
Well we heard a lot about them and we knew, of course, that they were using seismic techniques that were of interest to us. And we had the textbook of Nettleton and so on. And occasionally the people from the petroleum industry would show up at Lamont with some interest in something or other and we’d meet them. And so I knew some guys like, oh Tom [Thomas] O’Donnell, who was a big shot at Gulf Research. And a few others I got to know in that way. But they weren’t around a lot of the time.
Of course some cruises of the Vema, once Lamont acquired it, were funded at least in part by petroleum, the consortium that Ewing was interested in developing.
I think that’s right but I never had anything to do directly with that so I can’t comment.
That’s actually another question I wanted to ask. Generally how much you and other students knew about Ewing’s efforts to raise funds for Lamont? Clearly he was interested in maintaining the contracts from Washington or the service agencies as well as private donations. Did this ever come up in general conversations?
Well, as we became competent in our specialties, we had more and more to do with generating contracts in our field. In seismology, for example, we got money from Air Force Cambridge, and after a while I started to help write parts of proposals. And eventually when Frank Press left, I did those things.
Sure. But you were already doing that before.
I gradually worked into it.
So already by the early ‘50s you were getting involved.
On the other hand, except for just overhearing things in conversations, I never knew all of the things that Ewing had his fingers into. I don’t think he was particularly trying to keep it secret from me. I think he just was trying to get that part of the job done and in the most innovative way he could, which was pretty innovative most of the time. So, yes, I think some of the other people like Joe Worzel, I believe, were a little more involved in administrative things.
Right. How closely did you come to work with Joe Worzel?
Joe? Well, the closest I ever worked with Joe — of course I knew him from the time I started working for Ewing. But he was always in gravity and I was never in gravity so we didn’t have much to do together there. And Joe, it must have been about 19-, wait a minute, I think it was ‘50 or ‘51, when we did this Long Island work. And we also did the exploration job for the Tappan Zee Bridge on the Hudson River. Joe was in charge of that project for Ewing. Chuck Drake and I worked on it; Walter Beckmann worked on it. But Joe was nominally in charge. And he was sort of the skipper of the shooting boat and I was on the receiving boat. So we weren’t close together there either, but the boats were always working together. And then when that work was finished, we kind of split up the data. Joe and some other people did most of the analysis of the data for the Hudson, and Chuck Drake and I did the story for the offshore Long Island sound work. So we tended to split the work up.
Was he already by the early 1950s handling a large amount of Lamont administration?
If anybody other than Ewing was, any scientist other than Ewing was, and then Joe was. Yes. He was the one who knew, I think, the most about the boat, the ship side of the Observatory which was a big part financially. I don’t know how much Frank Press was involved in that. Probably not too much, but maybe some. Joe was sort of Doe’s right hand man administratively, as a scientist would be. Of course later, Arnold Finck came along and did paper-work type administration. But Joe was the right hand man, and he was — I’m sure you picked up — he was sort of a buffer between Ewing and the Columbia administration.
A roll that was increasingly defined as early as — as into the 1960s.
Much more than.
Yes. He grew into more and more of that.
How did you come to what became your actual thesis work? You mentioned already that you had approached Frank Press and Pm very curious about how your relationship with him developed.
In the early 1950s.
Well, I’m still dealing with him. Here’s a note on my desk.
That says simply Frank Press on it. Yes.
That’s to remind me to do something about Frank Press that’s all. He’s a distinguished, or he’s a White Professor here at Cornell, which means he comes every couple years for a couple of weeks at a time.
I helped to get him that job. Well, first you’ve got to remember that when I joined Ewing’s group, Frank Press was a graduate student. So we were sort of in the same class except that he was a couple years ahead of me, even though he was a little younger because he hadn’t been in the service. But then he very quickly got his Ph.D. and he became an assistant professor, which put him somewhat in charge of me. If you asked who my professor was for Ph.D., I would say Ewing. But on the other hand, Frank was getting into that chain. And when I had an exam, Frank was always there as well as Ewing.
So he kind of metamorphosed from a graduate student to professor while I was a student. And we got along pretty well together. Out at Lamont Frank started out learning how to read the earthquake seismograms, and I learned a lot about how to do that from him. There wasn’t anybody else to learn from. And he, oh he let me do various things that I was capable of doing. And how in the heck did I pick the topic for my thesis? [Laughter.] Well, Ewing and Press had been studying surface waves. That was their big triumph. And so they had developed the techniques for understanding the entire surface wave train. But those surface wave trains varied from place to place. So I tried to make kind of a geographical study to see how they varied from one place to another on the earth. And I focused on the Pacific Ocean. And so that seemed a kind of a natural development based on what they’d done and the right thing for a graduate student to do when you needed someone to collect a lot of data. So that’s how it happened.
Let me be sure which publication came out that is most directly related to the thesis work.
It was 1955.
“Crustal Structure and Surface Wave Dispersion: The Atlantic and Pacific Ocean Basins.”
Okay. That means that even before that period of time you were also getting involved with both Press and Ewing on the two-dimensional model seismology.
Oh yes. Well that paper came out in ‘55, but I had already gotten my degree in ‘53.
So the paper was all done by then.
Right. Okay. So the chronology then is that you had your work finished prior to the time that you began working on model seismology? I’m just curious which came first.
Yes. Essentially, that’s correct. Essentially I had finished the thesis — must have been in ‘52 before Christmas. And I was trying to get Ewing and Press to look at it and approve it so I could get my Ph.D. Finally I did that in the spring of ‘53. But that meant I had time to do something, and model seismology came up. So I got into that. I was sort of their man in model seismology. Now Frank Press had not done much of that on his own. Nobody had done much at Lamont. So I got —
It was a generally new development.
Yes. I got some help from them but — I don’t mean to say I did it all on my own — but I pretty much had the lead. And then I had a great idea, you know early in the game. You know what I mean?
No. I want to make sure of what you mean.
Well when people were starting to do model seismology, one of the first guys to do anything was Sid [Sydney] Kaufman, who was at Shell Development, and he published a paper. He later came here as a professor at Cornell after he retired. But he had a paper in print and that was about the only thing on model seismology in print at that time. So we hired an electronics guy who could bring radar techniques from World War II into the subject. And then we started to make models. And we started to make models the way other people had done it. That was to make big three dimensional slabs of some kind for the models. And that method was very clumsy and costly, models were hard to handle, and it was hard to design different models and so on. So one day I was sitting there with my source transducer and my receiver transducer, and I thought, “Gee, I’ve got to get a slab somehow.” So I went over to the machine shop, and I got the thickest piece of aluminum they had. About this thick. Came back.
You’re holding your fingers just about an eighth of an inch or so.
No, no. My fingers are about an inch and a half apart.
That large? Okay.
Thick slab of aluminum.
Inch and an eighth or something like that. I thought that would look like it was infinitely thick as a result of the short length of the ultra-sonic wave. Well, of course it didn’t. I got a lot of reflections from the bottom and it was just a jumble. Well then I was playing around with this source transducer and thought well maybe I’ll try it here on the edge just for the heck of it. And the pictures were simplified when I put it on the edge. I thought, “Man, I’ve got to get a thinner piece of aluminum.” Back out to the machine shop. I got a thinner piece of aluminum.
Okay, now you’re holding your fingers about an eighth of an inch.
Yes. Now it’s a quarter of an inch or something like that. This time it was even better. It was beautiful. I threw the aluminum away and I got a piece of file folder, and though, “I’ll try the edge of the file folder.” Sure enough, it was perfect. Just the compressional wave, shear wave, surface waves — all on the edge of this. So then I realized I was probably on to something and I started making two dimensional models and then we wrote a paper on the subject which got some kind of an award — minor award in SEQ [Society of Exploration Geophysicists].
Right. And indeed I’ve pulled out a Xerox copy that I have here right now. The paper went to the editor in December of 1953 and you do cite the very few papers published out of the Kaufman and Roever.
Kaufman and [?] Roever, yes.
Raver. And then the [T.D.] Northwood and [D.V.] Anderson and [?] Terrata and [?] Suboi.
But that’s a much older paper from 1927.
I don’t remember those papers. I think the Northwood. Where is it in the back or? (Looking through papers.) Oh yes, Northwood and Anderson, model seismology. I don’t remember too much about those papers. I remember the Northwood and Anderson papers indirectly. I think I got something about the technique out of that, but I’m not sure. Northwood, he was a pretty good guy in acoustics as I recall. So I don’t remember where we got it. I do remember the Kaufman and Roever paper.
That’s all very interesting. Were any other individuals or groups trying to develop model seismology at that same time? Or did you feel that you were more or less pioneering?
I think in industry they were thinking about it. In those days you weren’t always sure what was going on in industry research labs. But I think since Shell allowed Kaufman and Roever to publish the paper, it probably meant they thought the idea was known in other places as well and being exploited. So they may have been doing it. I don’t think anybody was doing the two-dimensional stuff anywhere though. As far as I know, that’s — Oh no, I take that back — Ill tell you a story about that. But first, there was a guy over at Hudson Labs who became well known in the petroleum exploration game later, Frank Levin. And he was trying to do something with ultra-sonic and he was interested in some of our electronic techniques and sources and ways of building sources — mechanics and so on. But he was not doing seismology. However, years later — I guess it must have been during the nuclear test ban days — we were having a cocktail party in Geneva. If I recall correctly, I may be a little hazy on this. I think we were having a cocktail party in Geneva with seismologists from the east and the west.
So that’s ‘58 or ‘59?
Something like that. And some guy with a heavy accent tapped me on the back and, “Professor Oliver.” Yes. He says, “You do model seismology.” Yes. He said, “I also have invented something which you claimed to have invented.” I don’t know whether it was the two-dimensional seismology or something else. Anyway, he was a Russian, [Y.V.] Riznichenko, who was somewhat on the same track anyway. But of course I had never heard of him until that moment in that context. So there may have been something going on independently in two-dimensional model seismology.
Not unusual for this kind of thing to happen.
No, it isn’t. That raises though an interesting question. How much access did you have to any of the Russian language literature being published in geophysics while at Lamont? I understand there was at least one person who helped to translate certain materials.
In the very early stage?
Certainly by the mid 1950s or it might be the late 1950s. I’m just curious.
Well somewhere along the way in the late 50s, when Sputnik went up I guess it was, everybody got interested in learning Russian. I took a little course somewhere in which I at least learned how to turn Russian letters into English words where that was appropriate. But I can’t remember a lot of Russian influence in anything else in my work that we’ve talked about so far, Oh there was a guy named [?} Brekhovsky who a theoretician was doing wave propagation in wave guides and he did some very good work which came to the attention of Ewing and Press and [Wenceslas S.] Jardetsky when they were doing their big book on that subject. And his work was very well done and I later met him. But it never influenced me directly.
Okay. In general was there much familiarity with Russian research in geophysics during that time?
Well from my point of view I’d say no. Oh well [Laughter. I think we did know that the Russians — in the ‘50s we began to learn that the Russians were doing a program of exploration of the continental crust, by explosion techniques. And at first we didn’t appreciate how extensive that work was. We gradually recognized that they had a major effort going there. And in fact they outdid the United States. But that was all on land, nothing much at sea where our interest was.
In those early years, say up through the mid-1950s, do you recall attending any international meetings in the earth sciences?
Or when do you recall the first time that you got to an international meeting?
Well, I certainly recall the 1960s when plate tectonics was started up because we talked at all of them.
I’d have to look up when the IUGG were. I think there was one in ‘59 in Berkeley that I attended.
I think that’s correct.
Yes. The one in Zurich I think was later. I went to one in Helsinki which might have been earlier than Berkeley. Frankly, I’ve been to so many international meetings, they’re a blur to me. I can’t remember the first one. I believe I do remember Frank Press going to an international meeting — I think it was in Toronto, IIGG — and coming back knowing some Russian scientists. I think that was the first one the Russians came to. And I don’t believe I went to that one though. But I got to know the names of a couple of Russian seismologists through Frank. [Vladimir] Keilis-Borok is a well-known one, and he was working in surface waves then. And doing work somewhat related to what Ewing, Press and I were doing.
As I recall, that Toronto meeting was a particularly good location — there were quite a few people attending.
I could have been there for part of it. I’m just not sure. I think there was one in Rome too, was there? I didn’t go to the one in Rome, but I could have gone to part of the one in Toronto. I don’t know. Sorry.
That’s fine. I’m curious if Frank Press talked to you about the opportunity that came up when he was invited to go out to join the Caltech faculty? Was this something that you and he talked about prior to the announcement he made of going?
Well I can’t say we didn’t talk about it prior to the official announcement. I don’t remember that we did but we very well could have. On the other hand, I wouldn’t say that he was, had been confiding with me every time he got a notice or an offer or something. I don’t think that I was part of it. I think he did all of that with Ewing so far as I know.
When he accepted the offer from Caltech, how did, and of course, by the mid 1950s you did begin to direct Lamont’s effort in seismology. What ideas did you have that you wanted to make sure would occur at Lamont? What research? Yes, I’m curious what kind of research projects you were particularly keen to do at that point?
Well by that time I had gotten into the surface wave business pretty heavily, well beyond what I’d done with my thesis. And I had some good luck. I was able to identify higher modes of guided waves on the seismograms and these turned out to explain a lot of things on seismograms that hadn’t been explained before. So I was kind of flying high on that subject at the time. And I had various things related to those results that I wanted to explore. I wanted to keep the surface wave program going, but I wanted to take these steps into probably unknown areas. So that was one thing. The model seismology I also kept going for a while. What else did we do then? I think I was looking for new areas where we might have some impact. That’s how I got in the nuclear test ban thing. Originally, I though some of these higher modes have high velocities. So it seemed that they might be preferentially excited by nuclear explosions in the air. That’s what I thought at the time. I knew a guy I met at a conference on microseisms who was in the nuclear test detection business. It was Carl Romney. So I said to Carl, you ought to look for these particular waves when you’re monitoring nuclear explosions. What he was doing was all classified of course, but I knew he was into it. And so he then began to think of me — we were friends — but he began to think of me as a guy who had an interest in this problem. And so I maintained contact with him that way. And then, later on, one day I was looking at the Lamont seismograms in a relatively routine way, and I saw this one wave that was generated by an underground nuclear explosion in Nevada, and I became overnight the world’s expert on that subject. [Laughter] Got involved in politics. So I was trying to reach out, but usually from the space that Ewing and Press had established in seismology.
Okay. Was there anything that you were doing differently when you took over the teaching in seismology at Columbia that Frank Press hadn’t been doing? Did the courses?
Well, I never took a course with Press so I don’t know. I took Ewing’s course. I’m not sure exactly what Press taught in his courses. But one thing that happened at that time was that Ewing, Jardetsky and Press wrote their book [Elastic Waves in Layered Media]. And so I taught my course out of that. Previously they didn’t have that book to read from.
So you can see the evolution of the subject.
Indeed. But I think both for reasons of time and the tape recorder I don’t want to get into at this point the nuclear test ban treaty. But let me just conclude this session by asking a few general questions about the social environment at Lamont. You mentioned already the stories of the parties which Ludas. Were you living, how close were you living to the Lamont campus during the? [Cross talking]
Well I moved around occasionally, but when I first went out there I lived right down in the town. Right down near 9W. I rented a room in the home of an old German couple down there. Then Chuck Drake had a little place down in New Jersey and he was away for a while, and somehow I lived in that for six months or so. And then in the early 1950s, Jim Dorman and Charlie Bentley and I got an apartment in Piermont and we lived together for quite a while. In fact in two different apartments. We moved from one to another. We lived together for, I think, I don’t know, three or four years. So that’s most of the places I lived in. Then after that I had this little cottage out in the woods and lived all by myself in Palisades.
The more rustic type camp?
Yes. It was sort of — just a little three room cottage out behind one of the nice big stone houses there in downtown Palisades. And the landlord was a well-known plastic surgeon in New York, and they were very nice people, and it was reasonable, and it was primitive, but at that stage of my life I was super free.
How, you mentioned the musical activities of Ludas, how important were sports? Were there informal events, sporting events, that were also important?
Oh yes. Lots of them. Lot of softball. There was basketball when we were down on the Columbia campus. We had a department basketball team.
I didn’t know about that. Who was on that team?
Well we had a good team. Chuck Drake was on it. Gilbert Hole was a geology student whose father was a coach of a college in Ohio, and Gil himself had been an all star Ohio basketball player when he was in college. And Bernie Luskin was on the team, Chuck Officer, and one other guy, Severn Brown. We had a pretty good team. We won a lot of games in the league there. And you know, of the Lamont people, I was kind of the professional athlete. I mean I had been a trained athlete more so than the others.
You were trying to organize some of the.
I didn’t organize it so much as when I played; I was one of the better players.
Was there any one person who seemed to be organizing it or did it arise more or less spontaneously?
I’ll be darned. I don’t know who organized the one on the campus in geology. The other things were just informal. Softball games at lunch time almost every day. Touch football in the fall at lunch time. I had a badminton court down by my little cottage and the guys would come down there and play. And the only tough games I got were from Chuck Drake and Manik Talwani. Manik was very good at that.
Yes. He would beat me occasionally at a game, but I never lost a match. Went two years without losing a match. [Laughs]
Is that right? Well maybe that’s a good place to end this part of the interview. Let me thank you very much. You will be receiving transcripts.