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Interview of Jack Oliver by Ronald Doel on 1997 September 27, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/6928-2
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Influence of the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958); worldwide seismograph network; Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Berkner panel and report; VELA-UNIFORM’s contributions to seismology; NSF funding of seismology; Upper Mantle Project (1960s); Earthquake seismology at Lamont; Ewing’s leadership of Lamont; Columbia University administration’s support of seismology; President of the Seismological Society of America (early 1960s); political turmoil at Columbia (late 1960s); visitors to Lamont, including Bruce Bolt, Inge Lehmann; Chair of the department at Columbia (1969-1971); reasons for leaving Lamont; teaching versus research at Lamont; Ewing’s problems with Heezen and the Doherty gift; views on religion and science.
This is Ron Doel and this is a continuing interview with Jack Oliver. We’re making this recording in Ithaca, New York. Actually it’s probably Cayuga Falls.
It’s Cayuga Heights.
Heights. I should say.
It’s really Ithaca as well.
Indeed. And we’re making this recording on September 27, 1997. One of the things we didn’t get a chance to talk about in the first interview was the influence of the IGY [International Geophysical Year]. I’m interested both in the way that it affected your career and your impressions of about how it affected Lamont.
Well, let me start with how it affected me —
— to begin with. Prior to the IGY, [Frank] Press and [W. Maurice] Ewing, working in earthquake seismology had developed an instrument that recorded long-period seismic waves. Really better than most of the existing instruments throughout the world. And so when the IGY started, of course the focus was on solar things, ionosphere things and that sort of thing. But Ewing was on one of the advisory committees, and of course he tried to get in some focus on the solid earth. And eventually that ended up in a proposal by him and Frank Press to install long-periods, a network of long-period seismographs around the world in about ten different stations. And this was a fairly innovative thing in seismology because these instruments were so special because they were all identical and also because all the data would come to one point. See prior to that time, different stations would record the data, but it was hard to collect it.
Exactly. And that was one of the critical factors — being able to get access to these data.
So they began this project, and as it began, Press left for Caltech [California Institute of Technology], and I became in charge of it really. And so I had the job of installing the instruments and planning much of it after that. And finding people to go to different parts of the world to install seismographs and so on. And eventually we got it done. We got a network of good, long-period stations at ten places, and I think a couple of other odd stations that were designed for another purpose.
These were the ones that included India and Argentina. Pm looking at one of the —
I think so, yes.
— your pieces from the post dates, the IGY where you had mentioned the stations. Japan, Resolute Bay, Canada.
Brazil, Australia and so on.
And Africa indeed. How many of those stations were you at personally for the installations?
Not very many of them. Sometimes it was necessary for us to send somebody who understood the instrument to install it. Other times there were people there who were good enough seismologists and instrumentation people that they could install them themselves. So I didn’t go to very many of them. I have been to some of those places, like Resolute Bay you mentioned and a few others. But I really didn’t do much of that kind of installation. I had done some work like that in Africa earlier, but I was not part of that network.
Indeed. Were there any other competing proposals for a seismic network besides that which came out of Lamont for the IGY?
I don’t know. I wouldn’t know I don’t think because I was not up in the upper level of our institution.
Clearly at that point a lot of the negotiations were coming from Press and Ewing. I wonder if they talked to you about what it was like to try to put this proposal forward. What it was like dealing with the U.S. national committee for the IGY?
Oh I can’t really recall much of that.
I’m sorry. I don’t know that I ever knew much about it. I just knew that we got that proposal and it was something we were going to do.
I doubt very much that anybody else would have thought to put such a long-period network throughout the world. They might have thought about putting other kinds of seismographs around the world. Of course there were some, you know, some networks that had been installed earlier. The best known one perhaps is by the Jesuits.
Indeed. Right. Right. And one of the features of the Press-Ewing instrument was its reliability, wasn’t it? That one could place it in remote stations and —
Or was that not really the case?
Not necessarily. I don’t say it was more reliable than some of the existing instruments. The key characteristic was that it recorded long-period waves and hence earthquake surface waves very well. Better than any existing instrument I think at that time. So that was what we were really going for.
How much time did that program take for you during the –-
How long did it take?
— in sense of how large a part of your own research program did this IGY project become?
Well, it wasn’t. I can’t remember exactly. But it took a small, but significant fraction of time to get the whole thing organized, and there was some recruiting of people. Paul Pomeroy, for example, came to Lamont and was one of the first people to install instruments. I can’t — I think George Sutton was involved.
George Sutton, I believe, and Ruth Simon was also?
Ruth Simon. Well, Ruth Simon was essentially the seismograph record reader. The routine interpreter of seismograms at that time. She wasn’t really much involved in that project as I recall, except maybe in a administrative kind of a way. But those people installed the instruments. George Hade came along a little bit later. I think he may have been in on the tail end of the installation of the IGY network.
And that was the Ogdensburg Mine operation that he was also involved –-
Yes, that’s right —
— principally involved in.
He became a key person in the Ogdensburg Mine. But I think he caught the tail end of the IGY effort. One of the things was how to get the instruments manufactured. See, we had built some prototypes that were in use at Lamont, and they were designed largely I think by Bernie Luskin with Frank Press. But then we had to mass produce about a dozen or so of those things. And eventually we worked that out. I think I was heavily involved in this. We worked it out that the Spengnether Instrument Company in St. Louis would build the instruments for us. And I dealt with a fellow there named Rudy Hautly who was the head of that company at the time and made those arrangements. So that kind of thing took some time. And, of course, trying to find appropriate places to put them took some time. But beyond that, I don’t think it was too much of a job for me, except of course when the data started coming in. Then it was the opportunity to work on it. [Laughter]
Were there any particular challenges in having that company make these instruments? Or did that go fairly smoothly when you think back?
I recall it went fairly smoothly, except possibly for the manufacture of what we called the zero-length spring. The vertical component instrument incorporates a spring that has to be wound with pre-existing tensions so it has effectively zero length. So we had to arrange to have that made. I can’t remember who finally made it. I think initially for the early Lamont instruments it was made by a company in New York City. I can’t remember whether they made the ones for the IGY or not, but that was something a little different.
Did actually, did the network come into place in the way that you had envisioned or were there surprises as you actually began to put the instruments in place and then begin to collect these data?
Well, I can’t remember any particular surprises. We may have modified the plan along the way a few times. I can’t recall actually. But it went really smoothly. And frankly, I was a little surprised that we managed to accomplish the whole thing. Because it looked like a big job at first, you know, dealing with all these people in foreign countries, many of whom we didn’t know personally. But it all happened, and with not too much strain.
Did you get to planning meetings of the IGY once Frank Press had gone to CalTech? Was that something that you became involved in?
I was never in any high level committees that oversaw all the activities of the IGY. I probably was in some things but I can’t remember. I’ve been on so many committees.
Indeed, you have.
I can’t sort that out. I do remember meeting some of the key people that were Washington people in the IGY. Let’s see, there was Pem [Pembroke J.] Hart, and whoever the guy who preceded him was. Oh, I can’t think of his name now. That’s the trouble when you get old. But anyway, I’ve got —
We can always add that to the transcript.
— Yes, I’ve got to know that.
Yes. Interesting. You had written one publication in 1958, “Seismology and the IGY” which was an overview of the project. When you were writing that, I’m curious what audience you were hoping to reach? Was it broader than the seismological community in the U.S.? Was this something you wanted to call?
Yes. When I write an article like that, I’m aiming for other parts of the scientific community as well as the seismologists. I can’t remember that much about that particular article.
I have a Xerox copy of it.
Okay. Yes, I think it was a general description of what was going on for people throughout the world, with an interest in earth science of any kind.
Was this something that Lamont particularly promoted, or was it more a personal interest of yours to make sure that word on this program got out?
If I remember correctly, I was asked to give a paper on this topic at some meeting on the IGY. And the other papers were about other subjects completely. There were no other papers on seismology. It was my job to try to acquaint this audience with the seismological component of the IGY. And I think that’s what this paper is based on. But again — [Laughter]
It’s a long time back.
I’ve written a lot of papers.
When you think back on it, how important was this development for subsequent work in seismology at Lamont?
Well, there was one way in which it was clearly important. And that was because it was sort of the prototype or the model for what eventually became the worldwide standardized seismograph network. And that came about this way. As you know, some of us, Frank Press and I from the Lamont group, became heavily involved in the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. And after some of the initial political meetings on the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, it became clear the subject of seismology was important to that treaty. And that furthermore seismology in general had not been very highly funded in the United States and that it could be much improved by some additional funding. So a committee was set up, chaired by Lloyd Berkner, who incidentally was also the “Father of the IGY,” but this was about 1959.
This becomes one of the subsequent Berkner reports.
That’s right. This became the Berkner report. At that committee meeting, we seismologists were asked to use our imagination and try to think of great new things that we could do in seismology that would improve the subject. And Frank Press, who was, of course, a key person in the IGY network, and David [T.] Griggs, made the proposal that the U.S. Government fund a one hundred station network of seismographs, of a standard type, distributed throughout the world, and all sending their data back to a central point. And the data would then be available to seismologists who requested it from anywhere. So in a sense this was an idea which had its birth in the IGY network because Press knew about that. And then he put it into the Berkner Report and the test ban context. And that network, the worldwide standard network, was absolutely critical to the plate tectonics story and how seismology contributed to that. From the title of my book, Shocks and Rocks [Seismology in the Plate Tectonics Revolution] you’d know a little about that connection.
Yes. It’s good to note that here because your book does cover that phase of working.
That’s right. I made the same point in the book, incidentally.
How involved were you in those early meetings? Were you involved in the Berkner panel?
Oh yes. Yes. I was on the Berkner panel. I was involved in the nuclear test ban talks from the very beginning, the very first talk.
That had been my impression.
The reason I was involved was that in the process of studying the daily seismograms at Lamont, and because I had studied the particular kind of wave which wasn’t looked at too commonly by other seismologists, I discovered on one of the Lamont seismographs in Palisades [New York] a long-period seismic wave, a seismic surface wave that was generated by a buried nuclear explosion in Nevada. And at that time nobody had ever seen such a wave at such a long distance from a nuclear explosion. Even the professionals who were in the business of detecting explosions were not aware of that phenomenon. So overnight I became the world’s expert in this subject. And, consequently, I was asked to participate in discussions on detection of nuclear explosions. And I was a member of the first delegation that went to Geneva in 1958 for that reason. I was the expert in that subject.
How did you feel about that? That your career was moving into a somewhat different realm than you had been in before?
Well, in a way, at first I thought — it was satisfying to me that the seismology had done something here which attracted the attention of a lot of other people, including some very high level politicians and diplomats. And there was sort of a real thrill, you might say, to knowing that you were in a position to provide something that might have an impact on the future of the world. And so I looked at it that way for quite a while and was carried away by the whole thing. After a few years of it, I got a little tired of the political wrangling, and I realized that other people were becoming learned about the things that I knew, and I began to divert my career away from that subject and into other things. But I didn’t drop it, I mean, I was responsible about it. If somebody asked me for something from that effort, I would provide it, of course.
Yes. When was it that you began to feel that you could back out from more active involvement?
Oh, I would say it was sometime after the Berkner panel report in 1960 or ‘61, whenever it was. I would say it was maybe ‘61 or ‘62, somewhere in there.
I want to cover this development in detail. Clearly it’s quite critical. How did others at Lamont react to your involvement in what was both a scientific and a broader political undertaking? Was it something that people felt was appropriate for Lamont, or did some voice concerns that?
I think they thought it appropriate. Yes. I think people at Lamont were a little flattered that somebody had done something at Lamont which got them into these circles. And I, let’s see, where was I on the faculty at that time? I think I must have been about an assistant professor or something like that, and I can’t remember exactly. But I do know that after that involvement — of course, you realize that all seismologists throughout the world knew that this was happening. And because I was selected, Press was selected, and other people were selected, we became sort of special in the worldwide seismological community. So when it came time for me to be promoted, with no initiative whatsoever on my part, I suddenly moved up on the faculty at Columbia and became a full professor at a fairly early age, and I think that was a factor.
That’s interesting. That’s very interesting.
It was some sign of respect by the rest of the seismological community in being assigned to that job.
That’s very interesting. How well did you come to know Lloyd Berkner at that time?
Well, I guess I’d met him casually before, but I think my first close association with him was through the committee, being a member of his committee. As I say, he had been known as the “Father of the IGY” and I had some things to do with the IGY before that.
So I’m sure I had some contacts with him. But it was on the committee that I really began to get to know him a bit.
How did he strike you as a scientist, his research?
He seemed to me to be somebody who knew and understood the world of science rather well. He was not particularly doing work on his own in science at that time. He had a history of being in a fairly high-level position in Washington. And he knew his way around Washington, and so he was able to understand the science and talk the science, but he was also very good at promoting it in the right circles in Washington. So I thought he was a key figure. Even though he didn’t contribute much of the seismological information in the Berkner report, he did provide a stimulus so that the report would have big enough goals and also goals that would appeal to, I think, to funding sources or whatever he dealt with.
When you look back on those days, did you find that in most times you and other panel members were in agreement about those goals or was there significant controversy over what direction this kind of research —?
Well on that panel, mostly we were asked to think of new things that could be done. So we all strained our imaginations trying to think of what seismology really could be like. We came up with different ideas of course. One person thought about this, one person thought about that. But usually there wasn’t any conflict. It was just that each person had a good idea about what we could do. And, for example, seismologists like Press and I, we proposed seismological things. But there was a fellow on that panel from Texas Instruments who came in proposing that we should begin to digitize seismograms more than we do earthquake seismograms more than we did. He wasn’t a seismologist, but he said digital techniques are going to become so important that we ought to be doing this in seismology. And of course he was dead right. [Laughter] It’s what we’re all doing now. But that was really my first association with digital seismology. I knew a little bit about digitizing, but that was my first association with a guy who really understood the worth of it.
That’s very interesting. Of course, that had been done a bit earlier in prospecting.
In the petroleum industry. And he was coming from the petroleum industry. That’s why I knew about it a little bit. But it hadn’t really gotten into earthquake seismology then, and I didn’t appreciate the full potential of it until I began to hear him talk.
That’s very interesting. And I’m curious too who you regarded as the key figures — those who shouldered most of the work on the panel.
On the Berkner panel?
On the Berkner panel.
Gee, I wish I had the list of the participants.
Sorry. I don’t have that one with me.
Each of us wrote chapters. Have you seen it?
I don’t — I don’t know unless I look at the list of names. I can’t really —
We can always add some of that later. I’m wondering if you remember any debate particularly over the threshold question. At what level one could make a reasonable determination that an event was artificial rather than [cross talk]?
Well, the big discussions of that were during the — they were in connection with the political meetings in ‘58 and ‘59, where we really came to some kind of a conclusion on that with the people from other countries.
Yes. I was just wondering if that had also been part of the discussions of the Berkner panel.
Well, that was a part of the whole business, and I guess it was part of the Berkner panel. And, of course, the monkey wrench was thrown into the works by Al [Albert L.] Latter, who proposed that the nuclear explosions be fired in, could be fired in large cavities without generating big seismic waves. And that was a fairly new thing. I can’t remember if it was during the Berkner panel days or before that he proposed that. But that was a concern to everyone.
The de-coupling question certainly became carried on by Teller and others.
That’s right. Yes, it was Al Latter I think who was primarily behind it. Teller supported him.
How did you regard the arguments that were being made about de-coupling at the time?
Well, I hadn’t thought much about that subject prior to that time, of course. And so I tried to understand what it was they were talking about. And then it was a matter first of understanding the theory, physical theory, which seemed to be all right. But then the next question was whether it was a real practical matter to build a big cavity underground and whether that cavity would behave as well as you’d assumed it would in the theory. And nobody knew about that of course. I considered that a sort of an unknown which made everything uncertain. But nevertheless, everybody was trying to take advantage of or trying to look for any possible loophole and so on and to consider that.
What were you impressions when you first arrived in Geneva with the broader meetings?
Well, I had no real previous experience with the big political things, international political things like that. And I was rather a low-down member of the delegation. I didn’t have any responsibilities for leadership or anything. So I did what I usually did. I tried to observe everything so I could understand what was going on. And it was an interesting thing for me to see how the professional politicians acted and operated. How technical information got into the thing or didn’t get into it. The whole world of international conflict, you might say, I was able to see on a different level than I had before. I was in the Navy during the war as an enlisted man, and you look one way from that perspective and looked another way in dealing with these high level people. And my reaction was, frankly, that it was a lot more Machiavellian at the higher levels than I had suspected it was in the past. [Laughter] Maybe I should have known that before. But I realized that a lot of effort in the political negotiations was spent in making a good defense so that you would not lose something valuable. And not so much effort perhaps was spent on good offense and trying to inject some new things in the —
The proactive part did not seem strongly —
They didn’t have the word proactive, didn’t use it then in those days. [Laughter]
That’s very interesting. Did you feel that the scientific arguments, the data and the interpretations that you were developing, were being fairly represented as the discussions moved into the political realm, or were there times when you felt that you felt a spin was being put on your work?
Well, I thought they were generally fairly represented. Although, of course, I recognized that there were some people who were, let’s say, strongly in favor of the test ban treaty and others who were opposed to it. And the ones who were in favor pointed to the good features of the science, and the ones who were opposed sometimes looked at the negative features. But I thought that was appropriate in a way. We needed both views. We wanted to look for all possible facets of this thing. And I think that came out pretty well. In the end, what came out I was pretty happy with. I thought we did a pretty good job considering what information was available then. And I think that with all the research we’ve done since, we haven’t changed our position that much from those early relatively naive conclusions.
Who were the principal Soviet scientists that you came to know during that time?
Oh boy! You’re getting in on my memory.
I’m sorry I don’t have that list of participants here.
Yes. I need the list. When you say scientists?
Or generally, who? I was just wondering who from the broader Soviet community, if any of them stand out particularly in your mind?
Yes. Well, I met [Vladimir] Keilis-Borok at those meetings, I think, for the first time. I think that was the first time I saw him. And of course I’ve known him since. I’ve seen a lot of him since then. Who were the others on that delegation? There was a guy named [Mikhail A.] Sadovsky, who was not so much a seismologist, he was more a physicist working with materials and explosions. There was a fellow named Pasechnik who was obviously the leader of the Soviet government effort to detect nuclear explosions. Who else was there on the Soviet side? I don’t know if [Leonid M.] Brekhovskikh, I don’t know if Brekhovskikh was at that meeting or not. May have been.
But he was one you came to know better later.
Brekhovskikh, yes, became well known because he wrote a good book on acoustics and wave propagation. Oh wait, there was one more. [Y.U.] Riznichenko.
We can add that to the transcript later. I’m wondering too what your impressions were of the state of Soviet seismology as you came to meet more and more with those in the Soviet community? Did you feel that their instrumentation, their observational base or their theory was comparable to that in the west or different?
Well, in theory they were pretty good. Yes. They did theory well. I felt that their observational effort was sometimes good and other times not as good as ours. But I also felt that I, I guess I knew beforehand, that the Soviets had put a lot of effort into exploring the continental crust. Doing refraction surveys. And much more effort than we had in our country really. And that always impressed me that they were able to mount such an effort to explore the continental crust. We did some here in this country but nothing to the level that they did. So I felt that they were ahead of us a little bit in some of those parts of the subject. So that was — I don’t know — [Interruption for phone call]
We’re resuming after a very brief telephone interruption. You were mentioning about the tremendous Soviet effort in the continental surveys that had been done. I was curious there were any Soviet developments that you came to learn through your work in Geneva that influenced your own research in the 1960s?
I don’t think so really. No, I’d say no. My work after that branched into, well more surface wave work, which was why I was there. It branched into the deep earthquakes and eventually then into the tectonic story. And I would say none of that was influenced by the test ban treaty. I hope I haven’t overlooked something. But I don’t, I really don’t recall any.
I’m also thinking about the controversy that erupted in the very early 1960s when L. Don Leet made his arguments against the work of the Berkner committee and regarding whether sufficient attention had been paid to the experience of the Jesuits and others that he felt were under-represented in the Berkner panel. I wonder how much of an impact that controversy had on you.
The effect it had on me was none. I didn’t even know about that. I don’t even remember that. And, of course, I’m sure you know already that Leet and Ewing were not — [Laughter]
— close friends.
To put it mildly.
And in fact I never knew how much of that was just a personal squabble between the two and how much was based on real scientific merit. And then Leet came one day to a meeting of the, I think it was the Eastern Section of the Seismological Society that was held at Lamont. And he gave a talk which was so bad that I really couldn’t believe I was hearing him say it. He tried, you know, there’s a long train of sinusoidal surface waves that appear when earthquake surface waves cross the ocean. A very long oscillatory train. And at that meeting Leet tried to explain that as a result of the source. He said that the earthquake source kept vibrating like that with a period of fifteen seconds for half an hour or something like that. It just seemed completely impossible to me and everybody else. And that was one of the first times I saw him in person giving a scientific paper. And once I heard that, I sort of realized it wasn’t just all a personal squabble. So if he said some of those other things, I probably mostly ignored them. Didn’t pay much attention to them at the time.
Did Leet —?
In fact —
— Yes, please.
I was going to say, in fact, later on there was an advisory committee for the Air Force Office of Scientific Research [AFOSR] which sponsored some of this VELA [UNIFORM] work and Father [W.] Stauder from St. Louis was on that committee.
Indeed he was.
Other people from St. Louis were sometimes involved. Carl Kisslinger and Otto Nutley.
Was [Father] James B. Macelwane involved at that point?
I don’t think he was ever involved in that. But I knew him and I respected him highly of course. He was a very sound seismologist. But I think he was too old at the time. Sort of like [Beno] Gutenberg and that crowd. They were not heavily involved either. [Hugo] Benioff was, but not Gutenberg.
Right. And [Charles] Richter occasionally made comments about the work.
Well, yes. But he never was a factor. He never came to any meetings. And I, I don’t
Yes. Never had much of an effect.
Did Leet seem to represent an alternative way of conceptualizing these phenomena, or did he simply seem to be an individual whose ideas seemed out of step with work that was being done by the time you heard him at Lamont?
Oh, when I heard him, just somebody whose ideas were out of step. He had done something before which I had some connection with. I remember now. And that is when; I think it was when he recorded the first nuclear explosion in Nevada, or New Mexico, excuse me, not Nevada, New Mexico. He recorded that. It was an explosion in the air. And after he recorded it, he tried to interpret the waves that he recorded. And he proposed something which he called the “coupled wave.” And according to him, it had a particle motion which occupied all three components of ground motion at one time or another. It was sort of a, I don’t know if he ever used this term, but it was kind of a screw type dislocation. And it, as I recall, preceded the normal Rayleigh waves, and so on. So he had proposed this kind of wave and it appears in the textbooks sometimes as Leet’s coupled wave, as it’s called. Well, when I began studying earthquake waves, first I followed Ewing and Press and studied the fundamental modes of the Love and Rayleigh waves and then I got into a study of the higher modes of the Rayleigh waves as a result of a particular seismogram that we had. So I began to understand the particle motion and the higher mode waves. And also the dispersion in the higher mode waves. And I realized that whereas — I don’t want to get too technical here — I realized whereas the dispersion curves for the fundamental mode Love and Rayleigh waves are different, for the higher mode Love and Rayleigh waves they’re very similar. So the waves would arrive at the same time with about the same period. Well, that meant in the Rayleigh mode you had vertical and longitudinal particle motion. In the horizontal or Love mode you had horizontal motion. So those things were happening simultaneously and were a potential explanation for Leet’s coupled wave. So I wrote that. I put that in a paper somewhere. And I think nowadays, if people saw waves like that, they’d interpret them the way I did. And wouldn’t call them Leet’s coupled wave. I think that’s just gone by the boards.
That’s very interesting.
But that was a result of earthquake studies for me. It didn’t have anything to do with nuclear explosions.
Were there any aspects of your involvement in the treaty work that seemed disappointing to you or were frustrating? Or on the whole did you find that to be a pretty satisfying experience?
Well, I think it — I’d like to think that I could see both sides of the story. I could see the peace lovers who wanted to have a nuclear test ban treaty — save the world. On the other hand, I could see the side of the military people who were concerned with the protection of the United States and also who felt that to be strong militarily was the way to maintain peace in the world. And I could see both points of view, but I never felt either was my position. Or I never felt the urge to take one of those and try to be some kind of a leader in that direction. I kind of saw myself as more an observer and somebody who was learning about how that part of the world works.
Interesting. Were there political discussions that occurred in off hours or times when you were socializing about whether one could trust an eventual treaty with the Soviets involving nuclear detection?
Well, I suppose yes. I’m sure people must have commented on that at one time or another. It probably became obvious to the scientists which sort of leaning each scientist had. But on the other hand, I didn’t see the seismologists; at least, begin taking a lead or forcing one way or the other much.
Interesting. Was there any debate over whether the seismological data being reported by the Soviets was reliable? Did anyone worry that politics might influence the presentation of data?
Well, we would have had to be fools not to worry that somebody was trying to slant the conclusions one way or another by selectively presenting the data or something like that. So I’m sure that suspicion was around. I can’t —
I was just curious clearly if there were any particular?
— recall any case where I could say that happened. But I wouldn’t be too surprised. I mean each scientist had to make a case about something or other you know. And he would choose the data that supported that case. And you tried to sort out the facts and formal observations from anything that might be based on some political opinion. But I think most of the scientists were pretty objective, but as I say, each of them had their own -–
Were you involved in helping to decide where the stations that came out from the network would be set up?
Not with regard to the specific stations. In general. I was — I guess I was around — when we decided what the general scheme would be. And that was to put stations scattered around the world at places where there were seismologists who would tend them, take care of them, as opposed to trying to build a new station everywhere. And I may have suggested some stations. I can’t remember. Because I had some contacts as a result of the IGY experience. I may have suggested some places. I can’t remember.
Was there much difficulty in getting stations set up within the Communist nations as you recall, or did that work out fairly smoothly once the process began?
I can’t remember.
Sure. That’s fine.
Of course, I knew the people that were doing most of that. It was Leonard Murphy and the people who worked with him at the Geodetic Survey. And he and I one time wrote a paper on that network after it was finished. It was published in Science I think.
I think that’s correct. Did you have much contact with [Dwight D.J Eisenhower’s science advisors in this process? Jim [James] Killian or [George B.] Kistiakowsky?
Yes, we had a meeting with Killian one time. And I recall it especially because it was the only time I ever had lunch in the White House. He arranged for us to go down in the basement there and have lunch. So that we felt — I think we felt — we were in contact with the higher levels of the government. And that our information was being funneled up appropriately through that channel. To Eisenhower, if need be, and whoever else needed the decision.
You stayed involved through the beginning of the [President John F.] Kennedy administration as I recall.
Did there seem to be much of a difference in the way that your work was carried out after the administration changed?
I don’t remember anything. No.
One other thing that came to mind in talking about this. It’s a somewhat different topic, but during the IGY planning phase, I seem to recall Keith Bullen recommending the use of atomic explosions as a way of obtaining greater seismological data.
Do you remember debates in the U.S. community about using atomic weapons for this purpose? What people thought?
Well, debates. Most of the seismologists were probably in favor of it. No, I can’t remember. Oh incidentally, I think it’s thought, or maybe it’s known, that the Soviets used some nuclear explosions for some of their crustal and upper mantle studies in the Soviet Union. I think that’s —
Was this as part of the upper mantle program or even earlier than that?
I don’t know.
Sure. That’s fine. That’s very interesting.
But I’m pretty sure that they did use some, and that they were at least partly for seismological purposes. It may have been also that they were using them for some construction purpose or something and also did the seismology.
And then did the measurements there. It’s interesting. I seem to recall that [Vladimir] Beloussov was not in favor of Bullen’s proposal as it was initially made. Was he someone, by the way, who had any interactions with you?
I never really began to have interaction with Beloussov until the plate tectonics story and then I did have some.
You were saying as we flipped the tape over that you certainly had interactions with Beloussov during the plate tectonics debate.
Well, Beloussov didn’t like the plate tectonics story. And he never hesitated to make his opinion known. So one time I was at an international meeting and I was up giving a talk, and my talk was on the story of subduction and island arcs and what it had to do with plate tectonics and with the place where the material was going down and so on. And by that time I had given that story and I was known as a pro-plate tectonics person. And so Beloussov was chairman of the meeting. And afterwards there was a time for questions, and Beloussov — I’ve forgotten exactly how he said it — but there was still a slide up on the screen and it had a map of the world. And somebody asked a question, and Beloussov said, “Well, I think we should direct that question to Professor Oliver who is over there by that subduction zone.” And everybody knew what he meant. He was trying to wrap me into a package with the subduction theory that he didn’t really agree with. So he got a big laugh.
That’s interesting. Clearly in the Soviet structure of science, institute leaders, figures like Beloussov, had tremendous influence in presenting views. Did you have private meetings with some of the younger Soviet geophysicists to discuss plate tectonics?
Yes. You must have been talking to Lynn Sykes. He and I, and I thinks somebody else, had lunch, maybe it was Bryan Isacks, and I’m not sure. Lynn and I, at least, had lunch with a young Soviet scientist. I better not say who it was. A young Soviet scientist. A very good scientist. Just as plate tectonics was becoming widely known. And during the luncheon we kept pounding on him and saying “Why don’t you believe in plate tectonics? Here’s all this data.” And we kept making the case. And he said, “Oh no, it can’t be. No, no. We don’t believe that. No, no. We don’t believe that.” And then finally he said, when we got up to leave, after at least an hour and a half, we got up to leave, and he said, he said, “You know,” he said, “Some of us believe you may be right about plate tectonics, but we’re not permitted to say so.” [Laughter] And we walked away.
That’s very interesting.
So that was a very revealing thing. He was a good scientist and we knew he was not expressing his own opinion only. It was other people’s opinions as well.
And it didn’t surprise you to hear that at the time.
It surprised me in the sense that I really didn’t know what the younger people who didn’t normally appear at international gatherings were thinking.
I actually heard something of this from Chuck [Charles L.] Drake.
Yes. Yes. But you’ve got to remember, the Soviets have a history of having odd balls who have suggested strange theories about the earth. Sometimes they’ve been right. Often wrong, but sometimes right. So they did have some room for dissent in there, at least at certain times. But I think that it’s true that Beloussov sat on the whole story of plate tectonics for as long as he could.
When you mentioned those earlier ideas that were not initially seen to be in vogue, I’m just curious what sort of things you’re thinking about.
Oh, I don’t know. Just offhand I can remember, well one guy who proposed that as a result of the great viscosity of the earth, that when an earthquake occurred or something occurred, there were great waves of slow deformation that moved out at low rates across the earth. And he suggested, I believe, that sometimes leveling observations or some kind of geodetic observations had been able to detect those waves. And he tried to put that story together with the data. And I don’t know that’s been proven completely wrong to this day. Oh, I forgot one other experience with Beloussov. You want to hear it?
There was a field trip. I don’t know Chuck Drake may have been on that field trip. I’m not sure. It was in the Alps in connection with a meeting in — it must have been Zurich I guess. The IGY meeting in Zurich. I’ve forgotten what year that was. But, let’s see, I was on that field trip and it was lead by a guy named [Hans] Laubscher, a very prominent Alpine geologist, very good geologist. It included a lot of different kinds of people. It included Beloussov. And a few people, I think Bruce Heezen was on that trip, and a guy from Israel. And I was just getting into the subduction story, and I can’t remember what year that was. You don’t know when the Zurich IGY meeting was by any chance? No.
It — I honestly don’t recall.
So anyway, in the group we’d sometimes have discussions on the bus or on the train. And Beloussov, of course, he’s always trying to go up and down, up down, with his elbows like this and explaining everything and trying to dominate the group.
You’re holding your arms out.
And I remember getting Laubscher aside and telling him about subduction. I said, “Gee, we’ve got this new data on subduction” and I didn’t really try to present it to the group, but I remember bringing it up at that time. But Beloussov, I don’t remember telling Beloussov about it.
The guy from Israel, whose name I forget now, he was a strong guy on the grabens. And he was, everywhere he thought the earth was being pulled apart. He tried to explain everything as grabens and Beloussov was doing like this [up and down with his elbows] and we were doing like that [one hand over the other]. [Laughter]
That’s interesting. I’m wondering as you look back on the 1960s, what you feel were the most significant ways in which VELA-UNIFORM contributed to the development of seismology? Either at Lamont, in particular, or [cross talk]
Oh wow. A couple of ways. One is that it made the data readily available to everybody.
Was there ever a debate over whether any of these data ought to be kept as propriety even, as opposed to classified?
Not that I remember. There may have been somebody here and there who objected, but nothing serious as I recall. I think that was a key part of the whole thing, which it came to one central place. Then you remember at about that time digital computing was becoming common and so earthquakes were being better located. Bruce Bolt developed the program to locate earthquakes and people began to use that data as well as the ISS data to locate earthquakes better than they’d been located before. But the key thing was really on the focal mechanisms. Prior to the time of the worldwide network, of course people had developed the focal mechanism technique. And John Hodgson in Canada had tried to run a program in which he took data on a lot of earthquakes and tried to look at the pattern of focal mechanisms around the world. This is in my book, incidentally, Shocks and Rocks. But his project failed because the data weren’t good enough and they weren’t communicated well enough in those days. But with the worldwide network, that became something different. Somebody, people like Lynn Sykes was one of them, but there were others as well at Lamont and elsewhere. Jim [James] Brune at Lamont and oh, I don’t know, a couple of other people — Bryan Isacks I think was one — were doing focal mechanisms using the worldwide network. And also a group at St. Louis led by Father Stauder, and Carl Kisslinger and some others were doing focal mechanisms. And because the data from the worldwide network was all the same type and standardized and available, they were able to get reliable focal mechanisms throughout the world. And that was a key thing, that’s a key part of our paper on global tectonics.
Your famous 1968 co-authored paper which indeed you treat in considerable detail in Shocks and Rocks.
In fact, it’s included in the appendix of the book.
Indeed it is. Do you feel that the funding available for Project UNIFORM in general was spent well? Or were there areas that you would have preferred to have seen a different emphasis or distribution?
Well, I thought. Of course, you realize there was a real step function in spending. I mean the funds were suddenly available for almost anything. And I thought in general that was reasonably well spent. Yes. I thought it was spent on things that were sound — that people had envisioned and had never been able to do or try. And I think that’s mostly what happened. I’m sure some of it was wasted on bad ideas, but in general I thought it was, yes, I thought it was well spent.
I suspect you came into fairly close contact with people like Charlie [Charles C.] Bates during this period.
Oh yes. Sure.
What was he like?
Well, he was very good. He had a lot of energy, a lot of enthusiasm. He’d make his case and take it to some place in the government, I think, and sell it. Successfully most of the time. He also, I think, had the good sense to listen to the advice he got from the scientific community, because Charlie was not a great seismologist. But here he was, running this seismological program. So he had enough good sense, to take the advice he got. And I think in general he probably separated out the good advice from the bad advice, and put it together to make a program, and sort of fit it into the U.S. government. And that was a very valuable service. And he had some good help too. He was the top guy. And he had Bill [William] Best over in the AFOSR. And I forgot who was up at Air Force Cambridge then. But those people were also factors in the successful operation of the program. And Charlie was good. Charlie’s got a book out. You know about his book?
Indeed. Yes. What do you think about the book, his arguments?
Well, it’s so long since I looked at it, I really shouldn’t comment too much.
We’re thinking of Geophysics in the Service of Man.
Yes. That’s the one I’m thinking of. I thought it was, it was sort of Charlie’s view of the world which I sometimes found didn’t cover all of the facets of the subject that I would have liked to have seen in there. But I thought it was nice of him to do that. It’s like any book.
Indeed. Indeed. No one book will satisfy everyone. I’m just curious what things you were thinking about — the emphasis you would have placed?
Gee, I’d have to look through the book. Because I haven’t looked at that book for years.
Yes. No, that’s fine. In thinking of patrons in the earth sciences, seismology in that period, how did you feel about the direction of NSF [National Science Foundation] as a patron at that time? I believe Bill [William] Benson was the program manager.
Yes. Well, let me say that because I became, as I said earlier, because I became well known because of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, I was on the NSF advisory panel with Bill Benson. Again at a fairly early age —
Indeed you were.
— because they needed a seismologist. And so I saw how that program operated in considerable detail. And I thought it was very good. I thought it was good because for one thing, Benson had worked with the USGS [U.S. Geological Survey] I guess, and was a working scientist, and did not spend a long time in the government and hadn’t been completely bureaucratized. And furthermore, he had a good sense of how research, successful research is supported, and was willing to gamble on what seemed like good ideas. And he went for the things with the bigger payoffs, rather than just necessarily all of the safe projects. Nowadays I’d say NSF and other funding agencies are more inclined toward the safe projects. Whereas Benson was willing to gamble on things that looked good. Of course, that was also a time when science in general was doing that kind of thing — going for big things. So I thought Benson ran his program very well. And he got good people, he got good advice from them, he took that advice and again he put it together to make a good program. So, yes, I thought — I think — highly of him.
That’s interesting. Who else do you recall being on the advisory panel at the time?
Oh, let’s see. Boy, that’s my memory. The guy who’s the dean out at Stanford, Dick [Richard] Jahns. I think he wasn’t at Stanford. I think he was, may have been, at Penn State [University].
He might have been still at Penn State.
Dick Jahns. Hoover [J.] Mackin, famous older geomorphologist, was on the panel for awhile. Oh man.
Were there other geophysicists, those who were?
As I recall, there were no other — at least geophysicists — in my area at that time.
No one else from Lamont was on the advisory?
No. Not that I remember. No. Roy Hanson incidentally was kind of a lieutenant of Benson. I always found him a very good person to deal with. And he was the one who funded a number of our projects. I think our deep earthquake project in Fiji/Tonga which produced a subduction zone, I guess it was funded when Benson was the leader. And Roy Hanson funded some other projects that we were involved in. He was another kind of guy who was very savvy about the scientists and the way they thought and how to pick out the ones that were good, I think. I’m trying to think who else was on that panel. Oh there was a guy in geography, physical geography from Johns Hopkins [University]. Charles Hunt. Senior. Most of them were much older than I was.
I imagine that was an interesting experience to be the junior member of panels of that —
Yes. It was very good for me. Yes. And at that time. I don’t think it was my ego. I think it was that the experience that I’d had gave me enough confidence so I was willing to stand up and deal with those guys. You know, if I had an opinion, I didn’t hesitate to throw it out there.
I’m wondering if it seemed to you there was a very clear generational difference in the outlook towards problems in the earth sciences that you encountered, being in the —?
Oh, I guess there’s always a little of that kind of thing. These guys though were very open to new ideas. They also, most of them at least, had not had much experience with geophysics so they were willing to listen to what they were hearing.
So you were in many ways a spokesperson for the physical side of the earth sciences.
That’s right. I wish I could remember who else was on that. As soon as you leave, I’ll think of some of them.
Of course. Of course. Again, we can make sure we add that to the transcript later. How involved did you become in the Upper Mantle Project in the 1960s?
Well, in the sense that the deep earthquake project in Tonga/Fiji was a part of the Upper Mantle Project, I was heavily involved. And that was, of course, a shining light of NSF. And there was the history of NSF written — I think maybe I mentioned this to you before — but there was a history of NSF written, oh it must have been in the seventies some time. And our project was cited as one of the special, especially rewarding, projects of the period. So in that sense, we were heavily, I was heavily involved in the Upper Mantle Project. I think I was also in other advisory committees of some kind, although don’t ask me the name or what they were.
A more general question, I think, would simply be were there other — did you find that all or many of the areas of the Upper Mantle Project worked as you had hoped, or were there things that didn’t get done that you initially hoped to see accomplished in the 1960s?
Well, of course, when we started the deep earthquake project, we thought the Mantle was all going to be layered like this. And so we were so surprised, that I thought we did something that nobody else did. I don’t know. I guess I kind of hoped for. I don’t know. My view of the upper mantle changed so much with that project that I then saw new things to do. And the fact that they were bypassed earlier was just the fact that nobody recognized.
That no one had, yes, yes, no, that makes sense.
Incidentally, ironically, you no doubt know Beloussov was the guy who really started and backed the Upper Mantle Project.
Indeed. Indeed. [Laughter]
Indeed. Things unfolded very interestingly in that sense in the 1960s. But I also was very interested in seismology as it began to grow at Lamont in the 1960s: how did relations change between your group and others who worked at Lamont? As seismology began to grow was there a sense in which you became more distinct a group?
Oh yes. Yes. The key thing, you see, initially up until around 1960 or ‘61 or something like that, the earthquake seismology program was all located in Lamont Hall. And Ewing was there and he was a key part of it. Press was there. And almost every day, Ewing would come in and spend a little time looking at seismograms or doing something like that. And then Press left, in ‘55 or something like that, and I became head of it and for awhile it kind of carried on the same way with Ewing coming in, looking over your shoulder. But gradually, of course, Lamont grew, and he got more duties. And then we got the new building. And that was a big factor. Because it meant that he gave up his day-to-day association with seismology, and furthermore, our group was growing and we were beginning to get on to new ideas and things that he hadn’t originated. Before that, he originated most of the things. And so I think our geographical separation was a real key to separating. There certainly wasn’t ever any intent on my part — I don’t think on anybody’s part — to wall Ewing out of the seismology program. But he was.
But it did have that effect in practice.
Yes. There’s no question about it. A lot of our projects then began to develop from ideas that I or somebody else in our group had generated.
Did it change the nature of the debate; do you feel, within the group once Ewing was no longer there? I think of Ewing in part in terms of the power of his personality.
I don’t think so. He had trained us all, and we all had enough of Ewing in us that —
— I think his viewpoints were always represented. But no, I don’t think so. One thing, if you’ve read my book, you noticed that in talking about plate tectonics, there were some people at Lamont who said Ewing opposed what they were doing and so on. But in seismology we were doing all kind of pro-plate tectonics things and never encountered any trouble from Ewing. None. He saw pre-prints of the papers and he never complained or said it was wrong, didn’t like it, or anything.
What about people like Joe [J. Lamar] Worzel?
Oh, Joe didn’t like it. [Laughter] Yes, Joe, let’s see. Joe, of course, he was primarily based in gravity and he had other ideas about how the trench is formed, and so he didn’t like our story of subduction. And he was outspoken about it. But he was outspoken about it to everybody that he didn’t like the new ideas of the dynamic earth, and so on. So yes. On the other hand, he wasn’t in a position to block anything that we did. We did our work and put it out. And let history take its course, and it did.
I’m thinking also of what kinds of reactions came from others who had been deeply involved in research involving trenches? Manik Talwani was, Denny [Dennis E.] Hayes.
Well, Denny was fairly young at that time. Manik. I can’t remember too much reaction by Manik. I think he was on the extensional kick at the time. And they were trying to account for the big negative gravity anomaly as a result of not just the depression in the sea floor, but the sediments that filled in that depression. This was in a sense more or less correct. But what they were — it turned out later — what essentially they were overlooking was that narrow negative anomaly was super-imposed on a broad positive anomaly. And we didn’t think of that at first. So when we started talking about this denser slab going down into the mantle, they said that’s impossible. It would have made a positive anomaly instead of this big negative thing that we see. And gravity, they said, absolutely forbids this kind of process going on. Well, then somebody pointed out — I don’t think it was me, no it wasn’t me — somebody pointed out that there was really a big positive associated with these trenches and showed that that fit the model of the slab. Well, that took the wind out of their sails, of course.
Was that primarily an interpretation that came out from Lamont or from other research centers, showing the broader positive?
I’m not sure, but I think that came from somebody else. I don’t know if it was Trevor Hatherton in New Zealand. It may have been. I think somebody else first drew attention to that. I sort of remember talking to Trevor Hatherton about it, but I’m not sure if it was his idea or not.
He was a pretty good friend of mine later. Yes. I got to know him very well.
Interesting. It seems, then — and I wanted to hear too the role that you had played in actually designing the seismology building. I recall correctly you had played a significant role in it.
Yes. I played a role in the general principles in constructing that building, which were that we wouldn’t worry about architectural beauty, but would try to get the maximum amount of usable space that we could get. And if you look at it, you’ll see that whoever built it had that in mind. And so that’s why - the reason we went the route of the Butler Building, which is a standardized kind of construction. And the other things that I was involved in were, first, the configuration of a room plan. Over in the oceanography building, they had had one big central room with a bunch of offices around it.
And that had the disadvantage that you always went in the same way and that people were isolated in the back in the room. So I wanted the flow to be a little freer, so I put — oh it also meant that one guy got control of the whole bay. And I wanted it to be freer so that different people could be assigned to some of those offices. So when we built our center room, we put our big laboratory rooms in the center of the building and then put the offices on halls that extended all the way down the building. So we could have any number of offices associated with a particular laboratory. Whereas in the oceanography building it didn’t have that flexibility.
Indeed. Yours seemed to be more a departmental model.
Your having, the democratic, if you will. There were the series of offices that —
I would have said flexibility rather than democratic.
I wanted it flexible so that as many people as were working in that lab could have offices if need be. And so I was behind that. I was behind some big storage rooms for seismograms. Again, that was Ewing’s philosophy to archive a lot of valuable data. He went along with that immediately. And other than that there wasn’t much special about it. It was just a building.
Did you find that the design worked as you wanted it to?
Yes. It was fine. I know there have been complaints since then from various people, but I thought it was okay. Of course, before we only had a few rooms over in Lamont Hall. And so it was a big change to go over there. But we had a lot of space then. We were able to add people like, say, Orson Anderson, when he came with his group. And others then became affiliated with seismology.
The sort of things you could not simply do given the quarters you had had before.
That’s right. I couldn’t have done that before. Orson, Chris [Christopher] Scholz was there for a while. You know some others.
The effect of building the seismology building was similar to that of the oceanography building at Lamont in terms of —?
Yes, well, we had to face the fact Lamont was growing. It was getting bigger and bigger, and the director’s job went to higher and higher levels involving more work. And furthermore, the younger guys in my generation were growing up to the point where, at least, I like to think, we could exert more leadership than we had in the past. And, of course, we let another group of still younger people come up. And I think that’s one of the reasons Lamont flourished. Ewing couldn’t do everything. He was capable of doing everything, but he just didn’t have time to do everything.
That raises some very interesting questions. I’m wondering as you look back, did you regard Lamont in general as a kind of research school with a strong leader in a general world program, or was it more that each of the different fields became leaders of areas of research?
Well, I think initially I looked at it in that light where there was one leader and that was Ewing, except for geochemistry where [J. Laurence] Kulp was the leader from the beginning. Ewing was kind of the leader of everything, but he encouraged subjects to grow up that he really didn’t know much about. Like micropaleontology and stuff like that. He encouraged that kind of thing. And so I think it grew from the kind of institution where he was the one and only key figure into one where different people were running different sections to whatever degree they were capable of. He didn’t put restrictions on you, you know. If you had some good ideas — I think I wrote this in the book. If I went to him with an idea, I think every time I tried it, he always said “Yes, that’s a good idea. Go for it. But maybe you can do some more.” He encouraged you that way. It was a great, great thing that he had. He kept us all enthusiastic.
Did any fields within Lamont in the 1960s not seem as strong as clearly seismology or marine geophysics was?
Well, sure. They all had their courses that they followed. Seismology, in a sense, it was just the right place and the right time for seismology. And Ewing and Press had gotten this thing started. And the IGY came along, and the test ban came along, and plate tectonics came along. And seismology was — it was just the right time for it. And some of the others, geomagnetism, pale magnetism, of course, they prospered because they hit the right time for the plate tectonics story. Some of the others weren’t so fortunate.
Was it more a matter of resources or more a matter, and personnel, or was it more the way in which these fields developed do you think?
I don’t know. That’s a difficult —
— Difficult for me to answer that question. But I think it was some of both. Some parts of it had more, or some of the leaders than others.
It was also in the early 1960s that you were elected as president of the GSA [Geological Society of America] as I recall.
No. No. I was elected president of the Seismological Society [Seismological Society of America] then.
I beg your pardon. You’re quite right. The early 60s was presidency of —.
GSA was the 80s.
Indeed. Indeed. When you were president of SSA, I’m wondering, was there a particular set of goals you wanted to see accomplished during your presidency? What seemed to be the key issues that you faced?
Well, I was pretty young to be president at the time. I think I was just trying to make seismology as high-quality area as I could. Because seismology up until that time had been kind of a low-level science, you know. It wasn’t in the world of, or in the league of, physics or something like that. And so I was just trying to make sure that we had high quality, a good journal, and encourage the new people to come into the field and that kind of thing. But it was a relatively modest operation at that time. And you couldn’t, you couldn’t make things happen by pushing a button, the way you might in a bigger society, like AGU [American Geophysical Union] or GSA.
Sure. How many people were in SSA at that time?
Oh, I don’t remember.
Was it roughly saying two to three hundred or was it more?
Probably more than that was members. I think more than that were members, but the meetings were typically thirty to fifty people or something of that order.
Quite intimate and you came to know —
Pretty much so.
— People quite well.
Certainly in the ‘50s when I started going to the meetings, you’d get to know everybody. In the ‘60s, because of the test ban treaty and VELA and all, you began to start to see a new crop of young people, good young people come in.
Yes. How did other members of the department at Columbia regard development of seismology? Did you feel that they were receptive to that, both as pedagogy and as a research tool in the 1960s?
Well, I think they did. I mean, after all, they hired Ewing for one faculty position. And as soon as Press and Worzel grew up to the Ph.D. level, they created new positions for them. So they added seismology with Press. And as soon as Press left, they didn’t drop it. I didn’t apply for the job or anything. The next thing I knew I was a professor. They put me in the job. So they must have wanted to keep some seismology going. I’m sure Ewing was in there urging them to do that. But I didn’t detect any real resistance to that. Walter Bucher, for example, was a strong supporter of geophysics. He didn’t know much geophysics, but he did everything he could to get geophysics — make it stronger in the department.
Yes. I’ve heard that from quite a few people.
Had special seminars for us. You know, he did a lot of things. Marshall Kay, he’d take us in his courses without really proper preparation. And I took his course; I took Kerr’s course in mineralogy. I never had any beginning geology, you know. Took [Paul] Kerr’s course. I took [Arthur] Strahler’s course. I’m in correspondence with Strahler right now.
Is that right? That’s interesting.
He’s writing a book, asking to use some of the figures. And we’ve been — I’ve been reading his books. But he was the geomorphology professor and I took courses with him. Charles Behre, the economic geologist, advised me on what courses to take in geology. And he told me to take one course with every major professor in that department, which I did. Except he didn’t encourage me to take his course, and I wish I had.
I remember that from the first interview that you had wished you took the economic geology. Did you detect a change in the way that Lamont operated once Ewing married Harriet Bassett in the 1960s? Was it any harder, for instance, to meet directly with him? Did you notice any changes?
Not really. No. I was — well of course, Harriet was his secretary a long time before they married. And I always felt, of course, I was there when she first came to Lamont and started working downstairs in the office. So I think she looked at me as one of the, more or less, inner circle. You know, one of the leaders of the group, and I never had trouble getting to Ewing. No. He became, his whole office became, a little better organized when she got hold of him. So I didn’t have that trouble. Maybe somebody else did, but I couldn’t say that.
There weren’t any other changes either? I guess I’m curious as you just look back over the 1960s what seemed to you to be the major changes that were occurring at Lamont?
Well, of course, the administration grew up a lot in that time. It started out with one or two people, one person in the administration, I believe when Lamont was formed. And there was a little office down in Lamont Hall. A number of desks introduced in Lamont Hall and finally it moved to, over to the old swimming pool I guess. So that kept growing. Arnold Finck took over a lot of the jobs which had often been handled by scientists, administrative jobs. So I think that was a change.
Alma Kesner was also handling —
Yes. Alma became a lieutenant of Arnold. So, that was a factor. What else changed? I don’t know. A few other, little more formal things happened. We started having regular seminars rather than just sitting around having lunch and chewing over something or other. That kind of thing.
Did you find that those seminars were as effective as the earlier kinds of interactions? Were you as aware, realizing that things were growing quickly, but did you feel as aware of research being done in other sections of Lamont in the 1960s compared to the 1950s?
Well, I think both things you’re suggesting, the thing you’re suggesting happened in both ways. When you just sat around and had lunch with a bunch of friends, or went somewhere with a bunch of friends, you learned about their parts of Lamont, but you might not get a comprehensive view of Lamont. Once we had the seminars, some people who wouldn’t normally have been in your circle or wouldn’t normally have talked much about their work were forced into a position of presenting it. So I think that broadened us in a way. But both methods worked to some degree.
Did you in seismology develop your own colloquia series, focused on seismological issues?
I can’t remember if we ever really did. We may have had a seminar occasionally. But I did have a seminar course. Sometimes we focused that on some topic or other that was hot at the time. Anybody was welcome to come to that.
Yes. That’s interesting. Was that fairly frequent that people not actually taking the seminar would come in and participate?
Oh, I can’t remember.
Certainly your students, like Lynn Sykes, remember it as a particularly intense seminar.
Yes, it was.
The way that you taught it.
That was the idea. Well, you’ve got to remember too that at first, when, say, seismology moved to its new building, I mean I was the Ph.D. and the other guys were all students. Shortly they began to get Ph.D.s and then they became leaders. It was just another generation coming up like that. So the style changed a little bit I think as that happened. But I, at least from where I sat, which was an advantageous position, but from where I sat communication within seismology was pretty darn good I thought.
Do you remember any particular visitors, post-docs, who were very influential at the time?
Oh, we had a lot of guys who came. Bruce Bolt came. George Thompson. Kazim Ergin came from Turkey. Let’s see. Stephan Mueller was around. He wasn’t that much in earthquakes at the time. Maybe he was. Hans Berckhemer was a good one. He was one of the first to come to Lamont. I did some work with him later. I know I’ll forget somebody. Yasuo Sato.
Again, we can make sure to add on to that. I was just curious which folks had come to mind when you were thinking about.
Yes. Bruce Bolt was good. Well, I don’t know. Some others probably.
Was Bruce Bolt’s contribution principally in terms of the program that he was developing, the instrumental side, or were there other contributions that you think of?
Well, Bruce Bolt grew to become a very well-known and a very broadly based seismologist. But when he came to Lamont, he was coming from Australia where he had had a relatively narrow exposure to seismology. So I’d say that he gained a lot of breadth by coming to Lamont during that time. But also he was developing his program, or developed it afterwards I guess. And that was a good thing for Lamont that we had had that association with him. So it worked both ways. But I believe he broadened a lot during that time.
Yes. Let me pause just to put in.
Yes. The other visitor I forgot to mention was Inge Lehmann.
Who came to us? And she was so distinguished, having made one of the great discoveries in seismology, that it was good for us. And she was older, of course. It was good for me and for the students to have a chance to really get to know her in personal terms.
What was she like?
Oh, she was very — her manner in a way was kind of — reserved. And sometimes a bit gruff. But she was very intense about her work. And she was strongly based in observations. Either the observations backed up what you were saying or they didn’t. No nonsense with her. That’s how she discovered the inner core. And she was a little hard to get to know at first. But I, for a while, I had an office — I had a desk in the same room with hers. And I got to know her pretty well. We became good friends. And so I often learned things from her that helped me later. I remember one time she got a medal. I may have told you this before. She got a medal. Of course she had gotten a lot of medals before. She got a medal and the notice came out, and so I went up to congratulate her on the medal. And she said, “Well,” she said, “The way it works is you go along and nothing happens, nothing happens.” She said, “Then you get one medal and everybody else notices or thinks you’re respectable for their medal, so you start to get a lot of medals.” And that’s what happened to her. And so sure enough that happened to me. I went along for a long time, never got a medal, and then I got one and then suddenly they start coming from everywhere. So I thought that was a little bit of insight and wisdom on her part.
Indeed. Indeed. That is an effect the sociologists have looked at.
Is it? Works that way?
Yes. Does seem to at times.
Well, I didn’t know about the sociologists, but that’s what she told me. And then her background was interesting. She had come up in a society where women were free to do what they chose, and she just made her way through the, through the seismological community, or fraternity you might say just by doing things well. And it yielded to her. There was no question. Nobody kept her out. And she just did it right and it worked.
Did she comment on opportunities for women in science in the U.S.? Did she see differences from her own background?
Well, the difference she saw I think was that she went to a school that was; I think it was started by a relative of Niels Bohr. And it went to great lengths to train males and females equally. And that was her beginning. And then after that, she had to go out in the sort of the men’s world of seismology. So she thought that was a good way to start, and that all women should have that chance. And I agree with her. On the other hand, well I was going to — I get off the subject a little bit. But on the other hand, when she came to Lamont, she was getting into a part of seismology she wasn’t familiar with. She didn’t know about surface waves. She didn’t know about wave guide theory, and that kind of thing. And that was one of her main reasons to come to Lamont. We had a few women students at that time. I don’t remember her being especially close or distant to them. I can’t think of any, anything special there at all.
Did Ewing feel comfortable with women students do you feel?
Oh, let’s see. Well, in the early days he had one down in Schermerhorn [Hall] before Lamont. That was Rene Brilliant who became the wife of Bill Donn. But I don’t think he wanted them on ships for traditional reasons — superstitions, and the crew didn’t like them. So there was all that going on. I’m trying to think if — did he have any women who were really good scientists? I guess he didn’t, did he? No.
I’m curious. When people like Inge Lehmann came as long-term visitors, where did they stay? Were they assigned to places on campus that were available? Or did they live nearby in Palisades?
I think she did. No, I think she lived in a little apartment attached to the swimming pool there for a while. And I believe she also lived in Palisades for a while. She didn’t drive a car. So she would have had to get some kind of transportation.
Was that an impediment at Lamont? Were there ever times where you had hoped to bring in visitors but couldn’t arrange it because of the housing situation in the Palisades area?
I don’t remember any special problems. When I moved out there, I found a room in Palisades.
Indeed. And you bought a new car as I recall for the first interview and when things were developing. But sometimes it’s not as easy for visitors.
Did I tell you before about giving Inge a ride on my motor scooter?
I’m not sure you did.
Well, after a couple of cars, I bought a motor scooter. And I rode it around Lamont. It was a Vespa motor scooter. One day I went down to the bus to pick up a visitor. It was Honda, a famous Japanese seismologist. Very shy man. And so he was a little reluctant to get on that scooter at first. But eventually I got him on the back of the scooter, and took him up to Lamont. And after a while, he sort of secretly enjoyed it I think. Well then, one day I got Ewing on the back. He didn’t want to go for a ride on the back. So one day I got him to go for a ride on the back of the scooter, and rode him down to Sparkill or something. And I thought, well I’m going to make a little secret goal here. I’m going to try to get every prominent seismologist in the world on the back of my scooter one time or another. So I came to Inge Lehmann and I couldn’t get her to get on the back for a while. Even though there were scooters all over Europe at that time, she wouldn’t ride on the back of my scooter. So I kept after her and after her, and finally one day she gave in. And I took her down through Palisades, and there were some people there and we waved. And she really enjoyed it actually. She was proud of herself, I think, afterwards. [Laughter]
That’s a wonderful story.
And again, that’s a little bit of an inside story about Inge. That she liked it. She liked to get the attention and to be forced into something like that and do it.
That’s an interesting observation. And clearly you had quite a few people then who you gave invitations to join you.
I’m curious too, when — the late sixties became a time of great political turmoil at Columbia and other major universities. Was there much discussion about politics that you remember going on out at Lamont, either among the faculty, the scientists or the graduate students?
No. I never — well; sometimes I’d talk with the students about it. I never detected much sympathy for the rioting students within our group. Except I think one guy. I think Leonardo Sieber went down, not to be active, but to understand it, he said, to try to understand what was going on. Have you interviewed him yet?
No. Okay. Well I think he did that. He’s the only one that I remember that had much to do with it. Or would admit that he even was down there when the troubles were happening. I was down there once and I saw some people sitting up on the wall on the side of a building or something. And kind of more or less dismissed it. But then when it got more prominent, I did send a note to the president, at that time, it was Grayson Kirk, saying that I thought some of the things they were doing were appalling and I supported him because I thought he needed some support at that time.
Did any of the demonstrations affect your teaching or your work?
One of the things that did occur, of course, was concern about military contracts on campus, really, and those at Lamont. I’m wondering how much of those debates came to your attention at the time?
Well, I knew the issue was debated. It never, never affected me in any way. And I had, I don’t know what I had at that time, but I had had military contracts. But, you know, I’m World War II. I realize that there’s the world of sitting around the table with a bunch of academics discussing these things, and there’s another world out there that’s called kill or be killed. And it’s two different things. So. I never really had any problems.
And you had become chair of the department as I recall in 1969.
I became chair when Chuck [Drake] left.
Was Chuck’s departure abrupt? Had that been expected?
Well, let me say that Chuck and I were good buddies. And earlier in the sixties, quite a bit earlier in the sixties, he and I used to talk about possibly leaving Lamont. And the reason for leaving was not that we were unhappy there, it’s just that Lamont had had a great deal of success and we had kind of ridden that successful bubble. And we never knew whether our success was due to something we did, or whether it was all Ewing. And we sort of felt the need to test ourselves against the world.
Without Ewing. I think we both felt that way. And I think other people did too. So, I’ll tell you the story about that now. One time I was involved with a group of people, and we were talking about starting up geophysics in new places. And we said; well let’s just rate the places. What do we think are the most favorable places for starting a new program in geophysics? And in that particular, informal study, I don’t know if it was after some dinner or something like that, Cornell [University] was number one. And Dartmouth [College] was down the list, number three or five, or something like that. And so I had that list in my mind. And then Chuck had a New England background, you know.
And he always wanted to get back to New England, and he had his eye on Dartmouth. And he said, why don’t we go up to Dartmouth sometime and talk to them about starting a program in geophysics? So we got in the car, in my car, and we drove up there. This is long before he became a professor there. And we gave talks, and we talked to the people, and said we had ideas about starting a program in geophysics, and might Dartmouth be a place where it would develop. And there were some people there that we got along with very well. Like Bob [Robert] Decker was there at the time and some others. I think they liked us. But the word came back that they didn’t have any faculty positions now and this wasn’t the time to do it. So we sputtered along a bit. And then eventually they got a faculty position, and they offered it to Chuck. And he took it. That’s what he wanted. I think, frankly, he felt a little bit guilty about leaving me behind. But I wasn’t that unhappy about it. I was glad he got the job. So he went up there. And, of course, he left his job as chairman, and I became chairman and I promptly got an offer at Cornell.
And the reason that you left in 1971.
Well, I was getting other offers at that time too to be chairman here and there.
Which other offers do you remember receiving?
Well, I had one that I was very close to taking at the University of Colorado, which was to be director of the CIRES [Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences] program there, the institute there. But I had, well; I don’t really know that I should say. But I had had a very solid offer from a major Midwestern school. Big one. To be chairman. And I had other offers for faculty positions in different places. Geophysicists were in demand at that time.
Indeed. This was a time when many new programs were starting. Departments were changing their names to departments of earth science or geosciences from geology. It was a very –-
Now remember I had the plate tectonics label on my forehead.
You sure did.
And everybody was trying to add that. So it was a nice time.
Indeed. I’m sure those offers had seemed tempting to you at the time.
Well, they were. And one time when I had this very good one from the Midwestern University, Ewing — I told Ewing about it. He said, well come with me. And we headed right to the office of the President of Columbia. And he left me in there with the president. And the president said, “What do you want?” And I said, “Well, I want this, this and this.” And he said, “Well, this one.” He said, “All right you’ve got that one. And this one and this one.” He gave me the things I wanted.
What sort of things did you want?
One of the things that I wanted that probably will interest you the most was that my salary at that time largely came from grants. I think I was, I was probably a full professor then or at least an associate professor, I was a tenured professor. My salary came mostly from grants. And the granting agencies required that you contribute — the principal investigator contribute — a part of his salary in order to get the grant. And I had used up all of my Columbia salary, the Columbia part of my salary, so that I couldn’t get any more grants.
That was about four months that you were getting from Columbia.
Yes. Something like that. I don’t know. So I said to the president, I said, “I’m trying to get some more grants to do research,” and I said, “I can’t because my Columbia salary is all used up.” Well, that set him back a bit. He wasn’t used to having professors that were in that state. I could tell from his reaction. He was whoa, whoa, whoa. And very shortly I found out I was going to get a lot more Columbia money because I was going to produce those grants.
That’s very interesting. Was this Andy Cordier by this point or was it Kirk?
This was still Kirk.
Still Kirk. That’s interesting.
I can’t remember what year it was. I don’t know how much Ewing had prepped him before our meeting.
Clearly it was a productive meeting for you. What other issues come to mind?
Oh, of course, they were offering me a much higher salary than Columbia was paying me, and I got a raise.
Were there also programmatic developments, things that you hoped to get?
Not really. Because I was not chairman then. This is —
This is prior to that.
— long before I was chairman. So I wasn’t in a position to ask for something for the geology department. And I wasn’t having any problems with Ewing and my program in seismology. And if I wanted to run a course in seismology, there wasn’t any opposition. No, I had pretty much of a free hand. No problem like that.
Were there tensions that you picked up between the teaching and the research missions? The department and Lamont?
Not much at that time. I was doing mostly research. Teaching maybe a seminar or something like that for graduate students. There was no problem. Nobody said, well, you should be teaching more courses. I was hired as a researcher and they just let me continue. No.
Thinking in terms of hiring decisions within the department, say during the time that you were chair, were there debates over whether new hires ought to spend more time in the research area or teaching?
Well, I know the problem you’re talking about very well. But it wasn’t a very prominent one at that time. While I was chairman, I don’t think we added many people. I didn’t have that much of a problem with that particular point. No. We had, of course, the split between the Schermerhorn people and the Lamont people. And the Schermerhorn people tended to teach more. Lamont people would go in occasionally to teach. No, I don’t think that was a major issue then.
There were some debates, as I recall, over whether the geology department ought to be combined, reconstituted actually, out at Lamont.
What did people feel about that in Schermerhorn?
Oh, I suppose that there were some that liked it and some that didn’t. But I can’t remember all the different opinions. I think, on the other hand, that some of the Lamont people recognized the value of having a base on the campus. After all, we weren’t a completely independent institution. We relied on the campus for courses in all the other subjects and so on. I don’t think I would have been in favor of moving everything out to Lamont.
Ewing, of course, by the end of the time that you were at Columbia was embroiled in the debate over the Doherty gift with then President Bill [William] McGill. And that tension spilled over to questions of consolidating the department, and how independent Lamont would be.
I didn’t have much to do with that.
I knew something was going on and I knew the name Doherty. Can we take a quick break?
We sure can. [Interruption]
I can’t remember if it was the Doherty connection or not. One time Ewing asked me to go with him somewhere to tell somebody about our programs. Somebody he was trying to raise money from. But I can’t remember if that was Doherty. It may have been the Doherty.
People like Chan Newlin were involved in that.
Well, what happened was that Ewing and I went down there, and I talked about seismology or something. But then that was the end of it for me. So I’m not sure whether it was Doherty or not. Ewing’s view, of course, was that he went down trying to raise money for a professorship and then after a while the guy said, “Well, why don’t you want some more money?” Something like that.
You probably know a lot more about it.
Things grew quite a bit after that point. That raises an interesting question. You weren’t really called on that often then to represent Lamont in fund raising endeavors of that sort? You remember the one time that you went with Ewing. This was not a common occurrence?
No. Not a common thing for me. That was Ewing’s game.
What were the principal challenges that you had as department chair in those three years from ‘69 to ‘71?
Well, the biggest challenge for me was trying to learn what a department chair is supposed to do. Because it was a new job for me. And it took me a while to get settled in.
Did Chuck Drake talk to you about his own experiences as department chair?
To a degree. I’m sure he did. Yes. And of course, Jack [John] Nafe had been chairman before that. But, oh, I ran into stuff like Marshall Kay always needing a new jeep or something like that. And questions about what money we could use. And I was just learning. You know, at Lamont you didn’t worry about money that the department had for research. You just went out and got it from some agency. So I had to learn about all those things, and funds and scholarships and stuff. So, but that was mostly routine, relatively routine, kinds of things. And I had a problem that I didn’t like because Paul Kerr had retired and still maintained a little office in a lab. And I was essentially forced by the provost to evict him from that lab. And I hated to do that. But I didn’t have any option. Let’s see, what other things came up? Well, of course, you know that Ewing-Heezen thing came up. That was a key thing.
How did you feel about that?
How did I feel about that?
Well, in my position as department chairman, I had to take that, you know, this very proper stance for somebody in that role. I knew about it at Lamont, of course, before that. And I was closer to Ewing of course. I knew [Bruce C.] Heezen. We started as graduate students at about the same time. But he was strictly in geology, and he didn’t know anything about geophysics or mathematics, or anything like that. So his was strictly a geological approach and that kept him separate from me and a lot of the others. And then he didn’t operate in a style that I liked. I mean, personally we just weren’t compatible, although I don’t mean to indicate any lack of respect for some of the things he did. I mean, his map of the ocean was a great contribution. But on the other hand, he and I didn’t mesh together too well. And then the battle between Heezen and Ewing, I mostly heard the Ewing side. And often sympathized with it. Although I knew Ewing sometimes was hard for some people to get along with. I wasn’t naive. So I’d have to say that before I became chairman that I was leaning Ewing’s way in most of the issues, but on the other hand, Heezen was there doing something and I liked Marie Tharp. I knew her pretty well. Never had any problems with her.
So it became more of a traditional question of academic freedom that once you —
Well, that’s what it developed into. Yes. It was. It was a matter of who controlled some of the data. And sometimes Ewing tried to sequester it some way or other. And there were stories about Heezen breaking Ewing’s rules about getting the data — getting it at night when he shouldn’t be doing something like that. So I never had a lot to do with that directly, but I knew about those incidents. And again, in a way it was a manifestation of the old story. I mean, some senior scientist gets an idea, starts a project. Some junior guy comes along, does a lot of the work. Who’s got a right to write the paper? And that happens over and over again. So anyway, that kind of stuff happened. And when I was chairman, the whole thing — because of the involvement of the AAUP [American Association of University Professors] and stuff like that — the whole matter had reached the level of the provost.
Yes. That was [Theodore] Debary at the time?
No, it was Kusch, Polykarp Kusch. And Kusch was a very good provost in my opinion for Lamont because he understood Lamont. Most of the people — most of the administrators on the campus — never really understood Lamont in depth. But Kusch broke his foot or something one time, and had to spend a lot of time in bed or in the hospital or something. He got all kind of stuff about Lamont and he read about it. So he knew what was going on at Lamont.
The other provosts never, in my view, never understood it to that degree. And on the Ewing-Heezen thing, I think he had a pretty solid view of it. Which in some ways paralleled mine? But it was also colored because he had to face — he was the one at the university that had to face the AAUP. And so he was trying to make sure that everything was done in a way that would be proper in their view as well. So he thought maybe that some of the stuff that had gone on between them hadn’t been done in that way that would be proper to the AAUP. So I sometimes was called over and asked about things. As chairman, I was asked about things by Kusch. But fortunately I left before it came to a head, I guess.
Was it getting progressively more difficult to be department chair into the 1970s or was it pretty much the same as when you had started?
Well, in the first place, being department chair there was different from being department chair somewhere else. In most schools, the department chair is the lead person in that branch of science. In earth science, Ewing was the lead person at Columbia and there was no doubt about that. And so the department chair was sort of off to the side overseeing the guys who weren’t Lamont people so much. And so that was a source of some problems, but I recognized that when I took the job. So it wasn’t too much of a problem for me. On the other hand, well, I don’t know. It wasn’t too stressful for me actually. But maybe that was because I usually got along pretty well with Ewing. And there wasn’t a lot of opposition from within the department that I heard about.
Very interesting. One other thing that I was very curious about that you had mentioned earlier, is that in an informal discussion ranking potential new places where geophysics could be developed — universities — how did Cornell come to be at the top of the list?
Well, people, guys like me, who started out in physics and made the transition to physics and then had to learn some geology knew that Cornell had a strong physics department. And that it would be a good place where a student could get a solid background in physics and mathematics. And we also knew that Columbia’s, or Cornell’s, excuse me, Cornell’s geology department was relatively weak at the time. And probably was a place where some rebuilding could be done. We also knew that Cornell in general was a good science university. Had strength in a lot of branches of science. And we knew it was an Ivy League school where you got good students. Important. We thought it would probably be a flexible or malleable kind of a place where you could put a new organization. And I think those, I think those were all pretty sound views. It worked out that way when I came here.
How did the negotiations open between you and Cornell?
I forgot who contacted me first. Cornell obviously had some things going on about revitalizing the geology department. It had been allowed to sink down to very low ebb. So they had some different possibilities. They were thinking of putting it into engineering. They were thinking of doing away with it entirely and putting the positions into astronomy and planetary geology.
That was clearly growing quite rapidly at Cornell at the time.
Yes. Yes. And they were thinking of revitalizing the old-style geology department. And somehow or other, engineering made a bid for it. And I think Ed Cranch — who was an assistant dean at that time, and later became president of Worcester Poly [Polytechnic Institute] — was a key figure. And I was told — that is, I don’t know if this is a fact, but I have been told — by people that they said that if they could get an appropriate leader that geology would move over to engineering. Still be a part of arts and sciences, but it would also be a part of engineering, and under the engineering dean, and hence the budget would come from engineering. So somehow or other they fixed on me as a possible, appropriate leader. And it was agreed that if I agreed to come here, geology would make that move. I didn’t know about this. And so I was approached. I had given a talk here on plate tectonics a couple of years before, and I think that dean heard the talk. So I was approached by, I believe it was Ed [Edwin] Salpeter first, who’s the chairman of — or was something big in astronomy and was chairman of that committee.
And he asked if I was interested and I said I was. I came up here. There was a guy named Joe [Joseph Wilbur] Berg whom I knew from an association like the National Academy of Sciences. He’d been on a — no, wait a minute. I don’t know if he was at the National Academy before he came up here or not. Anyway, he was up here as a geophysicist for one semester, just a temporary appointment. So I came up here and he showed me around. And I looked around a bit. And then finally it became serious and I was just about ready to go to Colorado and Cornell made me an offer, and it was a named chair, and a good salary, and the opportunity to rebuild the department. Develop the plans and everything for rebuilding a major geology department. There were only four faculty here at the time.
Is that right?
And here was a whole university prepped to help you. So something happened in the dealings with Colorado at the time, and so I decided to come here.
What sort of things did you want; did you ask for, when you came here?
Well, I didn’t ask for very much actually. I wanted some positions, and I wanted to build the department around the theme of plate tectonics which was still new at the time. And they were looking for a new thrust and they were looking for something which was a little on the quantitative and physics side of geology which would mesh with engineering. So I came up here, and I have to tell you one of my favorite stories.
I came up and sat down in my office. I thought, well I’ve got to get a good plan here. So I started looking through the files and I finally made a plan for developing the department. Took it over to the dean of engineering and showed it to him, and said, “How do you like the plan?” He said, “Well, I like the plan fine.” I said, “Well, if I’m going to carry this out, I’m going to need a little extra money.” And he said, “Well, I don’t have any extra money in my budget now, but I’ll try to arrange for you to be put in touch with an alumnus. And if you can convince him you’ve got a good plan, he may give you the money.” So he did that, put me in touch with a well-known alumnus. And I met with him in a hotel room and presented to him this plan. And a few days later I found out that we were going to get the money. And I was really proud of myself for having sold this plan. Then, I became good friends with that alum. And about eight or ten years later, he called me aside and he said, “There’s something I’ve got to tell you that I never told you before.” He said, “Remember that time when you showed me the plan for the future of geology?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Well I didn’t know much about geology.” And he said, “I didn’t understand much of what you were talking about, but I went out of there and when I found out that you played on that sensational high school football team in Ohio,” he said, “I knew something good was going to happen and I gave you the money.” [Laughter]
That’s a wonderful story.
Yes. And that guy. I did play on the team. I wasn’t that good a player see, but we were the national champions.
And it was so good that people came from miles around. He used to come from Cleveland and that was fifty miles away to see our high school games. And he knew there was a winning spirit there.
That’s very interesting how that connection worked. That’s very interesting.
That’s what your life depends on sometimes.
Were there people at Lamont that you had hoped to recruit?
Yes. I immediately brought Isacks up here. I went to Ewing and I said, I don’t want to tear up Lamont but I’d like to bring the deep earthquake project, which by then was in the New Hebrides and he agreed with that. Incidentally when I went to Ewing, when I’d gone to Ewing before about earlier jobs, he took every step he could to keep me there. This time he said, “Well, that’s a pretty good school and so on.” He wasn’t that opposed to it. And looking back now, I think he had in mind leaving by that time, and he was figuring he’d let his people go out to good opportunities if they had them.
Interesting. This would have been around the time that his difficulties with Columbia were at a peak.
Yes. But anyway where were we?
Were there others that you tried to bring?
Oh yes. Well, then Isacks came along with that project. And again, I said I didn’t want to tear up Lamont. But I brought up [Muawia] Barazangi, who was, you know, he had his Ph.D., I guess he had his Ph.D. then or was about to get it. And then I brought George Hade who was the technician, good engineer-technician in seismology. And those were key people for getting a program started here. My secretary at Columbia had been Judy Healey. Her husband was killed in an auto accident and she wanted to start her life over again, and I brought her up here then a couple of years after that. And so those are the only ones that came up.
As you look out over the landscape of the earth sciences say in the mid- 1970s or around 1980, how did Lamont stand relative to the time when you had left?
Yes, by the mid-70s or 1980s.
Compared to other departments, you mean?
Yes. Did it maintain itself or do you feel that others had begun to eclipse it in your experience?
Oh, well, that’s a loaded question for a guy who left and looked back on it.
But you’re in a unique position in a way to be able to do that.
Yes. Well, I think, to make a general statement, since I left, I look back and I see that some parts of it have thrived and expanded and done better, and other parts have maybe withered away a bit or just haven’t been able to do well. I think that’s the still the case today. Some have done very well.
Which seem to you to have done particularly well?
Oh, I don’t know. Well, the geochemists of course have done very well under Wally [Wallace S.] Broecker’s leadership. And they’ve, right now, of course, with all the interest in the environment and global climate and global systems and so on. Wally has been in the right place and he has been very good. Oh, gee, the other things. They’ve done some good things in seismology and they’ve done some good things in some of the marine stuff. And I don’t follow them too closely. But they’ve been getting into climate type things. Expanded into new areas that I don’t follow too well. I don’t know.
Were there other areas that you did feel were not as competitive at Lamont?
Were not what?
Were not, after, say after the times that you left or that you were noticing were in decline?
Oh, I don’t know. I hate to say. We had our ups and downs when I was there in different sections. It’s hard to. I hate to.
One thing we haven’t spent time talking about in this interview is, of course, the research that you covered very well with Shocks and Rocks and some of the questions that came from that. I’m just wondering as you think back on that, on writing the book now, were there any other stories that you thought to include that for some reasons you could not or other things that —
Shocks and Rocks?
Yes. That you might have added to that telling.
Oh boy. Well, in Shocks and Rocks, of course, I focused on the part of the seismology program that became related to plate tectonics. There was a lot of other stuff going on at that time in seismology. There was, oh, there was an instrument program. George Sutton and Gary Latham and others were involved in installing instruments on the deep sea floor and on the moon.
Big stuff. And I ended up — I was involved in the early phases of the lunar seismograph project. Then I pretty much got out of it. And I was not involved in the analysis of the data and so on.
How did you first, how did you actually become involved in that?
Well, Ewing had the idea of putting a seismograph on the moon. I think independently. And he tried to sell that to various people. One of whom was a well-known astronomer named [Gerard P.] Kuiper.
Gerard Kuiper, yes. And one time Kuiper came to Lamont for a visit. And I think he showed up on a day when Ewing wasn’t there. And I don’t know if Ewing knew he was coming or what. But anyway I got the job of — I was assigned the job of hosting Kuiper. And a lot of that time was spent talking about the lunar seismograph and trying to explain to him why it was an important thing to do. And I had talked with Ewing about it. Knew most of the arguments I think. So that was really my first taste of the lunar seismograph.
Interesting. What were your impressions of Kuiper?
Well, I didn’t know many astronomers at that time. I thought he was kind of a big idea guy, but I didn’t know how strong he was in actual observations himself. I just didn’t know enough about the field to know that. I knew he had a reputation of some kind in the field. Well, then we got involved.
Let me just pause.
Got him involved in a problem of how to build a seismograph that would go to the moon. And, gee, I don’t remember the details of this very well, but there are essentially two styles of instrument. One kind clamped everything that was supposed to move and then released it on the moon. And the other kind built a seismograph like a geophone so that you didn’t have to clamp things. It could just withstand any acceleration. And there was some rivalry with Caltech I think it was, or somebody, over how to build that.
Is that right? You know all about it. Well, I ended up being flown out to the Jet Propulsion Lab one time. I don’t know if I told you this. I got really first class treatment. A helicopter picked me up at the airport.
Is that right?
Got there, we talked about all these different things. But most of that business I then passed it over to George Sutton and Gary Latham and that crowd. So I didn’t have much more to do with it.
Was that a disappointment?
A disappointment that?
That it had gone to others eventually rather than to you.
Well, I guess in a way it was a disappointment. You always like to get your own thing through. But I think our people got access to the data and made some of the studies and that’s what we were looking for. On the other hand, I’m disappointed they haven’t done more seismology and I’m disappointed they turned that thing off up there and they didn’t run it a little longer.
But I haven’t had anything to do with it.
That’s interesting. One other, and I’m wondering in general terms, as you look back on your period at Lamont, are there any major developments that stand out in your mind that we haven’t covered thus far.
Oh gee. I don’t know. There probably are some and I haven’t thought of them. One thing that occurs to me that I might throw in here if you want.
And that is being brought up by Ewing and associated with Ewing and all his work, I developed a style similar to his and a great appreciation for what you might call an inductive style of science where you go out and observe things. You find what appears to be an important frontier and you go out and observe everything you can and try to figure out just what’s going on. And so as I say, I inherited that style. And when I came up here, that was terribly important to me because I looked for the frontier and decided it was the deeper parts of the crust and the upper mantle which had not been explored in detail. And I started the COCORP [Consortium for Continental Reflection Profiling] Project which is designed to study the deep parts of the crust and the mantle using the high resolution seismic technique of the petroleum industry. And, of course, that project’s been a big success and people all over the world are doing it now. That’s partly as a consequence of our leadership. So I credit a lot of that program, the success of that program, to the style that I learned from Ewing. Not just something that I learned in some individual project.
That’s very interesting. And this was something that you emphasized in training your own graduate students as well? That it was something, was that something you felt important to communicate?
Yes. I still do that. I still do that. I don’t know if I convince them all, but I still do that.
In fact, my whole view of science is that it comes at it from kind of that direction. I think science, this is an old style philosophy, but I, and maybe I told you this before. But to me science is the organization of observations. It’s the old logical empiricism of [Ernest] Mach and people like that. I think scientists make observations and they organize them using a structure which is stuff that we call theory and equations and mathematics and so on but essentially science is empirical and it’s limited by and to things you can observe, not things you can imagine.
Interesting. Generally, did you find that others trained by Ewing shared that philosophy, that outlook on science? Or do you feel that you might have been influenced perhaps a bit more than someone else in that regard?
Well, I might have been influenced a bit more in the sense that I took it in my hands to develop a big program following that style. But I have no doubt that if Chuck Drake were sitting here today, he would agree with me completely on that. And some of the others would not. Yes. Some, I think, some people that come up in science are inclined to learn from their professor, but then feel it’s their duty to strike out in some new style. Whereas, having been through Ewing, and also having been through this football coach, Paul Brown, this sensational football coach, I felt the thing to do was learn as much as you could from those guys and then use it to your advantage.
Yes. Very interesting that the two influences, I think, did clearly play a role in your career. I also just wanted to ask, as you think back, are there any particularly strong convictions, either philosophical or religious, that have been very important to you throughout your life?
Yes, well, philosophically this one I just mentioned is sort of part of it. Religion has been important in my life, yes. I was brought up a Catholic, went to a Catholic grade school, and have lived with that religion. I find it surprising that some scientists — of course many scientists are religious you understand.
I find it surprising that some think they’re not compatible. That you can’t have both. Can’t be a scientist and have religion. I can’t understand that. I don’t know what they’re talking about. I mean if somebody says, “Well, God didn’t cause that — nature does,” I don’t know what they’re talking about. Nature’s the same as God in my terminology. So I don’t see that problem. And having gotten to the age I have, I’m happy I have that religion, which gives me some kind of belief about what goes on in the future, even though I realize there’s no, you know, you can’t be sure what’s going to happen to you. But it’s nice to have that as a consoling kind of feeling.
So I also feel strongly that the scientists are not handling the science/religion controversy, if you want to call it that, very well. And I think it’s working out to the detriment of science in general and earth science in particular. I think it would be better if the general public understood what science is better, in the way I do. And that as a consequence they would recognize what science’s realm is and what the boundaries of that realm are. So that when they come to philosophical questions, like why I am here, and so on, they realize that’s not within the purview of science, at least in my view. And if somebody wants to have the religion that answers that question, that’s all right with me. I don’t push them toward one religion or another. So that’s the — that’s my philosophical view of the whole thing.
Do you feel that earth scientists have been too confrontational in the debate over the range of issues?
I wouldn’t make a generalization like that, but I think some earth scientists have. And I think, I don’t think earth scientists are handling the creations debate well at all. I think it would be much better for scientists to say, well, we’re scientists, we’ll take a hypothesis of any kind and we’ll test it against observations. Get your hypothesis anywhere you want. Creationism is your hypothesis. Give it to us. We’ll test it against the observations and see how it comes out. And that’s what we do as scientists. We don’t tell people what to believe in their religions. That’s my view. And I think if it were handled like that — well, the way it’s handled now, to the non-scientist public there are two equal sides. The creationist and the scientist. Just because there’s a debate. It would be better to have handled it the other way.
Have you had many interactions on this campus with Will [William] Provine and the views that he’s represented?
We’ve had a talk or two, but nothing much. Why do you ask?
They touch — it touches — on this range of issues.
I can’t remember what he spoke about, but I didn’t agree with some of the things that he was saying. [Laughter]
Well, this has been very interesting today, and I want to thank you very, very much for this long session. And you will, as you know, you will be receiving from Columbia University a transcript of this recording and we will not be releasing any of its contents until you have a chance to review it. Thank you very much.