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Interview of Robert Gerard by Ron Doel on 1996 December 17,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Discusses his work with Lamont-Doherty Observatory, on the research ships, climatology. Prominently mentioned are: Maurice Ewing, Bruce Heezen, Henry Kohler, Ludas Angelo.
This is Ron Doel and this is a recording with Robert Sam, as you’re well known, Gerard. Today’s date is the seventeenth of December, 1996, and we’re recording this just outside of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York. And in the first session when we had done our interview here, you were telling me about your general impressions of the program at McGill, particularly your impressions of [Sir Dudley] Dudley Stamp’s direction that he had given to the programs. And you were mentioning a moment ago off tape that your research had gone toward pollen profiles and climatology. I’m very curious how that master’s work came about.
Yes. When I finished up a bachelor’s degree in geology at the University of New Mexico, I believe it was 1952 I got a modest scholarship to attend a summer session run by McGill University at a small college on the border of Vermont and Quebec. It was Stansted College where they had their summer school. Sir Dudley Stamp whose name was familiar to me as one of the foremost geographers of the time was one of their summer school professors. I thought this would be a great opportunity to learn from some people who were known to me as great savants of the field of geography and geology so I took advantage of this scholarship and while there formulated some ideas for future graduate study in climatology. F. Kenneth Hare was the chairman of the geography department at McGill very closely connected with the Arctic Institute of North America which had its headquarters on the campus at McGill. I was able to get a small scholarship for continuing work in the geography department at McGill for the regular term which followed. My wife and I moved on up to Montreal for the year. The first thing that surprised and very much put me in a mood for academic work of the year was that the faculty was, for the most part, of the English school of teaching. They were superb lecturers. They had trained at the better institutes in England.
You had mentioned that you were able to spend a lot of time in the library and that you were in charge of your own research once a topic became clear for instance.
That was refreshing. It was a new style of learning and I found that it was very satisfying. So my grades, which had been rather mediocre through my numerous years as an undergraduate, suddenly went to top grades at McGill, even though the curriculum was, I thought, far more demanding. So it seemed to be a lot more involving and enjoyable than the kind of teaching that Pd been exposed to at an earlier time. My wife, in addition to taking care of our infant son, was also interested in advancing her career and was matriculated in the department of biology for studies of genetics, cytology, various things to do with her interest in physical anthropology. She benefited greatly from the same type of mature educational practices.
It’s interesting. She found it as different going into the Canadian system as you had.
Very much so. And she was quite prepared to do that. To take the responsibility for her own program and do the work, guided by very knowledgeable people, but given the chance to exercise her own thoughts on how to proceed with her work. So she had a lot of good feelings for the McGill style of teaching. Anyway, we were only there for one year, but in the process I increasingly got acquainted with the people working at the Arctic Institute and decided to make my thesis a study of the late glacial land and post-glacial climate in central Alaska. The idea at the time being that during the Pleistocene and post-glacial periods there was an ice-free corridor that allowed for the migration of peoples who came across the Bering Straits at the low stage of the sea, and gave them an avenue down into the more southern parts of the North American continent. Very little had been done to establish just what kind of climate prevailed during the late glacial and post-glacial times. So I thought it would be a worthwhile task to look at the pollen profiles available in the frozen soils. I had been in Alaska for a summer and worked on the tundra, was familiar with the countryside and problems, and thought that I could work out methods of taking the samples. Until that time, little or nothing had been done in the way of sampling pollen from frozen sub-soils, except perhaps for hydraulic mining had gone on in places where they were washing out some of the frozen mucks. But most of that was the collection of large fossils of Pleistocene mammals that existed up there in Alaska.
And certainly not looking at time scales of when small items like the pollens had appeared.
Well, actually, they could be together, in the same deposit. Pollen studies had only developed in the 1920s so it was a relatively new technique in the early 1950s. Pollen experts existed both in Canada and the U.S., but it was a relatively new kind of discipline.
And it was relatively new at the Arctic Institute as well?
Yes. So I proceeded to take a small grant from the Arctic Institute to spend a summer in central Alaska. I drove up the Alaska Highway with my car loaded with groceries because I knew that food was very expensive. I had a few simple bits of equipment, and without an exact idea of how I was going to sample the frozen soils, I had enough odds and ends of hardware to experiment with ways to do this. As it turned out, most of the things I brought along didn’t prove to be very promising in penetrating the hard frozen soil under the thawed-out foot or so of sedge grass and such on the surface. But after talking with some of the local people, and in particular, watching the operation of the hydraulic mining around Fairbanks, I realized that one of the best ways to penetrate permafrost and frozen mucks was to use cold water and flush a pipe into the material. This is how they prepared the fields for gold dredging the year prior to moving in a floating dredge. They would sink pipes into the frozen soil by flushing them downward with cold water pressure, and they would sink very rapidly into the frozen soil. Then the pipes would be left for the better part of a year, pumping away, and melting the muck by virtue of the circulating water so that by the following year, great depths of the muck would have been thawed. The pipes were placed a few yards apart, in a kind of a grid, and they could thaw a large area. Then an entire cliff side would be attacked with a jet of water, directed from a high pressure hose which would wash away the muck entirely exposing the gold-bearing gravel in a little basin where the dredge was floating. So I adopted this method to deal with frozen muck. I got some tubing, and borrowed a pump from a homesteader who had befriended me, and set off into the Muskeg country to find a little pool of water as a water source. There are many such pools on the permafrost; you don’t have to look very far.
That’s right. And you were in the Fairbanks area or a little bit north?
I started in the Fairbanks area, and then moved up in several directions to cover a stretch through central Alaska. I got as far as Circle on the Yukon because that’s as far as the road went at the time. And I got to Livengood on another road that headed north. I also took the Alaska Railway for some stretch down towards Anchorage and stopped off for a day or two in a place where there were some small lakes and bogs. I managed to get half a dozen sites, fairly widely spread, and hopefully with a representative samples of pollen through the late glacial and post-glacial periods. I survived the mosquitoes and a few bears and returned and I worked back here in Palisades where I was living to process the samples, prepare microscopic slides, and look them over. Well, the results were good but not all that exciting. And the thesis was successful in that it showed there has been very little climate change going back for several thousand years in the deposits that I examined. The assumption was that when early man used these avenues of ice free travel through that area, he probably encountered much the same climate as there exists today. Which wasn’t a very exciting result, but it was a result of some credibility. It served to get me an acceptable thesis. When the degree was given, it was summa cum laude.
It certainly is.
It was not a bad job, considering it was done in just one summer’s work and without guidance from any mentors.
That’s what I was going to ask you. It seemed that this was very much, once you had your interest, it sounds as if it was up to you to develop the techniques, to develop the contacts, to help interpret. Given your wife’s interest, I wonder if she felt or helped advise on the source of the questions that one could ask?
Her specialty as a student of anthropology helped me in with understanding the human migration element. I was more, more likely to look first at the climatological physical elements of things. But again, I think that the whole method of teaching at McGill was to treat you like an adult, leave you alone to make your own progress, your own mistakes, or your own successes. And in fact the one published paper that I got out of this was not the result of my investigation which was fairly dull. It was a paper describing a method for simple extraction of cores from the frozen soil for pollen analysis. The paper was published in a new Journal of Palynology that was just being published in the United States at that time.
I was curious when you were going through the Fairbanks area, were any of the researchers at the University of Alaska interested in this sort of issue, or did you have any contacts with anyone there?
I didn’t meet anyone there who was practicing the art of pollen analysis. But I did run into a fossil collector who was a genuine character. He was a great help to me in that he offered me a place to stay. So I had a headquarters on the university campus where I could cook my pork and beans and have a place to stay without suffering the expense of the normal housekeeping in Alaska at the time, which would have been quite beyond my means. His name was Otto Geist and he was a collector of fossils from the frozen mucks. He had probably picked up more mammoth bones and mastodon tusks than anyone in the area, and his little shack or cottage on the campus was completely filled with Pleistocene mammal bones and spare parts from long extinct creatures. But Otto was off on a fossil hunting expedition up the Porcupine River that summer, and he left me with the keys to his shack as a place to stay amidst his collection, and I could use his kitchen and his day bed for a place to stay when I was in Fairbanks. So that was my one and most fortunate contact at the university.
That’s quite interesting. And that collection later became a major part of the University of Alaska Museum.
I can believe that.
I was very curious when you had mentioned earlier F. Kenneth Hare as the person whose principally involved in climatology at McGill. How many students did he have? How many others were interested in the sort of questions that you engaged in?
The graduate department at McGill at the time comprised about fifteen to twenty students. And the full-time faculty, teaching most of the graduate courses included the chairman, Kenneth Hare, and about four other professors. So the ratio was really quite extraordinary. And there was much contact among students and between students and professors, both during formal lectures and at other times. It was quite a small and chummy arrangement for contact at this department. And I thought it was very productive, the education process that they were into to have this relationship. Anyway, it was a very refreshing style for someone who had been at several of the major universities in the U.S. to see this very different style that left such a lot of freedom especially the procedure of having one grand final exam for the whole year of a course. That was an eye-opening experience for me as a student at this institution which was quite different from most of the ones I’d been at before.
I’m just curious, because clearly this made a large impression on you. There’s a lot of merit in the approach used. Did you try to implement some of these ideas at Columbia and Lamont later when you were here? Or did that not seem to be?
Well, I never really got much into teaching at Lamont. I assisted a little in some course work for a time when there were students coming to Lamont for instruction in physical oceanography. I really never practiced it as a mode of teaching, although in dealing with assistants and people who worked in my department over the years at Lamont, it always occurred to me that the style of teaching and learning that impressed me at McGill was certainly a good model to follow. I always tried to give people a chance to work on their own with some guidance, but with the idea that they must exercise their own initiative at all times to the greatest degree possible, hopefully, without endangering the experiment or messing up the results. I would show only by example rather than by requiring specific actions: “This is one way to do it but if you can find a better way, by all means do it differently.”
There was one more question I wanted to ask you, particularly about the McGill period. Given the connections between Canada and Britain, I’m wondering if you felt that you were able to hear more or actually did learn more about ideas that had greater currency in Britain than in the United States, like [Alfred] Wagener’s’ idea of continental drift. Did this come up in the curriculum?
We had a guest lecturer, a famous Canadian geophysicist, J. Tuzo Wilson with a grand vision like Wegener. These people had a much more open view which American geologists thought as rather a radical one at the time. This was in the 1950s where American geologists had very little patience for listening to theories of continental drift. Whereas, Wegener and [Alexander L.] DuToit were legitimate references to people in the earth sciences trained in Britain and others from the European continent. We had a professor from Norway and one from Poland, both of whom were, I think, a lot more sympathetic to those European views in geological sciences. One of the things that I would mention regarding my getting into the pollen analysis field is that I did it with some trepidation because I had very little training in botany. I did it knowing that a vast botanical background was not so necessary for the species that were important in the Alaskan area because there were a very small number of tree species that you needed to identify. And as far as the grasses and sedges, you didn’t really have to identify them by species. One can easily tell them from the tree pollen, and all you really needed to show is a ratio of arboreals to non-arboreals. So it was an area of very simplified requirements for the botanist. Only this year have I been obliged to resurrect whatever I know about pollen analysis. My wife and I have been interested in an archaeological site in Central France. The French, in the past two years, have released three studies, one on the palynology, and another on the sedimentology, and a third on the archaeological aspects of this site. We have been studying these reports. My wife does the translating because my French is not that great. Then together with a colleague in Scotland (through e-mail) we have been making a detailed analysis of all of these reports and a critique where we have found many deficiencies especially in the pollen work. This makes us quite hopeful that we can report very different results than this with confidence.
Than the French?
Than the French group reported. We hope it will lead to further dating and revision of ideas about the stratigraphy, the age and the importance of this site near Vichy in central France.
So I’ve had to strain to remember what little I knew of the science of pollen analysis just in the past few weeks.
That’s very interesting. Had you saved your records? What you had done from those studies?
I have some text books and some manuals and my thesis, and some other reprints and such. But many of them are far out of date and deal with Arctic species where now I’m dealing with a somewhat different complex. But anyway, it was a test of memory and of the whole principle that I hadn’t had a chance to exercise for forty years. My colleague in Scotland is a well-known geochemist who has some expertise in Pleistocene geology, but not necessarily pollen studies.
That’s very interesting. When you were at McGill and learning pollen studies and identification, was there a person within the Arctic Institute who knew this area well, or was this something also that you picked up by large on your own?
No. It was a technique that was widely known because the Scandinavians had started the whole thing in the early 1900s and shown it to be a very useful tool in the study of the Quaternary and post-glacial climate. As an institute or as a department where climate and paleoclimate were much talked about, this technique was mentioned, but there were no experts. So I took myself over to the University of Montreal where they did have some botanists and persons interested in pollen studies, there being many bogs in Canada that are very fruitful for this sort of study. Although my French was rather limited, I did have some discussions with them, and spent about a week in the field with a well-known visiting American palynologist named Potzger. I think he was a professor at one of the major universities in the Middle West, who spent summers working out of the University of Montreal. He agreed to take me on some of the field work that he was doing near the university for a week or so before my going to Alaska. So I did learn the field techniques from Professor Potzger, and studied many of his reprints and reports. But that was it. It was all sort of one’s own initiative. When I returned from Alaska I came back to this village and set up a little lab in the cottage in which I was living, to do my preparations. Fortunately, you don’t need much of a facility to process pollen and to set up to do slides studies. And while, while doing this, I took advantage of visiting the library at Lamont occasionally because there were references on subjects in which I needed to be informed. And in the process I met some of the people. It was a very informal place. All of the Lamont staff was operating at the time from the Thomas Lamont main residence. The geochemists were in what used to be the kitchen area.
[J. Laurence] Larry Kulp and others.
Yes. Larry Kulp and some graduate students, including Wally [Wallace C.] Broecker. This was in the spring of 1954 and David Ericson was in what is now the library which he had for his core storage and core lab. Upstairs on the second floor was Bruce [C.] Heezen and Chuck [Charles L.] Drake. And I think on the top floor were Joe [Joseph Lamar] Worzel and John Ewing. So, I got to know a good number of these people by dropping in, asking if I could borrow a book, or report, or reprint and after time, at a few local social gatherings, actually got to speak to [W. Maurice] Maurice Ewing. As a neighbor, I told him of my interest in trying to unravel some problems of paleoclimate in the Arctic. And he was most interested in that. And I asked whether he had anyone at his institution looking at these same microfossils in the cores. And he said that it was something they might do in the future, but at the moment was not being done. They were looking at marine fossils. Today, Lamont-Doherty has a resident palynologist on the staff.
Right. But clearly a number of the cores taken through different regions would have had examples that.
Exactly. And so he, as someone who recognized the value of preserved materials of fossil materials, was aware of the potential for pollen study. So we discussed this, and being interested in deep sea cores, his interest in paleoclimate was very strong.
Of course Dave Ericson had been doing this kind of examination already.
So at the time that I had pretty much caught up on my thesis work in 1955, I was seriously interested in something that I could do to earn a living. David Ericson very kindly said, “Well, I could use some help. Why not start here?” And Dr. Ewing approved of that, and I began to work as an assistant to Ericson in looking at graded bedding in turbidity current cores taken in the North Atlantic.
Very interesting. And that would have put you in contact with Bruce Heezen.
As well. I’m wondering — a few things when you think back to those earliest interactions with people at Lamont, how did Lamont as a group, as an institution, compare say to the Institute for, the Arctic Institute at McGill or the McGill School in general?
Well, it was very different. My recollection is that rather than being people with abstract ideas and being filled with discussion about either historical or philosophical principles, these guys were dealing with cold and hard data. “This piece came from here and I can’t figure it out yet, but if I get more samples maybe I can.” It wasn’t much to do with academic chit chat. It had to do with a real hard problem of this is what I’ve got, and I’ve got to get more of same or find out other places where I can achieve the same kind of sampling. It was this hands-on data collection rather than more philosophical treatment of the principles having to do with the earth sciences. And that appealed to me a lot more in an action way because I liked, I liked collecting and getting hands on things that you could see and touch and smell. And there was a lot of that at Lamont. So I got to working with Dave, who every day had piles of forms on his desk. That was real data. That wasn’t some concept. He had miles and miles of mud drying out in tubes that he needed to analyze. So I set up a settling tube analysis in one of the side rooms of the area where he was working. I had never done settling tube analysis before but was pretty simple. You drop the sample down a tube of water and you measure how long it takes for different size particles to settle out and that sorts them out as to size. There are now automatic machines that do all of that for you, but at the time, this was a fairly primitive process.
And there was no commercial equipment of that sort?
I don’t believe so.
You were developing the equipment.
No, the settling tube was standard. The only thing I did was develop a few graphic techniques for working out the arrival of the different particle sizes, and also, a little gadget which allowed you to make sure that they were all dumped in at the top tube at the same instant already pre-mixed. You didn’t want to pour these things in too slowly and allow some kind of a sorting to occur prior to the introduction. So, a simple little gadget that you could agitate briefly before introducing the stuff seemed to make the data come out a lot more clearly. And then again a few little gimmicks just in the bookkeeping of graphs that would allow you to very quickly check off the arrival time of the different portions of the material, made the work go very smoothly. I only did that for, I don’t know, a month or two. Dave was very happy to get the results quickly and to find out that we’d made some improvements in procedures for doing settling tube analysis. Then I got a note from Maurice Ewing saying come on up and see him. I didn’t know whether I was going to be fired or promoted. When you got a call from Doc to come to his office that was called “going into the lion’s den;” and so people would sort of give you their blessing, saying in a sense, we hope you come out alive and good luck. I went with great trepidation. Doc said, “I have a new project coming here, and it’s something that if I were a young man I would be willing to push a peanut across the state of Texas with my nose to get. And do you want the job? It’s to work on problems of deep circulation for the Atomic Energy Commission.” And I said, “Why not? I’ll be certainly happy to give it a shot.”
This is the program that you began in 1955 as I recall?
Yes. I had precious little exposure to physical oceanography. I knew a little about the subject, but certainly made no specialty of it. So I tried to get myself informed as best I could. Firstly, about how to take reliable samples and what do you do with them when you get them to make sure that they’re properly analyzed? Since we had no physical oceanography laboratory set up at Lamont, I had to look into what were the requirements for a good, reliable collection system that we could use on our ship, and how to farm out the analyses to people who did this routinely. So I got in touch with people at Woods Hole to do the sea water analysis. They measured salinity phosphate, and nitrate samples. And we set up to measure oxygen at sea. Then I arranged to get some people trained in taking the samples. That part I could do because I knew enough about what it took to do good clean field work. We got to be reasonably proficient at checking out the equipment, the Nansen bottles and the thermometers that were needed. But the standard methods of physical oceanography, which were interesting to show where the samples came from in the depths of the ocean, were peripheral to the main job which was Lamont’s expertise in radio chemical studies. What this project really was all about was new techniques for looking at the age and circulation rates of the deep waters of the world.
This really is a new research project for Lamont in general, isn’t it at that period of time?
Yes. Well, Ewing was very far seeing in his view of the natural world. He could see that one of the agencies of the U.S. government that was developing a real need was the Atomic Energy Commission because they were rapidly accumulating wastes that they had to find a place to get rid of. One of the first suggestions was to throw it in the oceans. The belief was that here’s not much happening down there. You can put it in a box and drop in the ocean mud and no one will ever hear from it again. And, of course, the critics asked how long is that going to keep it out of circulation? Do we know enough about the deep ocean? When the Challenger expedition went out in 1872 they thought that anything below the sunlit layers of the oceans was absolutely dead water, and nothing could possibly live there or could happen there. That was increasingly disproved over the years. By the time the 1950s rolled around, Ewing and Heezen knew for sure that the oceans had dynamic action going on at all levels and that one would need to examine factors of mixing and circulation before making any plans for the using the oceans of it as a dump site. So using those principles, Ewing was able to get an Atomic Energy Commission contract to apply radiocarbon dating to the carbonate of sea water as a tool, a new tool that would add a new dimension to understanding of rates of circulation. But to do this, you also had to take these other classical measurements, to identify what water mass you were sampling. So it was essential to combine physical oceanography with a new technique for capturing, processing, and analyzing sea water for its age or the age at which it left the atmosphere and became entrapped in the deeper circulational system. So here he had a team effort going on. [Wallace S.] Broecker and [J. Laurence] Kulp doing the C14 and me doing the sea work and filling in with the physical oceanography.
There really wasn’t anyone else doing physical oceanography at Lamont at the time, was there?
No which made it both difficult and easy. It was easy because there wasn’t anybody who said, you dummy, that’s not the way to go. But it was difficult because you had no mentor to go and say, hey, is this going to work or not? And is this the right way or isn’t it?
I’m curious how much you were in contact with people at Woods Hole or at Scripps, other places that had been doing more physical oceanography?
Well, it was a time when not everybody had started out as a highly trained specialist in this field. The oceanographers at Woods Hole were Fritz [Frederick C.] Fuglister who’d been a draftsman. Val [L.V.] Worthington I think who’d been an artist. Henry Stommel who’d been a divinity student. All of these people who came from quite diverse backgrounds were working as physical oceanographers. So you could talk to these guys, and they could understand that there weren’t too many experts out there. And the ones, the old classical guys, mostly came from Europe. And they didn’t seem to know a hell of a lot more than anybody else anyway. So it was kind of an informal gathering of different disciplines, really. We didn’t talk by e-mail in those days, but we talked on the phone and we visited and chit chatted at meetings. We shared a lot of information freely because there wasn’t a lot of competition at the time. You were free to give out your most important ideas without fear that someone was going to take them and run. It was very challenging for me to get into something without having had formal preparation to do it. But it was such a new application anyway that what mattered was that you didn’t make too many mistakes and you were using the existing classical discipline simply as a backup for the new stuff that you really felt was going to make the difference. What was needed, however, was a better way to take 200 liter sea water large samples. Nobody had taken samples of ocean water of such large size. And Ewing, who was had a great deal of insight about methods, techniques and instruments, had tried very hard with his people this very talented group of technicians at his machine shop — The most important backup for all of this original work was the machine shop.
Angelo Ludas and the others.
Yes. And they had made a series of samplers that were supposed to collect uncontaminated, large volume sea water samples. Some of them were made out of canvas bags, and some of them were made out of barrels that had valves at the top and the bottom; sort of an oversize version of the Nansen bottle that has a sort of a flow through. Then when you flip it, it tumbles over, rotating about a hundred and eighty degrees and closing the valves at the top and the bottom. This, one obtains about a liter or a liter and a half a sample. We needed something like two hundred liters, minimum, of sample which required a major development.
For each unit area that you wanted to study you needed that.
Yes, for each level.
Very interesting, yes.
And then you had to process the samples at sea to bring back the carbonate and bicarbonate, which it contained, to the laboratory for further processing. So you extracted it by bubbling in a closed system and taking it up with a strong base in a special container filled with a purified KOH solution. These were processed to get the CO2 out for radiocarbon counting. Well, the failure of this whole system was capturing an initial, uncontaminated sample. The data was compromised by the fact that we didn’t know precisely whether there was any leakage in the samplers. You couldn’t tell what exact level the sample came from, and it could’ve been a smear of material from several levels. I designed a sampler that prevented such doubts and uncertainties because it was a very positive closing device using O-ring seals. And that solved the problem of getting pure samples with the assurance that nothing else had leaked in.
And this is the late 1950s that you’re developing this device?
Yes, right. You had two problems. You had to make sure that the water in the sampler circulated completely as it reached the place where you wanted to sample, so that it didn’t include water from a higher level.
You didn’t have contamination from a leakage.
Yes. You didn’t want to bring down the thing and have it half filled with water from a different level. So it had to circulate fully until it got to where you wanted to close it. Then you had to close it and make sure that it didn’t leak in or out from that point on. And you had to know the depth. You had to have an additional assurance that the doors closed at the depth you thought they did. So anyway, the thing that I made could do all this. It was an adaption of some of the other models that had been tried. Actually it became the standard deep sea sampler still used today. And it happens to be called the Gerard-Ewing Sampler.
Otherwise known as the Gerard bottle.
Right. I’m real curious how you did the innovations that you did. How you recognized what it was you wanted.
The early model with sort of a big round porthole on the top and the bottom had its problems. It was clear that if you had openings in opposite ends like that the bottom one was going to leak like hell, perhaps not in the water, but once you pulled it on deck, the weight of water was too much for a spring loaded door. The bottom door opened and the sample leaked all over the deck, it was a mess! Obviously it had many deficiencies. The bag thing would never inflate properly and the doors would flap and you pretty sure you were contaminated from the beginning. The third model with the two doors both on the top, worked better but the door seals were questionable. So as you lowered it in the sea, a hood would act as a scoop and push water through the first opening, then a center baffle would water it to go to the bottom of the tank, and it would come up and out the other open door. Well, the doors really didn’t have very good seals, and there was no way to tell whether all of the samples came from one level. My thinking was that the idea of circulating through the tank with openings at the top was good if you could make the scoop big enough to insure that you had complete circulation within a very few meters of lowering. Then if you could have a single door that would seal with a O-ring, which is essentially a fail-safe type of seal, the problem would be solved. O-rings that caused the destruction of one of our space craft leaked and allowed fuel to pass by. It was not the fault of the O-rings but the groove in which they seated.
The Challenger explosion.
Yes. But normally an O-ring, if it’s properly engineered, is the most fail safe leak stopper that you can get for a closure. So I designed with O-rings using a single door. When the door was open (vertical) it provided part of the barrier between the left side and the right side of the tank allowing good and the circulation when it tripped to the horizontal position the sampler was truly sealed.
Right. You’re holding your hand horizontally.
Yes. I needed to do two additional things to check it. I made experiments by filling the tank at the surface with a red dye, lowering it to various depths, closing it and bringing it up, and checking on the amount of dye left in the tank. I found that in lowering the tank something like ten meters more than ninety-nine percent of the water was exchanged so we knew that we had a system that circulated well. The next thing was that we had to know the depth and the conditions under which the doors closed because they were triggered by a messenger (a doughnut-shaped weight) sent down the wire. Sometimes messengers get hung up with sea weed or something, and then later on they may break loose and they trigger. Thus the sample would not be from the depth you thought. Therefore, inside the water tank, I put two reversing thermometers which would record the depth and the water temperature at the depth at which the door closed. That was one of my first contributions to the project. The sampler did the job of collecting sea water samples for age determination throughout the world oceans, providing the first radiocarbon data for sea water residence times of the major water masses of the world. All of which was not all that supportive of the original Atomic Energy Commission ideas of sticking contaminated materials into the ocean because it showed that the halftime residence for waters in all of the levels that we sampled was far shorter than the half-life of the radionuclide’s that they were concerned about in the oceans. So if those things radioactive material introduced into the deep ocean would be unlikely to remain isolated for more than one of two hundred years. This was important data for the AEC. And we developed it quickly. The models that were made from these data contributed to the understanding of world ocean circulation theories being developed by people like Henry Stommel and others working in physical oceanography. This work gave the first reliable rates for ocean circulation. Well, we went on from there to look at some of the bomb produced isotopes in the sea water to refine the models of circulation. This program continued to apply techniques that were new where standard methods were unable to provide answers the program went on in this way for some 30 years.
And the AEC continued its support for this even as it became clear that the initial intention for radioactive waste wasn’t going to work.
There may have been other considerations like the operation of nuclear powered ships and submarines. We kept looking for other features of the ocean circulation. It was important to learn how much, if any, the flow of heat from the sea floor might affect the vertical circulation. What were the patterns of heat flow and what were the maximum and minimum values? Well, nobody really knew. Sir Edward Bullard had tried to forward a program in ocean floor heat flow at his institution at Cambridge and also at Scripps, without much success at all. They published some preliminary measurements but their instrument had problems. Doc Ewing decided to make heat flow studies part of our AEC project. He was equally eager for his geophysical studies although the connection with plate tectonics was years away.
I was curious just a moment ago, without wanting to interrupt what you’re saying now, that it is sometimes called the Ewing sampler as well as the Gerard Ewing sampler. Did he play a role in actually developing that or was it the fact that it’s his laboratory?
He did the first one. And I adapted it so that it would work. And I published the paper. And as a dutiful young student, I went to Doc and I said I have this manuscript and it’s a takeoff on your original sampling idea and do you think we should publish it? And it was published with me as first author as a technical paper. So it became the Gerard Ewing sampler. And like Sears Roebuck, which is now called Sears. It is commonly called the Gerard Sampler.
It was always a touchy thing when it came to publishing with Doc. His list of publications is prodigious. And people used to say even in the old days, that perhaps he exerted a bit of influence on his graduate students to have his name associated on papers where they did the work and he was on as a second or third author, perhaps with merit but perhaps without. We students used to kick that around among ourselves. I would normally defend Doc’s role in these matters because it was not that he mandated shared authorship but that he truly initiated much research at Lamont. It was also the fact that he wanted the work of his laboratory to be of a standard. Young scientists, without a lot of experience in publication, would go to Doc as a mentor in when they had a new idea to be published. I think that there was hardly one who didn’t come out of such a meeting with a lot of additional ideas, a lot of thoughts about what could be improved, what should be eliminated, and how to reorganize what might otherwise be a mediocre job into a quality publication. I think that the criticism that I heard over the years about Doc’s participation and authorship was largely unfair. I have never seen anybody who could look at a piece of work for the first time although aware that it was going on, and instantly, in one reading, after twenty minutes in his office get right to the heart of the matter. I can hear him say: “You missed your point here, this can’t possibly be true, and you’ve forgotten to credit some earlier work. Go back and do this and you may have a decent paper.” In a very few minutes, he could take what was a very mediocre and possibly a bad job and turn it into something that really worked and that was a scientific contribution. I’ve never met anyone like this in my life. Still it could be a traumatic experience sometimes to meet with Doc to review a manuscript.
I imagine that does bring back a lot of memories to think about those interactions with Ewing.
Yes. I remember one such occasion after we had begun heat flow studies. Edward Bullard and he were old acquaintances and possibly were competitors although on opposite sides of the ocean. Doc wanted to make a heat flow apparatus for the oceans that would really work. So he had one of his senior graduate students doing some work designing a probe. He thought that if it was put on the core pipe which we used every day of the week, we could get a lot of sea floor data. The trick was to make sure that the device didn’t get ripped off when it went into the mud, and that you could leave it in the mud long enough to take the measurement, without its being tugged out of the mud in the process before it came to temperature.
Before it came to an equilibrium temperature.
Yes. I think the chap who started the work got fired. So Doc asked me to pick up the ball and continued the development. The initial design used thermocouple sensors and was not working out well. So I used thermistors that were offset from the main core pipe using very tiny probes that were sturdy enough to survive penetrating into the bottom sediment. We worked out a physical way to attach them and to bring the cables to a recording box. In a few months I had put together a rather primitive instrument that would record the temperature of the thermistor probes at different distances along a core pipe plunged into the sea floor sediment.
We’re talking about the measurement of thermal gradients in the ocean floor. Doc Ewing took instrument I had made to sea and it leaked and didn’t get any data. I think it had the wrong size O-rings — not of my doing. I met him in Buenos Aires as he was leaving the research vessel Vema and I was taking over for the next leg of the voyage. Doc said, this thing seems to be a wash-out. It has leaked sea water and looks hopeless. He told me there were no O-rings for it, and there’s not much to be done, but that I should try to fix it if possible. I worked on the pressure case at sea and devised a method of sealing it without O-rings. I had to make a whole new gasket set up each time it was used because it would get destroyed by the pressure. But I stopped the leak. I cleaned up all the electronics that had been attacked by sea water, put it to work and I started to get some data. I was lucky enough to discover on that cruise, a gap in the mid-Atlantic ridge later called the Vema Fracture Zone. So in addition to getting ocean basin heat flow, I was able to get measurements in a flat sediment floor in the mid-Atlantic ridge, which is pretty hard to find. Otherwise you’re dropping your core on bare rock and it’s just going to bounce.
Exactly. This is the one area that is in the equatorial Atlantic?
Yes. It goes way on through the Mid Atlantic Ridge.
This is down around eleven degrees north, if I remember right?
Yes, 10 degrees 45’ North.
In that region.
So that was our first discovery of the Vema Fracture Zone. We went deeply into it. We obtained a total of l4 thermal gradient measurements on this cruise on this instrument that Doc had given up on. Marc Langseth was the graduate student aboard at the time and I asked Marc to help me work up the data the results showed good bottom gradient measurements in the sea water as well as thermal gradient measurements in the mud using the same thermistors. The station in the fracture zone showed that the bottom water in the lower reaches of this channel, cutting across the ridge, was actually Antarctic bottom water which probably broke through from the western basin of the eastern basin of the Atlantic. The important thing was we got the first series of successful measurements of sea floor heat flow that were obtained. So that was kind of a breakthrough. Bullard hadn’t done it and Maxwell had obtained rather questionable examples of heat flow measurement because of the slow thermal equilibrium of his instrument.
And that never would have worked in Ewing’s system because the core had to come back up faster than that.
Yes. We didn’t leave our probe in the bottom more than a few minutes. The fast response of our probes was a major advantage. So with Marc’s help I had written a paper on our work and we were getting to the point where you deal with Doc Ewing in terms of authorship. So Mark and I met with Doc and we went over this paper a number of times, and finally it had reached a stage ready for publication. And Doc said, “Well, who do you think should author this?” It took a lot of guts for me to say, “I think I should be the first author.” He said, “Why do you say that?” I said, “Well, I built most of the instrument. I took it to sea and made it work when others couldn’t make it work. I got the data. I processed the data and interpreted the data. As the primary individual, I therefore claim first authorship.” And Marc was in the room at the time and was nodding his head, and so it turned out to be authored by Gerard, Langseth and Ewing.
In fact, I’m holding a copy of it right here: The February, 1962 Thermal Gradient Measurements. And indeed it is you, followed by Marc and then followed by Ewing.
Yes, I learned something from that experience. I learned that if you have a third party, you can handle Doc Ewing. First, you have to have a good argument. Then you have to have a third party witness. Then he was very reasonable. So from then on, I learned what it took to assert one’s priority in the presence of this very powerful figure. And I used to do it, not necessarily in terms of writing papers; my third party was always my log book. I don’t know anybody else at Lamont did this, but I did it from the first time that I was sent to sea as chief scientist on one of the ships. I would keep a detailed daily log of everything that went on. Every decision that I made, every sample that was taken, and everything that seemed to be important to the job. In those days you could get lab notebooks with a tear out page and you put a carbon sheet between. I would keep my notebook and tear out all of the second pages at the end of the voyage, put them into an envelope and send them to Doc, or deliver them personally if I was coming back.
So this was my third party witness. He always got a complete daily report from me about what went on. I don’t know if anybody else ever did that. Perhaps a few people did. But I thought it was the best possible way to satisfy a man who could never resist commenting, questioning, contributing, involving himself with the work that was going on at his laboratory. It was his laboratory and he was responsible for it. He needed to know everything that was going on, and make sure it met his standards. I figured he had to know whether I’m doing a good job, a bum job, and whether I’ve made the right decisions or not. He sure as hell was going to find out anyway so I might as well be straight and honest with him about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. So I always did that. And I always had a very good relationship with Doc. He supported me many times because of that trust. I would never bullshit him about anything that went on. If it was wrong, if I made a wrong decision, he would find out about it in my notes. But a third party in any enterprise whether dealing with an imposing director or anybody else, is a very good principle.
It’s very a good point. There are two things that came to my mind when you said that. One is that this is also a good way of establishing one’s priority for patenting. And I know that you were involved in a number of successful patents in later years.
I’m curious. Did you save those records from the, when you were sailing with Vema and other occasions?
No, threw most of them away.
That’s a shame. They would have been a valuable part of the record.
After I did it, was very shortly afterwards, I said, “That was the dumbest thing I ever did.” I cleared out my office at the time I decided on a new career at Lamont: running ships instead of doing science. And I said, well, I’m not going to call myself a scientist any more what do I need all these books for? And I cleaned out a lot of stuff in my office partly because there was a shortage f space. It’s a pity because the logbooks were a first-hand documentation of shipboard work in the 1950’s to 1980’s. Such records are important and yet I was foolish enough to throw these away.
One of the things that you mention in this paper, and I do want to go back to the details of some of the earlier major papers that you published that you mention, was that you did, of course, most of those measurements from the Vema. What was it like working with Henry [C.] Kohler, of course, captain of the Vema?
Henry Kohler. He certainly was a captain of the old school. That is to say a ship’s master in the old days who was the supreme authority on the ship at sea. And Henry was of the old school where he was in complete control of his ship and all of the people on it, whether they are scientists, crew or anyone else. He was careful to pay proper respect to the most senior people if they were aboard, such as Doc Ewing. But the graduate students, many of whom would go out as chief scientists, would sometimes find him very difficult to deal with. He would make it perfectly clear that it didn’t matter what you wanted to do, it was what he believed was the proper procedure for the ship that would take precedence. So he was a hard guy to deal with. You could get along with him in terms of being sociable and pleasant, but you never had the feeling that he was going to relax one bit from this very adamant nature of being in command. I seldom felt relaxed in my relations with him, although I always respected his ability to do the thing that he was best trained to do and that was to run a tight ship. He was a fine and effective captain on a ship that ran harder and longer and with greater productivity than any comparable vessel for decades under his command. The amount of scientific work that was accomplished aboard R/V Vema came from the energy of the scientists, but much of it was due to the real forcefulness of the captain. So I had mixed feelings about Henry Kohler. I doubt that he ever had a good word to say about me over the years, but I never openly confronted him or made any difficulties in our relationship. On the surface it was always pretty good. When I was put in charge of the marine office, I would be always very careful to leave him plenty of leeway to make his own decisions. Because I knew that he could make the right decisions for his ship and that he preferred to work without too much instruction from the home office. I knew in advance that many of the things that he would report back about the marine operation would be highly unfavorable to my role. Confirmation would only come of this by hearsay. But I figured that if he was carrying out his job on the ship, I could tolerate being the bad guy enough of the time.
I’m curious if there were any particularly memorable experiences that you had on board Vema, not necessarily involving Captain Kohler.
Oh gosh. So many things were memorable at the time but their significance tends to fade over the years. Any time that we went out on that ship there were new discoveries as well as memorable events such as storms at sea. The memorable successes that turned out to be the result of taking data at sea often happened much later when the events of the voyage itself were largely forgotten.
Like getting the thermistor measurements to actually work.
Yes. Or the negative things that are memorable on account of difficulties, which despite your best efforts, ended up with almost a zero results. There are examples of all of those. I can remember arriving at a port in Brazil with great masses of equipment intended to be used on a cruise from Rio up to Nova Scotia. My equipment was all impounded by the customs people. Captain Kohler made the decision that we were leaving at a certain date no matter what. I pleaded in vain to wait until my shipment could clear customs. But all of the equipment that I had shipped to work for thirty days at sea, and paid for out of my contract were left in Brazil.
It had been shipped down to Brazil to meet the ship.
Yes, and the Brazilians came up with some wrinkles in their customs duty that caused them to be impounded it and they wouldn’t release it in time. The stuff was finally released and sent back to the United States six months later. So then I had to work doing routine observations for the next thirty days that weren’t part of my program at all. Such things are memorable but disappointing. Other memorable and lucky remembrances are things like finding new seamounts, finding new features of the ocean — all quite accidental and unexpected. The finding of Vema seamount was fun. We were on our way to Capetown, South Africa, and found, in the middle of the night, some huge mountain that was rising so steeply that we felt we might go aground if we didn’t slow the ship down. It turned out to be the largest seamount in all of the Atlantic, north or south. I wrote a little note about it in Science News recently.
I subscribe, but I’m sorry I missed it.
Well, I wrote two things about it actually. One was a letter responding to an article. It showed a nice color chart of the gravity anomalies that have been recorded by satellite which show remarkable features of the topography of the ocean floor, including the discovery of one hundred percent more seamounts in the Pacific than had ever been put on maps. It said this was a wonderful thing and of interest to the fisheries of the world. My note agreed that this is a wonderful new tool, but I questioned its great advantage to the fisheries. We have one example in the South Atlantic following the discovery of Vema Seamount. It was rich with sea life, and came within forty meters of the surface.
Yes. We took some photographs of the bottom and there was kelp and abundant sea life. As soon as we put its location on the map a couple years later, all the fishing fleet from South Africa went out and they scraped it bare. It had a flat top with quite a broad expanse. For a couple of years they were bringing up a lot of lobsters, those crayfish type lobsters. And after a while, it became a desert, they had scraped it clean. And it was gone. My letter said let’s not show too many of these new seamounts or we’ll encourage overfishing, until we have some rational laws about fisheries outside the economic zones, established by the UN. They published this letter which the name of it was Vema Seamount because it was named for the ship that discovered it. I said it rose five thousand meters above the sea floor, but they made a typo and they said five hundred meters above the sea floor. Then I wrote another letter I said, “I don’t like to quibble, but I do so only to defend the name of the famous lady. Her name was Vema and she established many records in the oceanographic business. And you have made a mole hill out of her mountain.” So they published these two letters in successive issues, and I sent copies of them to Henry Kohler. He never responded, of course, and I wouldn’t have expected him to. Henry is a unique character, a true product of the Maritime Provinces, although perhaps an artifact from an earlier time.
Had you sailed with any other captain during the time that you were out to sea?
Oh a lot. Just about every captain that we’ve ever had. I sailed with a couple of captains of Vema before Henry Kohler, none of whom were very memorable and didn’t last very long. On the other ship, I sailed with numerous captains. We were running Conrad and Vema for a number of years. Vema dropped out in the early eighties. Conrad was laid up in the later eighties. But I don’t have too many names that I can recall. The first captain of the Conrad in the first year of its operation was memorable because he was in command during the Thresher search.
Peter Olander was one of the captains, wasn’t he?
Captain Olander he was out of the same hard-nosed, eighteenth nineteenth century type of captain that Kohler was. I think both of these guys would have done wonderfully well on a clipper ship of the 1840s period. The time when captains went down to the corner saloon picked up a bunch of drunks and threw them in a wheel barrel and took them aboard their ship, and essentially had them as indentured, imprisoned workers until they released them at the next port. And Olander was of the same cut. His was a bit different from Kohler’s. Actually he was, he was probably a kinder soul to the everyday sailor. He didn’t distance himself the way Kohler did. Kohler was of the old school, where, you know, captains really didn’t fraternize with anybody of lesser rank, particularly ordinary seamen on the ship. That reduced your respect. Olander liked to be chummy with the lads. But he was absolutely hard-nosed when it came to discipline and anyone breaking his rules. He would deal with them with the full force of captain’s authority, plus occasionally the force of a heavy right hand to the side of the head. I mean he was not beyond physical violence with people under him. And he was not any more honest than Kohler. Kohler could overlook many of his own deficiencies and cover them up by convincing himself that things didn’t happen. And I think Olander was the same way. So they, in a sense, were cut from the same cloth. The very interesting thing was that they had established a very sort of chummy relationship over the radio, although they had never sailed together. Occasionally their ships would meet in the same port, and they would go out and have a few drinks, talk about the good old days, and no doubt share stories about foolish scientists.
Was Olander also a Nova Scotian?
No, he was an American, but he lived in Bermuda most of his life. Still lives in Bermuda if he’s still alive and a younger man than Kohler. He, as I say, never got together with Kohler on a project where they worked together except once. And then the sparks did fly because when you put two persons with this type of personality together, all of a sudden what looked like camaraderie became a fierce conflict of wills. There was one time when RN Conrad was due for a refit up in Nova Scotia. Henry Kohler happened to be on vacation from Vema at the time down in Lunenburg. And so it made sense to have him go up and handle the shipyard arrangements for Captain Olander for the work that was needed on the Conrad since he knew the people there and was Canadian. Well, the two of them, were barely a day or two into this thirty-day refit before the sparks began to fly. Their conversation consisted Kohler puffing rank and telling Olander what would be done to the ship and Olander shouting that it was his ship and he was in charge. Soon I started to hear from both parties about what a son a bitch the other guy was, and how uncooperative and really what a poor example of a captain the other one was. But from then on, each was persona non grata to the other and showed nothing but contempt for one another. However, this didn’t seem to change their shared contempt for me.
Was this the early 1980s or so that?
This was in the late seventies. It was a period when Conrad was being repaired in Nova Scotia because we didn’t want U.S. Coast Guard to get involved for some technical reasons. We needed to fix the steering system of the ship without U.S. Coast Guard supervision because they would have made the job more lengthy or more expensive. But that caused a rupture in what had been a very chummy relationship. Between the captains who had been so friendly with each other by radio. I thought it was interesting results bringing two objects together that behaved like matter versus anti-matter.
Did you overhear any of the stories that Henry was telling to Olander? I’m just curious how you came to know that the two of them were having these radio conversations.
Well, after the breach I would speak to one and then the other and I would hear what a dreadful job the other was doing.
One of the things and we may need to bring this session to a close sometime soon. But I’m curious when you think back to that early work the first five years that you began doing at Lamont, and I want to revisit a little bit more the work on natural radiation and circulation that you did. Who did you come to know best at Lamont in the early days? You already mentioned Dave Ericson.
Dave Ericson was the first. Chuck [Charles] Drake another. I would consult with Chuck and we had social as well as laboratory contacts frequently. Bruce Heezen was another. I got along very well with Bruce although Bruce was a sort of a volatile character. He and I never had any real conflicts, personal or professional. And I got a lot of good advice from Bruce. I learned from all of these people and of course from Angelo Ludas. Angelo was a mentor in terms of how to build things properly, soundly and with good results. He was patient in teaching me how to handle a lathe, or perhaps how not to use a milling machine but very willing to recognize particularly new ideas for the making of things. I never had much formal technical background, but I was certainly willing to learn about the standard practices that a machinist. I think what I was able to bring the shop and to Angelo and the people there was the idea of new materials and new applications of their trade. A machinist is a very conservative guy. He knows how to make a certain finish with a lathe tool, and he’s been doing that all along but when you give him something that is unorthodox, something that doesn’t come out the machinist’s handbook, that’s a little strange. I was always coming up with proposals for making something totally different with a material, for some totally new use. Angelo could appreciate that. He knew I wasn’t really a terrific machinist, but he always listened to my ideas about how to make new things, how to do new things, how to twist things around to become something else. And so we got along handsomely. I can remember driving with Angelo to a shipyard in the area when one of our ships was in. We drove in a truck taking a load of gear down to Staten Island. The road was full of pot holes and the truck hard springs and it was an uncomfortable ride. I remarked that when a rug wears out, gets holes in it, you pull it up and you put a new rug down. “Why the hell don’t they have some kind of elastimar that they put on the road, when it wears thin they just rip it up and put a new one down, and overnight you’ve got a new surface.” And Angelo said, “god damn it, you’re always coming up with crazy ideas like that. But you know, it’s a good one.” He was constantly telling me that I was full of goofy ideas but some were all right. And he was a very good friend.
I imagine you were at a lot of the social gatherings that he would have — the Friday afternoon sessions.
In the good early days, we’d have a lot of parties at people’s houses too. There was much more sociability when we had such a small group of people, all working out of Lamont Hall. Then when the place got bigger and broken up into departments there were fewer social events. But we would always have a Friday evening get-together at the machine shop. That was standard for the guys who were in a certain group. I never really thought of how the people who were not in that group might have felt about that. That’s a thought that just occurred to me at this moment. Not everybody was interested in nuts and bolts and not everyone had projects that required the machine shop. But it’s conceivable that there were people who sort of looked at this somewhat askance, thinking it’s kind of exclusionary.
That’s very interesting. When you think back, who were those who didn’t show up? What was the feeling for those who did?
It’s hard to say. Most of the people in geophysics would show up. Chuck Drake, Walter [C.] Beckman, Johnny [John] Ewing, Archie Roberts, Maurie Davidson and others I can’t remember.
There was Opdyke for a while, but that may have been a little later.
That was later.
Would Frank Press, for instance, out of seismology come?
Not normally. Frank was a little too dignified for some of these parties. He was a more senior person. Sometimes Joe [J. Lamar] Worzel would show up. Joe had more in common with the sea going gang. He was in every sense a “regular guy,” perhaps a little lacking in some of the social graces. But people like Charlie [Charles R.] Bentley, he was doing either gravity or magnetics at the time. He wasn’t someone who would show up. It was more, as I said the seagoing gang. Not too many people from core lab. Either, Dave [David] Ericson had his own, Friday night parties from Monday through Friday, at his own little lab.
I’m curious what you’re thinking of when you recall that?
Well, I can remember at four-thirty, five o’clock at Dave’s lab, you’d hear the tinkling of glasses. And there’d always be the afternoon drink before closing down the day. That was pretty traditional with Dave. He had a chap who worked for him who was an extreme character. His name was Goesta Wollin. I think Goesta died recently. He was a Swede with no scientific training but lots of drive. He managed to get into Dave’s good graces by being quite supportive of Dave’s social habits, storytelling, drinking etc. He learned quite a bit from Dave, but he began to think of himself as a scientist although lacking any scientific background. He had a grand ego and a very large public relations campaign for his own glorification. He had written a novel that got published in Sweden before coming over here. He got on well with Ericson, and pushed Dave to do a lot of studies that he might not otherwise have done. Dave was not an ambitious guy, but a good scientist who preferred to work slowly on things that appealed to him. Goesta would urge Dave to undertake various studies presumably to get his name on the papers so many of Ericson’s papers have the name Ericson and Wollin. He would go around with a whole pocket full of newspaper clippings, and take people aside and show off his press releases.
I can remember some very astute foreign visitor was listening to him for a time and then asked, with a middle European accent, “And what, sir, is your position here?” And he said, “Well, I assist Dr. Ericson.” And the visitor said, “Oh, I thought you were the director.”
I imagine that Larry [J. Laurence] Kulp didn’t show up for those either.
Oh no! Larry Kulp and the original geochemistry group were socially separate from the geophysics gang. They were the altar boys of Lamont. Many of them came from a rather fundamentalist religious institution called Wheaton College.
Along with Larry Kulp, their Christian morality. I don’t think that they would have stayed five minutes at one of our Friday night gatherings, the language alone would have driven them out.
I remember hearing them referred to by others as the theo-chemists.
Yes. They were certainly good, honest, hard working and intelligent people. But their standards of morality were a little hard for the rest of us to follow. [Laughter] In fact, I can remember going out on a ship with two of these guys. I took them on as assistants to help with some of the geochemistry work that I was doing, taking water samples. And these two chaps were quiet and polite, and always clean, and, you know, exemplary. But when they got to a foreign port, they would disappear. And everyone else would wonder where the hell those guys had gone? Are they living some secret life? Are they down in the bordellos? It turns out they would go to the local mission and spend their time in religious meditation or something, perhaps praying for the rest of us. So that the suspicion of immoral behavior was quite out of place.
That’s really interesting. I’m curious how well you got to know Wally [Wallace C.] Broecker in those early years?
Wally was a smart graduate student who like anybody else at Lamont was given a lot of responsibility in the early days, probably well beyond his years and what would normally be the case in today’s scientific scene. But these were days when things were moving very fast. And senior people didn’t know anymore about the new science than junior people. Ewing and Kulp were willing to give some of the very young people far more authority and responsibility than you see happening today. So Wally took on the sea water C14 program and ran with it. Still in graduate school, but in charge of that special program. We worked together and we turned out a couple papers together, in which I did the physical oceanography and the sample collection and that sort of thing which was my specialty. He did most of the radiochemistry analyses with his team and much of the modeling that went with the interpretation regarding residence times and circulation rates.
The broad convection program of circulation.
Yes. I would supply him with the data on what I felt to be the best interpretation of the physical oceanography as it was known in the classical sense, and he would superimpose upon that his concepts of what was revealed by the water ages which in most cases fit well with the classical understanding of the anatomy of circulation. We worked for years in this way. His work evolved into important models of ocean and atmosphere mixing rates on a world scale for which he gained an international reputation. My contribution was to make sure that his people got good samples free of contamination through a vigorous collecting program supports by classical chemical and physical oceanographic data.
There were a lot of things that I wanted to bring up quickly. I’m thinking particularly of the 1960 paper that you wrote. Wally Broecker was the first author, you were second, and then Doc Ewing and Bruce Heezen on the natural radiocarbon in the Atlantic Ocean. How did the paper actually get written? Did you each take separate sections and write it up? Or was there -– do you recall how you worked your ideas together?
I have very little recollection of how that worked out. It was one of those things where I think probably I worked more closely with Bruce and with Wally. I doubt that I did much at all with Doc. We would look at each others’ input, exchange drafts of the various sections. And I can’t remember who the hell actually put the whole thing together but it was probably Wally who finally got these various inputs whittled down into a paper size presentation. And Doc was on there because he had initiated the whole project in the first place. He had gotten the funding and he looked carefully at our work to make sure it was respectable and legitimate in his view as a physicist.
Indeed. Indeed. I’m wondering on -– there are a number of people that are mentioned in the acknowledgment section. John Ewing was one, Walter Beckmann. Taro Takahashi is noted as well.
Yes. Taro was involved with processing the samples at the geochemistry lab under Wally’s direction. John Ewing (Doc’s brother) and Walter Beckmann contributed to the shipboard collection of seawater samples.
One other thing I was thinking about — you mention that clearly the Atomic Energy Commission, one of the sponsors of the work on this paper, was interested in the question of disposing of radioactive material. They and also the geochemists here were also interested in the general worldwide distribution. Were you aware of Project Sunshine already by the time that you were at, joining Lamont, or was that something that you later became familiar with?
No. At that period it was unknown to me. The support that we had from AEC which continued, under Department of Energy support, went on for some 30 years. Their interests, I am sure, included many aspects of radioactivity in the oceans from atmospheric fall-out to the effects of atomic warfare. At a later time, I got involved with studies of surface mixing and circulation using dye and other tracers. Throughout all of these endeavors, looking at the deep circulation for the overall age of the oceans, looking at the processes that mix the surface layers. All of our proposals were made as basic scientific investigations. The AEC was interested in fundamentals processes could to help them understand their decisions about how contaminants might behave in sea waters. Our job as a university lab was to do good science. How the supporting agency used such data was not our concern.
Indeed, one of the citations included in this 1960 paper, and I’m curious too — am I right in assuming that this was a really major contribution, this one, as the first in a big summary.
It was the first paper on radiocarbon dating in ocean waters.
You know that one of the citations in it is to another famous paper, the Suess-Revelle paper on ocean convections and the excess CO2 problem. How much was that discussed by all of you as authors? Was that an issue?
That paper dealt with the uptake of fossil fuel carbon dioxide by the sea and probably influenced values used by Broecker in constructing steady state exchange models.
One other thing that you mention here, and I wanted to wrap up at least this part of our interview right with this, is that there were also some funds that came through the International Geophysical Year. I’m wondering in a general way how important did you feel was the IGY both for the research you were particularly interested in and development of Lamont as a whole.
Firstly, the IGY funds made possible a lot of ship’s time. The cost of ship time has always been a major constraint in ocean studies. The International Geophysical Year provided major ship funding during 1957-59 which allowed long range planning of ship usage. Secondly, IGY provided for instrument acquisition, especially costly modern analytical equipment that normal funding would not cover. Thirdly, the support from I.G.Y. was for several years of organized programs instead of the normal twelve month funding period. This allowed institutions to gather a team and carry out relatively long term, intensive studies. All of this advanced the research efforts at Lamont.
And I imagine this had repercussions just in terms of operating instrument shops.
Yes, for example, Lamont was given the task of building microbarographs for a worldwide network. We were funded to build a number of instruments to be used by our scientists and other scientific workers in a network around the world. And that gave, a real shot in the arm to our machine shop. It also meant that the uniformity of instrumentation made all observations from around the world comparable.
Indeed. We have a lot of things to cover in subsequent sessions including more on your work on the Vema Fracture Zone and what not. We best draw this one to a close. Thank you very much for everything today.