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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Lynn Sykes by Ronald Doel on 1997 Janury 4, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/6994-2
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Some of the topics discussed include: his childhood; education at MIT and Columbia; research in seismology; global tectonics; patterns of earthquakes; earthquake prediction; nuclear detection and his involvement in the nuclear test ban treaty work; Soviet weapons systems. Prominently mentioned are: Gordon Eaton, Peter Eisenberger, Maurice Ewing, Bryan Isacks, Jack Oliver, Walter C. Pitman, Frank Press, Paul G. Richards, Carl Romney, Christopher Scholz, Manik Talwani.
There were several people who ran a summer course in geophysical fluid dynamics that I did not participate in. But in fact, is, I think, still continuing.
It’s a very interesting perception though of Woods Hole.
I started working on this one core of, that had been taken by Hersey and his group. It took me about a whole semester to realize that, in fact, the material was quite disturbed, that it was what was called a suck in. Instead of the layers being nice and uniform, everything was churned up. There was no one at Woods Hole who was able to point out to me that this was the case. They had, they didn’t even seem to keep records of where, of who had which cores. People just kind of squirreled them away in their own space.
So there wasn’t a central core lab in the sense of what was created here at Lamont?
Right. So I think that particularly that last year I had started to do a lot of reading in geology and geophysical research. I was aware that Lamont was doing a lot of publications. I went in to see Bob Shrock, who was the Department chairman at MIT, and asked him for his advice about graduate school. He said, well, you can either go to Cal Tech [California Institute of Technology] or remain here. And so I said, well, what about Columbia? And he says, oh that’s good too. [Laughter] And I in fact had applied to Cal Tech. I was accepted. I applied to Berkeley. I think in both cases I felt that I needed to have a change and to get away from MIT; that was a good decision not to, not to remain there. And so I think I rather naturally thought about something on the west coast. So it was probably about February of that fifth year that I decided to come down and visit Lamont. I came down on a Saturday morning, and Jack [E.] Oliver saw me, talked to me a lot, showed me Lamont. And what I told him about my background, he said, yes, if you apply, you’ll get in. So I did. And I liked the area. I was about to get married that summer, in August. My wife was from New Jersey. So I think she preferred, in thinking about it, to be in, in this area, rather than —
Out on the west coast, yes?
The west coast. In retrospect I think it was a good idea of my not going to Berkeley. Even though it was known in seismology, certainly nothing happened with plate tonics there. I’m not sure I realized that at the time that [Perry] Byerly, who was in charge of seismology, tended to assign each Ph.D. student. Their main job was to thoroughly work up a well known earthquake, a fairly recent earthquake. That certainly would not have been, it would not have been a good place for me to go to school.
I’m wondering though about Cal Tech, and I hear the personal concerns that influenced your decision. Did you know Frank Press already at that time?
No. Frank Press, I knew of his work, but mainly the work that he did at Lamont. He had already left to become a professor at Cal Tech and head of the Seismological Lab.
When I applied to Cal Tech and was admitted, I was contacted by one person, Bob Sharp, who was chairman of the department. And he actively tried to recruit me. But I think I, I didn’t hear from anybody else at Cal Tech.
You weren’t in touch with any of the others, like [Hugo] Benioff or [Charles Francis] Richter or [Beno] Gutenberg?
Right. Gutenberg had died, I think, in ‘59.
That’s right. That’s right. It was right at that time.
So I think that I liked Lamont better. Another incident that had happened that steered me in the direction of Lamont, and that was that Bill Brace arranged for a group of us, as students, as undergraduates, to go to the AGU [American Geophysical Union meeting] in Washington. At that time it was held at the National Academy of Sciences. There was one session in tectonic physics that I think had six papers, and two of the six papers were by people from Lamont.
And so that plus my reading and my visit, so I was kind of prepped. There was a lot of excitement that was going on at Lamont. My visit and Jack Oliver’s personal attention to me were what made me decide that this was the place for me.
What were your impressions that first year that you had at Columbia?
I had an office with four other people on the second floor of Lamont Hall with a beautiful view up the Hudson River. That was in late 1960. Lamont had been instrumental in putting out about a dozen sets of Press-Ewing, long-period seismometers in 1957 and 58 during the International Geophysical Year [IGY] around the world. By then  these records were coming in, some of them a year at a time, some of them every two weeks, from various nations. Since Jack Oliver was very interested in looking at records just to see what exciting things were there, I very much got in the habit. I probably have looked at about as many seismograms as any other seismologist. Most of it happened at that time.
Yes. And there was such an outpouring of new information coming from the IGY and particularly the seismology program.
Right. And then one incident that happened just before I came to Lamont was on the second Woods Hole cruise that I went on. The ship spent a week in Helsinki, Finland, at the IUGG meeting, so I had a chance to attend half of the meeting. I went to one session in which suddenly the whole format had changed. The giant Chilean earthquake had occurred, and so Frank Press talked, the group from Israel — [C.L.] Pekeris, [H.] Jarosch, [Z.] Alterman — presented their work. I think the UCLA [University of California at Los Angeles] group had recordings of the Chilean earthquake made by a gravimeter. Lamont had both long- period seismic recordings and recordings from a new strainmeter that had just been set up a month before the earthquake in the mine at Ogdinsburg, New Jersey, western New Jersey. So here was this tremendous excitement and the excitement had to with [the foot] that free oscillations of the earth were clearly detected from this earthquake. Benioff had proposed that in 1954 that his strain instrument had picked up free oscillations from the previous great earthquake that occurred in Kamchatloa in 1952.
How was that claim viewed by others in the —?
I think it was viewed with some doubts, but considerable interest as to whether he had, in fact, detected true free oscillations.
Because he certainly was known as a master instrumentalist.
That’s right. And he certainly had an instrument that had some of the best signal to noise at periods of like a half an hour to an hour, that were those of the lowest orders of free oscillations. The Chilean earthquake was so much bigger, and then there were all of these records from around the world, from the IGY stations, that the earth went on ringing at some of those for two and three days.
That’s right. That was extraordinary.
So when I came to Lamont, Lee Alsop, who was a new research scientist who had done his Ph.D. under Townes at Columbia.
Charles Townes. In physics. [Alsop] had decided to transfer to geophysics the previous year. And so he started working on analyzing the free oscillations. He was in the same office with me. So there was this excitement of analyzing the great Chilean earthquake. That was certainly one of the most exciting sessions, the one in Helsinki, that I ever attended. That people were reading little messages that had just come in by telegraph. There was no E-mail at that time. From their colleagues back in the U.S. who were analyzing data. And so it was clear at the end of that session that the earth’s free oscillations had been detected. That was a really great breakthrough in geophysics.
That’s very interesting because it was, it was a professional meeting, but yet it functioned more like a research community being together in a major, what was happening.
Right. And the session was originally organized as a more cut and dry session. But one of the things that Benioff’s 1954 paper had stimulated was the group in Israel doing theoretical calculations, with other than just an earth with a uniform mantle, of calculating free oscillations for a more realistic earth model. So they had done that by then and presented those calculations at the meeting.
You mentioned this was King, Pekeris and the others in his group?
Were there other memorable events from that Helsinki meeting as you think back or did that one session really outshine all the rest that happened?
Yes, it outshoned the rest, I don’t remember anything else from that meeting.
How much time did you spend here at Lamont versus on the Columbia campus in the first year or two when you were taking graduate courses?
Let’s see. My first year, in fact, I had a scholarship from the Edward John Noble Foundation.
I wanted to ask you about that. That was the leadership award.
Right. And I think that happened with my involvement in the student government at MIT, plus the fact that I had good grades. I was not a straight A student, but I was a, in terms of zero to five, I was about 4.3, which was a good cumulative, a very good cumulative average for MIT.
Indeed it was.
So in fact that paid for my study the first year. My first year, Jack Oliver said that it was okay for me to take advanced seismology, that I had had enough geophysics and math. So in fact I was thrown in with students at Lamont who had been there four to eight years or so already. [Laughter] And I did well.
Who are you thinking of in particular when you think back to other students who?
Well, in fact, Marcus Langseth, who died this morning, was in that course. There was another person, Maury Davidson, who has been head of research at Newmont Mining, I think, ever since he finished his Ph.D.
And, were those courses taught at Columbia or were any seminars actually offered?
That course was given out at Lamont, in Lamont Hall. I, my first year, took methods of mathematics physics, of which I had had some of that material at MIT. I took that in the physics department at Columbia. I also took an intermediate level electricity and magnetism course at Columbia. At that time it was necessary to have two languages, and at least to be able to translate using a dictionary, which was Mickey Mouse. But I had had no training in foreign languages except Latin in high school.
So in fact I took tutoring, I think my first semester, private tutoring from a woman who was working on her Ph.D. in the French department. That allowed me to take and pass the exam in French. Then I took a one semester course in scientific Russian.
Interesting. I’m curious what made you choose Russian compared to say, German or one of the other?
I think I thought that probably there was more going on in geophysics in Russia.
It doesn’t surprise me that the choice you made. I was just curious when you said that what you recall you knew about research that was going on then in the Soviet Union.
Well, in fact, one of the things that did happen at the Helsinki meeting was that it was the first meeting in which a large number of Russians, in fact, were let out of Russia.
My understanding was that the previous IUGG meeting in Toronto in 1957 that a few key Russians had attended that meeting. I was very much aware that at Helsinki, here were these people in, in very poor clothes, and who kept together, they didn’t talk to [other] people, and they were shepherded away back to wherever they were all staying together. So they, in 1960, they were still very sensitive to what happened in Stalin’s purges. I think you never encountered a Russian by themselves. They were always with another Russian scientist.
That’s a very interesting observation. Relating it to the purges. Let me stop. Did you have a chance to talk to any of the Russian scientists at Helsinki?
I don’t think so. I was such a neophyte. And I think I was pretty shy so I did not attempt that.
I’m just curious too. Do you remember any of the particular — the major participants? Did [Vladimir] Belousov attend that meeting?
I’m pretty sure that he did. I certainly was well aware of him by the next IUGG meeting that I attended in Berkeley in 1963.
It was a well attended meeting by that point.
Yes. And Helsinki — then of just seeing people like [Harold] Jeffries and [Keith] Bullen for the first time was awe inspiring to me.
I’m sure. And to be sure, this is the Berkeley meeting you’re thinking of or the —?
No, this is the Helsinki meeting.
The Helsinki meeting, Bullen and.
That I heard them speak.
Yes. Were there any other people that you came into contact with first at Helsinki? That come back to mind now?
Well one person that I encountered on the Pan Am flight back to the U.S. was Joe [J. Lamar] Worzel, who was the deputy director of Lamont.
At that time. And so I described to him that I was coming to Lamont, that I’d been on the Woods Hole cruise, and then in Helsinki, and was on my way back. And he rather abruptly asked me, well, why didn’t you stay on the ship for the whole cruise? [Laughter]
So that was an introduction.
Right. So that was an introduction, that was kind of a true introduction to Joe Worzel and — [Laughter]
Indeed. Indeed. We were talking about seminars and other graduate classes that you were taking. Were there any other memorable seminars that come to mind either here at Lamont or at the Columbia campus?
So I think that in that first two years I took a number of lecture courses. And probably [into] about my third year, I had pretty much finished up required courses. Jack Oliver ran several seismology seminars, which were for credit, in which for that semester a topic would be picked. And so I think that with him that I did one on local earthquakes. One later on deep earthquakes led to the decision to put instruments in the Tonga region.
The major program in the early 1960s.
Right. And so the format was really good in the sense that the idea was to try and pick a topic that was likely to be one in which some new, important discoveries could be made, to literally read all the papers in that topic. In deep focus earthquakes very little had been done for twenty years.
Yes, and that’s a very interesting issue. I was curious as you think back on it now, did that become particularly — I’m sure it became interesting for a number of reasons, and you spelled it out in some of the papers in the early sixties. Was there a sense that shallow focus earthquakes as a topic was running dry, and the deep focus earthquakes was a very new, and potentially vital topic or was it more that it had just been left to go for several years since the —?
I think Jack Oliver, who was the main stimulus there, felt that here was a topic in which very little had been done, during or after World War II. And it was a ripe topic for some good research. I think that it probably was his sense that the whole study or surface waves was coming to a conclusion. When I arrived at Lamont, virtually everyone in seismology was working on surface waves, which had grown out of Press, and Ewing’s instrumentation and their theoretical work, and their work with [Wenceslas S.] Jardetsky. Jack Oliver had done his thesis on surface waves, wrote a number of papers at the time I was a graduate student at Lamont on those. In fact, my thesis was on, Ph.D. thesis, was on the propagation of short period seismic waves across oceanic areas.
Indeed. And that was what, when it was published, it was actually co-authored between you and Jack Oliver.
Jack Oliver. That’s right. He suggested that topic as being a good one to work in. And so that was where this huge pile of seismograms came in, but there were all of these paths across oceanic areas. Oliver had noticed some types of higher frequency surface waves on which not much work had been done. Hence, he suggested that would be a good topic for research. But kind of getting back to the seminars. That is, in fact, a format that I had continued to follow myself of the idea of having students try to break out of what I would call an undergraduate mold of being a more passive listener. And in this case of the students helping pick the topic and then for each two hour session per week of picking three of four papers in which everyone in the seminar had to read them. Oliver said that he would call on people at random to make a presentation of five or ten minutes of the highlights of the paper and what they considered to be good about the paper, what was bad. So it really helped to give you a sense of kind of sharpening your skills for critical reading of the literature and how to go about identifying the topic that was a good one, both in terms of its potential for important research, and whether it was something that you yourself had the, the materials and the capability of working on.
Right. When you think back, were you learning more from fellow students in those kinds of seminars, or did you still feel that it was coming from interactions with people like Jack Oliver?
I think it was the whole combination. With my studies of these surface waves across oceanic areas, I did a lot of reading of the Lamont marine geology and geophysics that was going on. I, of course, had a beginning in that from Woods Hole. On those two Woods Hole cruises I did get seasick so I decided that marine geology and geophysics and going to sea were not for me. But one of the good things about Lamont was the tremendous breadth of things that was going on, both on a worldwide scale and across disciplines. So what [Bruce C.] Heezen was doing and people measuring heat flow I was well aware of. Probably more than most other students in seismology.
Most other students at other universities do you mean? [Cross talk]
Even at Lamont.
That is in itself a really interesting issue. How did you come to know what was going on in other corners of Lamont? Were the seminar series particularly helpful, the colloquia, or were simply opportunities to talk to people at lunch particularly important.
Lunch was very important. And that continued to be so, probably through about the 1970s. It’s something that I find has been a big disappointment at the last fifteen years. Now not as many people come to lunch. And I — it’s still something that I can’t quite fathom — why more people don’t do it, cause it really is a way of finding out about what’s going on in other areas. There wasn’t as regular a seminar series as there is today — the 4 to 5 p.m. Friday colloquium. Probably one of the most important things for seismology was that there was a regular seismology seminar that was not for credit that was largely one in which people on the staff at Lamont and graduate students gave an hour presentation on a Monday evening.
And this was an individual presentation?
This was something in which, you know, by my second or third year, I was expected to talk about what I was doing. And so the idea was for students to get an opportunity to talk, learn how to do it, on research that was still in progress. And not on things that were finished, ready for submission to a journal.
That’s particularly good experience to gain.
Right. And incidentally, one, going back to Woods Hole, one negative experience that I had had in addition to finding out that there was a suck-in in the cores was that I wrote up my master’s thesis under Hersey, and he thought that it was important enough to submit it to a journal, to Geophysics. I was a neophyte and I knew no better, and so what was this big, long master’s thesis, he just sent in to Geophysics without giving me any more advice. It came back with some scathing reviews that this looks like an undergraduate thesis; it’s not well written; it’s not well focused. I firmly believed at that time that was something in which Hersey should have given me advice as a mentor and a thesis advisor. And instead he got pissed off at me that it was somehow my fault that this work was not judged well. I never forgave him for that. And — but a certainly a lesson that I learned from that was that I never wanted a student of mine to be put in that position; so I put a big effort myself into learning how to write better. And that’s a very important skill that I have tried to emphasize to students and to do a lot of work with students who are working under me for a Ph.D., and even with other people for whom I may read their papers as a second and third reader at Lamont. Really read papers thoroughly and give students extensive advice on how to say things well. And that was something also that Jack Oliver put a big emphasis on was good writing, and with the idea that even then in the sixties, so much was written that if you had a lousy introduction, people would not read further. But that was true. And so he put a big emphasis, and I still do on writing a good introduction that says why the paper is important. I follow the “old saw” about talk or a paper of telling people what you’re going to tell them, them tell them, and then tell them what you told them. But I learned a lot from that bad experience.
And it sounds like Jack Oliver was a mentor in a way that Brackett Hersey was not?
That’s clear. And there was really forefront research that was going on [at Lamont]. I think Brackett Hersey was very much caught up in electronics and twiddling the knobs, having to do with submarine acoustics.
Did he have any other graduate students at that time?
No. He had one person who — Dave Falquist — who did his Ph.D. I think under Hersey. In fact, on that first cruise that I went on, we did a refraction study in the Tyrrenian sea, and south of France, [in the] Mediterranean, and that became Falquist’s thesis.
I was very interested by what you were saying about writing. I was impressed in reading through some of your papers from the 1960s. The clarity, both in the abstract and reflecting what the papers about. As you say, your papers have quite a few citations in there and the introductions are very well fleshed out in terms of presenting the historical dimensions of the work that had already been done. Was that something in part that came out of having the seminars, to really understand what had been done on particular problems up to that?
Probably not, but probably more the emphasis on writing a good paper — from Jack Oliver.
But just thinking about what one needs to do the paper that had forced one to go into.
Right. But I think a legacy of both Ewing and Oliver and something that Ewing conveyed to a lot of people was that it was very important to pick a topic that was ripe for some really important research. And that there were a lot of very smart people who were working on second and third rate problems, but that you didn’t have to be an absolute genius in order to make a very important discovery. And I think that that’s something that Jack Oliver says in his book.
Indeed. You’re referring to his recent book.
The, I’m curious what kind of interactions you had with Ewing in those early years?
Yes. At that time Ewing had an office that was up in the second floor in the master bedroom suite of Lamont Hall. What’s now the VIP suite. At that time, I was really kind of in transition from the point in which almost all graduate students before me worked quite directly with Ewing, and Ewing was the co-author on almost every paper. Jack Oliver had recently become head of seismology when I came to Lamont; He replacing Frank Press in that position. I did often go over to show Ewing what I was working on. When I got involved the study that Oliver had suggested on these high frequency surface waves, Ewing was not very excited about it. And, in fact, Ewing had done work in the 1950s on microseisms, earth noise, particularly with Bill [William L.] Donn. The first weather satellites, the Tiros satellites had been put up and so you could see big storms in the southern hemisphere. Ewing was quite interested in having me work on these photographs having to do with earth noise. And—
Looking for correlations that one could make between the major weather systems.
Right. And the original impetus for Ewing and Donn’s work in the 1950s was that hurricanes would strike without warning on land prior to [the advent of] satellites. And I think that he still continued an interest that microseisms would be important in hurricane tracking, which turned out not to be the case. So he tried to get me to work on this topic. I did work on it a little bit, but not the point of writing a paper. It was a little bit hard — kind of squeezing out of that and continuing to work with Jack Oliver. I think there was a little bit of friction that between Ewing had been the big cheese and still was — of someone like Jack Oliver becoming pretty independent.
More independent in a sense than Frank Press had been do you think?
I don’t know. And so I continued this work on high frequency surface waves. Ewing had this very big project of seismic reflection in the oceans, of studying the sediments.
And of setting off small half pound blocks of TNT on a two minute schedule or one minute schedule.
All prior to the air gun.
Right. All prior to the air gun. My explanation and Jack Oliver’s was that these high frequency surface waves were related to the very low rigidity young sediments in the ocean floor.
The unconsolidated —
Unconsolidated sediments. And Ewing said, oh, a lot of these places, there just are virtually no sediments. And so, in fact, when I defended my thesis, or went down to Columbia to defend my thesis, Ewing was one of the people on my thesis committee. George Sutton was a reader. Jack Oliver was a reader and my main thesis advisor. Ewing apparently had read the thesis the night before, and he was in the car with George Sutton and me going down to the thesis defense and he proceeded to chew me out about how there were no sediments in the ocean basins. And some of them for which I had these paths. And that even when we got to the thesis defense, he didn1t ask me any questions but just kind of stood, sat there and flipped through the pages of the [thesis] — like a deck of cards doing this to them. So I was very scared that I —
I can imagine.
— I had a really poor, you know, I felt, presentation. George Sutton then drove me home and we stopped at a bar and George said that he thought that that was outrageous of Ewing to have done that. He didn’t think Ewing was right and that I was probably also the focus of some of Ewing’s resentment towards Oliver for being independent — also encouraging me to work on this thesis topic. So I — I have never forgiven Ewing for that. I think that the reality is that these sediments were of such low rigidity that it didn’t take much. About a hundred meters on the average was enough to form a wave guide of very low rigidity materials over oceanic crust. One thing that did come out of my thesis just by serendipity was that, in order to get good measurements of the dispersion, or the speed with which these various seismic waves propagate at certain frequencies across the oceans, it was necessary for me to have earthquakes that were in the oceans and for them to be well located. A person that had done a post-doc at Lamont, either the first or, I guess it was he was just finishing up when I arrived at Lamont, Bruce Bolt, had written a program for computer relocation of earthquakes.
I’m going to ask you about that because that program seemed to have been particularly important for. It was helpful clearly in the analysis that you were doing of the earthquakes.
Right. That’s right.
And I believe also for the least-squares analysis.
Right. Before that, earthquake location had been done by international agencies five years after the fact. And just this least-squares reduction, if you have a hundred stations, is tremendously laborious, and are subject to mistakes. So one thing that I discovered — when Bolt then wrote this program and I started using it because I was aware that some of these earthquakes, many of them in the southern hemisphere in the oceans, were very poorly located. I just tried using Bolt’s program and I then, with Mark Landisman, who had just finished up his Ph.D. at that time, adapted the program so that it could be used for processing a lot more earthquakes. Bolt wrote this program and he tested it on a couple earthquakes and went on to do other things — became a professor at Berkeley. I was really the person who utilized this program and readapted it. So, for example, you could enter as data for one earthquake the three letter code for that station and enter the time that the PY and other waves ride. I had, all of this was on punch cards, and I then had a big library, it was about three or four inches thick, of all these station codes and the latitudes and longitudes of the stations were there. So instead of having to look up all of these, I let the computer do this.
You could do that and I imagine that also became important when you began doing the spatial and temporal studies of earthquake phenomena.
Right. So it wasn’t until 1963 that the U.S. Geological Survey — well, it was prior to the U.S. Geological Survey — it was the group in the United States which was then in the Department of Commerce, the old U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey that group was later absorbed into U.S. Geological Survey. That they started using, for the first time, computers for location of earthquakes. But they just started in ‘63, and so, you know, there weren’t very many earthquakes by the end of ‘63. So I started going back and locating earthquakes of the past twenty or thirty years in specific areas.
You know, a number of things I want to ask you from those early papers.
Yes, but we can take a break just for one minute. [Interruption]
We’re resuming after letting the cat back in.
So I started using this program to merely locate the earthquakes for which I had the records of these certain types of surface waves. They were largely along the mid-ocean ridge system in the southern hemisphere and along the mid-Atlantic ridge. I was aware that Ewing and Heezen had first proposed this world encircling mid-ocean ridge system, about five years before I came to Lamont, based on locations of earthquakes. And so I found then that a number of these earthquakes were mislocated by hundreds of kilometers.
And that was a very interesting point that you made clear in many of the geographically centered papers that you were writing before and immediately after getting your —
Right. But all of that really happened by serendipity. In order to study the surface waves, I needed good locations. And so one area that I had some good records [of paths] that went to Peru or that went to the station in Antarctica and also to the station in Fiji were from the East Pacific Rise in the southern hemisphere. They were particularly poorly located, and understandably, cause they were very far removed from a lot of the world seismic stations.
Which were on the islands at the time. You had no —
Well, not many, well, not many, on islands. Most of the islands were pretty noisy, so —
So you didn’t get a very good recording from Hawaii. So it was mainly South American stations, but during the IGY, there were a lot of stations put in Antarctica. So they really helped with coverage.
In part because Antarctica was so noise free.
That’s right. Some very good stations there. So, when I plotted these [relocated] earthquakes, I started to see some patterns. And so the first paper that I wrote was kind of a digression from my thesis. It was on this pattern in the south east Pacific region. In which I saw that about fifty-five south, that the earthquake pattern took this big jog of about five hundred kilometers. And so I wrote up this material and submitted it to the Journal of Geophysical Research.
And I’m looking at a copy of it right now. This is “The Seismicity of the South Pacific Ocean” that was published in November of 1963.
‘63. [Telephone interruption] [Let’s] Finish about the relocation of earthquakes. Thanks. So in fact when I had that result showing the zigzag pattern I had been aware that [William P.] Menard had discovered these great fracture zones in the east Pacific region. He didn’t have one in his map that far south, the original map of the Atlantic, I think the one of the north Atlantic that Heezen and [Marie] Tharp put together, didn’t show any fracture zones. But then when they did one of the south Atlantic, they found fracture zones following Menard. So fracture zones were very well known, but they were these regions of very long linear topography that intersected the mid-ocean ridges. What was their cause was unknown. But my pattern in the south Pacific was about parallel to these fracture zones that Menard found.
Right. And one of the striking things about that paper was that you were able to claim an order of magnitude increase in accuracy in locating the earthquakes. And as I recall, it was — you had felt it was a combination of the IGY stations, availability of computers, in order to process the data. Were there other factors that you consider to be important in allowing that kind of reduction?
Well the other thing was just deciding to work on it. [Laughter] It was always a critical thing, because there are always ten times as many things that you might think of working on as you can do. So, anyway, when I had this result and before writing it up, I went into show Ewing and he was very impressed, and did praise me for that. This was before my thesis defense. He immediately then called up Bert [Albert] Crary, who I think was related to Ewing in some way.
I believe he was also — I believe he was related to Joe Worzel.
Oh, okay. You’re right. You’re right. That’s right. Anyway, Bert I think was at the National Science Foundation at that time. He had been instrumental in getting the navy to give the ship, the Eltanin, which was especially strengthened for working in ice, to work in the southern ocean area. Ewing called him up and said, should go over and survey this area. And so in fact that’s a region of tremendous storms and a long, long way away from land, but the Eltanin went there, and that’s how that fracture zone, which is one of the biggest in the world, got its name. The Eltanin fracture zone was from those surveys. When I submitted the paper, Menard was one of the reviewers, and so he praised my work and he sent me a revised map in which he said, yes, I think that there is a big fracture zone there based on the bathymetry.
I wanted to ask you how long you had known. Had you met him personally by that point?
No, I had not. So that was my first contact with him. I probably met him personally ‘65, certainly by ‘66.
You know I didn’t want to interrupt the flow of what you’re discussing right now, but one of the seminar papers that you cite is the ‘54 general survey that was done by Gutenberg and Richter as I recall of earthquake locations. It was that benchmark that had existed
Right. That’s right.
Prior to the time. Did you have contact with, of course Gutenberg had passed on in ‘59. But did you have contact with the Cal Tech group about the reinterpretations, the new ideas, that you were bringing in to the —
Of course those new ideas that had a mechanistic sense really didn’t happen until 1966. I stopped at Cal Tech on my way to Fiji in 1965 and I gave a seminar, I met Richter, but I don’t think anything particularly having come out of that. But I then did, when I found this one big fracture zone [in 1963], I think — it dawned on me. It didn’t happen instantaneously, but if there were such big features in the oceans of hundreds of kilometers in size that had not been discovered that were as big as the San Andreas Fault, that it was important to look and see if there were more. So I followed that up with a paper that I did with Landisman that was published in ‘64 on East Africa, and I found a big fracture zone that was in the northwest Indian Ocean. It’s called the Owen Fracture Zone.
Right. And it wasn’t too much after that that you had published the Arctic survey.
That’s right. And I found a big fracture zone north of Greenland, near Jan Mayen.
One of the interesting features you were discussing there was the jog that it took, where north of Iceland as it began to become virtually east, west oriented.
Right. So I think that by the time I defended my thesis in late ‘64 and deposited it in early ‘65, the thing that most interested me was these patterns of earthquakes.
Who do you recall discussing this with? Who was most interested in this issue at Lamont? I’m curious in a general way too, but were there others here that?
I would say that in a general sense there were several people. Jack Oliver was. Ewing was interested solely to find fracture zones and less in a mechanistic sense. Heezen was quite interested in this, as was Charles — Chuck Drake.
Was Jack [John E.] Nafe particularly interested in these issues? Did you have much interaction with him in those early years?
Well I took several courses from him, and gained a lot from those courses. But Jack didn’t publish very much. Unlike other people from Lamont. And he, I think that he was kind of better at, you come in and some problem that’s already been solved, he would start from the beginning, and prove Maxwell’s equation. He really I think liked that mode of instruction rather than working on new research. I mean, he did some.
Indeed. When you mentioned Bruce Heezen a moment ago, he had at that time, just a little bit earlier, been working on the Rift Valley in Africa. Did he talk to you about the expanding earth ideas? Is it something that you remember discussing with him.
I don’t think I discussed it with him, but I was certainly aware of of what he had done. I read all of his papers and followed what he and Marie Tharp were doing in their mapping, and they were aware of what I was doing, encouraged me in my relocation of earthquakes.
How much interaction did you have directly with, say Marie Tharp, in the mapping issues as your own work developed?
I probably went up and saw what they were doing a few times a year. Probably talked to Bruce more than to Marie.
You know, we have a lot of rich issues, yet I know that we have to end this one session fairly soon. One thing that we haven’t mentioned yet, and it steers us into a slightly different topic in the moment. How did the fact that there was a new seismology building at Lamont affect the way that discussions were developed on all these issues? Did that tend to put you at a somewhat greater distance from other parts of the Lamont community? Or didn’t, in retrospect, that seem to matter?
I don’t think in retrospect at that time that it mattered that much. Before seismology, I mean, when I came to Lamont, people were housed in Lamont Hall. Lots of scientists were there. A variety of types. The geochemists had already split off, and so I had very little to do with them. There were people working in what is now the borehole building, which is the old core lab. I didn’t have very much to do with what they were doing. And soon after I arrived at Lamont, there was a new building built which is now the administration building, the Butler building. A new computer, an IBN 1620, was housed there. One of the beauties of what is now a very primitive and very slow machine, but at that time, it was the first machine at Lamont or that people at Lamont had access to that worked on Fortran. Before that, other people like Jim [Henry James] Dorman and Mark Landisman, who had worked on solving the dispersion relationships for various elastic media, they had actually had to write their programs in machine language.
So I then wrote a number of programs of my own. On that machine, you had to sign up for like half an hour of time. Sometimes you could only get it at night. It worked on punch paper tape. So from a keyboard you typed in each line of instruction in Fortran, and, you know, hit the return key, and it went in there. You couldn’t modify it after that. If you got everything in, and you then just typed “execute,” it would let you know whether, it did some simple search for major problems and as to whether you made mistakes in the number of parenthesis in Fortran. If it worked, it then would take about five minutes to produce another punched paper tape that you used to execute your program.
For the running of the program.
Anyway I wrote several programs in my studies of surface waves using that machine.
So I interacted with a number of other people, particularly in seismology who were working on computer programs.
We have a number of topics we still need to turn to on the emergence of global tectonics and the work that you do in the mid-sixties and late sixties. Let me just ask, end with one quick question. At that time, you were publishing largely either in the JGR [Journal of Geophysical Research] or in the bulletin of the Seismological Society of America.
How did you choose between the two different organs for those papers that you were producing? Did you have an idea that you wanted to communicate certain results to, directly to the seismological community versus those who would be reading JGR?
Well I think it was evident that JGR had wider distribution and so I did want to reach people that like with that first paper in 1963 who had an interest in the marine aspects. And the Bulletin of the Seismological Society is read by fewer people. It’s read by more engineers. I think at that time it was probably a little bit quicker to publication there than in JGR.
What was roughly the time that it took from manuscript submission to time of appearance?
I would say, without checking it, probably nine months.
So it wasn’t a major difference. It was significant, but not.
Right. But for some reason at that.
You were saying and I want to make sure it’s on the tape, that you weren’t reading Nature at the time and didn’t consider it as —
I’m not aware that other people called my attention that much to papers in Nature. A few of them. Some Lamont people did do some publishing there. But I think JGR was better known. More people from Lamont published there. More Americans published in general there. Whereas since that time, in the last twenty years, I tended to go more towards Nature for something that I want to be seen by a larger and somewhat more general audience.
I remember Phil Abelson was editing Science magazine at that time. Was Science a journal that, by the 1960s, you considered as a venue for your work?
They published very few things in the earth sciences, and continue today to publish very few things. And they are exceedingly picky. They will send out a paper to two or three reviewers, and if one person doesn’t say its great, that can often be the end of the thing. And I think, I’m sure I’ve had at least two bad experiences with Science. I’m not sure of any outright rejections, but certainly things being delayed unnecessarily. I think probably the first paper that I was aware of that was really a very important one was George Plafker’s paper on the 1964 Alaskan earthquake that was in Science.
And you were in touch with him at the time, you knew how long this was being delayed right at?
I saw George Plafker’s paper, and so that probably called my attention more to Science as a magazine to be looking out for.
That’s fine. That makes that clear. Well we’ve reached the end of our time for today. We have lots to continue. But let me thank you very much for this long session.
We will continue.
Pages 36 to 54 and the recorded portions of the interview from which they were produced will not be made available to others for research or other purposes without Dr. Syke's written permission.