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Interview of Lynn Sykes by Ronald Doel on 1997 June 23, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/6994-4
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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.
This is Ron Doel and this is a continuing interview with Lynn Sykes. This is the fourth interview in this series. Today’s date is the twenty-third of June, 1997. And we’re making this recording in Lynn Sykes’ office at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York. And we had wanted to devote today to talking about your involvement in the nuclear test ban treaty work.
But you were still a graduate student when the [Lloyd V.] Berkner report was written up and issued. How much were you aware of that work through?
Well, I think I first became aware of it when I started here — as a student at Lamont in September, 1960, Jack [E.] Oliver had been involved in that panel.
Jack Oliver, in fact, had made a very important observation with some of the [Frank] Press-[W. Maurice] Ewing long-period instruments, and that was that the United States when we started doing underground nuclear testing for the first time, our first explosion in 1957 was quite a small explosion, about one kiloton. The next year the U.S. did a few small explosions and one explosion BLANCA that was 19 kilotons, so it was about the same size as the explosions that opened the atomic age in 1945. Oliver detected surface waves at Palisades — admittedly small ones — but quite distinct surface waves from that explosion. So before that, almost all of the work devoted to seismic detection of underground explosions and trying to differentiate or discriminate their signals from those of earthquakes had been done using higher-frequency, so-called short-period, seismic waves, or P waves. Oliver then was able to get a fairly large block grant of money to work on long-period waves.
And was this Department of Defense funding?
So this was Department of Defense. It was called the VELA-Uniform program in the beginning. There were several parts to the VELA [?] program. There was VELA-Hotel that had to do with upper atmospheric and space explosions and their detection.
And then the VELA-Uniform program.
The VELA-Uniform program had to do with detecting and discrimination of explosions underground. That was an era in the 1960s in which there were large block grants. People had a lot of freedom to work on a variety of things while still working on the main problem, which was how to better detect and differentiate underground atomic tests. So that supported quite a bit of work of long-period seismogram analysis, including some of my own thesis work.
Indeed. One thing I was curious about. Did Oliver feel that this funding that was coming in, in the VELA program was qualitatively and quantitatively different from the sources that had been available before?
I think so. I think that that was generally acknowledged in the [Lloyd V.] Berkner panel report that seismology had been a field that had had very low funding. It had been kind of a sleepy science because of that, and that there was a great deal of need for basic work in seismology as well as better recording. In terms of better recording, one of the things that happened was that the Department of Defense paid for putting in what was called the worldwide seismic network. Some of the stations were put in in ‘63. Most of them were finished by ‘64. It really revolutionized seismology in the sense that you could order the film chips or copies of records from nearly a hundred and twenty-five stations, including those from Canada and sit down and study one earthquake or one explosion. You could do this for many events. This is, in fact, what I did in looking at earthquake mechanisms from a plate tectonic standpoint.
Right. Which we had discussed in the third interview in particular. One thing I was very curious, but I do want to get to some of the technical details coming out. The changes that occurred with the new network. But how much were you aware of the earlier work in the late Eisenhower administration, the panel of experts that had formed at least some of the questions that were –-
I was generally aware of that. And I was aware that that was a big, important problem. In fact, when I was an undergraduate at MIT, I had had to do two years of Air Force ROTC [Reserve Officer Training Corps] because MIT had previously received Land Grant money. I debated, but I went ahead and applied the third and fourth year of Air Force ROTC. I was accepted into that program. I would have received funding, but fortunately I already had undergraduate funding, but I would have had to have served I think, three or five years in the Air Force. I was aware that there was this big program starting up in detection of underground atomic explosions. And so, I knew that the Air Force desperately needed people. So when I inquired if I signed up — and this was the end of the my sophomore year — would I, in fact, get assigned to that. I was told no; there’s a good chance that you would become a pilot.
So I decided not to sign up for that advanced corps. I’m sure that I contributed more to that overall program of their test detection by not joining the Air Force, especially if I had become a pilot.
Very interesting. Had you already met Frank Press at that point? Those, and Oliver had been involved hadn’t he in the Geneva panel?
Oliver had been involved in the Berkner Panel. Now in terms of the Geneva panels, I am not sure who was. When the test ban talks in 1963 got going in earnest Frank Press was part of the delegation to address the underground atomic explosion part. Instead those negotiations were short. The Russians made a proposal that [Andre] Sakharov had a lot to do with of excluding underground atomic tests and going ahead with limiting atmospheric, underwater, and space explosions, which the 1963 treaty did. So, in fact, I think Frank Press was sent home, or went home, fairly early in those negotiations because his services weren’t needed for the underground explosion part. Oliver had been involved in the Berkner panel, as I believe Press had been. I was generally aware that there had been this proposal by the Berkner panel for a strong effort in seismology.
Did Jack Oliver talk to you about deliberations, discussions that had occurred on the panel?
Very little. No. He merely talked about the overall goals. Certainly nothing about the politics and nothing about the personalities who were involved, nor as it later became clear to me that there were some very strong institutional imperatives, or goals. The Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, and the weapons labs, say versus the State Department and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, or the President’s science advisor.
Yes. And I believe you’re talking now about a somewhat later period, including the Reagan administration and, or are you talking about also earlier on?
No, Well, I’m really talking about the 1960s.
Very interesting. I want to make sure we cover that.
That would be the Kennedy administration. I, of course, was an undergraduate at that time, and I received my Ph.D. early in the Johnson administration.
Right. In 1965.
That’s very interesting. I want to make sure we cover that. I was curious, did he talk about Teller’s concern, Edward Teller’s concerns about decoupling of explosions and the question of what threshold an explosion could actually be detected?
I think I was generally aware of this number of 4.75, the magnitude that had come up. But I don’t remember Oliver talking about decoupling or means of evasion or what size would be adequate for monitoring the treaty.
Yes. How did your own involvement grow in the detection work? When did you actually start becoming involved in this effort?
Well, I did the work on plate tectonics in the mid-1960s. Then I was invited down by Carl Romney who was in charge of the seismic monitoring program at AFTAC, the Air Force Technical Application Center. At that time it was still in the Washington area, in Virginia. I was invited to give a series of lectures on the plate tectonic framework for monitoring the Soviet Union. So I did give a series of lectures.
That’s very interesting. Who was attending those lectures?
There were a lot of people from what eventually became Teledyne-Geotech. They had gone through several name changes and incorporations. Romney had probably two favorite companies — it and Texas Instruments — who did a lot of analysis of particularly the classified data that AFTAC collected. Romney could essentially tell them look at these thousand seismograms and give me an answer to so and so, It was not the type of thing that university people generally were interested in, of being given a quick command to analyze a thousand seismograms. But Romney, I think, really placed a lot of emphasis on the work that these two companies did. And that he could pretty much tell them what to do as well on short notice.
How well did you come to meet the people who were involved in the efforts both from Texas Instruments and Teledyne?
Well, I got to meet several people from AFTAC [Air Force Technical Application Center] who were at my talk, people from those two companies and Romney. I don’t think there were any other university people present. I think probably for them having this plate tectonic framework, that they did feel that it was very important because it gave a framework for what places in the Soviet Union would be easy to detect and identify, and which ones might be more difficult.
Was the general idea of plate tectonics — clearly it was new for the broader community — but how did those people react to the emerging ideas of?
I think they reacted pretty positively to the general framework. I think that they still went about their normal business of identifying events in the same way. But they were generally quite interested in this overall framework for looking at world-wide earthquakes, particularly those in Russia and China.
I was curious. Were other program managers, in the other programs, like Bill [William] Best and Charlie Bates, were those also attending the talks particularly?
I don’t think Bill Best was. Charlie Bates had probably left the Department of Defense by then. I can remember meeting him at an AGU [American Geophysical Union] meeting when I was an undergraduate. You had asked me earlier had I met Frank Press.
As an undergraduate at MIT, Bill Brace had taken me to a Washington AGU meeting and I did hear a talk by Jim [James] Brune from Lamont. Frank Press got up at the end of his talk and said that the work that Brune had done was exceedingly significant for studies of surface waves. So I only had encountered him in a formal setting like that. I did not visit Cal Tech [California Institute of Technology] until much later. I didn’t get to know Press very well. In fact, probably even after the development of plate tectonics, Frank still confused Brian Isacks and me — as to who was who — for a little while.
Interesting. What were your impressions of Charles Bates when you met him? Did you have much interaction?
I had very little interaction. I can barely remember, at this one meeting of Bob [Robert] Meyer from the University of Wisconsin had done some recording on tape, I think on analog magnetic tape. He was having some trouble playing it back. Charlie Bates said, well, it’s really important to get that done; Ill get so and so to make it happen. So I think he was clearly a person in a problem solving mode and clearly very different from someone like Romney and many of the later people in ARPA [Advanced Research Projects Agency] and DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] and then ARPA again.
I was curious about the differences that you were just mentioning of styles and attitudes toward university based research.
Well, maybe I might fill in one other piece of history first. After I received my Ph.D., I think Jack Oliver had a declining interest in the test detection program. So when I became an assistant professor in 1968, I became more responsible for that area at Lamont. There was a project that Paul Pomeroy had, who was a research associate, a senior research associate, of developing some instruments that had very high gain at long periods, i.e. about thirty to a hundred seconds. It became clear that these instruments were much better in that period range for detecting surface waves. Probably starting about 1966, Pomeroy had done some work with one person who was a student, Bob [Robert] Liebermann — who later went on to work in high pressure geophysics and didn’t stay in the test detection area very long. They developed a rather good discriminate by looking at the short-period waves, the P waves, and the magnitude determined from them, Mb, and comparing it with the surface wave magnitude, Ms. They found that earthquakes and explosions fell into different parts of the graph when you plotted them on two axes. Earthquakes were a better exciter of the long-period waves, the Ms for a given Mb than were underground explosions. This was a development that had started at Lamont earlier with the work by Brune, Espinoza and Oliver who also tried to develop discriminates. The Cal Tech group under Frank Press in ‘63 — when Lamont published their first work — also was exploring different ways of discriminating between earthquakes and explosions. I think that this method [Mb-Ms], which as far as I know went back to [Paul] Pomeroy and [Robert] Liebermann, became the best way for distinguishing explosions and earthquakes. So I was very much aware of that.
You were interacting pretty often with Pomeroy and Liebermann during those years?
Yes. And so about the time that I ended my work on plate tectonics or, about the time of our ‘68 paper.
Yes. Referring to the famous Oliver and Sykes, Isacks paper?
Right. New Global Tectonics.
New Global Tectonics.
I became more involved at that time in trying to work up data from more instruments of the Pomeroy type that had been or were proposed to be put out. Pomeroy accepted a position at the University of Michigan as a full professor, and so it was decided that a new network of about twelve of these high-gain, long-period stations would be put out around the world to improve discrimination.
And this was all with ARPA or DARPA funding at this time?
This was all with ARPA funding. By then I had gotten to know Bill Best quite well, who was the person in the Air Force Office of Scientific Research who was responsible for our large contract here at Lamont. In fact, Best and Pomeroy and I had a meeting with the head of ARPA, who was then Steve Lukasik, and that’s probably around ‘68 — ‘68, ‘69 — in which it was agreed that we would divide up between Lamont and Michigan the task of installing these various stations. I was the chief scientist from Lamont on that project. I had a couple of people who had just received their Ph.D. that did a lot of the work of putting out the instruments around the world and analyzing the data.
You’ve raised a number of very interesting points that I want to make sure that we get to. Had you already given your talk on global tectonics by the time that you had the meeting with Steve Lukasik? This was already proceeding at this point.
Yes. I’m pretty sure that was the case.
And as the different instruments were being developed and applied to discrimination between earthquake and artificial explosions, nuclear explosions, was there much controversy over interpreting these distinct character signals, or was that pretty quickly accepted by the seismological community? That one could use these different P wave characteristics and S wave characteristics?
I guess I’d have to say that the answer was yes and no. That it was — in a small technical sense — it was regarded that this was an important advance. One person who I then went on to do quite a bit of work with soon after that and for some period of time, was Jack Evernden. Jack Evernden had been a professor at the University of California, at Berkeley, where he worked in geochemical methods, particularly of age dating, using Potassium-Argon methods. But he felt that the problem of verifying a test ban was so important that he left his professorship there and went to work for AFTAC. So that he was under Romney. Evernden was an eager beaver to solve the problem, and believed that the problem, in fact, had been solved by 1964 or so, or by ‘66, once the Ms Mb technique had been perfected. Evernden then came up and worked with me and I think one of our students, John Savino. Bill Best came up. And so we worked some pretty long days in analyzing data as they came in from these new sets of stations. Probably then as a result of that work, I acquired a security clearance by then, and I was invited to a few classified meetings. One with the British — in which the U.S. and the British had a joint working group on seismology — where some of the data were classified. So I presented the work from some of these long-period instruments.
And the data that were classified, was this below a particular resolution threshold or? What sort of data were considered particularly sensitive at the time?
Well, all of the data that we were collecting from these stations were unclassified, and anyone could get access to them. We also published our results from them. But various other things that would be presented at the meetings drew upon classified data, particularly data that AFTAC had collected. AFTAC then and now has been largely an agency that collects classified data. Some of those stations were declassified a few years ago, one in Australia and one in Turkey. But these stations were originally run by AFTAC, under bilateral agreements between those countries and the U.S., as classified stations. They became part of the international monitoring system for the test ban that has now been in place for about two years. But there are still a lot of stations that AFTAC runs that are still classified. There are some places where people are allowed some access to a few of the readings from some of the seismic stations, but no one has been allowed to publish any of the records from them, or acknowledge it that there is a classified station in a certain place. There was an article in an Air Force magazine that described at least some of the things that AFTAC does in seismology, that they do run classified seismic stations. The things that were classified were where are the stations, what type of equipment did they have. This was sensitive not only to the U.S., but also particularly to some countries that did not want it publicly known, or known at all, that they had allowed the U.S. to do that.
The U.S. into to operate a station.
Into their country, to operate stations. But those stations, Romney did put a lot of money into them. For redundant recording, and for arrays. In the 1960’s there was a lot of work on using seismic arrays. These are groups of instruments put out in a certain configuration of many sensing points to reduce noise and keep the signal strong. So that was their main function was to record P waves and to be able to lower the detection threshold for P waves.
Right. And that is both an, as I understand it, both a change in the instrumentation as well as in the recording of the data? That as one moved towards electronic recording, one gained much better –-
Well, these were all recorded electronically from the beginning.
This is already—
But not necessarily digitally. Digital recording came along later.
When did that pretty much become standard?
Well, I’m not sure in the Air Force. But it first became standard in the petroleum industry, probably in the late fifties. But it was slower coming into, certainly university seismology, probably not until the 1970s.
That was primarily a cost factor or was it, did it, in your view, relate to other factors?
I think it was probably a cost factor. In fact, the stations that we put out, the high-gain, long-period stations, were recorded digitally. So as far as I know, those were the first long-period instruments that were recorded digitally. So this is early 1970s. Those instruments, in fact, worked well enough that the Air Force decided to put out more of them and to put them down hole at a depth of about a hundred or two hundred meters to lower the noise on horizontal instruments. So one of the things our project discovered, and that was that the horizontal —
Those were noisier, the horizontals were noisier than the verticals and that had been caused by –-
By short-wavelength pressure fluctuations on the surface. By going one or two hundred meters in depth, you could get rid of those effects. So the Air Force, in conjunction with the U.S. Geological Survey, put out a set of stations starting in 1978 that were both down hole and digitally recorded.
Interesting. You mentioned earlier too that Cal Tech was one of the other major competitors in developing instrumentation that would be better quality seismic recording devices. Were there any other?
No, and that really wasn’t the case with the long-period things.
Was it simply Lamont’s?
They [Cal Tech] continued a little bit along the line of Press and Ewing, and [Hugo] Benioff went on developing strain meters. But there was really not the push there to develop instruments that would be better in the long-period range for recording underground explosions and earthquakes.
That’s very interesting. Was there really any other academic group that was trying to do, develop those instruments?
Well, there was Paul Pomeroy at Michigan.
At Michigan, but he comes out from the work that’s done here.
He comes out from Lamont. So I think we were about the only group that was working in the long period-end.
One kind of interesting thing happened in developing this world wide group of twelve instruments or so, of high-gain, long-period. It was at the time of big unrest in the universities. Steve Lukasik had warned Pomeroy and me that although this was an unclassified project, it could be jeopardized if there was lots of unrest that focused upon us at our own universities. Pomeroy, I think, was instrumental in getting out some type of press release that described their work at the University of Michigan. Whether it resulted in any disturbance or not I don’t know. It did result in controversy at the University of Michigan. Lukasik canceled Pomeroy’s stations and his part of the long-period project. Paul, I think, was very hurt by that and disturbed by that. He, in fact felt that he had not been backed up by people at the University of Michigan. He hadn’t been. Michigan still had a lot of government and DOD contracts that were at Willow Run which was a large facility that was run by the University of Michigan. So Pomeroy left the University of Michigan. He dropped out of seismology, and lived in a small house on the Island of Viegues in Puerto Rico until he decided to come back to the U.S. and become the state seismologist for New York.
Do you remember what it was that was in the press release that generated the?
I don’t remember except the newspaper accounts of it on campus were certainly critical of the Defense Department. I think Lukasik didn’t want to see any publicity about this, of things that reflected negatively on the Department of Defense.
So it was broader than simply the detection program? It was a criticism as you recall?
As I recall it.
That’s very interesting.
Another incident that happened soon after that. And I’ve mentioned Jack Evernden.
Jack Evernden had reached the point in which he could no longer work with Romney — and we’ll come back more to Romney, but Romney was really quite a super hawk. So there really was not a place for someone like Evernden, who was both more liberal, but had a strong commitment to solving the problem. And Jack was a very opinionated person. It’s hard to have a conversation with him in which you get in more than ten percent of the conversation. But he and I, in fact, worked very well together. The reason that Bill Best came up here and worked with us was to make sure that Evernden didn’t get into any trouble. By the time Jack Evernden did that work with us, he had moved from AFTAC over to ARPA. He had had a lot to do with the oversight of the high-gain, long-period systems. However, he didn’t have anything to do with Pomeroy being pushed out. That was made at a higher level in ARPA. Evernden, as a result of work that he had done particularly with the high-gain instruments, felt that basically the discrimination-detection problem was solved. And so he convened a conference — I have the proceedings and the papers from it — that he held for a week or two in Woods Hole, I believe in the summer of ‘69. He was then an employee of ARPA. He got out completely unclassified volumes of the papers and abstracts from that meeting. He also wrote an introduction that in his own words summarized the findings of this meeting, that stated pretty directly that the problem had been solved. When Lukasik saw this, I think he went through the ceiling. He claimed technically that the introduction, in particular, had not been cleared by the Defense Department for publication. A notice was sent around to everyone who had received these volumes to please tear out such and such pages. [Laughter] But, of course, the cat was pretty much out of the bag by then. That did lead to some Congressional hearings and testimony over this whole question, both of the excising of these pages in the introduction, and as to whether that was scientifically or politically based or both.
Interesting. And you gave testimony in 1972 in the Senate. Was this related?
Right. It was related to that. Our high-gain project was still going on. I think that my own sense was that we had made enough progress in identifying, being able to pick up surface waves, from earthquakes all over the world and to reduce the level of detection of surface waves, and hence reduce the discrimination threshold. At that time, I still believed that if we solved the scientific problem, the political answer or solution, a test ban, would soon be in hand. What was to transpire over the next few years, including this hearing, convinced me very strongly that was not the case, and that I was very naive.
I want to cover this in detail. These are important issues. I’m just curious as you were reading through Evernden’s introduction to the volume when you had gotten it, were you basically in agreement with what he was arguing?
Or did you feel that he —? You were —?
I was. Still I was aware that some people referred to Jack as crazy Jack. He was not served well by the fact that he had to get in five words for every one that other people said. He didn’t hesitate to tell people that they were full of shit. He had to tell other people that something was full of shit. That did not endear him to various bureaucracies. As a consequence, as well, he was not a very good witness in hearings or before groups that would be either negative or neutral.
Did it affect you in anyway being one of Oliver’s associates at Lamont and your own work?
I think the one instance in which it did was at the time of the big explosion at Columbia, the campus explosion. I was then at Lamont. It affected Lamont very little, the building of the gym on the Columbia campus and the way that that issue blew up in the face of the President [of Columbia] and of not being backed then by the faculty. The faculty had had almost no say in what happened there. I did go to one general meeting on the campus in which a bunch of people spoke, including one person at Columbia, from — I’m just trying to think of the radical group — of democratic action.
The Students for a Democratic Society, SDS.
SDS. So this one person got up and really pulled no bones that any involvement with the Defense Department was evil, and was doing things that were promoting war. He then had a list of people who were members of various Department of Defense committees. He read off Jack Oliver’s name of being associated, being part of a Department of Defense advisory committee. I was aware that I didn’t think that was fair because Oliver was working trying to find better methods of detecting underground explosions. I felt that it ultimately could be leading to a test ban treaty.
Did you say anything at that meeting or?
No. I mean, it was a very emotionally charged meeting, and I knew that if I said something, that it would be like having a hundred hornets pointed in my direction.
That’s certainly how many people remembered those, those developments surrounding Grayson Kirk’s decisions on the gym.
I didn’t want to steer away from what you came to learn about the process, political process surrounding the test ban treaty, but I was curious when you were drawing the distinction between Charlie Bates and George Romney. Just as patrons, their attitudes towards the universities.
I was curious particularly what was on your mind when you were recalling.
Well one significant thing happened, at about the time the space program wound down in Florida. It was winding down as soon as the first astronauts on Apollo 11 or 12 put their feet on the moon — the lunar program was winding down. There was one influential member of the House of Representatives from that district, and he then used his influence to move AFTAC from the Washington area to Patrick Air Force Base, where it still is. Romney’s wife did not want to move out of the Washington area. And so Romney left AFTAC and went to work for ARPA. He very much changed the complexity of things at ARPA. He put much more money into consulting companies, plus, what I would call, a few of his long-time friends in the university community. Probably the person that was associated with him the longest was Dr. Eugene Herrin from Southern Methodist University, who had worked with Carl and advised AFTAC going back into the 1950s. Herrin has continued to have a very influential role in being head of advisory committees, of getting — over the years he has received millions of dollars in DOD contract funding — and of having a huge voice in advising the Defense Department and the intelligence agencies. He, like Romney, has been quite conservative. Although I would say that Romney was, as I was to find out later, an implacable foe of any agreement with the Russians. I think much in the same sense of Edward Teller. I think Herrin was just more conservative, and he felt we should go really slowly and not accept a piece of work until it had been demonstrated to work ten times over. So you had mentioned my Senate testimony in 1972. That was probably my first more public involvement with the test ban issue.
What do you recall particularly from the testimony? What was that like for you?
Well, I had been asked to come and testify. I think that my name had been put forth by one person who had worked in the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. I went prepared to talk about the unclassified results from the new network of stations. I let ARPA know that I was going to do this. I got back word from Steve Lukasik that that was okay. I talked to Evernden about my testimony ahead of time. And so, I mean, I was scared. I was not that used to testifying, and so I tended to take a more middle of the road view; this is what can be done scientifically. In fact, this is what can be done from an unclassified standpoint. I still was not that aware of how much more the classified community could contribute. But this was an open hearing. If I had known that, which I didn’t, I couldn’t have said that in open hearing anyway. But so, I read my prepared testimony. Perhaps I didn’t have time to read it all. It was fairly technical, but it was optimistic about what could be accomplished. But it didn’t say that we solved the problem. One of the people then who questioned me was Senator [Edmund] Muskie, and I think that he must have thought that I was coming prepared to lambast ARPA. So he asked me a question that led in that direction. I side stepped it because I wasn’t at that point, either psychologically or otherwise. I was flabbergasted that I was asked a question: [Laughter] Has ARPA been dishonest, or something like that, in what they’d done?
That must have come as a shock.
It came as a shock. But the thing that came as even more of a shock, and that was that afterwards, Bill Best [of AFOSR, Air Force Office of Scientific Research] called me up. The person who was deputy director of ARPA and who dispersed their funds through organizations like the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, called Bill Best and said that I had done a “good job” but by implication that I had done a good job by getting ARPA off the hook. With that a red light went on in my head that kind of, whoa, there was all of this fuss that went on over Jack Evernden and the excising of his introduction that didn’t get brought out. I didn’t expect that I was the one who was going to be asked to trot out all of that dirty linen. So here I was being congratulated by ARPA for getting them off the hook.
How did you feel when that, when you?
I felt awful. Also, one of the other people who testified was Herbert York. Herbert York by this point had left the weapons labs [Livermore] and had gone to U.C. San Diego.
Right. He was chancellor there wasn’t he?
He was, but I think later. He took a more strident view of more of the politics of the test ban — that the U.S. wanted to continue nuclear testing and that we, the U.S., were hiding behind the idea that verification isn’t good enough. He said that, Sykes really should have said something stronger about that. So here was a person that was a generation older than I was and had, in fact, had been a director of Livermore. He had been one of the developers of the hydrogen bomb. He later went on to become an arms control advocate. I didn’t like that either, that here was my first time in the public arena, and that I was being partly stepped on by this guy who had had just lots more experience in the political arena than I had. But it certainly did lead me afterwards to realize that probably an opportunity had been missed to make a more forceful statement about verification. But I, myself, was not at that point of, in terms of having reached the conclusion that it was overwhelmingly a political contest and verification, as York said, was being used as — or lack of verification — as one of the main impediments to a test ban. That kept coming out again and again after that. So that was probably the turning point for me.
When you think back on it, do you wish you had been a little bit more forceful in bringing out some of the views that you shared with Evernden on the technical problems having been, by that point, largely resolved?
Well in retrospect I can say I wish I were a person who was, say, five years more senior by then and knew more about what was going on. But that was the reality.
Oh indeed. And it’s important to put that into context.
That I was naive in believing that a solution to the technical question would lead to a test ban. And that was probably the focus of my testimony.
I’m curious. Did anyone try to prepare you for, for the mechanics of the testimony? Did Jack Oliver play any role in that or —?
No. Jack Oliver had left for Cornell about then.
He was up at Cornell indeed by that time.
Yes. So I really didn’t have any guidance.
Did you meet with any staff members from the Senate before or afterwards?
I didn’t. Well, just at the time of the committee meeting, I met a few people. But I think the Senate Foreign Relations [Committee] was pretty sleepy in terms of their staff.
I was wondering if you had impressions of how well versed the staff members were on the technical issues?
I don’t think they were. I think that it was just kind of their job to round up a few people to come and give testimony. I think I was told that if I had any questions that I would like some of the Senators to ask me, I could write down some of those.
Well, that must have been a turning point though in your awareness of —
Oh, it absolutely was. As well as when I was congratulated by Bill Best. It wasn’t that Bill was congratulating me. He said, the word has come down from ARPA that you did a good job. Right away I knew HA, I was had. I allowed myself to be had. I think that thereafter I did not allow myself to be had ever again.
What sort of changes were you able to make after that point with regard to your research or with the more public role that you were coming to?
Well the thing that happened next was. Well, I had visited the Soviet Union in 1971.
That’s the year preceding your testimony?
I was curious about that because you were meeting some of the seismologists and others.
Right. But these were people who were working on earthquakes. We found out in the last five years, that they were also doing some test ban work too. I received an invitation to visit Garm in central Asia after the IUGG [International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics] meeting that was in Moscow in ‘71. So I went out there by myself. It was my first trip to Russia, and I did gain a lot of impressions about Russia. I went back in ‘73 as part of the U.S. delegation on earthquake studies that Frank Press headed. And then I went to China in ‘74 as part of the delegation — a different delegation — but one that Press headed.
I’m just curious in 1971 who you came to know best among the earthquake experts in the Soviet Union?
Well, the person who was the head of the Garm expedition was Igor Nersesov. Nersesov, in fact had another large complex that was in Kazakhistan, at a place called Talgar. And Pomeroy, in fact, had visited Talgar earlier. So I thought I was going to be invited to visit there, but it turned out that they apparently considered Garm to be a bit safer area in terms of you wouldn’t see anything that was of military significance there. Then in 1974, I was invited on the spur of the moment to be a member of the U.S. delegation for, what turned out to be, the negotiations of the Threshold Test Ban Treaty.
Let me just pause to. You were saying that you had been invited in ‘74 to the, at the last moment, to take part in the Threshold.
Right. What had happened before this was that the U.S. and Russia were looking for some type of arms control agreement to be signed between [President Richard M.] Nixon and [Premier Leonid] Brezhnev at their summit meeting in 1974. Also, Nixon was under great pressure with Watergate at that time. It was clear that there was no time to get a SALT [Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty] agreement or START [Strategic Arms Reduction Talks] agreement on limitation of missiles ready in time. So they decided to go towards a threshold treaty on underground explosions. A few months before that, I was invited to be a member of a classified panel that Romney chaired that looked into determinations of magnitudes and yields of Russian explosions. It was my introduction to that side of things. Almost all the work that had been done in the whole test ban arena had been of differentiating earthquakes from explosions. So this idea of determining the size of explosions was a rather different topic. Romney then brought out — this was the first time that I had seen — the classified U.S. curves for converting magnitude Mb into yield. But most of the meeting was taken up over arguments about why did the Russians get different magnitudes than we did for certain events or certain areas.
This is for simultaneous recordings or just in general terms?
It was just in general terms. There had been a SIPRI [Stockholm International Peace Research Institute] meeting — and SIPRI is the Swedish Peace Institute — that had been held a few years earlier — I think probably around ‘69 — in which there were U.S. representatives. I think [Gene] Herrin and Press were the U.S. representatives and there were a couple people from Russia present. The idea was to see on what issues they agreed and what they disagreed. It turned out that on the basic question of what is the magnitude of the given event, or what is the minimum magnitude that can be detected and discriminated that there was a difference with the Russians claiming verification could be done better than we [the U.S.] claimed. Long debate ensued [at the meeting chaired by Romney] about the different magnitudes being caused by differences in the Russian instruments. Was it because the Russians didn’t know what they were doing? And things like that.
And I imagine it was, you had some intelligence data that was coming in as well into those considerations? Or did that seem to be the [cross talk]?
Well there was the classified AFTAC information.
There was other classified information that can only give a hint about the general size of explosions and if you’re trying to develop something what is the size range that you’d be looking at. The U.S. had a procedure that was rather rigid, a formula for converting Mb into yield. It was based overwhelmingly on data from the Nevada test site. Also used were a few points for French explosions in granite when the French did their first underground explosions in the early ‘60s in the southern Sahara. So those constituted the data base for which we were trying to calibrate Russian explosions.
Did that seem to you an inadequate number of sites being used?
Well certainly that was somewhat apparent but my full awareness didn’t come in one step. It came gradually.
You’re pointing your hand on a step by step basis.
Right. A step by step basis. But the more interesting thing was that Romney thought very strongly that we should agree upon a common method for magnitude determination, and that for the treaty that was being talked about, that it should have a magnitude threshold, 4.75 or 5.2, or whatever. And that that was to be the basic number that would determine what you could do [test]. It became clear as time went on that Romney had been influenced by the fact that at the Nevada test site we put off explosions above and below the water table in alluvium, dry alluvium, a few in granite, mostly in — the big ones — below the water table, and that you got rather different magnitudes for a different yield, particularly if you shot above the water table in dry material versus below. So he tended to emphasize differences in rock type.
Whereas others thought in terms of instrumentation differences or —
Some thought in terms of instrumentation differences.
Well, no, I think it was generally agreed that the size that we were talking about — of larger than a hundred kilotons — that decoupling was —
The effect would not be —
Was not something that you could effectively do there. So that wasn’t a big, that was not a consideration. But what Romney refused to believe for many years was that the attenuation of P waves beneath the Nevada test site was greater than beneath the Russian testing areas. And that therefore a Russian bomb of the same size at their test site would produce a much larger P wave, and hence a larger magnitude than one in Nevada. If you used the U.S. calibration, you would overestimate yield by quite a bit, by as much as a factor of three.
The size of Russian explosions. Romney, I found out, was a very cagey guy who knew his audience and what he could tell them and get away with it. So he would give a different story if he’d talk to Paul Richards about seismology than he would if he talked to some congressman or some person in the Defense Department. He would give them many more lines about how we can’t trust those bastards. So I was a member of this panel that didn’t really reach much of a conclusion except what were some of the problems.
Were there other academics on the panel besides yourself?
Yes. Otto Nutley was on that panel. There were several other academics. But I think the only people who had worked on magnitude and yield were Romney and his group. Herrin had been involved in that as a consultant. And so on the Tuesday, or it was the Monday after Labor Day. At that time we didn’t celebrate Labor Day on Monday — not Labor Day - Memorial Day.
So the Monday after Memorial Day , I had gotten back late from a canoeing trip in the Adirondacks. And about five o’clock in the morning my phone rang, and a person from ARPA, who in fact was Romney’s boss, was calling to ask me if I could leave that evening to join a group that was going to be involved in the talks having to do with the Threshold Test Ban Treaty. I got up suddenly, thought about it, and said yes. He said that the Russian Embassy closes at noon so you’ll have to quickly make a trip down here, pick up your visa, go back and get your stuff ready, and be at Andrews Air Force Base — again in Washington — which I did. It was a very hot day. In fact, they had to hold the plane for me because I was late in getting there, but they did. It was then that I first met the U.S. delegation — which was called a technical delegation to explore the test ban, the Threshold Test Ban question.
Who else was on that?
So it meant. Why don’t we take a break.
Let’s take a break and we’ll cover that. [Interruption for a break] We’re resuming after a brief break. And I wanted to ask you who else was part of the technical delegation when you found yourself flying to Russia?
Well, it was unusual that this delegation had two people from universities — myself and Gene Herrin from SMU [Southern Methodist University]. Most U.S. official negotiating teams consist entirely of people from the government. So this was unusual of having two people who were members who were not government officials.
Do you know how that decision was reached?
No. Except I think that there were probably some people who were looking for balance [on the delegation]. Because it was clear that there was one group that was very pro, in favor, of arms limitations — that was the State Department and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Then there were the understandable people from the Defense Department, the weapons labs, the Department of Energy, and then the intelligence agencies — or these first groups — that would probably oppose the test ban, The Joint Chiefs of Staff would probably oppose it. And then, well, and then there were the intelligence agencies.
How did they figure in, say for example the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency]? Did they? Were there representatives?
Well there was a member of the CIA who had worked in seismology and had done some work on the test ban question. I had heard of his name, but I hadn’t met him until that point. I think he, in fact, was one person who had raised the question as to whether Romney’s calibration was giving yields that were too high, even before the negotiations. I was to find that at least in the period of the seventies and eighties that the most hawkish people were either from the weapons labs or they were civilians in the Defense Department. And not so much people in the intelligence agencies. Although in the last ten years, some people in the intelligence agencies become pretty hawkish.
So you sensed a real switch in the last decade in that sense.
Probably a lot just had to do with the emergence of personalities. Just like the emergence of Romney as a dominant figure in ARPA had a tremendous amount to do with what happened with the test ban, of the long debate about the determination of yields of Russian explosions, and of the claim by the U.S. that the Russians were cheating [on the Threshold Test Ban Treaty, TTBTI. The Reagan administration claimed the TTBT was one of about a dozen areas in which the Russians were cheating or not living up to arms control agreements. So we arrived in Moscow [in June 1974]. The delegation was headed by the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union — his name was Walter Stoessel — who was very fluent in Russian, but he wasn’t fluent in the technical issues. I think the real head of the delegation was a person who was a member of Henry Kissinger’s National Security Council staff I think he was the person who wrote summary classified cables back and forth for the State Department. I think it was pretty clear that the U.S. went into the negotiations first not knowing whether the Russians were sincere. So part of our objective was to find out if they were. Fairly quickly we found out that they were. The Russians accused us, and I think correctly, of giving lectures on seismology. Part of it was stalling for time. The Russians in many instances in negotiations were very adamant and stalled for time as well.
But you said pretty early on that those you were dealing with were sincere.
And I think that that was the conclusion of the U.S. delegation, that the Russians did want an agreement.
Do you remember personally coming to that view very quickly?
I think I did. I mean, they were business like, in terms of what they were after. There wasn’t acrimony. There wasn’t any calling of names, or, saying we were filthy capitalists or anything like that. But the Russians had their agenda. One item was that this treaty was only to apply to weapons tests. But for the U.S. it was to apply to all underground explosions. The Russians did not want peaceful explosions included. So that quickly emerged as a big issue.
Was that, was one of the reasons because there were still plans to use atomic weapons for peaceful purposes, engineering purposes?
In the Soviet Union. By that point the U.S. had, in fact, concluded its last peaceful explosion in 1973. There was both environmental opposition in the U.S. and also questions that they just weren’t cost effective. The Russians got into peaceful uses later. But I think that they got into them as a result of the U.S. showing great interest. We at one time — Teller — championed digging a sea level replacement for the Panama Canal in Central America.
Indeed. These are all part of Project Plowshare.
That’s right. And as well as there were a number of explosions set off at the Nevada test site, to demonstrate earth moving capabilities and things like that. So, in fact, the head of the Russian delegation was their minister for peaceful uses of atomic energy.
Did you come to know this person?
No. He inevitably talked at the level of Stoessel and Kissinger’s aide and that was about it, except what he would say in formal meetings.
One question that — Did you sense there were any parallel environmental concerns similar to what was by then emerging in the United States about the use of atomic weapons?
There was none that emerged from that group. I have asked other people. It became clear later on, but it was at least ten years later that I heard some concern. The Russians up until the Gorbachev era still had plans to dig the Pechora-Kama canal that would connect the Pechora River that empties into the Arctic and with this canal — that would be dug by a row of very large nuclear explosions — and would divert waters into the Kama River that flows into the Caspian, bringing waters to the south and replenishing losses in the Caspian Sea area. I think that project finally got shelved during the era of perestroika. But not until then.
So the Russians said that they had many big projects for peaceful explosions. They very quickly said that the method of determining the threshold [of testing] should be based on the yields of explosions, and not on magnitudes. They considered that yield was a real physical quantity, whereas magnitude wasn’t. And that was –-
How did you feel about that?
Well, that was something that we merely took in. There was a backstopping committee in Washington that was getting daily reports back from our group. The policy of what our answers would be — we couldn’t just give any answers — the policy decisions came from Washington.
Clearly you needed to have this.
There may have been recommendations from our group or from the Ambassador, or Kissinger’s aide, but the decisions came from Washington. Within something like five days, it came back that the U.S. would agree to a limitation based on yield.
Did you know who was on the backstopping committee? I’m just curious if it included people like Frank Press or whether?
Frank Press was not on it. It was rumored — and I have never asked Frank — that Frank had been asked to be the second university person on the delegation, and that he had refused or couldn’t do it. I’m not sure for what reasons. That was why I was chosen so late in the game. So that [the yield as the threshold] was a very important technical issue. It was settled quickly. It also was clear this was going to be a joint agreement between our two countries. One interesting thing that did happen was that the Ambassador — in a session in which the Russians could not eavesdrop on us at the American Embassy — did go around the table to ask each of us our views about what the threshold should be.
Already the discussion was in terms of should it be a hundred, a hundred and fifty, or two hundred kilotons. Both Herrin and I said that all of those yields could be well-monitored seismically, that is you would get big signals. So that [size of signals] was not major consideration. By that point, I was there for four weeks. I went over there not knowing whether I was going to be there for three days or not. I parked my car at LaGuardia Airport, and one of my friends had to go out and rescue my car after about three weeks, pay the parking fees. [Laughter] About halfway through the negotiations — when it became clear that these were serious — a number of agencies decided to up the importance of the people say from the Department of Energy and the weapons labs.
Those agencies seemed to be pretty free to substitute higher-level people. One person from the Department of Defense was replaced by a general who was part of the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, even though he was — he was a general but he was not one of the Joint Chiefs. The Joint Chiefs is in fact a big office, a large organization. He was the Joint Chiefs’ specialist for the SALT talks. He, in this questioning from the Ambassador, went on and on about how big the Russian missiles were, and which really didn’t have anything to do [with the threshold treaty]. Their [the Russians’] yields were much bigger than what we were talking about. Whether the yield was a hundred or two hundred didn’t have anything to do with the SALT [Strategic Arms Limitation Talks] treaty. He rather went on and on about what advantage the Russians had with these big missiles.
Did you feel that you accomplished all that you had hoped, wanted to do once you became part of the process, before you returned?
Well, I think that I found out even more what politics were involved. There had been a group to prepare for the negotiations that I had not been a part of. The group with Romney that I had been a part of was just a small group, leading up to the U.S. decision. So Kissinger — and I think one of the good aspects of him — was that he got people together from the various warring agencies in the U.S. government and pretty much forced them to come up with a document that was to be the U.S. negotiating position. It also stated that this was a desirable goal from the U.S.’s point of view. I think that it was generally thought that somewhere between a hundred and two hundred kilotons was not the yield range of choice for weapons. Later on it came to be. So that was not thought to be such a big thing, since the Russians had higher-yield weapons than we did. We had already invented MIRV by then. The U.S. arsenal was tending toward more multiple warhead weapons of smaller yield. I think it was thought that this might put more of a crimp on the Russians than it would put on us. Probably that didn’t turn out to be the case. But it was clear then that these various [U.S.] agencies, that warfare would continue between them. It didn’t surface in front of the Russians, but it certainly surfaced when we were meeting among ourselves.
That’s interesting. You felt that those tensions were disguised in terms of the broad meetings between the two delegations?
Yes. Well, those were pretty circumscribed too. We would go with a position paper. Usually we met with them for about two hours every other day. So we would come with a position paper that someone would read. The Russians would have a chance to ask some questions, but usually we would say, we will note those and get back to you on those.
Were there ever any after hours meetings with any of the Russian counterparts?
Oh yes. We would break up for coffee and there would be a chance to talk with some of them. Then about every third evening, there would be some social affair such as one in which the Russians were invited to the U.S. Embassy or one when they took us out for dinner. One weekend we were taken sightseeing.
Were language problems particularly troublesome?
No. I would say not. We had enough people to do translation. In fact, relatively few of the technical members of our delegation had ever been to Russia — since a lot of the people from the weapons labs had never been allowed to go to Russia.
I was thinking about that.
Or someone like Romney. He had never been to Russia. I was one of the few who had been to Russia before except for someone like the Ambassador. I at least could decipher Cyrillic characters and get my way around the metro in Moscow.
How much contact did you actually have with research centers dealing with earth science or seismology when you were visiting?
We had none. We were told that these were to be secret and classified negotiations. In fact, the Russians didn’t want us talking to any other Russians. In fact, one group from the Institute of the Physics of the Earth that worked on test ban problems were not invited to attend.
The group from the Institute of the Physics of the Earth weren’t represented.
Were not represented. Whereas the main person from Russia who had been part of the SIPRI talks, the informal talks, was from that group. In fact, we met for the first time people who were on the Russian delegation that no one had ever heard of in the U.S. before. It was clear that they had their own AFTAC that was part of their Defense Ministry. Then they had a much larger group, of a type that did not exist in the U.S., which was an organization called the Ministry for Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy. They did all of the peaceful [Russian] explosions.
The Institute of the Physics of the Earth, was that the institute that Otto Schmidt had been?
Yes. It’s sometimes called the Schmidt Institute. At that time then it was thought that that group at the Schmidt Institute then must not have much clout, since they weren’t represented. But with the demise of the Soviet Union, people from that group, we found out, that constituted something like a third of the Institute of the Physics of the Earth they went around and monitored all of the peaceful explosions and the weapons tests. They did work on the amount of shaking, and some radiation monitoring. That group has now split off and become an Institute for the Study of the Dynamics of the Lithospheres. That group, in fact, did a lot of work on decoupling. I had two of those people come and work with me [in 1995]. So, in fact, they did have more of a presence, but they were not part of what was the AFTAC of Russia.
You raise an interesting point. I’m wondering how much the structure of these formal meetings affected what you came to know about the parallel Soviet community in seismology? You mentioned a moment ago that you began to wonder and other delegates how much people at the Schmidt institute were really considered to be actively involved in this field.
Well, I guess that what it raised for me was that there were differences among the Russian delegation that paralleled some of those in the U.S. delegation. Probably people from their Foreign Ministry were those that were most championing a treaty. There was a member who seemed to be — well, he was a Russian general responsible for their testing program — and so he seemed to call “a lot of the shots,” even though he was not formally head of their delegation. He did not come wearing his uniform. The two members of our delegation who were from our intelligence services — one from the CIA and one from the DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency] — were not announced as such. The person from the CIA was announced as a member of the State Department, and I think within ten minutes the Russians were all over him. I’m not sure, however, that they ever deciphered that the guy from the DIA was involved in intelligence.
Did you sense that it was difficult in general for the intelligence agencies to conceal the identities of their people in such meetings, or is what you just mentioned now fairly typical?
I don’t know. They could go down the list of people and knowing that this person is from Livermore and this person is from the State Department, etc. And almost by elimination come down to a few to wonder what do these guys do?
Was it comparable on the U.S. side for understanding who were the intelligence agents in the Russian delegation.
Yes. We had some information on that. But I can’t say more about that.
One thing that, this whole set of issues, raises that I want to make sure that we cover. Was there ever a period in which, as your own views towards the increased reliability of detection matured, that you found it difficult to publish these views, either as a member of the Lamont community or others? Or did you find that there really wasn’t an influence on publications of your involvement?
Well I think much later on when it became pretty clear after I had published in Scientific American, that some people in the Defense Department and some other people in universities considered me to be “way out.” I never considered myself to be “way out.” But I clearly held a different opinion than they did about whether the Russians were cheating or not on the threshold test ban. It is clear that I won that issue, that I was right. But some of those people have never quite forgiven me for being right. I would say that I have developed an opinion about quite a few people in seismology that fall into a few different camps. One group wants to work on their research that has nothing to do with test ban and they don’t want to have anything to do with test ban. Then another group of people wants to keep getting money from ARPA for research, but they will always stick to a narrow topic and never address the larger problem of what are the implications for either a test ban and its monitoring, or the implications for if you determine yields, what does this tell you about the sizes of the weapons in the Russian arsenal. I addressed both of those larger questions. I did have one article that was rejected by the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, in which the editor at that time, Charles Langston from Penn State, received almost all of his funding from ARPA. There has been a group of people at Cal Tech, in particular, who have been quite happy over the years to get lots and lots of ARPA funding. They, in fact, rarely show up on any of these panels. But they don’t make a wave, Langston was of that type. He sent my manuscript to a person from Los Alamos, and then to another person who, he should have known as an editor, would not be a fair reviewer. I haven’t forgiven him [Langston] for rejecting my manuscript. I didn’t go on fighting with him over it. I had the opportunity to give a paper at a NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] symposium in Portugal, and I published a larger paper that grew out of that meeting.
When was that larger paper published? I have your cv here in case that makes it easier.
This was a NATO meeting that was held in Portugal probably three years ago. [Pause to look through cv] Well, it’s a ‘95 cv of mine. So it was published in ‘95.
So this is all fairly recent?
All fairly recent. But in terms of funding, I have had more trouble with getting funding for things that I wanted to do.
When did you, when did you start to notice that change?
I think I started to notice that change as soon as I came into conflict with Carl Romney in the Defense Department. I mentioned he was part of the Threshold Test Ban negotiations. Romney had really held a lot of these data in his, literally in his back pocket — of yields and magnitudes of explosions. He and Herrin had worked together. One of the things that I didn’t like was that when I was a member of the delegation, they didn’t share those materials with me very well. When I came back, Bill Best as my contract monitor came up to talk with me. Bill didn’t like it that these guys had not been forthcoming. And he said, well, you were given the idiot treatment. [Laughter]
Blunt way to put it, but it made the point. And this is back in the 1970s we’re talking about?
Yes. He then came up to debrief me after I got back.
This is after you got back from the meetings.
The meeting in June and July, ‘74. So he came to see me soon after that.
And that was when you had the first really clear indication that you had been left out of much of these data that were?
Well, no. I mean, I was the one that brought it up. So he kind of summarized, “Oh, yes, you were given the idiot treatment,” But it also was clear to me by then, and it was a growing indication, that I wasn’t sure that these guys knew that much about what they were talking about.
These guys, being Romney and Herrin?
Romney and Herrin. They were not very savvy about the plate tectonic basis. They had their own pet curve. One of the things I only found out later, and that was when Romney got back, Romney had long been part of a U.S. — its more than advisory — it’s a governmental standing committee to advise on detection of atomic explosions, dealing with atomic energy. Romney was usually the only seismologist who was there. So that was where I think Romney was, what I would think at his worse. He would give his own views. He managed to get the official formula changed so, at the time in which we were overestimating yields by three times, he got it raised even higher. And just by going to this committee, and being the kind of sole member, a sole member with some expertise. Other members of this committee would be people from intelligence agencies and uniformed military officers; he would have his way.
Do you date your increasing break with Romney then from the aftermath of the ‘74 conference?
Well it gradually grew, and you will see it grew in several major steps. After the negotiations were completed and the hundred and fifty kiloton yield threshold was agreed, AFTAC set up an outside advisory committee — that Gene Herrin chaired — to advise them on yield determination. What had happened was that when Romney moved from AFTAC, it really left a vacuum there. The guy who had been his deputy, Frank Pilotte, who has a Ph.D., and has been pretty shrewd politically I don’t think he’s a very good scientist. And, in fact, one of the surprising things was that here AFTAC was responsible for running the classified network, but no members of AFTAC were part of the twelve or fifteen member delegation in Moscow [in 1974]. So Romney called the shots from DARPA. One other interesting member of the delegation in ‘74 was a former professor of engineering from Columbia named [John?] Walsh, who had been working for the Defense Department for some time. In private some of us asked what did he do. He said I’m a professional bastard. [laughter]
What did he mean by that?
What he meant was that he was there I think to throw a monkey wrench into things and probably prevent the Thresho1d Test Ban Treaty from happening. One other interesting aspect of the negotiations was that halfway through, when most of these agencies were upgrading their people who represented them in Moscow, there was some attempt to send both Herrin and me back home and have us replaced by some other people from the government. Ambassador Stoessel requested that both of us remain. He thought we constituted good balance. And I think that was true.
You think your replacements would have been —?
Probably would have polarized [the delegation].
That’s what I’m wondering if it would have been more to build conformity within the U.S. position?
I think what happened was that this guy who called himself a professional bastard, he was enough of a bastard that, in terms of group dynamics, he isolated himself. So he was not part of the center.
Yes. That’s an interesting way to put it.
The next thing that happened was that the federal government, through AFTAC, set up an advisory committee. It had several of us from universities. Herrin was chairman of it. It always met at AFTAC or some AFTAC facility — usually in Florida. Usually the agenda was set ahead of time. Usually, I think, by Romney and by Herrin. One of the first things that happened was two AFTAC people, Tom [Thomas] Eisenhower — I think no relation to the president — and [Robert] Zavadil — I’ll have to remember his first name in just a minute — both of them were very sharp, good seismologists who worked for AFTAC for a long time. I think neither of them had a Ph.D., but they were certainly exceedingly competent people. Both of them did a study using surface waves that came out with smaller yields than had happened by way of P waves using the standard formula. They went as far as to advocate that. Well, first off, there was a problem. The yields differed by a factor of three and we needed to do something about that. We had two meetings on the subject, of which the second one was quite formal. It was chaired by an Air Force general of AFTAC, who rather rigidly adhered to the agenda. Both Romney and Herrin said, there are too many problems with surface waves. It’s too premature to use them for yield determination. Some of the others of us, somewhat meekly, but we were often cut off in debate by this general, said that P waves have their own problems too. It became more evident to me that P waves were a big problem —that there was a difference in attenuation, of P waves being more attenuated beneath the Nevada test site in the upper mantle than those that leave the upper mantle beneath the Russian test sites.
And this is through the 1970s.
So this is through the 1970s. Fortunately, before this conflict really got going, one person who works in Britain, Peter Marshall — for the British Defense Ministry, and has long worked in test ban verification — published a paper with two people from Livermore that showed differences in attenuation beneath various testing areas and concluded that they were real. I think that their paper was either ‘76 or came out just before the debate really got going in the U.S. So after the second meeting at AFTAC, in which Herrin and Romney had pretty much had their way of saying that we shouldn’t change the method, it’s premature, I really felt that we had been had. The committee was never asked the question of, or even how do you determine the yields of Russian explosions best? We were asked more arcane questions like how are P waves attenuated? Things like that, let alone never getting at the bigger questions of are the Russians adhering to the [Threshold] treaty or not.
Clearly your mandate was limited in terms of what you were authorized to do.
Absolutely, purposely limited. So three of us then talked — Don Springer from Livermore and Tom McKevilly from Berkeley and me. I was probably kind of the ringleader in the telephoning of really feeling that we had been had and that this question was too serious to have been treated the way it was by Herrin and Romney. So another meeting happened.
And you feel this is at least in part through your own activities in telephoning others and in making sure the issue was raised?
Right. So we had another meeting to debate this, which was in California.
And is this the end of the 1970s now that were talking about?
So, let’s see. This is at the end of the Ford administration.
So this is prior to 1976 when Carter comes in.
Or at least is elected and comes in in ‘77.
Right. Right. So this is probably in ‘75 that this happens, maybe early ‘76. So we have a meeting in which then more than half of the group believes that the formula needs to be changed and that surface waves need to be incorporated. Herrin is still chairman. He is trying to convince us not to reach that view. A group of us insisted on at least having a straw vote, and it was clear that the majority, but not everyone, felt that the procedure needed to be changed. And, of course, the overall implications were that the yields of Russian explosions needed to be revised downward. By then, both countries were going back up towards the threshold. So what was happening then would be that Romney and Herrin would get into the big implications with other people from DOD [Department of Defense], the intelligence agencies, etc. People from our committee were never asked to give their opinions [outside the committee]. Usually Herrin would write the summary. Usually the meetings would be filled with discussion, and we would, I think purposely, never have enough time for a group consensus. Herrin would write the conclusions.
How long did those meetings last when you were out, say in California?
One or two days. As a result of the position that we took, that committee never met again. It has never met again.
Underscores the point.
So the next thing that happened was that I was invited to be a member of a panel of the Defense Science Board, that pretty clearly Romney had set up. I was the only member besides Romney who had been part of the AFTAC panel. A host of other people were invited — a couple of university people, but they had been out of the loop, and Richard Wagner from Livermore, who went on to become a very active member of the Department of Defense in the Reagan administration, a very strong hawk and a person who argued very strongly that the Russians were cheating. This committee was chaired by a person from a company in Arlington that was one of the “beltway bandits.” This guy didn’t know anything about the subject, but it was his job to chair this meeting and write a report and to host it on behalf of the Defense Department.
This was a kind of consulting company?
Yes. I forget what its name was. Well, one thing that shocked me and that was there were some other classified meetings going on in which people were talking about some classified stuff in the hall that they shouldn’t have been.
Interesting. You’re picking this up just by being in the hallway yourself.
But Romney at this meeting, I think, attempted to snow the other members — at least some of the other university members such as Carl Kislinger from Colorado, Gene [Eugene] Simmons from MIT, who worked in rock mechanics, [Don] Helmberger from Cal Tech, and at least one person from Los Alamos, and Wagner from Livermore, maybe someone from Sandia. So Romney took the lead in presenting the determination of yield using body waves. He made no mention that this other committee had even existed, or what we had talked about with surface waves. Once again, the agenda was set. Maybe I had five minutes or so to summarize the other side of things.
Must have been a very frustrating experience.
It was exceedingly frustrating. I mean, I came away. Romney got this group to endorse — in this case we did come to a consensus, a one page thing — indicating that the Russians could be testing as high as six hundred kilotons under the hundred and fifty kiloton treaty, and they may be getting away with it.
How did you feel about that as a consensus?
Oh, I was just utterly amazed. Don Helmberger, he didn’t believe that there was this big bias between Nevada test site and the Russian test site. He thought there was a bias, but he thought it was smaller. I thought he was quite arrogant in not having followed the subject and then taking a very strong point of view. I think of Gene Simmons similarly. Romney was the expert who works on this all the time. We should accept what he has to say. By then I knew that that clearly was not the case. Romney had, not only had he not even talked about the AFTAC proceedings and use of surface waves, he, Romney, pulled out one station in Missouri, and I think one station from the west, to try and prove the case that you could get small seismic signals in a stable area and you could get large signals in a tectonically active area.
Were you able to talk to others on the panel, including [Don] Helmberger and [Eugene] Simmons, privately about your perceptions?
No. We met only for one day. As I said, I was kept by way of the agenda and the chairman, from talking more than about five minutes. I said my piece about how I felt that this was incorrect. Anyway, of the two stations that Romney presented, he picked out about the only two that were the exceptions to the rule out of about twenty each that showed the rule. And I felt in so doing that the man was a cheater and a liar, I have had that impression ever since. I felt there was no question that his intent was to deceive and to get his own way that those Russians could be cheating. He did get his own way with that committee, that with a secret report saying that the Russians could be testing up to six hundred kilotons. Needless to say, somebody like Romney just fires that thing up and it goes right up to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It goes right up to the Secretary of Defense, to the head of the National.
National Security Council.
National Security Council, yes. So this was not small potatoes. I came home, and I was just so sickened by the fact that somebody could steal and cheat and lie and get some of my own colleagues to — and he purposely picked them — who were just naive. Naive or arrogant. Then some people from the weapons labs worked right along with him. So about that time, Carter administration had just come in. Frank Press had just been chosen —
I was just thinking about that, yes.
— as his science advisor. So I wrote a letter to Frank saying that I had been part of this committee and I strongly disagreed with their views and that this was a very important matter. I said it in an unclassified way. So he said, send me the classified letter, you know, as well as a copy of the report — which I did. So I sent a couple page classified letter of why I disagreed and I thought that the panel conclusion was incorrect. So Frank then did convene another panel of, I think, four of us to review this, in which Romney came and testified. Then one person [Robert Masey] from AFTAC, who since went to work for the U.S. Geological Survey, broke ranks with Romney and came in and said that Romney was incorrect. Don Springer from Livermore had been part of the threesome who had written the paper on the differences in P wave attenuation. He is a very straightforward guy. So in a non-acrimonious way, you know, he was able to say that Romney was wrong. Whereas I think that throughout all of this, as you probably sense from my voice, I developed a righteous indignation against people who would purposely misuse both the classified system — security — and misuse data, misrepresent it. As someone said later on these are people who somehow as children never learned how to behave.
This is a fundamental question of scientific integrity —
I, at least, when I wrote my letter to Frank Press, I wasn’t sure it was going to go anyplace. Because here I was up against Defense Department, the weapons labs, some of my own colleagues. But anyway, Frank did convene a panel that recommended that this formula be changed, that surface waves be incorporated. It was my intention that AFTAC needed to do more work to come up with how do you merge the data in a thoughtful way. It turned out AFTAC and the Defense Department had no intention of letting them do that. Franks recommendation got forwarded to [Zbigniew] Brzezinski, who was then head of the National Security Council, and Brzezinski was known to be a hawk in that position. He overruled Press and said that it was stupid to have two different methods for yield determination and to average them and that we should just use one of them. So what happened was a compromise in which the formula was changed some, but not enough.
Still tending then to overrepresent Soviet yields, and something that persisted then throughout the Carter administration into the Reagan administration.
Right. In fact, it persisted into the Bush administration, until there were finally two explosions that the U.S. was allowed to monitor close in. The Russian explosion and vice a versa, Russians at the Nevada test site. That finally showed that you get higher amplitudes out of the Russian test site than you do out of the U.S. test site. No one ever came along from the Defense Department or the weapons labs, and finally said uncle. In fact, even though the Russians, of course, knew the yield of their explosion, and we made a determination of it using CORTEX close in — five or ten meters from their explosion point, down hole — that satisfied us, the yields of both of those explosions are still classified. And attempts to get them declassified — Paul Richards has attempted with Freedom of Information Acts to try to work through Representative Oilman, our member of Congress — and still has not succeeded in getting them declassified. Even though the Russians and Americans both know in a classified way what they are.
Has that affected the debate within the seismological community about accepting those results? Or is it pretty widely understood even without the [cross talk]?
I don’t think anybody now has a doubt that there is this difference — which is called the bias — between the Russian test sites and the U.S.
Is this the Russian test site, by the way, in Semipalansk?
Yes. That was where they were doing their tests that were closest to the threshold and where it was claimed that they were doing ones that were over the threshold. So we won the war, but none of the losers ever came back and apologized and said they were wrong. Many of those people are still calling the shots today. And still claiming that, and have continued to claim of how difficult it is to verify a test ban and how important big hole decoupling is.
There are two more questions that I’d like to ask you, and then I think given the time constraints, we will need to draw this session to a close. How did this particular part of your career affect your relations with other academic seismologists, particularly in the U.S.?
I think there were a number of people who greatly admired the fact that I kept at this. When the test ban was finally signed last September, several congratulated me for having worked on such an important human problem. There are lots of other people who — I’m not even sure many seismologists know that there is a test ban — they’re really kind of out to lunch as far as I’m concerned. There are people in some of those agencies — Ralph Alewine who became Carl Romney’s successor in ARPA and who I had several strong debates with, including before one congressional committee — who will portray me as not knowing what I am doing.
One person who worked in ARPA and then went to work for a company called SAIC [Science Applications International Corporation], which is one of the biggest contractors to the Defense Department, he [Thomas Bache] left ARPA and his original consulting firm didn’t want him back. They regarded him as too arrogant, not very good scientifically, and quite a loud mouth. He went to work for SAIC. Romney then left the government about that time, and he went to work for SAIC — a big revolving door as far as I was concerned. Alewine and others in ARPA rewarded them strongly. Alewine had set up the Center for Seismic Studies in Arlington that would collect both classified and non-classified data for ARPA to improve computer methods for analyzing data. They had a rather good firm called S-Cubed — the one that didn’t want this guy back — that had been operating that center. Their contract came up for renewal. They by far had the largest expertise, several really good Ph.D.s and straightforward people. But the contract was given to SAIC where Romney then suddenly appeared, as well as this other guy. ARPA has funneled millions of dollars to SAIC for developing what’s called the intelligent monitoring system. It’s a big computer based system for analyzing data. And anyway —
Were any of your Ph.D. students those who had joined S-Cubed?
One. John Savino. Went to work for them. He worked for them for a number of years. He got laid off, but I don’t think that it had anything to do with me or anything to do with these various wars that were going on.
Matters of economics.
I think so.
I’m curious how your, how much time generally, and I realize it, I’m sure it peaked at certain points, but how much time in a year or in a given month would you tend to spend on these issues?
Well, there were probably quite a few years in which I was spending half of my professional time. I probably spend about a third now.
How did people at Lamont regard these activities?
I think it was mixed. There are a number of people who in fact, some of those who congratulated me when the treaty was signed, saying that was a wonderful thing that you put in all of that time. And, you know, you really helped to make a difference. There are some other people who said. Well, Paul Richards got involved in this about fifteen years ago. Sykes and Richards are spending too much of their time on this. They should be doing more work in earthquakes and not on things that are so controversial or so narrow. There could be different permutations. Also they should be bringing in more money to support people here who are on soft money. I felt that I did make a decision that this was an important enough problem that I wanted to work on, and that I was a tenured professor. That was one of the reasons that I was given tenure so that I could make choices like that. My main job was not raising money for other people who were here on soft money. I would do my best to try and do that, but that I was not going to drop out of the subject [test ban].
Were these primarily people in administration who were making those complaints?
No. No. No. One or two other professors.
At Columbia or?
Well, Wally [Wallace S.] Broecker, for example, felt that Richards and I shouldn’t be doing this. I don’t think he knew much about it. He certainly has outspoken views on global warming. So I don’t really see much difference. There was something else that I wanted to say. Well, I think that one of the things that did hurt me the most, and that was when the test ban was finally signed in September, Lamont has done nothing, formally, in terms of any publication or any celebration to say, hey, this is a really important problem that Sykes and Richards poured between them, forty to fifty years of effort and that Lamont should regard this as a really important thing. We were in the midst of getting a new director. But also, I think Faye Yates, as head of PR, she has her own choices of things. This is not something that seemed to matter to her. It doesn’t seem to be something that other people from central administration do either. It’s not that they came out against me. It’s that they ignored it.
It’s been the indifference.
It’s the indifference. And here is something in which Columbia could crow about it. I did tell the new director that, when Paul Richards and I were asked to brief him on the test ban issue. And I’m not aware that he has taken any interest whatsoever in it.
This is Peter Eisenberger?
This is Peter Eisenberger.
During the time that Gordon Eaton was here, the last full director, was this something that you were able to talk with him about knowing that these issues were moving towards broader national recognition?
I think maybe occasionally, or in passing. But I don’t think Gordon took much of an interest in it. It wasn’t that he was against it at all. Gordon, unlike Barry [C. Baring] Raleigh, he really kept up with what science people were doing. He would come to seminars. Whereas, neither Gordon nor Peter have done that.
Thinking about even earlier directors. How did [W. Maurice] Ewing feel about your involvement in this?
Well, I wasn’t really involved in it very much at that time.
It was just around the time that he was leaving to go to Texas that you really became active.
Right. But I can remember at one point of talking to Ewing. Ewing just happened — and Ewing was quite conservative politically — to make a remark about how the Federation of American Scientists was a bunch of pinkos. And I didn’t like that. I at least knew about the Federation of American Scientists — not very much — but I have since gotten to know that organization a lot better. I have been an officer of that organization. I testified in their behalf. They are a group that is pro arms control. I think that they are very strongly based scientifically. And so, I really would disagree quite strongly with Ewing on that.
Is that a view that Joe [J. Lamar] Worzel shared as the associate director at the time?
I don’t know. But I would think that he probably would. But I don’t have any. But that’s just guessing.
I’m also thinking. Clearly Manik Talwani’s period as director overlapped with the time that you were becoming very active in these issues. Did you regard him as particularly supportive of this work?
I think that he was pretty much indifferent but he didn’t discourage it. Manik was a director who really kept a hand in science and in marine geophysics, and I think one of the things that he did not do was [planning for the future]. He really kind to keep the place going as Ewing had founded it. So the various groups, like seismology, were pretty much — and geochemistry — were left to go on their own with the leadership that they had. So it was a time in which I felt that we needed to spend a lot more time thinking about the future and where the Observatory was going, where Columbia was going in the earth sciences. I was a member of the executive committee then, as well as partly through Barry [C. Baring Raleigh]’s directorship. The executive committee would spend hours debating small issues, and never really got around to debating some big issues.
These are issues that we need to talk about in greater depth. Although I suspect that we ought to save those for later segments. Let me. We may well want to come back to some other issues, if you feel if we haven’t touched on all important aspects of the test ban work. But let me thank you very much for a long session on this topic today. After just a brief pause, you mentioned there was one more thing you wanted to.
There was one more important thing that I wanted to say having to do with test ban that I felt was perhaps my most important contribution. And that was of, it might be called “raising hell,” or keeping in this issue even when people like Romney were working full time on it. I became convinced that they were wrong in their method of yield determination. Not only that, but they were using this for really pretty evil purposes. I found out later that during the Carter administration when Brzezinski had become convinced that the Russians were cheating on the threshold test ban that he authorized the U.S. to dig some holes at the Nevada test site that could be used for explosions that were larger than a hundred and fifty kilotons to answer the Russians cheating. I would at least like to believe that part of my raising, either hell or raising enough valid scientific points, like in my correspondence with Frank Press, did make it such that at what was a very tough time for relations between Russia and the United States, the United States did not set off explosions above the threshold test ban treaty that would have stirred up a hornets nest in Russia. That went on throughout the Carter administration, and it even got worse in the Reagan administration, But who knows what would have happened to the arms race if the U.S. had tested above the threshold test ban, of what response the Russians would have made and vice versa. So I at least believe that I made an important contribution. Finally one other thing: I had an encounter with another Nobel laureate and this was at Columbia. And now at the end of the interview, Pm having trouble remembering his name. [Isidor I. Rabi] Anyway, he was a member and he came occasionally to an arms control seminar. It was mainly for faculty and met once a month at Columbia. I was a member of it for about ten years. And so this person [Rabi] had been one of the two people, along with [Enrico] Fermi, who had issued a somewhat dissenting opinion to that of the U.S. general advisory committee [to the Atomic Energy Commission] on building the hydrogen bomb. The committee, which was headed by Oppenheimer, was not in favor of building the bomb. But Fermi, as well as this other person, were even stronger in saying that building such a weapon of mass destruction was morally reprehensible. I admired him for having gone that far.
And this was someone you were coming into contact with through this seminar.
And so I asked him and I said, I’ve been working on the nuclear test detection problem and I know of your involvement [in nuclear arms control]. Do you have any advice for me? He kind of scratched his head for a minute, and he said, “raise hell.”
Well clearly you followed that advice that you were given. And I appreciate you making the point. I think your own personal involvement and contribution to the issue did come clear through the interview. Although it’s good to have your statement on that. I’m curious as you look back on it, did you feel there were any other individuals in the university community who were supporters throughout much of this time of the views that you came to accept?
Well one person that I got to know at Princeton — Frank von Hippel — had been a classmate of mine at MIT, He was a physicist who at Princeton started working on environmental problems. I read about some of this work, and got him to come up to Lamont and give a talk. He got me to come down to Princeton and talk about test ban. As a result, he got more involved in arms control issues and has continued to do so. He’s been a strong supporter. One person who was a student in the Ph.D. program at Princeton in geophysics, Gregory van der Vink, took a course from von Hippel. Greg was interested in science and public policy. So he got a fellowship to work with the Congress’s Office of Technology Assessment [OTA].
The OTA’s assessment was also important in 1988.
And so, in fact, he was able to convince OTA to make this an issue and to get permission from their congressional oversight committee to make it an issue. Greg was their principal scientist who wrote the [OTA] volume that came out in 1988 called, Monitoring a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
This is very interesting. We probably should say on tape that this is the undertaking that helps to make clear, the kinds of issues that were not being raised under the other administrations and under Romney’s committees.
The amazing thing is that in forty years of debate on this issue, that there had never been a thorough review within the U.S. government that was not headed by the Defense Department or the weapons labs. So I think this was in fact the first— It was the first independent review of the whole question. Both of how well can you verify a test ban, and are the Russians cheating or not on the Threshold Test Ban Treaty. Some other people, Charles Archambeau, now at the University of Colorado, he has been a person who has certainly valued my work. The two of us have shared some of our views.
We may indeed find that we need to visit this issue again further. But I do appreciate your adding statement on here. Let me thank you again very much for all the points that you’ve raised during this particular segment.