Becoming A Geophysicist


 

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I didn't know what geophysics was until I were one, so I sort of backed my way into this. After the Marines I went back to school for a year as a forestry major, something I had wanted to do since the third grade. Unfortunately, after my time in the Marines, I found most forest rangers were employed by the federal government. After one summer as a smokechaser, fire lookout, and working on a brush-clearing crew in the Lowman District of the Boise National Forest, it was obvious to both the government and myself that I would make a very poor bureaucrat. As the District Ranger only got out of his office once that summer, I couldn't see any other possibilities in forestry but life as a bureaucrat.

Also, we got snowed in for two weeks in the middle of August, 1960, in a fire lookout on a peak in the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho during my summer with the U. S. Forest Service.

In the meantime, a buddy of mine from the Marines had the idea that we should get a 30-foot Tahiti ketch and sail it around the world. Sounded great to me, so upped anchor and back to San Diego. Bought the ketch, but it turned out to be full of dry rot. So I learned the value of a good marine, as in boats, survey the hard way.

To pay for all this, I took a position with General Dynamics/Convair - Astronautics out on Kearny Mesa in San Diego. Before putting me in an infantry battalion (2 nd Bat., 1 st Marines), the Marines had sent me to a year of Navy and Marine Corps electronics schools. That made me well qualified to do final missile checkout on Atlas and Centaur birds. Ended up working on all the Project Mercury boosters, most of the early space launches, and learning how to launch ICBM's, which nearly got me drafted into the Air Force during the Cuban missile crisis. Final missile checkout is, of course, preflight testing of all the missile systems, failure analysis when a bird blew up or shut down on the launch pad, developing test procedures so it didn't happen again, and monitoring all the missile systems via telemetry. The first EKG I ever saw was via telemetry from Col. John Glenn when he rode into orbit on one of the Atlas birds I worked on.

Like most government projects, the space program was on again, off again. After a couple of years there I worked seven weeks straight without a day off, and then got laid off the first time. Out six months working on the ketch. Great time. Then back to missiles for another year and a half. Laid off again. Back to work on the ketch.

After a few more months working on the ketch, I was driving home one evening when I spotted a friend I had worked with at Convair Astronautics. Stopped to chat, and he mentioned that the University of California-San Diego was looking for someone with an electronics background. Unemployment compensation was running a little thin, so I drove out there the next day.

Turned out to be a position under Prof. Victor Vacquier at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. I looked and behaved then, as now, like your prototypical former Marine so they weren't too impressed. But, being desperate, they gave me a bunch of tests.

Nobody else they interviewed even came close, so all of a sudden I was an oceanographer working for one of the most famous geophysicists on the planet. If you go to an airport you still walk through one of his inventions: flux gate magnetometers.

Six months later my direct boss, Bob Warren, quit. Since I had not yet sunk any of Scripps vessels, Vacquier jumped me up to project manager for his terrestrial heat flow studies. We pretty well covered the North Pacific with those measurements. For those of you who haven't looked at a globe recently that is about one-quarter of the Earth. Our group was doing pretty fundamental work on sea-floor spreading and plate tectonics. Vacquier got the stuffed albatross during this period, one of the most prized awards in oceanography, for his work with magnetic surveys along the Mendocino fracture zone. So with a year of college and another year's worth of credits from all the Navy and Marine Corps schools, there I was publishing with all the big kids.

However, I was spending so much time at sea, up to 8 months in a year, that the ketch was no longer an option. Sold it at great loss but didn't miss it. Now I was getting paid to see the world and jet planes do cross oceans faster than Tahiti ketches. Don't know that oceanographic ships are much of a step up, though.

Eventually, after many adventures, and with Prof. Vacquier's encouragement, I went back to school and on for my Ph.D. at Texas A&M. Up to the present I have been an oceanographer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and twice at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Among other positions I also went back to Texas A&M as a visiting professor (see C.V. ).


 

Tribute to Victor Vacquier

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I gratefully acknowledge the role one of those rare individuals, Prof. Victor Vacquier, at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, played in developing my love of the earth. His mentoring and tolerance are the underlying reason I have made what few contributions I have to the science.

Prof. Victor Vacquier, Sr., passed away on January 11, 2009, in La Jolla, California, at the age of 101. He was born in October 1907 in St. Petersburg, Russia, and escaped from the new worker's paradise in the winter of 1920 with his family across the frozen Gulf of Finland to Helsinki in a one-horse sleigh. After he retired my young sons and I met him for dinner one night and he regaled them with tales of this adventure that they remember to this day.

Following his escape he stayed in France for three years before moving to Madison, Wisconsin in 1923. He received both his B.S. and M.S. degrees from the University of Wisconsin. When I worked for him in the late 1960s he was one of only nine full professors in the entire University of California system who didn't hold a Ph.D. degree.

Vic's first job was with Gulf Research where he invented the fluxgate magnetometer in 1938, for which he held the original patents, while playing with a nail in a magnetic coil.

In 1942, as part of the war effort, Vic joined the Airborne Instruments Laboratory of Columbia University (located at Sperry Gyroscope Company) to oversee the development of a magnetic airborne detector. His instrument was placed in what became known as MAD (Magnetic Anomaly Detection) aircraft. MAD aircraft were widely used for the airborne detection of submarines during World War II and his invention has been credited with closing the Straits of Gibraltar to German submarines, as well as with enabling the sinking of several. Vic told me that the government gave him a whole $15 for use of his fluxgate patents.

Fluxgate magnetometers also provided a much faster way of doing magnetic surveys for minerals on the ground and made aeromagnetic prospecting possible for the first time.

He left Columbia University in 1944 to join the Sperry Gyroscope Company. While there, he made significant innovations that dramatically increased the usefulness of gyroscopes. He could concentrate wonderfully and one day he was working on the gyroscopes in the nose of an aircraft that caught fire. He said he knew nothing of the fire until it was out and only then because the gyroscopes lost power and he got down out of the aircraft to find out what happened.

From 1953 to 1957 he worked as the principal geophysicist and professor of geophysics at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Las Cruces.

Vic moved to the Marine Physical Laboratory at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California, in 1957 where I joined his group in 1965.

During his career at Scripps he carried out extensive studies of the magnetic structure of the ocean floor and heat flow through the oceans and continents. After the end of World War II, the airborne magnetometer was adapted for shipboard scientific use and the data at sea from the Pioneer survey off the west coast of the United States and Canada were critical to the acceptance of the concept of seafloor spreading. Specifically, Vic discovered a 1,120 km (700 miles) left-lateral transverse offset in the magnetic anomalies along the Mendocino fracture zone for which he was awarded the prized stuffed albatross in 1963. The ability to explain this startling offset was a key factor in the prompt acceptance of the theory of seafloor spreading and plate tectonics.

From the work our group did Vic was able to demonstrate a strong relation between high heat flow and the crest of the mid-ocean ridges and the existence of very uniform heat flow in the deep ocean floor near the trenches of the western Pacific. These data strongly supported the concept of seafloor spreading and also led directly to the widely-accepted thermal models of the oceanic lithosphere that came from the quantitative development of the theory of plate tectonics.

Obviously it was an exciting time to be working with Vacquier and others at Scripps during one of the largest paradigm shifts the earth sciences have ever undergone. Seafloor spreading and plate tectonics are now accepted without question. The experience also served me well later when I was doing mining exploration and seeking answers to the source of massive sulfide deposits, which are now known to form during seafloor spreading at ridge crests.

In July 2010 Betty Shor and my good friend John Sclater published a more extensive biography of the incredible life of Victor Vacquier in EOS. With the permission of the American Geophysical Union that biography is available here (PDF). I highly recommend their article to anyone interested in the history of science and how the concept of seafloor spreading and plate tectonics evolved. Looking back on just the heat flow program led by Vacquier, the scale of what we did is amazing. Papers in 1966-1967 on heat flow Northwestern Pacific, heat flow Hawaiian area, heat flow Eastern Pacific cover a big chunk of the planet!

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