John Ertle Oliver, 1923-2011

January 5, 2011

Jack Oliver, left, and fellow Lamont scientist Ken Hunkins check a seismograph record.


Jack Oliver, left, and fellow Lamont scientist Ken Hunkins check a seismograph record.

Dr. John Ertle “Jack” Oliver, a geophysicist with roots at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory whose research helped revolutionize our understanding of the basic forces shaping the planet, died peacefully at his home in Ithaca, N.Y., on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011. He was 87.

He was a former chair of the Department of Geology at Columbia University and head of the seismology program at Lamont from 1955-71.
 
Together with fellow Lamonters Bryan Isacks and Lynn Sykes, he wrote a paper in 1968, “Seismology and the new Global Tectonics,” which made a compelling geophysical case for the then-novel theory of plate tectonics, a theory that now forms the basis for all our current understanding of how the Earth works.
“It was literally the bible for understanding seismology,” said Larry D. Brown, a former student of Oliver’s who is now chairman of Cornell’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. “It was one of the top five seminal papers on plate tectonics.”
“Jack Oliver, along with Bryan Isacks, Lynn Sykes, and others in the Lamont seismology group, showed how the properties of earthquakes were a near-perfect fit to the emerging theory of plate tectonics,” said Arthur L. Lerner-Lam, associate director of the seismology division at Lamont. “Their work was key in convincing scientists of the explanatory power of the ‘new global tectonics,’ and opened up new areas of research that even today remain fundamental.”
 
Born on Sept. 26, 1923 in Massillon, Ohio, to Chester Oliver and Marie Ertle Oliver, Oliver attended Columbia on a football scholarship, earned his bachelor’s degree in 1947 and went to earn his masters degree in physics and a PhD. in geophysics at Lamont, working under Maurice “Doc” Ewing, in 1953. He chaired Columbia’s geology department from 1969-71.
 
Former Lamont scientist Jack Oliver died Jan. 5 at his home in Ithaca, NY.
Former Lamont scientist Jack Oliver died Jan. 5 at his home in Ithaca, NY.

 He was one of the first scientists to understand how to detect nuclear explosions using seismic waves, and that work led to his becoming an advisor for the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1958-59, and a delegate to the negotiations in Geneva. He moved to Cornell University in 1971 to be chairman of the Department of Geological Sciences, and founding director of the Institute for the Study of the Continents at Cornell.

He helped establish the Consortium for Continental Reflection Profiling Project, which pioneered in the large-scale exploration of the continental lithosphere using seismic reflection techniques.
 
“Most people saw Jack as a seismologist. To me, Jack was an explorer, in the best scientific sense of the word,” Brown said. “Jack was always seeking the grand mysteries. Thus it came as no surprise to me when a mutual colleague reported that during a phone call just last week, Jack was actually excited about finally finding out what was ‘on the other side.’”
Oliver was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and president of both the Seismological Society of America and the Geological Society of America. He authored or co-authored over 200 scientific papers and visited over 55 countries during his years of geophysics research. He wrote several books, including The Incomplete Guide to the Art of Discovery and Shocks and Rocks; Seismology in the Plate Tectonics Revolution, and Shakespeare Got It Wrong: It's Not "to Be," It's "to Do": Autobiographical Memoirs of a Lucky Geophysicist.
 
At the end of his autobiography, available online, Oliver indulges in a weakness for limericks, and included this one among many:
 
The youth wondered what he should be.
His prof said, “You’re missing the key.
Life’s not to be, but to do.
Pick a task, follow through.
You’ll live ever after most happily.”
 
An avid hiker, Oliver was married to the late Gertrude N. Oliver, whom he met in a hiking club outside New York City. He leaves his brother, William Oliver of Massillon, Ohio, daughter Cornelia (Nell) Oliver of Pacific Palisades, CA, daughter Amy Mascolo (Richard) of Doylestown, PA, and grandchildren Philippa, Katherine and Georgina Thomas of Pacific Palisades, CA, and Monica, Christina, and Jack Mascolo of Doylestown, PA.
 
Calling hours for Oliver will be on Sunday, Jan. 9, from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Bangs Funeral Home in Ithaca. A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Monday, Jan. 10, at St. Catherine of Siena church. A reception will be held at 1 p.m. at Kendal of Ithaca, the retirement community where Oliver lived.
 
The family asks that instead of flowers, donations be made to Hospicare, 172 East King Road, Ithaca, NY 14850; Kendal of Ithaca’s Rainy Day Fund, 2230 N. Triphammer Road, Ithaca, NY 14850; or the Washington High School Scholarship Fund, c/o Washington High School Alumni Association, 207 Oak Avenue SE, Massillon, OH 44646.
 
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Media Inquiries: 
David Funkhouser
davidf@ldeo.columbia.edu
845-365-8708

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