The Vetlesen Prize

Acceptance Speech


I would like to thank several people who have been important throughout my professional life and to tell a few brief anecdotes.

First, I thank the Vetlesen Foundation and Columbia University for this great honor. I arrived at Columbia in 1960 when I started graduate school and study at Lamont. Hence, I have been well aware of Vetlesen awards, including the first to Maurice Ewing nearly 40 years ago. I feel honored to be in the company of the distinguished scientists who have received this prized award.

The educational system in the United States has been of fundamental importance to my life and to my development. I attended public schools in Virginia near Washington DC where I was fortunate to have inspiring teachers for math, science, government and history. One of my teachers, Mr. Taylor, had held a high political appointment in the Dept. of Agriculture. He switched to teaching world history and American government at my high school when the Eisenhower administration came into office. My interests in science and public policy over the past 40 years extend back to those high school experiences as well as to living close to Washington DC. Actually, my interest in science was first stimulated at age 10 when my Aunt Ethel sent me a chemistry set for Christmas, much to my mother's consternation. She was convinced that I would either set the house on fire or poison myself.

I was fortunate to receive a scholarship for my undergraduate study at MIT and funding from federal grants and contracts when I attended graduate school at Columbia. Bill Brace, a Professor of Geology, was an important influence and advisor to me at MIT as was Karl Deutsch, who taught history of philosophical thought. At Columbia and Lamont I went on to write more than a half dozen papers with my PhD thesis advisor, Jack Oliver, and my fellow graduate student Bryan Isacks, including our paper on "Seismology and the New Global Tectonics" in 1968. Interaction with them as well as Bruce Heezen, Marie Tharp, Charles Drake and Peter Molnar of Lamont, David Griggs of UCLA and many others during the development and testing of the concepts of sea-floor spreading and plate tectonics was a singular and immensely exciting experience--in fact, a once in a lifetime experience. Although we did not fully appreciate it at the time, this was also the golden age of federal funding for science in the United States. My long interest in the physics of earthquakes grew out of interactions with my Lamont colleague Christopher Scholz.

My field, the study of earthquakes, became of increased societal importance in the late 1950s. It became apparent at that time that it provided decisive tools for the detection, location and identification of underground nuclear explosions as well as several of the technical means to verify a comprehensive nuclear test ban. I have worked for almost 40 years to try to make sure that nuclear verification is represented fairly, both scientifically and politically. On the verification issue, I benefited greatly from interactions with Paul Richards, Jack Evernden, Dan Davis, Greg van der Vink and many others.

Two Nobel prize winners--both of whom were professors at Columbia--affected my work on plate tectonics and nuclear verification. In the early 1980s I had a short conversation with I. I. Rabi, a Columbia Nobel-prize winner in physics who had been a member of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission in the 1950s during the debate over the building of the hydrogen bomb. I told him that I was involved with several committees that were examining treaties to limit nuclear testing. I asked him if he had any advice for me given his involvement with arms control. He thought for about 20 seconds, grinned and said to me, "Raise Hell."

In 1964 I gave a talk in Newcastle, England on the configuration of the downgoing earthquake zone in the Tonga-Fiji region of the southwest Pacific. One of the attendees was Harold Urey, a Nobel prize recipient in chemistry. He said to me privately after my talk, "Young man, you need to take continental drift more seriously." It is important to note that in 1964 only one or two people at Lamont took continental drift seriously and that I was not one of them.

I should also remind you that Pitman and I either were graduate students or had recently received our doctorates at the time we did our work on plate tectonics. Since Walter went to sea for a year when he started graduate school at Lamont in 1960, I did not meet him until a year later. Our first meeting, in fact, was on the West Side Highway. I had bought a used car in Brooklyn for $100 and it broke down on the way back to my apartment in Manhattan. Walter happened to drive by, stopped and rescued me.

But my most memorable experience with Walter was in February of 1966. Jim Hertzler invited Jack Oliver and me to come over to see a profile of magnetic anomalies that Walter had collected and processed that extended for 600 miles across the mid-ocean ridge in the remote southeast Pacific. On a transparency Walter showed how the magnetic anomalies were symmetrical about the crest of the ridge even for the smallest wiggles. I had been thinking about using earthquake data to test the sea-floor spreading hypothesis and Tuzo Wilson's theory of transform faults for about 5 months before that but had been occupied in finishing a manuscript. Once I saw Walter's magic profile, however, I knew immediately that I needed to drop everything else I was doing and to start work on seismological data to test these mobilistic concepts. I began the next morning. This was a time of great excitement as many of us from diverse fields at Lamont shared our knowledge and the exciting new results.

I thank you again for this honor.


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