Caltech Geological and Planetary Sciences Grads Return for 90th Anniversary

Alumni from the division's long history returned to campus to share their memories on May 11

Published : Sunday, June 4, 2017 | 10:13 PM

Walter Munk (BS '39, MS '40) Credit: Caltech Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences

On May 11, Caltech’s Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences celebrated its 90th anniversary with a daylong event featuring 17 alumni speakers whose attendance at Caltech spanned from the ’30s to the present.

Reflecting on day-to-day life and studies at their alma mater, they collectively bore witness to an academic community that seeks to foster curiosity, rigorous methodology, and engagement with real-world challenges. Here are just a few of the stories they shared:

Mel Levet (BS ’39, MS ’40), retired research geologist, recounted a time when Caltech’s tuition was a lot cheaper—but so was student labor:

“Tuition at that time, I could not afford. It was $300 a year. … But there were some ways to underwrite this. The Institute had an arrangement with the federal government under [Franklin] Delano Roosevelt for his New Deal program, and one of the programs was the NYA [National Youth Administration] designed to help students. One semester I dug dandelions in the Athenaeum lawn. Forty-five cents an hour. Another semester I washed windows in Dabney Lounge. Forty-five cents an hour. While a graduate student, I was a technical assistant to [former Caltech graduate student] George Otto, who was doing a paper on hydrology. And I, as a technical assistant: Forty-five cents an hour.” [Laughter] “But I got to go to Chicago with him and I got to present the paper.”

Walter Munk (BS ’39, MS ’40), professor of geophysics emeritus and a Secretary of the Navy/Chief of Naval Operations Oceanography Chair at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, described how—as a recent graduate of Caltech—he applied his knowledge of oceanography to help the Allies during World War II. After watching the military practice an amphibian landing in preparation for the liberation of Northwest Africa from the Axis, he noted that the landing craft could not safely reach the shore if waves exceeded 5 feet. Subsequent research revealed to Munk that during the winter, on average, waves in Northwest Africa exceeded 6 feet:

“In my despair, I telephoned [oceanographer Harald U.] Sverdrup, whom I’d gotten to know at Scripps, and said, ‘Please come out and spend a few days with me.’ … And we talked for about three or four days about how would you go about predicting waves. Of course, you know, it’s utterly routine these days. … But I’m convinced it had never been done at the time. And we sort of outlined the procedure. … It seemed doable, and we eventually organized classes at La Jolla for air corps—Army Air Corps—and Navy officers to learn about wave predictions in preparations to the landing in Northwest Africa. … After our first class, we had to completely rewrite our notes because we had learned more from the class than they had learned from us. … But we graduated about a hundred officers who were good in waves in particular, and in oceanographic predictions in general.”

Hugh Taylor (BS ’54, PhD ’59), Robert P. Sharp Professor of Geology, Emeritus, recounted how a changing of the guard at GPS following the death of paleontologist and former division chair Chester Stock shifted the entire nature and focus of the division—and how legendary teacher and subsequent GPS chair Robert Sharp (BS ’34, MS ’35) opened the world of geology to him:

“I assume that Bob negotiated … to make Caltech geology more quantitative. It was very clear that that was on Bob Sharp’s mind at that particular time. … We were very quantitative in geophysics, but that was particularly seismology. We weren’t quantitative in geology or geochemistry. In fact, there was no geochemistry at all. … All of the sudden, in my sophomore year, things started to change.

I took Bob Sharp’s course for the first time as a beginning sophomore. And it was just great. He certainly was one of the US’s greatest teachers. I decided then and there … this is for me! You can make a living doing what other people do on their vacations!”

Taylor, who has been a member of Caltech’s faculty since graduating in 1959, was named Robert P. Sharp Professor of Geology in 1981.

Ashwin Vasavada (PhD ’98), Mars Science Laboratory project scientist, showed the audience a picture that had inspired him as a student of engineers from the Mariner 4 mission to Mars in the ’60s.

“This is what I always aspired to be at Caltech: in a room like this, Mariner 4, the first pictures from Mars coming down. And I would just be mesmerized by pictures like this of young Bruce Murray and Bob Sharp. And for me, in the ’90s, being a planetary scientist was an incredible time because it was all the people who founded the division and the option of planetary science and the field itself well all down the hall and yet the new people were coming in as well.

“It was wonderful to be at the division at a time when people were still there from the past and you could see people like Mike Brown getting hired, and now every day get to work with the new generation, all of the Caltech students who are involved in the Curiosity Mission.”

Kirsten Siebach (PhD ’16) described the challenges and rewards of living on “Mars time” (a 24-hour-and-40-minute cycle) with the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover mission with John Grotzinger, now division chair and Fletcher Jones Professor of Geology. Working while the rover sat in the dark of night on Mars, they developed orders that the rover could execute during the following Martian day:

“It may be the middle of the night, but when you get a group of expert scientists together from all these different disciplines, you’re bound to have this intellectual conversation, this group dynamic that’s similar to what we’ve discussed at Caltech. … You have a small community [that is] intellectually driven—curiosity driven. … And when you have this whole group and it’s the middle of the night and you’re on Mars time and all the windows are blacked out, if anyone has the right idea, if anyone has a good idea, then that idea is respected for what it is.”

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