The Columbia Observer, Part Two

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Hear ye, hear ye.  The second of five installments of Bwog correspondent Addison Anderson’s travels to the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York has arrived.  In this segment: Doc Ewing, explosions in New Jersey, a trap door in Schermerhorn, space constraints, seafaring, more explosions, general disarray, a very famous kitchen, and bees!

A portrait of Mr. Lamont in his old living room, now re-purposed

      Doc Ewing, who passed away in 1974, is still the guiding spirit of Lamont.  His portrait or photo hangs on at least one wall in nearly every building.  What stands out more prominently, however, is Ewing’s relentless drive to conduct research with all available resources.  It’s his all-for-the-science work ethic that explains why such an aged encampment continues to pump out so much groundbreaking research.

      During the Depression, working without government sponsorship, Ewing designed and built new equipment out of spare parts and household items — fruit salad cans, coffee cans, really a lot of cans – in an attempt to use sound to study buried rock strata, usually by means of measuring sound waves from explosions.  In 1936, after blowing up lots of ground in New Jersey, he used a these methods and a $2000 grant from the Geological Society of America to study an even less esteemed part of the earth’s surface: the ocean floor. The first expeditions at sea yielded few breakthroughs, but Ewing’s research into how sound travels underwater soon caught the Navy’s eye.  He consequently worked on sound equipment for ships and submarines until the end of World War II.

A heckuva lot more after the jump.

      Hired by Columbia in 1946 as a geophysicist, Ewing promptly had to deal with – what else? – space constraints in Schermerhorn Hall.  The seismometers he installed in the bedrock below the building (accessible via trap door) were supposed to detect earthquake tremors, but they kept picking up the comings and goings of the 1 train.  Simply the housing the data from Ewing’s 1947 voyage, during which he dropped explosives into the Atlantic and pulled out core samples from the ocean floor, necessitated construction of the Schermerhorn Extension.

      And so it was with understandable zeal that Ewing and his grad students moved into their new digs upstate.  They stuck a seismometer in the root cellar, built their machine shop in the greenhouse, held conferences in the mansion’s living room, and used the vent above the kitchen stove for the geochemists’ fume hood.

The rootcellar/seismometer facility

The Lamonts’ old stove vent, site of the historic geochem lab







      The rootcellar/seismometer facility                 The Lamonts’ stove vent, site of the historic geochem lab      

     Today, Lamont is leading the study of carbon dioxide sequestration, i.e. whether or not the gas can be safely trapped and stored.  To test whether it can be done in rock, Lamonters have drilled a hole into some of the bedrock on campus, into which they plan to pump carbon dioxide.  “It’s a lot like a well,” says Brusa, who worries that large-scale rock sequestration might have seismic side effects.

      Walking through the mansion, now called Lamont Hall, I notice that after fifty years, it still looks like a band of scientists moved in last week.  The Lamonts’ classic prewar furniture is shoved into corners, out of the way of library shelves full of mineralogy journals.  The place looks neither renovated nor retrofitted, but invaded by science-Vikings.  Up a spiral staircase is a room stuffed full of bed-frames and chairs, along with a fully functioning beehive.


See the upper corner of that window frame?  Bees!








-Addison Anderson

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