The Columbia Observer: Part Three
Written by Bwog Staff
Not again! Here comes the third of five installments of Bwog correspondent Addison Anderson’s travels to the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York. In this segment: poignancy, “cooking with gas,” the earth’s most important room, plate tectonics, and a healthily collaborative working environment!
As we head to the Core Lab, Brusa picks up two bits of Open House balloons off the grass and puts them in his pocket, as there are so few trashcans around. Then he tells me how Lamont became Lamont Doherty. Henry Doherty (1870-1939), a self-taught engineer, made his fortune with Cities Services (now Citgo), figuring out how to get gas into people’s homes and persuade people to use it, rather than coal, for cooking. “Now you’re cooking with gas!” was originally a factual and congratulatory slogan for having brought Cities Services gas-cooking into one’s home, before it came to mean “Now you’re doing something notably well!” in popular speech.
In 1969, the foundation Doherty set up gave $7 million to Lamont to help pay for a portion of the top scientists’ salaries. Before then, every scientist had to raise whatever was needed for their research, their salaries, and their research staff on their own. As Brusa puts it, “This isn’t some bucolic think tank, and it’s never been like that. Every scientist had to raise all their money, but by 1969 it was getting to be a problem. The Doherty donation spins off enough money to pay for one or two months of scientists’ salaries.” The pressure to make up the remainder pushes researchers: “It’s enormously competitive…And there’s no resting.”
Next we head to Lamont’s monument to not resting, the Core Lab. The exterior slightly resembles an 8-bit Nintendo. Inside stand rows and rows and rows of cores, thin cross-sections of the ocean floor pulled up from points all over the world’s oceans.
In the late 1940s and 50s, Columbia’s own scientific research vessel, the Vema (formerly a yacht owned by various magnates), began circling the globe in Doc Ewing’s quest for more data. He put two winches on the ship instead of the standard one, kept his ship at sea for most of the year (it wasn’t like Columbia had port facilities anyway), and made his researchers get cores during any free time, inspiring the motto: “A core a day keeps Doc away.” (It’s probably funnier at sea.) Sending all those cores back to Lamont, Ewing started what is now the world’s largest collection of core samples from the ocean floor.
All that research pointed toward major discrepancies between what most scientists thought the ocean floor looked like and what was actually down there. Aligning sediment samples, depth readings, and earthquake epicenters, Lamont scientists plotted a topographic map of volcanically active mid-ocean ridges, out of which new surface crust, i.e. magma from the earth’s mantle, spreads and cools. This crust then gets pushed back into the mantle by continents, which float around on top and bump into each other once in a while, like at the Himalayas, or spread apart, like South America and Africa did. In other words, Lamont birthed the theory of plate tectonics. Think of how dumb you’d be if you didn’t know about plate tectonics. Now go buy a Columbia shirt and visit Lamont Doherty.
From the first voyages till today, all the data gathered was available to everyone working at Lamont. This lack of territoriality was perhaps as important for the methodology of environmental science as the gathered data was for the further development of a comprehensive Theory of the Earth. Plate tectonic research alone required such collaboration that, as scientist after scientist tells me, a standard department system, in which each scientist is prone to keep all his/her data to him/herself, wouldn’t have come close to putting it all together.