The Columbia Observer: Part Four

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Ah, the penultimate installment in Addison Anderson’s Lamont-Doherty series. Savor this moment; it shall not always be with you. In this episode: urgency, wild turkeys, total chaos, nuclear testing, Greenland, and forced labor!

            “One of the joys [of research at Lamont] is how cross-disciplinary it has to be,” says Dr. G. Michael Purdy, director of the Observatory.  Not “tends to be,” but “has to be.”  One cannot easily miss the urgency in the diction of a man running an organization faced with the “challenge,” as the website and pamphlets declare, “to provide a rational basis for the difficult choices faced by humankind in the stewardship of this fragile planet.”  The director’s offices sit on the edge of a cliff.  One wonders if this serves as an instructive global metaphor for visitors, or as a personal reminder.

A bust of Doc Ewing watches over the conference room, and two wild turkeys sit on the office’s porch.  “Yes, they’re known to bite.” 

            Dr. Purdy, “back when [he] had a real job,” studied the earth’s crust using sound and contributed to the design of underwater seismometers like the yellow contraption I saw on the way in.  Purdy relates that these devices, used in part to listen for underground nuclear tests in violation of the Test Ban Treaty, had captured the rate at which the Christmas 2004 earthquake (responsible for a tsunami that killed over 100,000 people) moved along its fault off the Sumatran coast, and will improve our ability to predict damage risk from large quakes and tsunamis.


He’s also intrigued by Lamonters’ investigations of the sound waves created by receding glaciers.  With the help of such data they may eventually figure out the rate at which sea levels will rise due to climate change: “Whether or not sea levels will rise is no longer an interesting question.  But knowing the rate at which the melting ice caps in Greenland are going to cause sea levels to change, that’s something people will pay attention to.”

Later, discussing the need for new facilities, Purdy mentions, “We work for global humanity here.  Those are our customers.”

This sense of Lamont’s social purpose, only magnified in recent years by increasing public concern over high-stakes environmental issues, has been met with increased faith in the campus’s traditionally anarchic, collaborative culture.  Purdy sizes up the level of “structure” thus: “Well, we do have five departments, and they do have names…but truly fundamental research flourishes in atmospheres of chaos.  That nourishes contacts and interactions you wouldn’t otherwise have.”

Dr. Suzanne Carbotte calls it a “critical mass of colleagues,” ready to approach problems from diverse disciplinary angles.  The culture pushed her to branch out from deep sea geophysics to looking under shallower water, namely the Hudson River.

The chaos fuels collaboration and innovation, and fierce competition juxtaposed with equally strong mentorship, from old to new Lamonters.  There is, first and foremost, the ubiquitous affection for “Doc.”  And in the hallway of the Seismology building, next to a color-coded map titled “Global Mortality Risk Atlas,” a researcher counsels a stressed younger colleague, “Don’t let funding decide what you do.  Do the best science you can, then use that to get the funding,” before the two rush off to separate labs.

Collaboration takes on many meanings.  “You can see how the quality of the construction declines as we head further into the building,” Brusa says, leading me into the Geochemistry building (the second geochem lab after the mansion’s kitchen). The sweater-beige interior is all linoleum and old wallboard, packed with state of the art equipment.  “This area was actually built by the students themselves.  Every Friday was ‘Help with Construction Day,’ since they needed the free labor…

“When most of these building were built, they were considered temporary.  Forty or fifty years ago.”

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