My program of graduate study was certainly strange by today’s standards. As I have said before, so much in life depends on serendipity, chance meetings that turn out to change the direction you were headed. As I described above, when I started as an undergraduate at Southern Methodist University, I told my advisor I wanted to be a paleontologist and to be a teacher in a college or university. It turned out he was a biologist, very much interested in evolution. He advised me that in order to understand fossils one first needs to be familiar with biology. I should be a biology major and then go into paleontology in graduate school. I followed his advice. My undergraduate degree was in Biology with a minor in Chemistry. Somehow long-term planning was in my blood.
As I have mentioned before, my closest friend in high school had an uncle who taught at the University of Texas. Tom Cranfill was professor of English, specializing in Shakespeare. I had met Tom many times when he was visiting in Dallas. By 1952 he had already been to post-war Europe several times. I knew that Tom was on the Graduate Admissions Committee for the University of Texas, so during my senior year at SMU I asked him for advice on how to get into graduate school. What he told me then is still very good advice today.
He advised me to figure out what I wanted to do, find out who the most outstanding academics in the field were, contact them, and apply to their institutions. He also noted, “you can always change your mind after you’re admitted and get started”. It is surprising that even today few applicants for undergraduate or graduate study have a very clear idea of what they want to do, and even fewer ever bother to contact or meet the faculty they might work with.
Following Tom’s advice, during my senior year at Southern Methodist University, I had discussions with Bob Perkins, the Geology Department’s paleontologist. I told him I wanted to become a micropaleontologist and teach in a university. He wisely suggested I get as broad a background as possible and study more than one group of microfossils. We went through lists of who was where and decided on a plan which I then followed. The two major groups of microfossils being studied at that time were the foraminifera, single-celled amoeba-like animals that produce a huge variety of tiny shells, mostly made of calcium carbonate, and ostracods, tiny shrimp-like animals, each producing two shells, right and left, which are mirror images of each other. There are over 100,000 recognized species of foraminifera, but only a few thousand species of ostracods. Ostracod shells are sometimes quite elaborately ornamented, and you would never guess from the shell what the animal that lived inside looked like. The plan was that I would start by studying ostracods with an eminent US micropaleontologist, Harold Scott, at the University of Illinois in Urbana for my Master’s degree. Then I would go to Stanford University and study the foraminifera, under Hans Thalmann, a professor from Switzerland. All of this was, of course, planned without my having applied or been accepted at either institution.
Step one was to apply to Illinois, and in my application to Illinois I spelled out whom I wanted to work with and what I wanted to do. However, I also wanted to see if I could get in another year of study in Europe, so I went through the Institute of International Education in New York to apply for a year of study in Switzerland. Amazingly, although I was missing most undergraduate geology courses, I got a Fellowship offer from Illinois. From Switzerland I was offered a Fellowship to the University of Zürich sponsored by the ‘Swiss Friends of the USA.’ I called the Department Head at the University of Illinois, George White, and told him of my dilemma. George White didn’t hesitate to tell me to accept the offer from Switzerland. I could fill in my undergraduate geology courses there and he suggested that if I reapplied I would then almost certainly be at the top of their list for Fellowship offers the next year. It was the long-distance beginning of an extraordinary friendship with another extraordinary person.
During the summer of 1955 I attended the University of Illinois’ Geology Field Camp in Sheridan, Wyoming. It was my first real experience in seeing and studying geology in the field guided by expert faculty. It left me convinced I had made the right choice in choosing geology for a career.
In Switzerland I was officially enrolled at the University of Zürich, but the Geology Department was actually part of the Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. My instructors included some of the best geologists in Europe. It was the first year of his teaching career for Rudolf Trümpy, who was to become one of the most distinguished geologists of the 20th century. We were a group of about 8 students taking the courses, and I was the only foreigner. There were field trips in the Alps with lots of hiking and camaraderie with overnighting in alpine cabins made more comfortable by bottles of wine we carried along, but there was a problem - I couldn’t understand what they were talking about.
One day in the fall of 1955 I remember well was Saturday, November 5. The peace treaty between the Allies and Austria had been signed on May 15, 1955, and had gone into effect on July 27., The withdrawal of Allied troops took place on October 25. But for many the great culminating event was the re-opening of the Vienna Opera. It took place on Saturday,November 5. I had taken that weekend for a trip to the Bernese Alps and was staying in the village of Mürren. It sits on a narrow ledge of pastureland on the vertical western wall of the Lauterbrunnen Valley, directly across from the Jungfrau. My little room had a magnificent view across the valley, and a radio. That evening there was a clear sky and beautiful moon. I listened to the performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio under the direction of Karl Böhm. One could hardly escape the significance for the Austrians; Fidelio is about prisoner’s being released from confinement.
Somehow I had expected that since Zürich was in the middle of the ‘German-speaking’ part of Switzerland, I would be able to converse with my fellow students. However, the Swiss speak a number of dialects of German that date back to the Middle Ages; they are quite literally unintelligible to outsiders. Switzerland is in many ways like a giant Club; if you speak one of the dialects you are a member of the Club, and if you don’t you are a foreigner and treated politely as such. I found I couldn’t understand anyone unless they made an effort to speak to me in ‘high German,’ a foreign language to them. From September, when I arrived, until December, except for the field trips, I walked around in a fog and very lonely - no friends. Then, one day it happened. I finally understood what all those funny sounds were. The great revelation came when I discovered that the Swiss word for ‘was” (Past participle of to be) was ‘gsi’ (in German it is ‘gewesen’). Within a couple of months I had mastered the Zürich dialect and suddenly had a lot of Swiss friends. I was accepted. The field trips in the spring and summer were even more exciting than those in the fall, and the evening discussions among faculty and students over interesting Swiss wines were an educational experience never to be forgotten.
It was also in Zurich that I was invited for the first time to a faculty member’s home for dinner. Paleontology was taught in the University, and Emil Kuhn-Schnyder was our instructor. He was a vertebrate paleontologist, working on fossil reptiles 250 million years old. They occurred in rocks in a quarry at Monte San Giorgio in Ticino, the southern, ‘Italian-speaking’ Canton of Switzerland. These fossils occur in solid limestones, and Kuhn-Schnyder’s team would quarry blocks and then X-ray them to see if there was a vertebrate fossil inside. If there was, it would be carefully and painstakingly exposed using dental drills. As a result the Zurich Institute had a fabulous collection of fossil Triassic marine reptiles. Kuhn-Schnyder invited his students to his home for a dinner of Ticinese cuisine prepared by his wife and appropriate wines from Ticino. Again, the discussions went on until midnight. It was a custom I adopted during my teaching career. There is so much to be learned that cannot be passed on in the classroom.
Speaking of things that are difficult to be passed on from teacher to student: in a European university there are usually no prerequisites or requirements for courses. I happened to notice in the University of Zürich’s catalogue a course entitled ‘Bewegungsgruppen der Kristallographie.’ It was given by Professor Johann Jakob Burkhardt in the Department of Mathematics. To his great delight I was one of four students who showed up at the appointed time and place. I was a geology student, the others were majors in mathematics. He explained that it was all going to be very simple, the mathematical derivation of the 230 space groups in crystallography through motions in Euclidean space. All you needed to know was several things I had never heard of, including group theory, set theory, Bravais lattices, and wallpaper groups. The introductory lecture was totally beyond my comprehension. Nevertheless, I had a class in the same building the hour before, so I thought that maybe I might eventually catch on to what this was about. I even bought Burkhardt’s book Bewegungsgruppen der Kristallographie. It was no help. After the fourth lecture or so, Professor Burkhart asked me to come to his office. I thought he was going to ask whether I was understanding anything at all. But no, he had apparently mistaken the baffled look on my face for one of total comprehension. He was so pleased that I was so interested in his lectures. Apparently no one from the Mineralogical Institute had ever come to his lectures before. And he had a favor to ask of me. His own derivations had been for three dimensional space. He had received a book from a Russian colleague who had derived the crystallographic space groups for four-dimensional space and he needed someone to read it so he could have a separate opinion about the validity of the mathematics. He pushed the book into my hands cheerfully telling me that in case I wasn’t too fluent in Russian it was no problem; it was almost all mathematical expressions anyway. I politely accepted the book, quietly thinking ‘how the hell am I going to get out of this.’ Sure enough, that book could have been written in Sanskrit as far as I was concerned. I skipped the next class and then decided I had better not be seen in the Department of Mathematics ever again. I slipped the Russian book under his door late one afternoon after he had left. Later I was to learn that all this wasn’t really so esoteric after all. If you know the drawings of M. C. Escher, you have seen a variety of rotational motions in Euclidean space in practice (especially the series called Symmetry). I don’t think that Escher tried to show them in four-dimensional space, but then maybe that’s what some of the topological effects in the stranger Escher drawings (such as Ascending-Descending and The Waterfall) are about.
It was while I was in Zürich, that my father wrote me that my mother had been diagnosed with cancer and was to have a major operation. In those days transatlantic travel was a major undertaking, at least five days on a ship each way. Air travel was prohibitively expensive. A return home to visit her was not practical so I was to stay on until the year of study was finished in July. I planned to return vis the shortest route, Zurich to Genoa, then on an Italian ship to New York, and by train to Colorado where my mother would be recuperating during the summer. The pride of the Italian fleet, the Andrea Doria, had a sailing on July 17th, scheduled to arrive in New York on the 26th; the timing was perfect for me. I went down to the travel agency, Reisebüro Kuoni, in the early spring, made a reservation for that crossing, and paid the deposit on my ticket. The remainder was to be paid in June. When I went to the Reisebüro in June to pay and collect my ticket, I happened to glance over the list of sailings to the US. The Andrea Doria was listed as fully booked, with a waiting list, but there was a special offer for another ship, the Mauretania, which was due to sail from Southampton a few days later but also arrive in New York on the 26th. Passage on the Mauretania was significantly cheaper. When I went to pay for my Andrea Doria passage, I was asked if I might like to change to the Southampton sailing, with the price to include rail and ferry transportation to England, and a one or two night stopover in London. Apparently someone on the wait-list for the Andrea Doria was willing to pay a premium to get on that sailing. It was a hard decision, the Andrea Doria was supposed to be a beautiful ship, just launched a few years earlier, while the Mauretania (not the original, which was sister ship of the Lusitania, but the second ship to bear this name) was much older, of pre-World War II vintage. I decided it was best to save the money, and a couple of days in London would be fun, so I took them up on the offer and switched to the Mauretania. That crossing of the Andrea Doria ended with its collision with the Stockholm and sinking before it reached New York. On the Mauretania, we steamed slowly through the floating wreckage a few hours after the Andrea Doria had gone under. I got a good look at the Stockholm, which had lost its bow in the collision, and saw the Ile de France which had taken many of the survivors on board. Looking at the deck chairs and other debris in the water, it occurred to me that perhaps my letter telling my parents of my change of plans might not have arrived yet, and that morning of July 26th, 1956, I sent a telegram to my mother in Estes Park with the simple message: “Am fine, aboard the Mauretania, docking later today.” Telegrams from ship to shore were expensive.
After visiting my mother in Colorado, I went back to our home in Dallas, then on to Illinois. The University of Illinois had awarded me a Fellowship, just as George White had suggested would happen. I finished my Masters’s degree at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign at the end of the spring semester in 1957. My thesis was on Tertiary ostracods from southwestern France. You will remember that ostracods are tiny shrimp-like animals that distinguish themselves by building elaborate shells of calcium carbonate. I had picked out these fossil shells from samples available in the collections at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich the pervious year. I could have gone on to a Ph. D. at Illinois, but my long-range plan called for me to go on to Stanford for that degree. George White was fascinated by my bizarre career plan and told me that when I got my Ph.D. and was looking for a position to be sure and apply to Illinois.
While at Illinois I applied to Stanford to work with Hans Thalmann. I was awarded an “Honorary Fellowship” to Stanford, which means ‘we would be pleased to have you but you will not receive any money.’ Fortunately, my grandfather had set up a fund for my education which we had hardly touched, so off I went to California via Route 66. And after I got to Stanford they discovered they needed a teaching assistant, and there I was. Hans Thalmann was one of the world’s foremost experts on foraminifers. He was a Swiss who had spent much of his life before World War II working in Indonesia. He and his family had been in the US when the war broke out and Indonesia was invaded, and they stayed here. He worked part time as a consultant to oil companies and held the curious position of “Permanent Visiting Professor” at Stanford. He had only a part-time salary and that allowed him the freedom to carry on with his consulting practice from time to time although he was rarely away from campus. He had worked for Petroleos Mexicanos after the war, and still had good connections with them. Most of his students were from Latin America and he was delighted to have a Swiss-speaking American.
Hans wasn’t the only micropaleontologist on the faculty at Stanford, Joseph J. Graham held the regular faculty poisition for that topic, But Graham was neither as knowledgeable or as well known as Hans. He had only one graduate student working with him, and tried to talk me into switching to him as my advisor. I refused.. I was happily taking courses during my first quarters at Stanford when Joe Graham called me into his office. He had been gong over my transcripts and saw that I had never had a physics course in college. SMU had simply accepted my physics course under Doc Nelson at St. Mark’s as fulfilling their requirement. Joe insisted I take freshman physics. So I signed up for a course taught in the spring quarter of 1958.
The introductory physics course was taught by Albert Baez. He was one of the best lecturers I ever encountered. He always started the class with some music and his lectures were exciting stories. The physics laboratory experiments were fun, and I was teamed up with a Chinese-American, Ming, who was really good at physics. One of the labs was especially memorable. It was in March, 1958,and we were going to conduct experiments on measuring radioactivity. It was a rainy day, but that was not a problem under the arcades of Stanford. We got everything set up properly and set the Geiger counter to filter out the background noise. However, something was wrong, we couldn’t get a signal from our radioactive source. Ming was mystified. We called over that lab instructor and soon realized that everyone was having he same problem. The diagnosis was that the sources we had were old and had gotten very weak. A few days later we learned that something had gone wrong wiht one of the nuclear tests in Nevada and a plume of radioactive material had drifted over he San Francisco Bay area, where much of it had rained out. Our radioactive sources had been fine, they had just been masked by the radiation from the fallout. The fallout radiation in the Bay area was greater than considered permissible at the time, so the Atomic Energy Commission simple raised the permissible level so that no one would be alarmed.
Professor Baez invited some of us to his home for a barbeque. It was a great evening, and he asked me what I was doing in his course since I was obviosly not a freshman. I explained my situation, and he told me to come see him later in the week. Then came the highlight of the evening. His tennage daughter Joan played the guitar and sang folksongs for us. Yes, that was the Joan Baez.
A few days later Professor Baez gave me a quiz in his office, and wrote out a memorandum to the Geology Department that I was proficient in Physics, that I should not be taking the introductory courses, and had earned an A in his course. The Department accepted it and Joe Graham was very disappointed.
In discussing possible topics for the Ph.D., Hans suggested a study of the foraminifera of the Velasco Formation, the geologic unit just above the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary in the coastal plain of Mexico. Some of the foraminifera had been described 30 years earlier. Before going further I should explain to you what these tiny fossils were used for. In places like the coastal plain of Mexico there are thick sequences of shales and the calcareous shales called marls. When drilling a well for oil, it is important to know where you are in the sequence of strata. You need to know if you are approaching or have passed through the layer that might contain petroleum. The drill bit pulverizes the sedimentary rock down to millimeter-sized pieces. To keep track of where the well is in the stratigraphic sequence, a geologist ‘well sitter’ examines the drill cuttings. It is easy to tell where you are if the rock sequence consists of rocks of different types. But when it is all the same homogenous shale, you need something else, and the cuttings are just about the size of the fossil foraminifera. It was in the coastal plain of Mexico in the 1920s that it was discovered that these tiny fossils could be used to assist petroleum exploration by determining the age of the sediment. Since then they have become widely used all over the world to keep track of the age of the sediments being drilled in the exploration for petroleum. In Mexico it had been especially important to ‘know where you were’ because the impermeable shales overlie the reservoir rock that contains the petroleum, the El Abra Limestone. The El Abra petroleum reservoirs were supercharged with natural gas. A well could easily get out of control if one suddenly, unexpectedly drilled into the limestone reservoir without being prepared. A well out of control is a ‘gusher’ which looks like a great way to discover an oil field in Hollywood movies, but is a disaster in practice because the oil is wasted and it may be very difficult to get the well back under control.
The thesis topic sounded great to me. Something strange seemed to have happened at the end of the Cretaceous. Hans knew that there was a marked change in the assemblages of foraminifera across the boundary, but it had not yet been well documented. I could get help in the collecting samples in the field from geologists at Petroleos Mexicanos. Augustin Ayala, a faculty member at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City who had come to work with Hans, thought it was a good idea too. He offered to have his laboratory prepare the samples for me if I would leave splits of my samples for him in Mexico City. Preparation of samples to extract the fossil foraminifera from the rock could be a messy business, involving soaking the samples in kerosene or carbon tetrachloride. In those days no one took precautions about inhaling the fumes, but it was a messy business. Augustin could also provide the paperwork necessary for me to be able to export the samples. So we made a deal, I would collect samples from the Mexican coastal plain and the edge of the Sierra Madre Oriental, during June and July, and then go to Mexico City, leave the samples at the Geology Department of the Universidad Autónoma where his people would split and prepare them, I could go out to the Ciudad Universitaria from time to time to check on things and perhaps start examination of the material.
I had not been to Mexico since I was in grade school when my family visited Monterey. Then I found out that some friends would be in Mexico City that summer too. I knew that Tom Cranfill from the University of Texas was fascinated by Mexico and often spent his summers there. I called him in Austin for advice on how to find a place to live in Mexico City. He recommended a hotel for a short visit but suggested renting an apartment for staying a couple of months. I found out that he would be there during the summer of 1958too.
Then, in the spring of 1958 my mother passed away. Efforts to control cancer in those days were primitive, and not often successful. I was able to fly back to Dallas for the funeral. Her death was not unexpected, but still a tragic loss to me.