Maurice Ewing

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Maurice Ewing
Maurice Ewing headshot.png
Latest company Columbia University
BSc Mathematics and Physics
MSc Physics
PhD Physics
BSc university Rice University
MSc university Rice University
PhD university Rice University

William Maurice Ewing (May 12, 1906 – May 4, 1974) was an American geophysicist and pioneering oceanographer.


Source: Maurice Ewing by Dolores Proubasta, The Leading Edge Mar 1991, Vol. 10, No. 3, pp. 15-20 much of this page is quoted verbatim from this article.

Early Years and Education

William Maurice Ewing was born on May 12, 1906, to Floyd and Hope Hamilton Ewing. Maurice (Pronounced Morris), like his six younger siblings, was heir to the self-discipline and hard work of a farming family that coaxed a livelihood from the harsh flats of the Texas Panhandle. Recreation and relaxation would remain foreign concepts throughout his life; Ewing worked twice as long and hard as anybody. There were no days off.

Ewing received a bachelor’s in 1926 with honors in math and physics, a master’s in 1927 in physics, and a doctorate in 1931 from Rice where he was Hohenthal Scholar (1923-26) and a Fellow in Physics (1926-29). To support himself, Ewing worked on seismic crews during the summers, and this was the extent of his formal training in geophysics.

Professional Career

1930 Mapping the Continental Shelf

After a year at the University of Pittsburgh as a physics instructor, in 1930 Ewing joined the Lehigh University faculty. Four years later, an unexpected visit by Professor Richard Field, of Princeton, and William Bowie, of the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, altered the course of his career completely.

The geologic problem they hoped Ewing could unravel was whether the deep place where the continental shelf ends was a geologic fault or the result of outbuilding of sediment from the land. Field and Bowie, who knew about Ewing through papers he presented at the American Geophysical Union, thought that perhaps seismic measurements, with which Ewing had become familiar while working on crews, could be used in the investigation. The answer was affirmative, provided one had adequate equipment and a ship. As for Ewing’s willingness, he would sum it up years later in his biography, The Floor of the Sea: Maurice Ewing and the Search to Understand the Earth.

“If they had asked me to put seismic equipment on the moon instead of the bottom of the ocean I’d have agreed, I was so desperate for a chance to do research.” But then, according to his biographer, William Wertenbaker, “Ewing was desperate to learn something most of the time.”

1935 Explosion Seismology at Sea

With a $2000 grant from the Geological Society of America, Ewing set out in 1935 to do what had never been tried before explosion seismology at sea. On board the Coast Survey’s Oceanographer and later that year on the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Atlantis, Ewing, with Albert Crary and H.M. Rutherford, began tests to trace the basement rock off the coast of Virginia in an outcrop almost to the edge of the continental shelf. Their outdated equipment was borrowed from an oil company that Ewing had worked for.

Using the seismic refraction method, Ewing determined that the continental shelf was a thick wedge of sediment (the tidelands where oil forms) underlain by the continental basement. The answer to Field and Bowie’s academic query didn’t, however, shake any foundations other than those of Ewing’s own career.

After his experience at sea, all he wanted to do thereon was solve the geophysical enigmas of the earth, and Ewing firmly believed that all the clues lay beneath the ocean basins. His attempts to obtain an annual grant from several major oil companies in return for the data he could gather regarding the offshore’s hydrocarbon potential were unsuccessful. His venture, he was told, wasn’t worth a cent of the shareholder’s money.

A grant from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation enabled Ewing to take an indefinite leave of absence from Lehigh which had just promoted him from assistant professor of physics to associate professor of geology. (He always felt that this grant was the turning point in his career.)

Ewing began conducting experiments in the North Atlantic basin assisted first by Crary and Rutherford and then by Allyn Vine (later of Alvin research sub fame), Norman Webster, George Woollard, and Joe Worzel. The challenges of moving their old-fashioned gear from 100 fathoms to the then-formidable depth of 1000 fathoms were compounded by limited access (two weeks a year) to the Atlantis. And considering that the ship’s main scientific objectives were other than Ewing’s, the most they managed to obtain during those two weeks was three to four good records.

Always pressed for time Ewing rigged ingenious data-gathering devices to work alongside the seismic equipment. One of those instruments was a deep-sea camera (the first ever) he and Vine had built on a shoestring grant from the National Geographic Society. No one else was interested in backing underwater photography because expert oceanographers maintained that water in depths greater than a few tens of fathoms was too murky to get any images of the bottom.

1940 Undersea Photography

The scientific community was indeed astounded when, in 1940, Ewing, his younger brother Robert, Vine, and Worzel obtained clear shots of ripples and bare cobbles (proving that currents existed at the bottom, something denied until then) and an abundance of animal life and tracks (contrary to biologists’ predictions). Just before the outbreak of World War II, Ewing accepted the offer of Columbus Iselin to work at Woods Hole on contracts from the newly created National Defense Research Committee. Iselin liked to say that he was just as impressed by Ewing’s acumen in math and physics as by the fact that he didn’t get seasick.

1941-1945 World War II Ocean Acoustics and the SoFAR Channel

As a research associate at Woods Hole, Ewing with Vine, Worzel, and Crary engaged in the application of underwater sound and photography to the problems of submarine warfare. Among Ewing’s contributions during the war years was Sound Transmission in Sea Water, the definitive manual on the physical and oceanographic factors that regulate underwater sound. One of its tenets was that the various temperature layers in seawater can refract sound (not unlike earth strata) and thus shield submarines from sonar detection. To solve this problem, Ewing and Vine resorted to the bathythermograph (which they promptly renamed BT). Developed by meteorologist Athelstan Spilhaus at Woods Hole, the BT, as it was lowered, made a continuous record of water temperature. However, since it took up to a minute for each reading, it was obviously too slow for defense purposes. Ewing and Vine soon had it converted to be used without having to stop the ship, making it a more effective instrument for naval operations.

Toward the end of the war, Ewing and Worzel developed a long-range system of underwater signaling. They detected, from 10 000 km away, a small TNT charge detonated in the deep-sound channel, a feature present in much of the ocean depths. The Sound Fixing And Ranging system--SOFAR was the Navy’s acronym-had possibilities in air-sea rescue, relief of submarines under attack, location of unknown sea mounts on an ocean-wide basis, explanation of the T-phase in earthquake seismology, and other naval and oceanographic operations. To Ewing, however, it was far more important that wartime research was developing techniques they could later use in peacetime science.

1946-1947 Exploration of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge

In June 1946 Ewing assumed a chair at Columbia University (though he remained a research associate at Woods Hole) to lecture and do research in geophysics. Worzel, Nelson Steenland, and David Ericson went with him to Columbia. And, as expected, many of the remarkable discoveries of the ensuing period were made possible by instruments they had developed during the war.

For the first large Ewing-led expedition in the summer of ‘47 to explore the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, he had Atlantis outfitted with an echo sounder he and Worzel had modified to record soundings from depths up to 4000 fathoms-a capability never before realized. More (and, for the first time realistic) information was gathered about the Ridge during this voyage than had been since it was first discovered, or rather “suspected,” during the 1872- 76 Challenger Expedition. It turned out to be the planet’s single largest geologic feature, equal in area to all the dry land. Ewing described it as “millions of square miles of a tangled jumble of massive peaks, saw-toothed ridges, earthquake-shattered cliffs, valleys, lava formations of every conceivable shape.” And with Tolstoy and Heezen, Ewing concluded in a paper that “the Ridge is not at all like mountains on the continents.”

No less startling was the discovery of the great abyssal plains which proved, once again, that the topography of the ocean bottom was unlike anything terrestrial or imagined before. It appeared, in fact, that any notion previously entertained about the seafloor was suspect.

Improved instruments and Ewing’s drive to try anything presumably more efficient made his cruises far superior technically and scientifically to any previous attempts at marine exploration. For example, Ewing perfected underway seismic shooting without having to stop and start the ship. Instead, just before each TNT charge exploded, the line towing the hydrophones was released, allowing it to float inertly while the signals were recorded. The line was then hauled back. Ewing was very proud of this development.

Continued efforts to measure the thickness of sediments in the ocean basin at various locations culminated in the finding, by 1949, that it was, more or less uniformly, only 2000 ft thick. This made it possible to probe deeper.

“Unexpectedly,” Ewing wrote in 1955 in an unpublished report on the history of Lamont, “we were able to measure the thickness of the basaltic layer beneath the sediment and show that it was only about two miles in thickness. This constitutes the entire crust of the earth under the ocean basin, and the contrast between this thin crust and the crust twenty miles thick or so which underlies the continents, amounts to proof of the permanence of the ocean basins.” (Permanence was counter to the looming theory of seafloor spreading. More about this later.)

For every question answered, a thousand new ones arose. There were no bounds to the avenues of scientific query-if only, that is, they had full-time access to a ship and better facilities than three small rooms in a basement. At least one problem resolved itself just in time to prevent Ewing from leaving for MIT where he was offered everything he lacked at Columbia.

1949 Lamont Geological Observatory

In 1949, through a gift of the estate of the late Thomas W. Lamont to Columbia University, the Lamont Geological Observatory came into being with Ewing as its founding director. Liberated from their dungeon, his team moved about 24 km north of the university to the Lamont mansion, high above the Hudson River and, for their research purposes, conveniently away from the noise pollution of New York.

While Ewing considered the creation of Lamont the second milestone in his career, still nothing ranked higher in his wish list than gaining unlimited access to a ship. His association of nearly two decades with Atlantis had proven fruitful but often frustrating . And then Worzel found Vema, a 202 ft, three-masted schooner that, he felt, was everything they wanted. The only problem was its $100 000 price tag, an amount that Ewing couldn’t raise on short notice. Worzel pressed Ewing into borrowing the money from Columbia University lest they miss the chance to ever own a ship, especially one so fine.

Predictably, the RV Vema-the largest research ship in the world at the time-became Ewing’s most prized possession: a real laboratory. (Buildings, he used to say, were just places to store data.) Its first scientific voyage was in the spring of 1953, and from that moment on, the net effect the vessel had on Ewing’s research associates-already getting overcrowded and always overworked at the Lamont mansion---was that everyone’s workload quadrupled. Some of them were also required to risk life and limb at sea for months at a time

1954 Man Overboard

Ewing himself had a close call in January 1954, while trying to secure some oil drums that had broken loose during a heavy sea between Cape Hatteras and Bermuda; he, along with his brother John and the ship’s first and second mates, Charles Wilkie and Mike Brown, were swept overboard. The superb seamanship of Captain MacMurry brought the ship full about time and again to rescue Brown, John Ewing, and finally after 45 minutes, Maurice. But Wilkie was never found.

Not even tragedy could slow the Roman-galley-like tempo of Vema. Ewing’s insistence on exacting top efficiency out of the ship and her crew produced far more information than could be analyzed on board or back at Lamont. Most cumbersome were the numerous cores obtained on each voyage-even though working up the data of a single one could easily take a year. To his critics Ewing would simply say, ‘When you can show me two alike, I’ll stop and study them in detail.”

(In the hands of Jim Hays, Lloyd Burckle, and other paleontologists and sedimentologists, the large collection of Lamont cores became the cornerstone of modem paleoceanography, which is now being furthered by deep-sea scientific drilling.) A code was devised so Ewing could keep tabs of the daily booty of data. Worzel explains, “Each type of measurement could be reported by simply stating its assigned number. But Ewing wasn’t satisfied just knowing, for example, how many cores were taken; he wanted much more detail. Our codes ended up having 30 or 40 number groups detailing the work in progress, and these messages arrived in the lab every other day while the ship was at sea.”

Vema, which cris-crossed every ocean, was the first American research vessel in 1961 to sail around the world. The following year the Robert D. Conrad became Lamont’s second ship. In the ’50s and ‘60s, Ewing and the Lamont staff under his direction conceived most of the observation techniques for the study of the ocean floor. Marine seismologist George Shor of Scripps called Lamont-Doherty “the world’s greatest widget factory.” Those “absolutely magnificent widgets,” as Shor called them, made it possible for Lamont to produce more research per dollar than anyone else. They ushered in modem deep-sea technology with continuous soundings, precision depth recording, seismic refraction and reflection measurements and profiling, long-piston coring and simultaneous thermal gradient measurements, gravity measurements from surface ships, flux-gate and nuclear resonance magnetometer measurements, underwater photography, air-gun sound sources, deepwater sampling for radioactive measurements, nephelometry measurements, 3.5 kHz sonoprobe measurements, seismic buoys in conjunction with continuous profiling, oriented cores from the ocean floor, integrated measurements of phenomena from a single wire, and much more.

Long PhD's and a Large Number of Publications

Equally prolific was their literary output. Ewing was a great believer in the power of publication; he thought it a waste of time to write master’s or doctoral theses that weren’t acceptable in the scientific press. Which brings up another unique facet of Doc, the professor: the exceedingly long time his graduate students lingered at Columbia in the pursuit of a degree; 5-10 years wasn’t unusual.

This regime produced at least 367 bibliographical items attributable to Ewing, yet he was the sole author of only a few; the rest were joint efforts born of a curious sort of scientific bartering. As the late William Donn remembered, “He was great at starting research studies that were completed only because one of the faithful would be following behind. Many of us traded on his scientific appetite. Often, when I had an interesting and somewhat sticky wave-related problem, I would show him the observations and ask if he wanted to buy a piece of it. His eyes would light up, and he always bought in, leading to a successful conclusion of the study.” Back when Lamont was instituted in ‘49, a fund of about $50 000 was raised by the department chairman, John Kerr, from various oil and mining companies. The parsimonious use of these funds stretched them for four years. Afterwards, the brunt of money-raising for most of their needs fell on Ewing---something that would bear heavily on him for the following 22 years at the observatory.

Alas, “policy ,” as he used to say, “is sabotage originating in higher echelons.” Neither policy nor fiscal considerations however, tempered his hunger for science. Shortly after the move to the Lamont estate, Ewing started to expand on the earthquake seismology research that he had initiated at the Columbia campus where traffic noise had severely hampered their measurements. At first, this branch of investigation was pursued mainly by Ewing and graduate student Frank Press (now president of the National Academy of Sciences). Eventually they designed a seismograph far superior to any that existed and used it in a network of stations which later served as a model for the Worldwide Standardized Seismograph Network.

Late 1950s Maurice Ewing Collaboration with Frank Press

A major development of the Ewing-Press partnership was the interpretation of the mysterious “coda” which appeared in seismograms only when an ocean lay between the source and the recording station. The phenomenon consists of great big swooping waves---surface waves----and seismologists considered it meaningless. Not so Ewing, who had noticed the coda’s recurrence in the records of the Coast and Geodetic Survey office during the war and was determined to understand its significance. Press and Ewing eventually identified most of the components of the coda as dispersive wave trains of Love and Raleigh waves, a knowledge that has greatly contributed to the study of the deep earth. This work culminated in 1957 in the classic book, Elastic Waves in Layered Media, by Ewing, Jardetzky, and Press. Other students worked on each of the various branches of geophysics of particular interest to Ewing.

1959 Ewing-Press Collaboration and Turbidity Currents

Turbidity currents, one of the chief forces that shape the ocean floor, were first proposed by Ewing and Bruce Heezen as they investigated the possible causes for the destruction of transatlantic telegraph cables 400 miles away from the epicenter of the 1929 Grand Banks earthquake. In 1952, Heezen was put in charge of drafting a map of the North Atlantic seafloor based on echo soundings obtained with the precision depth recorder developed at Lament. The result was a faithful and never-before imagined picture of the geologic and geographic features of the ocean floor. In 1959 the Geological Society of America published The Floors of the Oceans: The North Atlantic, by Ewing, Heezen, and Marie Tharp, a small book depicting-for the first time-the submerged landscape.

The Ewing-Heezen collaboration also identified the vast extent of the Mid-Ocean Ridge through the correlation of sounding and earthquake data. Joe Worzel, Ewing’s indefatigable lieutenant, was in charge of gravity measurements at sea. The goal was to collect enough of them to produce conclusive information on the crustal transition from ocean to continent, volcanic island arcs, mid-ocean ridges, oceanic islands and sea mounts, and the shape of the earth in general.

1960s Ocean Bottom Reflection Seismic and Drift Denial

Brother John Ewing, who is now senior scientist emeritus at Woods Hole, worked on ocean bottom reflection seismic. In 1960, he developed the seismic reflection profiler, which automatically converts echoes into a continuous tracing of strata beneath the seafloor. With this instrument, Lamont was fust able to visualize ancient layers of sediments and the shape of the crust underneath. A hundred thousand miles of records later, when Maurice Ewing saw the flatness of the old layers across the Atlantic and Pacific, he was reassured of the permanence of the ocean basins. HOW could buried sediments remain undisturbed if spreading and/or drifting were going on?

With William van Dorn he worked on ice origins. Confronted with the puzzle of Paleozoic glaciations in the southern hemisphere, van Dorn dared utter “continental drift” to his mentor as the only plausible answer to the phenomenon. Ewing examined the information and curtly replied, “You are probably right,” then changed the subject, but not his mind.

1947-1960s Marine Magnetics and Drift Denial

Yet another field of inquiry was marine magnetics, of which Ewing was an ardent proponent; he had been towing magnetometers behind his ships--which some considered a senseless effort since 1948. It was with Ewing’s marine magnetometer, one he converted from a WWII airborne model, that a pattern of marine magnetic reversals was first discovered by Raff and Mason of Scripps. However, as high as Ewing’s expectations were regarding the study of changes in the earth’s magnetic field, he didn't envision that it would rewrite the history of the earth’s surface the way it happened. It was up to his disciples and colleagues-Allen Cox, Dennis Hayes, Jim Heirtzler, Mark Langseth, Xavier Le-Pichon, Drummond Matthews, Jack Oliver, Nell Opdyke, Walter Pitman, Lynn Sykes, Manik Talwani, and Fred Vine, among others-to realize that the data accumulated strongly supported some mind-blowing concepts, i.e., seafloor spreading and continental drift. Withal, Lament remained a bastion of the anti-spread-and-drift mindset until 1965-66 when Pitman’s startling Elronin-19 magnetic profile made believers out of almost everyone (Ewing was reticent).

Some have speculated that Ewing might have brought earlier refinement to the far fetched sequent early “drifters” had he looked at the data with the eyes of a geologist. “Geologists spend their time poking around trying to explain this or that little detail,” he once complained. “I keep wanting to say, ‘Why don’t you try to see what’s making it all happen?"

Ignoring his own prescription, Ewing labeled the concepts of seafloor spreading and continental drift “rubbish” (a reaction, perhaps, to having overlooked their evidence in the first place) while countenancing their investigation and thus enabling those under his aegis to bring about the new age of geology. As Lamont prospered, the diversity of work also increased. Ewing, who couldn’t stay away from new scientific enticements, sometimes neglected those areas to which his knowledge and intuition were best suited. His contributions to half a dozen fields of science not withstanding, the hallmarks resulted from projects to which he paid sustained attention. Towering examples are his elucidations of the coda, turbidity currents, the oceanic crust, and the Mid-Ocean Ridge.

1969-1972 Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory to UT Galveston

In 1969, through a large grant from the Hemy L. and Grace Doherty Charitable Foundation, the Observatory was renamed Lamont-Doherty, and it appeared that Ewing might be finally able to raise the salaries of his staff to “half’ (as he used to lament) what Woods Hole, Scripps, or other research institutions were paying their people. Eventually, the financial skirmishes that underlie all research proved too much for the scientist. In the spring of ‘72, Ewing shocked everyone with his resignation and unceremonious departure from the Observatory that would forever bear his imprint. He went to the University of Texas-Galveston to head its Marine Sciences Institute.

Death in 1974

Ewing was addressing the applications of multichannel CDP seismology in solving problems of the continent-ocean transition zone when a stroke claimed his life on May 4, 1974. In his lifetime, he had acquired over half the offshore geophysical information gathered until then. He proved that the ocean basins were more than mere water receptacles, turning oceanic research, as someone observed, “from a polite academic backwater into one of the most exciting fields of inquiry being pursued today.” Few possess the kind of scientific intuition that consistently identifies lines of inquiry leading to momentous discoveries. Ewing did so not only in the field of geophysics but in marine geology and seismology as well. And others have been working on the details ever since.

Former Students

Most if not all of his 200-plus graduate students achieved a measure of success well above the average. And what higher a professor’s glory than to count among his ahmmi the likes of Albert Crary, Milton Dobrin, William van Dorn, Jim Dorman, Charles Drake, Gordon Hamilton, Jim Hayes, Bruce Heezen, John Bracken Hersey, Sam Katz, Marcus Langseth, Gary Latham, Bernie Luskin, Maurice Major, Edward Miller, Charles Officer, Jack Oliver, Frank Press, H. M. Rutherford, Nelson Steenland, Ivan Tolstoy, Allyn Vine, Joe Worzel, and Paul Wuenschel.

Honors Awarded to Maurice Ewing

  • 1999 The Maurice Ewing a 299 ft research vessel owned by the Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory, is launched
  • 1997 Maurice Ewing Earth and Planetary Sciences Fund is established by the National Academy of Sciences
  • 1977 Maurice Ewing Medal is created as SEG's highest award
  • 1976 Maurice Ewing Medal is created, jointly awarded by the American Geophysical Union and the US Navy
  • 1974 Waiter H. Bucher Medal, American Geophysical Union; Distinguished Achievement Award, Offshore Technology Conference
  • 1973 National Medal of Science; Robert Earl McConnell Award, American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical, and Petroleum Engineers; Associate, Royal Astronomical Society (London); Honorary Member, Canadian Society of Petroleum Geologists; First Sproule Lecturer, University of Alberta; Member, Houston Philosophical Society
  • 1972 Foreign Member, Royal Society (London); Alumni Gold Medal, Rice University
  • 1971 Honorary doctor of science, Centre College of Kentucky
  • 1970 Honorary Member, Royal Society of New Zealand
  • 1969 Honorary doctor of science, Long Island University; Sesquicentennial Medal, St. Louis University; Wollaston Medal, Geological Society of London; Honorary Member, Soledad Colombiana de Geologia; Honorary doctor of science, U National de Colombia
  • 1968 Sidney Powers Memorial Medal, American Association of Petroleum Geologists; Honorary Member, American Association of Petroleum Geologists; Honorary doctor of science, University of Delaware
  • 1967 Third David Rivett Memorial Lecturer (CSIRO, Australia); Honorary Fellow, Indian Geophysical Union
  • 1966 Corresponding Member (New York), Academia Nacional de Cienclas Exactas, Fisicas y Naturales (Buenos Aires)
  • 1965 Vega Medal, Swedish Society for Anthropology and Geography
  • 1964 Foreign Member, Geological Society of London; Gold Medal, Royal Astronomical Society (London)
  • 1963 Honorary doctor of science, University of Durham; John J. Carty Medal, National Academy of Sciences
  • 1962 Medal of Honor, Rice University
  • 1961 Cullum Geographical Medal, American Geographical Society; Joseph Priestley Award, Dickinson College
  • 1960 Vetlesen Prize, Columbia University (the Nobel-equivalent for earth scientists); Honorary doctor of science, University of Rhode Island; Honorary doctor of laws, Dalhousie; John Fleming Medal, American Institute of Geonomy and Natural Resources
  • 1959 Member, American Philosophical Society
  • 1957 Honorary doctor of science, Lehigh University; Honorary doctor of science, University of Utrecht; William Bowie Medal, American Geophysical Union; Order of Naval Merit, Rank of Commander, Argentine Republic; Honorary Member, SEG
  • 1956 Foreign Member (Section for Sciences), Royal Netherlands; Academy of Sciences and Letters
  • 1955 Guggenheim Fellow; Agassiz Medal, National Academy of Sciences; Distinguished US Public Service Award, US Navy
  • 1952 Honorary doctor of science, University of Denver; Member, Philosophical Society of Texas; Guggenheim Fellow
  • 1951 Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • 1949 Honorary doctor of science, Washington and Lee University; Arthur L. Day Medalist, Geological Society of America
  • 1949 Member, National Academy of Sciences
  • 1938 Guggenheim Fellow

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