William Ewing

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William Maurice Ewing

Maurice Ewing Dolores Proubasta The Leading Edge Mar 1991, Vol. 10, No. 3, pp. 15-20

SEG’s Maurice Ewing Medal, created in 1977, recognizes individuals whose lifework, like the eponym’s, has given shape and substance to the science and profession of exploration geophysics. It has been estimated that Ewing’s contributions tripled the rate of our understanding of the earth.

No less than the emergence of marine geology as a science is owed Ewing. Before him, conjecture passed for scientific knowledge of what lay below the shallows of the continental shelves. What for centuries had been called “off soundings” was presumed an axoic monotony up to as recently as 1942. Like the featureless bottom of a tub, its raison d’etre was just to hold water.

Ewing disagreed. He dismissed the ocean as “a murky mess” he wished would evaporate to reveal the real wonders in the bottom. And what wonders they turned out to be-scapes so fantastic that Homer could have dreamed them for his own Poseidon. Yet the beauty of the findings was incidental to Ewing’s goal of solving the geophysical enigmas of an entire planet. This sort of irrepressible curiosity more than made up for the fact that Ewing never received formal training in geology or geophysics. He toppled so many of the icons of classical geology, it’s a won&r he fell short of discover- ing seafloor spreading from his own investigations. Perhaps, being the great generalist he was, the avalanche of projects he generated left no time to ponder the details.

Much of Ewing’s huge scientific undertaking would have been indefinitely postponed without those who toiled in the master’s shadow-retinues of students and associates whom he alternately ignored or overwhelmed with his demands.

Although Ewing didn’t shun the image of scientific demiurge, first and foremost he considered himself a teacher. Never mind “Dot” (as most everyone called him) sometimes fell asleep in his own class after staying up all night at the lab; or that he was un- accessible for long periods while at sea. More didactic than his lectures was his attitude about science (i.e., little else mattered) and his insistence on hands-on experience. The lesson one of Ewing’s students valued most was “to bleed the last ounce of in- formation out of the data.”

As so often happens, the “oppressed” came to resemble the oppressor; Ewing’s students clung to their theses as ends unto themselves, “A student can hang around until he rots, as long as he continues to work at geophysics,” Dot used to say. As they eventually parted from the taskmaster to pursue their own interests, a curious pattern began to emerge. 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 DOM, Jim Dorman, Charles Drake, Gordon Hamilton, Jim Hayes, Bruce Heezen, John Bracken Hersey, Sam Katz, Marcus Lang- seth, Gary Latham, Bernie Luskin, Maurice Major, Edward Miller, Charles Officer, Jack Oliver, Frank Press, H.M. Ruther- ford, Nelson Steenland, Ivan Tolstoy, Allyn Vine, Joe Worxel, and Paul Wuenschel. Dot was proud of their individual achievements, but his dreams couldn’t be contained in the halls of academe.

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. 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 geo- logic 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 per- haps seismic measurements, with which Ewing had become familiar while working on crews, could be used in the investiga- tion. 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, Z’Jre 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.”

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. Onboard the Coast Survey’s Oceunogrupher and later that year on the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Atluntis, Ewing, with Albert Crary and H.M. Ruther- ford, began tests to trace the basement rock off the coast of Vir- ginia 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 Simmon Guggenheim Foundation enabled Ewing to take an indefinite leave of absence from Lehigh which had just promoted him from assistant professor of physics to as- sociate 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 Wonel. 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 scien- tific 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-gather- ing 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 photog- raphy 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.