Franklyn Levin

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Franklyn Levin
Franklyn K. Levin headshot.png
Latest company Western Geophysical
BSc Physics
PhD Physics
BSc university Purdue University
PhD university University of Wisconsin

Franklyn Levin (1922-2014) was an American geophysicist noted for his competence as a researcher and for the many scientific discoveries in the field of exploration geophysics.


From The Leading Edge.[1]

Remembrance by Sven Treitel and Ken Larner

Frank Levin, one of the pioneers of modern exploration geophysics, passed away in October 2014 at age 92. Frank distinguished himself as one of the most innovative and influential geophysicists of his generation. Moreover, he was also a unique human being and an outstanding mentor for younger colleagues everywhere — whether with his immediate collaborators at Exxon and later at Western Geophysical or with geophysicists all over the globe. His scientific standards were of the highest; he was as exacting of himself as he was of others, as many of us learned to our chagrin after presenting a conference paper. Although, to quote Saint Paul, Frank did not suffer fools gladly and was on occasion called a curmudgeon, he stood up for the people who worked with him and valiantly defended basic research to managements that were on occasion doubtful about its value.

Rather than composing this memorial by ourselves, we felt that it would be more appropriate to let people who worked with Frank or who knew him well express their thoughts and feelings, including his three sons. An article by Dean Clark about Frank and his career can be found in the November 1993 issue of The Leading Edge.

What perhaps few of us know is that following Frank’s first retirement from Exxon, he discovered a hidden talent in poetry — poetry that exemplifies his depth of thought and caring, spiced with his ever-present humor. In 2009, the Geophysical Society of Houston celebrated Frank with its annual Spring Symposium. Perhaps there is no more fitting way to end this memorial than to include two poems, one of which he wrote after that occasion.

Remembrance by Kurt Strack, a friend, along with Frank’s sons, Michael, Alan, and Phillip

Franklyn Kussel Levin passed away peacefully in his sleep on 16 October 2014. He was a most remarkable man who had made outstanding contributions to geophysics. Personally, he was known for his generosity, his moral strength, his devotion to his wife, and his gentle and loving nature.

Born in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1922, Frank graduated from Purdue University. After graduation, he went to New York, working on the Manhattan Project. Following the war, he obtained his Ph. D. from the University of Wisconsin, where he met Beatrice (Bea) Schwartz, his wife of 67 years.

Frank Levin at work with seismic paper records at Carter Oil’s Tulsa Laboratory, 1958.

In 1949, the family moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he began a 37-year career with Carter Oil Company, later Exxon-Mobil. In 1965, the family, now including three sons, moved to Houston, Texas. From 1969 to 1971, Frank served as editor of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists (SEG) journal, Geophysics. In 1988, he received the Maurice Ewing Gold Medal, the highest award given by SEG. His contributions include patents and numerous other awards, including the McConnell Award from the American Institution of Mining, Metallurgical, and Petroleum Engineers (AIME). Deserving special mention is a method of Frank’s still in use today, which attenuates multiple reflections in the Lake Maracaibo region of Venezuela. He founded and staffed the Exxon Long Range Research Division in Houston, which was the first and only group at a major U. S. petroleum company devoted exclusively to basic research. Following his retirement from Exxon in 1986, Frank worked for 11 years as a consultant for Western Geophysical before taking a second retirement and eventually moving to Arbor Acres in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 2006. In 2009, the Geophysical Society of Houston (GSH) and SEG jointly honored him with a Spring Symposium held in Houston, Texas.

Frank loved to read and had an encyclopedic recall, frequently reciting poetry he had read. He knew and studied all the English kings and queens from 1066, from William the Conqueror to the present. He especially loved biographies and U. S. Civil War history. His hobbies included listening to classical music, particularly opera. Toward the end of his second career at Western, Frank became the technical editor of Western’s In Depth magazine. He first did his editing discreetly until it became apparent that the journalist editor could not deal with technical articles nor negotiate with the scientists/authors. That is when Frank stepped in and wrestled the technical material from the author’s hand to turn it into readable articles. At some stage, both Frank and his wife, Bea, were teaching technical writing to some 40 foreign scientists at Western. This was so much appreciated that many one-on-one sessions followed.

Frank and Bea loved to attend parties, even after his second retirement in 1999. They were always in the midst of all the young scientists while sampling a variety of foreign foods. Everyone still remembers them as the “old people.” From 1999 until when Frank and Bea left Houston, a small group of colleagues tried to have monthly dinners with the “suspects,” as they were lovingly referred to by one of their close friends. It was a real adventure to see how Frank and Bea were prepared to taste many different Asian foods after initial hesitation (Vietnamese hot pot was a real challenge).

Traveling to these dinners, Frank remembered every bump on the road, which is a difficult task in Houston, while giving driving instructions along the way. During this time, his physical condition declined, but not his mind. Kurt Strack remembers that after one dinner, a late-night call from Frank followed: “Son, I noticed you were troubled during dinner. I know your work is important, and building a business is difficult. If you ever need to talk, just call me.” Amazingly, he was right on target.

As mentioned above, in 2009, GSH honored Frank with its Spring Symposium. This was the last time he could enjoy the company of his colleagues and many friends. Afterward, Frank wrote a poem about the symposium, which can be found at the conclusion of this memorial.

Frank requested that his large collection of geophysical books should find use somewhere. They ended up in China at a university where students could use them. There were so many books that the Chinese universities finally requested that he ship no more!

Frank never recovered from the loss of his wife, Beatrice (Bea), in February 2014. He is survived by his three sons, Michael, Alan, and Philip, daughter-in-law Melisa, and grandchildren Katie Rose, Alexis, Stephen, and Lauren.

Remembrance by Bob Wegner, a former EXXON colleague

Frank Levin joined Carter Oil (now part of ExxonMobil) in 1949, at a time when seismic exploration was limited to finding large structures on land in selective basins that had good signal-to-noise ratios. His earliest research investigated imaging through the creation of 1D synthetic seismograms. This was done using three-quarter-inch diameter pipe, connected in lengths extending more than 60 feet and laid out in a hallway. Using a cleverly devised acoustic source, brass pipes of different lengths and diameters to simulate bedding, and an oscilloscope to view the arrivals, Frank could produce a reflection seismogram.

Frank was a successful collaborator. In the early years, it was with Haines Hibbard and Dick Jolly, working on synthetic seismograms and downhole geophone recordings. In 1984, Frank, Hibbard, and Jolly were corecipients of SEG’s Reginald Fessenden Award for developing the forerunner of today’s VSP technology. Later collaborations with John Dunkin, Pravin Shah, and Mike Schoenberger spanned a broad range of exploration topics: velocity determination, multiples, stacking, and reflection coefficients. As coauthor, Frank was honored twice for Best Paper in Geophysics (1962 and 1977), and a 1971 publication by Frank is among classic papers published by Geophysics in 1960 through 1985.

Frank ascended through the ranks of the company to its highest technical position, senior research scientist, and along the way, he was directly or indirectly involved with a broad range of exploration-geophysics operations within the corporation. Not only was Frank a gifted researcher, he also knew how to make an organization work effectively. He removed roadblocks and got people working together when Carter and Esso’s research companies merged in 1963. In the 1970s, he spearheaded the formation of a new Long Range Research Division, hiring a bright new generation of researchers. His primary focus was always the individual; he was a superb mentor, and at social gatherings, he was fun.

Frank was both a curmudgeon and a cheerleader. During project reviews, he could recall failings associated with experiments occurring 20 years earlier that related to the current work, and he could ask the most penetrating question regarding the validity of a claim while appearing preoccupied by an algebraic expression scribbled on a Styrofoam coffee cup. He was the go-to guy for getting an unvarnished second opinion, the impromptu office visitor who helped to clarify fuzzy thinking, a gifted editor who made text readable, and a key supporter for a new direction of promising research.

When Frank retired in 1986, he left a legacy of people and projects that formed the underpinnings of a new generation of researchers.

Remembrance by Len Srnka a former EXXON colleague

Frank Levin was an extraordinary mentor to the members of his fledgling Long Range Research (LRR) Division at Exxon Production Research Company, which I joined in August 1979. He continued his close ties with us “Long Rangers” long after that temporary management assignment expired, and he was instrumental in guiding careers for many. LRR was tasked by Exxon Corporation to reinvigorate the company’s basic geoscience research, ranging from rock physics and chemistry to geophysical electromagnetics. Frank had the breadth and depth to lead that effort admirably.

In addition to his remarkable geophysical prowess, when I think of him, what always comes to mind is his sense of humor. He had a marvelous way of putting us nervous young professionals at ease and of deflating those who needed it, including managers. Frank recruited me into Exxon, and after I gave my interview presentation on lunar geophysics, he quipped that it looked like good work, but it was on the wrong planet. Frank and his wife, Bea, were also supportive in the personal lives of many at Exxon, offering advice, encouragement, and consolation as the needs arose. He is sorely missed.

Remembrance by Mike Schoenberger a former EXXON colleague

Frank Levin was extraordinarily prescient in his research. He explored down-traveling waves and reflections in boreholes decades before VSP became a popular topic in geophysics. He hired electrical engineers to develop signal-processing algorithms when digital computers became sufficiently powerful and was a strong proponent of Jon Claerbout and the Stanford Exploration Project’s imaging efforts.

Unlike many physicists, Frank could not be categorized as solely a theoretician or an experimentalist. He utilized whatever technology was available at the time. His work with developing an understanding of the manner in which seismic records are generated began with experiments using an acoustic source and an assemblage of variable-diameter brass pipes and evolved to simulating reflecting interfaces by placing masking tape on a plastic sheet. Later, as technology progressed, he investigated computer simulations of these phenomena, progressing from simple primary reflections to the inclusion of intrabed multiples and finally to including anisotropy.

Although Frank devoted his career to research, he also made a significant contribution to Exxon’s exploration effort. He noted that the “singing seismic records” from Lake Maracaibo were multiples set up by the negative water-bottom reflection coefficient caused by gas-saturated sediments. He devised a notch filter that eliminated the multiples, producing usable reflections.

Mentor and role model

Despite his many scientific contributions to geophysics, Frank’s principal legacy must be as mentor and role model both within Exxon and to the geophysical community at large. Indeed, he was a curmudgeon, but a curmudgeon who always encouraged his cadre of budding researchers to tackle difficult problems while he offered sage advice along the way. It is notable that in Frank’s many joint publications, he is rarely listed as the first author.

When I eventually assumed a senior role in Exxon, I tried to model myself after Frank. Not only was his office always open and visitors welcome, but he also dropped by my office regularly to inquire about my research, offer advice, and collaborate on projects that interested him. He was always available as a resource who carefully avoided the shopworn phrase, “We tried that before and it didn’t work.” Rather, he pointed out relevant prior work and suggested how it might bear on the current approach. Although he was extremely loyal to his employer, he stressed the importance of looking after our personal careers. Publication and active participation in SEG were important both to sharing our geophysical knowledge and enhancing our reputations within the larger geophysical community.


Frank recruited many of us by traveling to our universities and selling a career in geophysics to many of those from other fields who had no notion of what a geophysicist did. After joining Exxon, we were not forgotten. Frank and Bea invited us to many dinners at their home. However, he had a limited tolerance for small talk, and dinners frequently ended with Frank saying, “Stay as long as you want, but I’m going to bed.” Frank and Bea adopted many of his recruits, and we became a virtual family while they lived in Houston, a relationship that continued after they moved to North Carolina to be closer to their son Alan.

Remembrance by Craig Beasley Frank’s manager during his second career at Western Geophysical

I had the pleasure of being Frank’s “manager” at Western Geophysical after he retired from a full and stellar career at ExxonMobil (just Exxon at the time, I believe). The irony that I had to “manage” one of the world’s most famous and greatest geophysicists was not lost on me. What in the world was I supposed to do? But I needn’t have worried. Frank was the most pragmatic person in this regard that I have ever met. He was an adviser and confidant for me when I asked; otherwise, he was just one of the guys. No — not just one of the guys, one of the best guys.

I was arriving to work early in those days, often before seven, but I never seemed to beat him to the office. We were often the only ones there, and it was a great time to have a coffee, unload my problems, and see what wisdom might ensue. And there was always some. But Frank was not just a grandfather figure for the group — he was one of the most productive in terms of research in the group. He worked tirelessly with, among others, Ron Chambers and Everett Mobley. One thing Frank did not excel at was working with the computer; I have to say he was capable of oaths aimed at the computer, but we always got it sorted out. Frank was a man of strong principles. For example, he refused to work or be paid beyond what he could make without having his social-security benefit taxed. His scientific ethic was unmatched as I saw him reject coauthorship on papers if he felt he had not truly contributed enough. Of all the things I remember about him, these three stand out:

1) Frank witnessed the dismantling of the unwritten contract between oil companies and scientists in which the scientists silently traded their potential reputation by not publishing for a lifelong career with the company. As a result of the breaking of this unwritten contract and the dismantling of many research departments, Frank often “encouraged” (not a strong enough word, though) the younger generation, including me, to push for publications and to make the effort to do it. Because of this, I resolved never to give up research and publishing no matter what position I might hold, and this advice has served me well.

2) One cannot talk about him without including Bea. There are many things I could say, but the one that sticks with me is that when I would see her, she would always take me aside and say, “Thanks for giving my old man a place to go.” I would always assure her that it was our gain and not any sort of charity — and that was the truth.

3) Nevertheless, the time came when, after about 10 years at Western, Frank decided he needed to retire again. We had a big party for the whole department, and it was a festive evening indeed. The next day, he was back at work! He had just a few things he wanted to finish up.

Needless to say, Frank and Bea shaped my career in fundamental ways. I realize today that the most important part was not what was said — and there was plenty said that was important — but what was not said, that I learned through his devotion to the science and the scientists. I learned that as time passes, it is essential to stay engaged and to know and help the next generations of scientists, if you can. This is a valuable lesson, and one that I strive to emulate.

Two poems by Frank Levin


By the measures men use, I’ve known success,
Nor will my absence drain the estates others hold.
My criteria aren’t simple, the bounds less
Financial than social, by emotions controlled.
Have I done what was needed? Did I fail those I love?
Is the world any better because I was here?
The answers aren’t obvious nor fit like a glove.
On the scales Time held, the balance is not clear.
My sons are professionals, educated, respected.
I brought men to a field that’s expanded and grown.
Taught, wrote, edited, papers corrected,
Until I’m depleted, isolated, and alone.
I’ve a thumb on one scale pan: I care for my wife,
The lady I shall cherish till the end of my life.

Symposium March 2009

This is an honor friendship brought
But I’ll not reject it, for I’m vain.
Unbiased judgment says the honor ought
To have gone to another whose name
Marks a current contribution to what we do
In detailing the subsurface, tells what rock
Is such that in it hydrocarbons grew.
The drill is no longer a jester to mock
the geophysicist. I would like to write
My papers were torches to light the way.
Alas, scanning the important reference sites
Shows I was a minor actor in an important play.
I influenced the careers of a select few
Whose work shaped what geophysicists do.

Biography 1993

Frank [Levin] received a B.S. degree in Physics from Purdue University in 1943, worked in the Manhattan Project from 1943-1945, and received the Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Wisconsin in 1949.[2]

Citation for the Maurice Ewing Medal

Contributed by Sven Treitel Suppose somebody asks us to draw up a list of individuals who have made fundamental contributions to exploration geophysics. I would wager my laser wavelet that Frank Levin's name would have to appear early on and in mine, he would be in the top ten!

When I think of Frank, I think of scientific rigor, intellectual curiosity, and a passionate quest for excellence. These, of course, are the qualities that have made Frank into what he is today an outstanding scientist and a gifted mentor. There is hardly a part of exploration seismology that has escaped his concern over the last four decades. His earliest paper in Geophysics, co-authored with H. C. Hibbard, dealt with studies in physical 3-D models, a field in which he made fundamental contributions over the years. He became interested in deephole geophone studies long before the days of vertical seismic profiling and published a classical paper on reverberations in Lake Maracaibo in 1962. Subsequently he and his coworkers at Exxon Production Research (EPR) studied the detailed behavior of the normal incidence synthetic seismogram, with particular emphasis on peg-leg multiples. He became involved with wave propagation in transversely anisotropic media at a time when few of us could spell the words, thereby demonstrating his remarkable ability to anticipate important developments in our field. Neither head waves from beds of finite thickness nor the age-old problem of apparent versus intrinsic seismic attenuation avoided his eye the work is widely quoted as I write. Frank is one of those rare people who is equally at home in the field, in the laboratory, and at the computer terminal.

No scientist of Frank's stature works in a vacuum. During his years at EPR, Frank managed to form a team of experts whose contributions made his laboratory into one of the centers of excellence in geophysics. He personally hired and nurtured a group of young scholars who have left their own mark in geophysics John Dunkin, John Ingram, Neal Jordam, Mike Schoenberger, and Pravin Shah, just to name a few.

Above all, Frank is a teacher. He realized the importance of lucid prose and is as demanding of himself as he is of others. Those who were at the receiving end of his reviews as Editor of Geophysics know only too well of what I speak.

Throughout his career Frank has been a perfectionist's perfectionist. During the early '60s while Frank was still living in Tulsa, he and I belonged to a small study group which met every few weeks to work through a book by Lanczos (we called ourselves "Lanczos Lancers"). We were committed to work one problem for every meeting and to show the group the fruits of our struggles. Naturally, most of us did not manage to live up to expectations, except guess who? Frank rarely failed to come through with his part, along with choice editorial comment about some of the book's less intelligible passages.

Frank graduated with a B.S. in physics from Purdue in 1943. He was associated with the Manhattan Project from 1943 to 1945 and received his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Wisconsin in 1949. He then joined Carter Oil in Tulsa. Except for a year spent as the assistant director of Hudson Laboratories at Columbia University (1953-54), he worked for various Exxon affiliates until 1986 when he retired as senior research scientist, the highest technical position the company offers. Along the way, Frank was singled out for frequent professional recognition. He is an Honorary Member of the SEG and a Life Member of the Geophysical Society of Houston. He was the 1969-71 Editor of Geophysics and earned two Best Paper awards from our journal as well. He received the Earl McConnell Award from the AIME and the Fessenden Award from the SEG. He was an SEG Distinguished Lecturer and has served on numerous SEG committees over the years. All who worked with him have learned to value his incisive wit and boundless energy. Retirement and Frank failed to mix by now he is back in the midst of things. He consults for Western Geophysical Company and is the Assistant Editor for Geophysics as well.

Next to many a successful scholar there stands an understanding and supportive family. My wife tells me that marriage to a scientist is not always easy, and Frank's wife Bea would surely agree. She and their three sons (Michael, Alan, and Philip) share much of the credit for Frank's singular professional achievements.

The Maurice Ewing Medal is the highest award our Society can bestow. In a letter asking me to prepare his citation, Frank writes in part: "I was astonished, rocked from teeth to toes. I certainly never expected to be considered for the Maurice Ewing Medal." Well, I won't rock along with Frank, for here is a man with a lifelong obsession to do good science and to do it well. His work is marred by neither wild claims, nor sweeping generalizations. It has always remained crisp and to the point. By imposing high standards on himself, he has set the pace for his colleagues, both at EPR and in the greater geophysical community. Maurice Ewing knew Frank and was in part responsible for bringing him to the Hudson Laboratories for a year. I think he would agree that the SEG Honors and Awards Committee has chosen wisely and chosen justly.

Reginald Fessenden Award 1984

For his many groundbreaking contributions to exploration geophysics, Franklyn Levin was honored with the 1984 Reginald Fessenden Award.

SEG Best Paper in Geophysics Award 1977

F. K. Levin and P. M. Shah received the 1977 SEG Best Paper in Geophysics Award for their paper Peg-leg multiples and dipping reflectors.[3]

SEG Best Paper in Geophysics Award 1962

Frank Levin and J. D. Ingram received the 1962 SEG Best Paper in Geophysics Award for their paper Head waves from a bed of finite thickness, [4]


  1. (2015). "Memorial.” Memorial, 34(1), 114–116, 118.
  2. Clark, D. (1993). ”Franklyn K. Levin.” The Leading Edge, 12(11), 1062–1065.
  3. Levin, F. K. and P. M. Shah (1977), Peg-leg multiples and dipping reflectors, Geophysics 42(5):957.
  4. Levin, F. and J. D. Ingram (1962), Head waves from a bed of finite thickness Geophysics Vol XXVII No. 6 p.753-765.

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