Gordon West

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Gordon West
Gordon F. West headshot.png
PhD university University of Toronto

Gordon F. West is a geophysicist who has made important contributions to the science of geophysics, both personally and through his supervision of generations of graduate and undergraduate students. Among other achievements, Gordon developed the theory behind UTEM (University of Toronto Electromagnetic Method) which has since been credited with the discovery of ten base-metal deposits. His research interests are much broader than just a subdiscipline of geophysics, and Gordon has contributed to theory, practice, instrumentation, and acquisition in the fields of seismology, electromagnetics, and potential fields. Through his efforts, the geophysics department at the University of Toronto has become recognized as one of the world centers of excellence in bringing together private sector, government, and university research in the area of mining geophysics. Gordon is also the co-author, along with Fraser Grant, of the classic geophysics textbook Interpretation Theory in Applied Geophysics which has been used to teach thousands of geophysics students over the past 37 years

Biography Citation for the Maurice Ewing Medal 2002

Contributed by Nigel Edwards

Education and Early Career

Gordon West has spent most of his life at the University of Toronto. He graduated in engineering physics (1955) and, after a brief adventure in the exploration industry, returned to complete his PhD in 1960. He met his wife Katri while an exchange student in Finland—a critical event for the future fellowship of geophysics. He returned to Toronto and progressed from lecturer to professor and finally professor emeritus in 1998. He certainly has not retired, and is as active today as when I met him 30 years ago.

Gordon has brought to our community the originality of the physicist, the technical ability of the engineer, and the diversity and collaborative skills of the true earth scientist. His interests span electromagnetic methods, rock magnetism, tectonics and geodynamics, potential fields, crustal seismology, and cross-hole tomography. With Yves Lamontagne, he developed UTEM (University of Toronto Electromagnetic System), a method credited with multibillion dollar base metal discoveries. This research illustrates Gordon’s style! There is the initial very bright idea, an EM system with a triangular current waveform in the transmitter cable. (The temporal derivative of the magnetic field is a square wave: easy to measure with a coil, easy to process because of limited dynamic range.) There is the time in the laboratory conjuring with the electonics—Gordon in his element and at the peak of his creativity. There is the construction, field-testing, data modeling/interpretation and, ultimately, the setting up of Yves’ organization. In the early 1980s, Canada’s earth science community embarked on Project Lithoprobe—the multidisciplinary study of the origin, composition, evolution, and structure of the Canadian continental crust. Gordon became involved in a major way. He was instrumental in directing studies in Ontario and in creating a modern vision of the Kapuskasing Structural Zone through synthesizing diverse data sets. Gordon’s skill at this style of research explains why he is held in such high regard.

Professional Career

The family business of Gordon and Katri West is raising graduate students, about 80 at the last count from all over the world—Canada, England, China, India, France, New Zealand, South Africa, Finland, Australia, United States, Cuba, Mexico, Czechoslovakia... (Why were there so many students? Coursework did include preparing 2-kg explosive charges and blowing up some countryside. More interesting than quantum mechanics, I suppose. One hesitates to think how such actions might now be interpreted!) Student theses have been widely distributed and we still get requests for some of the tomes! Several involved writing complex electromagnetic and seismic software. Here’s a secret! Gordon’s last documented computer program was written in machine code on an IBM 650 1620. (His post-retirement enthusiasm for MatLab coding is just an anomaly.) The students—now populating geophysical industry, government, and academia everywhere— are uniformly devoted to their mentor. Many recall times at the West’s country “estate”—better known as Gordon’s Pond—with their families. And then there was the surprise retirement party, memorable for the many attendees who traveled great distances. Gordon can look upon his student legacy with great pride. Training these young people represents a gigantic contribution to our profession. Gordon has been an SEG Active Member for decades and published many influential papers in GEOPHYSICS and the volumes Mining Geophysics. They are recognized for clarity of thought and reducing complex results to often a single figure.

He was elected an Honorary Member in 1991 and the geophysics group received the Distinguished Achievement Award in 2000. Gordon was recognized by his Canadian colleagues in 1990 with the J. Tuzo Wilson Medal of the Canadian Geophysical Union.

Biography Citation for SEG Honorary Membership 1991

Contributed by Nigel Edwards

Gordon West is the founder of mineral exploration geophysics at the University of Toronto. He graduated from Toronto in 1955 in the Engineering Physics programme, now Engineering Science. After a brief period sojourn as a field geophysicists, he returned to the University as a graduate student in a group led by Professor J. Tuzo Wilson. He obtained his MA and PhD degrees in 1957 and 1960, with these on interpretation methods for electromagnetic prospecting, and was subsequently invited to join the Faculty, becoming a full professor in 1972.

Gordon's contribution to education is profound. He has supervised a large number of research students, at least 35 MSc and 15 PhD! The cadre forms a backbone of Canadian mining geophysical exploration, a field in which Canada has become internationally recognized for its high level of excellence. They have formed geophysical service companies, and are employed as both geophysicists and managers in industry and government. Thirteen of his students were in residence at one time in the 1970s. They all wrote proper research dissertations which appeared later, first in the popular Research in Applied Geophysics series - the yellow RAGs, and then more often than not in our Society's journal, GEOPHYSICS. Many students presented the results of their endeavors at Annual Meetings of SEG in an exciting period for mining exploration geophysics, and there was friendly competition between Toronto and Utah and Berkeley, contributions from the three universities sometimes filling most of a session!

Not long after completing his PhD, Gordon very bravely wrote, with the late Fraser Grant, the text book, 'Interpretation Theory in Applied Geophysics', published by McGraw-Hill. This text is an important milestone, for it set the standard for the education of Geophysicists world-wide, being more mathematical and rigorous than most of its predecessors while maintaining a consciousness of relevance and practicality.

Gordon's research has always advanced on a broad front through several fields of geophysics, including mining geophysics, rock magnetism, crustal geophysics and seismology. By nature, he is first and foremost the engineer, the professor who spends a great deal of time helping students develop his fascination for the novel and the unique in electronic hardware. Students such as Yves Lamontagne, with whom he patented the UTEM prospecting system, which has been credited with the discovery of the large Hellyer base metal sulphide ore deposit in Tasmania. The paper describing UTEM, co-authored by Nigel Edwards with Lamontagne and James Macnae, was selected as the Best Paper in GEOPHYSICS in 1984. With Joe Wong and Peter Hurley, Gordon constructed an audiofrequency, inter bore-hole seismic tomography system which, while developed initially for the Nuclear Fuel Waste Management Program of Atomic Energy of Canada, is now being adapted for petroleum reservoir studies.

Gordon recognized the importance of the digital computer when it was introduced for general use in the 1960s. He used an IBM 650 while a graduate student to make some of the first estimates of the electromagnetic response of a lamellar conductor, a model of base metal mineral deposit. His programmes were written in machine code, and it may come as a surprise to some that he has never subsequently learned a high level language! Yet, he has published many papers with his students on numerical modelling of electromagnetic effects. I believe his limited knowledge of detailed programming has stimulated his unrivalled understanding of fundamental physics which has been communicated to several generations of students and at least one professor! Gordon is also the geologist's geophysicist! He has a long-standing interest in the origin and crustal structure of the Precambrian Shield. He was the Canadian Co-ordinator of the 1963-65 USA/Canada cooperative program studying the Keweenawan basin under Lake Superior and a participant with his graduate students in the recent 1987 GLIMPSE international Seismic surveys of that structure. He was an initiator of the 1975-78 Midwest Superior Province Geotraverse program on Archean crustal structure. In their objectives, scope and magnitude, these were early COCORP studies. It is no coincidence that Gordon was one of the initial proposers of the Canadian variant of COCO RP, Project Lithoprobe, and is joint Co-ordinator of the Transect in the Kapuskasing Structural Zone of the Superior Province. A central aspect of the Lithoprobe program is imaging of crustal structure by high resolution reflection seismic methods and with his current graduate student Gordon is deeply involved in refining the methodology. Gordon is much travelled. He has ex-students in all five continents. On a visit to Finland he met his future wife, Katri. They have entertained many generations of students at their farm and it is appropriate at this time to thank them for their hospitality. Of course, Katri introduced him to Finnish customs. I still cannot understand why one of my most distinguished colleagues leaps into ice cold water in the depths of the Canadian winter, and encourages others to follow him!

Gordon has served the Section of SEG, the Canadian Exploration Geophysical Society, for many years, as a member of the executive and as the originator of its name - 'KEGS', a name which truly reflects the spirit of our science in Toronto.

In 1990, he was awarded the]. Tuzo Wilson Medal of the Canadian Geophysical Union, the highest honor Canadians can bestow on a colleague. It is most appropriate that he is now recognized internationally and elected an Honorary Member of our Society.

SEG Best Paper in Geophysics 1984

G. F. West, J. C. Macnae, and Y. Lamontagne received the 1984 SEG Best Paper in Geophysics Award for their paper A time-domain electromagnetic system measuring the step-response of the ground.[1]


  1. West, G.F., J.C. Macnae, and Y. Lamontagne (1984), A time-domain electromagnetic system measuring the step-response of the ground, Geophysics 49(7):1010.