James Wait

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James Wait
James R. Wait headshot.png
Membership Honorary Member

James R. Wait (1923-1998) was a distinguished researcher. Among his many accolades he was an Honorary Member of SEG.


James R. Wait, an Honorary Member of SEG, died 1 October 1998, in Tucson, Arizona, U.S., at age 74. Wait received bachelor’s (1948) and master’s (1949) degrees in engineering physics and a Ph.D. (1951) in electromagnetic theory from the University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. From 1942 to 1945 he served as a radar technician in the Canadian Army.

Wait began his distinguished career with Newmont Exploration in 1948. His Ph.D. dissertation was based in part on research in electromagnetic methods in geophysics carried out in Jerome, Arizona, with Newmont.

In 1952, Wait returned to Canada where he became a section leader at the Defense Research Telecommunications Establishment in Ottawa. A paper from this period, dealing with scattering from an ionized cylinder, is now a Citation Classic.

In 1955, Wait joined the National Bureau of Standards in Boulder, Colorado. He subsequently served as a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; professor adjoint in the Electrical Engineering Department at the University of Colorado; consultant to the Institute for Telecommunications; and founding member and Fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. This was widely felt to be the golden age of telecommunications, radio wave propagation, and remote sensing at the government laboratories in Boulder. Wait made fundamental contributions in all these areas during this period. In addition.

in 1975, he was instrumental in the creation of the journal Radio Science. He was the first editor and served three successive terms. In 1980, Wait became professor of electrical and computer engineering, with a joint appointment in geosciences, at the University of Arizona. During this period, he was instrumental in the growth of the Electromagnetics Laboratory into a world-class facility. In addition to electromagnetic applications in geoscience, he was also very active in studies of lightning and atmospheric electricity.

Some of his last papers were on the effects of “sprites” in the middle atmosphere, the electromagnetic fields produced by lightning, and the coupling of LEMP to power lines. In recognition of his superior research and teaching influence, he was appointed to the prestigious position of regents professor in 1988. In 1989, he retired and became a private consultant, specializing in electromagnetic methods and their use in subsurface probing. Wait was a pioneer in electromagnetic theory, with application to geophysical exploration. His writings on layered media and induced polarization are widely cited throughout the world. He was the author of eight books and more than 800 publications in archival journals. He was a frequent speaker at universities, companies, and government laboratories throughout the world. Wait received numerous awards for his research in electromagnetics and electrical geophysics, including the IEEE Centennial Medal (1984), the IEEE Geoscience and Remote Sensing Achievement Award (1985), the IEEE Antennas and Propagation Distinguished Achievement Award (1990), and the IEEE Heinrich Hertz Medal (1992).

He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1977 and received the Balth van der Pol Gold Medal from the International Union of Radio Science in 1978. In 1993, he was elected an Honorary Member of SEG.

Wait’s influence upon his colleagues and students is remarkable. Samples from the many tributes received, honoring his life and his influence, are the following:

“Jim was one of the nicest people that I have ever met. His demise is such a great loss to the engineering community and to humankind in general.”

“In spite of (the magnitude of) his contribution to EM science, he was a very modest man; a true scientist.”

“He was truly one of the greats of his (our) time, and one of the most prolific in substantive contributions. His consistent support and helping hand to those newly entering the field were also outstanding. Jim could be a tough critic, but he never bore down on a novice in a meeting, no matter how naive the presentation. I always admired that quality in him . . .”

“He was a tremendous resource for those of us involved in electromagnetic geophysics. . . . Jim’s work was revolutionary and laid the foundation for the development that occurred in mining geophysics . . . much of this kind of mineral exploration is based on the theoretical studies that Jim did in the 1950s. He did very important work, and it still has a great deal of impact on people’s lives.”

“We were not close, but he helped me unselfishly once, and I’ve never forgotten his kindness.”

“. . .I will undoubtedly fall short of expressing how much Jim meant to me, how much of an influence he has had in my life and how I feel it is a privilege to, in some small way, carry on his legacy. I sincerely believe that our lives on earth continue in the lives of those we touch. I am very sorry I did not tell Jim this directly.”

“. . .as a young researcher, . . . I introduced myself to him . . . I was very impressed by his interest in a young, unknown person, and his complete lack of pretentiousness.”

“I still remember how nice he was to me the first time I met him at the ’73 Boulder meeting when I was still a grad student. I, of course, was in awe of him, just from his reputation, but he never treated me as anything but an equal. He sought me out and talked to me about the work I had presented. I still remember what a seemingly humble man he was . . . he didn’t seem to feel that it was necessary to act like the superstar that he clearly was.”

“I first met him in the late 1950s when he was already recognized as a top expert in electromagnetics and radio wave propagation . . . He was a true scholar and gentleman. He cared about people and gave his immeasurable help and encouragement. We will miss this giant.”

“I was so sorry to hear of the death of Jim Wait. I have known Jim since my days in England in the mid-1950s, and it was he who encouraged me to come to the United States. He was one of the first people I visited after I came here, and I will miss him as a friend and as a scientist whose knowledge and productivity always amazed me.”

Biography Citation for SEG [Honorary Membership]] 1993

Contributed by Ben K. Sternberg, Misac N. Nabighian and Stanley H. Ward

In his 42-year professional career, Jim has published eight books and more than 800 papers on subjects ranging from geophysics to electromagnetic theory. He has written in virtually every significant journal where electromagnetic theory is of importance and has left his undeniable mark on every subject he has tackled.

One of his earliest papers in Geophysics, "A conducting sphere in a time varying magnetic field" (vol. 16) was a cornerstone of the times for electromagnetic theory applied to practical problems. It gave us the theoretical basis for the EM methods of exploration which are now in widespread use throughout the world. Shortly thereafter, he published the well-known fundamental "loop" papers dealing with the mutual coupling of loops over a homogeneous and then a layered earth, leading to extensive applications of EM methods to the study of the shallow crust.

His "Phenomenological theory of induced electric polarization" and subsequent related papers developed a phenomenological model to explain the influence of sulphide particle size on the IP response in both frequency and time domain. His work on identifying the nature of electromagnetic coupling in IP measurements is now a classic, as is his contribution in clarifying our understanding of Cagniard's original MT theory.

In the field of electromagnetic theory, Dr. Wait made basic, significant and pioneering contributions to our understanding of mode propagation in the earth-ionosphere waveguide. He also tackled the problems related to "hard" communication systems for military purposes - could one use a natural waveguide in the earth to transmit signals over extremely long distances? Jim did much to set the record straight on this issue: The earth will not cooperate.

In addition to the above, Jim has written the definitive statements on such varied topics as finding tunnels or buried antennae using EM methods; predicting the performance of antennae of various shapes and sizes; predicting the performance of antennae in plasmas and showing the importance of accounting for the electro-acoustic wave; developing a general formulation for focusing a phased array for hyperthermia of limbs and torsos; determining the usefulness of introducing images located at complex depths in tackling various EM problems in stratified media, and so forth.

Dr. Wait was born in Ottawa, Canada, on Jan. 23, 1924, received his B.A.Sc. (1948) and M.A.Sc. (1949) in Engineering Physics and his Ph.D. (1951) in Electrical Engineering, all from the University of Toronto. Between 1948-1951, he worked for Newmont Exploration, Ltd. in Jerome, Arizona, where his research led to several patents in both IP and EM methods of geophysical prospecting. After a brief stint with the Defence Research Communications establishment in Ottawa, Dr. Wait first joined the National Bureau of Standards in Boulder, Colorado, and then NOAA; at each, he concentrated predominantly on theoretical aspects of radio-wave propagation. In the meantime, he also held numerous teaching and visiting scientist research positions at various prestigious universities and research establishments all over the world. Finally, in 1980, he was appointed professor of Electrical Engineering and Geosciences at the University of Arizona in Tucson and then became one of the prestigious Regents' Professors, in 1988.

Jim has received numerous awards for his scientific achievements. To name just a few: Department of Commerce Gold Medal (1959); Boulder Scientist Award (1960); the NBS Samuel Wesley Stratton Award (1962); the Arhtus S. Flemming and Harry Diamond Awards (1964); the NOAA Scientific Research and Achievement Award (1973); the Balthasar van der Po Gold Medal (1978); the IEEE Centennial Medal (1984), and the IEEE Geoscience and Remote Sensing Society's Distinguished Achievement Award (1983).

Jim often mentions that he was fortunate to work early on at the elbows of giants. Among those he credits in strongly influencing his career are George Sinclair and A. F. Stevenson at the University of Toronto; Arthur Brant of Newmont Mining; Jim Scott of Radio Physics Laboratory, Ottawa; H. Bremmer, Eindhoven; J. A. Ratcliffe and K. G. Budden at Cambridge; Ken Norton, Doug Crombie and Gordon Little in Boulder; Hans Knudsen in Copenhagen, and Ronald King and David Chang at Harvard. Such being the case, we can only add that James R. Wait is himself a giant who was nurtured by giants; it is hard to imagine anyone being able to achieve in a lifetime what Jim has achieved.

Despite his numerous accomplishments, Jim is a humble human being who enjoys cycling, swimming, and skiing. He is a close and loyal friend. We are extremely proud of him, as is the entire SEG.