Dr. Milton B. Dobrin (17 April 1915- 22 May 1980) was a Canadian-born American geophysicist. He was born on 17 April 1915 in Vancouver, British Columbia, and grew up in Pittsburgh, PA. He received his bachelor's degree at MIT in 1936, attended grad school at Columbia University for a brief time, but owing to financial considerations, worked in the geophysics department of Gulf Petroleum. He attended night school at the University of Pittsburgh and received his master's degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1936, while still employed at Gulf.
From 1942-1947 he served in the underwater acoustic division of the Naval Ordinance Laboratory, and was in charge of an underwater refraction survey at Bikini Atoll, at the behest of Maurice Ewing. Dobrin received his Ph.d. at Columbia University in 1950 under Ewing. While at Columbia, he taught courses in geophysics and he soon expanded his lecture notes into his famous book Introduction to Geophysical Prospecting. It is, without question, one of the most influential publications in the history of exploration because it has served as the fundamental text for at least two generations of geophysicists. It was first published in 1952. Dobrin revised it in 1960 and 1976. Carl Savit has recently updated it for a fourth edition that should maintain the book's prominent place in geophysical education through the rest of the century.
Dobrin's illustrious career and personable nature are described in the memorial articles that follow. Dobrin passed away in on 22 May 1980, in Houston while jogging.
- 1 Memorial by Dean Clark 
- 2 Early Years and Education
- 3 Magnolia
- 4 Professional Career
- 5 Memories of Milton Dobrin
- 6 Gerry Pickering's memories of Milton Dobrin
- 7 Candidacy for SEG President-Elect 1969
- 8 Honorary Life Membership Citation
- 9 SEG Best Paper in Geophysics Award 1965
- 10 Editor of Geophysics
- 11 References
- 12 External links
Memorial by Dean Clark 
It is rumored that Mozart had been put under rigorous scientific scrutiny. Someone started with Mozart's short life span and then began subtracting appropriate times to account for the things he was known to have done (e.g., sleep, eat, travel, rehearse, conduct, give concerts, etc.). That relatively simple mathematical exercise made it obvious that not enough time was left for Mozart merely to write down - without any kind of intellectual reflection or subsequent revision - the music (and we don't have it all) that he composed ... even if a ridiculously small amount of time, like one second, were allotted for each note. Thus it was proved, much as in the famous example of bumblebees and aerodynamics, that Mozart was impossible.
There is a counterpart in geophysical exploration, the late Milton Dobrin. There seems no way that, in a mere 65 years, he could have accomplished all that he is known to have done.
Dobrin was one of the few people to have advanced knowledge in nearly all the important areas of exploration; he was one of its most prolific and popular authors; he was respected as a researcher, administrator, teacher, and practical prospector; he served as virtually a one-man continuing education department for the profession in the days when such courses were rare; he served on countless professional committees, including many of the most important, and did so much volunteer work for SEG that many felt he was a full-time staff member; he was quite knowledgeable about most branches of the humanities and maintained large personal libraries of classical music and literature; and he jogged several miles daily, no matter where his practically non-stop traveling took him. (His goal was to jog in 100 countries and it is impossible that he made it.) In addition, he somehow found time to make the acquaintance of practically every geophysicist in the world and to do at least one favor for each of them. "I never met a geophysicist who did not know or know of my father," said Dobrin's son David.
"Everybody knew him," says Bob Sheriff. "Everybody seemed indebted to him. It was just incredible. It would be very difficult to come to grips with just how he managed to do this, just to find the time to do it. I'd say that without question he affected more people than anybody in the industry."
Dobrin, naturally, is the subject of an astonishing number of astonishing stories. Many of them concern travel. For instance, it apparently was impossible for Dobrin to be in an airport without running into someone that he knew.
"It was very, very frustrating to travel with Milt because of this," says Norman Neidell. "You couldn't even go from one gate to another without stopping to talk to someone ... even if you had a very tight connection." Neidell once quantified this phenomenon. "In walking the length of two gates in the Miami Airport, I saw him greet no less than seven people." And this was Miami, hardly a natural venue for explorationists.
Jim Long, who worked closely with Dobrin at United Geophysical, cites two incredible cases where Dobrin was recognized while in the backwaters of Patagonia and Nepal. In Perth, a local legend among geophysicists concerns a commuter bus and a driving rain during the southern winter of 1978. While the bus paused on its journey into the city, a passenger suddenly cried, "There's a man running up the footpath in his underwear." Another immediately replied, "That's Milton Dobrin." And it, of course, was Dobrin on his daily jog. (He was not, however, in his underwear but appropriately garbed in shorts and T-shirt.)
Dobrin's widow Maxine, who shared in many of these mathematically improbable circumstances, summed it up neatly, saying: "The world for Milton was always small."
It was small because Milton Dobrin was one of those out-sized personalities, magnified far beyond the factual parameters of his biography.
Early Years and Education
He was born April 7, 1915, in Vancouver and grew up in Pittsburgh. He received his bachelor's degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1936 and immediately entered graduate school at Columbia, but the financial pressures of the depression forced him to leave the academic world and get a job. He ended up back in Pittsburgh, working in Gulf's geophysics department. However, he maintained his educational momentum by attending night classes and received a master's degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1941. He served in the underwater acoustics division of the Naval Ordnance Laboratory from 1942 to 1947 ... where, in April 1946, he was in charge of an underwater refraction survey during the famous atomic bomb tests on the Bikini Atoll. That survey was suggested by Maurice Ewing who then became Dobrin's professional mentor. Dobrin went to Columbia in 1947 to study for his doctorate (conferred in 1950) under Ewing.
While there, he taught courses in geophysics and he soon expanded his lecture notes into his famous book Introduction to Geophysical Prospecting. It is, without question, one of the most influential publications in the history of exploration because it has served as the fundamental text for at least two generations of geophysicists. It was first published in 1952. Dobrin revised it in 1960 and 1976. Carl Savit has recently updated it for a fourth edition that should maintain the book's prominent place in geophysical education through the rest of the century.
Dobrin returned to exploration in 1949 and worked successively for Magnolia (Mobil) 1949-56, Triad (British Petroleum) 1956-61, and United 1961-69. The digital revolution of the '60s convinced Dobrin that exploration education had to be severely upgraded. So he turned to teaching, first as a visiting professor at the University of Texas and then as a full-time member of the geology faculty at the University of Houston where his primary duty was to design an advanced exploration curriculum. He remained at Houston until his death, while jogging, in the early morning of May 22, 1980.
His professional competence and dedication are revealed by the following comments from Norman Neidell and Frank Levin. Neidell: "When he was at United, his worldwide experience and association with colleagues undoubtedly led them, often with later help from Milton, to make oil and gas discoveries of global significance in various places in South America and Australia. These are very tangible evidence of Milton's ability to translate from abstract technology to practical results." Levin: "I served on the SEG Executive Committee with Milton when he was President in 1969-70. He was one of the most careful men I have ever known. No aspect of a subject brought before the Executive Committee was left unexamined."
His contemporaries, though, unanimously say that Dobrin's professional distinction was only a secondary part of the entire package. "Those who knew Milton Dobrin remember the man more than the achievements and honors," wrote Sheriff, Frank Press and Gerry Pickering in a memorial published in the AAPG Bulletin. The memorable qualities included kindness, generosity, honesty, conscientiousness, perfectionism, humility, and a sense of duty that encompassed not only a normal lifespan but stretched infinitely into the future. And, to be totally honest, an almost mythical dose of absentmindedness. "It would be difficult to find a geophysicist who did not have a story about Milt forgetting something, usually something pretty important," says Sheriff. Neidell, however, thinks there was a reason. "Milton was always overcommitted, but he always made time to visit a friend or help a stranger. These diversions broke his chain of concentration and often made him appear to be absentminded or negligent in his duties. Consequently, for every item Milton lost, he usually found a friend."
Dobrin's professionalism and admirable personal qualities were both illustrated by the unfortunate circumstances surrounding what should have been the high point of his career, an ingenious method by which laser technology could be adapted to filter seismic data. It was ready for commercial use in the mid-1960s (See Velocity and frequency filtering of seismic data using laser light by Dobrin, Long and Ingalls, which was honored as the Best Paper in Geophysics in 1965 but was rendered instantly obsolete by the digital computer. "It would have been an important idea but the timing was bad," says Sheriff. "Before we worked together, I'd learned to respect Milton's wide knowledge of exploration geophysics as shown in his textbook, a standard text for all of us," says Levin. "My admiration grew when he applied optical technique to the processing of seismic data, an invention whose importance should not be underestimated even though the development of digital methods rapidly made all analogue methods obsolete."
Dobrin, though, did not go into a scientific sulk due to the premature death of his brainchild. He was among the first to recognize the revolutionary impact of the computer and did much of the fifth-column work in explaining its intricacies to exploration's rank-and-file.
Maxine Dobrin has a story that reveals Dobrin's kindness, generosity and sense of duty while also graphically describing the way his life constantly encountered unexpected convolutions and then, when total disaster was both imminent and inevitable, miraculously found a safe haven.
"It was the year he was SEG President and he was attending a meeting in Moscow. While there, some Czech scientists asked him to come to Prague and lecture at the university. They could not pay him but he agreed to go. He rented a car in Vienna and drove to Prague. On his return, he decided to try to find the town his ancestors had lived in before they emigrated to America from the Austro-Hungarian empire in the 19th century. He located the town on the map, and while following the indicated numbers, he inadvertently drove into a forbidden exit from the country and was confronted by Czech soldiers. His ancestral town, which had been on the Czech border, had become part of Poland after World War II. The soldiers spoke no English, but made it clear he had broken the law and took him back to the city hall/jail. The officials before whom he was taken could not speak English and Milton was unable to communicate to them in German.
Finally, someone went to a nearby hotel, brought in the innkeeper who could speak German and through him Milton was able to learn what he was charged with, was permitted to pay a fine, and - to his immense relief - go on his way to Vienna. That was typical of Milton's trips." (That story also indirectly indicates the wonderful relationship between Milton and Maxine Dobrin. "She is a most remarkable lady," says Norman Neidell, "who was prepared to share Milton with the extraordinary calls and duties which the industry placed upon him. She was quite unselfish and helped Milton with the tasks he undertook ... lovingly, unselfishly and to the full limit of her abilities."
Dobrin's appointment to the Houston faculty in 1969 gave him the ideal opportunity to significantly influence advanced education in exploration and to structure it along the lines he passionately felt were appropriate.
"The program was his," says Sheriff, who succeeded him as professor of geophysics at Houston. "He dreamed it up and got the support to get it going. But he wasn't an autocrat. He consulted a lot of people in order to develop courses that would prepare people to go directly into the industry. He was very proud of the Houston program. He felt it was the first step up specifically for exploration geophysics. He took great care with it and taught most of the courses himself the first time they were offered."
Memories of Milton Dobrin
Contributed By Tom Lafehr, LaFehr & Chan Technologies Denver, Colorado
D. V. Georges was a student in Dobrin's reflection seismology course in 1976 and she gives an intriguing view of Dobrin as teacher. "At the time I was a graduate student at Rice University. In just one semester I got to know Dr. Dobrin better than I had known other professors during a much longer period at my own school. Dr. Dobrin's unique qualities included his approachability, his sense of humor, his warmth, and his willingness to see inherent ability in every one of his students. Others who have taken his courses felt the same way. Dr. Dobrin loved his field and believed in those pursuing his field. Long after taking the course I would see Dr. and Mrs. Dobrin at the art museum or the symphony. He was serious and knowledgeable about the arts but, as was his attitude in science, he thoroughly enjoyed the subjects for themselves. He was never pedantic."
Norm Uren gives an equally enlightening picture of the Dobrin touch when on a professional tour. "As one of the first Australian Esso Distinguished Lecturers, Milton toured Australia with Maxine in 1978. After giving a most successful workshop on seismic stratigraphy, they continued on to other universities and cities. They took the Indian Pacific Railway and traveled 2,500 kilometers to Perth. He gave lectures and talks to the Petroleum Exploration Society of Australia, the Australian Society of Exploration Geophysicists, and to students at the Western Australia Institute of Technology. Only those geophysicists stationed in the field at the time did not get to meet Milton. I am particularly grateful for the encouragement and advice he gave on the WAIT geophysics program, which at that time was undergoing review and expanding into postgraduate studies." It was a typical Dobrin combination of business, pleasure and friendmaking ... with the tangible result that WAIT (recently renamed Curtin University of Technology) became the home base of the Field Research Laboratory for the Allied Geophysical Laboratories of the University of Houston.
There were many testimonials following Dobrin's death and one by Hugh Walker, then dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at Houston and now that school's vice-chancellor, caught much of the essence of the man: "He is not easily characterized, a complex man who gave much more than he asked in return - an ingenious blend of pride and humility. He was a completely non-trivial personality the world has all too few of and whom we do not know how to justly honor. He inspired those of us who knew him well to appreciate and respect both the elements and style of his greatness. He left before he was finished. But he finished much, and he made a difference. We will remember him as a friend and colleague - one whom, with the very highest of ideals, contributed immeasurably to the intellectual life of our community. He has taught us much of integrity and what that means. We will not forget him or his lessons."
Dean Walker's testimonial was wrong in one detail, the world did accidentally find a way to honor Dobrin's unique contribution.
He died in the middle of the week during one of his famous University of Houston short courses. "He always arrived very early in the morning and when he hadn't shown up by the time to start class, we knew something was wrong," recalls Sheriff. "I was lecturing that day and it was one of the hardest days I've ever had to get through. Everybody was devastated; everybody took it as a personal blow.
"It took quite a while to get over it because Milton knew every geophysicist in the world and after his death we continued to get letters from distant parts of the world ... from people who hadn't yet gotten the news ... that were addressed to Milton. Nearly all of them were thanking him for a favor. We got them for a long, long time."
Gerry Pickering's memories of Milton Dobrin
I knew who he was, of course, but I had no idea on the occasion of our first meeting that he knew me. That was in late 1971 when he, as the Chairman of the SEG Nominations Committee, asked me if I would be willing to stand for election as Editor of Geophysics. To that point my involvement with SEG had been minimal. Little did I know or could imagine that his gentle, friendly and unrefusable persuasion was to lead me into an extended relationship with SEG and extensive professional involvements with Dr. Dobrin himself.
In the following years I came to know him and like him as a friend as well as a colleague through SEG work, teaching in his well known University of Houston short course, and working together on geophysical projects. Because he had written a book, I had, at the beginning of my career, put him in that awesome category (with Nettleton, Vening Meinesz, Heiskanen, and Dix) that inspired both reverence and mystique. I soon learned that such qualities, aside from being irrelevant, are far less interesting and motivating than the actual person, something that I had also learned as a partner of Dobrin's former colleague, Dr. Nettleton.
In matters geophysical, Dobrin was seemingly involved with virtually everyone. If bringing people together counts - and I think it precedes almost all achievement - one might say that he was profoundly influential in most aspects of exploration geophysics. If teaching (in the broader sense of the term) is a necessary condition of progress, his whirlwind of worldwide engagements qualify him as the indefatigable champion of spreading the word. He did not specialize, at least not in any areas with which I am familiar, but his questions helped those who did, and his translations helped those who might.
Milt passed me in the lobby of the Fountainbleu Hilton, as so often before, arms full of slides and notes to an extent that he needed a periscope to guide him to the lecture room. He was obviously in a great hurry, yet he stopped and chatted and questioned and discussed details of our next engagement of mutual interest, then some two months in the future. Finally, reluctantly, he apologized for being in such a hurry, but the forward press of time was just too unforgiving. He said he would call me when we both got home. A few weeks later he did call and worked out the seemingly trivial details of my participation in teaching his short course at the University of Houston, then only days away.
On my arrival in Houston, I was surprised when Milt did not call my room (as was his usual custom) and left no message. Even though I had arrived quite late, it was not late by Milt's standards. The next morning Norman Neidell met me in the lecture hall and said he would introduce me to the class. Although nonplused, I still had not guessed what had happened when Norman said, "You haven't been told, have you?"
I cannot identify any technical concept to which Milton Dobrin introduced me during our association. Yet he was an instrumental part of the technology network so necessary to the evolution of exploration geophysics. At times I thought he was the network. If permitted two last words, they would have been, "Thank you."
One summer evening in London, Milton arrived late, and quite out of breath, for a dinner appointment with myself and my wife. He explained that his delay had been caused by an unexpected meeting with a beautiful woman. He said that while walking along Park Lane he had been stopped by this striking but unknown woman who was wearing a fur jacket and driving a smart convertible. She had asked whether there was anything she could do for him. Milton was at first puzzled as to why this lovely creature thought he needed help; but then, having realized the situation, he engaged her in a long conversation about her car, her coat, and her life ... out of genuine interest which was so typical of him. Suddenly remembering his dinner date, he took his leave but before walking off he asked her why she had selected him from all the people walking along Park Lane that evening. She answered, "I could see you are a man of quality."
Perhaps that should be the title of this article, "Milton Dobrin, a man of quality."
Candidacy for SEG President-Elect 1969
Milton B. Dobrin, candidate for President, received his B.S. at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1936, his M.S. at the University of Pittsburgh in 1941, and his Ph.D. at Columbia University in 1950.
He began his work in exploration geophysics at Gulf Research and Development Co. in 1937 and except for five years at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory during World War II, has been engaged in this field ever since. He carried out research in seismic prospecting at the Magnolia Petroleum Corporation's Field Research Laboratory from 1949 to 1955 and was in charge of geophysical interpretation at the Triad Oil Company, Ltd., in Calgary, Canada from 1956 to 1961. From 1961 to 1967 he was chief geophysicist and manager of Technical Services Department at United Geophysical Corporation, Pasadena, California (a subsidiary of The Bendix Corporation), and in 1967 he became vice-president chief geophysicist. He is presently on a five-month leave of absence from United to serve as William Stamps Farish Visiting of Geophysics at the University of Texas at Austin for the second semester of the 1968-69 academic year.
Dr. Dobrin was Editor of GEOPHYSICS during 1953-55 and First Vice-President of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists in 1961-62. He is also a past President of the Dallas Geophysical Society and the Canadian Society of Exploration Geophysicists. He was General Chairman for the 34th Annual Meeting of the SEG at Los Angeles in 1964. He is the author of Introduction to Geophysical Prospecting, now in its second edition, as well as technical papers on such aspects of seismic prospecting as marine refraction, surface waves, and optical data processing. He was a recipient of the SEG Best Paper Award for 1965 as an author of the paper 'Velocity and Frequency Filtering of Seismic Data Using Laser Light'.
Dr. Dobrin's current SEG committee assignments are to the Committee on Cooperation with Governmental Agencies, the AAPG-SEG Joint Cooperative Subcommittee on Earth Science Information Retrieval Systems, and the Glossary Committee, of which he is chairman.
In the fall of 1965 Dr. Dobrin was a member of a six-man exchange delegation which made a tour of petroleum geophysics activities in the U.S.S.R. under the auspices of the U.S. State Department. When in Canada he was a member of the Associate Committee on Geodesy and Geophysics of the National Research Council of Canada and has been a consultant to the Interior Department on site selection for offshore nuclear plants. He is on the Council on Education in the Geological Sciences, sponsored by the American Geological Institute.
A member of the SEG since 1938, Dr. Dobrin is also a Fellow of the Geological Society of America and a member of the AAPG, AGU, EAEG, and The Explorers Club.
Honorary Life Membership Citation
Contributed by Samuel J. Allen
Dr. Milton B. Dobrin's work and activities on behalf of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists and the profession of exploration geophysics in general have been so numerous and have covered such a long continuous period of service that many people instinctively think of him when geophysics and the SEG are mentioned. Those who have been closely associated with him know that he is one of that very small group of persons who have made distinguished contributions to exploration geophysics and to the advancement of the profession of exploration geophysics through the Society. Those who have made such outstanding contributions deserve the appreciation of our profession. To bestow Honorary Membership is our Society's way of showing this appreciation and it is an honor and privilege for me to prepare this citation for that presentation on behalf of the Society.
At the time of my preparing this citation, Milt, as is typical of his varied and far-flung activities on behalf of the profession, is on a whirlwind tour of several cities in two or three countries half way around the world, giving lectures on geophysics at various universities and industry centers. The pace of work, travel, lecture, correspondence, professional society, and government committee activity that Milt has maintained for the many years I have known him, has been so intense that very few people would endure the physical strain, much less maintain their composure and actually enjoy it. However, a short note sent from his present tour saying that he is enjoying it, "particularly the hospitality," is typical of Milt. It illustrates one of Milt's best and most outstanding characteristics. He likes other people.
We are admonished to "be slow to anger." In many years of professional association with Milt I have never seen him angered even in tense and frustrating situations. This quality of seeing the best in other people and liking them for it must make him a good teacher, and I am sure Milt's students and associates have benefited because of it.
At the present time Milt is a Professor in the Geological Sciences Department of the University of Houston where he has been deeply involved in developing the graduate level curriculum in geophysics. The increased interest and activity there, including seminars and special short courses for industry, are testimonies to his efforts. Many people would consider this to be enough of an achievement, but Milt has also found time to complete the third edition (1976) of his book, Introduction to Geophysical Prospecting, whose first and second editions were published by McGraw-Hill Book Company in 1952 and 1960, respectively. During this period he has also served on the National Committee on Geology, where he was Chairman in 1973-74, on the Governing Board for the COCORP Deep Crustal Reflection Project, on the U.S. National Committee for International Geological Correlation Program, as an AAPG Continuing Education Lecturer, and as an officer and committee chairman for SEG. During the remaining time of this busy schedule he has acted as a consultant to companies and agencies, particularly in site studies for nuclear power plant locations.
The breadth and fullness of his career in geophysics are shown by a review of his activities in addition to those listed above. He obtained bachelor's, master's, and doctor's degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Pittsburgh, and Columbia University, respectively. In addition to his work at the University of Houston, he has lectured at several universities, either on a full time or visiting professor basis, including Columbia University and the University of Texas at Austin. He worked several years as a physicist for the U.S. Naval Ordnance Laboratory and participated in some of the famous tests at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific. He has worked in exploration and research functions with three major oil companies and has served as vice-president and chief geophysicist for a major geophysical contractor. In addition to his book he has published numerous research papers and general interest articles in various technical journals. One of his papers, "Velocity and frequency filtering of seismic data using laser light," with A. L. Ingalls and J. A. Long as co-authors, received the Best Paper Award for Geophysics in 1965.
Milt has served SEG sections in various capacities, including president. He has served on several committees of SEG as well as serving terms as Editor (1953-55), First Vice-President (1961-62), and President (1969-70). Few people, if any, have served SEG and the geophysics profession more broadly and with greater dedication, loyalty, and a liking for his associates than Milt. He has brought honor to SEG and it is only fitting that the Society recognize this and show its appreciation by bestowing Honorary Membership upon him.
SEG Best Paper in Geophysics Award 1965
Editor of Geophysics
- Clark, D. (1988) Milton Dobrin The Leading Edge Feb 1988, Vol. 7, No. 2, pp. 12-15.
- Geophysics April 1969, Vol. 34, No.2
- Dobrin, M. B., A. L. Ingalls, and J. A. Long (1965), Velocity and frequency filtering of seismic data using laser light, Geophysics 30(6):1144.
- Clark, D. (2010), Out of the past. The Leading Edge," 75(5), 75A263-75A271.