Sidney Kaufman

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Sidney Kaufman
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Sidney Kauffman (Aug. 10, 1908-Oct. 31, 2008) was an innovator in exploration geophysics. Among his many innovations to the reflection seismic method, Kauffman is noted for conducting the first offshore seismic surveys in the Gulf of Mexico for Shell in 1937, which paved the way for offshore drilling in the Gulf. As an academic Kauffman was no less innovative, he head the Consortium for Continental Reflection Profiling (COCORP), which conducted deep reflection seismic surveys across North America.

Death Notice

His early work charted way for offshore drilling 71 years ago, rented shrimp boats aided physicist Sidney Kaufman in quest for Gulf of Mexico oil. Sidney Kaufman, who rented a few shrimp boats 71 years ago and pioneered a seismic study that eventually helped lead to petroleum production in the Gulf of Mexico, has died. He was 100. As chief of a water seismic crew that normally operated in bays, marshes, inlets and lagoons, Kaufman in 1937 found a rock formation that extended from a bay near Corpus Christi into the Gulf, according to an account by Shell Oil Co., his employer at the time.

"Renting shrimp boats for $28 a day, (Kaufman) and his crew ran seismic lines four miles out from shore," the account says. When his boss discovered what Kaufman was doing, he was furious, Kaufman recalled years later in the Shell account. He quoted the supervisor as saying: "What the hell are you doing in 65 feet of water? You know we can't drill out there."

Kaufman returned to land. Only decades later, did the company put his findings to work in offshore production. After working for Shell for 38 years, Kaufman retired in 1973 but soon was called to Cornell University, where he had earned a doctorate in physics, as a professor of geologic sciences. At the university, Kaufman served as executive director of the COCORP project, which applied the petroleum industry's seismic principles to a study on the depths of the Earth. The findings of the study, among other things, suggested that portions of the United States "previously considered barren may contain badly needed oil and gas," according to a report by the National Science Foundation, a sponsor of the project.

"He was a huge success" at Cornell, said Frank H.T. Rhodes, a geologist and president emeritus of Cornell. Rhodes called Kaufman's work a major study "on one of the fundamental questions of geology: how the continents developed. "We cannot overestimate the importance of his work," said Larry Brown, a former student of Kaufman's and a professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell. "He basically revolutionized the way we explore over land." Brown said Kaufman "was very articulate and placed the highest importance on hands-on experience." "In the course of the program," Brown said, "he was involved with the students and staff, many of whom have gone on to be leaders in the oil industry and teachers and researchers."

To his daughter, Martha Ann Selzman of Houston, Kaufman was "modest, unassuming, always positive in attitude." "Liberal in thought, he believed in the goodness of man," she said.

Sidney Kaufman was born Aug. 10, 1908, in Passaic, N.J., the son of Jacob and Frances Kaufman. He graduated from Passaic High School at the age of 16 and earned his doctorate in 1934, after which he stayed for a year at Cornell as a Coffin Foundation Fellow in physics.

Kaufman began the daunting task of looking for a job during the hard times of the 1930s. One day in 1936, a telegram arrived at his parents' home. Kaufman had just left the house to visit his girlfriend, Goldie Rosin. His mother telephoned Goldie, who told her to open the wire and read it to her. It was an offer of a job with Shell Oil Co. in Houston. "By the time I got (to Goldie's home), they'd decided I should take the job, and they even had the wedding planned. Our honeymoon trip was the four and a half days it took to drive from New Jersey to Houston," Kaufman recalled in the Shell account.

During World War II, Kaufman served as an officer in the Navy, in charge of a school for electronics and radar. Goldie Kaufman died in 1991. A daughter, Susan Kaufman, died in 2007.

Selzman said her father until recently lived alone and took care of himself, despite his advanced age. On Oct. 23, Sidney Kaufman died in his Houston home. In addition to his daughter, survivors include a sister, Leona Lichtenstein, of Saylorsburg, Pa. A graveside service for the family was held Oct. 26 at Emanuel Memorial Park in Houston.


Clark, R. (1983). ”Sidney Kaufman.” The Leading Edge, 2(7), 22–27.[1]

Cornell's Kimball Hall is merely the wing of a building, disguising its inadequacies under a formal title usually affixed to solitary, majestic, ivied academic structures. Three of its five floors house, more like warehouse, the university's department of geological sciences. The overwhelmed facilities are the result of a remarkable resurrection - at the end of the 1960s this department's immediate ancestor was clearly fated to academic backwaterdom. Today the department is nationally respected and is attracting graduate students with superlative credentials.

Weekday mornings on the third floor rarely vary. The first to arrive, usually an hour before anyone, is Sidney Kaufman, who were he betogaed instead of betweeded would pass for a Biblical patriarch in a Hollywood cinemonstrosity. The normal gauges - overall appearance, energy level, mental acuity - indicate a perfectly tuned, late fiftyish scholar for whom upcoming retirement will be the inauguration of a new, equally active phase, not a steady fading away.

However, Kaufman's mien, like Kimball Hall's aggrandized name, is an illusion. He is nearly 75 and almost 10 years into a second career as a teacher and executive director of a multi-million dollar geophysical research project, the Consortium for Continental Reflection Profiling. He is fully five decades senior to most who will filter into the building by the start of normal working hours, and nearly all of those later arrivals would need a handicap to match him erg-for-erg in productivity.

Kaufman needs the hour from 7 to 8 to organize piles of mail. They dominate a claustrophobic office. He reads innumerable journals and tends to the blossoming bureaucracy engendered by COCORP - the consortium's merciful acronym. On most days, those extra 60 minutes are the only time available for his routine officekeeping; after the rest of the staff and students assemble, his tiny sanctuary is transformed into an open house, the non-stop traffic due in equal parts to his contagiously enthusiastic personality, superior professional experience and skill, and a computer-quick brain quite free of scientific biases.

This open, ever-curious mind is what distinguished Kaufman's first career - 38 years with Shell as one of the most versatile exploration geophysicists. Without that resilience, his career would have ended abruptly. Like many who grew up with the profession, Kaufman barely knew what a geophysicist was ("never mind how to spell it") until some time after he was one.

His field was classical physics. He received his doctorate from Cornell in 1934 and spent the next year as a Coffin Foundation Fellow. As the fellowship was ending, Kaufman, like others propelled into the work force during the depression, "interviewed everywhere and took the first job offered."

It came in a telegram from Shell. However, Kaufman wasn't home when the wire arrived. He had just left to visit his girl friend, Goldie, who lived a half-hour away.

"My mother knew where I was going. So she called Goldie to tell her I had gotten this telegram from Shell. Goldie told her to open it and read it to her. By the time I got there they'd already decided I'd take the job and they even had the wedding planned. Our honeymoon trip was the 4-1/2 days it took to drive from New Jersey to Houston."

Hurried or otherwise, the marriage eased what might have proved to be difficult transitions for Kaufman - easterner to westerner, city boy to rural, student to supervisor, blackboard classroom scientist to commercial protagonist. Goldie evolved as one of the few with an overdrive biology matching her husband's. She also possessed considerable charm, broad interests, with no antipathy toward the gypsy life. This combination made her an ideal companion for her novitiate husband/explorationist.

"She was as eager as I was," Kaufman says, "to travel, to see new things, to meet new people. The only time she stalled was in Louisiana when we rented a place with a kerosene stove. Goldie had never seen or heard of a kerosene stove and had absolutely no idea how to cook on it."

(Even today, Goldie Kaufman's daily assault on life is floorboarded. Transplanted late in life from the semi-permanent sauna of Houston to the comparative Arctic of Ithaca, she hardly broke her vigorous stride, soon becoming an avid cross-country skier and now complaining if the upstate New York winters don't cooperate.)

Just four months after reaching Houston, Kaufman was pioneering on the mineral exploration frontier. The first month he spent in the lab, the next three as an assistant party chief. Then Shell gave him his own crew. At that time, crew chiefs enjoyed an independence and authority almost as great as ship captains, operating mostly in rural areas, far from headquarters, and having to make critical decisions on the spot.

This autonomy soon made Kaufman an unwelcome protagonist in offshore work. Amphibious seismic crews (Kaufman's was one) did exist in the 1930s, but their work was confined to shallow, inland areas per limited drilling technology. By 1937, Kaufman was mapping a structure along the south Texas coast near Rockport. The formation went into the Gulf of Mexico. Kaufman, on his own, decided to follow it - renting some shrimp boats and their crews at $28 a day and modifying equipment for the deeper, rougher water.

Harry Mayne says in his 1982 paper, The Evolution of Offshore Seismic Exploration: "Kaufman's crew was able to progress about four miles offshore into about 65 feet of water before his home office questioned his sanity ... but Petty Geophysical re-invented an almost identical operation for work in both the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico around the Florida Keys during World War II. Those and a few other pioneer operations represented the entire offshore effort until about 1946 when interest escalated and serious design efforts on special equipment started."

Kaufman even filmed part of his 1937 sea shoot, a record which confirms its historic primacy. But this distinction did not, as Mayne points out, impress Shell, Kaufman comments: "They were almost aghast. They thought I had been wasting crew time in an area that couldn't possibly be drilled."

Other than the offshore adventure, Kaufman's field time was routinely nomadic - more than 30 moves in five years. This ended when the United States entered World War II. Kaufman volunteered, was quickly commissioned by the Navy, and assigned to the First Naval District in Boston. He was again on a scientific frontier, officer-in-charge of secret work ("Marine guards at the doors") on a new and critical item in the allied arsenal - radar.

After the war, he returned to Shell but only after extracting a promise that he not be assigned field work. "We had two small children and it was time to settle down. Shell assigned me permanently to the home office. Instead of my headquarters, Houston became my home."

Home it remains, even though most of the past nine years has been spent in Ithaca. The Kaufmans have not sold their Houston home (they rent in Ithaca, a new house each year) and return to it during the summers.

Kaufman's new job description at Shell, senior physicist, did not pigeonhole his talents and soon he was managing some exotic projects. Within the next five years he helped adapt radar for navigation of Shell's new marine operations, designed a computer (when this word was still largely confined to science fiction), and developed seismic models using electronics.

The navigation system was sufficiently sophisticated to be placed under US government security classification. "Apparently it was quite similar to what the Navy was doing at the time," Kaufman says. The modeling study was formally presented at the 1951 World Petroleum Congress as Laboratory Studies of Transient Elastic Waves - the first publication in the field, "a legitimate scientific first," Kaufman says, "not something like just being the first to go on the water." The paper made his name familiar to Jack Oliver, then a young geophysicist starting his academic career. Nearly a quarter-century later, they would launch COCORP at Cornell, beginning a collaboration soon to reach major stature.

Kaufman served four years, 1958-62, as head of Shell's instrumentation department. From then until his 1973 retirement he was assistant to the vice president for exploration research and development, with the rank of senior staff research physicist. It was tacit recognition that his versatility was a great corporate asset - too valuable to be hamstrung by a routine assignment. "In every big company, you'll find somebody who doesn't fit a slot. That was me at Shell. I was out on the side of the organization chart. If there was something which didn't fit neatly into one of the departments, it came to me."

During the final years at Shell, Kaufman simultaneously became the firm's (and by extension, the geophysical industry's) unofficial but semi-permanent liaison with the US government on scientific matters. Also, he had long been active in important committee work of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists. He has chaired SEG committees on magnetic recording, radio facilities, and cooperation with government agencies. He is currently, and has been for several years, the SEG representative to the US Geodynamics Committee.

The highlight of this extra-curricular service was early 1960s membership on the geophysics advisory panel of the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. A co-panelist was Hugo Benioff, a seminal figure in seismology and a man Kaufman had long admired. "I was overwhelmed when I learned I had been asked to serve on a committee with him. There was a scientist, a real scientist, a man whose work really meant something to humanity."

Kaufman reached retirement in 1973. Unexpectedly, it lasted less than three months. "I had been looking forward to it but I got a lot of interesting job offers."

Cornell's came at one of those committee meetings now so intermingled in Kaufman's memory that the various casts and sundry settings have merged into a mélange. Kaufman can't pin down the particulars - exactly what the group was and exactly what part of California it was - but he does remember Oliver (a frequent committee colleague since the early 1960s) being surprised to learn of his imminent retirement - hard proof concerning Kaufman's ever-youthful aspect, the disguise fools even PhDs of long acquaintance.

Oliver immediately asked Kaufman to come to Cornell, where he had recently assumed departmental command, to oversee the genesis of a daring research project - studying the continental basement (the region of the lower crust and upper mantle) via reflection seismology.

Daring though it was, that controversial concept was virtually all Cornell had to offer; its reputation in geology was poor and its facilities primitive, particularly for a man accustomed to the executive suite rococo and technological wizardry of a major oil company. In addition, and most telling, there was no guarantee the project would be extended by the sponsoring National Science Foundation unless promising data were quickly delivered.

But tenuous as the project then was, it nonetheless triggered something in "Kaufman the scientist" to the point where considerations of "Kaufman the recent retiree" (who would have preferred a gentler climate and plusher appointments) were irrelevant. The thought that Cornell's project might prove scientifically important and that his talents could be a key to that end made his decision almost automatic. He set up shop at Cornell in late December 1973. His retirement from Shell had been in September.

The basic idea of COCORP had enjoyed circulation for a few years but otherwise Kaufman inherited little. Oliver comments: "All we had was a grant of $25,000, just to look at feasibility. We hadn't spent very much of the money so I decided to hire Sid with the rest. It was the only master stroke of my career."

Since Oliver orchestrated the rise of eminence of Cornell's department of geological sciences and was the 1981 winner of the American Geophysical Union's Bucher Medal, that assessment is becomingly modest. But there is no doubt Kaufman's hiring was inspired.

"Sid has been the key factor in the success and growth of the program," Oliver wrote in Kaufman's 1979 citation for Honorary Membership in SEG. It is doubtful COCORP could have been activated at all, much less so quickly and with such immediate results, had not Kaufman come to Cornell as its midwife. His personality, training in classical physics, contacts in the oil and gas industry, and expertise in seismic exploration were all needed to get the project beyond the tenuous birthing stage. Equally valuable was Kaufman's aggressive skill in eliminating snarls, theoretical or bureaucratic.

Oliver, department chairman from 1971-81 and now Irving Porter Church professor, says: "I don't know if I've ever seen anyone who can focus his mind on one thing as completely as Sid. When he's really concentrating on something, you'd better either jump on the bandwagon and help, or get out of the way."

COCORP blossomed into a vibrant adolescence soon after Kaufman's arrival. Its first field work was done within 15 months; within two years, it was emerging as a National Science Foundation showpiece; and at the end of three it was fully mature, i.e., able to keep a contract seismic crew in the field 12 months a year.

Few anticipated this quick success. In 1974 no one was certain reflection techniques could recover quality data at depths greater than a few seconds. Kaufman, though, had long been a true believer. In 1941 he got reflections at 5-6 seconds, astonishing for the time. "I was told to forget about it because they were of no interest to industry. At the time 9,000 feet was considered an ultra-deep well."

Kaufman retains the 1941 calculations. They're arresting not only in their prescience but in the clean lines of the work. This is obviously superlative craftsmanship, which though now outdated technologically will remain interesting for its artistry and beauty, just as a 19th Century master clocksmith's it, even though inferior to the modern machine-struck digital.

The old lines convinced Kaufman the basic idea was sound. "No one could be certain the technique would work until we had actually done it, but I had no qualms," he says. "There was nothing that said it absolutely couldn't be done."

State-of-the-art evidence, however, was needed to persuade NSF to fund field work. Kaufman foraged the petroleum industry, where he had many friends, for signs of deep reflections. "The oil companies cooperated fully. They gave me everything they had. One geophysicist, when I was visiting his office, got right up, cut off the bottom half of a section, and handed it to me. That kind of data was critical. It let me go to the NSF and show them we had a fighting chance."

The NSF did not immediately marry itself to COCORP but was definitely intrigued and willing to be courted. It agreed to back three field projects. The Cornell leadership picked the sites with great care. (The original members of the consortium were the University of Houston, the University of Wisconsin, Princeton and Cornell. The latter has always had operational responsibility.)

"We figured two of the three had to be successful or we'd be out of business," Kaufman says. "We did everything we could to make sure our first work was in areas with the best odds."

COCORP easily passed the make-or-break crisis. All three tests were successful, two spectacularly. The first, in March 1975, was in Hardeman County, Texas, midway between Amarillo and Wichita Falls, an area thought rather placid geologically but where oil prospectors had gotten reflections from great depths. The results vindicated the COCORP faithful. Reflections were recorded as deep as 43 kilometers, and unexpectedly some interesting geology was picked up as a bonus.

"We got reflections at 15-16 seconds in Hardeman County. That amazed people. But we weren't doing magic. Fundamentally we were merely using the techniques developed by the industry. The only thing new was that we were doing it deeper. Industry usually cuts it off after the first few seconds because that's all they're interested in."

Even more exciting data came from the third shoot, in central New Mexico - December 1975. Reflections were recorded from 51 kilometers and the data apparently revealed, at a depth of 21 kilometers, a magma chamber some geologists believe responsible for the area's strong uplift. This alone could be a valuable scientific and commercial spinoff of the main research thrust. Oliver says:

"The magma accumulations have an obvious potential as a source of geothermal heat. And you want to know if there's likelihood they will evolve into full-fledged volcanoes with surface eruptions. But it's possible that magma bodies have other important roles in the earth's crust. This heat may be a major factor in concentrating important minerals and metalliferous ores in the zones immediately above them. The same could also be true for the formation of petroleum - you need just the right amount of heat to turn organic material into hydrocarbons.

"From the purely scientific standpoint, which is our chief interest, there is a feeling that the intrusion of magmas may play a significant role in building the continental crust. These vertical intrusions could be a key factor, and we would like to know quite a bit more about them, for the current version of the evolving theory of plate tectonics may not be telling us the whole story of the earth's geological processes."

After this flying start, COCORP grew exponentially. Today their annual budget is around $3 million. Their in-house computer works 24 hours a day, seven days a week, crunching out elephantine sections which make arabesques of entire corridors.

"We operate just like a small oil company," says Kaufman. "The only difference is that we don't drill because we're not looking for oil or gas - we're looking for knowledge of the earth. We decide where we're going, get permission, hire the crews, do the quality control, test the data, do all the processing, draw up the final sections and interpret.

"Nowhere else in the United States are students able to do this. We take them through the entire exploration process. They love it.

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