Suara GEA 1988 – 1992 (8)
From: Suara GEA, February 1988 edition
GEA English Corner
Imaginary Interview with Lewis Nettleton
This time I would like to introduce Lewis Nettleton as our interviewee on the second edition of Suara GEA in 1988. I have reasons why I choose him. He was an unlikely pretender to such eminence. He was low key and scholarly, working mostly in the scientific purity of the laboratory, well away from the rough and tumble of the field. He became renowned and his influence widespread for a reason divorced from the professional accomplishments: he wrote the book. For your information, one of his books: Geophysical Prospecting for Oil, published in 1940, remained a standard introduction to the field for many embryonic explorationists for 30 years before advancing technology finally forced it out of print. It was also widely used by a group not expected to be among its audience – practicing exploration geophysicists. OK friends, you won’t wait too long… here comes Mr. Lewis Nettleton!
EDMS: Hallo Mr. Nettleton! I am from Suara GEA and I beg you to share a little story about your life, your study, your work, anything that you think our readers should know. And first of all think I would like to ask you the same classic questions like…
LN: When and where I was born… OK! I was born in the small town of Nampa in 1896 and lived in the state until graduating from the University of Idaho in 1918.
EDMS: Then could you tell me a little about your experience until you got your doctorate degree?
LN: My formal education had been in physics, climaxing in 1923 with a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin. I did all my graduate at Wisconsin. I mastered geology later, without any classroom work. Prior to entering petroleum exploration at age 32, my only contact with geology had been tangential. I thought that was just natural, I was born in Idaho, and enjoyed the natural beauty of my native Idaho!
EDMS: Aha! Though you loved Idaho, your wife was from Wisconsin, wasn’t she?
LN: Yes! As I have said before, I did all my graduate at Wisconsin, so of course I spent most of my time there. I met Marion Moore there. She contributed much to my writing style. She was a journalism graduate,… so no doubt at all. I loved her. I called my marriage life as a priceless relationship. It endured more than 50 years until Marion’s death.
EDMS: Was she clever too?
LN: Ha, ha,… yes, she was clever enough to set our wedding on my birthday, so I always remembered my anniversary in that half-century!
EDMS: Some kind of sensible sense I think…
EDMS: After receiving your doctorate, you joined the Union Switch and Signal Company and moved to Pittsburgh. Then, why did you move to gulf five years later?
LN: The challenge it gave me! At that time Gulf started one of the petroleum’s industry initial research departments, and they asked me becoming one of many inspired staffing decisions.
EDMS: I have heard that years later there were 7 scientists at Gulf,… you, Mr. E.A. Eckhardt, Mr. Sigmund hammer, Mr. R.D. Wyckoff, Mr. L.P. Garrett, Mr. Paul Weaver, and Mr. John Bardeen.
LN: How did you know the exact numbers?
EDMS: Journalist always gets the idea to seek for everything.
LN: Ha, ha,… Yes, we worked on methods of correcting and interpreting gravity and magnetic data. But two years later, Bardeen left exploration, returning to Princeton to complete his doctorate. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1956 as a co-inventor of the transistor, and in 1972 for the theory of superconductivity.
EDMS: But, as you know,… the differences in background have led to some conflict between geologists and geophysicists and not a little blaming of one another for faults of commission and omission…
LN: Hm,… there has been some debate in geological and geophysical journals on the question of geophysical interpretation in terms of geologically “acceptable” or perhaps more properly “natural” underground picture. The geologist has felt that the geophysicist is presumptuous, and the geophysicist has felt that the geologist is too conservative in recognizing departure from recognized type geologic situations… It is the variation in judgment and weighing of the several geophysical and geological elements involved, which in the final analysis is a matter of probability, that has led to accusations and a certain amount of antagonism between geologists and geophysicists. Better geophysical maps will be made by geophysicists, and better use of them by geologists will come about, when the two sciences attain more complete coordination. We may even hope for the day when a really competent combination of geologist and physicist will emerge in the same man who will truly be a “geo-physicist” in all that combined title implies.
EDMS: Your “geo-physicist” is an ideal, not expected until some time after the two disciplines had at least managed the de h’tente, if not become wholly fused. But a few people already deserved the title and all that it implied. Your own claim they will realize that it is true. During the ’30s you also thrust yourself in teaching, which would also have great impact. Could you tell me about that?
LN: Formerly Gulf’s research department grew swiftly in its early years. By 1930 the geophysical staff in Pittsburgh exceeded 100 and continued to grow throughout the decade despite the depression. Geology graduates of the University of Pittsburgh seemed an obvious talent source. But Hammer said that they were completely unqualified. Gulf wanted to hire them but they couldn’t do the quantitative work. Geology was then a purely descriptive science. Physics was emphasized in our early work. Every project challenged our skills as physicists to come up with new procedures, new formulas, quantitative concepts. Trained geologist did not posses those qualifications at that time. So, I convinced Gulf to let me teach geophysics, a half day each week, to Pittsburgh geology students. You know,… I myself was still new to the field when I began that class and I started “by staying one step ahead of the students”. The course became more refined during the decade and my lecture notes more detailed, ultimately evolving into the primary source material for Geophysical Prospecting for Oil.
EDMS: You wrote so many books. Why? For the sake of science or anything else?
LN: Formerly I wrote just for the sake of science, but my reason for such a large output was not always purely scientific. Gul
f was quite generous about writing papers but wasn’t very generous about going to meetings. So I had a motive. It didn’t take me long to write a paper so I would think one up and get it on the program.
EDMS: What was your first assignment at Gulf?
LN: My first assignment at Gulf was interpretation of torsion balance data. As you know, in 1924 it had found the Nash salt dome in Texas, the first oil field discovered by geophysical exploration. Four years later, when I joined Gulf, it was still the only reliable method of gravity measurement and thus among the geophysicists’ key tools since seismic profiling had not been perfected. The torsion balance gave accurate data but it was a very cumbersome, painfully slow process. The instrument was about six feet high and awkward to operate. You could only make about three stations a day. Usually two were used together so you got six a day…
EDMS: Let me continue… Torsion balance data came in various forms, raw field data or maps and reports. From this information the horizontal gradient of gravity and the so called differential curvature were calculated. Originally the geological interpretation of torsion balance data was made directly from the gradient and the curvature data, wasn’t it right?
LN: Quite right! The map of the Nash dome was interpreted that way. The first project we did together avoided this cumbersome process. We integrated the gradients with a special chart to produce a gravity anomaly contour map. That was much easier to interpret.
EDMS: Early in the 1930s, pendulum was developed for gravity data collection but the process remained tortuous until the middle of the decade when the first reliable gravimeters arrived. What’s your comment?
LN: Those early ones could make a measurement in maybe 5 minutes and they kept getting smaller and faster. They could make 30-40 stations a day and completely replaced the torsion balance and pendulum. If you need really rapid work, they could make as many as a hundred stations a day.
EDMS: Mr. Steenland said that you knocked yourself out to learn geology. You went on every conceivable field trip and joined all the societies. Why?
LN: Because I wanted to establish myself in academic circles as a geologist.
EDMS: But still, why did you want eagerly to establish yourself as a geologist?
LN: I will give you the long explanation.. Up to the present time geophysical interpreters are either physicists who have learned some geology or geologists who have learned some physics. The two sciences do not mix easily, for the physicist trained in an exact science, controlled by experiment and by well-established laws, may stand aghast at the geologist, who, figuratively, pushes on a pad of paper until it buckles in the middle and seems to consider the experiment a justification for a theory on the mechanics of the formation of the Appalachian Mountain system. On the other hand, many a physicist whom geophysics has brought into contact and cooperation with good geologists has gained a great deal of respect for the breadth of vision that brings order into a tumbled mass of mountain scenery; builds up a complex history of advancing and receding seas over millions of years of time from observations of fossil bugs, size of sand grains, and the chemical nature of very dull-looking and superficially nondescript chunks of rock; or guesses that an important geological disturbances lies beneath an area because of some very nebulous and apparently unimportant and insignificant variation in the surface material…
EDMS: The book established you as one of the profession’s most capable writers, a craft you had been mastering since the early ‘30s and which you would vigorously pursue for several decades.
LN: Yes,… my writing skills led directly to my one major career move, the 1946 departure from Gulf to became a partner in Torsion Balance Exploration in Houston. Steenland flatly claimed that my articles were the overriding reason why I was offered a partnership. I was hired strictly on the basis on my writing.
EDMS: Did you like to move there,… I mean to Houston?
LN: of course. The shift to Houston radically changed my professional life. For the first time, I began to travel regularly to the field, particularly overseas, to taste a first hand the fiercely competitive side of the industry and to experience wild variations in business activity.
EDMS: Anything else you’d like to say to Suara GEA’s readers before I end this interview?
LN: First, improve your writing ability, writing skill is the most treasure part for communication among people, especially among the scientists. Goethe had said: “Faith is not the beginning, but the end of knowledge.” So, don’t ever trust… but, I don’t mean to make prejudice. Anything now won’t stay the same as anything in the past or in the future… Seek for the truth and the truth only!
EDMS: Thank you Mr. Nettleton, it is really a pleasure for me and the readers to know in and out about you…
Lewis Nettleton revised his book Gravity and Magnetic in Oil Prospecting (appeared in 1976) when he turned 80, did consulting work, and taught at Rice University. He generally spent about five hours a day in his office until serious health problem finally mandated retirement after more than 50 years in exploration.
I would like to quote the words of some of his friends for you.
Nelson Steenland , a graduate student when Geophysical Prospecting for Oil was published and later one of Nettleton’s closest colleagues said: “It was just so damn readable and practical. The other books were three times as long, full of specialized knowledge and long on detail that nobody was going to use. Nettleton’s was a book the practicing geophysicist could just pick up and learn quickly from. There was a lot of accent on fast methods of anomaly and relate it to structure without living in the dream world.”
In Nettleton’s 1956 citation for SEG (Society of Exploration Geophysicists) Honorary Membership, Steenland wrote: “perhaps his most unusual achievement is this mastery of geology. Without having had any formal training in geology, he has served the Geological Society of America for three years as a member of its project committee which screens the applications for funds for research project. In addition he has been one of four civilian members on the panel on geology of the committee on geophysical sciences of the Defense Department’s Research and Development Board. These facts illustrate his never-ending effort to correlate geophysics and geology, to use geophysics as a geologic tool.”
Tom LaFehr who became one of his partners in 1964 said: “He has the unusual gift of being able to combine the practical side with difficult material. His real forte was to explain things so average guy could understand. He could put things into down-to-earth terminology. It’s hard to praise him too highly. He is a real gentleman. I do
n’t remember a time when he ever let an argument itself become a driving force. By the time I got to know him, he was a walking encyclopedia; I wondered if I should take up his time. But he never gave me that impression. He was always accessible. He never showed any condescension. He was always willing to sit down and talk on an equal basis and I think he made everyone feel that way.”
Yes,… his career, even Nettletons’ admirers admit, was not filled with high drama. He was calm, careful, responsible, scholarly person who turned out consistently high quality, important scientific work. He was always thoroughly decent and probably the world’s most lovable guy. His work was characterized by a completely rational mind a very large absence of prejudice. He was always wanting new information and evaluating it non-hysterically. He wasn’t really highly creative, not a wildly imaginative chair-throwing genius. His brilliance depended on consistency and patience. He was always logical, almost mistake-proof. He remained a benign person who was always looking for something new and who juts thrived on new ideas. Although his style was not colorful, it made a profound contribution, one equaled by few of the romantic figures of exploration’s past. Fewer still have been so universally admired, as a scientist and for an uncommonly graceful humanity.
Source: Geophysics: The Leading Edge of Exploration. Vol. 2, No. 11, pp. 16-20. November 1983.
By: Elisabeth DMS