News / USA

Geophysicist Probes Ocean's Secrets

Walter Pitman helped prove the theory of continental drift

Multimedia

Audio

There are more than 300 research scientists working in scores of specialties at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades New York, but few have made as varied and lasting a contribution as Walter Pitman.

By recording and analyzing the magnetic patterns in the undersea ridge, Walter Pitman helped prove the theory of continental drift, a revolutionary idea at the time.
By recording and analyzing the magnetic patterns in the undersea ridge, Walter Pitman helped prove the theory of continental drift, a revolutionary idea at the time.

Today, Pitman is a distinguished professor of geophysics at Columbia University, and the recipient of many of his field’s most coveted honors.

Even though he is now in his 80s, Pitman’s animated manner makes it easy to picture him as the precocious teenager he once was, visiting his father’s workplace at Bell Labs - the pioneering technology research center - and asking the other scientists there about their work.

“I worked there in the summertime sweeping floors but I was in amongst all these people," he recalls. "It was wonderful.”

Pitman earned an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and physics, and soon took a job with an electronics firm. The work bored him, but one project - doing research on submarines - sparked a passion for oceanography and a return to university.

For his doctoral thesis at Columbia, Pitman headed back to sea on a research vessel. He hoped to gather evidence that all the continents had once been joined, but for hundreds of millions of years had been drifting apart atop giant plates of the earth’s crust, which floated on a layer of volcanic magma.  

“Now when they pull apart, volcanic material comes up and fills that void," Pitman says. "That volcanic material contains a lot of iron. When that volcanic material cools down that iron will become magnetized in the direction of the earth’s field on that place and at that time.”

This chart shows the magnetic patterns at set distances from the Pacific-Antarctic Ridge. During the 1960s, Pitman used the symmetry in the patterns to help prove the theory of plate tectonics and continental drift. (Credit: Lamont-Doherty)


By recording and analyzing the magnetic patterns in the undersea ridge, Pitman helped prove the theory of continental drift, a revolutionary idea at the time.

“It was electrifying. I didn’t imagine ever being involved in something so astonishing and so very, very important to the geological sciences at such a young stage in my career. I was very fortunate to be there when it was happening.”

Pitman says that in addition to explaining how the continents drift around the oceans, the science of plate tectonics explains how they collide and break apart, creating earthquakes and building mountain chains.

Later, Pitman turned his attention to the surface of the ocean, and sea level changes. He and fellow Columbia University geophysicist William Ryan proposed what is known as the Black Sea Deluge Theory. In their 1998 book, “Noah's Flood: the New Scientific Discoveries About The Event That Changed History,” they contend that the Black Sea was once a landlocked freshwater lake. It probably served as a fertile oasis for Neolithic peoples. Then about 7500 years ago, melting glaciers raised water levels in the neighboring Mediterranean Sea.  

“Until it got to the point where it could flow in through the Bosporus, which was at that time was probably at a depth of 15 or 20 meters. You’re talking about a huge mass of water coming in to fill a very small basin.  And that water as it comes through the Bosporus is going to cut the Bosporus deeper. The deeper it cuts, the faster it flows. The faster it flows, the faster it cuts, and so on. There is a feedback mechanism. You start with a trickle and within a short time, it’s a raging, roaring torrent of water flowing in at 50 cubic kilometers a day. We’re very sure that’s what it (the Biblical flood) was.”

For decades, Pitman served as a distinguished professor of oceanography and geophysics at Columbia University. But he decided to stop teaching when he began to have trouble remembering all of his students’ names.

“Thinking about it, I always liked to become sort of an uncle," Pittman says. "Not a professor, but a bit more like an older uncle with the students. I think that made them more free to talk and question and contradict, than if I was ‘Herr Professor.’ These are bright kids - really bright. And you know damn well that a lot of them are going to go on to achieve much more than you have achieved.”

This octogenarian’s thirst for knowledge is undiminished by age. He and several colleagues are currently studying the climate of the Arctic Ocean, and its effects on the world’s water cycles over the past two million years. Their research can help scientists predict the effects of climate change, which is melting the polar ice caps and causing sea levels to rise. But Walter Pitman remains fascinated by whatever falls under his gaze.     

“I’ve had an incredibly good time at this kind of endeavor. There are bad spots, of course. But the science is always fascinating. You might stop reading for the day and say ‘Wow, that is so great. I learned something about how the Earth works.’ That is really pure pleasure.”

You May Like

Turkish Public Fears Jihadists More Than Kurds

Turkey facing twin threats of terrorism by Islamic State and PKK Kurdish separatists, says President Erdogan’s ruling AK Party More

Video One Year After Massacre, Iraq’s Yazidis a Broken People

Minority community still recovering from devastating assault by IS militants which spurred massive outrage More

‘Malvertisements’ Undermine Internet Trust

Hackers increasingly prey on users' trust of major websites to delivery malicious software More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Communityi
X
Sharon Behn
August 03, 2015 2:23 PM
A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Community

A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Bangkok Warned It Soon Could Be Submerged

Italy's Venice and America's New Orleans are not the only cities gradually submerging. The nearly ten million residents of the Bangkok urban area now must confront warnings the city could become uninhabitable in a few decades. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Thai capital.
Video

Video Inclusive Gym Gets People With Disabilities in Fitness Spirit

Individuals with special needs are 58 percent more likely to be obese than the general population. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, they also have an increased likelihood of anxiety, depression and social isolation. But a sports club outside Washington wants to make a difference in these people's lives. With Carol Pearson narrating, VOA's June Soh reports.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Special Olympics Show Competitors' Skill, Determination

Special Olympics competitions will wrap up Saturday in Los Angeles, and the closing ceremony for athletes with intellectual disabilities will be held Sunday night. In a week of competition, athletes have shown what they can do through skill and determination. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Shooter’s Grill: Serving Food with a Touch of the Second Amendment

Shooter's Grill, a restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, attracts visitors from all over the world as well as local patrons. The reason? Waitresses openly carry loaded firearms as they serve food, and customers are welcome to carry them, too. VOA's Enming Liu and Lin Yang paid a visit to Shooter's Grill, and heard different opinions about this unique establishment.
Video

Video Despite Controversy, Business Owner Continues Sale of Confederate Flags

At Cooter’s, a store in rural Sperryville, Virginia, about 120 kilometers west of Washington, D.C., Confederate flags are flying off the shelves. The red, white and blue battle flag, with 13 white stars representing the Confederate states, was carried by southern forces during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. The South had seceded from the Union over several key issues of disagreement, including slavery. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs