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

    US Internet Giants, EU Reach Deal to Combat Online Hate Speech

    Facebook, Twitter, Google and Microsoft commit to ‘quickly and efficiently’ act to clamp down on use of social media to incite violence, terror

    Tunisia’s Ennahda Party Begins a New Political Chapter

    Party now moves to separate its political and religious activities; change described by party members as pragmatic response to political and economic challenges facing Tunisia today

    Virtual Reality Fine-tuned at Asia Tech Show

    Microchip designers hope to improve resolution for users of systems that can turn your bedroom into the ocean floor

    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.
    Tech Startups Showcase Wares at Amsterdam Conferencei
    X
    Serginho Roosblad
    May 30, 2016 5:11 PM
    More than 20,000 tech enthusiasts, entrepreneurs and lovers of digital technology came together in Amsterdam recently at the Next Web Conference to discuss the latest developments in digital technology, look to the future and, of course, to connect. In recent years, there has been an explosion of so-called startup businesses that have created devices and applications that have changed the way we live; but, as Serginho Roosblad reports for VOA, there are pitfalls for such startups as well.
    Video

    Video Tech Startups Showcase Wares at Amsterdam Conference

    More than 20,000 tech enthusiasts, entrepreneurs and lovers of digital technology came together in Amsterdam recently at the Next Web Conference to discuss the latest developments in digital technology, look to the future and, of course, to connect. In recent years, there has been an explosion of so-called startup businesses that have created devices and applications that have changed the way we live; but, as Serginho Roosblad reports for VOA, there are pitfalls for such startups as well.
    Video

    Video US Military's Fallen Honored With Flags

    Memorial Day is a long weekend for most Americans. For some, it is the unofficial start of summer -- local swimming pools open and outdoor grilling season begins. But Memorial Day remains true to its origins -- a day to remember the U.S. military's fallen.
    Video

    Video Rolling Thunder Rolls Into Washington

    The Rolling Thunder caravan of motorcycles rolled into Washington Sunday, to support the U.S. military on the country's Memorial Day weekend
    Video

    Video A New Reading Program Pairs Kids with Dogs

    Dogs, it is said, are man's best friend. What some researchers have discovered is that they can also be a friend to a struggling reader. A group called Intermountain Therapy Animals trains dogs to help all kinds of kids with reading problems — from those with special needs to those for whom English is a second language. Faiza Elmasry has more on the New York chapter of R.E.A.D., or Reading Education Assistance Dogs, in this piece narrated by Faith Lapidus.
    Video

    Video Fan Base Grows for Fictional Wyoming Sheriff Longmire

    Around the world, the most enduring symbol of the U.S. is that of the cowboy. A very small percentage of Americans live in Western rural areas, and fewer still are cowboys. But the fascination with the American West is kept alive by such cultural offerings as “Longmire,” a series of books and TV episodes about a fictional Wyoming sheriff. VOA’s Greg Flakus recently spoke with Longmire’s creator, Craig Johnson, and filed this report from Houston.
    Video

    Video Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trend

    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Reactions to Trump's Success Polarized Abroad

    What seemed impossible less than a year ago is now almost a certainty. New York real estate mogul Donald Trump has won the number of delegates needed to secure the Republican presidential nomination. The prospect has sparked as much controversy abroad as it has in the United States. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Drawings by Children in Hiroshima Show Hope and Peace

    On Friday, President Barack Obama will visit Hiroshima, Japan, the first American president to do so while in office. In August 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city to force Japan's surrender in World War II. Although their city lay in ruins, some Hiroshima schoolchildren drew pictures of hope and peace. The former students and their drawings are now part of a documentary called “Pictures from a Hiroshima Schoolyard.” VOA's Deborah Block has the story.
    Video

    Video Vietnamese Rapper Performs for Obama

    A prominent young Vietnamese artist told President Obama said she faced roadblocks as a woman rapper, and asked the president about government support for the arts. He asked her to rap, and he even offered to provide a base beat for her. Watch what happened.
    Video

    Video Roots Run Deep for Tunisia's Dwindling Jewish Community

    This week, hundreds of Jewish pilgrims are defying terrorist threats to celebrate an ancient religious festival on the Tunisian island of Djerba. The festivities cast a spotlight on North Africa's once-vibrant Jewish population that has all but died out in recent decades. Despite rising threats of militant Islam and the country's battered economy, one of the Arab world's last Jewish communities is staying put and nurturing a new generation. VOA’s Lisa Bryant reports.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora