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

Video Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?

There is growing uncertainty over whether West’s response to ISIS is adequate More

China Crackdown on Dual Citizens Causes Concern

New policy encourages reporting people who obtain citizenship in another country, but retain Chinese citizenship; move spurs sharp debate More

Video Coalition to Fight Islamic State Could Reward Assad

Losing ground to Islamic State fighters, Syria's government says it is ready to cooperate with international community 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.
Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?i
X
Henry Ridgwell
August 29, 2014 12:26 AM
U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops to Iraq to fight militants of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, despite officials in Washington describing the extremist group as the biggest threat the United States has faced in years. Henry Ridgwell reports from London on the growing uncertainty over whether the West’s response to ISIS will be enough to defeat the terrorist threat.
Video

Video Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?

U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops to Iraq to fight militants of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, despite officials in Washington describing the extremist group as the biggest threat the United States has faced in years. Henry Ridgwell reports from London on the growing uncertainty over whether the West’s response to ISIS will be enough to defeat the terrorist threat.
Video

Video Pachyderms Play Polo to Raise Money for Elephants

Polo, the ancient team competition typically played on horseback, is known as the “sport of kings.” However, the royal version for one annual event in Thailand swaps the horse for the kingdom’s national symbol - the elephant. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Samut Prakan reports that the King’s Cup Elephant Polo tournament is all for a good cause.
Video

Video Coalition to Fight Islamic State Could Reward Assad

The United States along with European and Mideast allies are considering a broader assault against Islamic State fighters who have spread from Syria into Iraq and risk further destabilizing an already troubled region. But as VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports, confronting those militants could end up helping the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Video

Video Made in America Socks Get Toehold in Online Fashion Market

Three young entrepreneurs are hoping to revolutionize the high-end sock industry by introducing all-American creations of their own. And they’re doing most of it the old-fashioned way. VOA’s Julie Taboh recently caught up with them to learn what goes into making their one-of-a-kind socks.
Video

Video Americans, Ex-Pats Send Relief Supplies to West Africa

Health organizations from around the world are sending supplies and specialists to the West African countries that are dealing with the worst Ebola outbreak in history. On a smaller scale, ordinary Americans and African expatriates living in the United States are doing the same. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video America's Most Popular Artworks Displayed in Public Places

Public places in cities across America were turned into open-air art galleries in August. Pictures of the nation’s most popular artworks were displayed on billboards, bus shelters, subway platforms and more. The idea behind “Art Everywhere,” a collaborative campaign by five major museums is to allow more people to enjoy art and learn about the country’s culture and history. Faiza Elmasry has more.
Video

Video Chinese Doctors Use 3-D Spinal Implant

A Chinese boy suffering from a debilitating bone disease has become the first patient with a part of his spine created in a three-dimensional printer. Doctors say he will soon regain normal mobility. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Uneasy Calm Settles Over Israel, Gaza Strip

Israel and the Gaza Strip have been calm since a cease-fire set in Tuesday evening, ending seven weeks of hostilities. Hamas, which controls Gaza, declared victory. Israelis were more wart. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Jerusalem.
Video

Video India’s Leprosy Battle Stymied by Continuing Stigma

Medical advancements in the treatment of leprosy have greatly diminished its impact around the world, largely eliminating the disease from most countries. India made great strides in combating leprosy, but still accounts for a majority of the world’s new cases each year, and the number of newly infected Indians is rising - more than 130,000 recorded last year. Doctors there say the problem has more to do with society than science. Shaikh Azizur Rahman reports from Kolkata.
Video

Video Scientists Unlock Mystery of Bird Flocks

How can flocks of birds, schools of fish or herds of antelope suddenly change direction -- all the individuals adjusting their movement in concert, at seemingly the same time? British researchers now have some insights into this behavior, which has puzzled scientists for a long time. VOA's George Putic has more.

AppleAndroid