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

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs UN countermeasure More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants 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.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs