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Geology rocks the past and the future

January 14, 2021

A look at the unique development of the study of geology at ASU, from its start with a bunch of meteorites to the work of the next generation of interdisciplinary scientists

“Earth is ancient now, but all knowledge is stored up in her,” the English author Jeanette Winterson wrote. “She keeps a record of everything that has happened since time began. … Through time, her secret codes have gradually been broken. Her mud and lava is a message from the past.”

Geoscientists speak her language. They can read the message.

They can peer into grains of sand and determine from them how rain carves mountains. How minerals interact with chemicals and pressure. How the Earth’s crust interacts with the ocean and the atmosphere. Their sense of time and scale dwarfs most other sciences. They range from days to millennia. Where you and I see immobile rock, they see a dance of force and movement.

To learn, they venture out to the far corners of the globe, spending months on ice caps or clawing at the desert floor, roasting in canyons, toting loads of instruments down ribbon-thin trails, lugging samples through airports.

“I never met a rock I didn’t like,” marine geologist Robert Dietz once said.

Go out in the field with even the most jaded geologist, to some place they’ve been a hundred times. They’ll pick something up and hold it out. “Oh, look at this!”

Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration is entering its 15th year. The school is renowned as an interdisciplinary powerhouse, and geology is a big part of that — its geological and earth sciences were ranked No. 1 in the National Science Foundation's Higher Education Research and Development (HERD) survey in 2018, the most recent data available. 

But it has “a heritage of geoscience and astrophysics activity and collaboration long before 2002Michael Crow became president in 2002, bringing his idea of the New American University — an agile and radical reimagining of higher education — to ASU.,” Professor Emeritus James Tyburczy said.

This story is about the development and history of a university’s geology program. It’s not exhaustive, nor is it a Homeric catalog of ships. The character of any university department is as whimsically and erratically created as the nature of a person. People come. People go. It is directed here. It is directed there. Such is this story.

And it begins in 1942 at a Route 66 roadside attraction in northern Arizona.

The millionaire miner of the Milky Way

Harvey Nininger was an elfin man with a slight overbite and a receding hairline. The son of itinerant farmers who didn’t believe in education, he attended school for about three months of the year in rural Oklahoma. The rest of the time he picked or planted cotton. His brother attended the state normal school and convinced Nininger to join him there. He was immediately hooked on learning. He studied biology, and his junior year his professor hired him as a replacement teacher.

“In 1923, in the fall, I saw this big fireball come across one evening as we were talking in front of my friend's house,” he said in a 1976 interview for the Flagstaff Public Library Oral History Project. “This just changed my whole picture.”

Harvey Ninninger

Harvey Nininger examining soil collected near the Meteor Crater rim during his 1946–1948 field investigation. He believed that nickel-rich metallic spheroids he found in the soil were condensation droplets from a cloud of vaporized metal from the impacting meteorite, and constituted tangible proof of Forest R. Moulton’s explosion theory of the crater’s formation. Photo courtesy of Carleton B. Moore/ASU Center for Meteorite Studies

Nininger became obsessed with meteorites. He learned everything he could, which wasn’t much. Meteorites were so rare scientists thought studying them was a waste of time.

He came up with a system for finding them. (He called it the first and only practical system for the task.) He paid a dollar a pound.

“Go out and educate the people, tell the people what they’re like, offer a bonus if they find any,” he said. “And in a country where the land is farmed, they will turn up these things. And that’s the way I made the collection.”

Nininger created the first classification system for meteorites and published numerous books and articles reporting results of his pioneering research. After 15 years of collecting, he decided in 1942 he could make a living out of a museum. He estimated he had half of all meteorites discovered in the world. The museum was on Route 66, in a sandstone building with a tower — now in ruins — opposite Meteor Crater.

Ninninger Meteorite Museum

The American Meteorite Museum, which Nininger established in the mid-1940s on Route 66, some 5 miles from Meteor Crater. It housed his meteorite collection and was maintained by a small admission charge to the public, as well as the sale of specimens, books and jewelry crafted from small meteorite fragments. The museum moved to Sedona, Arizona, in 1953, where it operated until 1960. Photo courtesy of Carleton B. Moore/ASU Center for Meteorite Studies

But when the interstate highway system was built, it bypassed the museum. Nininger moved it to Sedona in 1953. At that point he and his wife, Addie, were tired of barely scraping by. They knew they were sitting on several hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of specimens. The press dubbed him the “Millionaire Miner of the Milky Way,” but the millions weren’t there.

He sold about 20% of the collection to the British Museum for $140,000. The Niningers paid off their debts and went on a seven-month vacation to Asia.

When the Niningers returned from their vacation (much of which had been spent hunting for meteorites in places like the Philippines), they put out the word that the rest of the collection was for sale.

Enter ASU. Arizona State became a university in 1958. George Boyd was coordinator of research, but the problem was there wasn’t any research to coordinate. There was some scorpion research going on in biology, but that was about it. Boyd cast about for something substantial.

“And immediately, the thing began to get hot,” said Nininger, quoted in the Flagstaff Public Library Oral History Project.

Boyd persuaded the National Science Foundation to come out and look at the collection. Sputnik was the big news back then. Space was on everyone’s mind. And right here in Arizona was a big chunk of space.

The NSF sent out a rep who drove up to Sedona. He met the Niningers and looked over the collection.

Nininger recalled: “Then he said, ‘Now, you've spent your life gathering this collection. And we feel that you ought to have something to say as to where it goes. And we have to buy it, because there are half a dozen institutions as it is now, all of 'em want us to furnish the money, but we think we ought to get your opinion before we decide.’ And I said, ‘We have anticipated this sort of thing and have talked about it. And Addie and I have decided that if you will put it somewhere in Arizona, in one of the institutions in Arizona, we'll knock off 40% of the price, based on what we sold to the British Museum.' Well, that settled it then; it went to Arizona State University. And we have retired, but of course I never quit work on a thing like that.”

Paul Miller was the founding chair of the Department of Geology at ASU from 1957 to 1965. He hired people to teach who just happened to be around, like a northern Arizona uranium hunter. They were nontenured — sometimes high school teachers. Classes tended to be 30 to 40 people. Groups of undergrads studied field geology at Camp Tontozona.

“Paul Miller was a very nice guy, but he was not driven to do high-powered research,” said Carleton Moore, professor emeritus of chemistry and biochemistry.

Some of the faculty were nervous about the switch. They’d signed up to teach, not do research.

“(Miller) didn’t want the meteorites because meteorites are not geology,” Moore said.

So the meteorite collection was put into the chemistry department.

“They had no one in chemistry who knew anything about meteorites so they went shopping to find someone,” Moore said. “People in the national scene did not trust a school like ASU to handle it properly.”

What they needed was a chemist who knew something about meteorites.

Herbert Fales, the vice president of the International Nickel Company, was a meteorite enthusiast familiar with the Nininger collection. He offered to help sweeten the pot for the NSF. “Fales was always ready to support us money-wise,” Moore said.

Moore was a chemistry major from CalTech, who had chosen geology as a minor. “I was a chemist who knew something about meteorites,” he said. He was teaching in Connecticut when he got the call from Fales.

So, Moore came to ASU in 1961 as the founding director of the Center for Meteorite Studies. He acquired 35 research grants in materials science and geology from NASA, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Geological Survey from 1963 to 1987. The center is the world’s largest university collection, with more than 40,000 individual specimens.

Carleton Moore

Carleton Moore, in a circa 1960 ASU Library photo, was appointed to serve as the first director of ASU’s Center for Meteorite Studies, which exists to this day. Moore acquired 35 research grants in materials science and geology from NASA, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Geological Survey from 1963 to 1987. Moore’s research on moon dust and moon rocks acquired from NASA’s Apollo missions were particularly well-publicized. This work resulted in a large number of public speaking opportunities in Arizona and set the stage for significant work in planetary geology and astrophysics by subsequent ASU faculty.

Before the Apollo missions, ASU was a major source of meteorites for people who were going to analyze the moon rocks. It’s what they practiced on.

Moore’s research on moon dust and moon rocks acquired from the Apollo missions in the 1970s were particularly well-publicized. NASA flew him to Houston to do moon rock analysis on the weekends. (He flew commercial, changing planes in Dallas while hauling a huge bag of meteorites.)

Even so, the geology department was still in its infancy.

Moore’s description of the department at that time: “We stumbled along, with people coming and going.”

The Victorian scholar

In 1961, LeRoy Eyring was recruited as chair of the chemistry department. Then in 1965, Paul Miller, who was exhausted by research, was replaced by Troy Péwé as the geology department chair.

Troy Pewe

Troy Péwé in a circa 1960 ASU Library photo, studied permafrost and geology in the Arctic, Antarctica, Tibet, Norway, Alaska and Arizona. He was the head of the University of Alaska’s Geology Department and president of the Alaska Division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science before coming to ASU in 1965. As head of the Department of Geology, he founded ASU’s Museum of Geology and authored over 60 surficial and environmental geology maps for both central Alaska and the Phoenix area. His study of loess, fine windblown silts in periglacial regions, helped him understand the windblown sands of the Arizona desert. Péwé’s engineering and geology studies in the Valley warned area residents of the hazards of urban expansion where groundwater withdrawal causes shrinkage subsidence and ground fissures. He was one of the first professional Quaternary geologists to spend several months in Antarctica’s McMurdo Sound region, and in 1999 he was given the Distinguished Career Award of the Geological Society of America.

Péwé was an unusual man. He was something of a polymath who seemed to belong more to the Victorian era than modern times. He came from the University of Alaska: He studied icy landscapes and was a permafrost expert (he coined the word). He discovered mastodons and mammoths, tracked the distribution of fine dust from Asia to Alaska — eventually tracing some to its source — and was one of the first to show that global climate change existed and to document it. He learned to write in Russian and Chinese to communicate with researchers because the language barrier frustrated him.

At ASU he created the doctoral program in geology, set up the curriculum, engaged the community, changed the culture of the department and raised its national research profile. He got geology its own space in the Bateman Physical Sciences Center when the department had no space at all. He also brought a Foucault pendulum to the building.

Troy Pewe in the field

Troy Péwé, chair of the ASU Department of Geology, 1965-1976.

No one expected an icy-landscapes guy to embrace the desert, but Péwé did.

“When Péwé got here, he immediately started doing a lot of environmental geology maps and went around to the various cities and said, ‘You know, you ought to have these maps for your city planning and stuff,’ and really established a research program in the Valley, which was very good for his students,” Professor Emeritus Ed Stump said. “It didn't bring in a lot of money, and it was the kind of research that was eschewed by the chemists who thought it was a lower level of research than the kind of stuff they were doing with the laboratories and the computers and things.”

In 1962, a PhD candidate named Everett Gibson (now at NASA) had decided the university needed to do a geology rafting trip down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. He contacted outfitter Hatch River Expeditions and set the idea in motion. Faculty and students did three-day trips from Lees Ferry to Phantom Ranch, then hiked out.

After his first jaunt, Péwé became absolutely hooked. He was obsessed with John Wesley Powell, the geologist and one-armed Civil War veteran who led the first river trip through Grand Canyon. He brought a cardboard cutout of Powell on trips and gave lectures at night in Powell’s voice.

Troy Pewe and James Tyburckzy in Grand Canyon with cardboard John Wesley Powell

Troy Péwé (left) and James Tyburczy (right) in the Grand Canyon with a cardboard cutout of John Wesley Powell, date unknown.

In addition to all his other interests, Péwé was a ham radio operator. Later in life, when he was too old to risk a river trip, faculty brought along a radio receiver and hid it behind a boulder in camp. After dinner, they switched it on and Péwé called in from his home in Scottsdale: “This is the ghost of John Wesley Powell …”

Under Péwé, the department grew.

“And it became more balanced,” Moore said. “He hired the usual people you find in a geology department — economic geologists, geophysicists. What really made the big kick was when they brought (John) Cowley into physics with modern instrumentation.”

Cowley pioneered contributions in the fields of electron microscopy, diffraction and crystallography. The John M. Cowley Center for High-Resolution Electron Microscopy is named in his honor.

The geochemists

In the 1970s, geology research was coalescing around two poles: high-pressure work and high-resolution microscopy.

“(Volcanologist) Mike Sheridan did the mapping of the Superstition Mountains and showing how they evolved. … It’s very impressive,” Moore said. “We began to evolve into what you would call a classic geology department.”

Alexandra Navrotsky is a physical chemist who also works in mineralogy, geochemistry and nanogeoscience. She was hired by Eyring in 1969. She, John Holloway and Peter Buseck were, or later became, joint appointments in geology and chemistry.

Chemistry department chair Eyring had a National Science Foundation Area Development Grant funding three positions in chemistry and three in physics for three years, then the university took them over. He called colleagues around the country asking for applicants. Navrotsky was invited out for an interview. She liked what was going on in solid-state chemistry. They made her a good offer, and she had fallen in love with Arizona. “And I said, well, good. I don't have to job hunt.”

Navrotsky described her work: “Over the past 50 years, my contribution has been maybe 50% things related to geo and environmental science and 50% in things related to solid-state chemistry and material science. … It's gone back and forth and been a little bit more of this or a little bit more of that, but it's basically the same questions.”

She and Holloway, an experimental petrologist, hit it off immediately. Their labs were next to each other in the basement of Bateman.

“We really helped each other in those first, maybe two, three years,” she said. “I knew more chemistry, and he was the better hands-on mechanical person.”

Navrotsky and Holloway would meet at The Warehouse (a long-gone restaurant and bar on University Drive) with their grad students and have long beery lunches with great discussions.

Geosciences, like the university, were changing and becoming less isolated in their own silos.

“Basically at that point, there were people being hired in geology that were really geochemistry, mineralogy, mineral physics, whatever you want to call it,” Navrotsky said.

Even though Navrotsky is a pure chemist, she is cited by many today as being one of the founders of what is now the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

“I got an appreciation for what we eventually got to be called, perhaps mineral physics — the fundamental, quantitative, physical, chemical approach to mineralogical problems,” she said.

In the 1970s, the F wing of Bateman was being built. But there was a state budget crisis: The university could only afford to put in half the elevators. Geology and physics got the top floors. Chemistry was in the basement. “Physics got the elevators and we got the shaft,” Navrotsky joked.

Upon returning to ASU in 2019, Navrotsky now has a split appointment between the School of Molecular Sciences and the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, where she heads the new Navrotsky Eyring Center for Materials of the Universe, a cross-disciplinary initiative interrelating planetary science and materials science. She also has an affiliate faculty appointment in the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

Part 2: A change at the top as space comes into play

Top photo courtesy of

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News


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Part 2: A change at the top as space comes into play

January 14, 2021

ASU’s Department of Geology went through some growing pains in the 1970s-1990s, but came out stronger

Editor's note: This is the second of three parts of the story of ASU's geologists. Read the first here.

Ed Stump is a professor emeritus in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at ASU. He is a geologist, polar explorer, mountaineer and photographer specializing in the geology of the Transantarctic Mountains in Antarctica, the least known mountain range in the world.

Over the past 40 years, he has been principal investigator on research projects funded by the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs, covering more than 1,200 miles of the Transantarctic Mountains. He spent 13 Antarctic field seasons conducting geological research and twice served as chief scientist for large, remote, helicopter-supported camps. Stump was at ASU from 1976 to 2014, serving as department chair from 1991 to 1995. He co-authored “Geology of Arizona.”

Ed Stump in the field in Antarctica

Ed Stump is a professor emeritus in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. He is a geologist, polar explorer, mountaineer and photographer specializing in the geology of the Transantarctic Mountains in Antarctica, the least known mountain range in the world. Photo courtesy of Ed Stump

“Science was the only thing I found interesting in high school,” Stump said. “And it was a chance to work out of doors, and it was a chance, I hoped, to travel. One of the early brochures from the American Geosciences Institute was a picture of somebody with a big pole on a flat boat in the swamps of Venezuela looking for oil. I thought, yeah, that's me.”

Stump was hired to organize a course called Geology of Arizona. It was a one-year job. Department chair Troy Péwé hired him sight unseen.

Péwé was very spit and polish, always wearing a tie and navy blazer. “He had an intimidation thing where he would arch one of his eyebrows at you,” Stump said.

When Stump arrived in Tempe in 1976, he had hair down to his waist. He walked into Péwé’s office and introduced himself. Péwé’s eyebrow went up and stayed up, spasming.

“And I turned around and left the room,” Stump said.

Geology of Arizona was the biggest course in the department. The university was pushing science for nonscience majors. It was held in a huge lecture hall, taught by different professors every few weeks. Péwé taught the module on the Grand Canyon, which ended with a weekend field trip. Busloads of students went up, saw the park, camped out, hiked down to Indian Garden or Plateau Point, then came home by midnight on Sunday. The trip was the centerpiece of the course.

Péwé was impressed when he saw how Stump handled the trip’s logistics and herding students.

“We became close after that, and by the second semester, he actually started to call me Ed instead of Dr. Stump,” he said.

Stump saw opportunity at ASU — “They were just on the cusp of becoming a research department.” He had won a grant to study in Antarctica, which impressed the university.

“After me, there was never a junior faculty member that made it if he didn't have a grant, but I became the standard, so to speak, for anybody new that was coming in in terms of establishing a funded research program,” he said.

Geologists generally don’t get funded for field work as their primary research effort any more. Stump admits he was an anachronism when he started.

“And as I always said, geologists just need to see their rocks. We don't work well in the dark.”

A new direction

Initially, the geochemists weren’t so welcome in the geology department.

Péwé “was a classic geomorphologist who really didn't value the molecular approach to anything,” physical chemist Alexandra Navrotsky said. “And he was a classical conservative in his social beliefs as well. So that led to obvious tensions with people that were doing geochemistry and with lots of younger faculty.”

Those clashes would come back to haunt Péwé.

“He was really, really disliked by a faction of the department that he called the chemists, which were really the geochemists, but he wouldn't even call them geochemists,” Stump said.

After Stump was hired in 1976, the dean put up new guidelines for the tenure of a chairman. After two years they had to get 50% of the department in a vote of confidence. After four years, maybe two-thirds. Péwé had been chair 11 years. He needed to get 75% of the department.

“And he knew he wasn't going to get that,” Stump said. “So, he resigned. He never was kicked out.”

David Krinsley, an expert on desert varnish and mineral decay, was hired as department chair in 1977.

“When I first came, I think it's fair to say that geology was a very classical department and it was through the hires largely Krinsley did actually that it spread out,” Navrotsky said.

Work in the field transforms students into geologists

“Dave was a real rough operator, and he wanted us to get on the national fast track,” Professor Emeritus Paul Knauth said. “He didn’t want the best geology department in Maricopa County. He wanted the best geology department in the country.”

Krinsley hired Knauth, a geologist and geochemist, in 1979. Knauth’s landmark discovery in his career was proving life existed on land during the Precambrian period.

At the time, the rift with the chemistry department had not been healed. Krinsley wanted to warm up the relationship because the geochemists like Navrotsky and Holloway were making a national name for themselves.

Krinsley also brought in astronomer Mike Malin and Robert Dietz, a founder of plate tectonics and one of the first people to realize Meteor Crater had in fact been formed by a meteor.

“From those hires I felt we could be No. 1 in the nation in geology, and I felt our field camp could be No. 1 in the nation in geology,” Knauth said. “I think it was, for a short period.”

Knauth got the field program going and led the field camp for 16 years. He also led 32 geology raft trips and 70 student field trips to the Grand Canyon.

Back in camp, his students would work on describing and interpreting the stories in each layer of rock. What was it? What did it look like the day that unit was made and deposited? What caused it?

“(Those nights), sitting around the campfire in Mather Campground, which is my second home, was the most satisfying thing to me in teaching,” Knauth said. “Those people were on a high. They had confidence. They felt like they were geologists. Not only that, they felt they owned the Grand Canyon because they had not just stood at the rim and looked, they’d gone down there and interacted with it in the deepest way possible. … You let the canyon do that to them. I just got out of the way.”

Looking to the stars

Moore hired Ron Greeley for the geology department and the Center for Meteorite Studies in 1977.

“I met him at the NASA Ames Research Center and thought of him when I had an open position,” Moore said.

Moore liked the fact that Greeley wasn’t just a meteorite guy — he studied all aspects of space. Greeley’s way of looking at other planets was to take a hard look at this one. He would rent an airplane or a helicopter to take aerial pictures. It helped to define and understand what geologic features produced by different processes look like on Earth. And he helped train the early astronauts — who tended to be jet jockeys, not scientists — how to describe geologic features as more than big rocks and little rocks.

Greeley raised eyebrows in other ways as well.

“(Greeley) came in with a big bank account,” Stump said. “I don't know whether he had a million dollars yet in grants, but, you know, it was way more than anybody else in the department. And we looked at that and said, ‘NASA seems to be the place rather than NSF, if we want to go big time.’”

Krinsley made a play, bypassing the dean and going straight to the provost with a proposal that ASU geology was going to go over the top if he could get four positions.

“We did four hires in one spring,” Stump said. “Nobody had dinner at home that semester. We were just out to supper, always with candidates. … So there'd be a geophysicist and a geochemist and maybe an environmental geologist this year. And we'd look at all of them and see who the best person was in the group. So we did a whole series of hires that were what we thought were the best person each time.”

In 1983, the dean decided he wanted a new department chair, and he asked Knauth to take over the job.

“I was a guy who talked to the chemists and the geologists,” Knauth said. “I liked them both.”

During Knauth’s tenure as department chair, there was a universitywide competition for a new building.

“We got it, so we were finally relieved of our space problems,” he said.

The birth of planetary science at ASU

Jim Tyburczy came to ASU in 1985. He studied the physical and chemical behavior of materials under high pressure.

“It was a good environment for doing things,” Tyburczy said. “People wanted you to try things.”

Jim Tyburczy

Specialization in a branch of a field at a university often stems from one person coming in and having success in that field, and then the department extending that success in tangential directions.

Navrotsky and Holloway attracted Tyburczy. (That type of work is now being carried out by Christy Till and Dan Shim.)

“ASU is known as a place where this kind of high-pressure geoscience materials science research goes on,” Tyburczy said. “When someone says ‘high-pressure research,’ there are half a dozen places around the country whose names come to mind. ASU’s is one of them.”

Through the meteorites collection, the research program had been founded in space, and space, under Greeley and Moore, was beginning to raise its profile at the university.

David Williams is a research professor and director of the Ronald Greeley Center for Planetary Studies at ASU, the NASA regional planetary information facility.

He arrived in Tempe in the summer of 1989 for grad school. A lifelong Star Trek fan, he wanted to become a planetary scientist. Williams had earned undergraduate degrees in astronomy and astrophysics with minors in mathematics and geology at Indiana University. He contacted Greeley and was accepted.

“Since I wasn't a full geology major — I only had a minor in the field — it was recommended that I start off and take geology field camp,” Williams said. “So the first thing I did when I arrived here was to take the geology department’s field camp up at Camp Tontozona. Professor Paul Knauth was the instructor. I learned a lot from him. I lacked some of the coursework one would normally have when one takes a field geology class. But I still managed to get a B. And then the following fall semester, fall of '89, I took advanced field geology with Paul in a different part of Arizona. And then later in my time at ASU in grad school, I took advanced field camp again with Professor Steve Reynolds and going to different places in the state. So I feel really grateful as a planetary geologist to have had all of that field experience when I was in grad school.”

David Williams

Flash forward to now. Williams has probably had more experience than the crew of the Enterprise. He has worked on a Venus mission, a lunar mission, an outer-planets mission, a Mars mission, an asteroid mission and a dwarf planet mission.

“I think I'm the only (School of Earth and Space Exploration) faculty member who's worked on that greater diversity of planetary bodies,” he said.

Does all that field experience help in his work?

“Absolutely,” Williams said. “If you're going to understand geology on other planets, just limited by looking at spacecraft photos, it really helps to have had the experience of understanding terrestrial geology, where you can actually go out into the field. You can walk out the contacts, you can examine the rocks at hand, you can see their relationships up close and personal. So, yeah, having an outdoor field camp class is a very important experience, I think, for any geologists, whether it be a terrestrial geologist or one who's going to go study planetary geology.”

Furthering scientific study

Back in Grand Canyon explorer John Wesley Powell’s day, there was a lot of interest in brain size. Scientists studied the brains of great men, hoping to discover the secrets of their brilliance. Powell’s brain was donated to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. by an anthropologist.

Péwé died in 1999.

“Péwé, being enamored of Powell and interested in intelligence and brain size, had his brain also put into the Smithsonian, next to or near Powell’s,” said Tyburczy. The hope was that his brain would be useful for furthering scientific study.

His brain was sent to the Smithsonian, where it was put next to Powell's. His family asks about it from time to time, according to a 2006 Washington Post story on famous body parts at the museum.

Tragedy in a Colombian caldera

Stump became department chair from 1991 to 1995, after Greeley held the post from 1988–1991. In January 1993, a U.S. State Department rep in Bogota called. A volcano had erupted with a group of scientists inside the caldera, including an ASU geologist.

“That first person from the State Department said, ‘Listen, you ought to try to get an air ambulance down here, as quick as you can,’” Stump said.

On Jan. 14, ASU volcanologist Stanley Williams led a party of 16 people — 13 scientists and engineers, including himself, and three tourists — to the crater at the summit of the 9,000-foot volcano Galeras. It was the highlight of a U.N.-sponsored conference. Galeras was the most active volcano in Colombia and had erupted almost 30 times in 500 years, most recently the year before. But they looked over the seismological and gas emissions evidence and decided it was quiet.

Stanley Williams

At about 1:40 p.m., Williams asked the group to begin wrapping up for departure. Rocks began to tumble off the wall of the crater, first singly, then in a cascade. Williams shouted: "Hurry up! Get out!"

It was too late.

The volcano shook with a roar like thunder and the earth opened up. Gas that had been building up for months was released. Tons of rocks and ash poured into the air. White hot rocks, some as big as TV sets, rained down.

Nine members of the party were killed.

A rock the size of an orange smashed into Williams’ head, sending skull fragments deep into his brain. His nose, jaw and both his legs were broken. And he was on fire. He was saved in a rescue led by two brave female colleagues and by a young Colombian neurosurgeon, who removed a piece of his brain the size of a peach pit.

Stump chartered an air ambulance out of Florida. The plane flew to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and picked up Williams’ wife.

“I saw him and Linda as they were gurneying him into the Barrow Institute downtown for brain surgery,” Stump said. “There was an awful lot going on, lots of press. It was a very dramatic moment.”

Stanley Williams never really came back from Galeras.

"I'm different," he said in an interview with the Guardian later on. "That guy died. I have to accept that." Post-eruption he was partially deaf, walked with some difficulty on extensively reconstructed legs, suffered from depression and unreasonable anger, and mixed up words. At one point he was taking 20 pills a day.

In 1995, he went back to Galeras.

“I was in and out in two hours,” he said in the Guardian interview. “I came down with pneumonia. Basically it was my not being strong enough to handle that effort. I shouldn't have done it. It wasn't an unbelievable, ‘facing God’ kind of thing. I'm just not that sensitive, I guess. I wanted to go back there; I wanted to go back and stand on that spot, and think about Igor smiling, Geoff waving at me, me just explaining to the tourists what was going on. And a minute later everyone died. I don't have any sense of guilt for the deaths, but I miss them. It's a very sad thing."

Williams retired two years ago and is now a professor emeritus.

Part 3: The School of Earth and Space Exploration is born

Top image by WikiImages from Pixabay.

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News