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.”
“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.”
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.