Geology & Geophysics Tribute

Orson Anderson (1924–2019)

This pioneer in the field of mineral physics contributed mightily to our understanding of mineral properties at high temperatures and high pressures and of Earth’s interior.

By and Donald Isaak

Black-and-white photo of Orson Anderson standing and speaking in front of a drop-down slide screen
Orson Anderson speaks at a 1976 workshop on seismic anisotropy at Castle Liblice in what was then Czechoslovakia. (At the lectern is Robert Liebermann, one of the authors.) Credit: Liebermann [2019]
Orson Anderson, a renowned mineral physicist and beloved colleague to many, died on 19 June 2019 at age 94 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Orson was born in Price, Utah, and remained personally connected to the state his entire life. He received all of his higher education at the University of Utah, earning a Ph.D. in physical acoustics there under the supervision of Henry Eyring and Walter Elsasser. In his early professional career, he worked at Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J., with Warren Mason and Herbert McSkimin and then later at the American Standard Company.

In 1963, Orson was lured to the Lamont Geological Observatory of Columbia University by director Maurice Ewing [Liebermann, 2019]. He recruited two postdoctoral research colleagues, Edward Schreiber from Alfred University and Naohiro Soga from Kyoto University, and together they established the first laboratory of mineral physics in the world, using the name Orson coined for this newly emerging field of geophysics.

Early Work at Lamont

With Schreiber and Soga, Anderson published more than 170 papers from 1964 to 1970. They primarily exploited the techniques of physical acoustics to study sound velocities in minerals at elevated pressures and temperatures, work that shed early light on the properties and behaviors of rocky materials—particularly those formed at great depth—on Earth and elsewhere. Among their many sound velocity studies, perhaps the most amusing reported on their 1970 measurements of sound velocities in lunar rocks returned from the Moon by the Apollo missions. Schreiber and Anderson [1970] demonstrated that velocities in these lunar rocks were remarkably similar to those observed in many cheeses such as provolone (thereby lending support to the age-old speculation that “the moon was made of green cheese”).

The trio’s research program also included studies of relationships between bulk moduli and molar volumes of solids and elastic moduli of cubic structures as a function of pressure (to predict instabilities), as well as theoretical investigations of the Lagrangian versus Eulerian formulations of finite strain equations of state. Other contributors to these studies included visiting scientists Mineo Kumazawa and Murli Manghnani and graduate students Leon Thomsen and Bob Liebermann (one of the authors).

In 1965, Orson was appointed to the faculty in the Department of Geology at Columbia, where he taught undergraduate mineralogy, much to the chagrin of some of the other faculty who objected to a physicist teaching mineralogy. In response to their complaints, he cited other physicists who had made significant contributions to mineralogy, including Eduard Grüneisen, Max Born, William and Lawrence Bragg, Peter Debye, Paul Peter Ewald, and Max von Laue.

Contributions from California

In 1971, Orson moved to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), as a professor, and he stayed there until his retirement in 2002. During the 1970s, Orson was a key UCLA scientist in the National Science Foundation’s enormous interdisciplinary and multi-institutional Lake Powell Research Project. In this effort, he worked with UCLA colleague Priscilla Grew on a variety of topics, such as the use of Utah coal as a power source for Southern California and consequences of restricting the maximum elevation of Lake Powell.

While at UCLA, Orson became the director of the UC system’s multicampus Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics. Even with the administrative responsibilities involved in this position, Orson continued research and publishing, contributing productive insights on equations of state, anharmonicity in materials at elevated temperature, phases of iron at high pressures and temperatures, the thermoelastic properties of minerals, and the compositional and thermal state of Earth’s interior.

Perhaps Orson’s most significant achievement while at UCLA came from his pursuit of a new ultrasonic measurement technique. Working closely with Mineo Kumazawa and other scientists from Japan, including Ichiro Ohno, Isao Suzuki, Shigeru Yamamoto, Takayasu Goto, Hitoshi Oda, and Koji Masuda, he developed resonance ultrasound spectroscopy (RUS) for measuring single-crystal adiabatic elastic moduli at high temperatures, a property that previously had been difficult to measure by ultrasonic interferometry. The pioneering analytical work of Orson’s protégée Harry Demarest [Demarest, 1971] laid the groundwork for RUS (often referred to as rectangular parallelepiped resonance at the time), and Ichiro Ohno extended the application to lower-symmetry single crystals in a seminal paper [Ohno, 1976].

Over the next 25 years, RUS was used with numerous minerals in Orson’s UCLA lab to extend the high-temperature limits in measuring single-crystal elastic moduli from a few tens of degrees above room temperature to near mineral melting points, which in some cases exceed 1,800 kelvins. This success with high-temperature RUS measurements, along with Orson’s subsequent analysis of results, had substantial influences on mineral physics and has had lasting influences in physics, geophysics, materials science, and engineering.

A Highly Valued Colleague

In addition to his prolific portfolio of research, Orson made numerous other contributions within science. He published two books: Elastic Constants and Their Measurement in 1973, which he coauthored with Schreiber and Soga, and Equations of State for Solids in Geophysics and Ceramic Science in 1995. In 1968, Orson became the editor of the Journal of Geophysical Research, and under his leadership many prominent studies discussing fundamentals of plate tectonics were published. He was also the founding chair of the All-Union Committee of Mineral Physics at AGU.

Drawing on his lifelong connection to the Southwest, Orson led several field trips in the late 1960s to the diatremes (kimberlite pipes) of northeastern Arizona and southwestern Utah to collect rocks originating from the mantle. On one of these trips, the group included distinguished field geologist and planetary scientist Eugene Shoemaker from the U.S. Geological Survey as well as Schreiber (a ceramist), Anderson (a solid-state physicist), Soga (an industrial chemist), and Peter Molnar and Bob Liebermann (both graduate students in geophysics at Columbia at the time). In the late 1990s, shortly after Shoemaker’s passing, Orson organized a wonderful camping trip on the San Juan River in Utah’s Gooseneck State Park to commemorate Shoemaker’s life and scientific contributions. Among the attendees on this trip were another of Orson’s former graduate students, Don Isaak (one of the authors), and his colleague Priscilla Grew from the Lake Powell Research Project.

Above all perhaps, Orson highly valued and enjoyed his long-standing collaborations with many scientists from around the world. And in turn, he was a great source of inspiration and admiration to his many colleagues, by whom he will be deeply missed.


Demarest, H. H., Jr. (1971), Cube-resonance method to determine the elastic constants of solids, J. Acoust. Soc. Am., 49, 768–775,

Liebermann, R. C. (2019), The Orson Anderson era of mineral physics at Lamont in the 1960s, Minerals, 9(6), 342,

Ohno, I. (1976), Free vibration of a rectangular parallelepiped crystal and its application to determination of elastic constants of orthorhombic crystals, J. Phys. Earth, 24, 355–379,

Schreiber, E., and O. L. Anderson (1970), Properties and composition of lunar materials: Earth analogies, Science, 168, 1,579–1,580,

Author Information

Robert Cooper Liebermann ([email protected]), Department of Geosciences and Mineral Physics Institute, Stony Brook University, N.Y.; Donald Isaak, College of Arts and Sciences, Azusa Pacific University, Calif.

Citation: Liebermann, R. C., and D. Isaak (2020), Orson Anderson (1924–2019), Eos, 101, Published on 08 July 2020.
Text © 2020. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
Except where otherwise noted, images are subject to copyright. Any reuse without express permission from the copyright owner is prohibited.