Geology & Geophysics Tribute

Walter C. Pitman III (1932–2019)

Pitman pioneered research on seafloor spreading, proposed a scientific backstory to the Great Flood and Noah’s Ark, and reveled in spirited discussions of all kinds.

By Bernard Coakley, Steven Cande, and John LaBrecque

Walter Pitman addresses a Lamont-Doherty awards ceremony, with a photo of marine cartographer Marie Tharp in the background.
Walter Pitman addresses a Lamont-Doherty awards ceremony in 2001. An image of famous marine cartographer Marie Tharp appears in the background. Credit: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University

Walter C. Pitman III, a deeply influential figure in the generation of scientists that established plate tectonics as the ruling paradigm for understanding Earth history, died on 1 October 2019 at age 87. He left his fingerprints all over the “first draft” of plate tectonics research. Many of us now take small steps to advance understanding in this field by honing the insights that Walter first established.

The son of determined parents, Walter grew up on a small farm in New Jersey, where he learned to repair farm equipment, tend to the family garden, and work on projects such as converting the family Model T Ford into the farm’s tractor. For most of his life, though, he was a New Yorker through and through, sharing the honesty and directness of many of his fellow residents.

Walter’s early years did not portend the success he would find at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, where he spent his entire career. Walter attended Dartmouth College but was invited to leave after his freshman year, probably because he loved life a bit too much for the Ivy League. He earned his first degree in electrical engineering at Lehigh University in 1956, then took up work with the Hazeltine Corporation at a plant that produced sonobuoys used for acoustic detection of submarines. (He later encouraged Lamont to use these sonobuoys in marine seismic refraction experiments.)

Walter considered earning a degree in physics that he thought would enable him to participate in the amazing ongoing discoveries concerning the nature of matter and energy. But, as he often liked to relate, Polykarp Kusch, Nobel laureate and chair of Columbia’s Physics Department, once told him, “Walter, you just are not smart enough to achieve great things in physics; I suggest that you speak to Jack Nafe,” referring to the esteemed Columbia professor of geophysics.

Although Kusch could measure the anomalous magnetic moment of the electron, he could not have known the gift he gave to the study of geomagnetism by redirecting Walter’s enthusiasm toward marine geophysics. Walter contacted Nafe at what was then called the Lamont Geological Observatory. Nafe recognized and valued Walter’s engineering skills and his enthusiasm for science. Walter sailed on the R/V Vema for nearly a year as a marine technician before being called home to begin graduate school at Columbia.

A Fabric of Understanding

Walter was a great synthesizer of scientific ideas. He delighted in weaving a fabric of understanding about Earth from diverse observations. As a young researcher, Walter quickly recognized the significance of a newly acquired long magnetic anomaly profile over the southeast Pacific spreading center. The profile, collected on the USNS Eltanin in 1965, revealed the symmetry of the magnetic anomalies across the ridge axis.

Walter and his colleagues used these data to establish seafloor spreading as the prevailing mechanism for continental drift. Further application of the insights gained from these data helped define the 150-million-year history of geomagnetic field reversals, the formation of the Atlantic and Pacific ocean basins, the tectonic evolution of the Alps, and the role of changing sea level in controlling sediment accumulation on continental margins.

The story of the Eltanin 19 profile is well known, but Walter would occasionally add an epilogue about going, with some trepidation, to show the data and explain his conclusions to Lamont’s director, Maurice “Doc” Ewing. Ewing was famously opposed to the new theories being established with the data collected on Lamont’s ships. As Walter told the story, Ewing nodded appreciatively during his presentation. When it was over, Ewing had one recommendation for Walter: “If this is proved wrong, be sure you are the one who publishes the refutation.” This was simultaneously good career advice and wishful thinking.

Tracking Noah’s Flood

The history of postglacial sea level change led to Walter’s work with his Lamont-Doherty colleague Bill Ryan on the biblical era flooding of the Black Sea. They argued in a 1998 book that this event was the source of the flood story of Noah and his ark, positing a cultural diaspora of those displaced by the drowning of their homes.

Walter delighted in the disruption this introduced into the archaeological community, much as he enjoyed the way that his early advocacy of the concept of seafloor spreading had challenged the notions of mentors during his early career. Some researchers welcomed the structure that this hypothesis provided to isolated observations from independent archaeological studies, but it was vigorously disputed by others. As always, Walter enjoyed the argument.

Generosity, Good Humor, and Good Stories

Walter was an extremely generous person in many ways. Walking with Walter on the streets surrounding his apartment near Columbia was a unique experience. The doormen and homeless alike always engaged him. He returned their interest, stopping to discuss the events of the day and leaving a little cash in the palms of the needy. He was generous too in supporting his colleagues and in mentoring students, all of whom benefited from Walter’s interest and enthusiasm. He never seemed to be in a hurry. He always had time to talk.

Walter loved science, he loved Lamont, and he loved his life at sea, and conversations with him were peppered with humor and stories of his experiences. Though he won many important awards—and appreciated the recognition—one of his charming characteristics was an inability to take himself seriously. The plaques and medals he received remained stacked on his office windowsill, where they collected dust as he moved on to his next interest.

In his later years, Walter suffered from short-term memory loss. This did not diminish his enthusiasm for old friends or his delightful and educational stories. He remained uniquely himself. Walter C. Pitman III lived a long and productive life. He will be remembered for his essential scientific contributions, and he will be held dear in the hearts of those who were privileged to work with him or meet him.

—Bernard Coakley ([email protected]), Department of Geosciences and Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks; Steven Cande, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, Calif.; and John LaBrecque, Center for Space Research, University of Texas at Austin

Citation: Coakley, B., S. Cande, and J. LaBrecque (2020), Walter C. Pitman III (1932–2019), Eos, 101, Published on 10 April 2020.
Text © 2020. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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