Ocean Sciences Editors' Vox

A Tribute to Wally Broecker

An editor of Paleoceanography and Paleoclimatology shares fond memories of his postdoc with Wally Broecker, who died in February.

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New Core Lab, Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, 2004

9:15am (any/every day) – My office telephone rings. It’s Wally:

WB: “Hey Steve, come over to my office right away, I’ve got something to show you.”

I walk over to the old Geochemistry building, Wally’s office is facing outward to the right side of the main entrance. I can just about make out his outline next to the giant table in his office.

SB “Hi Wally – what’s up?”
WB: “This is really interesting, what do you make of it?”
SB: “mmm, I’m not sure… I’ll have to give it a bit of thought and get back to you.”

The rest of my day is then spent poring over old papers in Lamont Hall library in the faint hope that I can discover something interesting/intelligent to report back.

Next day, 9.15am – Telephone rings. It’s Wally:

WB: “Hey Steve, come over to my office right away, I’ve got something to show you.”

Walk over to Geochemistry.

SB: “Hi Wally – I had a think about what you showed me yesterday and I think I’ve got a possible solution…”
WB: “Never mind about that, I worked it out. But this is really interesting, what do you make of it?”
SB: “mmm, I’m not sure… I’ll have to give it a bit of thought and get back to you.”

Wally never stopped, literally, until he died. That was always going to be the way, his way. He was an exceptional man and everybody knew it.

Within the science community he was like a father to me and there was no one who said kinder words in my support. He is the reason I am still working in paleoclimate and the experience I gained as a postdoc under his mentorship at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (2004-05) was just tremendous. Having said that, I was also one of the unlucky few to receive a “No Cheer, Wally” at the end of a letter. But then I was likely one of the even fewer to receive a genuine apology later on.

Wally didn’t mess about; he was a doer. His mind could get around problems before most people realised there was one. And he knew that as well. But that didn’t mean he took advantage – quite the opposite. From my perspective, a really great mind is one that does not feel the need to patronize or diminish those around it.

For sure, Wally had detractors, and some had valid grounds for griping. Wally could and did take sides. He could be (really) obstinate and even vicious at times. But much more than that, he was willing to go back and admit errors he had made (except when he hadn’t realized he’d made them).

There are people who complained that Wally’s influence was too great, that his intuitive theories were too simple and lacked precision (and in some cases physical plausibility). But there is room for thinking that science is occasionally more about asking provocative questions and laying down challenges than it is about being right all the time. New ideas are typically more interesting than proof of old ones, and simply shooting down new theories does not always constitute ‘better science’, in my mind anyway.

Stephen Barker with Wally Broecker in 2005. Credit: Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

I only knew Wally for the later part of his life and it’s quite possible that he meant something different to others who knew him better than I did.

But for me, Wally was a real champion. He forced me to think outside of the box, even if that has meant running outside the pack. I don’t regret that, and I am rarely bored.

Of course I will miss him. On the other hand, I guess I can spend a bit less time in the library now.

—Stephen Barker (email: [email protected]), Editor, Paleoceanography and Paleoclimatology, and School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, Cardiff University, UK

Citation: Barker, S. (2019), A tribute to Wally Broecker, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO121001. Published on 22 April 2019.
Text © 2019. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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