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Jack Oliver

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Jack E. Oliver- 9/26/1923 - 1/5/2011


"Earth science has lost a giant and we have lost a great colleague and mentor"  - Larry Brown, Sidney Kaufman Prof. of Geophysics

Dr. Jack E. Oliver, Professor Emeritus at Cornell University, died peacefully in his home at Kendal of Ithaca on January 5, 2011. He was 87. During his remarkable career, Jack served as Chairman of the Department of Geology at Columbia, head of the earthquake seismology program at Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory, Chairman of the Department of Geological Sciences at Cornell and founding director of the Institute for the Study of the Continents at Cornell. Jack is best known for his seismological contributions to the development of the theory of plate tectonics and his establishment of the COCORP project, which pioneered in the large scale exploration of the continental lithosphere using seismic reflection techniques. 


Jack was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and is former president of both the Seismological Society of America and the Geological Society of America.  In 1958 and 1959 he was a seismological advisor on the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and a delegate to negotiations in Geneva.  He received numerous awards and honors during his career including the Kaufmann Gold Medal of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists in 1983, and the Panrose Medal of the Geological Society of America, its highest honor, in 1998.  He authored or co-authored over 200 scientific papers and visited over 55 countries during his years of geophysics research.  Jack also wrote several books including The Incomplete Guide to the Art of Discovery and Shocks and Rocks; Seismology in the Plate Tectonics Revolution, and Shakespeare Got It Wrong: It's Not "to Be," It's "to Do": Autobiographical Memoirs of a Lucky Geophysicist.

Photos: above, courtesy scan Nell Oliver; below courtesy Steve Gallow

Jack and GeorgeHade_1  JOliver at Kendal

Memories and Quotes from Oliver Students and Friends

Mike Bevis, "I will never forget what Jack said to me and others when they entered the graduate program in Geological Sciences at Cornell.  He told me, 'Mike, don't let classes get in the way of your education.' I have always told my students the same thing."  "I remember another piece of Jack's wisdom.  He said something like this: "When you compare observations with theory, you can show how well the theory matches some processed or highly 'reduced' form of the data.  Whenever possible do the former. Always try to keep a clear distinction between measurement and theory. In which case the stark contrast between theory and observation has been lost." 

"Sometimes I received Jack's advice via his old student and my teacher, Bryan Isacks, who liked to pass on the best of Jack's scientific philosophy along with his own.  For me, the most valuable of their shared insights is this one: 'if you really want to understand a natural phenomenom, figure out where in the world that phenomenon is most clearly and most vigorously manifested, and go there to study it!' I have always followed that approach in my career, and in turn I have passed this nugget of wisdom onto others..."  "Good ideas never die. And Jack was full of them."

Larry D. Brown, "Most people saw Jack as a seismologist. To me, Jack was an explorer, in the best scientific sense of the work. He never lost his boyish enthusiasm for probing new areas and topics. No visit to my office- no matter how brief- failed to include Jack proposing some new idea to test or some new observation to make, and always ended with an exhortation to 'always work on the big problems'. Jack was always seeking the grand mysteries. Thus it came as no surprise to me...Jack was actually excited about finally finding out what was 'on the other side'. An explorer to the end...and beyond."

Bill Keach, "...As my advisor he had, and continues to have, a big influence on the work I do."

Jim McDonnell, "I was very sorry to hear the Dr. Oliver died.  Dr. Oliver was my adviser while I was an undergraduate at Cornell. The undergraduate program was small then and overshadowed by the master's and PhD programs and by the very energized COCORP program. Dr. Oliver, however, always had time to talk to his undergraduate advisees. At that time, I had no idea how prominent a figure Dr. Oliver was. ...As I look back now, Dr. Oliver stands out as one of the greatest influences in my life."

Steve Roecker, "...he created an amazing legacy. Jack left his imprint on a lot of us..."

Doug Alsdorf, "Every time I teach geology 100, I think about Jack. In fact, just this past week I was lecturing about plate tectonics and my excitement about having known Jack was obvious. I showed the slide on subduction at Fiji-Tonga and told the students how a fellow 'Ohio boy done good'. Several of the students in the class are from Massillon and smiled proudly. I have the fondest memories of Jack. He mentored well, especially in my incorrigible youthful days of graduate school learning at Cornell. I owe him a sincere debt of gratitude for ensuring that not only I, but all of us, had opportunity for success. Jack will be well remembered and all the moreso missed."