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Stanford Report, January 16, 2002

George Thompson honored for helping build geophysics department


More than 200 Earth scientists from around the world came to Stanford Dec. 8 and 9 to participate in a scientific symposium honoring George A. Thompson, who has taught at the university for more than half a century. Thompson came to Stanford in 1946 as a graduate student and taught the university's first geophysics class. Since then he has made his mark in the field by elucidating the geophysics of the Basin and Range Province of the western United States and nurturing the careers of others.

Earth Sciences Professor George Thompson, pictured in 1988, conducts a seismic field study in the Stanford foothills. The 82-year-old professor, who was honored last month, has been at Stanford since 1946. Photo: Ed Souza

Thompson has served as chair of the departments of Geophysics (1967-86) and Geology (1979-82), dean of the School of Earth Sciences (1987-89) and the Otto N. Miller Professor of Earth Sciences (1980-89). Robust at 82, he continues to teach and advise graduate students and has no plans to retire anytime soon. "If he even thinks about it, I'll kill him," threatens symposium organizer Simon Klemperer, an associate professor of geophysics.

"It was a pleasure to honor George Thompson," says geophysics Professor Mark Zoback. "He made many significant scientific contributions throughout his career, provided decades of scientific leadership in the Department of Geophysics and School of Earth Sciences, and profoundly affected the careers of scores of researchers who are now at leading universities and research institutions around the world."

One is luminary Earth scientist William R. Dickinson of the University of Arizona, who took Thompson's sedimentology course as a graduate student in 1956. "When I was invited to talk at the Thompson Symposium, wild horses could not have kept me away," he says. "George introduced me to the Basin and Range on a student field trip he led to the Virginia Range and the Carson Range back in the mid-50s."

Thompson's field observations formed the bedrock of classic papers on the Basin and Range Province that showed the linear pattern of mountain ranges separated by valleys is the result of pulling apart and thinning of the Earth's crust. Thompson's research in this region has contributed significantly to the understanding of crustal extension in all parts of the world.

Thompson is "central in developing an approach of doing science by integrating geological and geophysical studies, and by keeping an eye on the big problems while making local observations," says geophysics Professor Gene Humphreys of the University of Oregon. "I have come to admire George as a scientist and (especially so) as a person. He listens, grants you respect and reacts thoughtfully. This may include disagreement. But one is compelled to listen."

Symposium participant Eldridge Moores of the University of California-Davis agrees: "I came to know George Thompson over the years as the kindly, energetic, thoughtful geoscientist always willing to listen to original points of view. But it was in the crucible of the Executive Committee of the Geological Society of America [Thompson was president from 1996 to 1997] that George and I worked closely on several issues of crucial importance to that society, and I came to deeply respect his integrity, experience and effectiveness as a leader."

Those qualities also came into play during the mid-90s, when Thompson, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, was called to serve on government committees to assess the suitability of California's Ward Valley as a state repository for low-level nuclear waste and Nevada's Yucca Mountain as a federal repository for high-level nuclear waste. The Ward Valley committee, which Thompson chaired, concluded that nuclear waste would not threaten groundwater but recommended further study of the proposed state site. Politics eventually killed this proposal. In contrast, last week Department of Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced that he will recommend Yucca Mountain as the nation's long-term repository for nuclear waste.

The Geophysics Department has established the George A. Thompson Postdoctoral Fellowship to honor Thompson, whom Zoback called "a role model for the past 30 years and a role model for the next 30." More than 50 of Thompson's former students attended the December symposium, held the weekend before the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

Stanford's Earth scientists hope the fellowship will attract talent and compete with prestigious fellowships at Caltech and Princeton.

"That's a tremendous opportunity," Klemperer says. "Postdocs are newly independent with all these bright ideas. They're not tied down by teaching. They can really make a huge contribution."

Under Thompson's leadership, Stanford's Geophysics Department grew to become one of the highest ranked in the country. It seems fitting that Thompson's name is affixed to a prestigious fellowship that will help others follow in his footsteps, because the man knows a thing or two about courting quality.

"I remember when George phoned me with a Stanford job offer when I was at Northwestern," recalls Stanford geophysics Professor Norman Sleep. "It was a bleak, cold, snowy and windy day that would later make documentaries on blizzards. Later I found out that he had checked the weather report before phoning."