Recently retired, Amos Nur feted during 2-day event

L.A. Cicero Amos Nur

Amos Nur, who arrived at Stanford as an assistant professor of geophysics in 1970, retired earlier this year. A recent two-day symposium celebrating his career was attended by colleagues, friends and former students.

Summing up the accomplishments of a lengthy career in science is no small task. In the case of Amos Nur, professor emeritus of geophysics, it took a two-day symposium to even come close to covering his wide-ranging achievements.

With a cast of more than a dozen speakers, along with a dinner that featured the surprise debut of his book Apocalypse: Earthquakes, Archaeology and the Wrath of God (an epic that was years in the making), the roughly 90 people in attendance were treated to a retrospective spanning close to 40 years of creativity and innovation at Stanford.

"One of the best reasons for celebrating Amos is the celebration he makes of his life," said Rosemary Knight, chair of the Department of Geophysics, in her opening remarks at last week's symposium. In describing Nur's enthusiasm and optimism, she quoted one of his former graduate students: "What Amos taught us was if you have a good idea, don't worry about whether you know enough to do it. Just do it! Figure it out! You can do it."

Nur's curiosity and creativity were frequently noted during the course of the celebration.

"Amos surprises us with his thinking, he pleases us, he challenges us, he teaches us and he often embarrasses us with those obvious questions that others never thought to ask or are afraid to ask, and we want to thank you for all of those lessons," said Gary Mavko, professor (research) of geophysics.

"We use this term, 'think outside the box,'" Mavko said, "but … I have never heard Amos say that. I think what was probably more appropriate for Amos is, 'What box?'"

Mavko is now director of the Rock Physics Laboratory, which Nur founded in 1975. Prior to Nur's retirement earlier this year, Mavko and Nur were co-directors of the lab.

Reflecting on the impact of Nur's efforts with the lab, Knight said, "What it really did was bring about a new way of thinking about how you interpret geophysical data and get insights into the fluid content."

Knight added that Nur was also innovative in reaching out to industry. "He was really one of the pioneers in forming collaborations between industry and academics, so that the results of his research were actually used by industry," she said.

Nur also pioneered the use of seismic velocity measurements to characterize the changing state of oil and gas reservoirs as the volume of fluid in the rock changed during pumping, a process called "four-dimensional" seismic monitoring.

Nur earned his PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1969 and arrived at Stanford as an assistant professor of geophysics in 1970. He became a full professor in 1979 and held the Wayne Loel Professorship in Earth Sciences from 1988 until his retirement. Along the way, he twice served as chair of the Geophysics Department, from 1985 to 1991 and again from 1997 to 2000.

Nur became the founding director of the Stanford Rock Physics and Borehole Geophysics Project in 1977. In 2001 he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering.

Over the course of his career at Stanford, Nur guided 51 doctoral and 20 master's students through earning their degrees. He taught classes ranging from fundamental geophysics courses, such as Fluids and Flow in the Earth, to the exotic-sounding Finding More Dead Sea Scrolls to the slightly ominous-sounding Oil, Technology and War in the Next Decade.

In addition to his work in the fundamentals of rock physics, Nur developed an interest in the role of earthquakes in history, particularly in the ancient civilizations of the Middle East. He ran a course, Earthquakes and Archaeology in the Eastern Mediterranean, which included a field trip to historic sites in Israel and Jordan. His work on that course triggered an offer to take charge of the Bing Overseas Studies Program at Stanford. "In a moment of weakness," he recalled, "I accepted."

Nur was director of the program from 2000 to 2005 and said he counts it among the highlights of his career. "Even though I was reluctant to run Overseas Studies when I was asked to do it, I found it extremely rewarding," he recalled.

Directing Overseas Studies was a good fit for Nur, whose own travels for his research have been extensive.

Speaking at the symposium, former student William Murphy discussed his experiences with Nur as his adviser and reminisced about finishing his PhD in 1982. "I think Amos was on sabbatical, but as you all know, it is very hard to tell," he said, a remark greeted with knowing laughter from the audience.

The occasional gentle gibes were more than balanced by statements of outright affection from many of the speakers.

Murphy summed up Nur's impact on his students and colleagues this way: "Amos, what I would like to say is that you found us, you bred us and you loved us, and we return that favor and those duties."

Reflecting on the celebration a few days after it concluded, Nur said, "I didn't expect it to be so rewarding and so emotional. It was very moving for me, to have so many of my past students attend and then some of them make presentations. I never realized, I guess, that myself and the program had such an impact, and what I liked especially is it all came from the heart."

Approximately 25 of Nur's past graduate students attended, as well as the professor who advised Nur on his doctoral thesis, Gene Simmons of MIT.

"The most exciting thing to me was the unexpected discoveries made by my graduate students over the years," Nur said. "These were the most rewarding things for me."

Nur said those discoveries made him feel that, for his students, "it's really a worthwhile time and effort that they are expending here at Stanford. They are discovering the often completely unexpected about rocks, about the Earth, about processes in the Earth."

In keeping with the relentless inquisitiveness that has characterized his career to date, Nur has no plans to go fishing.

"I'll probably work on some controversial big picture questions," he said, such as earthquake prediction. "My thinking is that we are not thinking about the physics of earthquakes in the right way. We're stuck, I think.

"I would like to go to the basics and start all over again," Nur added, saying researchers need "a different way of thinking about earthquakes."