Historical Seismologist

March/April 2008

Seismology and the International Geophysical Year

Susan E. Hough
U.S. Geological Survey


The International Geophysical Year (IGY) began in July 1957, and ended in December 1958, inspiring an irascible cartoon turtle to ask, “Well, if you scientists can’t figure how long a year is any better than THAT … what’s we gone b’lieve when you gits done with the tape measure?” (Kelly 1957). In fact the 18-month year, the butt of a series of “Pogo” jokes (Kelly 1957), gave scientists the opportunity to make measurements over a full summer and a full winter in both the northern and southern hemispheres (Paul Richards, personal communication 2008).

The IGY involved an ambitious program to coordinate the collection of geophysical data from all corners of the globe. This far-reaching enterprise had humble beginnings: It was conceived over chocolate cake at a dinner party hosted by the pioneering astrophysicist James Van Allen and his wife, Abigail, at their home in Silver Spring, Maryland, on the night of 5 April 1950 (Sullivan 1961). Guests included Sydney Chapman, Lloyd Berkner, J. Wallace Joyce, Ernest Vestine, and S. Fred Singer. According to Van Allen, Chapman and Berkner first formulated the idea of holding an International Polar Year in 1957–1958.

Two previous International Polar Years had been held, in 1882 and 1932. The latter had not been entirely successful; in part because of escalating global tensions as well as the Great Depression, much of the data and analyses were lost (see http://www.lib.noaa.gov/collections/ipy.html). The scientific community might naturally have looked at 1982 as an appropriate date for a third IPY, but Chapman observed that sunspot activity was expected to peak in 1957. The group agreed that this would be an advantageous time frame to launch an international program aimed at collection of auroral, magnetic, and meteorological observations. As originally conceived, the plan for a new IGY reflected not only historical precedent but also the backgrounds of Van Allen and his guests, who primarily hailed from the atmospheric sciences. Lloyd Berkner, for example, is recognized for having first measured the height and density of the ionosphere.

The ball had begun to roll. Van Allen and his guests, principally Chapman and Berkner, brought their ideas to several key meetings, including a July 1950 conference on the Physics of the Ionosphere (Bullis 1973). The proposal made its way to the International Council of Scientific Unions. It soon grew into a proposal for a larger effort rather than one focused entirely on polar observations. By October of 1952 the IPY had evolved into the IGY (figure 1). In 1952 the International Council of Scientific Unions set up a special IGY committee, the Comité Spécial de l’Année Géophysique Internationale, more commonly known as CSAGI (kuh-sag-ee). Sydney Chapman was appointed president of the committee (Bullis 1973).

From the start the IGY led a double life. Although Chapman had identified the expected sunspot peak as the impetus for organizing an IPY, the 1950s were, of course, enormously charged political times. Many historians point to 29 August 1949 as the start of the nuclear arms race: On this date, the Soviet Union carried out its first nuclear weapons test explosion, “First Lightning.” The test stunned leaders as well as the public in the West, who had believed the Soviet Union was still years away from developing a nuclear weapon (e.g., Angelo 2004). Unbeknown to the West, the Soviet Union’s progress had been accelerated by espionage, in particular in the persons of physicist Klaus Fuchs, a member of the Manhattan Project (Lamphere and Schachtman 1995), and George Koval, an American-born Soviet spy who infiltrated the Manhattan Project in his capacity as a U.S. Army officer (Broad 2007).

Official logo of the International Geophysical Year.

Figure 1. Official logo of the International Geophysical Year.

Van Allen’s guests were well aware of prevailing political winds. After World War II, Vannevar Bush (no relation to either U.S. president of the same name), the president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, had been tapped to lead the U.S. Research and Development Board. The Board was charged with development and coordination of a military research and development program. Berkner, who had experience in ionospheric research and development of radar systems for the Navy, was the executive secretary of the Research and Development Board. In a comprehensive and highly influential report for the State Department (the so-called “Berkner report,” Berkner 1950), he described the potential symbiosis between science and strategic interests.

Publicly, IGY proponents as well as politicians continued to promote the IGY as a force for peaceful internationalism. “I am glad to support this undertaking,” President Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote in a 1954 letter to Dr. Chester Barnard, chairman of the National Science Board of the National Science Foundation. “It is a striking example of the opportunities which exist for cooperative action among the peoples of the world” (Eisenhower 1954). He went on to say that “under especially favorable conditions, scientists of many nations will work together in extending man’s knowledge of the universe.” Similar lofty sentiments permeated all public rhetoric, both written and oral, concerning the IGY.

In other circles, proponents of the IGY spoke of science that served national strategic interests. During 1956–1957, Berkner hit the lecture circuit, delivering more than 50 talks on the IGY to a diverse range of audiences. Among his speaking venues were some that testify to the strategic nature of the IGY: the Armed Forces Industrial College, Brookhaven National Laboratory, and the National War College. Talks and papers related to strategic issues were classified, but it is not difficult to read between the lines. Melvin Conant, director of meetings for the Council on Foreign Relations wrote Berkner to thank him for his “comments relating to the strategic importance of the area and the importance of greater knowledge of Antarctica to the general hypothesis regarding the earth” (Conant 1959). The strategic importance of Antarctica stemmed largely from territorial claims, past and future. But with the advent of submarine warfare and a geopolitical situation in which the Arctic represented the closest route between the United States and its primary political adversary, the military found itself with a newfound interest in the quantification of ice-sheet properties. The advent of nuclear submarines in the early 1950s contributed to this interest, because nuclear submarines potentially could play hide-and-seek games indefinitely beneath a cover of ice.

The overall genesis of the IGY, and the interplay between science and strategic interests, has been discussed elsewhere (e.g., Korsmo 2007). Clearly the symbiosis between science and politics extended to seismology as well. A full discussion of these issues as they pertain to the IGY program is beyond the scope of this article, which focuses specifically on the genesis and impact of the IGY seismology program.


As originally envisioned the IGY program did not include seismology but focused instead on atmospheric research. In March of 1953 the U.S. National Academy of Sciences appointed a U.S. National Committee, the USNC-IGY, to oversee U.S. participation in the IGY. At this time the tentative U.S. program included glaciology, including investigations of ice cover and glacial extent with emphasis on Antarctica, but it did not include seismology as a separate program (USNC-IGY 1953).

In June 1954 the USNC-IGY prepared a report in response to a request from the General Secretary of CSAGI, outlining a proposed U.S. program in 10 core disciplines as well as several additional disciplines, including seismology and gravity. In this report, an initial broad outline for an IGY seismology program was put forth: “Investigators in this field in the United States have suggested that, although seismological observations and measurements have long been conducted on an internationally cooperative basis, the IGY may furnish the opportunity for certain additional measurements at sites not normally accessible, particularly at Antarctica and the equatorial Pacific Islands” (USNC-IGY 1954).

At a key meeting of CSAGI in Rome in the fall of 1954, a representative of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR announced his country’s intent to participate in the IGY, and further expressed the Academy’s view that it was necessary to extend the program of the International Geophysical Year to seismology, to gravimetry, and to earth currents (CSAGI, 1954). At the same meeting CSAGI proposed establishing a standing committee of the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics (IUGG) to implement and organize the oceanographic component of the IGY. Among the members of this committee was Maurice (“Doc”) Ewing, a pioneering instrumentalist in seismology as well as a leading oceanographer.

The core USNC-IGY consisted of 16 members, but nearly 200 scientists were tapped to serve with associated working groups and technical panels. The Technical Panel on Seismology and Gravity, which included prominent seismologists Ewing, Hugo Benioff, and James Macelwane, first met on 25 January 1955 (Technical Panel on Seismology and Gravity 1955). Macelwane was elected chairman of the panel, but his involvement would prove to be short-lived. He was hospitalized in November 1955 and died of liver failure the following February (Blum 1956). At the initial meeting of the technical panel, industry geophysicist (later founder of Geotech) Roland F. Beers proposed the addition of teleseismic investigations and regional seismicity studies in the Antarctic (Technical Panel on Seismology and Gravity 1955). Although the minutes of the meeting indicate that Beers made the suggestion, one suspects that enthusiasm if not the actual impetus for the addition also came from the two prominent instrumentalists on the technical panel: Benioff and Ewing. Ewing specifically recommended the incorporation of several key seismograph stations into IGY plans, proposing that a number of existing short-period stations around the world be upgraded with modern long- and/or intermediate-period instruments . The USNC-IGY met on 10–11 March 1955 to further develop the proposed US-IGY program. The committee’s plans for a seismology and gravity program reflected the input of the technical panel. In addition to investigations of ice cover and continental structure of Antarctica, the plans called more generally for observations of earthquakes to advance “an understanding of geophysics and the physics of the Earth, its crust, and interior” (USNC-IGY 1955).

By April 1955 a preliminary U.S. seismology program was starting to take shape, with a proposed budget of $623,000 to conduct investigations in Antarctica (USNC-IGY 1955). The stated focus of the program was to conduct seismic measurements to “disclose information about the structure of the ice and the subglacial topography.” Measurements were to be made on a three-station Antarctic network. The proposed program included a modest budget ($41,600) for observational global seismology, noting that “in addition, this network will … give core phase information on North Pacific and Asiatic earthquakes which is not at present adequately available.”

As plans for the IGY-seismology program began to jell, noted Australian seismologist and mathematician Keith Bullen began to circulate a proposal that one or more nuclear devices be exploded during the IGY for purely scientific purposes. A similar proposal, involving multiple bombs, was developed independently by Japanese seismologists at about the same time. An official with the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority, observing that a large bomb would generate heavy fallout (it’s unclear which type of fallout he was referring to), wrote to CSAGI President Chapman that he would “take a few opinions here in official circles. There will be many wry smiles!” (Penney 1955).

Bullen’s proposal generated more than wry smiles. Stories about the proposal hit the media in the fall of 1955. In September a Washington, DC, newspaper article quoted Professor Mankichi Hasegawa of Kyoto University as saying that “the plan is being carefully studied by … seismologists” (Press Intelligence, Inc. 21 September 1955). On 22 September, Chapman wrote to Bullen to suggest that the proposal not be publicly linked to the IGY until organizers had a chance to consider it (Chapman 1955).

The proposal was discussed at the 10th meeting of the USNC-IGY executive committee meeting on 14 October 1955. By late October IGY organizers Chapman, Merle Tuve, and Howard Tatel came forward with statements of at least qualified support for the proposal, which had obvious technical merit (Berkner 1955a). Berkner (1955b) then suggested setting up a special panel to make recommendations. On 10 November 1955 he wrote to S. D. Cornell at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) that he was “very distressed at the tendency of scientists in so many parts of the world to make the decision on Bullen’s proposal on purely emotional grounds.” He added, “Do not misunderstand from the above that I favor Bullen’s proposal.” He went on to suggest that it would be appropriate for the NAS to maintain a neutral attitude until the proposal could be fully evaluated. Still, the proposal generated understandable unease among scientists who had reservations about nuclear-weapons testing in general. Ultimately—one suspects possibly happily—CSAGI nixed the proposal, relieving the USNC-IGY of the need to act on it.

As of 1956, the proposed US-IGY seismology program had two main components: first, the installation of seismometers in remote areas, “particularly at Antarctica”; and, second, measurements of “artificial tremors” created by conventional chemical explosions to measure ice thickness in the Antarctic (Hayden 1956).

The Technical Panel on Seismology and Gravity met again in Washington in November, 1956. By this time, U.S. seismologists were aware of independent instrumentation developments in the Soviet Union. Frank Press wrote to USNC-IGY Executive Secretary Hugh Odishaw suggesting that a Benioff or Press-Ewing seismograph be exchanged for a seismograph developed by “Kirnov” of the Geophysical Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR (Press 1956). This exchange did not come to fruition. The seismographs deployed during the IGY were from the United States. These included both the long-period (LP) Press-Ewing seismographs and a number of intermediate-period instruments. By late 1958 Ewing’s group at Lamont Geological Observatory had installed seismographs, primarily LP instruments, at 13 sites around the world (Technical Panel on Seismology and Gravity 1958). By this time Press had left Lamont for Caltech, and the task of installing the global network fell to Jack Oliver. Together with six LP seismographs installed earlier in North America, Australia, and South Africa, these instruments represented the first global LP seismic network (figure 2).

In addition to the installation of an LP seismograph at Hallett Station on Antarctica, seismologists also set off dynamite blasts and recorded the waves on a 45-channel recording system (http://www.nas.edu/history/igy/seismology.html). The final US-IGY seismology budget was approximately $900,000. Of this, the largest grant ($190,000) supported personnel involved with Antarctic research. The second-largest grant ($103,000) went to Lamont to support the deployment of LP instruments.


The genesis of the IGY seismology program was influenced significantly both by developments in the field of seismology and burgeoning national strategic interests.

As the IGY seismology program was taking shape, important advancements were being made in the field of seismometry, in particular with LP instrumentation that could record teleseismic surface waves as well as normal modes. As a student working with Ewing at Lamont, Press designed the so-called Press-Ewing seismograph system (Press, Ewing, and Lehner 1958; Press 1983), which was able to measure very-long-period seismic waves. This instrument, based on a pioneering early design by Boris Galitzen, was the first sensitive and stable LP seismograph developed in the West. Other LP instruments had been developed at the same time, including the LaCoste-Romberg gravimeter and the Benioff strain meter (Benioff 1959; Agnew et al. 1976).

Within the seismology community one impetus for the development of LP seismographs was the development of recent theories predicting the so-called normal modes, or free oscillations, of the Earth. Working with data from an early Press-Ewing seismograph, in the 1950s Press and David Harkrider found early evidence of higher-mode free oscillation (Press 1983). Seismologists knew that recordings of both free oscillations and surface waves could be used to greatly improve understanding of inner Earth structure. For global Earth studies, however, global instrumentation coverage was necessary. Although a number of seismometers had been developed by this time and a number of networks were in operation around the globe, they were “a hodgepodge of instruments,” lacking standardized calibration and sometimes accurate time-keeping (Oliver and Murphy 1971).

In the mid-20th century another development was underway in a different arena, one that would have a profound effect on the discipline of seismology. The United States conducted its first underground nuclear explosion, the so-called Buster-Jangle Uncle test, at the Nevada Test Site on 29 November 1951. Although above-ground tests continued, international concern about the effects of nuclear fallout was growing. In 1955, the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, France, and the Soviet Union began talks about limiting nuclear tests.

From the start, seismologists knew about the nuclear tests. The military could try to keep them secret, but the seismic waves they generated did not respect government classifications. Ground as well as air waves from even the above-ground Trinity explosion in New Mexico announced themselves clearly on seismographs in southern California (e.g., Gutenberg 1946). In turn, the U.S. government was aware that its tests would be recorded by seismometers in California, too . Thus the symbiotic relationship between seismology and political/military interests dates back to the immediate aftermath of World War II. In the late 1940s the United States established a top-secret nuclear explosion detection system that focused on sampling airborne radioactive particles but also included monitoring seismic waves from nuclear explosions (Ziegler and Jacobson 1995; see also Barth 2003). In addition to establishing its own programs, the military also began to interact with the academic seismology community. (The U.S. Geological Survey did not play a significant role in earthquake monitoring until the 1970s; during the Cold War era, earthquake networks remained under the auspices of academic institutions.) After nuclear testing began at the Nevada Test Site, government officials visited the Caltech Seismological Laboratory to collect and analyze records. Gradually this grew into a more formal, contractual relationship between the military and academic seismologists (Press 1983).

Figure 2.

Figure 2. By late 1958, a total of 18 LP stations were in operation (large gray circles), including 12 deployed during the IGY. Of these, 12 (black circles) remain in operation as long-period stations.

As diplomatic negotiations proceeded toward a test ban, it became clear that reliable detection and identification of nuclear explosions would hinge on seismic monitoring. The confluence of seismology and nuclear testing inevitably would transform what formerly had been a small academic discipline. In the mid-1950s the U.S. government provided total funding of about $500,000 for seismology. By the late 1950s the strategic value of standardized global seismic monitoring had been recognized. In the early 1960s the United States launched the World-Wide Standard Seismograph Network (WWSSN) as part of the Vela Uniform program.

Vela Uniform was a part of Project Vela, which was set up to develop seismic methods for detecting underground nuclear testing. (The origin of the name “Vela” is not entirely clear. According to some lore, the name means “watchdog” in Spanish [Tom Hanks, personal communication 2007]. Dictionaries suggest otherwise, but “vela” is the imperative form of the Spanish verb, “velar,” meaning “to watch” or “to keep vigil over.”) Vela Uniform eventually conducted seven underground nuclear tests in the United States between 1963 and 1971.

Between 1960 and 1963, Vela Uniform received $110.7 million, 30% of which was earmarked for basic research (Bates et al. 1982; Barth 2003). An advisory panel was appointed to develop the research plan for seismology. The panel was chaired by none other than Berkner, who again used his influence to push for support of basic science and top academic scientists. Decisions on research proposals submitted to the Vela Uniform were made largely by seismologist Norman Haskell, developer of the seminal Haskell model for earthquake rupture (Haskell 1964). Haskell was able to direct Vela Uniform funds to support what he saw as the best science, even if it did not contribute directly to the Vela mission (Press 1983). By 1965 more than 100 instruments provided nearly global coverage, with standardized and well-calibrated instrumentation and open data (Oliver and Murphy 1971; Barth 2003).

Vela Uniform moreover played a key role in launching the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) earthquake program. At the Denver USGS office, Lou Pakiser’s group received Vela funding to investigate crustal structure. The group’s interests expanded to earthquake studies as Vela support began to wane and interest in prediction and hazard mitigation began to wax. In the aftermath of the 1964 Alaska earthquake, Pakiser moved to Menlo Park to head the new National Earthquake Research Center (Wallace 1995). The later National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program (NEHRP) secured a base of funding that allowed the program to grow.

Thus, while the real transformation of seismology began in the 1960s, seismologists and political leaders were already aware of a symbiosis of interests when plans for the IGY seismology program were being formulated in the early 1950s (e.g., Berkner 1950). Seismologists were quick to recognize and capitalize on the burgeoning recognition of the need for global seismic monitoring. With the recent developments in instrumentation, the pieces quickly fell into place during as well as after the IGY. During the formulation of the IGY seismology program, seismologists were also aware that their techniques could provide answers to other questions of strategic importance.


The US-IGY seismology program itself represented a substantial infusion of resources into a formerly small scientific discipline. These resources provided an immediate boon for global monitoring in particular. Seismology often is described as having been a small part of the US-IGY program. Its budget of approximately $900,000 represented only about 2% of the total US-IGY program. It is important to note that this figure includes only the direct expenditures related to instrumentation and personnel directly supported to work on seismology. The total price tag of the US-IGY was, of course, much larger. The enormous costs of transportation to remote locations, installation and maintenance of remote bases, etc., were borne by the U.S. military. The cost of these operations was never quoted but has been estimated at $200 million–$1 billion in 1958 U.S. dollars (Allison 2004). For seismologists, military resources provided the opportunity for key deployments, in particular those in the most remote locations, which would have otherwise been beyond reach.

Given the pivotal role of seismology in nuclear monitoring and the political tensions of the era, military patronage clearly would have transformed the field of seismology, with or without the IGY. Indeed, the transformation had begun before the IGY with grants to key institutions such as the Caltech Seismological Laboratory, and it escalated shortly after the IGY with the implementation of the Vela Uniform program.

One cannot consider the impact of the IGY on seismology without considering the impact of overall military patronage. Social scientists have considered the sudden, massive infusion of resources that military patronage provided to seismology and asked, “To what extent was the discipline distorted, or co-opted, by patronage that included its own, often antithetical interests?” The so-called distortionist school of thought holds that the field largely was co-opted and that military patronage “shaped the questions” that researchers posed and valued (Doel 2003).

Barth (2003) argues that, effectively, military patronage transformed the field of seismology in an overall positive way and that seismologists did not “lose control of their discipline.” Considering the legacy of the Vela program in detail, Barth (2003) concludes that “while the patronage led to a significant acceleration of research activities and substantial growth in scientific output, we do not find that major shifts in seismological research directions can be attributed to the interests of the patronage.” He observes that seismologists “participated actively in the transformation of their discipline, realizing that arms control requirements offered a unique opportunity to modernize their field.”

Looking back at the WWSSN and Vela Uniform more generally, seismological sensibilities tend to align with Barth (2003). By virtue of the enormous infusion of resources, global seismology was transformed from a cottage industry to a thriving modern discipline.

One can then return to the question, “What was the impact of the IGY seismology program itself?” The answers might seem obvious to seismologists, but, on closer inspection, they are less so.

Considering the immediate impact of the IGY, one finds apparent evidence in support of both the distortionist and the transformational schools of thought. Within the US-IGY seismology program, the Antarctic program consumed, by far, the largest share of the budget. The active-source experiments in Antarctica led to a number of publications about the Ross Ice Shelf (figure 3), none of tremendous geophysical importance. For the most part, these studies employed standard seismological methods to analyze elastic waves in layered media (e.g., Roethlisberger 1959). Clearly seismologists would not have turned their attention to such questions in the absence of military patronage.

Figure 3.

Figure 3. Cumulative number of technical publications about the Ross Ice Shelf (ISI Web of Knowledge).

On the other hand, in addressing questions of strategic importance, before as well as during the IGY, some researchers clearly were led to focus on related issues of fundamental geophysical interest. After publishing several studies of ice-sheet properties (e.g., Anderson and Weeks 1958), Anderson (1961) presented a general solution for elastic wave propagation in layered anisotropic media—a seminal geophysical contribution.

Of the 139 abstracts included in the official IGY bibliography (Marson and Terner 1963) one can identify only about 20 that focused squarely on issues of strategic rather than geophysical interest, for example, characterization of the Nevada Test Site (Diment et al. 1960). Even among the publications included as official IGY publications, the emphasis was overwhelmingly on studies of earthquakes and the Earth. Data from long- and intermediate-period IGY stations were analyzed to elucidate not only global Earth structure but also regional crustal structure and earthquake source properties.

When the M 9.5 Chilean earthquake struck on 22 May 1960, data from LP seismographs provided perhaps not the first but the first clear and compelling observations of free oscillations. This milestone is sometimes described as an accomplishment of the IGY. In fact, however, the seminal papers describing free oscillation observations were based not on data from IGY stations in remote locations but rather on data from instruments operated at or near principal investigators’ home institutions: Lamont, Caltech, UCLA (e.g., Alsop et al. 1961; Benioff et al. 1961; Ness et al. 1961). These instruments included data from strain meters (e.g., Alsop et al. 1961) as well as long-period seismometers.

Data from IGY instruments were analyzed in later studies (e.g., Alsop 1964). Many years later, a thorough analysis of the Chilean earthquake data was done by Ines Cifuentes and Paul Silver, who collected all available data from the IGY stations and were able to track down data from 10 of the original 16 IGY stations, six of which yielded useful data (Cifuentes and Silver 1989).

Figure 4.

Figure 4. Total number of pages published in annual BSSA volumes between 1950 and 1990.

Numerous other publications, including numerous studies of surface waves as well as free oscillations, were directly or indirectly supported by the IGY.

One can also look to the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America as a barometer of the productivity and directions of the field (figure 4). A typical annual volume during the 1950s included 60–70 papers and a total of about 400 pages. The size of this journal began to grow in 1960. In 1960, volume 50 included 620 pages, the largest to date except for 1954, which included a large number of contributions about the 1952 Kern County, California, earthquake. Of the papers published in 1960, a few focused on explosion seismology (e.g., Willis and Wilson 1960), but most focused on topics such as the 1958 Alaskan earthquake, developments in seismometry, analysis of surface waves for Earth structure, etc. The 1963 volume swelled to 1,460 pages, including a large number of papers on the 1960 Chilean earthquake. Although several volumes in the 1960s were smaller, by 1970 the annual volume included more than 300 papers and a total of more than 2,000 pages. The Bulletin remained at this size throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Again, papers devoted to subjects of military interest remained a small minority of contributions.

Figure 5.

Figure 5. The cumulative number of PhD degrees awarded by the Caltech Seismological Laboratory.

Interestingly, while the initial increase and subsequent quantum leap in journal size appears to correlate well with the IGY and the Vela program, the impact of the NEHRP, launched in the mid-1970s, is less apparent. As noted, however, the USGS earthquake program was not launched with NEHRP but rather under the auspices of the Vela program.

One can also consider the impact of the IGY, and later military patronage, on the number of graduate students who chose to enter the field. Whereas the Caltech Seismo Lab awarded a total of six PhD degrees between 1950 and 1960, the rate began to increase dramatically after 1960, with four degrees awarded in 1961 and a total of 22 between 1960 and 1970 (figure 5). Some of the student theses included research questions that were shaped by strategic interests, but almost all of the students went on to successful careers in research seismology at universities or the USGS. Figure 5 clearly reflects the impact of ongoing military patronage through the 1960s, but, assuming a typical PhD tenure of four to five years, the sharp increase in slope in 1961 corresponds to students who began their degree programs during the IGY.

If one accepts that military patronage was transformational and beneficial for the field of seismology, and that the IGY marked something of an inflection point, one is still left with the question, “What was the true impact of the IGY itself ?” This is fundamentally an ill-posed question. One cannot know how developments would have been different had the 18-month year never happened.

One is struck, however, by the themes that were emphasized by proponents of the IGY: open data sharing, involvement of scientists in decision-making, and international cooperation. Berkner testified before Congress that these principles were critical, not for the sake of science per se, but for science to most effectively serve national/strategic interests. “In my opinion,” he said, “an important aspect in this loss of supremacy in certain vital fields of technology stems from our present widespread practice of technological secrecy, consequent clearance, and restrictive practices exercised over science and scientists” (Berkner 1956).

As discussed by Barth (2003), a key element of military patronage was the involvement of top scientists in decision-making. Presumably Berkner would have made the same arguments in the absence of the IGY. However, the formulation of the IGY within a framework of peaceful internationalism clearly fostered the inclusion of scientific leadership. The framework of the IGY also directly promoted openness and communication between scientists. Seismologists from the USSR, for example, formerly denied visas to visit colleagues and attend meetings in the West, were allowed to travel during the IGY (Frank Press, personal communication 2007). Whatever machinations might have played out in political circles in the Soviet Union, for top young scientists involved with the Soviet IGY program, the IGY was not a “political plot” but rather an exciting opportunity to conduct research that bridged disciplinary as well as political boundaries (Vladimir Keilis-Borok, personal communication 2007).

The IGY also fostered congenial international cooperation in the trenches, in particular the challenging field conditions in Antarctica: “It has been reported that the familiarity made necessary by close quarters, isolation, and long winter nights, far from breeding contempt and tensions, did much to promote personal relations and harmony” (Wilson 1963).

Thus there is qualitative as well as quantitative evidence (figures 3–5) that the IGY program had a substantial impact on the field of seismology. Whether the IGY seismology program was itself transformational remains a difficult question to answer; it was clearly part of a larger tide that caused the field of seismology to transform within the span of a single decade. Key proponents of the IGY, in particular Berkner, would have been poised to advance similar arguments, and pursue similar strategies with appropriations, with or without the IGY. The IGY, however, provided him and his cohorts with a platform that was more open than hearings and discussions might otherwise have been and that continued to promote the program aspects that proved most beneficial to seismology. Thus, while specific IGY efforts did foster specific accomplishments, arguably the most lasting impact of the IGY on seismology is the extent to which it set the tone for the much larger wave of military patronage that followed. 


I thank Frank Press, Vladimir Keilis-Borok, Lynn Sykes, Ines Cifuentes, and Paul Silver for their insights and patience in answering my questions; I thank Adrian Borsa, Frank Press, Paul Richards, Tom Hanks, and an anonymous reviewer for constructive reviews of the manuscript; I also thank Mary George and Laura Caruso for adding the final polish. I am indebted to Daniel Barbiero and the National Academies Archives for assistance with the NAS IGY collection, and to the American Geophysical Union and Air Force Geophysical Laboratory for travel grants that allowed this work to be presented at the 2007 International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics meeting.


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U.S. Geological Survey
Pasadena, California 91106 USA
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Posted: 13 March 2008