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John (Jack) Oliver, pioneer in plate tectonics, dies at 87

John (Jack) E. Oliver, Cornell professor emeritus of earth and atmospheric sciences and a founding contributor to the theory of plate tectonics, died Jan. 5 at his home in Ithaca after an extended battle with cancer. He was 87.

Oliver, a pioneer in the use of seismological observations to study the Earth's crust, was co-author, with Bryan Isacks and Lynn Sykes, of a revolutionary 1968 paper, "Seismology and the New Global Tectonics." The research used earthquake observations to bring convincing support to the idea of shifting crustal plates beneath the Earth's surface.

Larry Brown, the Sidney Kaufman Professor of Geophysics and chair of the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, called the paper one of the most important in geophysics in the last century.

"It was one of those Eureka moments -- it caused a real paradigm shift," Brown said.

At Cornell, Oliver is also known as the father of the Department of Geological Sciences (now Earth and Atmospheric Sciences), which he rebuilt from near obscurity into a world-class research facility.

As a key piece of his vision, Oliver and Cornell colleague Sidney Kaufman co-founded the Consortium for Continental Reflection Profiling (COCORP), the first national program for exploring the continental crust with modern seismic reflection technology. The consortium's work in the 1970s and '80s led to major advances in scientific understanding of the structure and formation of the continents and spurred deep seismic exploration programs in more than 20 countries. At Cornell, COCORP spun off a host of other major projects, many with an international reach.

"Earth science has lost a giant, and we have lost a great colleague and mentor," Brown said.

John Ertle Oliver was born Sept. 26, 1923, in Massillon, Ohio. A star football player at the top high school team nationwide, he went on to play football and study physics at Columbia University 1943 he took leave from college to serve in the in the 129th U.S. Naval Construction Battalion (the Seabees) in the South Pacific; he returned in 1946 to earn his bachelor's degree in physics in 1947 and his Ph.D. in geophysics in 1953.

Oliver came to chair Cornell's Department of Geological Sciences in 1971 after serving as chair of Columbia University's Department of Geology and head of seismology at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (then the Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory).

At Cornell, Oliver focused on the deep continental crust, adapting the seismic exploration methods originally developed for oil exploration in the shallow crust, together with the ideas of plate tectonics, to better understand the formation and evolution of the continents.

Oliver founded the Institute for the Study of the Continents (INSTOC) in 1980 in part to support the successful COCORP program. INSTOC is currently home to major interdisciplinary research programs in the Andes, the Himalayas and Tibet Plateau and the Middle East. The institute also hosts annual international workshops on contemporary geodynamics research, and brings internationally esteemed scientists to Cornell through the Jack E. Oliver Visiting Professorship.

Oliver was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and president of the Seismological Society of America (1964-66) and of the Geological Society of America (1987-88).

Among many awards and honors, Oliver received the Kaufmann Gold Medal of the Society of Exploration Geophysics in 1983, the Harry Fielding Reid Medal of the Seismological Society of America in 1983 and the Penrose Medal of the Geological Society of America -- the society's highest honor -- in 1998.

He is author or co-author of more than 200 scientific papers and several books, including "The Incomplete Guide to the Art of Discovery" (Columbia University Press, 1991); "Shocks and Rocks: Seismology in the Plate Tectonics Revolution" (American Geophysical Union, 1996); and "Shakespeare Got It Wrong: It's Not 'to Be', It's 'to Do': Autobiographical Memoirs of a Lucky Geophysicist" (Northeastern Geology and Environmental Sciences, 2000).

Beyond Oliver's publications and honors, Brown said, one of Oliver's most important contributions to the field was the generations of students -- Brown among them -- that he trained, mentored and inspired.

"You never walked away from conversations with Jack without feeling pumped up about what you were doing, and he never lost his own joy in science," Brown said. "Jack was an explorer, in the best scientific sense of the world. He was always seeking the grand mysteries.

"We all consider ourselves very lucky that we were his students," Brown added. "We share something special by being part of his circle."

Oliver was predeceased by his wife, Gertrude (Gay) Oliver; he is survived by his brother, two daughters and six grandchildren.

Media Contact

Blaine Friedlander