Wallace: In 1951 I rejoined the Survey full-time, and we moved to Spokane, Washington,
to continue working in the Coeur d'Alene district. In 1952 I spent a summer
with an extension of that project in Montana. The big Osburn fault extends on
east through Mineral County, Montana, where we felt there should be a potential
for big ore deposits.
Trudy and I camped at the Broken Heart Ranch which was just being
built not far from Haugan. It wasn't fancy, but rustic and pleasant. In August
Trudy returned to Spokane, where our son, Alan was born. He eventually
became a geologist in his own right, earned a Ph.D. at Oregon State University,
and after several years with industry has now worked for the USGS for many
years. Anyway we had a very happy time in Spokane, when the USGS suddenly
decided that I should go back to Washington, D.C., to headquarters. Trudy and
I had to sell our home in Spokane, which we had owned for only a few years,
and lost our entire equity because of a depressed real estate market.
As a further comment on our finances I might mention that I returned to
USGS in 1951 at a salary of $6,400 per year. That was more than double my
munificent 1942 starting salary of $3,100 per year, back in the days when an
expenditure of as much as $20 required family planning. But all these older
figures seem small compared to 1995 levels, don't they?
Wallace: My Washington tour of duty ran for two-and-a-half years, from 1953 to 1955. At headquarters, I worked in what they called the program office of the Geologic Division, and my assignment was to help Harold Bannerman, the assistant chief geologist for programs. We arrived in Washington the week Eisenhower was being inaugurated as President, in January 1953. One of the first weeks I was there, I wandered over to Congress and, by a fluke, got to hear Joe McCarthy's congressional hearings, and witnessed Senator McCarthy quizzing the military generals. What a disgusting and frightening period in US history that was--shades of all the evil that egomaniacs and demigods bring to the world!
The Washington assignment was interesting in many ways.
I got acquainted with the inner workings of the U.S. Geological Survey, the
directors, and other divisions. When I joined the Survey in 1942, Mendenhall
was director, and then during the War, Bill Wrather became director.
At the end of the headquarters tour of duty, we spent the winter of 1956-'57 in Spokane followed by the summer in Oregon. In Oregon I worked on the
state geologic map project. I produced a reconnaissance geologic map in the
Izee region, which had been a blank previously. We moved on to Menlo Park,
California, late in the summer of 1956.
Scott: So you had already been thinking about getting out of Washington anyway?
Wallace: Yes. That was one nice thing about the Survey. All through those years--but
not so much any more--many administrative assignments were temporary. The
Survey has practiced a rotation policy for most science-supervisory jobs. After a
"tour" one returned to a scientific or technical role. I had gone to headquarters
in 1952 for a two-and-a-half to three-year "tour of duty."
The strength of the rotation system is that it helps assure that the
management of science is done by people who understand science and research.
Most agencies, however, seem to have their main career ladder in
administration, with grades related to number of people managed. Although
there was an administrative ladder, the USGS also set grades according to the
scientific contributions of individuals.
Administrators lacking a science background themselves seldom seem to
understand what makes scientists and researchers tick. Many seem to think that
one could "order Mr. Einstein to develop the theory of relativity by next
Tuesday because we need an atomic bomb by Thursday". Not so! Furthermore,
it is hard to find a straight business administrator who understands the long-term
flow of new ideas from research into application and then into the creation of
jobs and an improved standard of living for all.
Wallace: Rotation meant that administrators would also be people who were close to the
field, close to the research, and really knew the geologic problems, but not
necessarily familiar with management techniques. In a way, you might say that
they were excellent scientists but not necessarily good administrators. That, of
course, depended on their native talent. Today the policy is to give potential
future administrators management training. While I doubt that such training
changes personalities very much--and the basic personalities are the most
important element--some management techniques can be passed along that way.
Over the decades rotation seemed to me to make a much more dynamic
research and real-world-oriented organization, with clear missions to be solved.
Nowadays one often hears the term "inside the Beltway." Without rotation of
personnel, attitudes tend to change once a person has been inside the "Beltway"--or into administration--for a time. I think it is tragic to see that change take
place. The USGS had a precious thing preserved over the many decades to have
an emphasis on research. From my own experience, I detected that my outlook
changed during even a few-year tour in Washington, D. C. I hated myself when
I began to think of the field people as problems.
During the century and more the Survey has been in existence, it has
chosen the research approach to solving problems. You cannot deal with some
of the problems of application without the fundamental research, and that
research needs to be kept coming along. Fundamental research is needed to
make real progress, although it also has to be linked with day-to-day application.
We all believe in what has come to be known as "outreach" and "technology
transfer." But you need the basic research in order to have valuable information
to transfer. Society's "information bank account" is constantly being drawn
down, and fundamental research is essential to replenish and build up the account
for tomorrow's needs.
Scott: Do you feel that research is still the principal goal of the
Wallace: I'll express my own opinion first. Good impartial data gathered and interpreted
in a research framework, is necessary in serving the national interests well.
From its very beginning, an important characteristic of the USGS has been its
enduring tradition of and dedication to excellence and integrity. Ignorance
certainly does not assist in problem solving, and solutions to even the most
immediate problems, such as concerns about the economy or jobs, require
fundamental data and knowledge about our land and earth resources. The
necessary data and knowledge are not readily available, but require long-term
efforts. For the long haul, we must continue to try to understand the earth and
its limits better. Ultimately the survival of humankind is at stake.
The USGS has had the unique responsibility and capability to consider both long-term, broadly significant national problems, and more specific national needs of the moment. It is mission-driven by Congress, and advises other agencies of the government as well. The USGS has tended to seek solutions to national problems by first understanding fundamentals, rather than only treating problems in a superficial way with short-term and "band-aid" responses. Each fundamental innovation or breakthrough in research is followed by a wide range of important applications, which could not have been conceived of beforehand. The USGS has always emphasized translating research breakthroughs into practical applications.
Scott: That says a lot about the USGS. Do you wish to add anything more?
Wallace: The USGS, as a federal agency, has the responsibility to provide earth-science
information to guide federal policies and actions, and to assist the general
population in many ways. Included in its missions are a broad range of concerns
including the purity and availability of water; mineral resources; the topography
of the land for the needs of industry, highway building, and every-day use; and
the hazards of earthquakes, landslides and volcanic eruptions.
To my mind, research has had, and should have a major emphasis within
the USGS program. Remember, however, that the research always has been
driven by the legally assigned missions of the agency. Practical solutions are
impossible without the fundamental understanding provided through research!
And quick solutions for immediate problems will always require that some cures
are already on the shelf.
The term "outreach" has become a popular buzzword in the government.
It refers to the need to exert special efforts toward putting research findings into
use. I am all for that, as are my friends who administer the USGS. One
difficulty, however, is that with declining budgets each unit of effort shifted to
another program, for example to public relations or "outreach", means the
original programs decrease. Maintaining a good balance is difficult. Personally,
I would like to see the USGS continue emphasizing the development of new
concepts to serve society--through research. Even with research emphasized, I
am confident the Survey will never lose sight of the goal of service to society
and the national needs.
Scott: You had gotten to the point where you had returned to California, to Menlo Park. Menlo Park was then a relatively new but very important USGS field-center. Previously you described doing your field work in the summer--as in Alaska--and then going to the USGS Washington headquarters to write up your findings. But with the creation of a field-center like Menlo Park, the sample analysis and write-up for field work in this USGS region could be done here.
Wallace: With the creation of a field-center like Menlo Park, the sample analysis and
writeup for field work is this USGS Region could be done here.
Scott: Scott: I presume that was at least part of the rationale for creating such centers. Would you discuss the concept a little more at this point? Talk some about the move to establish regional centers, and the postwar shift from having only the single base in Washington, D.C.
Wallace: Before about 1950, Washington was the main "headquarters," but then the
"field-center concept" was born, and there are now three main centers. One
center, of course, was in Washington, D.C. (later moved to Reston, Virginia).
The other two centers are in Denver and Menlo Park. The idea was that each
USGS center could have excellent library and laboratory facilities, all sorts of
high-tech instruments, and extensive rock and fossil reference collections.
People of many disciplines could interact as a group. Although we each did
much of our day to day work alone, we needed, and benefitted from,
interdisciplinary contacts and consultations.
The growth of the centers was based on a carefully thought out field-center policy. In the 1980s and 1990s, smaller offices and centers have become popular, in part because of the higher-cost housing at Menlo Park. It became difficult to recruit bright youngsters, because they just could not afford the cost of housing and services in the Menlo Park area. The argument that we should work closer to our "customers" has been a strong one, but there is also a counter-argument that by doing so we become too provincial, and lose sight of the national character and priorities of our missions. Under the mineral resources program, for example, smaller offices closer to the mining regions and companies are currently in favor so that offices in Spokane, Washington, Reno, Nevada, and Tucson, Arizona, are staffed with from 5 to 30 people.
An Innovative Center
Wallace: After the group came together in Menlo Park about 1956, for some reason the creative sparks started to fly and things began to happen in a way that I have never experienced elsewhere. So Menlo Park turned out to be very innovative, and many major programs were born here, such as those in marine geology, earthquake studies (including prediction), volcanic studies, astrogeology, and geothermal energy. Up to early 1995, there were roughly a thousand people here at Menlo Park, enough for a strong, versatile center.
Headquarters administrators have told us, however, that Menlo Park was a pain for them--I guess we tended to be rather independent and to a large degree nonconformists. Good friends at other centers, who, I believe, envy
Menlo Park, have referred to the "prima donnas" of Menlo Park. Truly, there
has been an electricity, an excitement, a creativity at Menlo Park that is hard to
find many other places. I think the virus has now infected the group in Denver
I recognize a lesson in the innovative success of Menlo Park, but cannot spell out the exact formula. The birth of each new program to some extent can be traced to one or a few individual who provided an initial spark. For example, Parke Snavely provided inspiration and continuing drive to create the marine program. Gene Shoemaker took on and succeeded at an even bigger task--shifting NASA's whole lunar program objective from simply getting people to the Moon and back, to focus on lunar scientific exploration. As that developed, the USGS astrogeology program came into being. Gene felt that the USGS was a better scientific base than if he moved to NASA.
Scott: At the centers, the Survey people had the organization and the environment
helping them, presumably making it possible to operate more effectively.
Wallace: There has to be the right environment. In some way, however, as Press Cloud
said, in the USGS innovative approaches always "well up" from the ranks.
There is something about innovative people that cannot be denied. Regardless of
the program, certain elements seem essential, including an environment
amenable to innovation, and the freedom for individuals to take on new ideas and
see them through. I think the Survey had an excellent environment here in
Menlo Park. I cannot imagine a better one than existed in Menlo Park through
the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Wallace: As I said earlier, the field-center set-up helped my long-term goal of getting
geologists and geophysicists to work together. For example, in buildings 7 and 8
on the Menlo Park campus, there are many superb geologists, and geophysicists.
We see each other, we have lunch together, we talk, we debate and argue, have
seminars together. A fundamental of merging disciplines is to get people to
work together; then to know and respect each other through day-to-day contact.
Scott: Certainly having such a variety of specialists working together promotes innovation and cross fertilization of ideas.
Wallace: So with the field-center concept that Tom Nolan and others developed, the center
here at Menlo Park was born, and a whole variety of people started working
together. This helped so much to bridge gaps and promote multidisciplinary approach that can be awkward when people are housed too far
apart. Distance is a always a barrier, even when another building is only 1,000
yards away. The seemingly chance events that brought creative individual
scientists together into such a great group in Menlo Park cannot be documented,
but, thank goodness, it did happen.
Wallace: Before resuming my chronology by taking up the Nevada geology mapping story,
I want to digress for a moment to describe significant developments that were
occuring on quite another front. A year after we moved to California, in
October, 1957, Sputnik was launched by the Soviet Union. That event must be
considered a major threshold in human affairs, and with it civilization was
transformed forever. The first night Sputnik crossed over the San Francisco Bay
area, I watched it and was awed, and the next night I captured in on timed
Earlier, I have told of being captured by obsessions, and this was a
moment when my psyche turned flip-flops. Night after night I watched Sputnik,
and was puzzled by changes in its path, its fluctuations in brightness, and many
other things. My curiosity lead to all sorts of calculations, readings, and
association with others who were involved in space activities. A new world
opened up for me and a lot of others.
Scott: I recall my own fascination with Sputnik. I even got up early one morning at
about 4:00 a.m. just to watch it go over, way up there shining in the sunlight.
But please proceed. What sorts of things did you do with regard to satellites?
Wallace: I got acquainted with scientists at Stanford Research Institute and Lockheed space center. In the first weeks, volunteers were the main trackers of Sputnik, and I was told that on one night, when clouds obscured other sites, I got the only fix on Sputnik. Remember that there were few computers in those days, and orbital mechanics were the domain of only a few astronomers and mathematicians. I knew nothing except the simplest physics. After months, even years, of recording and photographing satellites, however, I finally had a fair idea of the orbital mechanics. I was even bold enough to write a paper, and fortunately the British Interplanetary Society accepted it for publication. (Wallace, R.E., "Graphic Solution of Some Earth Satellite Problems by use of the Stereographic Net," Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, v.17, 1958, pp.120-123.)
An important connection for me was with the Photo-Track group, headed
by Norton Goodwin, a lawyer in Washington, D.C., who was executive director of the American Society of Photographic Scientists and Engineers.
Eventually, Goodwin arranged with the Smithsonian Institution to provide a
small group of volunteer photographers with ephemerides of the passage times of
satellites for particular locations.
This group of photographers included a mathematician from the
University of Kansas, a scientist from the Dupont Corporation, and half a dozen
others. We worked out ways to intersect the photographic track of the satellite at
specific times according to the National Bureau of Science time signal, WWV. I
designed and built a camera and interruption system with a synchronous motor.
This system permitted me to determine within about 1/10 second the time of the
passage of a satellite. On the photographic film a background of stars permitted
location of the satellite. If I remember correctly, when four or five of us
combined our records from across the US, we could determine the position of the
Echo satellite to within about 200 meters.
My life-long hobby of ham radio also came into play. A group of
amateur astronomers on the West Coast, who were also hams, created the
"Astronet." We met nightly on the radio to track satellites and make lunar
observations, especially of anomalous lights on the moon, while the times and
concurrences of observations were recorded on tape for later analysis. The net
continues to this day, but most of the original members have died. At times the
group took up earthquake reporting, which was helpful to me personally.
Scott: You must have taken great satisfaction in all of this. Did this activity have anything to do with USGS missions?
Wallace: Not at first--it was all evening hobby activity. But Gene Shoemaker of the USGS ramrodded what came to be an Astrogeology Program, financed by the National Aeronautic and Space Agency (NASA). Early on, I commiserated with Gene frequently, and eventually made a decision not to formally join the USGS astrogeology effort, but to continue with the field-geology studies. Space exploration will always be dear to my heart, however, and for a while I became deeply involved with remote sensing of geology and especially faults, a byproduct of the space program. Gene went on, and, in my opinion, he personally influenced the transition of the whole space program toward science exploration.
President Kennedy had set the goal for men to reach the moon and return to earth in a ten-year period. Gene had a major role, if not the principal influence, in inserting a scientific goal into the original goal of NASA. "Why go to the moon and ignore the chance to discover what the moon is made of, how it formed and how it might be used as a platform for farther explorations?" This was the rationale that Gene successfully sold.
The USGS did end up having a major role in lunar and planetary
exploration, and Gene and his wife Carolyn made major scientific breakthroughs
by personally embarking on studies and tracking of asteroids and comets as part
of the story of the solar system. Of course, the moon had been bombarded by
asteroids, and the Shoemakers research was really an extension of Gene's early
Gene's USGS career characterized the USGS approach throughout much
of its history, in which the "upwelling of nonadministrative" leadership carried
the USGS into major new fields which proved to be of national significance. For
his contributions, Gene was awarded the Presidential Medal of Science. It was
Gene and his wife, plus a colleague, David H. Levy, who identified Comet
Shoemaker-Levy 9. That comet crashed into Jupiter, the first fragment hitting
on July 16, 1994, followed by a series of other fragments. These were
spectacular planetary events. Dark spots larger than the earth were produced on
the face of Jupiter. A slightly different path could have carried the comet into
collision with the Earth, obliterating all life.
Scott: Or most life, and then maybe a new evolutionary sequence could unfold, as it did after the dinosaurs met their end. I am glad you brought out this side of your interests, as well as the USGS involvement in the space program. Many people are not really aware of that.
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