Tanya Atwater
Biographical Information



Some ramblings about life and geo-adventures
(an interview for a book, 1991; slightly revised 1998)


My ancestors were covered-wagon pioneers and seafarers, seeking out adventures and challenges and my family continued the tradition. Our weekends and vacations were spent camping and hiking and horseback riding and river rafting, often in the wildest, most remote places we could find. Thus, I grew up with a profound love for wilderness and adventure, with lots of practice in both self-reliance and group dynamics.
       When I was growing up I wanted to be an artist. I took all the art classes I could, in school, on weekends and during summers. What attracted me most to art was a natural, inborn love for spatial relationships. On family trips I always hogged the maps and was the navigator, taking great pleasure in translating between the paper map and the passing countryside. My father was an engineer and my mother a botanist, so I grew up in a household where science and technical subjects were natural dinner-time fare. Thus, it was easy to move over to science when I decided to change. I have to admit, however, that to this day, many of my science research projects look suspiciously like art projects, with an especially strong emphasis on maps.
       While I was in high school, the Russians put the first man-made satellite, Sputnik, into orbit. We were all astonished by this feat, and it seemed that if scientists could do such an amazing thing, surely they could solve all sorts of other, seemingly more trivial problems like ghettos, starvation, world peace. (How naive we were!) So I switched directions and when it came time for college, I applied to various science schools, ending up at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
       During my undergraduate years, I tried a number of different majors: physics, chemistry, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and I did well enough in them, but I didn't "catch fire". In my junior year, I took some geology courses, pretty much by accident, and attended the Indiana University geology summer field camp in Montana, just for fun. Geological mapping is primarily a spatial puzzle: the mapper must visualize the geologic structure and geometry, figure out how these shapes are cut by the undulating surface of the present landscape, and then translate all that into lines and symbols on a flat paper map. I was in heaven. Also, it was a revelation to me that people could get paid for hiking around in the mountains and coaxing out their secrets.
        By the end of the field camp I was hooked on geology, but I was nervous about abandoning my high-tech, pure science ambitions for this relatively grubby, descriptive, obscure field. I dropped out of school for half a year to travel and to think about this, but my feelings only grew. Everywhere I went, the mountains were speaking to me in my new-found geological language. I decided to switch schools to the University of California at Berkeley. (I think my parents were pretty upset about this, having paid three years of M.I.T. tuition, but, of course, Berkeley is a world class school, too, so they encouraged me to follow my heart.) I had completed a lot of math and physics already, so I chose geophysics, but I crammed in all the extra geology courses that would fit in my schedule. As it turned out, this combination of strengths in math-physics-geophysics and classical geology was somewhat unusual and it put me in a special position to make discoveries and connections that others weren't in the position to make.
       Part of my job as a University Professor is to be an advisor for many undergraduate students. I often tell them (and their nervous parents) about my shifty college career: my several major changes, drop out times, school changes. I believe that the primary job of undergraduate students is to try out many subjects, give each their best effort, and to find out what suits them and their particular set of talents, to find out what they enjoy doing. Finding a good career, doing things that one enjoys and does well, is a prime ingredient for a happy, productive life. And I often encourage students to consider unusual double majors or double emphases, e.g., geology and communication studies, geophysics and economics, geochemistry and political science. There are many extremely important and exciting opportunities for people with cross-disciplinary skills and insight.
       After my undergraduate studies, I spent a year working in the Institute of Geophysics and Seismology at the University of Chile. It gave me a chance to gain some practical experience in my new field and to live and work and travel in a different culture. I also took part in the summer internship program at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and discovered that one could combine geophysics with the adventure of sailing the seas. Thus, when I was ready to go on to graduate school, I applied and was accepted at Scripps Oceanographic Institution in La Jolla, California.
       I arrived at Scripps in January of 1967 to find the place in an uproar. A month before, Fred Vine had given a lecture about marine magnetic anomalies and how they demonstrate that oceanic crust is created by sea floor spreading. This concept, in turn, validated the theory of continental drift and led to the development of its modern version, the theory of plate tectonics. Furthermore, the magnetic anomalies give us the wherewithal to measure and chart the drift of the plates through time. A great revolution was just starting in the earth sciences and I had stepped into the middle of it! In the light of the new concepts, all the data collected by generations of geo-scientists was in need of re-interpretation. Furthermore, the need for many new measurements and experiments and compilations suddenly became obvious. Dr. H. W. Menard was recompiling the magnetic anomalies that had been measured by ships crossing the northeast Pacific. The resulting map was so exciting, so full of new relationships, that I could not stay away from his lab, though I was supposed to be working elsewhere.
       A great many visitors stopped over at Scripps while I was studying and working there. They came from all over the world and stayed for weeks or months and shared their insights in seminars and over lunches and dinners. It was so exciting, there were so many new connections to explore, so much to be done, I often could not sleep at night. We would meet in the morning to try out our overnight inspirations, or sometimes we couldn't wait and would call and get one another up in the wee hours. The excitement has died down some over the decades, but this is still one of my favorite aspects of my work: exploring ideas with colleagues, scribbling on the dinner napkins, each of us bringing her/his own data and knowledge and experience to the subject at hand, inter-meshing our disparate expertise and constructing something brand new, feeling a new idea grow and clarify in our minds and our sketches. It's a wonderful experience.
       When I arrived at Scripps, the "Deep Tow" group was about to go to sea to make a very detailed survey of the Gorda Rise, off northern California. They needed a student to come along and to work up the survey data. It would be the first close-up look at a sea floor spreading center! I signed on at once and never looked back. By this stroke of luck, I became embroiled for life in the effort to understand the process of sea-floor spreading and the details of the formation and aging of the world's oceanic crusts. I have never lost my fascination with this subject and have continued to explore it with new technologies as they came along: mapping with various sophisticated sonars, deep sea cameras, deep diving submersibles. (I have visited and studied the deep ocean floor, 2.5 to 3.5 km deep, on twelve different dives in the small submersible Alvin. It is amazingly different down there. It's a little like going to Mars!) With each new improvement in our surveying techniques, we learn a new level of refinement; we answer many of our previous questions and formulate a new, deeper set.
       In the 1980s I worked a lot with a research group led by Dr. Richard Hey that was documenting the phenomenon of propagating rifts. We had known for a long time that spreading centers were able to change their trends in response to changes in plate motion direction, but we didn't understand how they accomplished these reorientations. It seems that a rift segment begins to crack and extend itself in the new direction, steadily propagating past other segments and establishing the new trend. Now that we have documented the existence of these features and learned to recognize the patterns they produce, we are finding their traces in many ancient sea floor records all over the globe. Sections of the sea floor that were formed during plate motion changes are full of them!
       My other primary research interest has concerned the history of plate tectonic interactions in western North America. It was clear from the beginning of the plate tectonic revolution that the San Andreas fault system in California was a major strike-slip plate boundary between the Pacific and North American plates. However, when we examined the magnetic anomalies in the adjacent Pacific ocean basin, they implied a very different plate configuration for past times. They showed that the ocean floor here was formed by sea floor spreading between the Pacific plate and another oceanic plate, the Farallon plate. The Farallon plate had once lain between the Pacific and North American plates but had since been completely subducted along much of its length. The subduction of the Farallon plate allowed the other two (Pacific and North America) to come into contact only rather recently and only then to form the San Andreas fault. The geologic record in California told a similar story: a long history of subduction and a relatively young origin for the San Andreas system.
       My combined background in marine geophysics and land geology put me in the perfect position to explore these interactions between the oceanic and continental plates. I could see that the oceanic and continental geologic histories should be very intricately interrelated here, and I could not resist thinking and reading and talking and experimenting. (It is to the credit of my graduate supervisor, Dr. John Mudie, that he encouraged me to continue in this direction, even though it was a major distraction from the Deep Tow survey work that I was being paid to do.) When the dates of the magnetic reversals were finally established first-hand by the Deep Sea Drilling Project in 1969, the final piece fell in place. I went into a frenzy of writing and drafting. The result was a paper about the origin and evolution of the San Andreas fault system.
       Much of the definitive data for the plate tectonic revolution came from the oceanic realm. This was natural since the ocean floors have relatively simple histories, being formed by sea-floor spreading, travelling a while, then being destroyed at subduction zones. The continents, on the other hand, are much more permanent features, so that the record of each new tectonic disturbance is overprinted upon older records and the resulting histories, structures, and compositions of the continental crusts are complex and heterogeneous. Over the decades it has become more and more clear that simple rigid plates cannot be used to describe most events that can be observed in the continental geological record. The plate motions can give us general ideas, e.g., Africa and North America collided in the late Paleozoic, causing continental shortening in the southern Appalachians, then split apart again in the Triassic, forming rifts and then the Atlantic Ocean, but such generalizations do not tap the quantitative power of plate tectonics. For this reason, the origin and evolution of the San Andreas system is particularly interesting. It is one of the few continental tectonic problems that can be approached in a quantitative way using the step by step predictions of rigid plate motions that we get from the oceans.
       I have been talking and waving my arms almost from the start of my geologic career. In the 1960s marine geology was a very small field and most schools and research institutions didn't have anyone on their staffs who specialized in this subject. Thus, when word of the revolution spread, we oceanographic graduate students found ourselves in the unusual situation of having a profound story to tell. I gave seminars all over the West, to anyone who would listen. It was a heady experience. I love explaining things, anyway, and these audiences were rapt!
       From all that talking, I soon learned what was easy and what hard to understand and explain. For example, the relative motions between two plates are easily understood by most people: for example, Africa and South America spreading apart. On the other hand, the relative motions among three or more plates is generally quite difficult to visualize. For example, with respect to the North American plate, the Pacific plate is moving to the northwest (along the San Andreas) while the Juan de Fuca plate is moving with the Pacific, but also is spreading away from it toward the east-southeast. Adding up these motions, we find that the Juan de Fuca is subducting beneath North America in a northeasterly direction. It is not very intuitive, to say the least! When I wrote about the San Andreas system, I took a lot of care explaining the underlying concepts and ideas. It felt audacious at the time (Who was I, a graduate student, to be tutoring the world?) but I've been glad ever since. Because the San Andreas system is one of the few land geological features that clearly benefits from the quantitative understanding of plate motions, my work is commonly used as a teaching vehicle to introduce students to plate concepts, in general.

About being a woman in a male dominated field of science...

I am the third of four children, the second of three girls. When we were growing up, our parents encouraged us to do our very best in anything we wanted to do. They glowed over every accomplishment and took great relish in helping us learn about anything that caught our interests. When I got out into the world, I was astonished to discover that women weren't supposed to be able to do all sorts of things. Things that I had been doing all my life and that my mother had done all her life before me. So, of course, I didn't believe it!
       In those days there were myriad restrictions barring women from many activities and especially from field situations. Women were not allowed on many of the ships in the oceanographic fleet. (Women on ships are unlucky, don't you know?) The early support from my family gave me great strength to stand firm and smile and insist, knowing that I was right, knowing that the rules and restrictions were unjust. I had important work to do and I needed to do it from a ship. Several anti-discrimination laws and court cases in the 1950s and 1960s also played a crucial role. I never threatened anyone with a lawsuit, but I know that the possibility was mentioned from time to time by my male colleagues to prod various recalcitrant administrators into doing the right thing. (Administrators hate lawsuits.)
       It has been a great pleasure to me through the decades to watch the numbers and diversity of women grow and flower in the physical sciences. Of course, there are still vestiges of prejudice. The intensity and isolation inherent in research efforts and especially in field work accentuate all inter-personal interactions, good and bad. For the most part, I find that the women and the men are happier with an integrated approach, one that capitalizes on the talents and strengths of a diverse working group.

About science and geoscience education for non-scientists...

One of the things that is becoming more and more clear to me is that everyone in modern society needs to have a fundamental understanding of science and technology. Ours is a technological age and one in which the results of our technology are fundamentally altering our planet, our only home. The users of this technology must understand the consequences of that use.
       Earth science, in particular, offers a unique, long-term view that all world citizens need to incorporate into their thinking. The earth was here long before we humans evolved and will continue, indifferent to whether we thrive as a species. Many geologic processes such as earthquakes, floods, landslides, beach-cliff erosion, and volcanic eruptions have been occurring for billions of years and will continue, no matter what we do. We now have enough understanding of many of these phenomena to take them into account when planning our structures and our activities. We know how to minimize the impacts of many natural disasters, but it won't happen in a democracy unless the citizens understand what is involved.
       Another aspect that geologists need to communicate and citizens need to learn concerns the very real limitations of our planet's resources and environment. We are using up the world's supplies of fossil fuels at an alarming rate and with reckless abandon. Along the way we are fundamentally altering the global atmosphere, an experiment whose consequences we can only guess at. Many of the world's communities are already suffering water shortages and it can only get worse as their populations continue to expand. At the height of a terrible drought a few years ago, I listened with total astonishment to a talk-radio caller who was asserting his fundamental "right" to take a long hot shower!
       Beyond these practical matters there is a more fundamental reason that people should learn about the natural world. It is fun and interesting and empowering to learn the reasons that things are the way they are. The shapes and colors and textures of the countryside tell their own stories to the viewer who is geologically aware. The configurations and locations of continents, oceans, mountains, plains, swamps and deserts, all are understandable and somewhat predictable. A basic knowledge of geology can enhance every cross-country trip and can deepen every person's appreciation of the planet and of the back yard. It brings the world map to life.
       For all these reasons I am now devoting a lot of my energy to public geo-communication. This ranges from teaching large classes to non-science majors, running workshops and field trips for all levels of teachers, and, lately, creating computer geo-animations to bring our slow-moving, huge processes into human time and space and ken. (A new jazzy version of my old mappy art projects! We never escape our basic selves.)

I have one son, Alyosha Molnar, now grown up and starting his first real job as an Engineer after graduating with highest honors from Swarthmore College. (Proud Mother, me?) He is such a pleasure to me! Indeed, though I've had great fun and excitement in my career, raising him was by far the most interesting and exciting and absorbing thing I ever did.
       My son has lots of cousins. My siblings and I are constantly inventing adventures for them all: passing on that love for wilderness and adventure and that self-reliance and group dynamics; helping them find their powers and strengths; letting them know they are wonderful and should reach for the stars.

[People]  [Research]  [Resources]  [Alumni] 
[Life]  [Graduate]  [Undergrad]  [Outreach]