Skip to main content

Leon Silver Oral History Interview with Shirley Cohen

 Digital Record
Identifier: 2016-02-17-000146


  • Other: 2016 February 17


Interview in six sessions, in December 1994-January 1995 and February 2000, conducted by Shirley K. Cohen with Leon T. Silver, W. M. Keck Foundation Professor for Resource Geology, emeritus, at Caltech. This lengthy interview begins with discussion of family background in Russia and Poland, youth in New York and Connecticut, and beginning of higher education at Colorado School of Mines, 1942. Recalls participation in navy V-12 program at U. of Colorado; degree in civil engineering and entry into Naval Civil Engineer Corps; decision to resume work in geology at U. of New Mexico after discharge in 1946; master's degree 1948; entry into PhD program in geology at Caltech, fall 1948. Recalls Caltech geology division in 1948; its history and personnel to that time. Changes following WWII: Robert P. Sharp becomes chairman; recruitment of Harrison Brown to Caltech; beginning of geochemistry studies; Silver assigned to Brown's group; group members Samuel Epstein, Clair Patterson and Charles McKinney; Patterson's work on age of the Earth. Funding for new state-of-the-art geochemistry labs; McKinney builds new mass spectrometers. Interlude concerning personal history. Continues on work with Harrison Brown group, 1950s; recruitment of Gerald Wasserburg, 1955; appointments of Clarence Allen and Frank Press. Silver's work on radiogenic lead systems. Beginnings of planetary science at Caltech; Brown's study of meteorites; appointment of Bruce Murray. Decision to choose planetary science over marine sciences; subsequent loss of Frank Press. US decision to put a man on the moon; proposals to NASA to do lunar-sample analysis; Caltech dominates first lunar science conference (Houston, January 1970); Silver's training of Apollo astronauts in geology, especially Harrison "Jack" Schmitt (Caltech BS, 1957). Recalls 1971 San Fernando earthquake's impact on geology. Describes Grand Canyon trips for Caltech Associates and trustees involving Eugene Shoemaker and Silver; other alumni trips; establishing the R. P. Sharp divisional chair. Notes work outside of Caltech: USGS, NASA, Geological Society of America, National Research Council. Election to National Academy of Sciences, 1974; other awards. Comments on Caltech presidents DuBridge, Brown, Goldberger, Everhart; provosts Bacher, Christy, Vogt. Remarks on LIGO [Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory] and projects of special status. Comments on geology division chairmen. In final session, Silver describes expedition with Gene Shoemaker to find Indian Sipapu [hole where the Hopi people emerged onto Earth] on the Little Colorado River; description of geological feature housing Sipapu; obtaining and bringing sample of Sipapu water back to Caltech's geology division.

Repository Details

Part of the California Institute of Technology Archives and Special Collections Repository

1200 East California Blvd.
MC B215-74
Pasadena California 91125 United States of America
(626) 395-2704