Skip to main content

Gerald J. Wasserburg Papers

Identifier: 10163-MS

Scope and Content



  • 1927-2011


Language of Materials

English, German, & French


The collection is open for research. Researchers must apply in writing for access. Some files remain closed indefinitely for reasons of confidentiality and privacy.

Publication Rights

Copyright may not have been assigned to the California Institute of Technology Archives. All requests for permission to publish or quote from manuscripts must be submitted in writing to the Caltech Archivist. Permission for publication is given on behalf of the California Institute of Technology Archives as the owner of the physical items and, unless explicitly stated otherwise, is not intended to include or imply permission of the copyright holder, which must also be obtained by the reader.


Gerald Joseph Wasserburg became Professor Emeritus at the California Institute of Technology in 2002. He previously served Caltech as Professor of Geology and Geophysics, 1955-2001; Chairman, Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences, 1987-1989; and Executive Officer for Geochemistry, 1987-1989.

Wasserburg was born March 25, 1927, in New Brunswick, New Jersey. After beginning college at Rutgers University, he entered the University of Chicago in 1948 with a major first in geology, then in physics. He earned his PhD from Chicago in 1954 with a thesis on potassium-argon dating under Harold C. Urey and Mark Inghram. He joined the Caltech faculty in 1955 and was named full professor in 1962 and John D. MacArthur Professor of Geology and Geophysics in 1982.

Wasserburg's research interests are isotopic geochemistry, geophysics, and astrophysics. He developed ultra-high precision and high sensitivity mass spectrometric and chemical techniques to study the origins and history of the solar system and its component bodies. He designed the first digital output with magnet switching computer-controlled mass spectrometer, which he named Lunatic I, at the same time denominating his laboratory at Caltech The Lunatic Asylum. His work established a time scale for the development of the early solar system including the end of the process of nucleosynthesis and the formation of solid objects such as planets, moons, and meteorites about 4500 million years ago. Wasserburg is widely acknowledged for his isotope studies of lunar materials collected by NASA's Apollo missions and his involvement in US space research programs. Among his many honors and awards is the Crafoord Prize, 1986.

Wasserburg's autobiographical essay, "Isotopic Adventures," is a lively account of his life and scientific career (published in Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci. 2003. 31:1-74.).


85 linear feet (172 boxes)


The scientific and personal correspondence, organizational and government files, NASA files including Apollo missions and lunar sample analysis, notebooks, biographical materials and audiovisual materials of Gerald J. Wasserburg (b. 1927) form the collection known as the Gerald J. Wasserburg Papers in the Archives of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Appointed to the faculty at Caltech in 1955, Wasserburg won the Crafoord Prize in 1986 with Claude J. Allègre for their pioneering work in isotope geochemistry.


SERIES 1: CORRESPONDENCE. Gerald J. Wasserburg was a prolific correspondent who kept copies of nearly all of his letters. Though some letters predate Wasserburg's 1955 arrival at Caltech, the majority fall within the period of the 1960s to the 1990s. Correspondence to and from individuals is arranged alphabetically and then chronologically within folders, with incoming and outgoing letters filed together. Corporate correspondents include academic institutions other than Caltech-both domestic and foreign-and are filed under the geographically distinctive part of the institution's name; for example, California, University of: Berkeley. Other corporate entities include publishers, journals, cultural institutions, and professional organizations, for example, the American Geophysical Union, Elsevier Science Publishers, Harvard University, Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, Physical Review, and Earth and Planetary Science Letters. Wasserburg also preserved a fair amount of unsolicited correspondence, invitations and requests of various sorts. Additional corporate correspondence can be located in Series 6 and 7 relating to the government, especially NASA, and to a long list of professional organizations.

Among Wasserburg's personal correspondents is an impressive array of prominent scientific figures, the majority representing the fields of geophysics, geochemistry, and related subjects. To name a few: C. J. Allègre, J. R. Arnold, J. N. Bahcall, H. Bethe, A. G. W. Cameron, H. B. Craig, J. de Laeter, W. M. Elsasser, J. Geiss, U. B. Marvin, B. H. Mason, W. H. Munk, L. E. Nyquist, R. K. O'Nions, K. Turekian, A. L. Turkevich, G. Turner, G. Wetherill, M. G. Inghram, and his University of Chicago PhD thesis advisor, H. C. Urey. Correspondents who became principal collaborators with Wasserburg on published papers include J. H. Chen, R. A. Creaser, H. J. Lippolt, D. Papanastassiou, F. A. Podosek, Y-Z. Qian, and F. Tera. Former graduate students who were also co-authors include D. J. DePaolo, S. B. Jacobsen, Typhoon Lee, and M. McCulloch. Some important personal correspondence is filed outside of Series 1, notably in Series 2 and 3, which document relationships at Caltech, whether within the academic divisions and programs or among close collaborators in Wasserburg's lab, the Lunatic Asylum. (See especially notes on Series 2 and 3 below.) Researchers are encouraged to conduct keyword searches to locate correspondence across the whole collection.

The Wasserburg correspondence also encompasses a broad spectrum of intellectual, social, and political history. For example, attempts at international scientific cooperation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the late 1970s and early 1980s generated a substantial amount of correspondence with renowned Russian geologists, geochemists, and geophysicists of the day: V. L. Barsukov, O. A. Bogatikov, V. I. Keilis-Borok, E. Sharkov, Y. A. Shukolyukov, Y. A. Surkov, and I. N. Tolstikhin. For more material on U.S.-Soviet scientific collaboration in space, see also Series 6, NASA.

As a man of strong social and political conscience, Wasserburg often took time away from his scientific endeavors to write to members of the U.S. Congress and Senate and even to U.S. presidents, especially in regard to the NASA funding of a Lunar Curatorial Facility in Houston, support of the Space Shuttle program, and the constant threat of cutbacks to the space program and NASA. His concerns did not end there but extended to such things as the U.S. involvement in Cambodia, the Kent State massacre, the American energy crisis and dependence on foreign oil, the human rights violations of political dissidents in the Soviet Union as well as other countries, and the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq.

One disc of e-mails from the period 1996-2004 has been placed at the end of the correspondence series. These files are currently not accessible to researchers but may become so in the near future.

SERIES 2: CALTECH AND THE JET PROPULSION LABORATORY (JPL). Series 2 is divided into five subseries. During Wasserburg's almost 50-year career at Caltech his activities and connections with the institute and its neighbor, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, were extensive and complex. Materials related to Wasserburg's laboratory, after 1968 dubbed the Lunatic Asylum, have been separated into their own series (see Series 3 below). However, there are overlaps between the Caltech series and the related Lunatic series. At Caltech Wasserburg's principal appointment was in the Division of Geological and Planetary Science (GPS), but he worked closely with the nuclear physics and astrophysics group in the Kellogg Radiation Laboratory under the Division of Physics, Mathematics, and Astronomy (PMA). Each Division receives its own subseries within the Caltech series, and together these materials comprise well over half of this series. The GPS papers date back to 1955 with Wasserburg's appointment and continue to the time of his retirement in 2002. Located here is correspondence with colleagues and co-workers within the Division, some of it now closed for reasons of confidentiality. Also closed is one file relating to Wasserburg's tenure as GPS chairman, 1987-1989. Additionally, files containing recommendation letters here and elsewhere, notably in the Lunatics series, remain closed.

The PMA Division files are constructed somewhat differently, in that they contain funding proposal documents for work done under this division in which Wasserburg collaborated. Comparable files for the GPS Division can be found within the Lunatic series, Series 3. Wasserburg's important working relationship with the nuclear physicists and astrophysicists of the Kellogg Radiation Laboratory is chronicled here in Series 2.

Subseries 3, Teaching, begins with documentation of Wasserburg's early courses in mineralogy in the late 1950s, but the teaching files then thin out to a sampling of Wasserburg's courses into the 1970s.

Wasserburg's career spanned five Caltech presidential administrations, and his involvement with administrators, committees, faculty, and organizations in general is documented in subseries 4, along with some files on exchanges with Chinese and Russian scientists (see also Series 1, Correspondence, for communications with Russian scientists; plus Series 6, NASA). Finally, the concluding subseries, JPL, contains some interesting material on the Lab's leadership, relations to campus, and some files of the Committee on Oversight of Classified Research (now closed). Additional JPL material may also be found within the NASA files, Series 6.

SERIES 3: LUNATIC ASYLUM AND SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH. The laboratory known as the Lunatic Asylum acquired its name subsequent to the development by Wasserburg of the first programmable digital output mass spectrometer, the Lunatic I, in 1968. The building of a laboratory and instruments at Caltech for experimental work in isotopic geochemistry began over a decade earlier, immediately following Wasserburg's recruitment to Caltech in 1955. The essence of Wasserburg's scientific life and work is contained in this series, which is substantial and comprehensive. The choice was made to retain a large amount of material relating to grant proposals and funding (redundant material was weeded out) in order to provide the broadest possible picture of Wasserburg's scientific activities and research projects. Similarly, records concerning the lab itself, its design, equipment, and protocols have been preserved to document fully its historical work in isotopic geochemistry and its pivotal role in lunar sample analysis. The series is divided into five subseries: administration; grant proposals; laboratory instruments; communications; and scientific research. The administration subseries contains material on the lab's finances, staffing, and facilities, beginning in 1955. Grant proposals are organized by funding agency. Agencies are ranked by total level of funding in the following order: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Department of Defense, and miscellaneous sources, including in the earliest years (1955-1961) the Sloan Foundation, and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (1963). Note that a portion of the NSF proposals are located in Series 7. A gap in funding documentation occurs in the 1970s. Grant proposal files contain proposal documents if extant (a few are lacking) in addition to related correspondence, memos, and notes directly related to the proposal in hand. Correspondence of a more general nature in connection with funding agencies is located with the agency files in Series 7, Government and Professional Organizations. Note that Wasserburg's extensive scientific and advisory work with NASA on the lunar missions and sample gathering and analysis is documented in a separate series devoted entirely to NASA, Series 6.

The laboratory instruments subseries follows the development of next-generation mass spectrometers and components thereof, especially the ion microprobe. Subseries 4, communications, comprises letters, memos and other working documents circulated between Wasserburg and lab personnel, mainly but not exclusively postdocs, from the late 1950s on past 2000. The files are arranged alphabetically by name, and a portion of the material is closed for reasons of confidentiality, principally in relation to letters of recommendation. The last subseries is a miscellaneous group of scientific materials that fall outside of other categories, some from the pre-Lunatic I era, and then a group of materials from the Oldstone Project, 1971-1973 (Greenland ancient rocks study). Materials on Wasserburg's first serious field work, the Juneau ice field expedition in summer 1950 under Rutgers professor Henri Bader, are to be found in Series 8, Biographical and Personal Material.

SERIES 4: WRITINGS AND PUBLICATIONS. Series 4 is subdivided into three subseries. The first contains published papers mostly in the form of article reprints, arranged chronologically by publication date. Related correspondence, drafts and notes are filed with reprints where the reprints are available; otherwise they are filed separately in chronological sequence. Long article titles have been abbreviated for convenience. A small set of complete journal issues with articles by Wasserburg is also included. Subseries 2 is devoted to drafts and unfinished manuscripts, some unidentified. Related notes and correspondence are also included. Subseries 3 includes reviews of books and journal articles, and of proposals to organizations and institutions.

SERIES 5: TALKS AND CONFERENCES. Series 5 is arranged in chronological order without subseries. Where apparent, the locations of conferences and their ordinal number (for conferences in a known series) have been listed. Materials range from handwritten notes to tape transcripts to copies of slides only. Some talks are untitled and/or unidentified.

SERIES 6: NATIONAL AERONAUTICS AND SPACE ADMINISTRATION (NASA). A separate series has been created for the large body of materials related to Wasserburg's work with NASA beginning as early as 1966 and extending until as late as 2011. It is divided into eight subseries formed around the different entities and topics under which Wasserburg's relationships with NASA fall, some of them overlapping in time. These are, first, a body of materials relating to NASA's lunar or Apollo missions generated through participation in a series of teams and committees: the Lunar Sample Analysis Planning Team (LSAPT); the Science Working Panel (SWP); the Lunar Science Institute (LSI) and Lunar Sample Review Board (LSRB); and the Space Program Advisory Council (SPAC and the Physical Sciences Committee (PSC). Remaining subseries cover other NASA-related topics: U.S. Space Missions (Apollo, Mars missions, and others); U.S. Space Policy; U.S.-U.S.S.R. Scientific Cooperation; and NASA Miscellaneous. The many ups and downs of his involvement with NASA are detailed in Wasserburg's autobiographical essay, "Isotopic Adventures," (In: Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci. 2003.31:1-4.)

Wasserburg was a member of the LSAPT from 1968 through 1972 and its chairman from 1970. The committee consisted of approximately twelve members, most of whom were lunar sample principal investigators. Their job was the management of lunar samples, beginning with the establishment of lunar sample receiving, storage and curatorial facilities, formulating a plan for the allocation of samples for analysis, and the review and monitoring of procedures and equipment as they affected distribution of lunar materials. Wasserburg's SWP involvement is represented by a set of meeting notes from August 1971 through November 1972. This panel addressed a range of issues including the development and use of science hardware for the Apollo missions, crew training and operational support, the use of time on the lunar surface, and data analysis. The LSI papers date from 1966 until 1999, with the bulk from 1969 to 1974. LSI-not to be confused with the NSLI established in 2008, i.e., NASA Lunar Science Institute-was composed in the early 1970s mainly of lunar sample principal investigators and included the LSRB (Lunar Sample Review Board). The Board reviewed proposals submitted by prospective lunar sample investigators and periodically reviewed the complete sample analysis program. This group had major responsibility for numerous aspects of the lunar missions, from designing and monitoring protocols to tools and facilities for investigating lunar samples.

Apart from his close scientific work connected with the Apollo missions, Wasserburg also served NASA as a policy advisor, beginning with his membership on the Physical Science Committee from 1971 to 1975. This committee, under the chairmanship of William A. Fowler (also from Caltech), reported to the Space Program Advisory Council and had a broad advisory role. In the 1980s Wasserburg was a member of the Space Science Working Group which also addressed American space policy issues. His interest in this topic is manifested in letters from 2009 and 2011 to the Obama administration concerning space policy-the most recent material to be donated by Dr. Wasserburg for inclusion in his papers. Materials in the last subseries, subseries 6, are very miscellaneous and should be viewed in connection with all of the rest of the NASA material.

SERIES 7: PROFESSIONAL AND NON-NASA GOVERNMENT ORGANIZATIONS. Gerald Wasserburg's involvement with government organizations other than NASA and his work with non-governmental organizations are documented in Series 7. Material in this series reaches back to 1955 and stretches to 2000, and it is organized in alphabetical order without subseries. Notable among professional association records are meeting minutes of the Meteoritical Society Council from 1985 to 1990, along with other documents relating to the annual meetings and other workings of this society beginning in 1968. Important work done by Wasserburg for the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), especially on the Space Science Board (SSB) and his chairmanship of its Committee on Planetary and Lunar Exploration (COMPLEX, 1974-1977), is documented here. Finally, correspondence and other documents with the National Science Foundation (NSF) in this series should be compared with documents on NSF contracts in Series 3, the Lunatic Asylum.

SERIES 8: BIOGRAPHICAL AND PERSONAL MATERIAL. This series is subdivided into several small subseries. Along with materials on family, friends, early and later education, and some early scientific work-notably the Juneau ice field expedition with Henri Bader (summer 1950)-this series includes documentation of Wasserburg's many awards and honors, including the Crafoord Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science in 1986. A selection of published articles about Wasserburg are also included.

SERIES 9: PHOTOS, SLIDES AND AUDIOVISUAL MATERIAL. This series is subdivided as follows: photos, glass slides, audio and video material. Of particular interest are the glass slides which contain extensive visual documentation of Wasserburg's participation in the Apollo program, including images of astronauts, the lunar surface and lunar samples. The audio and video material is a mixture of conference recordings, talks and miscellanea.

Physical Location

Archives, California Institute of Technology.

Acquisition Information

The collection was given by Professor Gerald J. Wasserburg to the Caltech Archives in installments, beginning in 1996. The bulk of the collection was transferred to the Archives in 2002-2003. Small supplements were made by Prof. Wasserburg through 2011.

Processing History

Processed by Charlotte E. Erwin, Loma Karklins, Kevin C. Knox, Nurit Lifshitz, Elisa Piccio and Ruth Sustaita, completed October 2012.

Processing of this large collection was begun in 2002 and done in increments over several years by a team of archivists at Caltech. A matching grant from the American Institute of Physics in 2008 provided significant assistance to this extensive project.
Finding Aid for the Gerald J. Wasserburg Papers, 1927-2011
Processed by Charlotte E. Erwin, Loma Karklins, Kevin C. Knox, Nurit Lifshitz, Elisa Piccio and Ruth Sustaita.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script

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