by Robert L. Kovach

Stanford University possesses a long tradition in geophysics, particularly in the study of earthquakes.  John Casper Branner came to Stanford in 1891 as the first professor hired for the University.  Besides serving as university president he was in charge of the geology program from 1892 until 1915.  He was witness to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake producing many of the photographs for the famous report on The California Earthquake of April 18, 1906.  He served as president of the Seismological Society of America from 1910 to 1912 and was founder of its bulletin that was initially published by the Stanford University Press.  Bailey Willis, known as the Earthquake Professor, came to Stanford as Chairman of the Department of Geology in 1915 and argued strongly for the development of seismology as a separate field of study.  He served as President of the Seismological Society of America from 1921 to 1926.  Willis made several significant research contributions dealing with earthquakes in California and was vociferous about earthquake hazards in the state until his death in 1949.

Earthquake monitoring began at Stanford University in 1927 with the construction of the Branner Seismic Station (PAC) that was located on the Stanford Golf Course.  Routine operation of the station was assumed by the University of California at Berkeley in 1947 and was continued until 1965.  Operation of the station had to be abandoned because of the high level of background noise produced after completion of the nearby Hetch-Hetchy aqueduct.  Today a digital seismograph system is in operation in a seismically quiet adit located in the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve (JRSC).  This station is now routinely maintained as part of the University of California’s Berkeley Digital Seismic Network (BDSN).

The School of Mineral Sciences was established in 1945.  In 1947 George A. Thompson taught the first formal geophysics course at Stanford that ultimately grew into a curriculum with the establishment of a Geophysics Division in 1954 within the school.  Even though a formal department had not yet been established graduate degrees in geophysics were offered under the aegis of the School of Mineral Sciences.  Leonard V. Lombardi, in 1953, was the first person to receive a Ph.D. degree in Geophysics from Stanford.  In early 1954 Geophysics had a faculty of two (Joshua Soske and George Thompson) and was housed in the newly completed Henry Salvatori Geophysical Laboratory that was built with a gift of $60,000 from Salvatori and his company Western Geophysical.

View looking south in 1954 of newly constructed Henry Salvatori Geophysical Laboratory.  Southwest corner of Geology Corner visible on left.  Woodpecker Lodge and Illumination Lab (later known as Bomb Lab) visible on right.


The Salvatori Geophysical Laboratory was located west of the southwest corner of the inner quadrangle and north of the Women’s gym.  It was situated near the present Green Earth Sciences Building.  The School of Mineral Sciences subsequently reorganized into five departments in 1957 and the Department of Geophysics was formally created with Joshua Soske as chairman.

In the fall of 1957 the Lloyd Noble Laboratory of Petroleum Engineering was constructed adjacent to the Salvatori Geophysics Building forming the western outlier of the School of Mineral Sciences located in the southwest corner of the inner quadrangle.  The School’s name was changed to the School of Earth Sciences in 1962.  The Department of Geophysics remained at this location until 1970 when it moved its base of operations to space within the newly constructed Ruth Wattis Mitchell Earth Sciences Building, although the Salvatori Building continued to be used for student offices until its demolition in 1990.

The Henry Salvatori Laboratory of Geophysics and the Lloyd Noble Laboratory of Petroleum Engineering in 1958.

Samuel G. Taylor, Jr. (Ph.D. Geophysics, 1957) making a gravity observation in front of Salvatori Geophysical Laboratory.  Geology corner of inner quadrangle visible in upper left of photograph.


In the early 1960’s rock magnetism was a significant focus of geophysical research at Stanford.  Allan Cox and Richard Doell of the U.S. Geological Survey were research associates in the department.  They together with Seiya Uyeda, an eminent Japanese visiting professor and authority on rock magnetism, guided the research of many graduate students.  At the time, reversals of the earth’s magnetic field were just beginning to be recognized as valuable worldwide geological time markers of unprecedented precision.   Geophysical field studies were also being carried out in the Basin and Range Province that ultimately established the importance of extension in understanding the tectonic framework of the region.

Four new faculty were added to the department in the second half of the1960’s in the areas of earthquake seismology (Robert L. Kovach), mineral deformation (Chapman Young), paleomagnetism (Allan Cox), and reflection seismology (Jon F. Claerbout).  Departmental research was being carried out in the areas of rock magnetism, plate tectonics, Basin and Range tectonics and planning for the manned geophysical exploration of the Moon.

The decade of the 1970’s was a particularly exciting and formative time for geophysics at Stanford.  The concept of plate tectonics was an exciting frontier of research in geophysics and the paleomagnetic research on polarity reversals that was carried out at Stanford was a key factor in accepting the idea of continental drift and sea floor spreading.  Polarity reversals provided the measuring stick for determining rates of plate movements. Successful seismic experiments had been carried out on the Moon as part of the Apollo manned lunar missions.  These experiments provided information on the nature of the upper kilometers of the lunar subsurface.  Laboratory and field studies were also beginning on examining the role that fluids could play in the mechanism of earthquakes.

Four faculty members encompassing the areas of seismology (David M. Boore and Robert J. Geller), rock physics (Amos Nur), and earth and planetary dynamics (Norman H. Sleep) were added to the department.  Jon Claerbout started the highly successful Stanford Exploration Project (SEP) in 1973.  SEP was an industry funded academic consortium whose purpose continues to be the improvement and practice of constructing images of the earth from seismic echo sounding.  This consortium formed the model for other industrial consortia that were subsequently formed within the school.  The Stanford Rock Physics Project (SRP), with a focus on understanding the physical properties of rocks, was initiated in 1976 under the direction of Amos Nur.

One of the academic highlights of this era was the spring quarter geophysical field trip to geothermal, mineral and ore deposit sites in California and Nevada.  Over the 1970’s students conducted field experiments at Beowawe, Nevada; the Carrizo Plain, California; Darwin, California; Dayton, Nevada; Trona, California; and Yerington, Nevada.  Few student participants forgot the evening fireside camaraderie nor the early morning reveille of a banging metal garbage can.  Some faculty members remember the student in 1971 who had to be bailed out of the local hoosegow for breaking a saloon door in Virginia City, Nevada, and the lost group of students who discovered the significance of a distant red light beacon in nearby Six Mile Canyon.

Robert L. Kovach entertaining local residents and students at geophysical field trip to Beowawe, Nevada, in 1974.

Mark Zoback (Ph.D., Geophysics, 1975) and Mary Lou Zoback (Ph.D., Geophysics, 1978) expressing their love of geophysics at the Beowawe geothermal field, Nevada, in 1974.


The first female students were admitted to the Department of Geophysics in the 1970’s and in 1976 Eve (Silver) Sprunt became the first female to complete a Ph.D. degree in geophysics.  Today more than 40% of the geophysics graduate students are female.  In 1975 Allan Cox inaugurated the Master of Science Program in Exploration Geophysics, an academic program that was designed to provide the necessary background for a career in geophysical exploration with an emphasis on petroleum energy resources.  The program was novel in that that it was not designed as an intermediate step to a Ph.D. degree.  In 1979 the Silver Anniversary of the Salvatori Geophysics Building was celebrated and in this year Allan Cox of Geophysics was appointed Dean of the School of Earth Sciences.

The 25th Birthday Anniversary of the Salvatori Building in 1979.  Left to right:  George Thompson, Henry Salvatori, Allan Cox, Sheldon Breiner (Ph.D., Geophysics, 1967) and Jon Claerbout.


Over the past years several faculty had departed to pursue other career venues and a significant number of new faculty members came to Stanford during the 1980’s.  Michael O. McWilliams (Paleomagnetism and Geochronology) and Mark D. Zoback (Tectonophysics and Borehole Stress Measurements) arrived during the first half of the decade.  Kiyochi Yomogida (Seismology), Jerry M. Harris (Seismic Tomography), Paul Segall (Crustal Deformation) and Gerald M. Mavko (Rock Physics) joined the department during the latter half of the 1980’s.  Amos Nur became chairman of the department in 1986 and by the close of the decade the number of geophysics faculty totaled eleven.

The 1980’s inaugurated many national and international collaborative efforts to collect and analyze data to describe details of the earth’s lithosphere, analyze the stress regime near active faults, and to understand plate movements using paleomagnetic observations.  Stanford’s geophysicists participated in field studies in Kenya, the continental shelves surrounding the United States, and the Tarim Craton in western China.  A new consortium, the Stanford Crustal Geophysics Research Project (SCGP) led by George Thompson was established in 1988 to examine seismic reflection data in areas of crustal rifting and extension.

John Tarduno (Ph.D., Geophysics, 1987), Mike McWilliams and Allan Cox analyzing paleomagnetic data in 1985.


In 1986 Mark Zoback led a team of university and government researchers in the drilling of a 5-kilometer deep borehole next to the San Andreas fault near San Bernardino, California, leading to the discovery of a low-stress environment adjacent to the fault.  The Stanford Rock Physics program (SRP) expanded its research focus in 1987 adding the topics of crustal stress measurements from borehole observations.  This program was subsequently called the Stanford Rock Physics and Borehole Geophysics Project (SRB).  Jerry Harris began a research effort in 1989, the Stanford Tomography Project, with the goal of implementing a tomography system to map meter scale heterogeneities in underground geological formations.   The October 17, 1989, Loma Prieta earthquake caused significant damage to the Geology Corner and produced some observational surprises to members of the local geophysical community.

A group photograph taken in 1985 on a visit to the Rock Physics Laboratory.  Left to right:  Allan Cox, Amos Nur, Gene Cunningham and Douglas Lorenz (Sohio Co.), Ehud Schmidt (Ph.D., Geophysics, 1987), and Brian Quin (Ph.D., Geophysics, 1989).  Seated:  Rosemary Knight (Ph.D., Geophysics, 1985) and Kathy Velasco (M.S., Geophysics, 1984).


The decade of the 90’s was a time of significant expansion in the numbers of Geophysics faculty and in the types of research endeavors being undertaken in the department.  In 1990 Gregory Beroza and Simon Klemperer joined the faculty and added expertise in the areas of earthquake seismology and geophysical studies of the continental lithosphere.  In this same year Joan Roughgarden joined the department with a joint appointment in the Department of Biological Sciences.  Roughgarden was instrumental in developing the Earth Systems Program at Stanford and was its director from 1992 to 1999.  Mark Zoback became chairman of Geophysics in 1991 overseeing its welfare until 1997.  Two faculty Antony Fraser-Smith and Howard Zebker, with joint appointments in the Department of Electrical Engineering were also added to the departmental roster.  Fraser-Smith’s research focused on low frequency electromagnetic fields and Zebker brought skills in applying radar remote sensing techniques to measurements of surface deformation and planetary topography.

In 1995 the Society of Exploration Geophysicists awarded the department its Distinguished Achievement Award for its “remarkably diverse contributions to the science of exploration geophysics.”  Jon Claerbout was instrumental in bringing light to the student residents of the Mitchell Earth Sciences Building in 1997 when a skylight was added to the 4th floor of the building.  The 25th anniversary of the founding of the Stanford Exploration Project was celebrated in 1998.  Amos Nur reassumed duties as department chair from 1997 to 2000 and three additional people added breadth to the faculty roster:  Kevin Arrigo, Biondo Biondi and Marcia McNutt.  Arrigo added capabilities in biological oceanography and ocean remote sensing.  Biondi brought expertise in 3-D reflection seismology and parallel computing.  Marcia McNutt was added to the faculty assuming principal duties as President of the Monterey Bay Research Institute.  At the close of the 1999-2000 academic year the number of faculty engaged in geophysical endeavors totaled 15.

Amos Nur lecturing to Sophomore Seminar in the Holyland in 1999.


The October 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake spurred a fertile decade of earthquake-related research within the department.  Paul Segall’s Crustal Deformation and Fault Mechanics group got underway and utilized Global Positioning System (GPS) measurements to directly measure the coseismic displacements due to the October earthquake.  Gregory Beroza and Mark Zoback analyzed the curious and complex rupture history of the fault.  Simon Klemperer and many graduate students participated in collaborative research efforts involving seismic transects in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Mendocino Triple Junction, the Bering Sea Shelf and southern Tibet.  Klemperer was also instrumental in bringing to Stanford from 1991 to 1999 a regional instrument facility for portable seismic group recorders.  Norm Sleep continued his insightful theoretical research into the dynamics of hotspots, mantle plumes and mid-ocean ridges.

The 1992 Landers earthquake in the Mojave Desert of southern California engaged Amos Nur in a lively debate with geologists as to whether portions of the earthquake rupture zone were simply reactivated old faults or were the expression of a new fault being formed.  Starting in 1993 and continuing through the decade Mark Zoback was spearheading the planning and efforts for a proposed 10-year project to directly drill into the San Andreas Fault at depth.

The beginning of the academic year in 2000 was marked by Jerry Harris assuming the chairmanship of the department and the addition of Rosemary Knight (1985 Stanford Ph.D. in Geophysics) to the geophysics faculty.  Knight is actively leading an environmental program in geophysics with a strong focus on hydrogeophysics. The Stanford Rock Physics and Borehole Geophysics Project (SRB) passed it 25th anniversary in 2001.  From its roots in seismic tomography Jerry Harris created the Stanford Wave Physics Lab in 2003 to foster development of geophysical methods, such as 4-D time lapse imaging of the Earth’s subsurface.  Under his aegis the Stanford Center for Computational Earth and Environmental Science was established in 2006.

In June 2004 drilling began into the San Andreas Fault near Parkfield, California, bringing to fruition more than 15 years of scientific planning by Mark Zoback and members of his scientific team to establish the San Andreas Fault Observatory at Depth.  The recovery of core samples from the San Andreas Fault at depth in 2007 is a remarkable accomplishment that also coincides with the 50th Anniversary of the founding of the Department of Geophysics at Stanford.

Since its first Ph.D. graduate in 1953, there have been more than 800 graduate degrees awarded in geophysics from Stanford University.  Many of these graduates have left their geophysical marks in academia, industry and government and it is anticipated that the next fifty years will see exciting accomplishments from future members and graduates of Stanford’s Department of Geophysics.