About Ken Deffeyes

Contact info

Kenneth S. Deffeyes

Email: deffeyes@princeton.edu


Ken's grandfather, Elie Deffeyes, brought the family name over from Etrubles, a French-speaking village in what is now Italy. The pronunciation "d-phase" occurs in the definition of frequency:

Ken's other grandfather was a cowboy who drove cattle on the Chisholm Trail. Taking advantage of his Chickasaw ancestry, he settled on one of the best pieces of farmland along the trail, in what was then the Chickasaw Nation.

Ken's parents, Hazel and J. A. "Dee" Deffeyes, grew up on farms in Oklahoma before the automobile transformed rural life. They were in the first generation of their families to go to college: both graduated from Oklahoma State University. Although they began careers in teaching, Dee soon found a job in the expanding oil industry. At that time, petroleum engineering was being invented from scratch. One family legend holds that Dee was nearly fired for inventing the acidizing process. He remembered that hydrochloric acid would dissolve limestone, which would improve the porosity around the well bore. His boss remembered that hydrochloric acid should also dissolve the steel pipe in the well. What we now call "passivation" saved both the pipe and Dee's budding career.

Although Ken was born in the pit bottom of the Great Depression, 1931, his father was able to keep his job on through the Depression. One of Ken's earliest memories was being a temporary refugee from the Dust Bowl. In those days, oil company employees were moved to where the action was: Wichita, Hutchinson, Great Bend, Midland, Hobbs, Great Bend again. In 1944, Dee joined the Getty group and was based in Casper, Wyoming.

For a high-school kid, Casper was not a bad place to develop interests. Mineral collecting was fostered not only by the geologic diversity on nearby Casper Mountain but also by coaching from two distinguished geologists: Paul Walton and Jack Fanshaw. (A few years later, as a college junior, Ken and his buddies from high school revisited one of the pegmatite quarries on Casper Mountain. On the quarry face were large flat black crystals. Ken could hear his mineralogy instructor's voice saying that columbite-tantalite was the only mineral with a semi-metallic luster, high density, and high hardness. Ken announced that the black crystals were columbite-tantalite, an identification later confirmed by X-ray fluorescence.) In high school, Ken developed an interest in skiing, won first prize for lapidary work at the Wyoming State Fair, and danced the lead role in the Chippewa feather dance at the Wyoming State Fair.

A career-interests test was part of the freshman orientation program at the Colorado School of Mines. Dean Burdick told Ken that he seemed to be in the appropriate profession, but teaching was a close second. Although Ken insisted at the time that he wanted to be an oilman, Burdick replied, "Teaching is a good racket." Those tests may actually work.

Although Ken was majoring in petroleum geology, geologists were required to take a beginning course in petroleum engineering. In the first lecture, the professor said, "We date the birth of petroleum engineering from the invention of the bottom-hole-pressure gauge." Ken almost fell out of his chair because his father and three other guys cranked the first bottom-hole-pressure gauge by hand into a well in Oklahoma City. Along the way, Ken earned a varsity letter for ski racing and at graduation won the Coolbaugh Award for undergraduate work in chemistry.

As a senior, Ken was offered a job by Shell Oil. When he called for advice about accepting the job, his father's first words were, "Don't go to work for Texaco." Ken's career with Shell was interrupted by being drafted into the Army right at the end of the Korean War. After earning an expert-rifleman's badge during basic training, Ken was assigned to a unit in the Corps of Engineers that produced topographic maps-at the Presido of San Francisco. Ken learned the lithographer's trade and also learned that there were restaurants serving foods other than Middle Western meat-and-potatoes. He ate his first pizza at age 22.

The Army had been shunting geologists, engineers, and architects into the topographic map unit at the Presidio. One of the architects, as a student, had known Eric Mendelsohn, an important founder of modern architecture. Mendelsohn had recently died and his widow had approached the University of California Press about publishing a collection of Mendelsohn's architectural drawings. She was turned down because the drawings were smudged and would require an enormous amount of hand work to prepare copies for publication. A portfolio of Mendelsohn's drawings was published, unknowingly, by the Army Corps of Engineers. One regret: Einstein was a friend of the Mendelsohn family; Mendelsohn designed the Einstein Tower in Potsdam. Ken was scheduled to hand deliver Einstein's copy of the completed portfolio to Princeton in the fall, but Einstein died that summer.

As his revenge on his draft board, Ken wanted to go to graduate school in the most expensive place he could find. Ken got accepted into Princeton's master's degree in geological engineering. The largest gap in his education at that point was sedimentology, so he began his graduate study with Prof. F. B. Van Houten. That gap turned into a career in sedimentology.

Drafting all the Depression babies into the Army at the end of the Korean War had an odd aftereffect. Two years later, graduate schools, Princeton included, could pick from a double set of applicants: regular college graduates and military veterans. Ken found himself surrounded by a wonderful collection of fellow students and a fabulous faculty.

Ken's proposal for his Ph.D. thesis was examining volcanic ash beds in the Nevada basins to see whether some of them might be distinctive markers. Like a good boy, Ken tried the idea out on half a dozen very distinguished geologists. Each of them said it wouldn't work, but each gave a different reason why it wouldn't work. Ken tried it anyway; that's what youth is for. It didn't work, but for a reason given by none of the six experts. Most of the volcanic ashfalls had been altered to minerals in the zeolite family. At Prof. Van Houten's suggestion, Ken published a review paper on zeolites in sedimentary rocks. Two surprises:

  1. The review paper, and a memorable 1958 field trip with geologists from Union Carbide, founded the natural zeolite industry. (The world's finest specimen of mordenite, on display at the American Museum of Natural History, was collected by Ken on that field trip.)
  2. The Journal of Sedimentary Petrology reprinted the zeolite paper in their 50th anniversary volume.

In the fall of 1958, Ken rejoined Shell at their research laboratory in Houston. It was an incredible postdoctoral education. Top-of-the-line physicists, mathematicians, and chemists were there, eager and willing to collaborate on geological problems. Progress was incredibly rapid. The biggest single thrill was discovering the first marine-related modern dolomite and finding the modern analog of the two types of dolomite described in 1916 by F. M. Van Tuyl. (Extra sweet, because Van Tuyl taught Ken freshman geology at the Colorado School of Mines.)

At the very top of the top-of-the-line staff at Shell was M. King Hubbert, curmudgeon. Hubbert was enormously productive and a fearsome opponent in a controversy. Harry Hess, who was the geology chairman at Princeton, asked Hubbert more than once whether he had met Deffeyes yet; Hubbert kept saying, "No." Hubbert finally rang Ken's phone and asked him to come downstairs for a chat. To Hubbert's great embarrassment, he had been occasionally sharing lunch tables with "Ken" for more than a year, but never got the "Deffeyes" part. From then on, Hubbert was a good friend.

Before there was FORTRAN, there was BELL. Ken started computer programming in 1957 in a low-level language called BELL, and learned FORTRAN in 1959. Amongst programmers, 1959 was in the Late Pleistocene. Around 1980, he switched to BASIC on a personal computer, but he still makes an occasional lapse into FORTRAN.

Ken left Shell in 1962 for two reasons: 1) Reworking Hubbert's 1956 prediction using 1962 data showed that U.S. oil production would be down to half of its peak size when Ken would retire in 1998. 2) Shell was planning to shift its primary research effort to the Netherlands. Sputnik had gone up and American graduate education was expanding. Ken took off for the University of Minnesota.

After being on the Minnesota faculty for all of three days, Ken got a phone call from the Minnesota Fish and Game Commission. In Minnesota lakes that precipitated calcium carbonate, fish would survive but would not grow. The lake would be populated with small elderly bass. The Fish and Game people had done traditional alkalinity titrations from the ice breakup through until late fall. To analyze their data, Ken developed what is known today as "Deffeyes' diagram"; rhymes with "phase diagram." Around 1970, Ken generalized the concept. His next project after "Hubbert's Peak" is a book and software package for constructing Deffeyes' diagrams.

Collaboration with Peter Weyl, which began at Shell, continued by correspondence after Weyl moved to Oregon State. After 1.5 Minnesota winters, Ken joined Weyl in the oceanography department at Oregon State. Ken made the unhappy discovery that he was a major seasicker. (Charles Darwin's great fieldwork on land during the voyage of the Beagle was motivated in part by his seasickness.)

Before the 1960s, American geologists largely rejected arguments for continental drift. As it happened, an interesting article by L. C. King advocating continental drift arrived in Ken's AAPG Bulletin while he was isolated in the Army. Ken's reaction was that King's arguments seemed convincing. At Princeton in 1956, the faculty was largely against continental drift. (Not quite solidly against. A. F. Buddington, the beloved Dr. Budd, gave a lecture saying something was needed to explain the Permian glacial striations in South Africa. The undergraduates, mimicking McCarthy-era usage, announced that Buddington was "soft on continental drift.") In 1960, Harry Hess launched the scientific revolution by writing about sea-floor spreading. Suddenly, Princeton largely lined up for continental drift. In October of 1965, Fred Vine published a paper showing a portion of the actively spreading midocean ridge just 100 miles off the Oregon coast. Ken had the shortest commute of any oceanographer to the midocean ridge. In November, Ken asked for time on the Oregon State ship to explore the Gorda Ridge. This was an agenda worth getting seasick for. In December, Ken dredged fresh, fresh black glassy basalt from the axial valley and hydrothermally altered basalt (greenstone) from the shoulder of the axial valley. Joyous side effect: Ken learned that he got over being seasick after the first three days.

Dredging rock from the deep ocean was a new skill. Oregon State sent along a biology graduate student who had some experience getting otter trawls on the ocean floor. It was like the oil business of the 1930s, winging it. Ken wanted to use a pressure-time recorder to establish the depth of the rock dredge. Pressure-time recorders, "bathykymographs", existed but they were too fragile to survive a ride on a rock dredge. It dawned on Ken that "bathykymograph" was synonymous with "bottom-hole pressure gauge." Another call to his father located the manufacturer of the most rugged bottom-hole pressure gauges and Ken still has a Kuster AK-1 (an "Amerada bomb" to the old-timers) that survived many dredge hauls on the rocky sea floor.

A 1970 paper by Ken on the midocean ridge described the Oregon State work and contained what, to Ken, were two mathematical surprises. Ken had been a "B" student in calculus. However, a simple integral of a cosine allowed calculating the total amount of new sea floor appearing each year: exactly one square mile. (As you know, God doesn't use metric.) The second math surprise was subtle. In beginning calculus, L'Hopital's rule stated that if the numerator and denominator of an expression are both zero, take the derivative of the numerator and denominator and divide again. Ken's reaction as an undergraduate was that he would very likely reach retirement age long before an instance of L'Hopital's rule turned up. But there it was, written on a scale of kilometers across the floor of the midocean ridge. At the exact center of the axial valley, the spreading velocity is zero and the cumulative basalt supply is zero. Divide their first derivatives and basalt two kilometers thick appears on the floor of the axial valley.

Ken took a substantial salary cut to join the Princeton faculty in 1967. His early primary obligation was teaching the introductory course: Rocks for Jocks. In 1968, Ken's beginning geology course featured Harry Hess, Fred Vine, and Jason Morgan as visiting speakers on three consecutive Fridays. It was like having Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton show up in freshman physics. One of the litmus tests for the existence of a scientific revolution is rewriting the textbook for the beginning course. In 1972, Ken joined Sheldon Judson and Rob Hargraves in writing the first introductory geology textbook organized around plate tectonics.

For three years in the early 1980s, Ken served as master of Stevenson Hall, an undergraduate dining and social facility. (A recipe for whitefish pate is in the FRS Cookbook on this web site.) One of the compensations for the effort was a semester's leave after the three years. Ken's aptitude for learning languages has always hovered near zero. Ken chose the University of Cambridge because they (sort of) spoke English. The department chairman at Cambridge was Ken's graduate school classmate, Ron Oxburgh (who is now a life peer, The Lord Oxburgh of Liverpool.) After Ken asked if there were anything he could do to help, Ron suggested helping teach the first-year students on an excursion to Scotland.

Each Cambridge natural-science student was required to take a one-week course on the Isle of Arran in Scotland. James Hutton, in 1785, had examined Arran as part of his foundations of modern geology. Ken's role was the outsider: how would an American oilman react to an area as intensively studied as any in the world? One was to welcome the Cambridge students to former North America. Once they crossed the Iapetus suture, they were on the northeastern extension of the Appalacians. Ken had earlier had an out-of-body experience: he walked into the map room of the Princeton library and saw a geologic map unfolded on the first table. From a distance, the map looked like a spectacular display of what were becoming known as "exotic terrains", strips of differing geology that had been pasted together along fault lines. Ken thought the map must be of Tierra del Fuego or someplace equally exotic. Turns out he was looking at the map upside down, it was Scotland, where geology was born! The Isle of Arran is Scotland in miniature. Specifically, is the Highland Boundary Fault an exotic terrain boundary? It has testable consequences on Arran: none of the older geologic units should be present on both sides of the fault.

When Ken started to learn about the geology of Arran, something seemed dimly familiar. After two weeks, he figured it out. Thirty years earlier, his undergraduate petrology textbook was written by G. W. Tyrrell who also wrote the 1928 book, "The Geology of Arran."

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Jason Morgan had been bugging Ken about giving first-year students an opportunity to learn geology in the field. The Cambridge course on Arran was unlike an American field trip. Americans tend to barrel down the highway, hop out to examine a roadcut, and pile back in the vans. The Brits put their students out for the day, on foot with a map, a lunch, and a canteen. It felt like doing real geology. The opportunity was to steal the Cambridge agenda and to add spectacular American geology. Bob Phinney suggested Mammoth Lakes, California with active faulting, recent glaciation, and young volcanoes. After three sessions looking for suitable one-day study areas, the first Mammoth Lakes trip happened during the mid-semester fall break in 1988. After Princeton initiated a program in Freshman Seminars, the Mammoth field trip became the longest-running seminar in the FRS program. When Ken retired from teaching in 1998, he became the program's cook. See his FRS Cookbook on this web site.

Ken did geologic field work when the occasion called for it, but he did not deliberately search out field opportunities. He found lab work equally enjoyable. However, even without trying, he participated in field trips and field work in Turkey, Greece, Kenya, Tanzania, Nepal, Krygyzstan, Peru, Taiwan, Indonesia, and the Netherlands Antilles. He worked in all the states from the Rocky Mountains to the west coast.

Nevada remained a special interest. The Great Basin is so complex that one geologist's career is not long enough to decipher more than a part of the history. In his small way, Ken did contribute to keeping the MX missile out of the Great Basin. When it was first planned, the MX was to have 10 launch sites for every real missile and trucks would continuously be shuttling dummy missiles and real missiles from site to site through a large portion of the Great Basin. Further, each MX carried 10 independently targeted nuclear warheads. The MX was a "silo buster", a destabilizing weapon because it would be most effective if launched in a preemptive strike.

While working on his Ph.D. thesis, Ken found millions of tons of erionite, a mineral in the zeolite family, which had previously been known only from a single mineral specimen in the Harvard museum. Ken's first published paper was a redescription of erionite; it was his baby. Around 1980, erionite was found to be associated with a high incidence of cancer in three villages in Turkey. When researchers at Mt. Sinai Hospital injected rats with the same dosage of erionite that they used for asbestos, the rats didn't live long enough to get cancer. At a much-reduced dose, the rats did get cancer. Erionite is probably the most toxic known mineral; a milligram of fibers in the lungs is lethal. Ken's reaction on learning that his baby was a mass murderer was like all parents of mass murderers: "I don't understand it, erionite was such a nice quiet mineral."

If the U.S. Air Force dug up half of the Great Basin to base the MX missile, they would inevitably dig up some erionite. Ken's first reaction was to make a buck: sell the Air Force some consulting time. He went to the Pentagon, whopped a one-kilogram chunk of erionite on a colonel's desk and announced that it was enough to kill a million people. The colonel phoned the group writing the environmental impact statement for the MX and asked about the zeolite problem. The reply was "zeolite?" After many phone calls, the Air Force contractor told Ken that they didn't want him around their environmental impact statement until they were "ready to refute your arguments." OK, you want an opponent; you got one. Ken called Walter Sullivan at The New York Times, told him where to find articles on the erionite hazard, and Sullivan took out after the problem. Ken started a search for additional erionite localities, a search financed out of his family's grocery budget. Nothing appeared in the Times. Ken finally got a senior Times editor on the phone, who said the story wasn't news. Articles about the Turkish villages were a year old. Ken was able to add news: he had found erionite in the only low mountain pass connecting two big sections of the proposed MX missile bases. The Times finally ran the story, but buried the article in between the obituaries at the end of the financial section. Thud. Nobody noticed. Well, one person noticed. A reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune called and asked for more information. Ken gave him the colonel's phone number at the Pentagon. The Salt Lake paper kept the "desert cancer mineral" story alive for several days. And later the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in America, Incorporated came out against the MX. There is an old saying, "Politics makes strange bedfellows." Ken never expected to crawl into bed with the Mormons. The Reagan administration eventually abandoned the Great Basin basing mode for the MX.

Although officially retired, Ken wakes up every morning with more work than he can do. He taught geochemistry one semester at Bryn Mawr. (All male college professors have fantasies about teaching at a women's college.) Writing and consulting more than fill up the time. His only nonprofessional hobby is curating a collection of desert purple glass inherited from his parents.

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