April 19, 2022
Seismology confers a little known, but hugely important verification mechanism for nuclear arms treaty verification. Particularly during the Cold War, which saw the widespread practice of underground nuclear weapons testing, seismologists developed detection techniques to ensure that nuclear powers were abiding by the promises they made to decrease or eliminate nuclear weapons testing.
From his time in graduate school to his most recent position as a Deputy Assistant to the Secretary of Defense, Ralph Alewine played a crucial role in these efforts. His career demonstrates strong connections between expertise in basic science and its application to one of the most consequential safeguards of the modern era.
DAVID ZIERLER: This is David Zierler, Director of the Caltech Heritage Project. It's Tuesday, April 19, 2022. I am delighted to be here with Dr. Ralph Alewine. Ralph, great to be with you. Thank you for joining me today.
RALPH ALEWINE: It's nice to talk to you.
ZIERLER: To start, would you tell me current or most recent title and affiliation?
ALEWINE: I'm currently retired. I retired in 2002, and my job there was with the Office of the Secretary of Defense. I was the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Treaty Programs, and I'd worked there for about seven years. Prior to that, I served a long time, 17 years, at Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, where I ran the Nuclear Monitoring Research Office, which was in charge of developing all the seismological tools to monitor nuclear explosion around the world, including all the nuclear treaties that are associated with that. Before that, I was an undergraduate at Mississippi State University in physics, and I worked for Shell Oil company in the summertime there. I was interested in geophysics. I went to Brown University in geophysics, and I started working with Dave Harkrider and Mike Chinnery, who had contracts with the Defense Department, DARPA, and the Air Force. This was something I was very interested in doing. I had to go through ROTC at the time because this was during the Vietnam War, so I didn't quite realize it, but the Air Force had this requirement for PhDs, seismologists and geophysicists, and I was working on these programs.
The Air Force kindly let me attend graduate school, get a master's degree, and get a PhD. I was actually working on their contracts. I got a master's degree at Brown in acoustic gravity wave propagation, then Dave Harkrider was asked by Caltech to come back to Caltech and the Seismo Lab, and he asked if I'd come with him, which I did. That's how I got to Caltech. I showed up at Caltech around the 1st of July, 1970. I went out to the Seismology Lab on San Rafael Avenue to report in and parked in the plaza on the side of the Seismo Lab. I knocked on the front door, opened the door, and they were having a big party in the courtyard inside. It was Charles Richter's retirement party. [Laugh] I walked in on Charles Richter's retirement party my first day there. That was my introduction to the Caltech Seismo Lab.
Seismology at the DOD
ZIERLER: Your most recent work at the Department of Defense, did that have a seismological or geophysical connection to it?
ALEWINE: Oh, absolutely. That's what I did.
ZIERLER: What was the nature of your work? What did you work on at that point?
ALEWINE: I was involved in all the research for seismology, for nuclear test detection, and that included basic research with universities, applied research, we had cooperative agreements with other countries, Norway, Finland, Germany, France and even the Soviet Union. It was the main supporter of seismology in the United States. DARPA modernized and revolutionized seismology in the United States and around the world. They put the very first standardized stations around the world, they converted it all to digital. When I came along, we were interested in detecting extremely small signals and processing those. We needed to develop specially designed seismic arrays. It took a lot of research and experimentation to get just the right type of array for nuclear explosion monitoring. That's what I did. Also, I was involved in all the arms control negotiations as a delegate for the Department of Defense and technical expert. There were two comprehensive test ban treaties. The first one was in early 1970, and it was not successfully complete a treaty, but led to discussions on monitoring stations and data processing. Next was the Threshold Test Ban Treaty that limited the size of nuclear explosions, so we had to get into fine details of how big exactly US and Soviet nuclear explosion were. We negotiated a joint verification experiment involving two nuclear explosions to test the seismological verification techniques. Going along in parallel was multi-year work of technical experts in the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament. I led the US delegation to this group. we conducted some large-scale global technical tests to test different monitoring technologies and strategies.
Our work with the Conference on Disarmament led to negotiations and completion of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. I also represented the Defense Department to these negotiations which was finished up in 1996. This involved setting up a worldwide system of monitoring nuclear tests and nuclear activity under the operation of a new organization based in Vienna, Austria. All of the new seismic arrays we had developed were incorporated into the new International Monitoring System. There were 50 of these array-type systems around the world. Additionally, here was a network of low-frequency acoustic sensors, another kind of array we had developed. Then, there were new ultra-sensitive atmospheric radionuclide detectors, where you would detect atmospheric radioactivity. We had to develop and test how you would process all of this data really fast and efficiently. The headquarters for this system are in the UN buildings there in Vienna, which they share with the Atomic Energy Agency., The data processing center was set up there and is still running today. Many of the technical staff and scientists were trained in our US program. It's the centerpiece for international nuclear test monitoring around the world.
ZIERLER: Without getting into sensitive details, what aspects of your work were classified, and what was open?
ALEWINE: Of course, anything we did with this international group had to be open, but there was a classified aspect as well because DARPA was sort of the go-between for the basic research and demonstrating all of this over to the Air Force, which had the mission, including the classified mission, for monitoring this around the world. I actually served my time in the Air Force, my ROTC time, to do this transition to AFTAC. But it was DARPA who had all the funding resources. Eventually, I left DARPA and took the program to the Defense Department Secretary's office, and we ran the program out of the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
ZIERLER: I wonder if you can explain. Obviously, with underground nuclear test explosions, there's a lot of seismological data to be analyzed. Do you learn anything about geophysics itself as a result of having these nuclear explosions?
ALEWINE: Absolutely. You had to understand wave propagation and the effect of the earth on the different phases from earthquakes and nuclear explosions. And one of the big issues was how to sort this out, how to find a signal from a nuclear explosion amongst tens of thousands naturally occurring events. That's where all the big signal processing comes in.
ZIERLER: At the Department of Defense, what was the reporting structure? What office were you in, and who did you report to?
ALEWINE: I reported do the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Atomic Energy.
ZIERLER: How big was the office? Were there other PhDs in seismology, or you were the only one?
ALEWINE: I headed the office and my deputy. Dr. Steve Bratt received his PhD in seismology from MIT. His thesis director was Nafi Toksoz, another Caltech alumni. And as a matter of fact, when we first started, Frank Press, who was one of the first directors, had all the students who came along and set up seismology in the US. He was the President's Science Advisor at the time. My very first talk, just before I came to Caltech, was at the American Geophysical Union. I think I gave the talk right before his talk. There was this enormous room of people, and I was giving my first talk.
ZIERLER: How long were you at the Department of Defense after you came over from DARPA?
ALEWINE: Seven years.
ZIERLER: What years were you at DARPA?
ALEWINE: I was there from 1975 until 1996.
ZIERLER: DARPA, of course, has this amazing reputation for supporting cutting-edge research. What was some of their overall interest in seismology and geophysics?
ALEWINE: DARPA really started with two big projects. Nuclear test detection, called the Vela program, and space. NASA spun off from the initial space effort. Those were the two original projects for DARPA when it was very first set up, I think in 1959.
ZIERLER: What was your initial position at DARPA? What were you working on?
ALEWINE: Same thing I've been talking about. It just evolved. I started out working for a scientist named Dr. Carl Romney. I worked for him about two years. Then he was promoted to the Deputy Director of DARPA, and I became the DARPA Office Director for this national project, which included funding through the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, which included basic research universities, all those international and cooperative programs, plus all the practical applications on advanced research. And you don't necessarily just do only seismology for detecting explosions. We were looking at atmospheric explosions, underwater explosions. We had developed signals for hydro-acoustic processing, atmospheric acoustic processing, and radionuclide collection. You would collect debris and gaseous effluence from nuclear explosions. A lot of the foreign tests, gas would seep out, and you would detect these gases. You could understand more about the explosion.
ZIERLER: Who were some of DARPA's institutional partners in this research, both at the academic level, perhaps private industry, or elsewhere in the federal government?
ALEWINE: We supported the Air Force, and the Air Force Technical Applications Center, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research got the benefit of all this and actually runs some of the things. The Army got involved in this to some degree. The first foreign partner we started working was the Royal Norwegian Council for Scientific Research. Their institute for seismology was located near their defense research establishment, just outside of Oslo. We first built an array north of Oslo. It was one of the very first big arrays. That turned out to be good for teleseismic signals, but we were more interested in signals at a regional distance, less than 2,000 kilometers. We needed a different kind of array, and we used that part of Norway, which was a geologic part of the Soviet Union. It was right across the Baltic Shield, so it was practically like being in the Soviet Union at the time. That was a perfect laboratory for designing these new arrays.
We worked closely with the Norwegians, and I think the US still works with them. They were a great group of scientists. We also worked with the French Atomic Energy Commission and the UK Atomic Weapons Establishment. We also worked with the Germans on an array in Bavaria and with the Finns at the Seismological Institute in the University of Helsinki. As a matter of fact, our work with the University of Helsinki inspired us to start developing machine-learning algorithms for seismic data processing. The Finnish seismologists could just look at the seismograms they were collecting in Finland, and they would know exactly where they came from. Much like seismologists at the Caltech Seismological Lab had done. "This was a quarry going off 500 kilometers away, and it had this particular kind of signals associated with it," or something else was going on. That led us into artificial intelligence. How do we capture this inherent information, that you can look at and determine the particular story each seismogram is telling? These people had it. This led to a lot of research in artificial intelligence and smart systems, basically. That got us into a whole new area of our seismic processing. This went on for 25 years or so.
ZIERLER: As you well-know, there are so many debates going on in tectonics, seismology, geophysics. How was DARPA contributing to the basic science, learning how these systems worked?
ALEWINE: I would say that DARPA the biggest supporter for this. Just in my career alone, I probably put well over half a billion dollars into improving seismological, infrastructure, basic research, post-docs, professors, etc. As far as the main groups of people we worked with, I think the company that built the very first digital instruments was a company called Teledyne. They built super-sensitive feedback seismometers and some other equipment like that. But the biggest contractor was probably SAIC. We also worked for TI, Palo Alto Research Labs. We must've had 20 or more industrial partners and practically every university that had a geophysics department.
ZIERLER: Did you feel academically engaged when you were at DARPA? Were you going to the same conferences and reading the same journals who were teaching at universities?
ALEWINE: Of course. You can't work at DARPA and not be actively engaged in every detail of the projects that you support.
ZIERLER: That's an important point. Let's now go back and develop your educational trajectory. You said your undergraduate was at Mississippi State. What was your major there?
ZIERLER: Did you have any interest in geophysics or seismology as an undergraduate?
ALEWINE: Yes, I had worked summers for Shell Oil. They had a program where they would hire physicists and electrical engineers starting after their sophomore year, and they would teach you from the ground up how seismic exploration works. The next summer, I worked in their research office in New Orleans, and I worked looking at the gravitational effects of salt domes. I worked on methods to invert gravity anomalies, to determine shape of undersea salt domes. Because oil, of course, collects around these salt domes in the Gulf of Mexico. Then, the next summer, after I graduated, I worked in an offshore seismic exploration ship in the Gulf of Mexico.
ZIERLER: What was the project there?
ALEWINE: Finding oil. But I was involved in the processing of the data. After graduating, I had to go into the Air Force, but I got a deferment because they wanted seismologists, so I was able to accept this offer to go to Brown and start studying seismology. Although, my PhD thesis was in acoustic gravity waves.
ZIERLER: Who did you work with at Brown? Who was your thesis advisor?
ALEWINE: Dr. Dave Harkrider from Caltech. It worked out that just as I was finishing my thesis and about to graduate with a master's degree, he got invited to come back to Caltech.
ZIERLER: He left Caltech to take a faculty position at Brown?
ALEWINE: When Dave Harkrider graduated from Caltech, he went to Brown to start a program there. I came to Brown, worked for him and Mike Chinnery. then I left with Dave Harkrider when came back to Caltech to be on the faculty at the Seismological Laboratory.
ZIERLER: What was Harkrider working on at the point you connected with him at Brown?
ALEWINE: Acoustic gravity waves and seismic surface waves.
ZIERLER: Tell me a little bit about that field. What does it entail?
ALEWINE: Seismic surface waves are the long Rayleigh waves, Love waves. There's a long-period component of the energy released from earthquakes and explosions. Actually, the reason the Defense Department was so interested in this was that earthquakes and explosions put out different ratios of low-frequency and high-frequency energy. If you can correct this properly, it serves as a discriminate, something that helps you discriminate what's an earthquake and what's an explosion.
Source Parameters for Seismic Events
ZIERLER: Tell me about your thesis. How did it develop?
ALEWINE: At Caltech, I was a research assistant, so I had to be working on these Defense Department projects to help my thesis advisor. That's what they use grad students for. Of course, I got really involved in that. Also, when you come to the Seismo Lab, your first year, you're heavily involved in your first-year course work. That takes most of your time. If you transfer from somewhere else, you more or less have to start over taking Caltech courses, unless you're an undergraduate. Which was fine. Then, the second year, you're finishing up your course work, but you have to start, even in your first year, your research projects. Just because you got admitted to Caltech for a master's degree certainly doesn't mean you're admitted to Caltech for a PhD program. You have to pass prelim examinations to get accepted again to the PhD program. In order to do that, you have to pass course work, have an understanding of the field. You also have to carry out research projects, to show that you're capable of doing research. You have to have three or four research projects you've done that you had to defend. Basically, it's a mini thesis defense. One of them was expected to be a reviewed published paper, practically. That's what you spend the latter half of your first year and all of the second year. This happens at the end of your second year at the Seismo Lab.
ZIERLER: What were some of the bigger questions in the field as they related to your thesis research?
ALEWINE: Seismic source parameters. How to interpret all the data that you have into figuring out the fault mechanisms, the displacements, the tectonic activity that causes these earthquakes. My thesis was on linear inversion theory to estimate seismic source parameters. You construct a theoretical model of an earthquake event. For example, it's the displacement, how the fault breaks, how you build a model of that. Then, you collect data. And that data can be noisy or have errors. You might have some data in some location that could be uncertain, but it happens to be in a very sensitive spot that can constrain your model. My thesis was on how to invert data, including noisy data, to get the source parameters for seismic events, and the errors involved in the process, how you best fit a model and can put uncertainty on the results. There are a lot of mathematics in doing this inversion. I think I did expand some of the ways in which you could take care of errors in this and propagate through the system. I applied this to the San Fernando earthquake and also the 1964 Alaska earthquake to estimate the source parameters for those two interesting events that were well-documented as far as data is concerned.
ZIERLER: What year did you defend?
ALEWINE: February 1974.
ZIERLER: Was the post-doc at Caltech wrapped up, even before you defended?
ALEWINE: I finished up my thesis right in January of 1974, then I had to go into the Air Force when I finished my PhD. It was set that I was going to leave Caltech at the end of May and report back to duty in Washington at the DARPA lab in June. I finished up my thesis defense, and one of my fellow students was Tom Hanks. He had done a post-doc in earthquake engineering at Caltech with Mike Trifunac. I think that Tom had told him about some of the things I was doing, and he was very interested in my work. In a thesis defense, you have members of the Seismo Lab, but you have to get somebody from the outside. I asked Mike Trifunac if he would come be the outside inquisitor in my thesis defense, which he did. I was successful with that, but I still had a few months to go before I had to leave. Mike said, "Why don't you come apply some of your techniques into earthquake engineering?"
Engineers have all kinds of models for buildings. You can think of it as masses and springs in a very simplified way. The idea was, if you could figure out what these constants were with the mass, how everything was all connected together with a very small signal, you could then extrapolate realistically into heavier shaking for the building, what it could withstand before it would have failure. Earthquake engineering people were interested in this. I did this two- or three-month post-doc in the interval between finishing at the Seismo Lab and starting a new career. The engineering department had set on the roof of the Millikan Library a rotating device you could spin at different rates and create small vibrations of the building. We were collecting data with the help of the department from the Millikan Library being shaken. We collected the data, but one time they turned it up a little too high, and it was felt by the people inside. They thought they were experiencing an earthquake.
ZIERLER: Let's go back to the Seismo Lab in a bit more detail. What was Richter's retirement party like? Did you understand the significance of the event, who he was, what was happening?
ALEWINE: Of course. I didn't know anyone there except for Dave Harkrider. But I walked in and thought, "Oh, this is great, throwing a party for my arrival." [Laugh] But it was Dr. Richter's going-away. He became an emeritus, and he would still come to the Lab. One of the things you had to do as a first-year grad student at Caltech was serve your time, at least once or twice a week, in the measuring room. The measuring room was in the basement of the Seismological Laboratory. All the records were on paper, mostly photographic but some ink. There were two parts to this. One was the part they would report on earthquakes around the world. The Pasadena station reported to the International Seismic Center in England and to the USGS National Earthquake Service at the time. Somebody had to do this reporting. You had to read the records, determining the time of arrival, pick out all the different phases, the PCP for example. You had to recognize the phases and report all the times and amplitudes so they could do the magnitudes and things like that. Violet Taylor ran the record room, and she was an amazing seismologist. She knew everything about reading seismograms. She was in charge of teaching the young grad students how to read the records.
You had to do this, serve your time. As a matter of fact, I've had for 50 years in my desk my magnifying lens I was issued when I first showed up in the measuring room and used for reading records. I've still got the same lens I used to read the seismic records 50-some years later. We all had an office in the Seismo Lab. Usually, you started out within the living room, and they had three or four desks there. I had a desk in the living room of the Seismo Lab. It was right behind the library. The library, of course, had all the research books, theses, publications, reprints. All of that's now in the new Geological Sciences building at Mudd. Actually, we went back there two years ago. We were taking our grandsons to Hawaii. We stopped by Caltech. Tom Heaton was a student a year or two behind me. Tom was very nice about meeting us on a Saturday, showing us around the new labs, and showing us around the campus. My wife and I had visited the Seismological Lab a couple of times when we came through Los Angeles for travel. I stayed at the Seismo Lab from 1970 through when I left in May of 1974.
Right at the time I was leaving Caltech, everything was moved to the main campus. People were literally exiting the Seismo Lab as I was leaving. When I started out in the living room. Tom Jordan and Bernard Minster had to room in the back just off the kitchen, then they left just about the time I was ready to get into my thesis-writing, so I moved into the offices they vacated, which were right behind the kitchen. The kitchen was occupied by a Seismo Lab staff member named Laslo Lenches. He was an indispensable part of the Seismo Lab. He was a Hungarian refugee who fled in 1956 when they had the uprising snd came to America. He was an artist. He was in charge of what we'd call graphic design these days. You could hand him a piece of graph paper, and he would turn it into your view graphs, glass plates with negatives sandwiched in between, to give a presentation. If you were publishing something, you had to create nice charts and graphs, whatever your work was. He was the graphic artist for the Seismo Lab. If you were writing a proposal for a research project, you needed Laslo. If you were getting ready to go to a meeting, you needed Laslo. You had to book your time with him ahead of time to get all your material ready to go to these meetings. It was before you could do it yourself.
ZIERLER: How long were you at the Seismo Lab?
ALEWINE: Four years.
ZIERLER: What was your sense of the Seismo Lab as a scholarly center, a place that outside researchers would want to come and spend time?
ALEWINE: They had outside researchers all the time, visiting post-docs, visiting faculty from American universities around the world. There were always people coming in. When I was there, Dave Harkrider was there, Don Anderson, Charles Archambeau, who was one of the Press students. Don Helmberger I think came about the same time I came. Clarence Allen, who had been there for a long time, his office was out there. Then, of course, we were all excited when Hiroo Kanamori came. He was very young, had a young family. Tom Ahrens was there. And there was a professor you don't hear much about, Dr. C. Hewitt Dix. He was originally from Rice, but he had written a textbook on seismic wave propagation, which was used mostly by the oil industry. He had actually worked for the oil industry at one time. But he taught a course in seismic wave propagation that I don't think was a requirement, but you could take it as one of your electives. I took his course. He wasn't really involved in the day-to-day activities in the Seismo Lab, but I did take his course, probably the last time he ever taught it because he retired as an emeritus about the same time.
But I'm sure you have heard about the camaraderie of the people who were there. It was really a close-knit group. Every morning and every afternoon, there was coffee break time. If you wanted to keep track of what was going on, you had to show up for the coffee break. And it was really just a good exchange of ideas, and there was really no distinction between the grad students, faculty, post-docs. That's more or less the way it was at Caltech, and especially the Seismo Lab. Especially when you're working so closely together as a group. You're not just working on one person's lab that some other departments might have. But it was a very close-knit group of people. I'm still friends with a lot of them today. We had some adventures together. We had a Seismo Lab softball team that played other departments. We had Tom Hanks, Bob Hart, Chuck Langston, Larry Burdick. All these people were on the team. I've got pictures of this Seismo Lab softball team if you ever want a copy of that.
ZIERLER: I'd love it.
ALEWINE: Also, every year, the Seismo Lab would have a get-together somewhere outside of the Lab on the front grounds, we went down to the gardens one year, and we would line up to get our photo taken. I have several of the photos from those years, just the Seismo Lab people. The first one, I'm standing right over Charles Richter's shoulder. Everybody is there. Then, there's the bigger group picture for the whole Geological Science department. Those pictures were taken on campus. But we had our own pictures taken that everybody collected. And our Seismo Lab team would have our games, and after the game, we'd all go to the Continental Burger in downtown Pasadena and sit in the patio outside. We'd have our hamburgers and beer to celebrate. [Laugh]
ZIERLER: The camaraderie you talked about the, the debates during coffee break, what were some of the big topics that were discussed? What were people working on and debating when you were there?
ALEWINE: There were all kinds of things about wave propagation. One thing Don Helmberger was expert in was wave propagation, and he wanted to know what caused this little blip in the record, what story it had to tell, how to eke out all you can get out of these seismograms. Also, there was a lot going on with the structure of the interior of the earth. That was combining a lot of things Don Anderson was working on with what Tom Ahrens was working on. Tom had this big, high-powered naval cannon, to create a shock wave through different materials and get the material structure under super high densities.
ZIERLER: Did you do any field work while you were at the Seismo Lab?
ALEWINE: Yes. One of the courses you had to take, I think it was required, was the standard geology field course taught by Dr. Gene Shoemaker. There was a certain area out in the Mojave Desert, this little valley, and the entire course was spent going out four or five weekends in a semester and mapping out the structure in this area. Of course, he would take you in small groups, explain what was going on. You had to sort of figure it out on your own. If you needed any help, he was good about helping you. We had nice nights under the stars in the Mojave Desert nd his wife would come along and cook for us. She was a really good cook. I think the first time I ever had crepes suzette was out in the middle of the Mojave Desert. [Laugh] We took a field trip down to Baja to look at similar kinds of things. But the lower lab did the instrumentation, and they would put instruments out at different places around Southern California. People would go out and service the instrumentation. If there was an earthquake or something, you would go to it.
Of course, the big event while I was there was the San Fernando earthquake on February 9, 1971. I'd only been there almost six months when this earthquake happened. This was a big earthquake. It happened early in the morning and knocked us out of bed, practically. Everything in your apartment was falling on the floor. Aftershocks were starting to happen. I had a motorcycle I would use to go back and forth to the Lab, so that morning I left our apartment and drove down Colorado Boulevard all the way through Pasadena, from basically Lake Street all the way down to San Rafael, and that was the most amazing trip. It was a foggy morning and all the storefronts along Colorado Boulevard had broken glass. There was glass everywhere. The Pasadena streetlights were these big globes, and they had all cracked and fallen over on the road. There was absolutely nobody out on the road at the time. It was the most surreal events I've had in my life.
ZIERLER: This is going to sound like a long time ago, but what did the computers look like at the Seismo Lab when you were there?
ALEWINE: They had early PDP computers. But they only used them for location of earthquakes. There was one program it ran. As a matter of fact, if you had been trained in locating earthquakes and dealing with the press, you had to read the records, punch the data into the little PDP computer, get the results of where it was located, then you could talk to the press about what was going on. One interesting story was seeing Richter locate an earthquake. If you wanted to do high-powered computing, you had to go to the lab on campus. You had to give them your box of punch cards, and you'd come back hours later or at night. . At 1 in the morning, there were a lot of people, including Frank Press's son, who would be still there. Bill Press became a member of the JASON advisory group to DARPA.
ZIERLER: You knew Bill through DARPA as well?
ALEWINE: No. We met briefly several times. But this was before they had desktop computers or anything like that. One time, I was at the Seismo Lab, it was night, and Richter was there. The phone rang, and there'd been an earthquake. I guess the alarms did go off. If certain signals exceeded a certain threshold, an alarm would go off, and people would come read the record. I don't think Richter knew how to turn the computer on. But he would talk to people. Someone would call, and he would say, "Yes, there's been an earthquake. We're working on locating it. Call back later." He'd as a whole bunch of questions about what it felt like, how many times they could feel it, where they were, some very detailed questions. Then, he'd say, "We'll get back to you." Someone else would call, same sort of thing. He'd get the description. He'd go through about three or four people like this, and all of a sudden, he's say, "It's over in Monrovia," or whatever. "We've located this event." He would tell them all about it. People would come in the next morning and locate it, and sure enough, he'd be right without ever even turning the computer on.
ZIERLER: Did you ever consider going into academia? Were you looking at professor jobs?
ALEWINE: No, not really. I stayed and worked in the Defense Department in arms control. I enjoyed that. And I enjoyed my connection to academia, but I enjoyed the other parts as well. And I spent a lot of time in Geneva, Switzerland and Vienna, Austria. After I retired, I consulted for the Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Test Ban organization in Vienna.
ZIERLER: What was the initial opportunity? How did you get connected to DARPA from your post-doc?
ALEWINE: I was assigned in the Air Force to a research laboratory which was located in Washington DC called the Vela Seismological Center/ The purpose of the lab was demonstrating the technology that was coming out of DARPA research program before it was ready to go to operational use. I started out as the lieutenant there and ended up being in charge of that lab. Then, I was asked to come to DARPA.
Caltech and The Hunt for Red October
ZIERLER: What year did you start at DARPA?
ZIERLER: DARPA must've been so much smaller in those days.
ALEWINE: It was about 40 or 50 people either running an office or heading programs, and each office had a large program. It was a very exciting place to be. We supported every major seismological research institute in the United States and some around the world. Do you know the connection to Caltech in the story The Hunt for Red October?
ZIERLER: I don't know that connection. Oh my goodness, tell me.
ALEWINE: I think Caltech has somewhere on their website, a Caltech in the Movies section. The one with The Hunt for Red October was particularly interesting. I was an office director at DARPA. My office was on one end of the hall, and on the other corner of the building, down the hall, was the Navy support office. They were doing submarine detection, basically. They had an officer there, Commander Ralph Chatham. He'd come down to my office and sort of grill me on what my office did. I explained to him that we had these seismic arrays specifically designed for certain kinds of signals and how we do background noise suppression and how we process the seismic data. He'd ask me who we give it to, where I was originally from. I recall telling him about the Caltech Seismo Lab and what it did. Unbeknownst to anyone, he was talking to Tom Clancy. He didn't tell anyone about this. When Hunt for Red October book came out, it included details about submarine detection. And it's had a part of the story in there about the graduate students who wrote programs for nuclear detection at Caltech, which were transferred to DARPA, which gave it to AFTAC. It got one little thing wrong. It called the Caltech Seismological Lab the Caltech Geophysical Lab. He didn't get the name quite right, but it got everything else right. That was me telling him how all this came about. [Laugh] Of course, he thought the Navy was going to kick him out, but they saw how popular the book was, then the film, and they promoted him.
ZIERLER: How well have you kept up with the Seismo Lab over the years?
ALEWINE: Not well. I did until I retired, then I had my own consulting work with the people in Vienna. Also, I served on corporate boards. I spent most of my time on that.
ZIERLER: What sticks out in your memory as some of the most important things you learned while you were at the Seismo Lab?
ALEWINE: To be inquisitive. You also learned that you could be a professional equal to anybody on the globe in your field. Between the Caltech experience and being at DARPA all those years, it puts you in a certain frame of mind when you're dealing with research in general.
ZIERLER: Are there any connections you made at the Seismo Lab?
ALEWINE: Friends, yes. I have to tell you about one trip. We had taken this course with Gene Shoemaker, and he was supposed to train the astronauts going to the moon on what they were supposed to look for. He said there were so many side canyons of the Grand Canyon along the Colorado River that he was going to see whether or not it would be adequate for training the astronauts. He asked people in the Seismo Lab if we wanted to come along with him. It was about a three-day trip that ended in Lake Mead. The Seismo Lab put a boat two boats together. I think there were three couples on our boat and another three on the other. We ran into really bad weather. It was snowing, a storm came through, you'd lose your equipment. When you started out, you were going through big rapids.
As you got closer and closer to Lake Mead, it got slower. Basically, we had to paddle the last part. We finally came out on Lake Mead, and the wind was blowing right in our faces. There was no way we could paddle across Lake Mead to where we had to put in. One crew, some of the undergrads that had come along in a boat, made it and finally got somebody around to tow us back. That was our adventure that sort of bound our crew together. One of them was Tom Hanks.
Another was Bob Hart. Matter of fact, as grad students, when we went to meetings, we were charged with sort of recruiting good prospects to come to Caltech as grad students. They would say, "You're in charge of recruiting Bob Hart to come to Caltech" We got him to come, and he's been a friend of my wife and I ever since. He and another Caltech PhD student, Dave Hadley, founded a company while they were still at Caltech, which turned out to be very successful. I gave them some funding from DARPA to get going. It became a successful company. He works for the Gates Foundation now.
ZIERLER: For the last part of our talk, to bring the conversation right up to the present, tell me about some of your consulting work since you retired in 2002?
ALEWINE: I consulted mainly for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty organization, helping them get the organization set up. We had a big computing center in Arlington, Virginia, to show how you processed the data. We were able to negotiate this treaty by involving a lot of countries in our work. We would bring the scientists from these countries into work at this center in Arlington, then that became the nucleus for the data processing center being installed in Vienna, Austria. it is now the operational organization for worldwide seismic monitoring. I consulted for them in getting all that set up. Also, I was on the Board of Directors of a company that worked in intelligence and signal processing.
Also, some of the people I worked with during my career and that I met in the Conference on Disarmament, the CTBT, and negotiations, we had somebody from France, somebody from Sweden, and we started a consulting company. We got a big contract from the European Union to see if we could apply the technologies and techniques that we'd developed for arms control for monitoring non-proliferation and shipping container security. We wrote some protocols that have since been adopted about how to do shipping container security for contraband and more dangerous things being shipped through the system.
No Arms Control Without Seismology
ZIERLER: Just at a general level, how has understanding geophysics and seismology contributed to our national security?
ALEWINE: Well, we couldn't have these arms control treaties without them.
ZIERLER: Why not?
ALEWINE: Verification. This is the verify part in trust but verify. And it has to be well-founded.
ZIERLER: I wonder, given that we seem to be on the precipice of, heaven forbid, a new Cold War right now, what lessons we might learn from the past.
ALEWINE: Once the Cold War was over, we actually started working with the Russian equivalent of their AFTAC, their monitoring organization. We brought them into the United States, we showed them how we did a lot of the unclassified processing, made it so they could then go to Vienna. We also put stations in Russia right after the fall. The first time I went overseas sort of on a field trip was to go pick out sites in China. This was set up by President's Science Advisor Frank Press. He thought this would be something we could do jointly when we had the very first opening with China. This would be a joint effort we could do on a scientific level, which we did, so I went to China and spent three weeks going all over China, including the Xinjiang region, the area populated by Uyghurs and we put a station there, and four or five others. It was very successful. Then, later on, after the fall of the Soviet Union, we ended up also putting some of these specialized arrays in Russia and testing them. And these stations in China eventually got upgraded and incorporated into this big international system that's run out of Vienna. Same for the Germans, the French, the Norwegians, Finns, Russians. All these stations I worked on are now part of this big international system. And we had a big array in Australia that we developed.
ZIERLER: I'd like to ask two final questions to wrap up this great discussion. Of all of your contributions in science, policy, and national security, what are you most proud of? What do you feel has left a lasting mark?
ALEWINE: Just the whole development of seismology. You see how this developed over my 30-year time in it, and we've had this tangible organization that's set up, monitoring global events. They monitored not just seismology, but what happened after Fukushima, for instance. Where did all this radiation go, and what happened to it along the way? All that was done by this organization. And that was actually part of our development. It wasn't just seismology we were working on. We also put in these arrays of hydro-acoustic sensors that are tethered to the bottom of the ocean. We invented low-frequency acoustics detection methods. This didn't exist in the world, and we developed this science to be part of this system. Now, if an asteroid comes down, you can track where it hits and how big it was.
ZIERLER: For the future, for younger people in the field, are there similar opportunities in national security and seismology like the career path that you chose?
ALEWINE: I think I was very lucky to come along when I did. It was, I think, the peak of the most interesting and challenging things to do. I don't know if other people are going to have the same opportunities.
ZIERLER: Ralph, it's been a great pleasure spending this time with you. I'm so glad we were able to do this. Thank you so much.
ALEWINE: Thank you.