John E. Nafe, Seismologist, Is Dead at 81

Photograph: John Elliott Nafe. Photo Credit: Joe Pineiro.

John Elliott Nafe, an innovative seismologist and professor at Columbia for nearly 30 years, died Apr. 6 at his home in Vancouver, B.C., where he had lived since his retirement in 1980. He was 81.

The cause was heart failure, said his daughter, Mary Malcolm Chase, also of Vancouver.

A physicist by training, Nafe originated several important seismological concepts, in research at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia's earth sciences campus in Palisades, N.Y.

In 1958, he was the first to demonstrate that sound waves could travel around the globe through the ocean. With colleague Charles L. Drake, he developed the Nafe-Drake Curve, which relates the velocity of sound through rock to the rock's density. And he was one of several pioneering researchers at Lamont who in the 1940s and 1950s began profiling the earth's crust at different points around the globe, an effort that eventually resulted in the tectonic plate theory of continental movement.

"Nafe was astonishingly eclectic," Drake said. "He wrote papers on continental margins all over the world, and was also involved in seismic studies. He was a generalist who was always trying to figure out the basic physical principles, how things worked."

Born in Seattle July 22, 1914, he graduated with a B.S. degree from the University of Michigan in 1938, then worked for a year as a merchant seaman. He earned the M.S. from Washington University, St. Louis, in 1940, and began studies in physics that year at Columbia, where he was a teaching assistant.

He enlisted in the Navy when war broke out in 1941, but when superiors learned he had taught college physics, they assigned him to teach electrical engineering and physics at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. He attained the rank of lieutenant commander by war's end and served in the Naval Reserve until 1954.

He returned to Columbia's physics department, where he was an instructor from 1946 to 1949 and received the Ph.D. in 1948. He drew inspiration for his research from Nobel laureate I.I. Rabi at Columbia, who had developed a way to measure the magnetic moment, or strength of the magnetic field, of atomic nuclei.

Nafe, with another graduate student, Edward Nelson, undertook measurements of two rare isotopes, hydrogen-3 and helium-3, the first formed of one proton and two neutrons, the other of two protons and one neutron. "Their idea was to compare two three-body systems and determine what was going on in the nucleus," said William Havens, professor emeritus of applied physics and nuclear engineering at Columbia. The work was published in 1948 as "The Hyperfine Structure of Hydrogen and Deuterium."

After two years as assistant professor of physics at the University of Minnesota, Nafe in 1951 took a research position at Columbia's Hudson Laboratories in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., where he studied acoustic properties of the ocean as part of the laboratory's effort to detect submarines.

In 1953, he was appointed research associate at Lamont; in 1955, adjunct associate professor in Columbia's department of geology, and in 1958, professor of geology. He served as chairman of the department from 1962 to 1965 and retired as professor emeritus in 1980.

At Lamont, Nafe began a fruitful period of seismological research that took him on scientific cruises around the world, some on Columbia's research vessels, the Vema and the Robert D. Conrad. Much of the work employed a technique called seismic refraction, in which echoes from explosives set off in the ocean were monitored at varying distances to gauge the composition of the seafloor crust and the depth to the earth's mantle.

He was chief scientist of oceanographic cruises from 1951 to 1962, and in the early 1950s directed four research ships making seismological surveys in a region of the ocean north of Puerto Rico. He also did work, with others, on the continental shelf in the Gulf of Cadiz, Spain; a sea ridge off Labrador; a seafloor trench in the western Indian Ocean; and the continental margins east of Florida, west of northern California and off the southeast coast of Africa.

With Drake, he undertook extensive examinations of the physical properties of rocks and sediments. Their work on the sound-transmitting properties of different rocks, undertaken to facilitate measurements of gravity, can still be found in The Handbook of Physical Constants, a widely-consulted reference published by the Geological Society of America.

In 1958, he conducted a pioneering experiment to demonstrate the efficiency of what oceanographers call the "sofar," or sound fixing and ranging, channel, a region at about 1300 meters of depth in which greater water pressure allows sound waves to be conducted around the globe.

On an expedition aboard the Vema, which until 1981 was Columbia's principal research vessel, Nafe detonated a small charge off Perth, Australia, that was successfully monitored in Bermuda. The work was a forerunner of the 1991 Acoustic Thermometry of Ocean Climate (ATOC) experiment, in which acoustic signals generated at Heard Island in the southern Indian Ocean were received around the world.

Nafe was appointed to visiting positions at the department of geodesy and geophysics at Cambridge in 1965-66, 1971-72, 1972-73 and 1979. He was named honorary professor of the department of geophysics and astronomy at the University of British Columbia in 1980.

He was a member of Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society, and was named a Fellow of several prestigious scientific organizations: the Geological Society of America, 1956; the American Physical Society, 1957; the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1959, and the American Geophysical Union, 1962. He was also a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Nafe married Sarah Underhill in 1941. They resided on the Lamont campus until 1980, when they retired to Vancouver.

In addition to his wife, Nafe is survived by two daughters, Mrs. Chase and Katharine Elliott Kenah of Granville, Ohio, and six grandchildren.

Columbia University Record -- April 19, 1996 -- Vol. 21, No. 24