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Stanford Oral History Collections

Coleman, Robert G.
Coleman, Robert G.
Coleman, Robert Griffin and Marques, Nadejda
Corporate Author:
Stanford Historical Society
In a 2017 oral history, Robert G. Coleman, Professor Emeritus of Geological and Environmental Sciences at Stanford University, describes how his research evolved from mineralogy to plate tectonics during a career that bridged Stanford and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Beginning with his rural childhood, Coleman reveals that his earliest career goals focused on football, which took him to Oregon State University on a scholarship. With the advent of World War II, Coleman enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. He describes an especially colorful introduction to his drill instructor and how service as a radar technician piqued his interest in science and brought him back to Oregon State. As Coleman recalls it, one course in geology--and an association with William Donald (Doc) Wilkinson--decisively set him on a lifetime pursuit. Coleman discusses the joys of field camp and the analysis of minerals involved in his master’s thesis on the John Day Fossil Beds in Oregon. Wilkinson directed him to Stanford, Coleman says, and to Professor Colin Hutton at the Mineralogy Lab. PhD in hand, Coleman tells of a brief teaching appointment at Louisiana State University before Hutton referred him to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Coleman discusses assignments that included testing samples submitted by ordinary citizens seeking a reward for finding uranium as well as mineralogical research in the Colorado Plateau. Coleman also discusses the controversy arising from his assertion that asbestos is not dangerous in all forms. While amphibole asbestos leads to cancer, he says, chrysotile asbestos is harmless. Since his USGS assignments eventually led him to Menlo Park, Coleman says, he remained on Stanford’s radar, but Coleman became interested in a Stanford job only when he could retire from USGS with full benefits. That happened in 1982. Coleman expresses his disappointment in the much reduced use of the Stanford field camp and describes leading his own students on field trips and conducting outdoor lab sessions on campus. Coleman tells how he met his wife, Cathryn Hirschberger, at Oregon State and praises her willingness to follow him to his many job assignments. He describes how he collaborated on a topographic map of Stanford prepared by Benjamin M. Page, Professor Emeritus of Geology, showing old earthquake epicenters. This reminds him of his experience in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and leads him to discussion of the San Andreas Fault and plate tectonics. Coleman describes how serpentine rock--“like peanut butter”--facilitates the creep of features along the San Andreas Fault. He discusses field excursions to examine places where the ancient ocean crust, called ophiolite, has surfaced. He touches on several projects: how the Red Sea is growing; whether Asia used to be an ocean; and the interaction between plants and serpentine rock in Cuba.
Robert G. Coleman, Stanford Historical Society, oral histories, interviews, higher education, professors, Stanford University--Department of Geology, Geological Survey (U.S.), ophilolites, and serpentinite
March 17, 2017
Stanford Historical Society Oral History Program interviews, 1999-2012