Gordon James Fraser Macdonald

By Ruderman, Malvin A. | Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Gordon James Fraser Macdonald


Ruderman, Malvin A., Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society


30 JULY 1929 * 14 MAY 2002

GORDON was born and raised in Mexico. His father was Scottish, his mother American. From this special combination of geography and clan came a remarkable scientist who led many exceptional lives: eminent geophysicist in academia; leader in efforts to understand and counter environmental threats; government adviser on technology and national security issues; executive officer in not-for-profit corporations. Perhaps even more significant as an indicator of Gordon's talents and accomplishments, he was elected to the American Philosophical Society, hardly noted for the youth of its members, at the age of thirty-four.

Many of us remember him best for his beautiful colloquia supporting some new idea-usually in geophysics-not yet, or perhaps never to be, accepted (e.g., immense primordial reservoirs of deeply buried abiogenically formed methane), or for talks criticizing a long-entrenched thesis (e.g., the origin of ice-age cycles). These were presented with great elegance and impressive amounts of data, but did not need the prompting of any notes or visual aids. Just as in his stimulating conversation, they were often liberally salted with some exaggeration that kept his audience engaged and entertained.

After his Harvard A.B. (summa cum laude), tenure as a junior fellow, and Ph.D., he joined the geology faculty at MIT (1954-58). Gordon then moved to UCLA (1958-68). While there, he collaborated with Walter Munk in writing their classic treatise The Rotation of the Earth. Gordon spoke of this as the most satisfying experience in his scientific career. His research in geophysics was recognized by very early election (age thirty-three) to the National Academy of Sciences. It was during this time that he began to shift his focus from academia into activities with important environmental consequences, especially anthropogenic weather modification and greenhouse warming. However, he continued to hold academic appointments for much of his life (vicechancellor of the University of California, Santa Barbara 1968-70; Henry Luce Professor at Dartmouth 1972-79; professor of international relations at the University of California, San Diego 1990-96). …

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