Huang: My cherished memories of Dr. Tom Shankland-Los Alamos Daily Post | Candle Made Easy

Courtesy/Zhen Huang

By ZHEN HUANG
Los Alamos

It was a shock to me that Dr. Tom Shankland left his final thoughts in the high-altitude atmosphere that will forever circulate around the globe, then all the cherished moments I spent over 10 years ago in the physics building at LANL, where Tom was my officemate next door, surfaced in my memories .

In my personal library holdings are several books that I inherited from Tom when he gave away his lifetime treasures on the hall floor for “recycling”. Among them, “Debate About Earth” has become one of my top picks when my mind needs a refresher.

As an atmospheric researcher, I am particularly interested in reading this book from Alfredo Wegener, a German meteorologist and pioneer of Arctic climate research. In China, every schoolchild knows the fascinating story of Wegener, who “accidentally” discovered the theory of continental drift while lying in a hospital bed looking at a map of the world on the wall. We know that with the outbreak of the First World War, Wegener had to stop his scientific discovery work. He had to join the army to fight the war and was injured twice during the wartime. He used his long sick leave to study his discoveries in detail and improve his theory of continental drift. As a layman in geology, however, I don’t know much about the interesting half-century debate behind Weneger’s intriguing story of discovery. It was Tom who introduced me to this fascinating geological world.

In my cherished memories, I have enjoyed conversations with Tom, who not only deeply explored his scientific specialties as a geologist, but also had profound visions in multidisciplinary research and development of frontier sciences. One of the topics we talked about the most was Lithosphere-Atmosphere-Ionosphere Coupling (LAIC) and the associated detection of earthquake precursors.

The LAIC earthquake precursor theory is also a controversial topic, having been proposed as early as the mid-1960s. The debate surrounding the theory of continental drift was settled by the discovery of evidence in deep-sea fossils and the advancement of theoretical models of earth tectonics. The debate on the LAIC earthquake precursor theory is still ongoing after half a century due to the lack of a concrete theory to understand the LAIC mechanism and adequate satellite data coverages at the spatial and temporal scales to detect seismic signals in the high-altitude atmosphere.

During the two years that Tom and I were officemates next door, the debate on the LAIC earthquake precursor theory was heated up because of the catastrophic 2011 Tohoku earthquake. I remember Tom forwarding related articles that he found interesting to me as soon as they appeared. He also introduced me to an email list for a group of interested scientists around the world to discuss the topic and share research and development on the subject.

At the time, most geologists were skeptical of the LAIC earthquake precursor theory. I remember Tom was amazed when I saw the film I sent him showing the propagation of seismic signals in the ionosphere during the 2011 Tohoku earthquake which had some precursor tracks. I remember asking Tom about his opinion as a geologist. He explained to me what he meant from the perspective of the earth’s electrical conductivity and emphasized that he was skeptical but open-minded and would like to see breakthroughs from different perspectives. I was impressed by his critical thinking and his openness to a discussed scientific topic.

In my treasured memories, I also cherished the time I spent with Tom for his curiosity, which reflected the genetic character of a scientist, and his sense of humor, which came innate with his scientific inspiration and spirit of discovery.

I remember those blustery winter days when my office space got excessively hot, and Tom’s room could get extremely cold, but no facilities management seemed bothered to solve what Tom technically defined as a “serious discrimination problem”. Once when we were joking about how we could drill holes to mix air through the partition to solve the problem ourselves, Tom noticed that there was a huge world topography map in my office that took up most of the partition, then he pointed then the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and suggested that we should have a “deep sea drilling team” to do the job. It was the fossil evidence from the Deep-Sea Drilling Project, a joint international effort from 1970 to 1980, that finally confirmed the theory of continental drift. See how scientifically inspired Tom’s sense of humor was.

I remember one summer a high school student came to do janitor jobs in our building who was a talented young artist. She used the billboard in the hallway for her murals. It was such a joy to see how happy clouds, rainbows and wildflowers gradually grew from a blank poster paper, cute little animals played in forests and streams, and Uncle Tom’s built little cabins overnight. Everyone in our building appreciated the fresh conversation the summer student brought us, but I don’t think anyone came as close as Tom did.

The mural was like a giant coloring book page that the young artist had partially sketched from time to time. My office door was directly across from the billboard and I found that Tom would often add color here and there while checking the progress. Tom actually served as artwork coordinator, if not co-author.

As Einstein said, “After a certain high level of technical skill has been reached, science and art tend to merge in aesthetics, plasticity, and form. The greatest scientists are always artists too.” Tom was such a high-level scientist by trade, as well as a young artist by heart by nature, both sharing the same keen curiosity in discovering the colorful world.

In my cherished memory, I was impressed and inspired by Tom’s profound scientific vision, critical thinking and open mind, inquisitive nature and humorous character.

The book “Debate um die Erde” has become a very special one for me since that life event when I had the opportunity to make an “accidental” discovery of a Weneger. Waking up from a hospital bed a few years ago at the darkest time of my life, the first thing that struck me was the curtain with a landscape painting of ocean, beach and bright morning sunrise, an alternative to the world map Wegener must see. It reminded me of Isaac Newton’s quote,

“I just seem to have been like a boy playing on the seashore, now and then busy finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than usual, while the great ocean of truth lay undiscovered before me.” my spirits up immediately.

This very quote is quoted in the closing remarks of the book I inherited from Tom, Debate about the Earth, and it has become required reading every time I pick up the book.

I was genuinely sorry that Tom’s life in the high-altitude atmosphere ended because he should have been given the opportunity, like Wegener, during his recovery in a hospital so Tom could discover a new perspective to challenge the continental drift theory or wrap up the debate fuel about the LAIC earthquake precursor theory.

In the meantime I was feeling a bit lucky because in the high altitude atmosphere we have Tom as a reliable detection satellite orbiting the globe with his ultimate missions to monitor our earth all year round in all weather conditions. What could his missions be?

Tom likely wanted to personally monitor any anomalous traces in the upper atmosphere so seismic signals could be effectively retrieved as precursors to improve our ability to reduce the devastating damage that earthquakes wreak around the world.

Tom likely wanted to have personal communications with Wegener, who set up the first meteorological station in Greenland, where he launched weather balloons to make high-altitude atmospheric observations so he could gain insight into developing new data-gathering equipment to combat the climate crisis this has escalated at an unprecedented rate.

But most likely, Dr. Tom Shankland, on behalf of a Los Alamos scientist, to monitor Los Alamos on a full spectrum, line of sight basis to ensure that no operations are undertaken that could result in the mass destruction of the world he loved so dearly and dedicated his entire life to towards a better future…

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