Stanford University

125 Years at Stanford Earth

BY Miles Traer
ClockMay 16, 2016


For this project, we identified every word used in every PhD thesis title published by the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences going back to the late 19th century. We then collected the most commonly used keywords and placed them into a word cloud for each decade. These keywords help illustrate not only the focus areas of Stanford scientists, but also the broader trajectory of Earth, energy, and environmental research across the world.


Wordcloud: Geology, quadrangle, santa, physiography, volcanic, California

Welcome to 125 years at Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. The first geoscientists at Stanford were geologists like John Casper Branner, the first professor hired at the university. Men like Branner spent the majority of their time mapping the geology of the surrounding area, creating small maps called “quadrangles.” When combined, these quadrangles created a detailed geological history, documenting volcanic eruptions, ancient oceans, and distinct changes in biodiversity.


Wordcloud: Geology, California, paleontology, physiography, tertiary, foraminifera, microscopic, mountains, ores

To better understand the planet’s evolution, geoscientists of the 1920s used fossils to more accurately date various rocks, a field known as paleontology. A common fossil used in these dating practices is called “foraminifera,” a microscopic organism that lives in the ocean. While these pioneering geologists began to uncover tantalizing clues to plate tectonics, the theory wouldn’t rise to prominence for another 40 years.


Wordcloud: Geology, California, stratigraphy, foraminifera, formation, eocene, quadrangle, limestone, structure

In the 1930s, stratigraphy – the study of rock layers and the layering processes – shows up for the first time in the word cloud. Along with “geology,” it will be the most frequently occurring word in the timeline. Scientists at this time still held a deep interest in geological mapping, and stratigraphy gave them a much clearer picture of what was going on deep underground and out-of-sight. In 1937, Stanford professor Cyrus “Chief” Tolman published the first English-language textbook on hydro-geology titled Groundwater, initiating the oldest continuous hydrogeology program in the United States.


Wordcloud: Geology, stratigraphy, California, formation, eocene, petrology, foraminifera, statistical, mines

Little changes in the word cloud of the 1940s as many would-be faculty and students enlist and participate in World War II. Those who remain continue to focus primarily on California and its resources, diving into the geology and stratigraphy to locate needed materials. In 1947, Stanford reorganizes its departments into schools, and establishes the School of Mineral Sciences - a sign that mineral resources were critical to the university.


Wordcloud: Geology, stratigraphy, minerals, California, ore, oil, paleontology, petrology, lead

The 1950s see “Oil” appear for the first, and only, time in the word cloud. Research of petroleum resources will continue to play an important role as scientists at Stanford develop new computational technologies in the coming decades. Continued work in the fields of geology and minerology allow scientists to focus their efforts on needed resources to rebuild the economy after WWII and throughout the Cold War. With the advent of the nuclear age, scientists use the flood of information about atoms and isotopes to better date rock samples, instead of using fossils. These techniques are still being used today.


Wordcloud: Geology, sedimentation, stratigraphy, Cretaceous, ore, iron, magnetic, elastic

The 1960s were an exciting and chaotic decade in the Earth sciences. In 1960, geophysicist Bruce Heezen published a paper documenting the existence of mid-ocean spreading ridges – linear features on the seafloor where it appeared as though two colossal plates were moving away from one another. Scientists identified magnetic anomalies on either side of the mid-ocean ridges, and used this information to prove that the plates were, in fact, moving. The new theory was known as “Plate Tectonics.” And in 1969, many geoscientists grew to accept it when Stanford professor Bill Dickinson hosted a conference just south of campus. While we take it for granted, the theory of plate tectonics revolutionized the sciences by providing the fundamental mechanism by which the planet’s surface operated, with implications on mountain building, climate, and the origin of life on Earth.


Wordcloud: Geology, seismic, petrology, model, deposits, wave, velocity, pressure, flow

Physics expands the geosciences in the 1970s, as seismology and the space race bring new technologies to bare for understanding our planet. Research using the words “Seismic, velocity, and wave” gives scientists much better images of Earth’s crust, and help them better understand deep Earth processes. Meanwhile, satellites bring scientists a bounty of data as these tiny craft begin to document changes to Earth’s surface - from coastlines, to agriculture, to groundwater resources. Monitoring Earth surface processes via satellites became known as “remote sensing,” pioneered at NASA before finding its home at Universities across the country.


Wordcloud: Evolution, structure, stratigraphy, geology, flow, pressure, velocity, thermal, fault

The Earth sciences evolve tremendously in the 1980s. In 1988, NASA establishes the Earth Systems Sciences committee. This group of scientists from all over the world explores the linkages between geology, climate science, agriculture, water systems, and human populations - effectively connecting the studies of Earth’s subsurface processes and its surface processes. The word cloud of the 1980s begins to reflect this shift in thinking. The word “evolution” appears for the first time, and the words “fault, flow, thermal, velocity, and structure” indicate a growing research agenda at Stanford that accounts for more variables in the Earth system. Geology expands into many multidisciplinary fields of study, including biogeochemistry and geophysics, marking the last time the word appears in the timeline on its own.


Wordcloud: Simulation, modeling, reservoir, tectonics, seismic, velocity, evolution, flow, well

Just four years after NASA established the Earth Systems committee, Stanford launches the Earth Systems program. This expanded research effort helps spark a boom in computational Earth science. Reservoir engineers combine groundwater research with petroleum studies and use advanced computer models to simulate fluid flows. Geophysicists combine geology with materials science and use models to better understand earthquakes, volcanoes, and other natural hazards. Biology joins with geology and chemistry to study food and water systems. In 1996, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change publishes a report that states, “the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernable human influence on global climate,” one of the first times scientists highlighted humans’ role in global warming.


Wordcloud: Reservoir, simulation, seismic, evolution, water, marine, flow, organic

Once again, research interests expand in the 2000s. The words “water” and “marine” enter the wordcloud and indicate increasing focus on ocean sciences, closely tied to climate, and groundwater resources. Groundwater reservoirs join petroleum and geothermal reservoirs in the wordcloud as well. Throughout the decade, the School of Earth Sciences continues to promote research across disciplines, joining geophysics with groundwater with food and agriculture with natural hazards with climate change with ocean health with paleobiology… all of it supported by the fundamental knowledge of the geosciences. These interdisciplinary efforts lead the School of Earth Sciences to create the Emmett Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Environment and Resources in 2001, and to play an instrumental role in establishing new institutes, such as the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment in 2004, and the Stanford Precourt Institute for Energy and the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy in 2009.

2010 and beyond

Wordcloud (projected): Climate, sustainability, hazards, water, agriculture, data science, reservoir, structure, energy

In 2015, 125 years after the university was founded, the School of Earth Sciences changed its name to the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. The name change reflects the continued expansion of our research, and a focus on problem solving for critical challenges facing the planet. As we move deeper into the 21st century, our faculty and leaders will continue to tackle the needs for this generation and beyond. They continue to work toward a sustainable future for a rapidly increasing population by addressing key research questions surrounding climate change, energy needs, natural hazards, and food and water security. The wordcloud of the future will reflect this ambitious goal as we continue to discover more about our evolving world.

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