Don L. Anderson dies at 81; former director of Caltech's seismology lab

Don Anderson, who died at 81, was an expert in earth sciences who was awarded the National Medal of Science

Don L. Anderson, a professor emeritus of geophysics at Caltech and former head of its Seismological Laboratory, died of cancer Dec. 2 in Cambria, Calif., according to the school. He was 81.

Anderson directed the lab from 1967 to 1989 and continued to conduct research on the Earth's interior until his retirement in 2002.

He developed, with geophysicist Adam Dziewonski, what has become a standard model of the Earth's mostly hidden composition and dynamics. In 1989, he published his first edition of "Theory of the Earth," a text that brings together often-conflicting findings from a wide range of scientific disciplines.

"In spite of the fact that there is only one Earth, there are more Theories of the Earth than there are of astronomy, particle physics, or cell biology where there are uncountable samples of each object," he wrote.

Reviewing the book, Nature magazine praised it as "an extensive summary of practically everything 'known' about the physics, chemistry, and physico-chemical evolution of the Earth's interior" and called Anderson "fairly superhuman … as close to being the complete geophysicist/geochemist as anyone is likely to be."

Anderson received many honors in his field, including, in 1998, a National Medal of Science. The award cited him for his "immeasurable influence on the field of earth sciences over the past three decades."

Born in Frederick, Md., on March 5, 1933, Don Lynn Anderson grew up in Baltimore. After graduating from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., with a bachelor's degree in geology and geophysics, he joined the Air Force and researched sea ice in Greenland.

Anderson went on to graduate school at Caltech, where he received his doctorate in 1962 and started working as an assistant professor in 1963.

In the early years, the seismology lab was housed in a mansion removed from Caltech's main campus in Pasadena. To reach their offices, scientists climbed a graceful spiral staircase — an architectural feature that, Anderson later said, encouraged his group's collegiality. Anderson underscored the point by establishing morning and afternoon coffee breaks at which some of Caltech's famous scientists — Charles Richter, of the Richter scale, among them — would talk shop with younger researchers.

"Our coffee breaks are world famous," Anderson said in a Caltech oral history.

From time to time, he said, he had to defend the lab against proposed budget cuts. In 1971, Caltech President Harold Brown was in the process of questioning its expense when the Sylmar earthquake damaged a major campus structure.

"We never had any problems with him after that," Anderson said.

Anderson's survivors include Nancy Ruth Anderson, his wife of 58 years; daughter Lynn Rodriguez of Santa Barbara; son Lee Anderson of Atherton, Calif.; four granddaughters and his brother Richard Anderson of Baltimore.

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