Deceased Academicians

Frank Press


Frank Press

Date of birth 04 December 1924

Place New York, NY, United States of America (America)

Nomination 03 September 1999

Field Geophysics

Title President of the US National Academy of Sciences

Place and date of death Chapel Hill, NC, USA † 29 January 2020

  • Biography
  • Publications
  • Commemoration

Most important awards, prizes and academies
Awards: Légion d'honneur, France (1989); Japan Prize (1993); US National Medal of Science (1994); Cross of Merit, Germany (1993); Lomonosov Gold Medal of Russian Academy of Sciences (1998). Academies: US National Academy of Sciences; Royal Society of London; Académie des sciences, France; Russian Academy of Sciences; American Philosophical Society; Japan Academy of Engineering; American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Honorary Degrees: Princeton, Yale, Columbia, Sorbonne, Notre Dame, others.

Summary of scientific research
Research and teaching in earth and planetary sciences with specialization in geophysics and oceanography.

Main publications
Press, F. and Ewing, M., Propagation on explosive sound in a liquid layer overlying a semi-infinite elastic solid, Geophysics, 15, pp. 426-46 (1950); Press, F. and Ewing, M., Crustal structure and surface wave dispersion, Part II: Solomon Island earthquake of 29 July 1950, Bull. Seism. Soc. Am., 42, pp. 315-25 (1952); Press, F. and Ewing, M., Mantle Rayleigh waves from the Kamchatka earthquake of 4 November, 1952, Bull. Seism. Soc. Am., 44, pp. 471-9 (1954); Press, F., Oliver, J.E., and Ewing, M., Crustal structure and surface wave dispersion, Part IV: Atlantic and Pacific Ocean Basins, Bull. Geol. Soc. Am., 66, pp. 913-46 (1953); Press, F. and Ewing, M., Rayleigh wave dispersion in the period range 10-500 seconds, Trans. Am. Geophys. Union, 37, pp. 213-5 (1956); Press, F., Determination of crustal structure from phase velocity of Rayleigh waves, Part I: Southern California, Bull. Geol. Soc. Am., 67, pp. 1647-58 (1956); Press, F., Ewing, M., and Jardetsky, W.S., Elastic Waves in Layered Media (McGraw-Hill Book Co., New York, 1957); Press, F. and Ewing, M., Determination of crustal structure from phase velocity of Rayleigh waves, Part III: The United States, Bull. Seism. Soc. Am., 70, pp. 229-44 (1959); Press, F., Benioff, H. and Smith, S., Excitation of the free oscillations of the earth by earthquakes, J. Geophys. Res., 66, pp. 605-19 (1961); Press, F., Ben Menahem, A. and Toksoz, M.N., Experimental determination of earthquake fault length and rupture velocity, J. Geophys. Res., 66, pp. 3471-85 (1961); Press, F. and Harkrinder, D., Propagation of acoustic-gravity waves in the atmosphere, J. Geophys. Res., 67, pp. 3889-3908 (1962); Press, F. and Biehler, S., Influences on crustal velocities and densities from P-wave delays and gravity anomalies, J. Geophys. Res., 69, pp. 2979-95 (1964); Press, F., Displacements, strains and tilts at teleseismic distances, J. Geophys. Res., 70, pp. 2395-2412 (1965); Press, F., Earth models obtained by Monte Carlo inversion, J. Geophys. Res., 73, p. 16 (1968); Press, F., Regionalized earth models, J. Geophys. Res., 75, pp. 6575-81 (1970); Press, F., The earth and the moon, Quarterly J. Roy. Astron. Soc., 12, pp. 232-43 (1971); Press, F., Science and Technology in the White House, 1977 to 1980: Parts 1 and 2, Science, 211, pp. 139-45, pp. 249-56 (1981); Press, F., Science: The best and the worst of times, Science, 231, pp. 1351-2 (1986); Press, F., Growing up in the golden age of science, Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Science, 231, pp. 1351-2 (1986); Press, F., Patterns of seismic release in the Southern Californian region, J. of Geophys. Res., 100, n. B4, pp. 6421-30 (1995); Press, F., The dilemma of the golden age (address to the members of the National academy of Sciences at the 125th annual meeting), Science, Technology, and Human Values, 13, nos. 3 and 4 (summer and autumn, 1988); Press, F., Science and society in the years ahead, 1995 Sigma Xi Forum, Vannevar Bush II: Science for the 21st Century, March 2-3 (1995); Press, F. and Siever R., Understanding Earth, 4th edn. (W.H. Freeman and company, New York, 2003).

It’s a true privilege for me to provide this commemoration for one of our truly outstanding members, Frank Press, a geophysicist.

He was elected to the Pontifical Academy in 1999. He died on 29 January of this year 2020 at the age of 95 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Frank was the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia. He advised four US Presidents, all the way starting from president John F. Kennedy to Jimmy Carter, to Ronald Reagan and then President Nixon.

He built many institutions to prominence, and provided the scientific guarantee for the nuclear test ban treaty. He was a professor at Columbia University, CALTECH and then became professor and chair of the department at MIT. As faculty at Columbia University, he founded the now famous Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. They’re doing pioneering work in many aspects of geophysics, climate and other problems. 

He was twice President of the National Academy of Science. Under his leadership, the NAS published some influential reports. The first is Science and Creationism; the second one was Acid Deposition. Atmospheric Processes in Eastern North America, which helped create the EPA, the third report he published under his leadership was Confronting AIDS, and then Mapping and Sequencing the Human Genome.

Thus, in his two terms of the Academy, he made NAS the most trusted and the go-to place for advice on scientific matters.

The current President of the National Academy of Science, Marsha McNutt, said: “No scientist had more impact on the American science-policy interface in the late 20th century”.

Let me conclude with his own scientific achievements. They were truly exemplary. He developed the Press-Ewing seismometer, named after him, and with CALTECH colleagues he made the first observational detection of the excitation of the normal modes of vibration of the earth from the 1960 Chilean earthquake.

He was also one of the leaders in the creation of a worldwide seismic network to monitor the compliance with the nuclear test ban treaty, which provided the scientific guarantee for the nuclear test ban treaty.

Lastly, for Neil Armstrong’s first walk on the Moon, Press designed a seismic experiment to passively detect moon-quakes and asteroid impacts. This has become one of the pioneering ways to look at the planetary interiors.

He is the recipient of numerous honors, including 30 honorary degrees. The one which caught my attention was that one of the highest peaks in the Ellsworth Mountains in Antarctica was named after him. It is called Mount Press.

I had the pleasure and honor of meeting Frank twice at our Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and what made a deep mark on me was his soft spokenness and profound insights into all matters related to science and public policy.

V. Ramanathan