Veerabhadran Ramanathan, PAS Academician

Commemoration of Frank Press

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.