In Glicken’s Forge

On June 3, 1991, a man in his early 30’s named Harry Glicken died on the slopes of Mount Unzen in Japan. To date, he is one of only two American volcanologists who have died in volcanic eruptions, and appropriately enough, his body was cremated based on the wishes of his parents. Most people may not think such a man worth being remembered, but for some reason, the biographical post about this unusual man was the page of the day for Wikipedia [1], which often delights in providing odd and worthwhile subjects of reflection on the absurdity of life and the poignant nature of how it is that obscure but notable people live and die [2]. Harry Glicken was a scientist who was passionate about studying volcanoes, and conducted ground-breaking field research, and so it is only more remarkable that he had a close connection with the only other American volcanologist to have ever been killed by a volcanic eruption, given that one would figure that such a dangerous job would claim more people who studied unpredictable burning cauldrons of magma.

In 1980, in his early 20’s, Glicken had been hired as a graduate student temporarily by the USGS to help monitor Mount St. Helens after it resumed activity in May 1980 after being dormant for over a century. While going through the dangerous work of monitoring the deformation of the lava domes on Mt. Saint Helens with other scientists, Glicken switched shifts with his research advisor David A. Johnston so that he could go to an interview. During the appointed shift that Glicken would have served had he not had an interview, Johnston died when the volcano suddenly erupted and swift pyroclastic flows raced down the mountain at nearly the speed of sound, leaving no trace of Johnston or the research post on the lava domes where he was working. Glicken, who felt that he should have died and that his own professional ambitions had killed his mentor and advisor, was distraught and inconsolable.

In the years that followed, Glicken poured himself into his work, becoming an expert on debris avalanches on the slopes of volcanoes, and working as an assistant researcher at UC-Santa Barbara, and teaching and researching internationally in Japan, New Zealand, and Guadalupe. His work was considered to be so meticulous and detailed by fellow researchers that his work would never be duplicated. After his death, UC-Santa Barbara established a prize in his honor for the outstanding graduate student in geology, a suitable honor for someone who was a researcher of high caliber. His ambition and focus and drive put him in harm’s way, and led him to an early grave, but it was work that still continues to inspire and motivate others to study volcanoes and understand them in better detail, despite the danger that is involved in such studies. When he died, he was trying to get his doctoral dissertation published in one piece, as he had published parts of it in smaller papers, and it was eventually published in 1996 to wide acclaim by his acquaintances at the US Geological Service.

In 79 AD, the Roman admiral Pliny the Elder died because of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that buried Pompeii under its lava flows. Pliny was a scientist of a high order like Glicken was, a notable writer, and at his death he was a respected official of the Roman Empire, and was greatly mourned by his colleagues. Glicken was mourned by his colleagues, but he was not as well respected as a person during his lifetime. Instead of receiving the offices and accolades that one would expect of a groundbreaking and highly able scientist, Glicken found his path to a permanent position with the USGS barred because of personality quirks, including being chatty, extremely sensitive, absent-minded, and eccentric, almost like a cartoon character in terms of his exuberant personality [3]. One would not think that such personality quirks would matter when compared to the obvious quality of his research and his willingness to study lava domes on active volcanoes, which is the sort of work that would require someone unusually driven and more than a little bit quirky or eccentric. It is perhaps more than a little bit sad that even when compared to the Roman Empire, our own government lets petty personal politics and judgmental attitudes about people who are different or odd to get in the way of our national interests when it comes to studying volcanoes, a particular serious matter for those of us who live in the shadow of the volcanic Cascades. May we hope that our institutions of research can honor those in the future that have the same divine fire in them as was present in Glicken’s forge, and be less prone to condemn people for being odd even as they appreciate the brilliance that comes out of such strange people from time to time.


[2] See, for example:

[3] Thompson, Dick, Volcano Cowboys: The Rocky Evolution of a Dangerous Science. Macmillan: 2002. 151

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, History, Musings and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to In Glicken’s Forge

  1. Pingback: The Heat Is On | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Jo Mer Jeg Sier, Jo Mer Vil Jeg Si | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Book Review: Where Do You Get Your Ideas? | Edge Induced Cohesion

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