Tributes to Karl

I first met Karl in early 1960. I had received acceptance for continuing my graduate work from both Yale and Stanford. As I had been an undergraduate at Yale ‘56 I was disposed to accept the offer to work with Konrad Krauskopf the highly reputed geochemist at Stanford. I was living in Houston at the time, and Karl was in town giving a speech for the local chapter of the AAPG. He arranged for us to meet in his room at the then famous, ultimately infamous and now extinct Shamrock Hotel.

I told Karl that I had been advised not to do graduate work where I had been an undergraduate. He replied, “Yale is not going to be the same.” I decided to join Karl at Yale. This is the only time I can remember Karl being guilty of an understatement.

Things were not the same. There was faculty turnover, new equipment and research funds. Even the continents were drifting. Karl put me to work on determining how many trace elements in sea water could be analyzed by neutron activation. It turned out to be 22 elements, all of which had to be separated into pure radiochemical forms after irradiation. This work was funded by the then AEC with the underlying purpose of assessing vulnerability of nuclear submarines were to leaving a radioactive trail.

This work involved chemistry, nuclear measurements, and a two month trip to the Antarctic. It was unimaginable preparation for my ultimate career in nuclear weapons detection, nuclear reactor environmental monitoring and industrial applications of radioisotopes. All of this was possible because of Karl’s infectious optimism that there were no boundaries for geochemists.

Much later, in 1993, I was visiting the renowned Vernadski Institute of Geochemistry and Analytical Chemistry in Moscow. Over lunch I found myself at a table with one of the staff scientists, Nikolai Katargin, who mentioned that he had worked on trace elements in sea water. I said, “I too worked on trace elements in sea water.” and Nikolai brightened and exclaimed, “YOU ARE SCHUTZ AND TUREKIAN”. It was clear that the name of Turekian had been long-known to the Russian cold warriors because they were working on trying to find our submarines too.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention another change that took place in the early 1960’s. There are probably only a few of us left who remember Karl before he married Roxanne. Her impact was profound and had a great influence on Karl as a teacher. She certainly shares in this wonderful life that has benefited so many of us.

Donald F. Schutz, ’56, G ‘64

Karl Turekian was a new Assistant Professor at Yale when I took first year geology from him. I later took his senior geochemistry course and he was my supervisor on my bachelor’s thesis (I did a terrible thesis, not his fault). I was his laboratory assistant for two years, 1957-58 and 1958-59. Dick Armstrong was also working in his lab at that time. Karl was always supportive of me as a student and encouraged me to go to graduate school (which I did and got a Ph.D. at Cal-Berkeley). He will be missed by everyone connected with Yale geosciences.

Ed Ghent, ‘59

I entered as a grad student at the same time Karl joined the faculty.  A couple of years later he and I got into an vigorous argument about errors in isotope dates.  I was up for orals a few months later and figured he would give me hell, but he asked an interesting thermodynamics question, and my life continued.

Lucian B. Platt, G ‘60

Even though Karl was not an official co-advisor for my Ph.D. thesis, he was the one who read my first drafts most thoroughly and critically, offering me the most helpful recommendations and encouraging advice to strengthen my thesis.  I still vividly remember his copious red markings, suggested edits, and questions/comments about scientific content and implications.  Without reservation I can say that Karl’s enthusiastic input and support made it possible for me to successfully complete the requirements for the doctoral degree.  Indeed, Karl spurred me to achieve my academic best.  He was the epitome of an inspiring mentor—a demanding but genuinely caring task-master.  I will always remember all the good times when Karl joined the graduate students at George & Harry’s for coffee.

Bob Tilling, G ‘63

As a graduate student Karl always had me shaking in my boots. He could shoot down a scientific argument at the speed of light and with laser accuracy; and it seemed I was always in his crosshairs. It was only later that I realized that it was an act and that behind the bluster was a warm-hearted and gentle human being. The part that was authentic was the scientific brilliance and the passion for science. We have lost a giant.

Bill Chameides, G ‘74

I was a student of Professor Turekian, it was a very tough class.   Clearly, I was not the best student in his class.  When I think about it, I was not the best student in ANY of the classes that I took.  I did not pass my oral exam primarily because I did not answer the questions correctly, given by Professor Turekian. Fortunately, I was allowed to have another make up oral exam.  I did study hard and this time I was able to answer the questions given by him.  I was allowed to stay and finish my thesis work and receive my Ph.D.  Professor Turekian was brilliant, dedicated and also had the passion to take care of a not-so-good student like me.

Bruce Chai, G ‘75

I want to express my condolences to the department.  I am shocked to learn of the news.  When I was a student there, Karl was a strong and positive presence, well respected and admired.  I met him a year ago at AGU and found him to be in good shape at the time.  He still had this passion about him.  This is sad.

Jean-Pierre St-Maurice, G ‘75

As student and postdoc I was at Yale from 1970-1978, so I had many memorable and thought-provoking interactions with Karl.  Two come to mind most frequently.  First is the morning-coffee institution.  We might discuss anything, but Karl kept the focus on geochemistry, which he defined as anything that geochemists find interesting.  This was a forum for discussing research problems within the group, but also, because of Karl’s editorships, an opportunity to learn about exciting work being done elsewhere.  I have yet to meet Karl’s equal in creating and exploiting “teachable moments” as he could do at these gatherings.  And, although I have had much better coffee since, I have never seen a comparably productive, daily coffee session anywhere else — it’s a simple idea, but one hard to implement and sustain.

My second frequent recollection dates from the 1997 meeting in New Haven to celebrate Karl’s 70th birthday.  After he had listened to his former students, postdocs, and research associates, Karl spoke briefly.  In the course of his remarks he summarized our science — geochemistry, but I think it applies much more broadly — by saying “It’s all about ambiguity.”  I have found this to be apt in many circumstances, and it pleases me to remember Karl when I quote him.

Larry Benninger, G ‘76

Karl K. Turekian (1927-2013), EOS, Vol. 94, No. 43, 22 October 2013

J. Kirk Cochran, G ‘79

I was one of the students at the Geology Field School program in the summer of 1982.  There were about 30 or 40 students from Yale, Cornell and Harvard, and a few professors, including David Schindel.  At one point during the summer, we took a group picture with most of the students standing, and Schindel decided to lay down across the ground in front of us. When we got back to campus in the fall, Karl looked at the picture for about a millisecond and said, “well, at least it’s stratigraphically correct.”

John Kurtz ‘84

As a graduate student at Yale, in the late 1970s, I found Karl to be quite an intimidating figure.

I will never forget that at one colloquium, about half way into the presentation, Karl stood up, proclaimed the talk being given “nonsense” (he used a less polite word) and marched to the front of the room, turned off the projector and began to argue directly with the speaker. This argument went on some minutes, and when it showed no signs of abating, members of the audience began to sheepishly leave the room.

The presence of Karl at my oral comprehensive exam at first worried me much. But, in the end, Karl “threw me a softball” (an easy question about geochemistry—I am a paleontologist), and my ability to answer that calmed me and eased my passing of that exam.

Yes, Karl Turekian could be loud, argumentative and intimidating.

But, I had nothing but great respect for his intellectual honesty and his passion for science.  

To me he was a great scientist who never lost his devotion to “getting it right.”

Spencer Lucas, G ‘84

Of many great memories of Karl, perhaps my fondest are the impromptu discussions around the coffee maker on topics ranging from 10Be, to 187Os, to trace elements in seawater and to the newest details on the formation of the Earth.  He was a tireless intellect and will be missed.    

Timothy Burch ‘87

Karl taught me geochemistry and gave me the grounding I needed to comprehend climate-change research. As an awkward postadolescent, I treasured his kindness and absolutely loved his afternoon teas. He brought a warmth and cohesiveness to the department that it often seemed to lack in the late 90s. 

Jenny Blair ’99, MD ‘04

Karl…probably my main memory was how much he loved goldfish at the 3.30 coffee!  My coolest memory of Karl though was in my very first semester I did his geochemistry class.  About two weeks in, he walked over to the desk I was sitting at, handed me a rock (that was in a plastic box) and said “Any idea what this is?”.  He politely managed to not groan at whatever I replied, and said “It’s a piece of Mars”.  Definitely one of the coolest moments of my life to be holding a piece of another planet.

James Stevenson, G ‘06