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Roger, A Biography of
Roger Revelle

Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego, 1996.

“He was a big man, a lanky six-feet-four in his prime, with a lopsided smile that could both charm and challenge. He thought that his eyes were green, but others considered them blue, changing hues as often as the seas. Before his hair turned silver it had been brown and wavy, completing the patrician look of a effortlessly handsome man of limitless assurance. Yet his feet were so large - he wore size 15 shoes - that sometimes, as he strode familiar hallways and decks and grounds, his mind always racing ahead, he tripped himself and lurched to get back in stride. Dancing, his wife Ellen soon learned, would remain a contact sport. The feet flawed the otherwise suave image and gave him occasion to make fun of himself, which he did rather endearingly. But few others risked making fun of Roger Randall Dougan Revelle.

“Around the world, from Berkeley to Zurich to Moscow, scientists looked up from their conference desks and smiled when this towering, unpredictable American entered the room. The breadth of his ideas, and sometimes their audacity, made him formidable. He rebelled against the restraints of academic dogma, leaping at challenges from which many shied. Complexity never frightened him. He relished human contacts and the clashing of good minds. As a man of intense focus and enviable memory, who thought and spoke with precision, he gunned down poseurs by asking simple questions such as ‘Why?’ or, even deadlier, ‘Why not?’ When he was eighty years old, he heard a young artist tell the San Diego Arts Commission that the city could become ‘the cosmic city of the world’. While others nodded in approval, Roger, who had seemed to be dozing, lifted his head to ask: ‘What in the world do you mean by THAT?...

“As a twentieth-century oceanographer, Roger considered himself part of a golden age of discovery, an era he likened to that launched in the 15th Century by Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator. He spoke of the geographic links between Lisbon, anchoring the southwest corner of Europe, and San Diego’s position in the United States. Roger was a scientist ‘but not a very good one,’ he conceded, remaining an explorer at heart, an old-fashioned naturalist who picked up bits of fossil and bone and scraps of ideas wherever he went, pausing to ponder where they had come from and what they meant. His genius was in his visions of linking science and war, science and peace, science and humanity, science and the global environment. But his forte was always innovation, not administration. ‘I’m pretty good at starting things,’ he said in his low, rumbling voice, ‘but not very good at finishing them.’ Clocks and calendars meant little, and at sea he reveled in his release from routine.

“To colleagues, he could appear thoughtful or thoughtless, depending on whether you were the young graduate student, surfboard in hand, who hailed him on the beach and, for most of an hour, sought advice about his future - or the assembled faculty committee kept waiting during that hour. Yet they waited, for Roger was often an inspired leader. Many of his letters began with profuse apologies for tardiness and proceded into leisurely travelogues and declarations of enduring friendship...

“Of all the grandiose visions that Revelle plotted and played out, none required more guile than the creation of the University of California campus at La Jolla. With the U.S. Navy in Washington, Roger had carefully observed how power was built and used. He had seen power displayed for better and worse in the academic community, and been emboldened by his success in representing his faculty in the [1950s] fight against the proposed university loyalty oath. Yet only a person of towering conviction and persuasive fervor would have prevailed against the bitter opposition that confronted his obsession with building a rare university [in San Diego]. It was a task he had approached, Revelle said later, ‘with more enthusiasm than knowledge...[as] with most things one does for the first time - making love, becoming a father, getting a Ph.D’.”