Math Was His Bedrock
King Hubbert: An Irascible Iconoclast
The lecturer came into the room carrying a small board and a can of iced-cold beer.
He acknowledged a brief applause, went to the table, placed one end of his board on two books, opened the can of beer, took a sip and poured the remainder into a container under the table.
He turned the wet, cold, empty can upside down at the high end of the slanted board.
Several in the audience exchanged glances and wondered if this was to be a lecture on temperance or geology. Most of the audience fixed on the empty can and listened, more or less, to the lecturer who was saying something about pore pressure and that all water-laid sediments, including shale, contain some water in pore spaces of varying sizes:
By this time everyone turned their attention to the empty beer can, which had begun to move gradually down the incline.
The lecturer watched with them and explained that as the cold air inside the empty can began to warm, it expanded. The wetness of the rim of the can formed a seal with the board. The expanding air increased the pore pressure of the wetted surface, and gravity moved the can on this cushion of air.
Something to Talk About
The year was 1961, the lecturer was Dr. M. King Hubbert and the occasion was a stop on one of AAPG’s Distinguished Lecture tours.
The lecture was from a joint paper, “Roll of Fluid Pressure in Mechanics of Overthrust Faulting,” by Hubbert and William W. Rubey of the U.S. Geological Survey. Hubbert had been selected to do the lecture tour.
Text books had described and pictured the overthrust type of faulting in which buckling strata fracture at a low angle and one side is pushed over the other. Geologists had mapped in the field and puzzled over what mechanism could overcome rock friction and push a plate or slab of rocks for miles.
Hubbert was one of those geologists – and he discovered that Bill Rubey had mapped many overthrusts and also puzzled over the mechanics of their origin. They each had suspected that pore pressure in the rocks might have had a part in this phenomenon.
Combining their ideas and experimentation, they produced the joint paper, which was the basis for this lecture.
Publication of this paper also encouraged reinvestigation of faulting along the Rocky Mountain Trench reaching from Alaska to Mexico. The Anchutz Ranch was perhaps one of these areas in northern Utah and southwest Wyoming that were reinvestigated with a better understanding of the overthrust faulting phenomenon, with 3-D seismic technique playing the major role in discovery and development of this giant field.
Discovery of a giant field in an overthrust stirred the memory and imagination of the theory that a buried overthrust system extended from the Ouachita Mountains in southern Oklahoma in a giant arc to the Marathon Basin in the Big Bend country of West Texas.
The word “overthrust” became the magic word of everyday “barber shop talk,” leading to an extensive “lease-play” from the Red River southwestward. Land that had never been closer to oil than the gas station was leased, and small town newspapers visualized derricks dotting their cotton fields and dairy farms. There were groups who began worrying about pollution.
This dreamland oil play disappeared when the next lease rental dates were passed.
Genius at Work
The year is now 2007. Why bring up Hubbert 46 years later?
The reason is Albert Einstein.
This is not to draw a parallel between these two scientists, but to note a crossing of their trails at the schoolhouse. It was the similarity of their thoughts on education that triggered my memory of M. King Hubbert. They both felt strongly about freedom of choice in education, but advocated more mathematics and physics in curricula. Are not these views strongly advocated today?
They each felt that any theory or relationship had to be mathematically validated. Hubbert’s lectures were characterized by a blackboard filled with equations. Einstein once said all he needed by way of furniture in his office was a table, a chair, a thick pad of paper and a drawer full of pencils.
Then, he added a large wastebasket to hold his mistakes.
Einstein left Germany because of the rigidity of its courses and teaching methods. He emigrated to Switzerland and renounced his German citizenship. He enrolled in the Zurich Polytechnic to study mathematics and physics. Einstein preferred the theoretical aspect of these sciences, and felt he had a special talent for abstract and mathematical thinking.
It was later, as a clerk in the patent office at Bern, when he had much time to do abstract thinking and develop equations. A paper dealing with one of those abstractions was on energy and mass. Out of this would arise the best-known equation in all physics: E = mc2 – one of the building blocks of his General Theory of Relativity.
At an early age on his farm at San Saba, Hubbert exhibited his inquisitiveness when he wondered why his toy windmill turned faster than the big one. (The British correct us: it is wind pump, not mill, but tell that to the ranchers in West Texas.)
King Hubbert absorbed all of the education available in his native San Saba County and at a nearby junior college, as rapidly as the parched land of this west Texas county soaked up the occasional rain. (Hubbert was named for Marion King, a favorite teacher of his parents in San Saba.)
One of his professors at the junior college recommended he go north to school. He applied at the University of Chicago and was accepted. Not having money for transportation, he labored at various occupations to get there.
A friend asked why he went north to college when there were good universities in Texas. He replied he wanted to go to a school that didn’t play football.
In 1924, nearing the end of his first year at Chicago, he was told he was to select a major. He replied that he did not want a major, he wanted “an education,” but he did select geophysics and geology, with mathematics as a minor. Hubbert went from the University of Chicago to Columbia University for graduate work, where he was frequently more teacher than student.
Einstein used the solar system in determining the speed of light, whereas Hubbert looked to phenomenon both on and below the surface of the earth – the underground flow of fluids, the strength of rocks and the part they played in the strength of the earth.
At the end of his presidential year at Geological Society of America in 1963, his address was titled, “Are We Retrogressing in Science.” He said, among other things:
“... That curriculum be so revised as to make it not only possible but mandatory for students to receive a working knowledge of all the fundamental principles of science.”
Forty years later, does this have a familiar ring?
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
I first met King Hubbert at a company (Shell) cocktail party in Houston in 1946. I learned he was from San Saba, and I mentioned that some years ago I had visited my cousin’s ranch near there. I learned that Hubbert was director of exploration and production at the Bellaire Research Lab.
I next saw King in 1953 in Casper, Wyo. I had just returned from an assignment in Holland and had been posted to Casper. The big buzz word there was hydrodynamics. He came up from Houston to brief me on the theory, and go over his hydrodynamic contour map of the Big Horn Basin.
He suggested that I send a geologist to the lab to spend some time with him, naming one he already had worked with and who understood the concept.
Hubbert and I got along fine, but I learned later that he was abrasive, impatient and even “fearsome.”
I later saw this side of him when teams of researchers came to visit and describe what they were doing, and we would in turn give short talks on what we were doing.
One of our geophysicists gave a poorly organized presentation with some inaccuracies. Hubbert went to the blackboard and, as I have said in exaggeration, he derived an equation showing that this fellow was a congenital idiot.
This sort of conduct by King became rather commonplace, and people admired his brilliance but derided his method of criticism.
In the ensuing years, I got along well with King. He would seek me out at conventions, and we would have a drink together. Indeed, in 1974 he asked me to be his citationist when he was elected to Honorary Membership in AAPG.
The Wake-Up Bell
Now, about his place in history far beyond the world of AAPG.
After asking a few questions of geologists of a generation or more ago, “Does the name M. King Hubbert ring a bell?” I often got the response: “He must have been before my time.”
Two or three others said, “Was he the guy who said we’re running out of oil?”
King Hubbert did not say “we’re running out of oil.”
The media coined this phrase to create a sensational headline. What he did say, in a paper given in 1956, was that, at the present rate of discovery and development, current technology, and the estimated ultimate, U.S. oil production would peak in the early 1970s.