Gordon J. F. MacDonald
Gordon James Fraser MacDonald (July 30, 1929 - May 14, 2002) was an American geophysicist and environmental scientist, best known for his principled skepticism regarding continental drift (now called plate tectonics), and later work on possible non-anthropogenic (for example, astronomical) causes for global climate change. While often on what would turn out to be the "wrong" side of scientific issues, MacDonald was admired for his creative mind, and his ability to connect scientific issues and matters of public policy.
MacDonald was born in Mexico of a Scottish father and American mother. A childhood bout with polio only sharpened his competitive instincts. He applied to Harvard for a football scholarship and graduated summa cum laude at the age of 20. Remaining at Harvard, he became a Harvard Junior Fellow, then received his Ph.D. in geology in 1954. MacDonald was a faculty member at MIT (1954–1958), UCLA (1958–1966), UC Santa Barbara (1968–1970), Dartmouth (1972–1983) and UCSD (1990–1996).
Outside of academia, MacDonald served on the original Presidential Council on Environmental Quality (1970–1972). President Nixon remarked at the time, "I have three members of the Harvard class of 1950 on my staff, all summa cum laude." The reference was to Henry Kissinger, James Schlesinger, and MacDonald. MacDonald chaired the CIA's MEDEA Committee (1993–1996), a group of environmental scientists convened by the CIA to study whether data from classified intelligence systems could shed light on global environmental issues. He was awarded the CIA's Agency Seal Medallion in 1994. MacDonald was Chief Scientist and Vice President of the MITRE Corporation from 1983 to 1990.
MacDonald's early skepticism regarding plate tectonics stemmed from his detailed study, with Walter Munk, of the rotation of the Earth. Since small polar motions are readily detectable on human time scales, the possibility of explaining paleomagnetic data by polar wandering seemed, for a time, to be a viable possibility; plate tectonic motions are now considered to be the correct explanation.
MacDonald's interest in climate change was an outgrowth of his work on weather modification, a controversial but once seemingly viable enterprise. He served on the NSF Advisory Panel for Weather Modification in 1964-1967. That panel's conclusion, that weather modification was possible, was immediately attacked on statistical grounds. An article in the Journal of the American Statistical Association (June, 1967) concluded, "That such nonsense should appear under the aegis of the National Academy of Sciences is deplorable."
A member of the National Academy of Sciences (elected at the age of 32), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society, MacDonald was also the recipient of the James B. Macelwane Medal of the American Geophysical Union (1965).
- Walter Munk, Naomi Oreskes, and Richard Muller (2004) Gordon James Fraser MacDonald, Biographical Memoirs of the NAS, vol. 84, p. 225.
- Leon Knopoff and Sven Treitel (2003) Gordon J.F. MacDonald, EOS, Transactions of the American Geophysical Union, vol. 84, no. 5, p. 40.
- Thomas Gold (2002) Obituary: Gordon James Fraser MacDonald, Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society, vol. 34, no. 4, p. 1367-1368.