Science News

Obituary Notice: Gustaf Arrhenius 1922-2019

Oceanographer pursued range of biogeochemical research over career spanning six decades

Gustaf Arrhenius, an oceanographer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego whose varied research considered the earliest life on Earth and origins of the solar system, died Feb. 3 at his home in La Jolla, Calif. He was 96.

Arrhenius’ family tree included Nobel laureates and renowned polar explorers, making a career in science his destiny. He joined Scripps in 1952 at the invitation of its then-director Roger Revelle in the midst of what many consider oceanography’s golden age of exploration.

“Gustaf Arrhenius was one of Scripps Oceanography’s most distinguished scientists,” said Scripps Oceanography Director Margaret Leinen. “His research into deep-sea sedimentation during the 1950s defined the major sedimentary processes and provinces of the ocean and opened the door for the studies of ocean and climate history that followed. Arrhenius was also a geochemist who studied crystal chemistry, cosmo-chemistry, pre-biotic chemistry and worked to plan the analysis of lunar samples. He and his Scripps geochemistry colleagues expanded the boundaries of geochemistry.”

Arrhenius’ career was interwoven with many of the milestones in Scripps history and the development of UC San Diego as a young university. He played a key role in the formation of UC San Diego prior to its 1960 founding. He was among a handful of oceanographers helping Revelle with the task of recruiting humanities and science professors for the new university.

Former students and colleagues remembered Arrhenius not only for his scholarship but for his generous and encouraging spirit.

“He was the ultimate example of an open mind. Everything could be discussed, everything was interesting, and literally everything was possible,” said Mark van Zuilen, now a researcher at the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris in France who was Arrhenius’ graduate student from 1997 to 2003. “A trait that is often lost in this game, and that is rarely instilled in young scientists, is to simply be nice to fellow scientists. Gustaf did that. He actually instilled that in people – to be nice.”

“Gustaf was not only a great scholar and teacher, he was also a deeply committed humanitarian and the epitome of a true gentleman,” said Asoka Mendis, an emeritus distinguished professor of space physics at UC San Diego and longtime colleague of Arrhenius.

Arrhenius joined Scripps as a visiting researcher in 1952. Prior to that, he had discovered his own love of natural sciences after having been born into a family that had made a name for itself in science and exploration on both sides. His paternal grandfather was Svante Arrhenius, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1903. Sometimes called the “father of physical chemistry,” Svante Arrhenius’ examination of the greenhouse gas effect of carbon dioxide preceded the work 60 years later of one of Arrhenius’s contemporaries at Scripps, Charles David Keeling. Ancestors on his mother’s side include polar explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld and his son, Gustaf Nordenskiöld, a noted anthropologist.

Arrhenius was born in 1922 in Stockholm, Sweden. He developed his own career interest in oceanography as a teenager in need of a topic for a science project. The fjords near his family’s estate fascinated him and he began a study of the physics and chemistry of them. As a young man, he heard of an expedition being planned by the researcher Hans Pettersson, who had been experimenting with a new technology that enabled scientists to extract cores of seafloor sediment from unprecedented depths. It would be a cruise around the world lasting 15 months and Arrhenius, looking for adventure, was one of the few students willing to be away from home that long. He signed up.

The cores Pettersson had begun to retrieve held a history of the planet that would be one of Arrhenius’ main topics of interest for the rest of his career. Arrhenius first took part in a preparatory cruise in the Mediterranean Sea aboard the research vessel Skagerak in 1946. He was then hired on to be a geochemist on Pettersson’s 1947-48 Albatross expedition in which cores were collected from locations around the world, The Albatross expedition yielded thousands of cores and Arrhenius’ father, Olof, an environmental chemist, had at the family estate known as Kagghamra one of the few spaces in Europe large enough to house them. The cores drew the interest of researchers around the world, including Revelle. Arrhenius used cores from his region of interest in the eastern Pacific Ocean to complete his doctoral dissertation at the University of Stockholm in 1952.

That same year, Revelle and Scripps were preparing for the Capricorn Expedition to the Marshall Islands, which was timed to follow up secret nuclear tests near the island of Bikini. Revelle wanted to incorporate piston corers and Arrhenius’ knowledge of them. As Arrhenius later recalled, Revelle wrote him a letter saying, “You know, why don’t you come over?”

“We just thought that’s the way Americans did it,” Arrhenius said.

Arrhenius and his wife, Jenny, traveled to the United States via freighter, bought a used black Pontiac in Baltimore and drove cross-country to Scripps, where he was immediately assigned a role in the upcoming cruise.

After the Capricorn Expedition, Arrhenius returned to Sweden to finish his PhD thesis, then returned to Scripps, formally joining its faculty in July 1953. He would a few years later become involved in another iconic mission in Scripps history.

Arrhenius was interested in the history that was contained in ocean sediments, which held enough information in cores over a meter or two long to make inferences of long-duration geological phenomena such as the decay of isotopes. One of his early collaborators at Scripps was chemist Ed Goldberg. The research papers of the two throughout the 1950s are credited as seminal work in the study of marine sediments.

“These papers concerned themselves with the study of the geochemistry of marine sediments,” said Joris Gieskes, a professor of marine chemistry at Scripps. “Especially his paper on the chemistry of pacific pelagic sediments can be considered to be a classic contribution to the study of marine sediments.”

His interest in coring and Earth history made him a natural for an idea proposed in 1957 to reach the planet’s mantle by coring to sufficient depth. The idea turned into Project MOHOLE, an endeavor that for many reasons did not achieve its goal but that did give rise to an international ocean-drilling collaboration that continues to this day.

Around this time, San Diego had been selected as the location of a new University of California campus after lobbying by Revelle and others. To prepare for the creation of a new campus, Revelle enlisted Arrhenius and other oceanographers.

“We were a rather small group of local faculty assisting Roger Revelle in the unusual task of starting a new university with the unconventional aim of acquiring only the most prominent or promising representatives of the diverse fields in science and the humanities,” Arrhenius recalled in 2016.

Arrhenius was among principal investigators selected by NASA to analyze lunar samples being brought back to Earth by Apollo missions in 1969. His interest in the history of Earth and the solar system continued to the end of his career. In 1996, he attracted some controversy when his research team claimed to have found 3.8 billion-year-old evidence of life within carbonate rocks found in Greenland. Arrhenius would have to retract that claim after further study identified another, younger, source of the organic material in the rocks. The setback led his team to create a new method of identifying the origin of carbon in such samples. The new work would help revalidate Arrhenius’ original estimate when other rocks were sampled in 1999.

“I felt very much privileged that I had an opportunity to conduct the biodiagnostics research with broad general interest in one of the principal research groups in the field under spearheading of Gustaf,” said Aivo Lepland, a researcher with the Geological Survey of Norway who was then a postdoctoral researcher who helped create the identification method with Arrhenius.

By the time Arrhenius retired in 2005, he had served on the NASA Lunar Sample Analysis Planning Team (1970-72), the NASA Advisory Committee on Comet and Asteroid Exploration (1973-75), and the Ocean Science Board of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (1977-81). He was a Guggenheim Fellow (1957-58) and received the American Chemical Society PRF Award (1961), the NASA Group Achievement Award (1973), and the Hans Pettersson Gold Medal of the Royal Swedish Academy (1998). Arrhenius returned to Scripps from retirement to serve as a research professor in 2006 and was active in issues ranging from hiring to facilities at Scripps until concluding his research in 2016.

He was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Mineralogical Society, the Meteoritical Society, the Explorers Club, and the Geological Society of India. He was a member of the International Academy of Astronautics, the Russian Akademiya Tvorchestva, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and the Royal Gothenburg Academy of Letters and Sciences, among other scientific societies. He published more than 150 papers and books.

Lepland was one of several former students and colleagues of Arrhenius who remembered him not just for his research “but importantly also for his overall positive attitude and his ability to see people truly as they are with their good and bad.”

Arrhenius is preceded in death by wife Jenny de Hevesy Arrhenius, who died in 2009. He is survived by his three children, Susanne, Thomas and Peter, his four grandchildren, Sylvia, Alex, Audrey and Julia, and his great granddaughter Camille. Memorial service arrangements are pending.

Tributes to Gustaf Arrhenius

"Gustaf and I have worked back and forth since Gustaf joined Scripps after the Swedish Deep Sea Expedition where we exchanged ideas on the origin of marine sediments with our most recent cooperation on stromatolites where he has been my host in his lab and my mentor analyzing modern stromatolites comparing the trillions of years that they span. He kept in contact with me after my leaving Scripps with a PhD with our mineralogy of sediments work often complementary and with his invitation to join him, even to sharing both lab and office he has always been a true teacher in the classical sense with time for everybody. His recent work showing that graphite from organic carbon assumes rhombohedral crystallinity while graphite from mineral carbon sources assumes hexagonal symmetry is an example of his scientific gift for spotting scientifically significant data."

Robert Rex, Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego

"It was with profound sadness that I learned of the passing of my highly esteemed and greatly valued friend and colleague, Prof. Gustaf Arrhenius, on Sunday, February 3, at the age of 96.

Hailing from an exemplary scientific lineage with Chemistry Nobelist Svante Arrhenius (discoverer of the global warming effect of carbon dioxide) as his paternal grandfather, and geologist and intrepid Arctic explorer, Baron Nils Adolf Nordenskiold (discoverer of the Arctic Northeast Passage) as a maternal ancestor, Gustaf continued this illustrious tradition as as a scholar and explorer.

Gustaf’s wide-ranging scientific research, spanning over seven decades, was centered on two perennial questions: the origin of the solar system and the origin of life on earth. Here I will confine my remarks to the first. Gustaf’s interest in this field had it roots in his participation in the epic 15 month deep-sea Swedish Albatross oceanographic expedition as a young man of 25, during the late nineteen-forties. Examining the 20 meter long cores that were secured from the ocean floor, Gustaf was intrigued by the cores’ meteoritic component, pointing to an extraterrestrial origin, and this set him on his long intellectual quest for understanding the formation and early evolution of the solar system.

To this end he collaborated with the Swedish plasma physicist (and Physics Nobelist), Prof. Hannes Alfven, in developing a novel model of this process, which incorporated both the physics of magnetized plasmas in the early pre-solar nebula and the chemistry and mineralogy of the subsequent proto-planetary disc, where collisional accretion played a central role in the formation of the planets and satellites. This trailblazing model came to be known known as the “Alfven-Arrhenius Model.”

From the time I joined the Dept. of Applied Electrophysics at UCSD in 1969, at the height of the NASA space program, to work with Prof. (Sir) Ian Axford on planetary magnetospheres and comets, I had the great privilege of working with Hannes and Gustaf as well, and also co-authored several papers with all three. Indeed, much of the chemistry I needed to know in my study of the nature of comets, I learned from Gustaf. Also my subsequent work on the physics of complex (dusty) plasmas was inspired by the work of these pioneers.

To end on a personal note, I would like to acknowledge the kindness and hospitality afforded to me (and subsequently to my wife Janine) by Gustaf and his gracious wife Jenny (herself the daughter of the chemistry Nobelist George de Hevesy), ever since I joined UCSD. Gustaf was not only a great scholar and teacher, he was also a deeply committed humanitarian and the epitome of a true gentleman."

Asoka Mendis, UC San Diego

"I have many fond memories of Gustaf. He was my PhD supervisor from September 1997 to March 2003, and since then we have been friends and stayed in contact until he passed away this year.

I studied geochemistry in Utrecht, The Netherlands, and graduated in the summer of 1997. At that time I had a very strong scientific interest in the origin of life, and the search for life on other planets such as Mars (I still have that strong interest). I was admitted to the PhD program at UCSD, and started at SIO in the Fall of that year. Gustaf’s research focused on the oldest traces of life on Earth. His PhD student Stephen Mojszis had just finished, and had moved to UCLA. Shortly after, in 1998/1999 Gustaf's new postdoc, Aivo Lepland, would arrive, to also work on this topic. At the time there were several funding programs in the US that focused on the study of the origin and early evolution of life. I remember it was a very exciting time for me as a graduate student to start working on this topic.

Right from the start, the very first moment I met Gustaf in his office in September 1997 (then still in Ritter Hall), it was clear to me that he was a very special person. He was the ultimate example of an open mind. Everything could be discussed, everything was interesting, and literally everything was possible. On that first day we discussed what classes I should take, and he encouraged me to not only take classes at SIO, but also participate in classes in the Materials Science Department and Chemistry Department. This was tough and challenging for me as a student, but as I passed my courses I had the feeling I was broadening my perspective in a profound way. Afterwards I'm still so grateful to Gustaf to instill in me this interdisciplinary, curiosity-driven mindset.

After my departmental exam in 1998, when we were celebrating that I had passed, he suddenly said: well, Mark, do you want to go to Greenland to see the oldest rocks on Earth? I asked if this is possible, and he answered, 'sure, why not?'. Many times during my PhD I heard him say these three words 'sure, why not?'. Before I knew it I was sitting in a helicopter, flying over the icefield near Godhaabsford. From that field work onward, until my PhD defense in 2003, and in the years after that, Aivo, Gustaf and I have worked on the characterization of graphite in the 3.8 billion-year-old Isua Supracrustal Belt, in Southwestern Greenland. We have published several papers together, that have profoundly changed the interpretation of the oldest traces of life on Earth. I am deeply indebted to Gustaf for his supervision during this research.

In the years that I worked with him, I got to know Gustaf as an extremely nice person. This sounds simple, but I really mean this in a truly personal and professional way. He never raised his voice, never expressed frustration or anger, and always treated everyone's opinion with respect. In my professional career I have now encountered many personalities in science. I have never again encountered someone like Gustaf, who was able to focus entirely on scientific wonder and open intellectual discussion. As a scientist it is nowadays easy to loose oneself in the ongoing game of fund-raising, networking, and high-impact publishing. A trait that is often lost in this game, and that is rarely instilled in young scientists, is to simply be nice to fellow scientists. Gustaf did that, he actually instilled that in people – to be nice.

I fondly remember the times Gustaf would invite us to his home in La Jolla. We would sit with him and Jenny in their garden, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and have lively discussions on science, hear stories about their amazing family history, and make plans for the future."

Mark van Zuilen, Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris

"I knew Gustaf Arrhenius since 1996 when I joined his group at Scripps; first as a NASA Planetary Biology fellow and then as post-doctoral researcher. This was the time when much of the research in his group was focused on deciphering the earliest traces of life in the terrestrial rock record. I felt very much privileged I had an opportunity to conduct the biodiagnostics research with broad general interest in one of the principal research groups in the field under spearheading of Gustaf.

Gustaf was recognized not only as excellent scientist with numerous significant contributions over the decades from studies including deep ocean sediments, ancient rocks from Greenland and Lunar samples, but importantly also for his overall positive attitude and his ability to see people truly as they are with their good and bad. Gustaf will be remembered as a special person whose inspiration reached far beyond the professional lives of his students and colleagues."

Aivo Lepland, Geological Survey of Norway

"Opening my email a few days ago and finding a notice about Gustaf’s death was a very sad moment for me. Gustaf was one of the main reasons I came to Scripps for graduate work 1968; as an undergraduate I had read the famous 1958 Goldberg and Arrhenius paper on the geochemistry of Pacific sediments and it inspired me to think about a career in marine geology. Then, while working on a master’s degree at McMaster University, a fellow student – he was from Chile and had spent some time at Scripps – told me that when he was in La Jolla, he would walk to work each morning along the beach, barefoot. In the midst of a cold Canadian winter, this sounded very attractive. He also said, unprompted, that Gustaf Arrhenius was a genius. So in September 1968 I arrived at Scripps to pursue a PhD, possibly, I hoped, with Gustaf. But when I wrote up a short proposal about examining the rare earth elements in deep sea sediments, he told me kindly but firmly that there were more interesting things to work on. It was one of his salient characteristics – he was always looking for something new to investigate. Not long afterward his group was deeply involved in examining the mineralogy and chemistry of the first lunar samples from Apollo 11.

Gustaf was a brilliant scholar with an eclectic range of interests. He was also a gentleman, always gracious and without pretention. When he and Jenny hosted one of their wonderful parties at their home, secretaries, technicians and we lowly graduate students were treated no differently than famous visiting scientists. I also recall a cosmochemistry seminar in the Urey Room at which Gustaf and a renowned visiting cosmochemist debated ideas about meteorite formation and chemistry. Afterwards someone commented that we had just witnessed a duel between a street fighter and a gentleman. There was no need to explain which one was the gentleman.

Gustaf did not have an especially large number of students, but those of us privileged to work with him found a mentor who let us have free rein to follow our own ideas – sometimes to dead ends, which was a great learning experience – but who was always available for advice and guidance. He was unfailingly encouraging and supportive, and a good teacher. Later, when we were fellow faculty members, he was a colleague and friend I could turn to easily for advice. After leaving Scripps in 2005, I tried to see him whenever I was in town – most recently about four years ago, when he served Sheila and me tea and biscuits with honey from his hives in the canyon. He was his usual lively and inquisitive self, and it’s hard to believe there will be no more such encounters. His passing has left a gap in the world for many of us, and he will be greatly missed."

Doug Macdougall, Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego

Written by Scripps Institution of Oceanography

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