Caltech seismology professor and Altadena resident, Donald V. Helmberger died August 14 at age 82.
Helmberger’s grit earned him positions at several top institutions and enabled him to transform the field of seismology and develop early warning systems that saved the lives of millions of people.
His kindness and generosity touched the soul of colleagues and friends who crossed his path. Helmberger lived each moment like his last, as his endless pursuit of knowledge and his love of people kept him mentally and physically engaged in everything that he did till the very end.
Helmberger was born January 23, 1938, in the small town of Perham, Minnesota. He was the youngest child of 13 in a family who struggled to keep their farm afloat in the midst of Northern Minnesota’s harsh winters. His older brother, John, realized the hardships of farming life, and emphasized the importance of education as a passport to having choices in life. Heeding his brother’s advice, Helmberger trudged along in the snow to primary and high school to pursue his ticket to freedom. Finally, this exhausting journey to get an education paid off, and Helmberger earned his bachelor’s from University of Minnesota in 1961.
Helmberger’s higher educational career exposed him to the diversity of the 50 states. One particular experience during his undergraduate career shaped his entire future in academics. Helmberger traveled with his friend, George Shor, from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, on a research cruise to Alaska to conduct seismic studies of the ocean crust in the Bering Sea. This exposure to seismology sparked a shift in Helmberger’s focus from physics to geophysics, in which he earned a masters and Ph.D. from UC San Diego in 1967.
After earning his doctorate, Helmberger made his way to the East Coast where he worked as a research assistant at MIT and then as a faculty member at Princeton. In 1970, he left the winters behind him and returned to sunny California as an associate professor at Caltech. Once he arrived in the Golden State, he immediately fell in love and never wanted to leave again.
Throughout his career at Caltech, Helmberger was a pivotal figure in the world of seismology. He became a full professor in 1979 and was the lab director from 1998 to 2003. During his time as lab director, he led the transition from analog to digital seismic network that ultimately allowed for early earthquake warnings. In 1997, he was the first recipient of the American Geophysical Union’s Inge Lehmann Medal. In 2004, he was named to the National Academy of Sciences, and became an emeritus professor in 2017.
“Don was a special person and a brilliant scientist who connected with students over many generations at Caltech,” said Mike Gurnis, seismological lab director.
“He was an absolutely genuinely nice man, who really cared about people and tried to help everyone. As an extraordinary scientist, he did many important things in terms of our understanding of planet Earth, and he trained generations of young seismologists who went on to make important discoveries of their own and who became prominent scientists in the USA and many other countries around the world.”
Helmberger was well known for understanding the deep interior of the Earth, specifically the core and the mantle, which he concluded is as complex as the exterior.
“He discovered more about the deep interior than anyone in the last half of the 20th century,” Gurnis said. “Don looked very carefully at what the Earth is telling us in terms of seismic waves. He had an ability to see anomalies in raw seismographic data that transcended everyone else in seismology.”
Helmberger’s diehard passion for understanding the causes of natural disasters helped keep him mentally and physically fit till his last day. To him, spending time in his lab was as natural as play. Until the age of 80, he biked to Caltech from his home in the foothills of Altadena, and ride back up daily on the steep Allen Avenue. Even though Helmberger retired from Caltech at age 80, he continued to be involved in various projects and to supervise the work of doctoral students.
In addition to the world of science, Helmberger had a deep interest in history and different cultures. A year before his death, at a social gathering, he asked a 5-year-old girl to ask her Turkish-only speaking grandmother, “when and how do you think the war in Syria will end?” Helmberger was genuinely interested in hearing her perspective and was happy with the 5-year old girl as his interpreter. If anyone broached a new idea or topic, Helmberger would listen attentively and ask thoughtful questions.
He was open to learning about anything and everything. Even the annual 21-day long Tour de France bicycle race fascinated him as he observed the tactics used by team members to eke out seconds of advantage by using wind resistance and relative biking positions. Not someone to usually watch television, he observed the Tour de France with the same intensity he brought to his research.
Helmberger’s relatively frequent travels for work often resulted in interesting side excursions with his son, Elliott. In 2009, the two of them traveled to South Central China, near the Tibetan border, and traversed the rural landscape while riding on Yaks, known as the beast of burdens in the Himalayas. In 2018, Helmberger recalled the interesting adventures they had along the way, interacting with monkeys and hand feeding bananas to them. He also had fond memories of a business trip to Hyderabad, India, where he was stuck in his hotel room while riots broke out on the streets following the assassination of then-prime minister, Indira Gandhi. Anytime Helmberger had the opportunity to see something that was out of the ordinary, his natural curiosity and formidable intellect took over and he could observe with equanimity even the violence erupting on Indian streets, 10,000 miles away from home.
All of his varied interests combined with his gentle, kind personality made Helmberger a wonderful friend to everyone who crossed his path.
Shobita Misra, a longtime family friend, described Helmberger as “a very fine man, and as gentle as a lamb.” Arvind Bhambri, professor at the USC Marshall School of Business, bonded with Helmberger over their shared love of Indian cuisine and learning about each other’s fields of specialization. Bhambri treasured the moments when he and Helmberger enjoyed spicy, Indian food and shared stories about each other’s research.
“Don was so smart that I could describe a complex business problem and he would make such perceptive and insightful observations that I would tell him he should have been a business professor. One of the many things that was so special about Don is that he could get to the essence of any subject in seconds,” Bhambri said.
Helmberger was a true embodiment of the phrase, “carpe diem.”
His love of learning and desire to seize the day led him away from his spartan, rural lifestyle in Minnesota to top universities, and ultimately to settling down in the bustling city of Los Angeles. Helmberger’s passion for intellectual pursuit kept his spirits and physical health vital until his last day on this Earth, an Earth that he understood better than anyone else in this world.
Reporter Nikhil Misra-Bhambri was a lifelong friend of Elliott Helmberger.