The big announcement first reached Leon Thomsen’s hands in a FedEx mailer, which he left unopened on the dining room table, as he and his wife Pat hit the road for a family visit in Dallas.
They were driving on Interstate 45, well north of Houston, when his cell phone lit up. Members of the selection committee of the prestigious National Academy of Engineering were welcoming Thomsen, research professor of geophysics at the University of Houston since 2008, into their ranks.
For his field, national honors do not come any grander than the NAE.
"The National Academy is more than just a plaque you hang on your wall. It advises the U.S. government on topics of national interest."
Back home, the official letter was waiting: The academy had chosen Thomsen for his extraordinary “contributions to seismic anisotropy concepts that produced major advances in subsurface analysis.” The reference is to his discovery of new methods to visualize properties of subsurface rock formations, which forever changed the ways front-line geophysicists find oil and natural gas.
In the larger picture, the NAE honored Thomsen for his revolutionary contributions to geophysics and his storied achievements over a long career in industry and academia, including his current appointment in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences in the UH College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. A Google search of “Thomsen parameter” reports hundreds of thousands of hits.
“When young people ask me what’s the secret of success, I often say it’s being lucky, and being prepared when that luck comes. I was lucky, early in my industrial career, to stumble upon a data set that showed the effects of anisotropy very clearly. If not for that dataset, I would have done something else, with less impact,” Thomsen said.
Each year, NAE members (numbering around 2,000) recognize outstanding technical and practical contributions by high-achieving industrial, academic and governmental engineers and applied scientists, electing them as new members of the academy.
“The National Academy is more than just a plaque you hang on your wall. It advises the U.S. government on topics of national interest (such as climate change and other issues where science is important), through projects and formal reports. I expect to play a role in this ongoing process,” he said.
Thomsen’s career milestones are many. He is the author of the most frequently cited article (4,700+ citations and counting) in the history of the profession. “Weak Elastic Anisotropy,” published in 1986, showed how to handle seismic data resulting from waves passing through rock, with velocities that differ according to direction. Those data reveal the shapes of the layers within the subsurface, and hint at the physical properties of the rocks, giving geophysicists an idea where oil and gas might be. “In short, that is what applied geophysicists do,” Thomsen explained.
“It turns out that all rocks are anisotropic (meaning their properties differ, depending on direction). We had been ignoring that for decades,” he said. “Once we learned how to deal with that properly, we got a lot better at finding oil and gas. That’s why that paper has been so frequently read.”
Thomsen is joined in the ranks of this year’s elected NAE members by fellow UH faculty Pradeep Sharma, M.D. Anderson Chair Professor and departmental chair of mechanical engineering in the Cullen College of Engineering, who was honored for establishing the field of flexoelectricity.
“With Professors Thomsen and Sharma’s elections, the University of Houston has 16 researchers in the National Academy of Engineering. These amazing honors reflect a lifetime of scientific problem-solving. We are pleased to have such outstanding examples of UH’s dedication to excellence in science,” said Paula Myrick Short, UH senior vice president for academic affairs and provost.
At the welcoming ceremony next October in Washington D.C., Thomsen and Sharma will join this year’s 111 new NAE members and 22 new international members (the equivalent honor for non-U.S. citizens). It’s impressive company:
- Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and Tesla Motors
- Farshid Guilak, pioneer in regenerative medicine and mechanobiology, who researches causes and regenerative treatment of osteoarthritis
- David K. Robinson, deputy director of CMC vaccines development and surveillance for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for helping bring vaccines and antibodies to emerging nations
- MiMi Aung, lead engineer for the first extraterrestrial aircraft (NASA’s Mars Ingenuity helicopter) and one of BBC’s top 100 Women in the World in 2019
… and the amazing list goes on.
“Even among the academy’s long list of great researchers, Leon Thomsen stands out for his major contributions. His studies of anisotropy long ago made him a leader in geophysics and paved the road to many other discoveries. His contributions continue. The NAE election crowns the host of recognitions that have marked his career,” said Amr Elnashai, UH vice president of research and technology transfer, who notes that Thomsen was also just inducted into The Academy of Medicine, Engineering & Science of Texas (TAMEST) as well.
In the Beginning...
Thomsen’s story begins in Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana, where he grew up during the 1940s and ’50s as the son of a doodlebugger – an oil finder.
“My father found lots of oil. I didn’t find a single barrel of oil, but I did find ideas – ideas that other people use in searching for oil,” he said.
He set early sights on a Caltech degree in nuclear physics (that would impress the girls, he thought), but he quickly transitioned to studying the future of geophysics.
“I was fascinated then by curiosity-driven geophysics, delving into the deep secrets of the earth. In the ’60s we didn’t know about plate tectonics or planetary physics. We were setting out to learn what is deep inside our world,” he said.
After graduating from Caltech, an interdisciplinary Ph.D. (blending geophysics and space physics) followed at Columbia University. His post-doctoral studies took him to France and back to Caltech. An eight-year teaching appointment at the State University of New York at Binghamton followed.
“At that time, the booming mid '70s, oil companies regularly sent recruiters for students as far north as New York.” So, he left a tenured professorship for an at-will contract at Amoco, first at its research center in Tulsa, and then at its exploration division in Houston. It was utility-driven geophysics, not curiosity-driven. “The profit motive just adds another dimension of intellectual challenge.”
In 2008, he retired from BP (Amoco and BP merged in 1998). The very next day he found himself being recruited again. This time, legendary UH geophysics Professor Bob Sheriff was convincing him to circle back to academia as a research professor in the UH Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.
“One result is this appointment to the National Academy of Engineering,” Thomsen said.
If Thomsen is right about success depending on luck, then he could be the luckiest man on earth, judging from his long lists of accomplishments and honors. But there is one opinion he values above all others, that of his wife, Purnima “Pat” Gulati Thomsen.
“It’s not so easy to impress a wife of long standing. She’s heard all your jokes, and she knows both the good and bad sides of everything you do. But the NAE honor? My own wife of 56 years said, ‘I’m proud of you.’ That is really great,” he said.
The rest of the world is proud of you, too, Leon Thomsen.