In Conversation: Tom Peterson and Ben Weiss

Dawn Adelson | EAPS News
Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Thomas F. Peterson, Jr. '51 (XII) is one of the Institute’s most enthusiastic advocates, whose wide range of interests and hobbies are reflected in the many areas of MIT that he supports—from cancer research to the conservation of rare books. 

Tom has long been curious about the properties of magnetism so it was no surprise that he and Ben Weiss, Associate Professor of Planetary Sciences, would hit it off. Ben is a paleomagnetist; he conducts magnetic studies on ancient rocks to better understand the formation and evolution of our solar system. Tom has been supporting Ben’s work for the past two years, and the two have developed a close bond and an easy rapport.

EAPSpeaks caught up with Tom and Ben when Tom was on campus for the Koch Institute Leadership Council meeting. Below are a few highlights from our conversation:

(To Tom) How did your MIT experience shape your personal life and career?

It had an indelible effect. Looking back, some of the best experiences were in the classroom, working with professors like Norbert Weiner, in freshmen calculus. Those memories will remain with me all my life.

(To Tom) What about Ben and his research intrigued you?

I took an MIT course on geophysics and have had a lifelong interest in the properties of magnetism.

(To Ben) Tom provided you with the financial resources to develop a more powerful SQUID microscope. Tell us about this gift and how it has affected your paleomagnetic studies.

My research team is broadly interested in the role of magnetic fields on planets in the early solar system. This area of research has all sorts of interesting implications--from the climatic history of Mars to the formation of planets. Because we analyze very small, weakly magnetized samples, we often can’t use a standard magnetometer. Thanks to Tom, we are developing what may well be the world’s most sensitive and highest spatial resolution magnetometer for measuring the remnant magnetization of geologic samples. Simply put, Tom has allowed us to take our instrument--and our research--to the next level. We actually got the first delivery of sensors recently and are in the process of testing them. When they’re up and running, our next step will be to see if we can detect evidence for the very first magnetic fields of the solar system.

(To Ben) You and Tom have known one another for just about three years now. What about Tom has surprised you the most?

Tom has taught me a lot about unconventional ideas in science, and in particular, ones that have a long history in scientific thought. He’s reminded me that many famous scientists had interesting ideas that were either ignored or incorrect and then forgotten.

A perfect example is Earth’s magnetic field and how it is generated. Tom has reminded me that the standard hypothesis that Earth’s magnetic field is generated by convection is actually a new idea. In fact, there were many scientists, including Einstein, who had totally different conceptions of how magnetism worked. Einstein proposed that the Earth had net charge because of the imbalance in the charge between the proton and the electron. That’s something we don’t even discuss in most classes today, but Einstein wrote a paper about it. I think that’s really interesting to think about. Now, all these ideas Tom has told me about, I actually mention in my classes because they’re just kind of cool. They help you understand that the history of science is actually a non-linear narrative.

(To Tom) What has surprised you about Ben?

His open-mindedness as well as his interest in rare books.

(To Tom) You are a collector of early scientific instruments and rare scientific books. What items in your collection do you most treasure?

Well, in the book department it’s a first edition Galileo called “the sun spot volume” among collectors. This was before Galileo was in trouble with the Vatican. There is correspondence at the back of this book with a Jesuit priest who later on, when Gallileo was under house arrest, wrote a massive tome about his own theory of sun spots. He was convinced they were either planets going in front of the sun or clouds passing over the surface. When that book became available, I made a point of buying it because the two volumes deserved to be kept together in the same collection. In the instrument area, a gold-leaf electrometer, used for measuring electric fields under different conditions. The one I have was developed to withstand being transported up a mountain in a saddle bag. I'm especially fond of it because I suspect it to be a particularly early prototype.

(To Ben) What is your favorite thing in Tom’s collection?

Ben: There are so many amazing things in Tom’s collection...One of the coolest things he sent me was an article about a gigantic burning lens from the 19th century. It was used to set things on fire.

Tom: Benjamin Franklin actually observed it being used. They would set it up outside the Louvre in Paris. Someone donated a ruby, which they melted, using the sun alone. They also had a diamond that they destroyed.

Ben: I’m surprised that MIT undergrads haven’t made one of these yet!

(To Ben) More recently, Tom made an even greater commitment to help you research the role of magnetic field mechanisms in the formation of planets. Tell us more about this gift and the impact it will have on your work and career.

Tom and I are both interested in alternative ways of generating magnetic fields. One idea we often discuss is that during its first 50 million years, the entire solar system generated a large-scale magnetic field. Without going into the details, we believe that this phenomenon may have been important in the evolution of the proto-planetary disk-basically in the formation of the sun and planets – yet there’s never been any direct evidence.

Tom’s support will allow us to analyze the most primitive solar system materials using in situ magnetic field measurements of a comet from the Rosetta spacecraft along with paleomagnetic studies of meteorites and returned samples from asteroids. Looking for magnetization in primitive materials is one of the Holy Grails of my field, so thank you very much Tom!

(To Tom) What factors go into your philanthropic decisions?

Well, the first thing I consider is whether or not the project is of interest to me. I’m generally swayed if funding from traditional sources is not available, and my support will make a tangible difference. I really wanted Ben to be able to work with data from Rosetta and knew that we would both enjoy the excitement of the search. 


The SQUID, the Planetary Scientist and a Lot of Little Bits of Moon Rock 
In this interview Ben talks about his research and how he became interested in the field of paleomagnetism.

Recent MIT News articles:

What drove the lunar dynamo?
Research supporting the theory that the moon’s molten core was likely sustained by an alternative power source - January 27

Battered asteroid may have warm core
New analysis of asteroid Lutetia finds evidence for molten interior - October 28


Closeup of SQUID Microscope sensor. Click anywhere on the image to find out more about MIT Paleomagnetism Lab research

This is a photo of the SQUID Microscope. Click anywhere on the image to see other instruments in the paleomagnetism lab.