Nicholas M. Short (July 18, 1927–June 12, 2011)


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Nicholas Martin Short, a geologist who helped establish the fields of shock metamorphism and terrestrial meteorite impact crater studies, and who later made contributions to lunar sample investigations and the use of remote sensing in terrestrial geology, died on June 12, 2011, in Mitchellville, Maryland, after a long battle with cancer.

Nick’s scientific career, as well as his personality, was characterized by imagination, independence, enthusiasm, persistence, intense and articulate communication, a real love of teaching, a wide range of scientific and nonscientific interests, and a marvelous sense of humor. He filled many roles in his lifetime: as a productive and multidisciplinary scientist, a dedicated and effective educator, an entertaining and valued colleague, a happy and loving husband and father, and an unintentional focus for random improbable and whimsical events. He will be missed by his family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances.

Nick was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1927. He received a B.S. in Geology from St. Louis University ( l951), an M.S. in Geology from Washington University (St. Louis) (1954), and a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1958). With his brand-new Ph.D. in sedimentation and geochemistry, he made the first of several major career shifts: instead of continuing in traditional geochemistry, he joined the AEC’s Lawrence Livermore Laboratory’s Plowshare Program, which was investigating the peaceful uses of atomic energy, and he became the only geoscientist in a large group of nuclear engineers and solid-state physicists who were busy making large explosions in the Nevada desert.

“In the presence of physicists and engineers,” Nick wrote in a recent memoir (Short 2004), “I learned fast about the phenomenology of nuclear explosions.” He had to. He had been dropped into a world far removed from traditional geology; the chief process here was the near-instantaneous release of immense amounts of energy at a point source, followed quickly by the alteration of the surrounding target rocks by extreme physical conditions: intense high-pressure transient shock waves, high temperatures, and rapid deformation of both the target rocks and the individual minerals in them.

Nick quickly observed that, although the Plowshare Program was producing numerous chemical and nuclear explosions, there was little effort to use established geological methods (structural mapping, petrography) to systematically study these deformation effects around the explosion sites, even though such information could be critical to understanding the mechanisms and effects of the explosions themselves. Starting out on his own initiative, and promoting an increasing amount of support from his superiors, he spent the years between 1959 and 1964 studying the geological effects of a long line of famous chemical and nuclear explosion experiments: Rainier, Hardhat, Danny Boy, Sedan, and others (Short 1965, 1966c, 1968a, 1968b, 1969, 1970a, 2004). In between big explosions, he branched out to perform smaller explosive experiments on laboratory samples of rocks and minerals (Short 1968c), first using a conveniently available 16-inch naval gun, and then developing his own smaller implosion-tube experiments, in which a sample was surrounded by a cylindrical shell of explosive.

In his studies of samples from both field and laboratory explosions, Nick found unusual and sometimes unique deformation effects, ranging from megascopic fracturing and flow (Short 1968a) to extreme melting. In particular, he observed and described petrographic features that were just starting to be noted by other workers in natural geological settings: mineral grains converted in place to glassy materials, and curious multiple sets of parallel planes in quartz grains. (The latter features would eventually become known as the “Planar Deformation Features [PDFs],” which are now generally regarded as the most widespread and diagnostic indicator of terrestrial meteorite impact events [Short 1965, 1968b, 1968c; Sclar et al. 1968]).

Nick’s unusual and solitary studies intersected the small but growing field of impact geology when he attended the May 1964 Conference on Geological Problems in Lunar Research in New York (Short 1965, 2004). Amid an atmosphere of spirited discussion about the origin of lunar craters, the production of tektites, and the nature of terrestrial “cryptoexplosion structures,” Nick’s paper, “Comparisons of features characteristic of nuclear explosion craters and astroblemes” (Short 1965), met on the same program with papers from a group of Canadian scientists (in particular, C. S. Beals and Michael Dence) who were discovering the same features in drill cores from several strange circular structures on the Canadian shield. (Full disclosure: I was at the meeting as a not-quite-awarded Ph.D. I remember the papers, and I remember even more the enthusiastic dinner discussions that followed as Nick and the Canadians discovered just how much their seemingly separate work had in common.)

The implications of these combined papers became quickly clear (Short 1966a, 2004) (1) if these petrographic features (and especially the quartz PDFs) were unique to nuclear explosions, then they could be formed only at pressures and stress conditions that were far above the possible range of conventional geological mechanisms; (2) if the identical features were found in the rocks of natural structures, the only plausible mechanism for their formation was a similar brief and indescribably violent event; (3) the only candidate for such a process in nature was a large meteorite impact. Suddenly, only two years after the discovery of the high-pressure indicator minerals coesite and stishovite in meteorite impact craters, geologists were now presented with a range of unique and durable petrographic features that could be used to establish, simply and quickly, the impact origin of even very large and very old terrestrial impact structures. Scientific beginnings can be hard to pinpoint, but it can be argued the petrographic identification of meteorite impact structures was launched with Nick’s presentation at this conference and by his meetings with other geologists who had been working on the same problems in the field. The next few years saw an explosive increase in the number of confirmed terrestrial impact structures, a process in which Nick enthusiastically participated (French et al. 1970; Short 1970d; Short and Gold 1996).

Nick then played a major part in helping to generate what was probably the next important milestone in impact geology studies: the Conference on Shock Metamorphism of Natural Materials. In l964, Nick had also made another career swerve, leaving the Lawrence Livermore Lab to become a professor of geology at the University of Houston, Texas. A year later, Nick and I were bouncing in the back of the bus on a Geological Society of America excursion through the “cryptoexplosion structures” of southern Missouri, discussing (among other things) the current state and future of impact geology. At that time (as we thought) impact-related studies were scattered among three different groups of scientists, few of whom knew of the other individuals and their research: nuclear engineers and other theoreticians; geoscientists involved in static high-pressure, high-temperature phase equilibria studies; and field geologists who were beginning to study possible natural impact structures in increasing detail.

I think that the idea of a conference hit us both at the same time, and the subsequent path from the back of the bus to the lecture hall was quick and smooth. It was the peak of the run-up to Apollo, the topic was relevant to lunar missions, and seed money and support were easy to come by. The conference, held at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in April 1966, brought these different communities together; accomplished a great deal of mutual education; generated a lot of enthusiasm; and sent the participants, especially the geologists, back out into the world with new ideas and new things to look for. The conference cemented a group of individual, solitary workers into a small but coherent research community, and the proceedings volume, Shock metamorphism of natural materials (French and Short 1968), became the standard reference work for the new field of impact geology (Fig. 2). Still known, then and now, as the “Green Bible,” the book suddenly became especially popular and sought-after in 1980, when the recognition of a major meteorite impact at the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction boundary suddenly shoved impact geology into the geological mainstream.

Figure 2.

 The Bonfire of the Galley Proofs. Nick Short (right) and the writer exchange congratulations on the 1968 publication of their book, Shock Metamorphism of Natural Materials, standing victorious amid piles of draft manuscripts, galley proofs, and other book-related papers.

In 1967, Nick moved again, from the University of Houston to the Goddard Space Flight Center, where he combined his impact-crater research with an increasing interest in lunar studies. His studies were not numerous, but they were imaginative and penetrating. In an early paper (Short and Forman 1972), he applied cratering models to demonstrate that the visible lunar surface was composed not of solid bedrock, but of layers of impact breccias several kilometers thick. He applied his observations of “instant rock” (particulate target rocks lithified by impact processes) (Short 1966b) to the origins of lunar samples (Short 1970b). He served as a principal investigator for the Apollo 11 lunar samples, and he was one of a few scientists to identify in his samples the white anorthosite fragments and to conclude (Short 1970c) that they represented fragments of an original, once-molten lunar crust.

As the Apollo Program ended, Nick began new explorations of his own, heading, not surprisingly, in a different direction that took him back to Earth. He learned to love the computer, inserted himself into the new and growing field of spaceborne remote sensing, and worked on understanding the geology of the Earth from the new perspective provided by orbital spacecraft. As always, he tried to be a bridge between the new field and the geological community, bringing geological insights into NASA’s planning and mission activities and seeing that the new information and images were communicated to geoscientists around the world (Short 1976, 1982; Short and Blair 1986). His landmark publication Mission to Earth (Short et al. 1976), a scientific geoscience analysis of early Landsat images, was a high point in this continuing two-way communication.

During this time at Goddard, Nick also expanded these activities into a then-new educational concept: a computer-generated and network-based series of lectures and demonstrations to teach new generations of geologists how to observe the Earth from orbit and understand its geology from this new perspective. When he retired from Goddard to Bloomsburg College in 1988 (still one more career diversion), he took these ideas with him and developed them into the highly successful and long-lived NASA Remote Sensing Tutorial, which has been a prominent feature on NASA’s Web page for more than two decades. Over the years, the tutorial has evolved into what might be called the “neverending Web page,” and Nick literally spent the next decades in expanding, modifying, and improving it. Even after being diagnosed with cancer, he worked on it steadily until just a few months before his death.

Nick was a marvelous scientist and person. His mind combined wide and varied knowledge with imagination, enthusiasm, and a large number of scientific and other interests, which notably included birdwatching and classical music (especially Mahler). He was a facinating conversationalist, with a large fund of topics and experiences, and an enthusiastic taste (or weakness) for puns. I remember long sessions of research and editing together that were enlivened with rapid-fire verbal volleyball between us, although rumors that bystanders would flee out of earshot have been exaggerated.

As friends and acquaintances quickly came to realize, Nick was also an amazingly effective lightning rod for the bizarre. If there was any strange event or situation flying around that was unpredictable, unusual, ironic, harmless, and just plain weird, it would be sure to come down and perch on Nick’s shoulder. How else can one explain his many lesser-known achievements: How he became the only known uniformed U.S. serviceman to render saluting honors to an off-course German V-2 rocket? How he received tickets to the Bayreuth Wagner festival from the hand of Wieland Wagner himself? How he managed to become only the fourth scientist to swallow a lunar sample? These ordinary things are known; his activities with Bob Dietz on the streets of Prague during the Russian invasion of 1968 remain a story for which the world is not yet ready. He was not only a fascinating and enjoyable person himself; his character and abilities generated enthusiasm, enjoyment, and unpredictability in a wide volume of time and space around him.

Despite Nick’s diversity, I think of him mostly as a teacher. He came to NASA from an academic setting, and he went back to an academic setting when he retired. He combined a genuine, driving enthusiasm for his research with an even greater drive to communicate to others the excitement of scientific discovery and to urge them to get involved in the process (Fig. 3). He talked and lectured about his research often, combining both clarity and enthusiasm. In 1968, just a year before the launch of Apollo 11, Nick, on his own initiative, generated an ad hoc all-day tutorial on the petrography of shocked rocks and how to recognize them for a group of Apollo 11 sample principal investigators. He brought the group from a NASA meeting in Washington, DC to the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD; arranged for the use of laboratory space and petrographic microscopes from the university’s Department of Geology; and gave his audience a memorable (and prescient) show-and-tell on what the soon-to-be-returned lunar rocks might looks like. Nick could talk enthusiastically to scientists and citizens alike; no one could listen without learning about science, the universe, and Nick’s own work, and everyone would enjoy the learning process.

Figure 3.

 The Constant Lecturer. In a setting typical of much of his life and work, Nick Short gives a presentation about science and impact craters at the 1966 Conference on Shock Metamorphism of Natural Materials. Much of his life and work was spent in communicating science to audiences of all kinds, through lectures, books, articles, and the Internet.

Nick educated by writing as well as by talking. All the time Nick was doing active research, he was also lecturing and writing, and he produced an impressive number of introductory teaching textbooks on many different fields. He wrote Volcanic Landforms and Surface Features (Short and Green 1971) and Planetary Geology (Short 1975) in the midst of his research on impact craters and Apollo samples, while Mission to Earth (Short et al. 1976) was the early product of his new post-Apollo activities in terrestrial remote sensing.

Nick was a fortunate and a blessed man. As a scientist, he was truly “present at the creation,” and he helped shape the structure of a new field that is now a solid part of mainstream geology. His work and its implications will be part of the future study of the Earth and the solar system as long as there are people willing and able to study them. His work and his stature have been recognized by his selection as an Apollo 11 principal investigator; by a NASA Research Grant to study the West Hawk Lake, Canada impact structure; by two NASA Exceptional Performance Awards; and by several other awards. He has been truly fortunate in his many friends and family, especially in Eleanor, his wife of more than 50 years, his son Nick Jr., daughter-in-law Sandy, and two grandchildren. He did important and exciting things in science, he did them with joy and enthusiasm, and he helped a whole generation to explore and understand the universe.

In Westminster Abbey, the grave of the English architect Sir Christopher Wren carries the epitaph, “If you seek his monument, look around you.” The best epitaph for Nick would be, “If you seek his monument, log on.” A few keystrokes ( will take you to a page that reads “Dr. Nicholas Short’s Remote Sensing Tutorial,” the web site that Nick constructed for NASA and for all of us. It’s all in there: the beauty and wonder of the universe, the joy of exploring it, the struggle to reach and explore other worlds (including our own), the exciting and unexpected things that we have learned, the thoughts of what we might learn in the future, his concern to educate everyone (and especially the young) about how wonderful it is to explore. True to Nick’s scientific roots, there is also a good introductory chapter on the discovery, geology, and importance of meteorite impact craters as well.