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Voyages to the Bottom of the Sea : Harmon Craig's Adventures With Underwater Volcanoes

January 24, 1988|JANNY SCOTT | Janny Scott is a Times staff writer.

IN THE BUSINESS OF wrenching truth from the Earth, 1987 was a banner year.

It began for Harmon Craig with a descent in a titanium ball into the crater of an active underwater volcano, a place of monstrous monkfish and vast carpets of worms and hot water seeping from fissures that slice deep into the planet.

Then, in April, Craig went two miles down into the frigid blackness of the deepest Pacific, through forests of chimneys spewing boiling water that shimmered like glycerin. Pink anemones, like bits of confetti, hung in the water. Massive mountain slopes teemed with shrimp and snails.

Finally, last October, in the vast stretches of ocean southeast of Tahiti, a volcano erupted beneath Craig's research ship. For two days, he and the crew watched the troubled sea simmer and churn, and fished from that strange soup a sizzling volcanic rock.

"People say, 'Why do you keep going to these Godforsaken places?' " Craig muses one recent afternoon in his lab at UC San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla. "The answer is that you find things by going out and looking for them."

Harmon Craig is a gumshoe of geochemistry, a cryptographer of the codes that leak from the Earth. He is a hunter of elusive gases and minerals and rocks, piecing together a map of the Earth's interior from the clues that seep and explode through its crust. For 30 years, he has plumbed oceans and scoured volcanoes in a series of extraordinary expeditions, transforming our understanding of the history and chemistry of the oceans, atmosphere and inner Earth--as he has put it, "wrenching truth from the Earth."

Now Craig has been named one of two co-recipients of the world's top prize in earth sciences, the Vetlesen award, recognizing a lifetime of work that, some colleagues say, would be sufficient for the careers of half a dozen scientists.

"He's really one of a handful of people who invented the field of modern geochemistry," says John Edmond, a geochemistry professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "If it wasn't for Harmon, there would be a lot of floundering around going on."

Craig also happens to be a notorious character--a man with the rambunctious spirit and rumpled demeanor of Dennis the Menace at 61; a lover of music, a quoter of Shaw and T. S. Eliot, professing surprise that audiences no longer get his classical allusions. Colleagues call him humorous, theatrical, abrasive, brilliant--a man who pursues problems so relentlessly he ends up devouring entire fields of study. One associate named a mineral after him, Craigite: Under normal temperatures and pressure, it explosively decomposes into hot air and water.

He can also be a fierce and bitter critic. By his own admission, he has alienated colleagues and hurt friends. On committees, he finds himself a minority of one. Called for jury duty, he says, he is invariably thrown off.

"I have a way of thinking, at least, that I see very clearly how things should be done," he remarks, only half-apologetic. "You know, it's that definition of a fanatic: 'Someone who said he was doing things the way God would do it if He really knew the facts.' "

At Scripps, where he is a professor of geochemistry and oceanography, Craig is largely nocturnal. To avoid distractions, he works in his rambling basement lab late into the night. Then he goes home and works until dawn, aiming to fall asleep just before sunrise and the noise of morning.

Matters financial and clerical are ceded to his wife, Valerie, his assistant and expedition companion for the past 20 years. Craig and others credit the couple's collaboration and her patience with making possible his unprecedented work.

They have been mugged at panga-point by Masai tribesmen. They have been shanghaied by Zairean gunboats on Lake Tanganyika. His left foot and ankle are the texture of lizard skin, from falling through a thin layer of earth into boiling water while hunting hot springs at Yellowstone. Once, he gave up a three-pack-a-day smoking habit on a peak in Tibet, caught bronchitis and ended up hospitalized in Lhasa, receiving injections of Tibetan goat horn, which he later brought home for analysis--discovering with glee that it promoted penicillin uptake.

"James Thurber said the definition of a humorist is a person to whom things happen," says Edmond of MIT, who regularly accompanies Craig on expeditions. "Things happen to Harmon in a way that they don't happen to other people. It's just his attitude to life."

"He is a great actor," says Devendra Lal, another professor at Scripps. "He is actually thinking of himself all the time, I'm sure, as a unique Shakespearean actor or somebody on the stage. And each performance is better than the previous one."

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