UT Dallas Magazine

Fake Moon Dirt Creator Recollects on His Time at UTD

Dr. Anton Hales (standing), Dr. Ian MacGregor and Dr. James Carter inspected Earth samples in preparation for analyzing lunar surface materials.

Editor’s Note: This Hindsight article appeared in the spring 2014 issue of UT Dallas Magazine.

For 43 years, Dr. James L. Carter, associate professor emeritus, conducted research first at the Southwest Center for Advanced Studies and then at UT Dallas, taught classes in the Department of Geosciences, and led countless numbers of geology field camps. He is world-renowned for his expertise in “simulated lunar regolith,” which is virtually indistinguishable from moon dirt. He is also known for discovering and helping to excavate in Big Bend National Park the articulated neck of an Alamosaurus.

“I came to UT Dallas as a research scientist in fall 1964, when the University was the Southwest Center for Advanced Studies. What brought me here was the opportunity to become part of a group of individuals who were working on cutting-edge science that had to do with the whole earth.

“I was intrigued by the nature of the people here and their vision. It had nothing to do with the physical structure that was here, as such, because it [Founders Building] wasn’t here. When I came and interviewed, Founders was nothing but a hole in the ground.

“One of the things that I personally like to see is for young students of all ages to develop critical thinking skills. They come to UT Dallas to look at things like these collections of specimens and get turned on to science, especially geosciences.

“Rocks always fascinated me. On visits to my maternal grandparents in Illinois, I had my parents stop along the road so I could look at the rocks and road cuts. Sometimes I might find a fossil — it was really exciting!

“Then I would go to the museums and look at the dinosaurs or specimens on display. But as a kid, it always bothered me to look at a specimen and not be able to see the back of it.

“So that’s why I’ve designed our display cases with mirrors. They allow you to see the front and back of the specimen at the same time. You can begin to appreciate nature and the rarity of such pieces. These pieces are very aesthetically pleasing. They’re nature’s art.”

Retired since 2007, Carter continues to be a presence on campus, curating and maintaining dazzling displays of geological specimens as well as an outdoor rock garden.

The display cases and rock garden were designed by Carter to provide 360-degree observation of fossils, gems and minerals from around the world.

While Carter, an inveterate collector, personally found and added to the department’s collection of several thousand specimens, much of it also was acquired through donations from businesses and individuals, such as the Zale Corp. and the family of John D. and Eva Watson Williamson.

Learn more about the University’s mineral, gem and fossil collection.