James Carter

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Transcript of James Carter

Recorded Dec. 4, 2009
2:00 p.m.
Multipurpose Building
Office of Communications, UT Dallas

Host: Brandon V. Webb, Communications Manager

Host: Greetings and welcome to A Conversation With... Geosciences Professor Emeritus Dr. James Carter. Dr. Carter earned his bachelor’s of science degree in mining and geological engineering from Texas Western University, now the University of Texas at El Paso, and his PhD in Geochemistry from Rice University. In 1964 he came here to the Graduate Research Center of the Southwest . He was here when the organization became the Southwest Center for Advanced Studies in 1967, was still here in 1969 when it joined the UT System to become UT Dallas and after 43 years of geosciences researching and teaching at UT Dallas, Dr. Carter retired in 2008. In honor of his quality and length of service, the School of Natural Science and Mathematics created the James L. Carter Scholarship Fund. Though retired now from teaching and research, Dr. Carter hasn’t given up his other job, he is a world renowned expert in simulated lunar regolith, in other words, fake moon dirt. He has developed a process to simulate moon dirt, which he routinely supplies to NASA. Thanks for being here Dr. Carter.

Dr. Carter: Thank you.

Question: You helped discover an Alamosaurus Dinosaur, in Big Bend National Park. What is an Alamosaurus?

Dr. Carter: Alamosaurus is a very large plant eating dinosaur. That animal was large enough that it could look into the window of any building on this campus. A young lady by the name of Dana Biasetti discovered some bones of juvenile dinosaurs, and it was during subsequent excavations and things that I discovered this particular portion of an adult dinosaur. It was unique because there were ten cervical vertebrae, that is the neck vertebrae, that were in the articulated position. Until this time, no complete vertebrae of the Alamosaurus had been found, and here we discovered ten complete.

Question: Is that specimen still on display somewhere?

JC: It’s not on display yet, but it may become on display later at the new Dallas Museum of Natural History.

Question: So let’s get to the other topic in the room that keeps you occupied these days: the moon dirt. What got you started in the first place making moon dirt?

JC: Well, in 1993, I was contacted by NASA to see if it was possible that I could make a simulated moon dirt because it was necessary to have tons of this material for research on space suits and equipment, dust on the equipment, things of that nature; and I subsequently was able to develop about 20 tons for them at that time.

Question: The initial 20 tons that you made, you said that supply was exhausted, so you’ve been in the process of making more. How much do you think you’ve made in total?

JC: Total: A minimum of 51 metric tons.

Question: How is it distinguishable from actual moon dirt? Is there any difference?

JC: There are a number of differences, but what we try to do is get as close as we can in chemistry and in particle size distribution. The lunar surface has a particle size distribution that’s completely different than anything on earth. You go from particles that are significantly less than one micrometer in diameter to particles that are, say, larger than ten centimeters.

Question: Are you the only supplier of this material?

JC: I am the only supplier of–this is a “Maria,” which is from the dark areas on the moon. A maria stimulant: I am the only supplier of it.

Question: Have you met the other variety suppliers?

JC: Yes.

Question: Yeah. Small community, I’d imagine.

JC: It’s a very small community. Worldwide it’s a very small community.

Question: I’d imagine so. How much material did they actually bring back from the moon?

JC: It was less than 400 pounds.

Question: Several. Let’s go back in time a little bit back to 1964. What brought you to the Graduate Research Center of the Southwest, or maybe more importantly, who brought you here?

JC: What brought me here was a talk that was given at Rice University, and before the talk was given, the gentleman talked about this new sort of like experiment that was being done up here in the northern part of Dallas county. What brought me here was the opportunity to become part of a group of individuals that were working on cutting edge science that had to do with the whole earth. Looking at the mantle in particular, which I was quite interested in and was part of my dissertation research.

Question: You were at Rice University at the time, and obviously a larger, very well established University, big program there. How did it look like a good opportunity for you to come?

JC: What intrigued me was the nature of the people here and their vision, and the idea of being able to work at cutting edge science on deep earth problems. That’s what intrigued me. It had nothing to do with the physical structure that was here, as such, because it wasn’t here. When I came and interviewed, it was nothing but a hole in the ground.

Question: What other places were geoscientists with your education and background going?

JC: There were very, very few. Maybe MIT was one area where they were doing this. Maybe CalTech. We’re talking less than a handful of places that were working in mantle type of problems.

Question: Obviously, the founders were very present at the time. Were you interacting with Jonsson and Green and McDermott?

JC: Not from the point of view of research, no, but Lloyd Berkner. There were two other scientists that were on the faculty at the time. I came as a research scientist. That was Ian McGregor and Brian Davis. We had an interactive cooperative. In fact, when I first came here, they were in Africa collecting samples at the various, famous, diamond-bearing kimberlite mines, and that’s what I came to work on, was those inclusions that they were getting from the kimberlites. That’s what really got me interested in coming.

Question: You beat one of the other legends to campus by about four years, Dr. John Hoffman came here in 1969, yet you were here in 1964. Tell me about your recollections of campus at the time. What did you see? What did it look like?

JC: The campus was very compact. There were only three buildings. There was the reality that was just Founders and the Founders West Annex, and then there was a very small building that had the high voltage equipment in it. Shortly after that, they built two. There was a physical plant building and there was a building for staff. Both of those buildings are still here, as a matter of fact, up on the northern part of campus.

Question: Did you have office and lab space there in Founders somewhere?

JC: In Founders, yes.

Question: So, how many people were here at that time in 1964?

JC: By the time I was here, I think it was just over 100 people.

Question: Did you have any idea that years later, up and through the length of your entire career, including your retirement, that you would still be a daily figure here on this campus?

JC: No, because when I came, I was going to be either one or two years.

Question: Still waiting for that?

JC: Still waiting.

Question: Wow.

JC: It was one or two years.

Question: And yet you’re still motivated and inspired to come in every day. Why is that?

JC: Every day that I’m not at the mill. Science is one of those things where there’s something new all the time. That’s the exciting part of being in science. You discover new things.

Question: What are some of the best parts of how you’ve watched this organization grow?

JC: Well, if we start at the very beginning, it was an extremely exciting place to be. There was no project too large or too small that people wouldn’t tackle, no matter how difficult it was. It was a can do attitude. It was amazing. It was the 60s, and we were going to the moon. Building up of the university at first as a graduate school, obviously, the foundation of that was SCAS. So, we had very intense, it was very high level research and then the undergraduates came on slowly in piecemeal fashion. Unfortunately, some of the graduates started drifting the graduate programs, but I see a completely different situation now. I see the same kinds of enthusiasm that we had in the early SCAS days. That’s another thing that’s exciting to me: we’re getting back to that kind of can do attitude.

Question: One of the things, talking to people around campus about you in particular, that is highlighted is not only quality research, but also a real customer service oriented attitude toward educating students. You, it seems, have a very high value on the overall student experience, not just that they get a quality education, but that they receive some mentorship from the faculty. Is that true?

JC: That’s very true. A person’s career is everything you know that affects their life, however long they had been involved in it; and you can impart some of that knowledge into the students so they can learn some things. It’s impossible to live long enough to make all mistakes yourself, and people who are intelligent and creative, they learn from that, you know. As they say, sometimes that we always are standing on shoulders of someone that went before us.

Question: Indeed. 44 years after coming here to this building in a field, lengthy career of teaching and crafting a novel technique to simulate the moon dirt, supplying this critical research tool to NASA and space scientists looking back on your life and career. What are the things that you are most proud of?

JC: I think probably the thing that I am most proud of is to be able to take a student that is literally diamond in the ruff and getting them up to the point where they can go out of that door and you feel proud, you feel like you have accomplished something and helping them to reach their goals as a researcher or a teacher, whatever. It is quite interesting to see the change in some students when suddenly they are no longer asking the questions per se, but they are actually supplying the answers and sort of teaching others that just come in the door, you know you have accomplished something. And it’s always nice to have students come back and tell you how much they really appreciate what you have done for them. They don’t always understand that the point at the time why are you doing some of the things you are doing, but later on they understand and they even use some of your methods to get the students to think. I think it’s critical that they think independently of you, but you help them to develop the tools to do that. I always tell my students that when you walk out of that door I am not going to be in your hip pocket. You’ve got to think on your own.

Question: You have been a fixture on campus here and continue to be on daily basis. You designed gem and mineral display cases, you have taken care of the and really rehabbed the rock garden here on campus into a beautiful specimen of what we can show here on campus. So, after 44 years and after your gems and mineral displays and many other things that you’ve been involved in of late, what is next?

JC: My passion is that we here at UTD become a truly Tier One university, which means to me, you are taking an absolute first-class research organization, and I am taking about first class educational facility and not just educating the students, but helping to educate the community, where people want to come onto this campus, so that they can learn things, or if they want to bring their relatives or friends onto the campus to look at, for example, displays of things, in that nature. Something that always sort of intrigued me and I always said, don’t know who true it really is, but I always said that if you went out on Campbell road and you stopped 100 cars, probably 99 of them could not tell you where UTD is. I don’t think that’s the same anymore, and I want to see it when you stop 100 cars, 100 people will say there is UTD.

Question: And you have been a part of that.

JC: The University of this area. I’ve been a small part of it. There is a lot of people that make a university and a lot for the people don’t get recognition, you know such as people who help you do your research, the secretaries, there is a very large organization that makes up the thing called a University and usually you know a few people get all the glory, but a lot of times it’s the people in the background. I could not have done all of the lunar studies I did without James Tony’s help, because he was so remarkable, we would spend 18 hours or more a day, every day, 7 days a week, working, trying to get this stuff done, but we did it willingly, more than willingly, because it’s exciting, because you knew that every time you picked up a piece of lunar material and looked at it, you were the first person ever to look at that piece of material and make discoveries. And some of these discoveries were very fundamental type discoveries. Things like that, you know, you may go along and experience it for years and years and years, and its’ just grudge work and suddenly you make a discovery like that and it’s all worthwhile. Even if you didn’t make that discovery, it is still worth while, because hopefully you are doing something to advance science, and to help people to fulfill their dreams of career in science. So one of the things that I personally like to see for young students, you know, ones that are in or maybe even be the 3rd or 4th or the 5th grade, or what have you, to come in and look at things and get turned on to science or just turned on to doing whatever they really want to do in life, because sometimes you are told by counselors, and what have you, well you don’t want to go in there because there is no money in it. You don’t go into science necessarily for money, that’s not what you really doing it for.

Question: Why did you go into it?

JC: Because that was something I always liked as long as I can remember back 3 or 4 years old. I can remember when I was that age and I would go out to the gravel driveways of the neighbors, down in McAllen, where I lived and I would find agates or pretty rocks and things and it always fascinated me to see these things, We would go visit my grandparents up in Illinois, I had my parents stop along the road so I could I look at the rocks and you know, road cuts, might find a fossil, it was really exciting to find a fossil. Then you would go to the museums and look at the dinosaurs or whatever is on display and it was always fascinating to look at all aspects of the nature.

Question: Can I ask your age today?

JC: I am 72.

Question: 72. Many decades of passion for science and it shows.

JC: Yes.

Question: Well it truly has been a pleasure Dr. Carter and I thank you so very much for stopping by today,

JC: My pleasure.

Host: This has been a conversation with UT Dallas Geosciences Professor Emeritus Dr. James Carter brought to you by the University of Texas at Dallas and the Office of Communications. To find out more about the University, visit us on the web at Until the next conversation with, I am Brandon Webb. Be well.

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