Rocks always held a special fascination for young Arnold Bouma as he wandered around the natural-gas rich fields near his hometown of Groningen, The Netherlands, turning over stones and puzzling at their shapes and composition.
But it was at the side of a most unlikely mentor that the teenage Bouma got his first insights into the deeper mysteries of geology and learned he could actually make this earth science his life’s work.
“I guess you could say my first teacher was a local gravedigger,” said Bouma, this year’s AAPG Sidney Powers Medalist. “He was a most fantastic person with only two years of schooling, but he always kept a bucket of rocks that he’d found in his work.
“He was well known by the local professors, who sometimes came to him to see what he had collected,” Bouma recalled. “I helped him and we found some of the most beautiful rocks filled with fossils, all Paleozoic.”
From that primary, down-to-earth beginning, Bouma went on to become, in the words of his Powers citation, “an extraordinary geoscientist, a prolific author and editor, an educator committed to the highest standard of teaching and a researcher who advanced the geocommunities’ knowledge through his innovation, creativity and tireless contributions to deep-water sedimentology and stratigraphy.”
Bouma’s 1962 research findings identified a sequence for dividing deep-water turbidites into intervals -- which later came to be known as “the Bouma Sequence” -- was, the citation states, “truly a geological milestone of the 20th century.”
Arnold H. Bouma will receive the Powers Medal, AAPG’s highest honor, during the Association’s annual convention April 1-4 in Long Beach, Calif.
“When I was a boy, I didn’t even know geology could be a profession,” Bouma said, a slight chuckle punctuating his lilting Dutch accent.
“I just knew that I enjoyed collecting rocks. I just liked them.”
But the counsel of the wizened gravedigger, visits to local museums and a restless, inquisitive mind eventually led Bouma to the State University in Groningen. There, after a 20-month military service in the Army ended by the death of his father, Bouma followed his fascination with rocks to the classroom and came to the attention of the famed Professor Ph. Kuenen, a pioneer in deepwater research.
It was Kuenen who interested Bouma in turbidites as a wide-open area of research.
“My interest was so high that Kuenen eventually said to me, `Why don’t you go with Ten Haaf to Italy (on a research mission) so you can see what turbidites are really like?’”
As he moved on to the State University at Utrecht to earn his M.S. degree in geology, sedimentology and paleontology in 1959 and a Ph.D. in sedimentary geology under Professor D.J. Doeglas in 1961, Bouma said he continued his research using European outcrops and flume studies.
The precocious student’s original goal was to substantiate Kuenen’s widely held theories on deepwater depositional dynamics.
But here Bouma reveals something of the maverick in his nature, a trait that seems to connect neatly to the intuitive, wildcatting spirit that has marked petroleum exploration since its earliest days.
As his research progressed, the student began to question his professor’s model.
Finding “The” Sequence
Bouma’s findings revealed that bed-scale turbidite dynamics were much more complex than those proposed by Kuenen.
“In Europe, in those days, professors were considered higher than God,” Bouma recalled with a wry bemusement in his voice. So when his research promised to break new ground and call into question his professor’s prevailing theories on sedimentary flows and deepwater deposits, Bouma said simply, “Kuenen didn’t like it.”
Nevertheless, the student pressed on and his doctoral dissertation, titled “Sedimentology of Some Flysch Deposits: A Graphic Approach to Facies Interpretation,” published and widely distributed in 1962, set off numerous laboratory and field research studies and formed the basis of what eventually came to be known in the field as “the Bouma Sequence.”
Making his name with such a landmark discovery so early in his career has had both amusing and aggravating repercussions, Bouma said.
“I honestly don’t know how it came to be called the Bouma Sequence,” he said. “I was never able to find out where it started. But after that, it seemed whenever I was introduced people would say, ‘Oh, you must be the son of Bouma,’ because they thought if you had something important named after you then you must be a very old man, or maybe you had to be six feet under.
“That really ticked me off.”
Nevertheless, Bouma said he was determined not to let that single namesake discovery become the be-all, end-all of his career.
In 1962, he accepted a Fulbright post-doctoral fellowship to work with Professor Francis P. Shepard at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif.
Then in 1966, Bouma immigrated to America with his family to accept an academic post in oceanography at Texas A&M University.
He taught there until 1975, when he was asked to join the U.S. Geological Survey, initially in the Pacific-Arctic branch and then in the Atlantic-Gulf of Mexico branch.
“One reason I went to the USGS was that at that time it was not easy to place students in jobs or research projects,” Bouma said. “The job market was not very good, but with my position there I could help my students find work.”
Having experienced both the academic and government climates, Bouma made a move into the corporate world in 1981, joining Gulf Oil as a senior scientist and working his way up to chief scientist and acting vice president for Gulf Research and Development Company. When Gulf Oil was purchased by Chevron in 1985, Bouma assumed the position of senior research associate with Chevron Oil Field Research Co.
During his corporate tenure, he oversaw Leg 96 of the Deep Sea Drilling Project on the Mississippi Fan and Texas-Louisiana Continental Slope, and he helped produce the documentary film “Deep Water Sands” for the BBC and AAPG.
Bouma returned to the academic world in 1988 when he was named Charles T. McCord Professor of Geology and Geophysics at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. There he taught and served for a few years as director of the Basin Research Institute and head of the School of Geosciences. He retired in 2005.
At that point, Bouma and Lieneke, his patient and supportive wife of more than four decades, decided they wanted to move back to College Station, Texas, where Bouma began his teaching career and where they began raising their three sons.
None of his sons, Bouma noted with a light laugh, followed him into the earth sciences. “One of them is an engineer, the second a professional in the Army and the third one is a prosthodontist,” he said proudly.
Still Going Strong
Back in Texas, Bouma has taken an adjunct professorship in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at Texas A&M, and in his retirement, he said, “I’m busier than ever.”
He’s currently working on a textbook on sedimentology, one he is determined “will not be too thick, too expensive and will cover the subject in a way that will be accessible for students.”
In addition to teaching and involving his students in field trips and hands-on research projects, Bouma is pushing forward with a bold plan to establish a Shale Studies Center at Texas A&M that will forge an academic-corporate partnership to set up a new system of shale studies employing industry cores and outcrops and utilizing the talents of geology and engineering students.
The center’s mission, he said, will be to investigate the forces that create shale and how shale eventually becomes oil and gas.
“There’s still a lot we don’t understand about shale, and since it makes up about 60 percent of sediments that are the source of oil and gas, I think it’s a fantastic area of research,” Bouma said.
Despite owning a wall full of plaques, awards, citations and professional honors, Bouma, now in his mid-70s, still bubbles over with enthusiasm as he talks about his latest ventures.
He said he’s seen enormous changes in the field during his career, with breathtaking advances in technology and heavy reliance on computer science.
But while the computer is a useful tool, he said, it can’t replace the intelligence, experience, keen observational skills and intuition of the dedicated geoscientist.
“There are still discoveries to be made, but it won’t be the computer that tells us what it all means,” Bouma said. “For that, we always have to go back to the rock to find out what we can do with it and what it means.
“And for that,” he added, “the geologist who can explore and observe and think is still the most important thing.”