Department of Earth SciencesWestern Science

Charles Carmichael: A Career in Geophysics

Professor Emeritus Charles Murray Carmichael passed away in April 2015 at age 92. This retrospective of his geophysics career was composed by Dr. H.C. Palmer, who studied as a postdoctoral fellow under the supervision of Dr. Carmichael before embarking on his own career as Professor of geophysics at Western.

Charles Carmichael's formal higher education was obtained at the University of Western Ontario where he obtained his B.Sc. in 1945. This degree was followed by a M.Sc. in 1947. During the interval 1947-1957 he served as a Lecturer in physics, first at Waterloo College and then in the Physics Department at UWO.

In 1957 Professor R.J. Uffen suggested that he begin research for a Ph.D., and suggested that he work on the iron-titanium deposits near Allard Lake, Quebec that, in spite of being rich in iron, exhibited no aeromagnetic anomalies. This study was completed in three years including a seven-month period in 1959 where he was a guest at the laboratory of P.M.S. Blackett at Imperial College. The principal paper arising from the 1960 thesis was published in the proceedings of the Royal Society of London (see below); it has been much cited in textbooks and research papers in subsequent years.

All of the equipment that became the rock magnetic-paleomagnetic laboratory in the 1960's was designed by him and consisted of a magnetometer, alternating field demagnetizer, continuous heater for use in the magnetometer; all built using the principles of classical physics and with the absence of 'black box' electronics. Although he did some paleomagnetic research focused on recovering directional data that could be used in elucidating continental drift-plate tectonics, much of his research was aimed at the very difficult task of recovering the variation in intensity of the earth’s magnetic field.

Towards the end of his research career he focused on the directional paleomagnetics of samples from sediment cores taken by research vessels in the Great Lakes. To aid in the interpretation of these results, he taught himself the relevant palynology!

Beginning in the late 1960’s he developed an introductory course (Geophysics 21) that proved to be popular among non-science majors; it covered not only geophysics sensu-stricto but the earth's place in the universe (astronomy) and the highlights of the global rock record (geology). He also had an interest in the origins of life and contributed an audio tape that was used in first-year biology tutorials.

Throughout the 1970's he took an active role in national and international scientific advisory committees; these were focused primarily in the disciplines of geodesy and geophysics. Details of these appointments can be found in Annual Reports of the Department of Geophysics for the years 1967-1993 which are archived in the UWO Archives.

Rather than contributing to national and international organizational affairs he was, however, much more interested in contributing to his alma mater. He served on the university senate from 1967 to 1971 and on the University's Board of governors for two consecutive terms during the interval 1978-1986. Among other services to UWO were stints on the operating grants committee of the Council of Ontario Universities. In the years close to his retirement in 1989, he served on the boards of the Museum of Indian Archaeology, King’s College, and the Western Fair. The latter appointment brought him close to his roots, having grown up on a land-grant farm in Lobo Township.

Since 1992, the Charles Carmichael Prize has been awarded annually to the student with the highest mark in an undergraduate honors thesis project in geophysics, as a monument to Dr. Carmichael's eminent career as Professor of geophysics at the University of Western Ontario.

C.M. Carmichael, M.Sc. The cathode fall of potential, U.W.O. 1947
C.M. Carmichael, Ph.D. The magnetization of ilmenhematite, U.W.O. 1960