Guyot Hall and the Department of Geosciences

Guyot Hall and the Department of Geosciences By Matthew Ciccone

     Guyot Hall is the home of Princeton University’s Geosciences Department, which holds a narrative of ambitious expansion challenged by the growing pains of rapid changes across the field. Geosciences covers the observative understanding of radioactive materials such as uranium, tritium, and nuclear waste. Thus, significant opportunity to discuss the ramifications of nuclear weaponry or power is present across the field, especially within the subdivisions of Geophysics and Geochemistry. Unfortunately, these concentrated aspects of geonomy went unrecognized at Princeton until 1950 and 1946 respectively. A similar situation occurred with Environmental Science. Though a subject with considerable ability to discuss the nature of Princeton’s occupancy of the land and Indigenous knowledges relating to ecological concerns, it was not present officially at the University until 1968. Beyond this point the faculty distribution given to these fields was sparse at best. Professor Emeritus Samuel G. Philander, who specializes in examining the relationships between the ocean and atmosphere in relation to climate change, recalls: “We didn’t have geochemists in the department until I joined in 1990. I think at that point, there was one geochemist. Now we have 6-7 Professors of Geochemistry, their labs and so forth”.

     These deficiencies were foreseen by past departmental staff. Chairman Harry Hess wrote in An Estimate of the Needs of the Department of Geology in Personnel and Research for the Next Quarter Century (1957) about expanding the boundaries of the Geosciences department in a bid to catch up to peer institutions in this regard. This attitude towards growth led to a continued pattern of focusing on new discoveries rather than the implications of the department’s impact on spaces it interacted with. Examples of this phenomenon abound in Guyot’s archives. A document described as simply “a printed broadsheet of Sioux names” in a 1975 letter reveals itself to be a 1914 list detailing the sale of Native American land on Cheyenne River Reservation and South Dakota. Oceanic tritium runoff from nuclear weapons testing was used to glean oceanic current data, producing a graph in Guyot’s December 1982 Smilodon paired with an article that refrains from discussing the impact of this material beyond stating its source.

     A striking example of this disparity between discovery and discourse would be Art of the Northwest Coast. This dossier, which examines Guyot as a “treasure house” of Northwestern Indigenous works, speaks little about why Guyot should house such a collection in the first place. While it does present an understanding that the collection was often in risk of being lost, this is paired with a description of Northwestern First Nations cultures using highly colonial language. This excerpt is one such demonstration: “In the spring each of the towns broke up, each of the kinship groups… to tend its traps and wires on its proprietary grounds”. This conflation of relationships between tribal families with colonial ideas of property reveals a disconnect from the underlying principles behind this collection of art. Today, the fate of these tribal works is difficult to trace; Professor Philander suggests they are likely to be stored within one of Princeton’s warehouses, due to the conversion of Guyot’s museum space into offices.

     Prof. Philander provides a rationale for this philosophy of departmental growth – namely that geosciences is “constantly changing”. The dynamic nature of the university’s growth leads to “constant fights for space”, which was stated in Art of The Northwest Coast to be the root cause behind many of the close calls affecting the Indigenous art collection. Guyot Hall’s physical structure reflects this, having survived changes in functionality alongside additions to the building to provide laboratory spaces. In addition, Philander notes that “people’s equipment keeps on changing”, which leads to a lack of critical specialization in highly equipment related fields. An example that Philander cited was a complete deficit in faculty training in radiometric dating that required such work to be done in collaboration with peer organizations, preventing a Princeton-specific discourse.

     This deficit was also acknowledged by Professor Emeritus Lincoln S. Hollister, a specialist in interactions between continental crust including generation of mountains. An interview with Hollister reveals the biggest connection Guyot’s faculty members have cultivated with the ethical-cultural aspect of their work: communication with Native cultures during field research. Professor Hollister’s experiences in British Columbia speaking in Native Canadian villages resulted in the following exchange: ”[A Native Canadian teenager] wanted to hear what I had to say about how the mountains were formed. And so, I gave him a lesson like how I would give you a lesson, and he listened. And when I was finished, then he said; “Well, that’s all very interesting. Now let me tell you how we think the mountains were formed”.” Expanding upon these cross-cultural interactions is one way to bridge the gap created by the quick advancement of the Geosciences Department towards further research. As also demonstrated by Prof. Elizabeth Niespolo’s work in Africa unpacking the colonial aspects of geological extraction (link to /shrug), this creates a space for the faculty to consider how their discipline impacts the communities and environments with which they engage.

     Contrasting this, ignoring the connections between materials and their surroundings has a possibility of resulting in dire consequences for the physical safety of Guyot as a space. Hollister shares an anecdote regarding a radioactive isotope storage crisis that occurred during his time at the department while preparing to enroll students for summer internships: “The minerals were all stored in small rooms in the sub-basement over there. [Summer internships] involve hiring students, and I thought maybe I should check that room for radiation. And I walked in there with a Geiger Counter… went “Whoa, close the doors, let me out of here!””  This incident led to a panic within the departmental faculty, who ultimately decided to temporarily relocate the minerals responsible to a rooftop space where it would be ventilated with l0w risk of radiation exposure. Only intervention from a hazmat-equipped Museum of Natural History crew allowed the thankful, exhausted Geosciences team to be rid of the minerals. Despite this, not all the materials were taken by the Museum due to improper labeling, leading to disposal of these mislabeled isotopes. This narrative remains as a reminder of the dangers of treating matters of nuclear science with a purely expansion-centric outlook, rather than reflecting on the nature of the procedures which led to the current state of the field.

     Presently, Guyot Hall and the Department of Geosciences are soon to part. A new environmental science building will be opened in 2024 to house the latter alongside multiple institutes in ecology. Guyot itself is slated to become Schmidt Hall by 2026, becoming a new home for the Computer Science Department and several centers dedicated to exploration of data. This transition presents an opportunity for reassessment of departmental structures that could be a landmark moment in providing newly christened Schmidt Hall and the Geosciences Department with a greater foundational identity. Taking the history of the space into careful consideration during this time has the potential to generate support for critical thinking about relationships with the land and ways in which Princeton’s departments can create a unique discourse surrounding nuclear policy.

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Picture of changes in faculty and graduate student population in the Geosciences Department, ca. 1957

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Subdivisions of Earth Sciences at Princeton University, ca. 1971


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1914 document discussing the sale of Indigenous lands in Cheyenne River Reservation and South Dakota, described in a 1975 letter as “a printed broadsheet of Sioux names”.

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A current picture of Guyot Hall.

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Tritium in the Western Atlantic and caption, “The Princeton University Ocean Tracers Laboratory”, The Smilodon Dec 1982, vol. XXII no. 2.


Department of Geosciences Records, 1935-1975, AC139, Boxes 1, 32, 33, 34. Princeton University Special Collections, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ.




Guyot Hall