His death was announced by the academy, which Dr. Press led over two terms from 1981 to 1993, the longest a president may serve. The cause was complications from a fall, said his daughter, Paula E. Press.
A son of Jewish immigrants from modern-day Belarus, Dr. Press grew up in what he described as a Brooklyn tenement and found an early introduction to his future profession in the pages of Popular Science and Popular Mechanics magazines.
He forged his careers in science and government during a period when the two fields intersected in consequential ways, as tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union at times seemed to take the world to the brink of nuclear war.
From his early 30s, his expertise in seismology — the study of earthquakes and vibrations of the earth — made him a sought-after authority when the two superpowers sought ways to police underground tests of nuclear weapons.
“There are few men who have known the pulse of the earth so intimately as Frank Press — its tremors, its free oscillations like those of a reverberating bell and all its other movements that tell about the planet’s rigid, not-so-rigid and liquid interior,” a New York Times reporter wrote in a 1977 profile.
But he “has spent enough time in Washington,” the profile continued, “to know not only the forces that have shaped the earth, but also those that shape political and scientific decisions.”
Dr. Press was chair of the geology and geophysics department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1977 when the newly elected President Carter, reviewing a list of candidates for the job of White House science adviser, alighted on his name. Candidates traditionally came from the field of physics, but Carter had in mind another kind of scientist.
“I looked over the list, and your background is the one that interests me most,” Dr. Press recalled the president saying, according to an oral history he provided to the National Archives. “I do have concerns about environment, about energy, about natural resources, arms control, relations with countries like the Soviet Union, and you’ve been involved in all of these things and that’s why I selected you. Will you take the job?”
Dr. Press did, and also became chief of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Over the next four years, he sought to promote government funding of basic research, to effectively analyze the economic effects of federal science regulations, and to provide a solid scientific undergirding for federal energy policy. He also spearheaded student exchanges between the United States and communist China.
“It just doesn’t make sense not to cooperate with the world’s most populous nation,” Dr. Press, who also supported research cooperation with the Soviet Union, said in 1978 when the program was announced.
The exchanges came about after Dr. Press traveled to Beijing to meet with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. Deng, who led the economic modernization of communist China, was so excited by the prospect of sending students to the United States that Dr. Press called Carter at the White House at 3 a.m. to confirm the administration’s interest.
“Mr. President, he has asked me if they could send five thousand, and he wants an answer directly from you,” Carter, who recorded the incident in his memoir “Beyond the White House,” recalled Dr. Press asking.
“Tell him to make it fifty thousand,” replied Carter, who wrote that by the year 2000, 400,000 Chinese students had enrolled in American universities.
After Carter was defeated for reelection by Republican Ronald Reagan, Dr. Press briefly returned to MIT but soon was recalled to Washington as head of the National Academy of Sciences. The academy is a private, nonprofit group established by Congress. Members are elected on the basis of their research achievements and are tasked with providing the government with independent guidance on scientific matters.
When Dr. Press took over, he laid out an ambitious agenda.
“I was in the government, so I know how you have to think there,” he told the Times in 1981. “You have to worry about your four years in office. … It’s very rare you have the time in an important government office to think about what this country will be like 20 to 30 years from now. So there are certain things we should take on to help the government.”
Under his leadership, the academy produced a 1986 report warning of the potential toll of the HIV/AIDS crisis without greater containment and treatment.
He sought to promote science education in schools, where he argued against including creationism in science textbooks, and at universities, where he opposed funding through the often unmeritocratic lobbying process derided as “pork-barrel” politics.
He drew attention to the shortage of engineers in the United States and vigorously supported international exchanges of research and scientists. International commercial competition, he urged, should not interfere with the greater good of scientific progress. Neither, he said, should the wrangling over precious federal research dollars among U.S. scientists, which he found to be “bordering on the unseemly.”
“At a time when we should revel in dazzling progress in almost every field of science,” he said in 1988, “this sniping and carping among scientists is disturbing and destructive.”
Frank Press was born in Brooklyn on Dec. 4, 1924. His father, who worked in the wholesale grocery trade and later in auctioneering, and his mother, a homemaker, immigrated to the United States from Minsk and spoke Yiddish in their home.
Years later, in an oral history with the American Institute of Physics, Dr. Press recalled the thrill of scavenging in junkyards for scrap materials for his mechanical experiments, as well as his grief when a New York librarian snatched away his library card because his hands were dirty.
He received a bachelor’s degree in physics from the City College of New York in 1944 and a PhD in geophysics from Columbia University in 1949. At Columbia, he studied with Maurice Ewing, a noted earth scientist. Together they developed what became known as the Press-Ewing seismograph, a tool widely used to measure energy waves created by earthquakes.
Dr. Press ran the seismological laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, where his research was credited with expanding scientific understanding of the makeup of the interior of the earth, before joining MIT in 1965.
He served on science advisory boards during the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations and as a consultant to agencies including NASA. During the Apollo missions, he was credited with helping to design the seismographic equipment taken to the moon.
Dr. Press’s wife of 62 years, the former Billie Kallick, died in 2009. Survivors include two children, William H. Press of Austin and Paula E. Press of Chapel Hill; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Dr. Press’s honors included the Japan Prize in 1993, the Vannevar Bush Award from the National Science Board in 1994 and a National Medal of Science, also in 1994, honoring his “contributions to the understanding of the deepest interior of the earth and the mitigation of natural disasters, and his service in academia, as a government official, and at the National Academy of Sciences.”
He used his knowledge of plate tectonics not only in the pursuit of preventing earthquakes — and perhaps even nuclear war — but also for the simple purpose of understanding the constitution of the earth. He was among the scientists who argued, correctly, that Antarctica was a continent and not a massive piece of ice. In his honor, a mountain on Antarctica is named Mount Press.
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