Ivan Tolstoy, Who Elucidated Travels of Sound Through Oceans and Air, and Helped Map Seabeds, Dies at 99

by |April 4, 2023

Ivan Tolstoy started roaming the earth early, first with his parents in Europe as a stateless refugee from the Russian Revolution, then as an avid mountaineer and student of geology. He went on to help map key features of the Atlantic Ocean seafloor, and elucidate how long-distance sound waves from earthquakes and nuclear bombs move through the oceans and atmosphere. Tolstoy ended his journey in rural Scotland on Feb. 18, just weeks short of his 100th birthday. He died after a short illness, said his family.

Ivan Tolstoy was born into exile on March 30, 1923, the second of three children of Andre Tolstoy and Maria Shuvalova. His parents were at the pinnacle of Russian aristocracy; Maria Shuvalova’s father had been governor of Moscow, and Andre Tolstoy’s, director of the Hermitage Museum and master of ceremonies for the court of Tsar Nicholas II. The writer Leo Tolstoy was a relative, though to Ivan only a cousin seven or eight times removed.

During the 1917-1923 Russian Civil War, the family lost their estates, and fled for their lives from Bolshevik forces. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins all left to join expatriate communities. Tolstoy’s parents got some of their wealth out in the form of securities and valuables, and were living at a villa in the resort town of Baden-Baden, Germany, when Ivan was born.

Ivan Tolstoy at home in Scotland, 2013, age 90. (Ron Colbroth)

They soon moved to the French Riviera, then in 1929, the Paris suburb of Versailles. By that time, money was running out. Tolstoy’s father took on a series of administrative jobs at a bank, an insurance company and a furniture maker. The family remained well connected to other prominent society figures, and Ivan attended private Russian, French and English-language schools in France and Britain.

At 13, his parents introduced him to Nikolas Nikolaievich Menschikoff, a fellow exile and distinguished geologist living in Paris. Menschikoff became a second father to Tolstoy, arousing in him a fascination with rocks, discussing physics, and taking him on treks through the Alps. By 17, Tolstoy was a seasoned long-distance hiker and mountaineer, and had his eye on a career in the earth sciences.

After watching the Nazis march into Paris in 1940, Tolstoy began university studies in math, but conditions deteriorated. Food and fuel became scarce, Jewish neighbors were made to wear yellow stars, and eventually people began disappearing. One of his cousins was killed by an errant Allied bomb, and the Germans deported another eastward to labor in a munitions factory. In 1944, Tolstoy decided to escape to Switzerland.

Making his way to the mountainous border, he used topographic maps and advice gleaned from friends who had contacts with the French Resistance to elude German patrols. Once over the border, Swiss authorities jailed him until a family friend in Switzerland got him released into a loosely supervised parole.

Due to the many foreigners entering neutral Switzerland illegally from war-torn countries, many others were in the same boat, including American servicemen whose aircraft had crashed, or who had escaped from German POW camps.

After several months, Tolstoy met a Serbian military officer who had hatched a scheme to smuggle Americans into France to rejoin their forces. One night they rowed two U.S. airmen 15 kilometers across Lake Geneva in a precarious racing skiff, nearly drowning in the process. It was the start of a regular operation; with surreptitious help from the U.S. consulate, they eventually got about 50 Americans out by the same route. The consulate  paid them by the head.

After France was liberated, Tolstoy returned to Paris and received a degree in geology from Sorbonne University in 1945. Helped by his U.S. contacts, in 1946 he sailed to New York, and enrolled as geology student at Columbia University. A summer research trip took him to the wild coasts of southeast Alaska, exactly the kind of wild place he loved exploring. However, he was diverted when he met Columbia’s Maurice Ewing, one of the 20th century’s leading oceanographers. Now at the cusp of the Cold War and funded largely by the U.S. Navy, Ewing was systematically mapping the Atlantic seabed and studying the propagation of sound waves through ocean waters. Ewing persuaded Tolstoy to sign on.

Tolstoy aboard the research vessel Atlantis, ca. 1947, operating echo-sounding equipment to map the Atlantic Ocean seafloor. (Photographer unknown; courtesy Maya Tolstoy)

At the time, ocean acoustics were poorly understood, and the seabed itself only vaguely mapped. Underwater mountains were known to exist in the Atlantic’s middle, but the picture was sketchy. Starting in 1947, Tolstoy was assigned to operate a powerful new sonar device aboard a sail-driven research vessel. The sounder continuously emitted a shrill ping that traveled to the bottom and bounced back; measurements of the echo down to a hundredth of second told the scientists the depth, providing data to create topographic maps.

As Tolstoy described in a vivid 2012 autobiography, he was awed as the vessel tore under sail through the foaming high seas, and frightened by the dramatic rolling and pitching that sometimes laid the small vessel 45 degrees on its side. Cruises over repeated years by him and others resulted in the mapping of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, now known to be part of a giant 40,000-mile underwater system of continual volcanism—key to the then emerging theory of plate tectonics, which rules basically all geological processes on earth.

Watching the echo sounder day and night, it was an “exhilarating feeling to watch mountains rising to meet you, towering 2,000, 3,000 or even 4,000 meters above the ocean floor and know that you were the first to see these giants, that you were discovering a whole new world,” Tolstoy wrote. In 1949, he and Ewing coauthored the first contour map of the North Atlantic seafloor, showing mountains higher than those of the European Alps.

In 1947 Tolstoy married a girlfriend he had met while she was visiting Columbia, and they had a daughter. He gained U.S. citizenship in 1948. In 1949, Ewing founded Columbia’s Lamont Geological Observatory (now Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory), from which Tolstoy would be one of the first alumni.

The following year, 1950 Tolstoy published a paper giving the first systematic description of a so-called T wave, a then-mysterious pulse of energy first observed to hit ocean coasts in the 1920s. He proved it was a slow-moving sound produced by distant earthquakes, traveling at specific depths, and arriving after better-known, faster-traveling seismic waves. The description of the T-wave, still studied today, carried implications not just for understanding natural phenomena, but monitoring of nuclear explosions, among other things.

After Tolstoy got his PhD. in 1951, the family moved to Tulsa, Okla., where Tolstoy worked at a Standard Oil research lab. He hated the job, the flat plains, and what he viewed as pervasive racism and gun worship. After 6 months, his wife left him, taking their daughter.

Tolstoy (left) at a scientific meeting with Maurice Ewing, founder of Columbia University’s Lamont Geological Observatory, mid-1960s. (Photographer unknown; courtesy Maya Tolstoy)

In 1953, he moved back to New York to work at Columbia’s suburban Hudson Laboratories, run by the university physics department, funded by the Navy—and something of a competitor with Ewing’s Lamont Geological Observatory, which sat across the Hudson River. Here, he conducted experiments into the propagation of sounds in the oceans and, later, the atmosphere. In the 1960s, funded by the secretive military Advanced Research Projects Agency, he and colleagues set up arrays of atmospheric sound sensors in the New York and New Jersey exurbs to detect faraway nuclear tests by the French, Chinese and presumably the Soviets. During these years, Tolstoy started writing books, some of them technical texts, others aimed at a mass market.

In 1967, Columbia offered him the directorship of Hudson Laboratories, with its 300-some staff, and a tenured professorship. Baffling colleagues, he demurred. He later explained that he did not have the stomach for the vicious politics of going head to head with Ewing for funding and prestige, and just wanted to continue his own research.

He instead accepted a professorship at Florida State University. Now remarried and with two more daughters, he and his family had vacationed in northern Maine, and fallen in love with it.  Florida State required him to teach in Tallahassee just three months of the year; the rest, he could live and work wherever he wanted. The Tolstoys bought 50 acres in the Maine woods, and had a house built.

By the early 1970s, Tolstoy felt increasingly disillusioned by life in America, with the Vietnam War, continuing racial and political violence, and what he saw as a culture of greedy consumerism and corrupt politics. Much of his extended family had also immigrated to the United States and regarded it as an Eden, but Tolstoy wanted his children to grow up with a wider view of the world. In 1974, the Tolstoys sold their Maine property and he accepted a professorship at England’s University of Leeds.

When they arrived, the promised professorship somehow evaporated into a three-year, part-time appointment. U.S. bridges now burned, the family bought an old stone house in the rural southwest Scotland region of Galloway, nestled among ancient pastures and rocky hills. Tolstoy commuted periodically to Leeds and continued writing. Unsure of a living and whether they could even stay in Britain after the three years, the family planted a garden, raised chickens and bought a goat, which they learned to milk. To earn extra cash, Tolstoy freelanced as a tutor for students at Scotland’s Open University.

Nearly out of funds and on the cusp of moving again, they were rescued in 1977 when Britain granted them residency, and Tolstoy was offered a yearlong position at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in California. Here, he renewed his military contacts, and walked away with an 11-year contract that allowed him to carry out theoretical work on acoustics and wave theory in the comfort of Scotland, and travel to international scientific conferences.

Through such gatherings, Tolstoy became friendly with prominent Russian scientists who admired both his work and his command of old-style formal Russian. They invited him a couple of times to Russia to give scientific talks, and travel.

The visits were bittersweet. He connected with a long-lost cousin, but learned the rest of her family was largely lost in World War II. He felt a twinge of pride at the grave of his ancestor Mikhail Kutuzov, commander of the Russian Army who expelled Napoleon in 1812—then reprimanded himself for vainly glorying in others’ feats. Upon viewing the preserved body of Vladimir Lenin on exhibit in a public hall next to the Kremlin, he wrote, “What a difference he made in our lives, I thought, as [I] stared at the small, shrunken figure. Cruel, ruthless, an icon of fear throughout my childhood.” During a 1989 visit, he was delighted when a newspaper in eastern Siberia accurately quoted him as saying that one day, national borders would cease to exist, and humans would be much better off.

Tolstoy retired from active research in 1990, but continued to publish scientific papers for the next 20-plus years. He wrote six books. In addition to his autobiography, these included two technical volumes on ocean acoustics and wave propagation, widely used from the 1960s through the 1980s; two modest volumes on the history of earth sciences; and a biography of James Clerk Maxwell, the 19th-century Scottish mathematician who ushered in modern understanding of electricity, magnetism and light. He completed a still-unpublished revision of his autobiography a few months before his death.

Tolstoy was married twice, in 1947 to Mary Louise Simon, and in 1964 to Margie Lugthart. Both marriages ended in divorce. He is survived by his companion of 32 years, Maureen Biggar, and his three daughters: Alexandra Tolstoy, a mathematician and acoustical scientist; Eline Tolstoy, an astronomer who studies dwarf galaxies; and Maya Tolstoy, a marine geophysicist who has studied deep-sea earthquakes; and one grandson.

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