Sven Treitel ’53, SM ’55, PhD ’58
Geophysicist advances underground mapping.
How do the oil companies find the good stuff underground? Ask Sven Treitel. As a graduate student in geophysics in the 1950s, he joined the MIT Geophysical Analysis Group (GAG), and his research turned into a lifetime pursuit. Treitel is now credited with being among the first to establish the modern digital method of subsurface mapping used worldwide.
Before subsurface mapping went digital, researchers pored over photographs measuring tiny ground responses to timed dynamite explosions and then hand-tabulated the results. MIT scientists, using mathematics professor Norbert Wiener’s ideas, theorized that a computer could process the seismograms more accurately than grad students with magnifying glasses. Late at night, Treitel and his fellow GAG researchers used the Institute’s Whirlwind computer, which the Air Force commandeered during the day. They programmed in octal code and, Treitel recalls, “drank lots of coffee.”
The group made progress filtering the signal—oil-bearing rock—from the noise, but the oil-company sponsors were not patient. “We were shut down in ’57 because our sponsors felt we were going nowhere,” he says. So Treitel, who was born in Germany and grew up in Argentina, went to work for Chevron in Cuba. He was at the office when Castro’s army seized the company’s files. “When they found out I spoke Spanish, I was offered a position in the Cuban government,” Treitel recalls. Instead, he and his wife, Renata, resettled in the United States. “I did not spend nine years getting an education at MIT to end up on the wrong end of a rifle,” he says.
Treitel joined Amoco in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the head of geophysical research, Dan Silverman, was the former chair of the GAG advisory committee. Treitel convinced him that it would be worth revisiting GAG’s digital methods, and soon he began corresponding with his GAG colleague Enders Robinson ’50, SM ’52, PhD ’54. The friends began trading equations via air mail, hammering out the details of digital signal processing for oil companies in the 1960s. They published articles—and later textbooks—explaining the method and wrote Fortran software to implement it. Now digital seismic processing has become the industry standard. Treitel has been honored with numerous awards, including the 2012 Marcus Milling Legendary Geoscientist Medal from the American Geosciences Institute.
In 1993, Treitel retired from Amoco after 33 years; he still consults for oil companies and continues to refine the algorithms and models that geophysicists use to find fossil fuel. He and Renata, married for 56 years, enjoy traveling the world. They have three children and a six-year-old granddaughter.
Become an MIT Technology Review Insider for in-depth analysis and unparalleled perspective.Subscribe today