Jack E. Oliver took two major risks 17 years ago when he moved from Columbia University to Cornell University to rebuild the geology program. First he proposed a research project that relied on an untested scientific technique. Then he proposed an unusual strategy for carrying out the fieldwork.

In his quest to probe the 25-mile-thick slab of rock that makes up the earth’s crust, Oliver wanted to use sound waves to describe subterranean structures. But he didn’t buy the fleet of 18-ton trucks equipped with mechanical vibrations to shake the earth that he needed for the study. Nor did he buy the thousands of “geophones” needed to listen to the earth’s response to the artificial vibrations. And he didn’t hire a huge team of geologists to gather data in the field, either.

So how have he and his 30-member team managed to continually churn out new findings, such as their...

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