“Don’t Be Afraid to Push the Technical Limits of the Current Software...”

An interview with Sven Treitel

Coordinated by: Satinder Chopra
Sven Treitel

Sven Treitel grew up in Argentina and was educated at MIT where he graduated with a PhD in geophysics in 1958, before enjoying a long career at Amoco. Sven has published over 40 papers and is the recipient of numerous learned society awards, including the 1969 SEG Reginald Fessenden award, and in 1983 was awarded Honorary Membership of SEG. While his interests have been broad and varied, his main contribution to the field of geophysics has been to bridge the gap between signal processing theory and its application in exploration geophysics. He is the co-author of the definitive volumes Geophysical Signal Analysis (Prentice-Hall, 1980 & SEG, 2000) and Digital Imaging and Deconvolution (SEG, 2008). Although officially retired, Sven still lectures and consults widely.

The old saw ‘publish or perish’ is often derogatively used to account for the flood of publications coming from certain members of the academic community. A different, and less humorous, interpretation of this term applies, I believe, to some of those doing industrial research in private corporations.

While academics are under ongoing pressure to publish to obtain promotions and research grants, industrial scientists often face the opposite problem: they are discouraged from publication by management fearing that release of significant technical know-how must invariably benefit the competition. This can happen when a manager, not sufficiently familiar with the subject of a paper requested for release, finds that the simplest way out is to say no. It is true that such restrictions are sometimes justified, but my experience over several decades in industrial R&D suggests that these concerns are usually unfounded. My own professional experience has been with a major oil company, but I venture to guess that the observations I make here are hardly unique to this industry.

What happens to a scientist working in this kind of an industrial environment? As the years roll by, he writes technical reports, which are read by a few of his coworkers, but the research never faces the scrutiny of peers on the outside. A successful scientist needs to interact with his professional colleagues through the vehicle of written as well as oral publication: those who do not do this tend to become professionally ossified over time. Of course the employer loses as well: an unmotivated and insular R&D staff is unlikely, even unable, to come up with cutting edge results.

There is an additional and equally nefarious consequence of a restrictive industrial publication policy: a scientist’s worth in the job market is in large measure his publication record. Layoffs in industry have become an increasingly popular means to cut costs under the unrelenting pressure from investors. R&D often seems to be an early item to go on the block, and now the unknown, terminated industrial research scientist is left to fend for himself. He or she must compete with those better-known in their field by virtue of their publication record, and thus faces an uncertain and increasingly grim professional future. Clearly the best way for an industrial scientist to avoid falling into this trap is to make certain that the prospective employer’s practices include a reasonably open publication policy.

From the employer’s viewpoint, a reasonable publication policy makes even more sense: a company staffed by aggressive and creative scientists continuously interacting with their peers outside their own organization is much more likely to be successful over time than one which is obsessively secretive. A scientist remaining in such a restrictive environment is bound to perish professionally over time and lose marketability outside the company. As Matt Hall put it so aptly to me when I proposed this essay to him:

‘It’s ironic that preparing yourself to be laid off would probably lead to you not being laid off!’


Technical communication is a must for the advancement of our science. Yet as you have stated very rightly, we have two distinct scenarios – flood of academic publishing and a drought of publications from private organizations. In the former case publishing is required and in the latter case it is discouraged. What do you think could be done to improve the latter situation?

When I started in the oil industry in the late fifties, publication was usually an uphill struggle. Things have improved significantly since then, particularly among the service companies, which cannot expect to sell their services unless they back up their claims with technically informative publications. Nevertheless, other companies continue to lose top technical talent because they fail to understand that technical people are motivated by more than good salaries and good benefits – they want and need peer recognition through publication. Managers lacking R&D experience often do not appreciate this basic need of their technical staff, and often end up by jeopardizing their own careers by losing their best people to the competition.

The private organizations as you have stated are also at a disadvantage in that unmotivated scientists may not have the drive to produce the cutting-edge innovations. The top-class scientists may not like to continue in such a working environment. Do you agree?

Yes, I agree. Top performers will not put up with rigid publication policies, and simply move on. Of course anybody working in industry knows that not every detail of a novel technology can be disclosed as soon as it has been developed, but a skilled management knows when there is a time for silence, and when there is a time to disclose – in today’s job market, top-performing scientists will simply not put up with unreasonable publication restrictions.

Publishing has also undergone a drastic change in the last two decades. Apart from the traditional hard copy journal publication, electronic format is readily available, and has brought about a revolution in communication, which is very welcome. Do you see any downslide to this?

We have gone from famine to feast in half a century. When I started out, reading GEOPHYSICS was enough to keep up with most of what was new exploration geophysics. Now we literally drown in a sea of e-journals, many of indifferent quality. No human being is capable of absorbing the information available electronically and on paper, for that matter. Even GEOPYSICS has grown to the point that nobody can begin to master all that we should be absorbing from a single journal. Perhaps we need one that summarizes important developments described elsewhere in the geophysical literature? This is a truly serious problem; I have no good solution to offer.

As we are talking about publishing, we have light-reading journals such as TLE, FB and the CSEG RECORDER, and then we have peer-reviewed journals such as Geophysics and Geophysical Prospecting, and others. Peer-review is a good concept for warranting quality of the publication and guard against plagiarism. Do you think there are any failings of the peer-review process?

There are plenty of reasons to criticize peer review, but as a former editor of GEOPHYSICS I frankly can’t think of a better alternative. There is an element of luck for any author submitting a paper: it has been shown on numerous occasions that different sets of reviewers often come to opposite conclusions about the same manuscript. That is why I have always advised younger colleagues either to resubmit after a while, or to try the next journal.

Being an experienced member of our industry, you have seen it all. Beginning with the single-fold 2D seismic data, going over to multi-fold data, digital processing and interpretation, and then 3D seismic survey acquisition and processing,You have also witnessed the gradual shift from the traditional resource exploitation to the unconventional that is taking place. Had you been expecting any revolutionary technology (such as 3D exploration) that could help our industry?

It is true that I am experienced, given that I have been at our game for some 60 years!

Yet my record as a predictor of future trends in our industry has been poor, I’m ashamed to say. For example, I had always thought that 3D exploration, while technically feasible, was far too costly. On the other hand, I always felt that inverse methods would eventually come into their own after so many false starts. This is something I believe is now beginning to happen.

Let me turn to geophysical problems here: what do you think are the three most important unresolved problems in geophysics? Sometimes it is interesting to ask bold and open-ended questions.

As I just mentioned, my crystal ball is a tarnished one, but here are three problems that strike me as important:

I. How do we weight different geophysical data sets when inverting for structure, lithology and fluid content? Is there an objective criterion to do this?

II. Current processing methods make assumptions about random as well as organized noise. But what happens to our most advanced techniques if they are based on the wrong, or inappropriate physical model? For example, to what extent does the elastic wave equation fail to describe propagation in the inhomogeneous, fluid filled, anisotropic, fractured, etc., etc. real earth?

III. Is there an objective way to decide whether observed seismic attenuation is primarily due to intrinsic absorption, i.e., to irreversible frictional losses, or to extrinsic absorption, such as the redistribution of multiply scattered energy in a layered medium?

Do you think the current levels of R & D being carried out in our industry will be able to solve these problems? If not, then what needs to be done?

Probably not – these issues are basic and surely require many years of dedicated effort. Long term R&D in our industry is by and large dead. Progress might occur in academic environments, but here funding is the big problem. Were our industry ever to find its way to create a jointly funded long-range R&D facility to attack these and other fundamental problems, that would be wonderful. What comes to my mind here is the French Petroleum Institute (IFP). But I’m not optimistic that the vision is there to make this a reality.

The seismic method has been largely used for hydrocarbon exploration in the last five decades and despite its shortcomings we have found large quantities of oil and gas around the world. This said, do you think by following best practices in carrying out seismic projects around the world could have drastically improved our ability to find appreciably more quantities of oil and gas?

This is a tough one to answer. I believe, but of course cannot prove, that our finding record would have been even better, perhaps even much better, had our industry not obsessively concentrated on the seismic method while often ignoring all others. Recent success in combining seismic with CSEM is a case in point.

On a different note, please permit me to ask this: what differences did you notice when you turned 30 years, 40 years, and 50 years old, and then at present? As an example, some people think 30s allowed them to experiment with options, 40s gave them time for self-introspection or naughty at 40, nifty at 50, and so on. Your comments?

At age 30, I tried seismic mapping, but was soon steered by my employer to become a gravity interpreter. By age 40, I had become an R&D aficionado, with a passion for geophysical signal processing, one which has persisted to this day. I did have several opportunities to try the academic life, yet preferred to stay in an oil company R&D lab because of the freedom it offered to work on problems I found challenging. Now in my eighties, I look back on my career with nostalgia – I’m fortunate to have chosen geophysics as a career, and glad that I did not become a naval engineer. That was my intent when I started at MIT, until my freshman advisor suggested that since I could not pass descriptive geometry, I had better consider another field – and that turned out to be fine advice!


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