No Stone Unturned

Courtesy of Sheldon Breiner

He has found avalanche victims in Colorado, located a 400-year-old sunken Spanish ship off the California coast and pinpointed the world's largest diamond deposit in Australia. Sheldon Breiner even discovered the ancient Greek colony of Sybaris under layers of dirt and rubble. He loves a challenging search--and, using a device called a magnetometer, Breiner says he can find almost anything buried beneath the earth's surface.

Breiner, '59, MS '62, PhD '67, encountered his first magnetometer at Varian Associates, where he worked in 1962 while researching his master's project in geophysics. Since then, he's become one of the world's leading experts on the instrument and is the author of a primer, Applications Manual for Portable Magnetometers. Governments and corporations frequently turn to him to find everything from lost treasures to dangerous land mines.

The concept behind the magnetometer is simple: By measuring magnetic waves, it can "see" where the human eye cannot. When working on a site, Breiner compares slight differences in magnetic readings. The results allow him to create what in essence is an underground map indicating the most promising areas to dig. "It works much like a laser," says Breiner, who prefers to describe a magnetometer as "a crazy thing that makes a buzzing noise and has some lights. It looks like a beer can on a broomstick."

One of Breiner's most successful searches began in 1968 with a phone call from a Yale anthropology professor. Soon he was on his way to the steamy jungles of southern Mexico. Lugging his magnetometers on a six-hour boat ride and two-hour horseback excursion, Breiner arrived in San Lorenzo, where the ancient Olmec culture thrived more than 3,000 years ago. Working gingerly among iguanas, monkeys, parrots and poisonous snakes, Breiner turned up more than a hundred buried objects during three separate archeological seasons. The discoveries included some of the most important pre-Columbian art ever found, including a jaguar figure and a 10-ton head carved from basalt rock. These two pieces were on display last year at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

As chairman, CEO and co-founder of Paramagnetic Logging Inc., Breiner these days is developing technology to find hidden pockets of oil and gas reserves around existing wells. Living with his wife in Portola Valley, close to the San Andreas Fault, he also is thinking about how magnetometers might be used to help predict earthquakes. But as co-founder of the Foundation for Olmec Studies, he is most excited about returning to southern Mexico to help analyze a new site where America's first civilization may have lived. "Have magnetometer, will search," he chuckles.