Fundamental research illuminates deep Earth chemical processes
November 16, 2018
The Mineralogical Society of America (MSA) has recognized E. Bruce Watson, a geochemist and Institute Professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, with its highest honor, the Roebling Medal, bestowed for scientific eminence in the broad field of mineralogical science.
Notably, the Roebling Medal commemorates Washington A. Roebling (1837-1926), a civil engineer, mineral enthusiast, and 1857 Rensselaer graduate best known for overseeing construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Watson, an expert in solid- Earth geochemistry, is an experimentalist and numerical modeler whose research characterizes how materials of Earth's crust and upper mantle (as deep as 150 kilometers) behave under high pressure- temperature conditions. In a series of ground-breaking experiments that used ancient zircon crystals, the oldest known materials on Earth, Watson provided new evidence that conditions on Earth as long ago as 4.4 billion years were characterized by liquid-water oceans and continents similar to those of the present day.
“From his ground-breaking work exploring how ancient zircons formed, locking in temperatures like a paleo thermometer, as well as how they change over time, to more recent research on chemical signatures related to climate change, Bruce has provided a generation of researchers with foundational tools that help them to decipher clues that emerge from areas of the Earth that we cannot directly observe,” said Curt Breneman, dean of the School of Science. “His work helps us better understand planet Earth's chemical systems and history, and has aided countless colleagues. The Roebling Medal is a fitting acknowledgement to recognize his many contributions.”
In recent work published in Nature, Watson and his group argued that granite magma stored in the Earth’s crust prior to major volcanic eruptions is partially molten at temperatures as low as 500 degrees Celsius, nearly 200 degrees lower than had previously been believed. The finding challenged long-held assumptions related to the state of magma in volcanically active regions, the location of economically important ore deposits, and Earth’s geothermal gradient.
The Roebling Medal was first awarded in 1937, and is considered the highest recognition of achievement in mineral-related fields, and in the past had been awarded to such notable scientists as physicist Sir William Lawrence Bragg (1948) and chemist Linus Pauling (1967). Roebling himself first became interested in minerals while a student at Rensselaer, according to the MSA. While convalescing from debilitating injuries sustained while working on the caisson of the Brooklyn Bridge, his interest in minerals intensified. This interest continued during the remainder of his life during which time he served as vice president of the MSA and amassed a mineralogy collection of about 16,000 specimens, which was later donated to the Smithsonian Institution.
The award was presented during the Mineralogical Society of American joint annual meeting with the Geological Society of America, held November 4-7 in Indianapolis.
About Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, founded in 1824, is America’s first technological research university. For nearly 200 years, Rensselaer has been defining the scientific and technological advances of our world. Rensselaer faculty and alumni represent 86 members of the National Academy of Engineering, 18 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 26 members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 8 members of the National Academy of Medicine, 8 members of the National Academy of Inventors, and 5 members of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, as well as 6 National Medal of Technology winners, 5 National Medal of Science winners, and a Nobel Prize winner in Physics. With 7,000 students and nearly 100,000 living alumni, Rensselaer is addressing the global challenges facing the 21st century—to change lives, to advance society, and to change the world. To learn more, go to www.rpi.edu.