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Meeting Plate Tectonics – Francis Albarède

Meeting Plate Tectonics – Francis Albarède

These bi-weekly blogs present interviews with outstanding scientists that bloomed and shape the theory that revolutionised Earth Sciences — Plate Tectonics. Stay tuned to learn from their experience, to discover the pieces of advice they share, to find out where the newest challenges lie, and much more!


Meeting Francis Albarède


Francis Albarède started his career as an undergraduate student in Natural Sciences at the University of Montpellier in southern France. He moved to Paris to get a PhD in Geochemistry, supervised by Claude Allegre, at the Institut de Physique de Globe de Paris (IPGP). After his PhD he remained at IPGP as researcher and teacher. He then moved to Caltech, where he stayed for two years. The National School of Geology in Nancy, France, offered him a professorship, a position he happily fulfilled for 12 years. In 1991 he switched to the Ecole Normale Superieure in Lyon, France where he holds a director position of the department of earth and life sciences until today.

 

Hi Francis, could you briefly introduce your research interests and methods?

Francis Albarède. Credit: Francis Albarède.

Sure. I’m a geochemist, and I apply geochemistry to understand mantle dynamics and the evolution of the mantle. I also use geochemistry to investigate other planets and work on ocean dynamics. Besides geochemistry, I also use isotopes and trace elements to understand the mantle dynamics and I use models to predict the complexness of magmatic and oceanic processes. Besides earth scientific questions, my methods can be used in archaeological problems or medical issues. My interests are mainly within the field of earth sciences, but I sometimes venture to different fields of research.

Interdisciplinary research needs to be enhanced.

You have quite an extensive career. What do you consider your biggest accomplishment in your field?

The introduction of geochemical modelling I consider one my most significant achievements. And of course, the introduction of the MC-ICP Mass Spectrometry in the mid-’90s within geosciences had tremendous success. At the time it was a new technique and it has become one of the most dominant geochemical tools in many different laboratories around the world. In geodynamics, the idea that continents grow from the head of superplumes was also successful.

Besides these big accomplishment, do you have personal projects too?

Yes, I do have a couple fun projects of my own. They often have to do with introducing new data. For example, I am currently working on using a panel of isotopes (silver, lead, copper) to understand the origin of money.

Science is actually quite hard work.

You have seen many changes in your field. What do you consider one of the biggest challenges in your field nowadays?

Interdisciplinary research needs to be enhanced. The geochemists are good at their own job, and so are the geophysicists. But we need more people that are knowledgeable in both geochemistry and geophysics, a gap that is difficult to bridge. In addition, few scientists ask the right questions. Always ask yourself why other people should care about your own research.

A two-stage history of He in the marble-cake mantle made of fertile (e.g., U- and Th-rich “pyroxenite” in beige) and refractory (e.g., U- and Th-poor “dunite” in green) rocks. Francis Albarède, 2008. Rogue Mantle Helium and Neon, Science, Vol. 319, Issue 5865, pp. 943-945, DOI: 10.1126/science.1150060

 

When you were at the early stages of your career, what were your expectations?

I never expected to be successful at an international level, but it happened anyway. I was craving to make great discoveries, and, even though the road to it was very bumpy, it happened, at least to the best of my capacities.

The most important is to think out of the box.

What is the most valuable advice you have received in your career?

As an early career scientist, I was very arrogant, even more than today. I received the advice, mainly from foreigners, to be more rigorous or demanding to myself. I was told that science is not just a quick effort, or that you do not get important results with a snap of your fingers. It is actually quite hard work. Claude Allegre, my PhD supervisor predicted I would always be a student and sure enough, I still am a student. I am not sure if I became less arrogant, but I definitely took his advice to work harder and to become more rigorous.

So, as the last question, do you have any advice for Early Career Scientists that are aiming for a career in science?

An Early Career Scientist needs to be exposed to other groups and individuals, preferably those who think differently. Perk is the great strength of being young but the danger is to reinvent the wheel. Do not think that something understood 50 years ago is necessarily obsolete. The most important is to think out of the box. This is not an easy thing to do, but if you manage it will make you a different scientist and therefore much more valuable to the community. Being scholarly will multiply and enlarge your sources of information. Read a lot, cultivate your memory, and most of all, have faith in your own capacities.

 

Francis Albarède. Credit: Société Française d’Exobiologie.

Interview conducted by Anouk Beniest

Meeting Plate Tectonics – Cesar Ranero

Meeting Plate Tectonics – Cesar Ranero

These bi-weekly blogs present interviews with outstanding scientists that bloomed and shape the theory that revolutionised Earth Sciences — Plate Tectonics. Stay tuned to learn from their experience, to discover the pieces of advice they share, to find out where the newest challenges lie, and much more!


Meeting Cesar Ranero


Prof. Cesar Ranero is an Earth Science researcher, currently Head of Barcelona Center for Subsurface Imaging (Barcelona-CSI). He owns a degree in Structural Geology and Petrology from the Basque country and he later completed his PhD in Barcelona, emerging himself in Geophysics. Prof. Ranero’s research is marked by a multidisciplinary approach, applying physical methodologies to understand geological processes.

Scientist also have to look for collaboration with the industry.

Ranero giving an outreach talk on fossil fuels at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB). Credit: Cesar Ranero

Hi Cesar, after doing research for few decades, what is, at present, your main research interest?

My research interest covers mainly active processes, I am not so interested in regional geology. I see regional geology as a necessary step to understand processes but the main goal of our group is to understand geological processes. For instance, a great interest in our group is the seismogenic zone and the generation of great earthquakes. We have very good examples in the Iberian peninsula, such as the famous 1755 Lisbon earthquake. Yet, nobody knows where the big fault that created this earthquake is located. We have a lot of research to do. But, often to understand local geology you need to integrate it in the big-picture view of processes. This is why we are mainly interested in those processes rather than in regional geology.

The more you know, the more you realize that nearly everything is to be discovered.

Further, I am interested in interacting with the industry. The geological/geophysical community is a relatively small community (compared to medicine, for example). There is out there quite a few industry groups that are doing very similar things in terms of methodologies and approaches (communities working in oil & gas exploration, or the ones working on carbon sequestration, or geothermal energy production…) All these communities have quite a bit of history in the development of methodologies. They usually have much more money and very talented people developing new methodologies. It is very necessary that we participate in their interests. They are often showing interest in what we do. By going to their meetings and talking to them, you can build fruitful interactions. Scientists also have to look for collaboration with the industry, because at the end of the day it is a place where some of our students can find a good job and make a career.

How would you describe your approach and methods?

The approach in our group is multidisciplinary, we combine complementary methodologies. But it is also important to be aware of proper methods to interpret geophysical data (you have to understand different geological methods, for instance, the methods used in structural geology).

Poststack finite-difference time migration line showing the structure of the Cocos plate across the ocean trench slope. Ranero et al., 2003, Bending-related faulting and mantle serpentinization at the Middle America trench, Nature, 425, 6956, 367.

 

What would you say is your favorite aspect of your research?

What stroke me since I started my PhD is how much good work has been done, but how much more needs to be done.
We know a lot because there were many talented people before doing a lot of work. But actually, if you have a sceptical mind, the more you know, the more you realize that nearly everything is to be discovered. If you look at the last 10 years, you realize that a lot of what has been published is incremental science and much had been laid down in previous publications. But also, there are a whole series of new topics coming out and you have to pay attention because those are the topics that really mean a substantial jump forward. Every year there are several new interesting things coming. For example, earthquake phenomena have been an amazing topic in the last years, all these new phenomena explaining how plate boundaries slip. You have to keep a sceptical mind and at the same time search for those topics.

You have to have a sceptical mind.

Why is your research relevant, what are the real world applications?

This is always a good question. We do a lot of basic research and there is always the philosophical question on whether basic research is relevant… When we discovered the laser, nobody knew how relevant this would be in the future. Now, we can not live without it! I am sure that there is a percentage of basic science discovery that might not have any real-world application. But in many cases, it does. Much of what we do contributes to the understanding of natural hazards. But also, we contribute to resolving problems industries and society are concerned with.

Prestack depth migration of a Sonne-81 line projected on bathymetry perspective. Ranero & von Huene, 2000, Subduction erosion along the Middle America convergent margin, Nature, 404, 6779, 748.

 

At this point of your career, what do you consider to be your biggest academic achievement?

I would like to think that it is the next one! (laughs)

I am proud to have been elected as a fellow of the American Geophysical Union. It means I have done something relevant that is appreciated by my peers, and at the same time, it is a great motivation to work even harder in the future.

Also, I have some nice papers that I am proud of (tectonics of subduction zones, the role of fluids on earthquakes, serpentinization of the outer rise). My view is that for most people, after you finish your career and you look back at your many publications, probably only 3-4 papers are really worth it and seriously contributed brand new material.

What would you say is the main problem that you solved during your most recent project?

Since I came back to Spain, 12 years ago, I started to work a lot in the Mediterranean. For many years, the Mediterranean had been a place where people did not want to work because it is too complex. With the help of German groups and others, our group has been able to characterize for the first time the nature of the crust in many systems in the Mediterranean. We have added a new layer of information to understand the evolution of the whole Mediterranean region. I am quite happy with that, we are producing quite a few papers and have some very new ideas, and we have also started to put that together with fieldwork. There has been a lot of on-land work all around the Mediterranean, but rather limited modern geophysical data on the nearby basins. For example, the Apennines are very well known, but the nearby Tyrrhenian, not so much… We worked with the Italian and the German groups and found some new, interesting geological observations.

Cartoon showing a conceptual model of the structure and metamorphic evolution of subducting lithosphere formed at a fast spreading center. Ranero et al., 2005, Relationship between bend-faulting at trenches and intermediate-depth seismicity, Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst., 6, Q12002, doi:10.1029/2005GC000997.

The biggest challenge is to have time to think about new observations of
high quality that challenges the conventional view
.

After being many years active in the academia, looking back, what would you change to improve how science in your field is done?

I think there are significant differences depending on the country, even within Europe, in terms of funding: how research is done, how research careers develop… Some countries, like Germany and France, are doing relatively good in terms of funding. Other countries, like Spain, Italy or Portugal are not. These countries do not have a well-organized structure for funding, so for researchers is difficult to know how to organize funding around their research to succeed. The people that do well, that work hard, that produce, should have the certainty that they will be able to move forward. But today there is a lot of uncertainty, and in these countries, there’s no warranty that people who deserve it, will have their chances. This is a major problem for ECR, and I think a better structure funding and more funding opportunities for ECR are needed.

Regarding European-funded projects, as for example those of the European Research Council, these programs are extremely prestigious, and only the very top are getting these very well funded grants. And yet, it is unclear to me, at least in my community, that the results and papers produced in the context of these programs are of higher quality than those in other funding programs. So, is it unclear to me that this is a system that we should sustain, but that we shall see in the next years. Talking to others, I get the perception that it is now becoming somewhat too prestigious, people even hesitate to submit proposals because they have to invest loads of time into it and is a huge effort that might not even pass the first evaluation, and review comments appear somewhat indecisive. But I might be wrong on this one.

What you just exposed, goes to some extent in line with my next question: What are the biggest challenges right now in your field?

As for the scientific challenges, I think we can look back at the Plate Tectonic revolution. How did it happen? Before it happened, many observations did not have a good explanation because we were lacking the right data. Then, almost suddenly, we got three datasets that nobody had seen before: magnetometers and echo sonars of higher quality coming from the second-world-war related research, and a worldwide seismological network for monitoring within the frame of the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty. And of course, these data landed on the right people. But, in my opinion, it was the access to the right data that provided a whole new view on geology.

So, perhaps the biggest challenge we have now is to be able to produce new methodologies of high resolution to look deeper into the Earth. We need to use high-quality new data sets and new observations that could allow to actually challenge the conventional views.

This is very complicated, particularly in the academic world we live in now. Currently, people have to write several papers for their PhD, and immediately after, in the postdoc period, they have to produce a massive number of papers to at least have a chance. In these circumstances, you can simply not think long enough in a complicated problem. There’s little time to think about what the main fundamental problems are that you want to solve. You have to be a paper-producing machine, and this is detrimental to their quality. You might manage to be someone that is highly productive but, in that frame, it is unlikely that you will often produce major quality. There’s too much pressure on ECRs. So, a challenge is to have time to think about how to obtain new observations of high quality that can change conventional views.

Pre-stack depth-migrated line IAM11, with arrows and numbers indicating the average dips of the block-bounding fault segments exhumed during rifting. Ranero & Pérez-Gussinyé, 2010, Sequential faulting explains the asymmetry and extension discrepancy of conjugate margins, Nature, 468, 7321, 294.

You have to be a paper-producing machine, and this is detrimental to their quality.

What were your motivating grounds, starting as an Early Career Researcher? Did you always saw yourself staying in academia?

I actually thought of going to the industry when I finished university. But I was lucky enough to be introduced to Enric Banda, my PhD supervisor, who had a big picture of geosciences, and he made a real impression on me and made me change my goals. Once I started my career in science, I quickly realized that there was a lot to be done. After two-three years into my PhD, thanks to a nice data set and some good results that were coming out, I definitely saw myself staying in academia. I looked for funding before finishing my PhD and I was lucky to get a Marie Curie, which was not even called like that at the time. I was lucky to work with relatively large groups, and with good funding. There was a good moment, also for industry. Funding was not a major issue for me for many years, so I could spend my time doing the research I wanted. At present, early careers are much more complicated, and you have to really like it to keep on pushing for it.

What advice would you like to give the ECS?

Be ambitious, think big. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. And above all, be sceptical, completely sceptical about everything. Don’t pretend you know more about what you know, but be sceptical. Because, almost for sure, no matter who did the work, it can be improved, and in most cases, to a great extent. And be open, talk to everybody.

 

Researchers of the Barcelona Center for Subsurface Imaging. Credit: Cesar Ranero

 

Interview conducted by David Fernández-Blanco

Meeting Plate Tectonics – Anne Davaille

Meeting Plate Tectonics – Anne Davaille

These bi-weekly blogs present interviews with outstanding scientists that bloomed and shape the theory that revolutionised Earth Sciences — Plate Tectonics. Stay tuned to learn from their experience, to discover the pieces of advice they share, to find out where the newest challenges lie, and much more!


Meeting Anne Davaille


Anne Davaille majored in Physics and continued with a PhD in Theoretical Physics of Fluids, jointly at the University Pierre et Marie Curie and the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris (IPGP). She investigates convection in strongly temperature-dependent fluids. After her PhD, she went to Yale for a postdoc and she currently holds a CNRS-position at the FAST Laboratory of University Paris-Sud, France.

Research is ideas plus craftmanship. It should be fun and you have to enjoy it to do it.

Anne Davaille. Credit: Anne Davaille.

Anne, what are your research interests and what methods do you use for your research?

Fluid mechanics is my main research area. I study convection in complex fluids, and I use this framework to understand mantle convection and the convective evolution and cooling of planets. My main approach is through laboratory experiments. But then I use and/or build some theory to interpret the experimental results, to derive a physical understanding, and finally to make inferences for geodynamics. All the way, numerics are also involved, to treat the experimental results, or to quantitatively apply the results to planets.

 

No matter what fancy stuff you do, if your data is not good, you are losing on what you are going to get

You have significantly advanced fluid dynamics within the geosciences. Up until now, what do you consider your biggest scientific achievement?

It is probably the works that we did on thermo-chemical plumes in two-layer convection models. We showed that convection in a mantle heterogeneous in density and viscosity could produce several types of plumes, and therefore several types of hotspots. More recently, we have been able to observe different ways of subduction initiation from convection in complex fluids. Plume-induced subduction could be occurring on Venus right now, and might have been important in the Archean Earth. On the side, I am also very happy with the techniques we developed to measure simultaneously and in situ the temperature and velocity fields in the experiments. It really helped us to push lab experiments forward and get a quantitative understanding of the processes we observed.

Different types of plumes and hotspots, depending on the presence of density heterogeneities in the mantle. From Davaille, Nature, 402, 756-760, 1999; and Davaille, Girard & Le Bars, EPSL, 203, 621-634, 2002.

 

After all the time you have spent in science, you have seen many questions answered and more questions rise. What is the biggest challenge in your field that we face today?

Until now, we still have not solved the question ‘why do we have plate tectonics?’ from a physical point of view. On what scale do we need to look for that answer? Grain scale? Or meso-scale, since the lithosphere is quite heterogeneous (e.g. faults, dikes,…)? To get plate tectonic behavior, and therefore the strong localization of deformation, we need a non-Newtonian rheology. From my experience, fluids presenting this particular behaviour are very often mixtures, and their effective behaviour on the large scale can be quite different from their local microscopic behaviour. Moreover, the history of this structure can also strongly influence the large-scale behaviour. With the theoretical understanding we have today, we still cannot model well these behaviours, and therefore answer the plate-tectonics question. I don’t know if we shalll find the answer in theory first, I don’t think that is necessary. It will require most probably a mix of theory, numerics, and data, both experimental (where you can observe and measure all the scales, from the grain to convection) and geological (the “field truth”). Once we do have that answer, we shall gain a better understanding of the other planets and satellites as well.

Plume-induced subduction obtained in FAST laboratory in a climatic chamber. From Davaille, Smrekar & Tomlinson, Nature Geosc., 10, 349-355, 2017.

The one thing we really should stop doing is having this frantic will to publish

Your field of expertise has changed over the years. Is there something you would still like to change?

Oh yes, there are some things I would like to change. The one thing we really should stop doing is having this frantic will to publish. It is an extremely bad habit and it does not generate good research. Especially for the young people that still need to develop ideas and skills, they need time to think and make mistakes, which is not possible with the current mindset of fast publishing. Fast publishing is not beautiful, nor efficient for creative research. Even though the world wants things always faster, doing it faster is not human. We should stop this. What I find the most important is that my work should be strong enough so that people understand what I did and can use this to build on it and move further. For this we need time.

Different regimes of convection in strongly temperature-dependent fluids as a function of the viscosity ratio and the intensity of convection (Rayleigh number). The temperature structure in the sugar syrups is visualized by Thermochromic Liquid Crystals. From Androvandi, Davaille, Liamre, Fouquier & Marais, Phys. Earth Planet. Int., 188, 132-141, 2011.

 

When you were in the Early Stages of our career, what were your expectations for your future?

When I was 7 years old, I learned about plate tectonics. Later, the operation FAMOUS was happening and at this young age I found that fantastic and I wanted to know more. That was one of the reasons why I went into physics. I think that during my career I have been very lucky. Once I got my degree, I thought that before getting a job, I wanted to do a PhD in a very specific topic ‘Convection in complex fluids and planets’. After that we would see. I did not really have any expectations, but I thought, if I can do it maybe it will work and that would be great. Somehow it worked and so I continued working in it, and it is still great fun!

You have to be very demanding, very rigorous if you want to succeed

The last question for today’s Early Career Scientists: what advice would you like to give the ECS that would like to stay in science?

Well, first I think that research is ideas plus craftmanship. It should be fun and you have to enjoy it to do it. But craftmanship is demanding. I have a small anecdote here. I once did an internship at Schlumberger. I worked with experiments and my supervisor at the time told me ‘if you put shit in, -(meaning noise)-, you will get shit out’. My advice would therefore be that no matter what fancy stuff you do, if your data is not good, you are losing on what you are going to get. So for experimental or numerical modelling, if you are not demanding, or only short-term, you may get away with it for a while, but on the long run, you will not last. You have to be very demanding, very rigorous. I think that’s the best way to succeed.

 

Anne Davaille. Credit: Anne Davaille.

Interview conducted by Anouk Beniest

Meeting Plate Tectonics – Roger Buck

Meeting Plate Tectonics – Roger Buck

These bi-weekly blogs present interviews with outstanding scientists that bloomed and shape the theory that revolutionised Earth Sciences — Plate Tectonics. Stay tuned to learn from their experience, to discover the pieces of advice they share, to find out where the newest challenges lie, and much more!


Meeting Roger Buck


Roger Buck is a Research Professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, in New York. His interest lies in developing theoretical models for processes that affect the solid earth. He also studies deformation patterns and topography on other planets, such as Venus.

The key is to look for areas where new data shows that there are important things we don’t understand, things that still surprise us.

After being active for several decades, what is currently your main research interest? How would you describe your approach and methods?

Broadly, I work in Geodynamics. In a lot of different aspects to it. I started doing work on planetary science and mantle convection. Now I work mostly on the mechanics of faulting and of magmatic dike intrusions, particularly focussed on continent breakup and mid-ocean ridges.

 

Roger Buck – Deploying GPS instruments to understand the mechanics of dike intrusions in Afar, Ethiopia. Credits: Roger Buck

 

What would you say is the favourite aspect of your research?

What I find really satisfying is trying to find geologic phenomena or structures that look very complicated, but where there is actually a fairly simple underlying physical mechanism. It is particularly satisfying to find a fairly simple mathematical expression describing the mechanics of processes that otherwise might look quite complicated.

I always hope that, on the long term, explaining things better is good in itself

Why is your research relevant? What are the possible real world applications?

That’s difficult to say in a lot of cases. Just explaining how structures got to be there might not have immediate effects. But, I always hope that on the long term explaining things better is good in itself. Understanding how the Earth works can help us dealing with hazard mitigation. Some of the work that we are doing recently deals with the tectonic processes that are related with earthquakes. That might help us understand the different kinds of earthquakes that happen in different areas.

 

Roger Buck – Physical experiment with gelatin, testing how magma intrusion could trigger continental breakup. Credit: Roger Buck

What do you consider to be your greatest academic achievement?

In airplanes, I tell people that “I work on areas that are splitting apart and on what allows them to split apart”. Probably the single cleanest example was a controversy that came up in the 1980s about what people often refer to as “low angle normal faults” that are associated with rocks brought up from great depth in the crust in core complexes. Over a number of papers, we showed that a lot of these structures that are low angle now, probably initiated at high angles, in ways that are very easy to understand mechanically. They evolved in a way that it’s just a consequence of normal extensional faults extending over long distances. It was very satisfying to chip away that problem from a kinematic viewpoint, and then from a more basic, mechanical point of view. Much of his work was done with excellent colleagues, like Luc Lavier and lately with Jean-Arthur Olive, on numerical simulations of these processes.

 

What would you say is the main problem that you solved during your most recent project?

I’ve been working with a very bright student on the Tōhoku earthquake that happened in March 2011 in Japan, where there was really unprecedented data (the Japanese had many geophysical instruments both on land and underwater). One of the things that was unexpected was that in the upper plate, in the lithosphere above the subduction interphase, the predominant aftershocks over a broad region (about 200 km wide) were extensional earthquakes. This had never been seen before. We have been working with simple ideas and numerical models to explain these extensional earthquakes. Our idea is that it is related to the long term (millions of years timescale) changes in the dip angle of subduction that basically bend the upper plate. We don’t have a clear connection with the extensional deformation that might have been related to the excessive size of the tsunami that was produced, but there could be some relationship. We certainly have not solved this problem but we have a promising hypothesis for one part of the Tōhoku earthquake.

It is very important to continue support for very basic work.

After being many years active in academia, looking back, what would you change to improve how science in your field is done?

Oh, that’s a hard question. A lot of things over the years have been done very well, I think. Like fostering international collaboration in science and that there has been fairly healthy support for science, in a lot of countries, including the United States. It is very important to continue support for very basic work. There has been a retreat from supporting multi-channel seismic work in the ocean in recent years, but this is one of the best ways for us to illuminate the structures produced by tectonic processes. At the same time, increased computer power allows us to get better resolution of structures, based on essentially the same data. However, we still need to collect new data.

The key for big advances is often new technologies

Roger Buck – Deploying seismometers across the Okavango Rift. View on the Victoria Falls. Credit: Roger Buck

 

What you just exposed, goes to some extent in line with my next question: What are the biggest challenges right now in your field?

Uh! These are pretty challenging questions, that’s for sure!

I think there are great and exciting challenges in things I don’t work on myself. The fact that geodesy has improved so much in recent decades and we are learning so much more about plate boundaries. I remember the wonderful talk of Jean-Philippe Avouac during the symposium in Paris, he emphasized how much we have learned. Many seismic gaps are in places where we don’t see traditional seismic activity: large earthquakes or fast earthquakes. We now know that they are slow earthquakes and slow slip events. Understanding where they occur and why we have different kinds of earthquakes in different places along subduction zones is an area that a lot of people have recognized is very important. I think the key to big advances is often new technologies. Geodesy, both on land and submarine, combined with imaging offers terrific hope for a better understanding of major earthquakes. For example, we don’t have a good clue on why some big subduction earthquakes produce very large tsunamis and others not so large tsunamis. These are huge challenges.

 

What were your motivating grounds, starting as an Early Career Researcher? Did you always see yourself staying in academia?

I was always kind of academically oriented. I liked the idea of doing research. I started in Physics and liked it a lot, and then I started taking Geology and liked Geology a lot! I was at university in the mid-1970s and there was a lot of excitement about applying plate tectonics to solve different problems and it seemed very exciting… I am definitely not a good field geologist, but I love being in the field. I think it is important for people doing theoretical work to actually understand the data that they are working with and where it comes from, and the great skill it takes to collect and interpret data. But I realized very quickly that this wasn’t my strength. The key is to look for areas where new data is showing that there are important things we don’t understand, things that still surprise us. That is one of the encouraging things that I’ve seen through my career: repeatedly, with new measurements, we had total surprises. We have seen things we did not expect.

Follow things where you have the potential to make some contribution

What is the best advice you ever received and what advice would like to you give to Early Career Students?

Oh boy!  One piece of advice I got about writing papers that deal with models is particularly good:  You should very clearly separate observations from model assumptions and model interpretations. Not mixing these three things up is something that I certainly struggle with it, but it is something that keeps papers clear and crisp.

The obvious piece of advice that you hear very often and that I certainly tell people: You are typically going to like things that you have some aptitude for. So, follow things where you have the potential to make some contribution. Find something that you really do feel good about doing and you are going to feel good about it if you are somewhat capable of doing it.

 

Roger Buck in Egypt – Credit: Roger Buck

 

Interview conducted by David Fernández-Blanco

Meeting Plate Tectonics – Roland Bürgmann

Meeting Plate Tectonics – Roland Bürgmann

These bi-weekly blogs present interviews with outstanding scientists that bloomed and shape the theory that revolutionised Earth Sciences — Plate Tectonics. Stay tuned to learn from their experience, to discover the pieces of advice they share, to find out where the newest challenges lie, and much more!


Meeting Roland Bürgmann


 

Roland Bürgmann is Professor of Geophysics at the University of California, Berkeley. He has been teaching and doing research in Berkeley for around 20 years. He started studying Geology in Germany (Universität Tübingen) and then continued his studies in the US, obtaining his PhD in Geomechanics and Crustal Deformation from Stanford University.

 

After being active for several decades in your field, where is your main research interest currently? How would you describe your approach and methods?

My current research is on active tectonics. Really the idea is to study deformation processes in the Earth related to fault systems and the earthquake cycle, but also all kinds of systems that produce active deformation like volcanoes, landslides, or land subsidence. We study those especially with geodetic tools, and also with seismology and field observations. So, I don’t tie myself to any particular observational technique, I’m really just interested in better understanding the kinematics and dynamics of deformation processes of all kinds in the Earth.

The key indication that you are doing the right thing is that you love what you’re doing

What would you say is your favourite aspect of your research?

Research really means being able to work with people. Research is not a solitary thing, a lot of it is about thinking of problems and trying to solve them. Not by yourself, but by having the opportunity to work with students and postdocs. That really enriches research immensely. I see this as one of the most enjoyable and valuable aspects of academic research.

Why is your research relevant? What are the possible real-world applications?

I guess with what we do it is relatively easy to point out real-world applications because we address natural hazards. Earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides… everybody is somewhat worried about those. On the other hand, we have to admit that often the research we do is not going to directly impact or save lives. My wife is a cancer surgeon and she might have improved or even saved a life or two every week. For us, it is much more like we are pushing on a research problem, and we do see the long-term relevance when it comes to ultimately being able to mitigate and better understand earthquake hazards and some of these other hazardous processes.

Research is not a solitary thing

Roland with his group after running a trail race (an annual tradition) Credit: Roland Bürgmann

 

What do you consider to be your biggest academic achievement?

Bürgmann, Hilley, Ferretti, & Novali (2006). Resolving vertical tectonics in the San Francisco Bay Area from permanent scatterer InSAR and GPS analysis. Geology, 34(3), 221.

My biggest academic achievement, I’m sure is still to come (laughs). That’s a tough question… you couldn’t really say, well this is “the one” finding or study that is the most important one… I think overall the work I’ve done that relates to better understanding the whole earthquake cycle; we’ve done a lot of work on postseismic deformation, fault slip, stress interactions, rheology… but it’s all incremental. I don’t feel like we have made “this one” discovery that people would always associate with me.

What would you say is the main problem that you solved during your most recent project?

One of my most recent projects is related to landslide physics. We use InSAR to study the landslide deformation, and rely on precipitation records and pore-pressure diffusion models to calculate what the fluid pressure is in the landslides. We can quite directly relate that and explain the time lag between precipitation and landsliding.

I think that this is a useful contribution. In a paper that we are about to publish, we were able to do that in the years prior to a landslide that then failed catastrophically. So there the hope is that this will actually allow us to understand what is it that gets a landslide over the brink. Landslides can keep moving steadily over the years, decade for decade, but what is it that makes one fail catastrophically? So this study, we hope can help to contribute to better understanding that.

 We should do more […] interdisciplinary studies

Looking back, what would you change to improve how science in your field is done today?

Something that we are doing already, which I think is really important and we should do more of, are truly interdisciplinary studies. I’m a strong believer in that, and I do think that geomorphologists need to talk to geophysicists, and to the modellers … Ideally, all of us should know enough about these other fields so that we can really optimize how we can see the whole system. I do think there is much more left to be done when it comes to that. Allowing us to speak the same language and joining forces when it comes to really understanding how the Earth works, not to limit oneself to just one problem, one process, and therefore one approach to understand it.

 

After all the time you have spent in science, you have seen some questions answered and more questions raised. What are the biggest challenges right now in your field?

Bürgmann, Rosen & Fielding (2000). Synthetic Aperture Radar Interferometry to Measure Earth’s Surface Topography and Its Deformation. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences, 28(1), 169–209.

Scientifically, we like to understand what we study in the simplest possible way. We try not to “over-model” what we observe, really just trying to get at the key underlying processes and principles. On the other hand, we got so much data now from all kinds of observational systems that seem to be trying to tell us much more. This suggests we should be upscaling the model complexity, and try to understand multiple processes at the same time. That is both exciting and seems dangerous. Whenever I see climate scientists with their models that incorporate hundreds of different processes, everything from turbulence in the atmosphere to particles in the air and many other things, that just seems scary and something that you would not want to do with what we study in geophysics. But I do see the need that we have to make our models and ways of understanding the Earth more complicated. Doing that consciously but well, that’s a big challenge.

 

What were your motivating grounds, starting as an Early Career Researcher?

The biggest influences ultimately are people. It was highly enthusiastic role models that made me get really excited about what I’m doing and made me change my career path. I wanted to study other things in my freshman year when I started studying geology. Over the years, I got to work with enthusiastic and inspiring mentors that made all the difference. Ultimately we are social animals and it does make a huge difference to have those kinds of influences in your early career.

We all have our insecurities

So you always saw yourself staying in academia?

I wasn’t sure. I definitely considered alternative career paths. I meant to do an industry internship, which ended up not working out because I ended up working at the US Geological Survey that summer instead. I think I kind of knew I wanted to be in academia, but you really don’t know. You don’t know if you are good enough. We all have our insecurities and everything that comes with that, from impostor syndrome to what not. But it certainly always felt natural to me. The key indication that you are doing the right thing is that you love what you’re doing.

 

Following to what you just exposed, is there any other advice would you give to Early Career Students?

When it comes to giving advice, I always say, research in academia is the best possible job. Period. But only if you enjoy doing that. If research stresses you beyond normal stress levels, if it does not give you true pleasure, then maybe it is not the right thing. I totally appreciate how that is not necessarily true for everybody. Maybe you are meant for a more structured environment, where you don’t have to make up your days’ work on your own, every day. But if you are happy with that, it really is the greatest thing in the world. It does not feel like a job.

 

Credit: Roland Bürgmann

Interview conducted by David Fernández-Blanco

Meeting Plate Tectonics – Richard Gordon

Meeting Plate Tectonics – Richard Gordon

These bi-weekly blogs present interviews with outstanding scientists that bloomed and shape the theory that revolutionised Earth Sciences — Plate Tectonics. Stay tuned to learn from their experience, to discover the pieces of advice they share, to find out where the newest challenges lie, and much more!


Meeting Richard Gordon


Prof. Richard Gordon is currently Professor at Rice University (William Marsh Rice University in Houston, Texas). He researches on how several areas such as paleomagnetism, plate tectonics, lithospheric deformation and space geodesy are tied together. While a student, Professor Gordon used paleomagnetic data to calculate the minimum velocity of a plate or continent in the past. In 2002, he was awarded by the GSA with the Arthur L. Day Medal for contributions to the development of the plate tectonic model, especially for the recognition and quantification of diffuse oceanic plate boundaries.

There will be some heated debates in the AGU

After being active for several decades in this field, where lies currently your main research interest?

My interest is in processes in the lithosphere. This could mean Plate Tectonics, deformation of the lithosphere, absolute plate motions, how plates move relative to the hotspots, how much hotspots move between them and how they all move relative to the spin axis. Plate motions, how standard they are, how motions from a million years compare with plates motions we see over decades with space geodesy. My particular interest right now lies in working out the polar wander path of the Pacific plate, because it is a key missing part of the puzzle for understanding Cenozoic global tectonics, and Pacific tectonics. Those are some of the highlights.

How would you describe your approach, which methods do you while conducting your research?

A lot of it involves looking at data, using as many data and as diverse datasets as we can to test different hypotheses. A little tiny bit of it involves modelling. The main focus in our research group right now is on looking at marine magnetic anomalies in the Pacific and coming up with novel ways of process them in order to squeeze out information on where the paleomagnetic pole lies.

What would you say is the favourite aspect of your research?

When you discover something new about the Earth and understand the Earth better, and you are the first one to get that realization: that is such a high, that makes all the hard work worthwhile.

Kreemer and Gordon (2014). Pacific plate deformation from horizontal thermal contraction. Geology, 42 (10), 847-850.

Why do you think is your research relevant? What are the possible real world applications?

A lot of the work I’ve done has been about relative motion of the plates and motion across deep deforming zones, for example in the western US. Some of that work has been used and can be used more to help assess seismic hazards. The seismic moment releases energy over time and spaces related to how much the earthquakes move and how fast the plates move, I think this is a very important implication. I’m hoping, in the future, to relate true polar wander to global climate change. Maybe it will work, maybe not. But if it did, I think that would be really relevant.

What do you consider to be your biggest academic achievement?

(sighs)… That’s a tough one… Something I am very proud at was leading a group with a couple of my graduate students, to put together one new global set of plate velocities. We did a really careful job, went back to all of original data and analyzed the results. We were able to discover a lot of things. You can discover a lot of new things by going back and looking at the data. It was a big project and we were all really worn out at the end, but I think we are all very proud of that.

That work led to the discovery and quantification of motion across several diffuse oceanic plate boundaries. Such boundaries are globally significant and occupy 10% to 15% of the ocean floor. At the scale of the boundaries and boundary zones, the physics of deformation in them is very different from that for narrow oceanic plate boundaries.

C. DeMets, R. G. Gordon, D. F. Argus, S. Stein (1990). Current plate motions. Geophysical Journal International, 101 (2), 425–478

What would you say is the main problem that you solved during your most recent project?

We have some of the papers out and still some of them are in the pipeline, I will be talking about them in the AGU: We solved a problem that people didn’t think was a problem: what’s the paleolatitude of the Hawaiian hot spot, when the Emperor Seamount Chain was formed. What we showed is different from what everybody believed. We showed that it stayed in the same place, it did not change its latitude. So it is going to be very controversial and there may be some heated debates in the AGU and EGU, I am sure. But I am sure we have got this right!

After being many years active in the academia, looking back, what would you change to improve how science in your field is done?

The easy answer would be: more funding! (laughs) Also, more opportunities for young scientists.

What are the biggest challenges right now in your field?

For the project I am doing right now on paleomagnetism of the Pacific, one challenge is that we need more data from the Pacific. We can do better with more data. A lot of the data that we have is collected by ships. But we would like to have vector data, from airplanes or drones that can move fast enough. Finding better quality data than we have is a challenge. And this goes back to more funding (laughs).

I thought I was going to be a writer

Richard Gordon in 1971. Credit – East Side Union High School.

What were your motivating grounds, starting as an Early Career Student? Did you always see yourself staying in academia?

When I went to graduate school, I thought I was going to be a writer. A science writer, maybe a science-fiction writer too. Isaac Asimov was my role model! I thought I had to have a PhD to know enough to be a good science writer. But to do a PhD I had to do research. So I started doing it and got really excited about it. And I thought “Hey, I could do this! I’m pretty good at this!

I did an internship in the oil industry for a summer and I really liked that too, but I liked academics a lot more, so I made the decision to stay in academia. Although I am still keeping my options open to still become a science writer. Isaac Asimov actually was an assistant professor for I think 6 years. When he reached the point where he was earning more money from his writing than as a professor, he decided to become a full-time writer. But I never did the writing, I just got so excited about academia that I have been totally focused in that way.

A disproportionate number of new discoveries are made by early career scientists

What advice would like to you give to Early Career Scientists?

The first thing is: don’t get discouraged. Because part of being an academic is receiving critical feedback. The advantage for us is that the people who are giving us feedback are people who also are getting feedback from somebody else. Whereas in art & music, the critics don’t actually make the music or make the art, they are just professional critics. It doesn’t give them the perspective of the person who also has received critical feedback. Everyone is going to get criticism, and papers get rejected and proposals get rejected…just don´t let yourself get discouraged and do read the criticisms carefully. It may be mostly wrong but there will be a kernel of truth, which can help you write a better paper, write a better proposal or be a better scientist.

The other thing to remember is that a disproportionate number of new discoveries are made by early career scientist. The early career scientists own the future, the near future. And that is part of “don’t be discouraged” because if you’ve got bright ideas, you could be just around the corner of a big advance.

Those two things together are, I think, important.

Richard Gordon. Credit – Jeff Fitlow, Rice University.

 

Interview conducted by David Fernández-Blanco

Meeting Plate Tectonics – David Bercovici

Meeting Plate Tectonics – David Bercovici

These bi-weekly blogs present interviews with outstanding scientists that bloomed and shape the theory that revolutionised Earth Sciences — Plate Tectonics. Stay tuned to learn from their experience, to discover the pieces of advice they share, to find out where the newest challenges lie, and much more!


Meeting David Bercovici


David Bercovici started his scientific career with a BSc in Physics, and eventually graduated with a PhD in geophysics and space physics [from UCLA]. He was a professor at the University of Hawaii from 1990 until 2000. In 1996 he received the James B. Macelwane Medal from the AGU for his contributions to geophysical sciences as a young scientist. Since 2001 he has been at Yale as a professor in Geology and Geophysics, and is currently Department Chair (for the 2nd time).  In the last few years he was elected to both the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and the US National Academy of Sciences.

 

For me, the biggest question I still would like to answer is: why do we have plate tectonics?

Could you briefly describe your research interests, David?

My research interests are in geophysical and geological fluid dynamics, especially to understand lithosphere and mantle dynamics. I’m mostly a theoretician, which means I do more pen and paper work developing theories and models of geophysical processes, not so much in the way of numerical simulations. My area of interest right now is understanding rock rheology at the grain scale in a physical way. For example, the softening feedback mechanisms we think are working on rocks to generate plate boundaries are quite complicated. However, if we are able to understand them for Earth, perhaps we can use them to understand the conditions for whether plate tectonics can occur on other planets, too. Mylonites are a good example of rocks that probably undergo a self-softening feedback, since it appears that deformation causes their mineral grains to shrink, which makes them softer, which then focusses or localizes their deformation, and so on.

 

You have been around for some time. What do you consider your biggest achievement within your field of expertise?

Overall I believe we’ve made a lot of progress in trying to understand why Earth has plate tectonics (and maybe why other planets in our solar system do not).  A lot of the physics necessary to advance this field relates to exotic rock rheologies, and this has involved a collaboration between experimental rock physicists and geodynamical theoreticians and modelers.  Rock physicists like my Yale colleague Shun Karato, David Kohlstedt (at the University of Minnesota) and Greg Hirth (at Brown University) have been a big influence on me.  I think my own contribution has been in developing ‘grain damage theory’ which describes how mineral grains evolve under deformation and cause weakening as we see in mylonites. I and my colleagues (most notably Yanick Ricard at the ENS-Lyon, but also former students William Landuyt now at Exxon and Brad Foley now at Penn State, and my two current collaborators Elvira Mulyukova at Yale and Phil Skemer at Washington University in St. Louis) have developed and continue to develop  theories for how grains damage. I consider the physics that we’ve developed for this a significant accomplishment.

 

Bercovici, D. & Ricard, Y., 2013. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 275-288.

 

So besides your projects related to ‘damage physics’, do you have side-projects too?

David Bercovici – Credit: David Bercovici

Yes, I do! I currently have a project working on oscillations and magmatic waves in volcanic systems before eruptions with various colleagues (most notably Mark Jellinek at the University of British Columbia and Chloé Michaut at the ENS-Lyon).  And I have worked on problems that are related to the presence and circulation of water in the mantle. I and my colleague Shun Karato proposed the reasonably well-known (and controversial) transition zone water filter model. This theory argued that the upper and lower mantle are kept somewhat chemically distinct but without actual layering (which is usually required to explain the difference in basalts coming up at mid-ocean ridges versus ocean islands like Hawaii) by hydrous melting of material upwelling out of the transition zone, just at the 410 discontinuity. This melting then cleans the rising mantle of incompatible elements, much like a coffee filter (or maybe more like a hookah), allowing mid-ocean ridge basalts to look depleted.

One of the biggest challenges today is to predict and understand how other planets function.

You have quite some different interests! Overall, what do you consider the biggest scientific challenges in your field nowadays?

One of the biggest challenges today is to predict and understand how other planets function. Do they have plate tectonics or not? If not, could they have had plate tectonics at one time, and then why did it stop? We need to do tests and get data from other planetary and extra-solar bodies. Currently, we only have data from the Moon, Mercury, Mars and Venus (and also outer-solar system icy bodies). We are a long way from understanding our universe and the objects residing in it. I think that the model of plate tectonics as we know it nowadays is maybe just a recipe describing our own planet, but will not necessarily work for others.

Any model or code is only as good as the physics being used

 

So to get to there, what do you think could be improved in your field?

In geodynamics, constructing and using big numerical models is very popular nowadays. There is a danger here though, because users of these models do not always understand the physics behind the code they are using, and that some of this physics is incomplete. Any model or code is only as good as the physics being used, and we do not necessarily understand all this physics yet.   It is very important to understand how the numerical tool is constructed, or at least its limitations, and we really need to emphasize this. Ideally, everyone using a model would understand how the model works, but as codes become more complicated this becomes less practical or feasible. But at the very least, before you use a model, you should think about how to interpret it.  One can first develop a simpler theory or scaling-law to hypothesize or predict what the model might do, and then treat the numerical simulation like an experiment to test (and perhaps disprove or perhaps refine) this hypothesis.  This will make your study much more valuable and long-lasting.

 

You still have some time to continue your research. How do you see the remainder of your career?

I certainly hope to have some more discoveries coming up. You often have a broad idea or hypothesis that gives some direction where you should go, but you’re often surprised about what you discover along the way.  One of the things I work on now is the metal asteroid Psyche. One question is as such an asteroid freezes completely, can it sustain a magnetic field? This is a completely new direction for me and I find it very exciting! Whether my ideas will work or not, I can’t say yet. But sometimes my more successful ideas developed in a folder on my computer called ‘Cool or Stupid?’. One of my more well-known papers had that as a working title for a couple of years.

I was a terrible student.

What advice would you like to give today’s Early Career Scientists?

When I was an undergraduate and for some time in graduate school, I was a terrible student.  I didn’t even make it into graduate school at first! So my expectations were rather low.  Probably my one redeeming quality was that I was stubborn and persistent.  I figured I would continue to try to make it in graduate school until the university police were called to escort me off campus, which luckily never happened. My best advice is that if you feel you have found out what you want to do, be stubborn, but not so stubborn and rigid as not to learn new things and try ideas outside of your comfort zone.

My second advice is that you should ask yourself what big question do you want to answer in your life? What would you like written on your tombstone that you tried to accomplish?  Find yourself that question and make it your life goal. For me, the biggest question I still would like to answer is: why do we have plate tectonics?

Interview conducted by Anouk Beniest

 

 

Meeting Plate Tectonics – Peter Molnar

Meeting Plate Tectonics – Peter Molnar

These bi-weekly blogs present interviews with outstanding scientists that bloomed and shape the theory that revolutionised Earth Sciences — Plate Tectonics. Stay tuned to learn from their experience, to discover the pieces of advice they share, to find out where the newest challenges lie, and much more!


Meeting Peter Molnar


Active in different research areas of the Earth Sciences, Prof. Peter Molnar has been Professor of Geological Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder for more than a decade.

Set your own standards for excellence and don’t let other people decide them

You have come a long way in academia! How do you remember the beginnings of your career?

Peter Molnar (1984) – Credit: what-when-how, In Depth Tutorials and Information

I studied physics in the United States, at Oberlin College, where I took one semester in Physical Geology. I remember a friend of mine said “Molnar, you ought to take Geology. If you take Geology, you will look at the landscape completely differently from the way you do.” And I liked looking at the landscape, so I took that semester. Then, I worked one summer at the Harvard Cyclotron Laboratory, and I realized that I wasn’t cut out for that kind of physics… So, I thought of going to geophysics. I applied and I was a good enough student that I got in, in both Columbia and Caltech. I went to Columbia University. During my second year, I attended a talk by Lynn Sykes. He had studied earthquakes on fracture zones and demonstrated that transform faulting occurred. This was a moment that changed me. I remember thinking “Oh my God! Continental drift does occur!” I had been introduced to it back in college, but I didn’t believe any of it! I heard Sykes, and I suddenly realized there is something exciting going on. I got interested and turned my attention to it. While a student I took a “sabbatical,” went to East Africa with a bunch of seismographs to study earthquakes there.

 

 

I attended a talk by Lynn Sykes… This was a moment that changed me

I graduated in 1970. Then I was a PostDoc for two years at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Afterwards, I went to the USSR for four months, because I thought earthquake prediction offered a bright future. Next, I took a job at MIT where I had the good fortune to get to know Paul Tapponnier. He really taught me more geology than I knew by a long shot. I stayed at MIT for 27 years, but I wasn’t a very good teacher. So I decided to quit, and I supported myself on grants from NSF and NASA. Late in the 90s, after supporting myself for more than 10 years, I wanted to change directions. So I looked into moving to a place where they would pay me a little a bit so that I did not have to depend on grants. And there was the choice between University of Washington and the University of Colorado. I had gotten interested in climate change, and then other things since then, and I have been here for 18 years.

 

After being active for several decades in this field, where does your main research interest currently lie? 

Right now my main interest is related to how geodynamics affects climate on geologic scales. There are two problems that attract me: how does the high topography of Asia affect Asian climate and how do islands in the ocean affect rainfall and large-scale atmospheric circulation. The ultimate goal of the latter is Ice Ages, since I think they are all tied together. I have been working on what you might call geodynamics now for most of the last 50 years, so I still do that. I no longer do much seismology.

It’s almost a religion that I don’t believe what I don’t understand

Peter Molnar (2014) – Credit: Oceans at MIT

 

How would you describe your approach?

My wife says that what I do is to look for problems where everybody believes something, but there is an inconsistency, and that I try to find that inconsistency and expose it, and then revel in the pleasure of that exposure. That’s her observation of watching me, I certainly do not do this consciously. 

A concern I have with a younger generation is that, for some reason, they have not been encouraged or they have not learned to ask important questions…

 

 What about your methods?

Molnar & England (1990). Late Cenozoic uplift of mountain ranges and global climate change: chicken or egg? Nature, 346, 29–34.

I seek simple physical explanations for things. I do not like big models because I don’t understand them, and it’s almost a religion that I don’t believe what I don’t understand. I use big numerical codes. I use them to carry out “simple numerical experiments” where you vary one parameter and see what you get. To me this is an experiment. It’s just not done in a laboratory but on a computer. The strategy is to understand the physical processes while bringing data to bear. Another central element, which I often seen missing today, is that I try to direct my research towards problems that are “important”. It seems to me that an important problem is one that when you solve it, it changes the way people think. Sometimes you have to make incremental steps forward. As an example, both Tapponnier and I, over the years, have tried to constrain the kinematics of Asian deformation by studying slips on faults, and determining slip rates. One could argue, those studies are incremental steps forward, but of course, the big goal is to put the whole picture together. I no longer do this.

There are many people who do this better than I do. So, it would be pointless for me to do that. But I compile their data continually. And the question that I am asking, in this case, is what are the underlying physical processes that determine how the deformation occurs?

A concern I have with a younger generation is that, for some reason, they have not been encouraged or they have not learned to ask important questions.  There’s too much of a tendency to work on incremental problems. 

While you are learning, you are alive

What would you say is the favourite aspect of your research?

Bringing two pieces together that don’t look like they fit, until you put them together. For example, I think that rainfall over the islands in Indonesia and the growth of Indonesia has made the Ice Ages in Canada. Now, who would have thought that? I have fun with this! You have to realize that when you do this type of things, most of the time you are wrong. So, I might be wrong about this one, but I am having fun. So it doesn’t matter. I’m learning. That’s the second favourite thing: learning. While you are learning, you are alive. And the third thing is fieldwork. I love being in the field. My head gets clear, I see things that I have not seen before, I learn about other cultures and people. I just have a wonderful time. I don’t think my own fieldwork contributed much to our field  – but it’s important to me.

I’m just having fun!

Why is your research relevant? What are the possible real-world applications? 

Peter Molnar – Credit: University of Colorado Boulder

I think my research is about as relevant as Goya’s paintings – Goya is one of my favourite artists. So if you think that Goya’s paintings are relevant, then maybe my research is relevant. And if you think his paintings are not relevant, then my research is not relevant either. And I shouldn’t be so pretentious as to equate my work to Goya’s paintings.

What would you say is the main problem that you solved during your most recent project? 

I don’t know if I solved any problem… that’s not a question I ask myself. I’m just having fun!

I wanted to ask what do you consider to be your biggest academic achievement, but perhaps I should ask you what is the one achievement that gave you the most fun?

I don’t spend time thinking about my biggest achievement. I prefer to look forward to what’s coming. You know, most people my age are retired, I can still work 50 or 60 hours a week. I love what I do. I rather look forward to the exciting stuff in the future.

…it troubles me when I see people worrying […] about artificial metrics

Looking back, what would you change to improve how science in your field is done today?

I see two aspects of the direction science is going that trouble me. One, can do nothing about, is the level of funding. Most of us struggle to get funded. I feel that back 50 years ago, it was much easier than it is now. Of course, we were fewer people. But in any case, limitations on funding really slow us down.

The other thing that troubles me is the focus on metrics. People counting the number of papers they write, worrying about their citations and not worrying about the quality of their work. These very poor measures of quality. So much today is focussed on these metrics, these indexes, that are meant to be a measure of your work. People are not thinking about the quality, they are thinking about how many people are going to cite it, where they are going to publish it, does the journal have a high -whatever it is called- impact factor. This is just crap, people should not waste time on this. This is just ridiculous! The focus should be on the quality of the work. We all have different ways of deciding quality. It is not something you measure, however; it’s something we determine in some subjective way. And it troubles me when I see people not worrying about the right thing, quality, and worrying instead about these artificial metrics. I am just so glad these things don’t matter to me. I am old enough, but I really don’t envy young people that have to cope with these sorts of artificial targets.

I don’t see anything like Plate Tectonics in the verge from happening.

But I do see still see very exciting stuff, but probably in different parts the science

What do you think are the biggest challenges right now in your field?

Some of the challenges are too hard for me even to pursue them. In the climate world, we don’t know about the role of clouds. And I don’t know how to pursue this, so I don’t pursue it. Do clouds have a cooling effect, and what is the response from clouds to warming? Will they slow or accelerate the warming? We don’t know. The role of clouds is certainly a big, big question. Although I do not work on this, I think about it, but I don’t see what to do.

One of the problems I do work on is what brought us Ice Ages. How did we go through 300 My years without much ice in the northern hemisphere and then suddenly, beginning 3My years ago or so, we had 5 big Ice Ages? Why? An easy answer is that now CO2 is higher. But it’s really hard to measure, determining CO2 in the past is a big question.

Another big question for me is how does the convection in the mantle connect with deformation in the lithosphere? How do these connect to one another?

Another one I work on is where is the strength within the lithosphere? We still argue about it. This is a 40 years old question, and the points of view haven’t changed. There are still those who put the strength in the crust, while others put it in the mantle. I don’t think we know. And of course it’s going to be different in different places, so it’s a more complicated issue.

Molnar (2015). Plate Tectonics: A Very Short Introduction – Credit: Amazon

I think the prediction of earthquakes is often dismissed as something that we ought not to spend time on. But the progress that has been made in understanding earthquakes in the past 20 years is huge. This came up in Paris and I agree completely with what Eric (Calais), Jean-Philippe (Avouac), and others said. The use of GPS to study co-seismic and post-seismic deformation, and the realization of slow earthquakes are big advances. That’s a big question that I think we might be close to solving.

Another question I got really excited about is understanding how the upper mantle and the lower mantle are connected. In fact, some of us have had a discussion about it in Paris. The evidence shows the lower mantle is really chemically different from the upper mantle; that’s obvious. But how are the two connected; that’s not obvious. I don’t see this the same way as a bunch of other people do. I see the connection between the two, and this takes us back to the question of the early history of the Earth. How is the chemical difference manifested? How has the slower convection of the lower mantle slowed the cooling of the Earth?

I think the answer to your question is: I don’t see anything like Plate Tectonics on the verge of happening. I do see still very exciting stuff, but probably in different parts the science.

…that way I was not going to get killed

When you were in the early stages of our career, what were your expectations? Did you always see yourself staying in academia? 

I don’t remember what expectations I had, I don’t think I was even aware enough to know what I wanted to do. When I decided to go into geophysics, people said to me “Oh, what’s geophysics?”, and I didn’t know. And “What would you do?” and I said, “Well, oil companies need people like that”. At that time I knew so little, that it never dawned on me that if I work for an oil company, I might be stuck having to live in Texas. And I can’t imagine living in Texas. What I did know is that if I did not go to graduate school, I would be sent to Vietnam. I was kind of trapped with having to go to graduate school and choosing a field that seemed possible and open to me. So, I just decided to go for the easy road. I stayed in school because that way I was not going to get killed. I stayed, and I thought about music and girls. But once I got excited about research, it was clear that that was the only place for me.

 What is the best advice you ever received?

Now, that’s a good question. One of them came from my father. He did not articulate this, but I sensed it in a conversation with him. And one of my three main advisors, Jack Oliver, emphasized this to me again, and that is to continuously ask yourself: What is the most important scientific question? As soon as you did something, Jack Oliver would say, “Ok. Now you have done this, what’s the next most important question?” Just because you ask it, it doesn’t mean that you have solved an important problem. But if you continue to ask yourself that question, you have a better chance of doing good science, than if you don’t ask that question.

Jack gave another piece of advice, which is almost counter opposite to this, and that was that when you can’t think of what to do, the worst thing you could do is to do nothing. Just because you can’t come up with the most important problem doesn’t mean you should do nothing. You should just keep going.

Another piece of advice is, set your own standards. None of us is Einstein. None of us is Newton (maybe not none of us, but very, very few of us are). So, if we set those standards, we fail. And the problem is that, if we let universities with low standards but counting and using metrics to set the standards, we will not do as well as we would, if each of us would set our own standards for excellence. We should strive on meeting our standards, rather than what others expect from us. Don’t let other people decide your standards.

 

Peter Molnar – Credit: David Oonk

Interview conducted by David Fernández-Blanco

Meeting Plate Tectonics – Xavier Le Pichon

Meeting Plate Tectonics – Xavier Le Pichon

These bi-weekly blogs present interviews with outstanding scientists that bloomed and shape the theory that revolutionised Earth Sciences — Plate Tectonics. Stay tuned to learn from their experience, to discover the pieces of advice they share, to find out where the newest challenges lie, and much more!


Meeting Xavier Le Pichon


Prof. Xavier Le Pichon is one of the pioneers of the theory of plate tectonics. He developed the first global-scale predictable quantitative model of plate motion. The model, published in 1968, accounted for most of the seismicity at plate boundaries. Among many substantial contributions to the field, he also published, together with Jean Francheteau and Jean Bonnin, the first book on plate tectonics in 1973.

 

Your contributions have led to great advancements of our understanding of Plate Tectonics as we know it today. What‘s your main interest and what motivates your research?

My interest is the Earth and how it behaves. Discovering what type of animal the Earth is. I think of the Earth as a living organism, and we have to understand it. It’s very interesting to take the Earth as something that evolves, that changes, and that you have to understand how it evolves. The whole thing about research is getting very intimate with it and knowing really its behaviour.

I think of the Earth as a living organism

What would you say is the favourite aspect of your research?

I do not have any favourite aspect, but I think that to explain the change in the Earth is captivating. For example, how did we pass from an Earth where there were a single continent and a single ocean, ~200 Ma, to something where the continents are as dispersed as they are now… This had a tremendous influence on many things, including evolution, biology, climate… We know, for example, that when all the continents were together the pace of the evolution was much smaller than when continents are dispersed. All this fascinates me. I believe that if there is something that is not understood, you have to understand it. The basic question that proves you are a human is, you always have the “why” in your mind as the main thing that is present.

Claude Riffaud and Xavier Le Pichon – Credit: Jean-Claude Deutsch/Paris Match

 

What do you consider is the main problem that you solved during research?

I have been interested in many different aspects… I’m best known by the fact that I’ve been one of those who promoted plate tectonics. I made the first global model of quantifying the motion of the plates, knowing everywhere what would be the motion absorbed in the plate boundary. Also, I made the first finite and precise reconstruction of the configuration of the Earth, for nowadays, 70 Ma, 200 Ma, and so on. I also think that I was the first that proved that the Earth’s expansion did not work. Because if you take the shortening that is absorbed in the trenches of the world, in the mountain belts, and you claim there is no shortening there, then you are left only with the expansion of the ridges. And the expansion is asymmetric, and it’s produced much more in the east-west sense than it is in the north-south sense. And if you have that going on for several tens of millions of years, then the Earth would have a shape which is completely non-hydrostatic. It would not respect what the Earth has to have to be a planetary body turning on itself. So the Earth’s expansion was clearly impossible.

I believe that science that is completely regulated

top-down is not efficient

Le Pichon, X. (1968). Sea-floor spreading and continental drift. Journal of Geophysical Research, 73(12), 3661–3697.

 

After being many years active in the academia, looking back, what would you change to improve how science in your field is done today?

I never worried about “what is done”, I worried about “what I do”.  I have always found a way to get money, to get a position and to get a lab. I changed labs quite a few times. I created a few labs… I think it is a question of adjusting. I believe that science that is completely regulated top-down is not efficient. I think there has to be a lot of freedom. At least for fundamental science. For applied science, I don’t know but I think it is probably about the same. The reason is very basic: what is the purpose of research? It’s to discover something that is totally unexpected. If it is expected, then it’s not a discovery. When the guy who does the planification says: “we will focus all our energy to find out about that”, how does he know “that” is the thing that is going to come out? The most important things in the evolution of research have been totally unexpected and came from people that had no planification whatsoever of what they should find.

The most important things in the evolution of research have been totally unexpected

Where do you see the biggest challenges in your field right now?

Le Pichon, Francheteau, Bonnin (1973). Plate Tectonics: Developments in Geotectonics, 6 – Credit: Amazon

The plate tectonic was really a revolution that changed completely the concept. And it took a few tens of years to adjust to this revolution. Actually, we are still in the phase of adjusting to that. For example, we are adjusting to the fact that to understand that plate tectonics is not only what happens at the surface, but that it implies things that happen in the interior of the Earth, in the mantle and below. This is not fully understood. And we do not understand one very important thing, which is that plate tectonics is a relatively new thing on the Earth. In the beginning, there was no plate tectonics as we know it nowadays. And I think that even the style of the plate tectonics has changed in the last was 200 Ma for example. It probably was not the same before Pangea… So we have still lots of things to understand, and to incorporate. And then, the main thing about discoveries, again, is that they are unexpected. So, I would not be surprised that major discoveries focus our energy in a completely new direction in the near future. I think we are approaching a time where it seems that we need to trigger something else to get into something new.

 I am very afraid of people who get specialized too early

When you were an Early Career Researcher, what was your motivation, what stimulated you most?

Riffaud, Le Pichon (1976). Expédition ‘Famous’ à 3000 m sous l’Atlantique. Paris: Albin Michel. – Credit: Amazon

The fact that strikes me the most when I think about Europe is that the student’s mobility has been greatly increased and I think that this is extremely important. The mobility I had was not too frequent in my time – I have moved a lot: I moved to the United States, where I was offered a professorship, and came back, then I was an invited professor in other places, Oxford, Tokyo… I have created three different laboratories, and I’ve been in many places in the world. I think this is very important because you change with time and you cannot get stuck in a given thing. I think this is very basic in research. I mean, you learn a lot by comparing. You have to move, and confront yourself to other laboratories, to other ways to teach… Otherwise, you get stuck in a certain frame and that can be very dangerous. Then you become more interested in promoting your position and the place where you are than in the discoveries. Or you end up trying to be what your professor was and trying to imitate the guy that taught you is certainly one of the worst things you can do. I think anything that promotes mobility and independence and possibilities to change is a very good thing.

I am very afraid of people who get specialized too early. Of course, it is easier to get a job if you have a narrow speciality, you are more immediately usable. But I think the result is quite bad, quite often. You first have to see the different possibilities and then progressively you find out that you best express yourself in a certain direction, in a certain field. And that requests time and several tries and so on.

 

When you were a young researcher, did you always see yourself staying in academia?

I always wanted to do research. I wanted the freedom to choose. And I always went to places where I was sure that I would decide myself what type of research I would do. If that was not anymore the case, I quitted and I changed. I was very firm about the fact that I wanted to choose myself my own research direction. This has been a problem with financing. I had to change my source of financing. Whenever I had a problem with the state and the administration, I would go to oil people and other types of European financing in order to be able to keep this freedom.

You have to go to a place where research is thriving

The last question for today’s Early Career Scientists: what advice would you like to give the ECS that would like to stay in science?

Xavier Le Pichon – Credit: Instituto De Estudios Andinos Don Pablo Groeberg (IDEAN)

Basically, I have been an autodidact. I have always learned, in contact with other people, but mostly by myself. I cannot give any advice about what is best… but it is clear that you have to go to a place where research is thriving. If you go to a place where nothing happens, you will not start by yourself something unless you are a real genius. But even then, you don’t have the resources and so on. So you first need to identify the place where things are moving, where things are happening.

And then you try to go to this place and then, if possible, you try another one. Don’t get stuck to one thing only. Try to see the world, try to see how it moves, try to contact people…

One of the most interesting things in research is the contact with other people. Academia is a place where you have a lot of cooperation and you learn to interact with others and having a wide network of people with whom you interact is one of the gifts of this type of life. One very interesting thing is wherever you go you will agree if you talk about good science. Because when proper science is made, everybody agrees. This is not true in any other field. In philosophy, for example, you will never find people with whom you totally agree, it’s impossible. In science it’s so restricted, the rules are so clear that you are sure to come to a common agreement. So you can work with anybody on Earth that has the proper mind to do research and you will cooperate very well.

Xavier Le Pichon – Credit: Xavier Le Pichon

Interview conducted by David Fernández-Blanco

Meeting Plate Tectonics – Dan McKenzie

Meeting Plate Tectonics – Dan McKenzie

These bi-weekly blogs present interviews with outstanding scientists that bloomed and shape the theory that revolutionised Earth Sciences — Plate Tectonics. Stay tuned to learn from their experience, to discover the pieces of advice they share, to find out where the newest challenges lie, and much more!


Meeting Dan McKenzie


Prof. Dan McKenzie is one of the key actors empowering the Plate Tectonic Theory. He was Professor of Geophysics in Cambridge until he retired in 2012. He is mainly known to have published, together with Robert Parker, the first paper on Plate Tectonics. “The North Pacific: an example of tectonics on a sphere” describes the principles of plate tectonics, where individual aseismic areas move as rigid plates on the surface of a sphere.

The trick is to know what is tractable and also what is not understood.

You are known to have published the “very first paper” on plate tectonics. How did this contribution came about?

I was a Physics undergraduate in Cambridge. Then I became a graduate student of Teddy Bullard with whom I worked on the fluid dynamics of the mantle before it became at all understood. He got me to a conference in New York, where I heard for the first time all the works that Vine had done on, eventually, plate movements. While examiners were reading my PhD, I did the work of my first paper on plate tectonics. It was concerned with the thermal consequences of plate creation on ridges. In Summer 1967, I went to Scripps and there I was reading a paper by Teddy on fitting the continents. It occurred to me that the method he used, Euler’s theorem, actually was a way to describe all surface motions of the Earth. And so I did. I wrote, what then turned out to be the first paper on plate tectonics, which was published 1967. I don’t have priority. Jason Morgan gave a talk at the AGU in the Spring of 1967. But his abstract was completely different from the talk he gave. I had read his abstract not too long before he gave the talk, and I missed it. It made no impression at all on the AGU.

Since then, I worked a bit on Plate Tectonics, but it became quickly a dead end. I was intrigued by some observations from ocean Islands, which showed that their sources had been isolated from the convecting of the mantle for about a thousand million years. This seemed extraordinary to me! So I got interested in the whole question as how you generate melt. I worked on that for quite some time. I’m still working on that.

I have gone beyond my wildest dreams

I worked on a lot of areas in the Earth Sciences and I have gone beyond my wildest dreams (laughs). It never occurred to me that I would be given all this prices and funding –it is all very flattery!  But I am always amazed by the fact that my papers are read and cited.

 

Dan McKenzie (1976) – Credit: The Geological Society (Mckenzie Archive)

How do you remember the beginnings in your career, what was your main motivation?

I never had an overall plan about what to do for my career. I simply work on what I find interesting and what I think that I and other people might be able to understand. I put my mind to it. There is no point in working on things everybody understands, nor in working on something that is totally intractable, because eventually, you won’t catch it either. The trick is to know what is tractable and also what is not understood. I particularly watched the technology. Most of what I have done followed a change in technology. You have to have some feeling that you can do something new and interesting, otherwise you are just going to get lost. If hundreds or thousands of people do the same thing, that is not the sensible thing for me to do. I have nothing to add to that. They do much better than I would. But the data is marvellous, and I can use it to do all kinds of things. The best scientific problems are clearly interesting, clearly not known and not understood, but tractable. There is no point whatsoever, trying to attack problems that are not tractable.

[Plate Tectonics research] was frankly a bit of a disappointment

What would you say, has been the favourite aspect of your research? 

I think the one that had the most influence on my career was certainly plate tectonics. That was frankly a bit of a disappointment. It was so successful that it really needed no further work. I spent an enormous amount of energy in the 1960’s in trying to make the theory as simple and as obvious as I could. And I succeeded, and other people were part too, but we succeeded too well (laughs).  And it did become really routine. Since that time, there haven’t really been any changes. So, it isn’t my favourite at all!

My favourite is trying to understand the mantle convection (of which plate tectonics is one aspect). Trying to understand the fluid dynamics of mantle convecion is really the dominant aspect of the research I have done for fifty years.

I am driven by wanting to understand things, rather than by the uses that people make of my understanding

After all the time you have spent in science, where do you see the biggest challenges right now in your field?

Dan McKenzie (mid 1990s) – Credit: British Library (Voices of science)

The present surface of Mars is so thick that it isn’t actually moving, but it seems it did in the past. So probably, in the early history of Mars, it did have something like Plate Tectonics. And I am sure that, if and when we ever get good images, the works on fluid dynamics will actually give us a handle of what is happening on this and other planets. But you need extraordinary increased spatial resolution images to actually see what is happening on planets in the solar system.

 

You have contributed greatly to establishing the revolutionary Theory of Plate Tectonics. Still, one might wonder – what are the real-world applications of your research?

McKenzie & Parker (1967). Nature, 216(5122), 1276–1280.

The understanding of plate motions has completely changed our views on seismic risk. At present, I think GPS is an enormous step forward in our understanding of seismic risk. Now, you can actually see the elastic strain that accumulated on plate boundaries using GPS. For instance, Tibet is moving southwards with respect to India. But there have been no really big earthquakes along the Himalayan front in historical times. It is quite clear from the GPS that there have been huge but very infrequent earthquakes. What has been happening in Indonesia and also in Japan, is likely to happen here: it will unzip and there will be earthquakes. I wish the Indians would take it more seriously… My friends and I reckon that somewhere in central Asia this century there will be earthquakes which will kill millions of people. That is a frightful thought.

 

…somewhere in central Asia, this century there will be earthquakes which will kill millions of people, and that is a frightful thought

The thing  I have done that had the most economic impact is getting an understanding of how oil is produced in sedimentary basins. That is a paper in which I put together our understanding of how such basins were formed. Which is simply by stretching of the continental crust. It is not like Plate Tectonics, because the extension is not localised, but distributed. That was the key. It took us long to understand that because we were actually trying to think in terms of plate motions, or plate boundaries. The paper is six pages long but no one ever reads the second three pages (laughs). If I had written only three pages, it would have had the same impact…

What I am doing now doesn’t have the same impact… Understanding mantle convection beneath the plates is not going to be of nearly the same significance, frankly. It is fascinating to see how it works, but it is a different matter. I am driven by wanting to understand things, rather than by the uses that people make of my understanding.

Well,  it will come to a use eventually!

Yes, understanding can be always be used… for good and bad reasons… look at nuclear physics.

Rather than more support, there should be less support

After being many years active in the academia, what would you change to improve how science is done in your field now?

This is not a question I ever thought about… I think my answer to that will be a bit complicated…

The real danger, in all subjects, is that the bright young people have lots of opportunities to be a graduate student and to obtain a PhD. And then they get trapped. They are not really good enough to get a proper tenure position in a university. But they are basically good enough to get a postdoc. They discover quite late in their careers, sometime in their thirties, that this is not going to work, that they are not going to get any further. And then they have real crashes. I think there is too much encouragement, on the funding agencies particularly, to carry people to keep on doing postdocs. This is really quite unfair. These people are really clever and they could have a much better career. How do you stop people from doing this, I do not know. Rather than more support, there should be less support (laughs). Of course, the people employing the postdocs, the tenured staff, object very strongly to this. Scientists, once they get a tenured position, want someone to do the work. They got the grant to employ people. They get the credit.

Get out of [academia]!

So, taking this you just mentioned into account, what advice would you give to Early Career Scientists?

Get out of it! (laughs). Unless you have very good chances to get a good position, get out of it and do something else before you get too old! That is what I always tell.

My career is of no use whatsoever to anyone

When you were an Early Career Scientist, did you always see yourself staying academia? What were your career expectations in that sense?

To be honest I did not think about these things… My position was rather particular. I wrote the first paper on Plate Tectonics at age 25. And I reckoned I was going to get a job! (laughs). So, I did not worry too much about that. When I was offered a job, I was offered a position at Cambridge, a full professorship at Manchester and one of the grand professorships at ETH in Switzerland. All at the same time! (laughs). I chose to stay in Cambridge and got married. For some time I was very poor, but I reckoned that would change. And it did. I never really worried about money. My career was not in any way planned and is no guide to anyone. Nothing like Plate Tectonics has happened since, it was really singular. So my career is of no use whatsoever to anyone. Things were different. When I started, there were almost no postdoctoral positions…

 

Dan McKenzie (2014) – Credit: Cambridge University

 

Interview conducted by David Fernández-Blanco