Tectonics and Structural Geology


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 – 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 – 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