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Tectonics and Structural Geology

plate tectonics

Meeting Plate Tectonics – Eric Calais

Meeting Plate Tectonics – Eric Calais

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 Eric Calais


Eric Calais is Professor of Geophysics and Head of the Geosciences department at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, France. He was a postdoctoral researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, then became a professor of geophysics at Purdue University (USA) where he remained for 12 years. He is renowned for his work on the kinematics and dynamics of active tectonic processes in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. Further, Prof. Calais is highly interested in geo-communication. He has served multiple times as expert-consultant in seismic hazard and risk reduction and was a scientific advisor to the United Nations in Haiti from 2010 to 2012.

We tend to be academics and nothing else, that is not sufficient

Where lies currently your main research interest?
My main goal is to understand the present day deformation of the Earth crust, but not only at tectonic plate boundaries, also in plate interiors.

Eric Calais standing next to a GPS antenna at the Cherry Lane meteorological station of Purdue University. Credit: Purdue University

We have known for 50 years about Plate Tectonics. We know how to describe the motion of plates at the surface of our planet and we know that this has been going on for hundreds of millions of years. There are two questions I am interested in:  What drives these motions? What is the engine? The second one is focused on the idea that the earthquake’s energy is released at plate boundaries, so they are linked to plate tectonics, but we really haven’t said much about why earthquakes occur. What is the mechanic of earthquake faulting? How is that driven by friction, stress, fluids? We are perhaps close to a significant transition in our understanding of earthquakes.

For part of my research, I look at the earthquake process from an angle that is different from that of most of my colleagues, who work in areas where there are a lot of earthquakes. I am interested in areas that are not deforming very rapidly or not at all, the internal parts of tectonic plates, but that do produce earthquakes from time to time. Sometimes very large ones. I try to understand why earthquakes occur within plate interiors and what does it mean in general. Of course, that could be then applied to any kind of earthquake.

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

Fieldwork. That’s the reason why I went to Earth science instead of biology. Because I had the opportunity to be outside, not being confined to the lab. Another one is lectures with students and postdocs, with younger people. The older I grow, the more important the connection with them becomes. There is this notion that the younger generation is never as good as the previous one, I think this is wrong. They are as good, and probably much better than we were. I always learn from my students and PostDocs. Having the blessing of interacting with them, is something that is very important to me.

It’s really hard to make big changes in the real world as a scientist and influence some of the decisions […]

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

The real world applications of my research are twofold.

Calais & Minster (1995). GPS detection of ionospheric perturbations following the January 17, 1994, Northridge Earthquake. Geophysical Research Letters, 22(9), 1045–1048.

People like me who try to understand why earthquakes happen make measurements, calculations and models. Thanks to this we are able, not to make predictions, but to make assessments about how big the next earthquake may be. And this is already an important step towards earthquake safety. Because if you know what to expect you can integrate that information in seismic hazard models, then an engineer or an architect will be able to use this information to design earthquake-safe buildings. There is a strong link between the observations in the field, the measurements and the calculations we make, and the applications for earthquake safety.

The second aspect is communication with the broader public and with decision makers. It’s awareness raising amongst the population as a whole and also amongst the decision makers. That is the most difficult part of the job, really. The first part, converting measurements into something an engineer can use to better design a building, that’s the “easy” part, it’s doable and it is tractable, it is something that is very tangible for scientists and engineers.

The second one is much more difficult and it requires a lot of energy and you never know whether or not you succeed in making a point, in influencing decisions. Nevertheless, I think that scientists, as a whole, and in particular scientists working on earthquakes, have to step outside of their comfort zone. We tend to be academics and nothing else, that is not sufficient. We need to go out and speak about what we know and speak at the proper level to raise awareness amongst the population.

 

What do you consider to be your biggest academic achievement?

Post-2010 earthquake measurements in Haiti – Credit: Ecole Normale Supérieure, Eric Calais

It’s hard to tell… I think that we have been able to change the way one thinks about earthquakes within plate interiors over the past years. It’s hard to talk about achievement at this point but I would say there is a trend. If that trend continues, I have high hopes that it will lead us to a better understanding of why earthquakes occur, not only within plate interiors. Many people might not be interested, or they might not even be aware that there are significant earthquakes in plate interiors.

In France, we care a lot about that because 70% of the energy we use comes from nuclear power and we want those nuclear power plants to be earthquake safe. So what is the potential of an earthquake hitting one of those in France or Germany or anywhere in the world is a multibillion-dollar question. It is very interesting to study the earthquake process within plate interiors where you do not have to worry about plate motions or complications, the system is quite simple. I think it’s a system that is more tractable than the plate boundary system, which is more complicated. Trying to make progress in understanding this particular type of earthquakes is something I am pushing hard for right now in my research, with colleagues, PhD students and postdocs. I think that if we understand them better, we will have progressed towards understanding earthquakes as a whole.

Again, I’m not sure this is an achievement, but I am happy I worked with the Haitian Government under the United Nations as a scientific advisor after the earthquake in 2010 in Haiti. The earthquake was not that big, magnitude 7.1, but it had a large impact on the population and the economy. I am happy that I was able to step in and trigger some small changes. It’s really hard to make big changes in the real world as a scientist and influence some of the decisions that were made during the reconstruction that followed the earthquake. In a way, this was an achievement, but again very hard to measure quantitatively.

Do we ever solve problems or do we discover more problems?

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

Do we ever solve problems or do we discover more problems? (laughs) I think the problems that I’ve solved are easy problems. I would take two recent examples:

Installation of a GPS measurement site in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Credit: Eric Calais

One of the problems we were facing a few years ago, was whether there is or not an accumulation of deformation in some areas inside continents that will lead to earthquakes in the future. At plate boundaries we see that faults accumulate elastic energy that is measurable. And we know that this energy will be released during earthquakes to come. The system is simple in a way. But what about geologically stable continents? There was a big debate some years ago whether or not the same would occur inside continents.

We were able to show, and I think everyone agrees on that now, that this is not the case. Areas in stable continents that are prone to earthquakes are not building up seismic energy as we speak. Which means that if earthquakes happen in those areas, and they do, they are releasing elastic energy that is stored in the crust over a very long time. Although this is not yet proven –it is hard to do so but we are working on it!. I think that we have made a significant step forward in showing that earthquakes in plate interiors are releasing a sort of “fossil” elastic energy. I think this is helping us a great deal in understanding earthquakes.

Another important result, which is more regional, is the question that was standing for many years about the Africa-Somalia plate boundary, which coincides with the East African Rift, a 4000 km series of basins and volcanoes. What is going on across the East African Rift? Is it a plate boundary? If it is a plate boundary, how fast are plates moving across that boundary? What can we tell about the distribution of deformation across that plate boundary? My group was fortunate enough to make significant steps thanks to field measurements. It is very interesting to make measurements that tell you about the ways the Earth works, and something new about it. In particular, on such an impressive geological feature as the East African Rift.

 

What would you change to improve how science in your field is done?
That requires some thinking… I guess the easy answer is more funding. But I think it’s not the right answer. I think most people would say “Give us more money to be able to do a better job”…

I think that at least in the US and even in Europe –obviously, I can not speak for every European country– there is a decent amount of funding to do research in geosciences. One of the problems that I see, at least in France, is that as a discipline we are not attracting as many students as we should. We are the discipline that is going to make our planet a place where we can live –or not– in the next few hundred years. There should be many more students interested in the geosciences, whether this is earthquake hazards, climate change, water resources… I feel that it’s much harder to find interested students than it should be. We need to do a better job at motivating students into geoscience research because this is one of the fields of study that will help make the Earth a sustainable planet for the future.

My colleagues will kill me for saying that.

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

Installation of a geodetic benchmark for campaign GPS measurement, Klein’s Camp, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania. Credit: Eric Calais

There is always this back and forth in our field between more measurements and more models. Should we make more measurements? Or should we stop, stand back and think about what these measurements actually mean before we set up new instruments somewhere? I think that finding this balance is a challenge in a way, not only in Earth Sciences. Finding the right balance between, how much is invested into developing measurement systems and producing data and how much investment should be made into making sense of the data. At the moment, there is progress being made, but we are underestimating the data revolution in Earth Sciences.

Right now you hear about machine learning and big data and all those words are out and about in the Earth Sciences, as in any other science. But, we need to be much better prepared to what’s already there in terms of data and what is going to come. It’s very challenging to have not only the right algorithms and the code etc, but also the right mindset in place to accept that in the near future a lot of our thinking will be driven by data, perhaps more so than by physics – My colleagues will kill me for saying that (laughs). It’s a challenge and an opportunity.

I could have done something completely different and have been equally happy.

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

It’s important for the younger generation of ECR to realize that 25 years have made a big difference in terms of the job market, to begin with. When I was a PhD student in France, having done a postdoc was absolutely not mandatory to get a job. I did one, but a lot of my colleagues did not. Right now, most early career students go through 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 postdocs and it’s still hard to find a job. Things have changed dramatically.

My expectation was academia. There was nothing else to think about, really. I barely had a thought for a career in the private sector. It was so much driven by my passion and things were going fine, so I could not see myself doing something else. That being said, now, in retrospective, when I think about myself looking forward in terms of an academic career and nothing else, I know that I was wrong in the sense that I could have done something completely different and have been equally happy. The job I did in Haiti with the UN, for example, a few years ago opened my eyes. There are lots of great, fulfilling, and useful things to do as a geoscientist, or with a geoscientific background, outside of the pure academic domain.

There are lots of great, fulfilling, and useful things to do as a geoscientist […] outside of the pure academic domain. […] Be an actor of change, not just a scientist.

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

I’m trying to stay away from the typical advice: be persistent, be creative. That is true, those are important… Both are easy to say, but not easy to do… One advice that I would give, that I was never given is: be a scientist who is a part of this planet. Be an actor of change, not just a scientist.

 

This map illustrates the horizontal surface motions of sites in Asia. Eric Calais, a Purdue associate professor of geophysics, used global positioning systems to measure the precise movements of hundreds of points on the continent to determine how they react to collisions of the underlying tectonic plates. (Purdue graphic/Calais laboratory) – Credit: Purdue University

Interview conducted by David Fernández-Blanco

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 – Walter Roest

Meeting Plate Tectonics – Walter Roest

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 Walter Roest 


Walter Roest was born in Dordrecht, The Netherlands. He has had an impressive international career that started with an MSc in Physics and then Geophysics at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. He was the last one to obtain a PhD in Marine Geophysics from the Vening Meinesz laboratory for Marine Geophysics at Utrecht University, which closed afterwards. His career continued in Halifax, Canada where he contributed to geophysical data processing and interpretation, and subsequently in Ottawa, where he spent 12 years of his career in aeromagnetics. Since 2002 he is based at IFREMER in Brest, France, where he is active as a Marine Geophysicist.

 

Walter Roest – Credit: IFREMER annuaire

Walter, what was your reason to go into Earth Sciences? 

As a young adolescent, I wanted to become a physics teacher. That was my main reason to start with my studies in Physics in 1976. In 1978 an advertisement for a scientific cruise appeared. I applied and was allowed to embark, but unfortunately, the cruise got cancelled. There was another opening in 1979, which was aborted after a fire in the engine room. As a result, as an undergraduate, I had no real plan for about 6 months, until they proposed me to participate in the construction of a seismic streamer for the laboratory. After that, I was convinced that I wanted to work at sea. I got some opportunities abroad, so I basically dropped my physics-teacher wishes and continued in Geosciences.

Throughout my career I have never really planned anything, I never had any clear expectations neither

When you were very early in your career as a scientist, what kind of expectations did you have?

Throughout my career I have never really planned anything, I never had any clear expectations neither. Opportunities arose, in my case not in the Netherlands but in Canada and so I moved continents. I left the data acquisition at sea for a while. When I didn’t find a job after my PostDoc position I got the opportunity to go into aeromagnetics. Many years later, when I saw an advertisement for a position at IFREMER, the French marine research institute, I just applied. I thought I didn’t have any chance, but I was lucky enough to get the position! My career has been mainly a concatenation of events that happened.

It is very important to have knowledge on how data is collected.

What research interests, approaches and methods did you develop during your career?

Müller, D., et al., 2008. Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, 9. Q04006.

My research interests lie within global tectonics, using empirical research tools that are closely connected to data. It is very important to have knowledge on how data is collected. I try therefore to go on a research cruise at least once a year, so I stay updated about the newest data acquisition and processing techniques. I’m not so much interested in very detailed processes, but I’d rather try to understand the large scale tectonic setting of an area.

 

You have been around, working in quite some different fields. What accomplishment in your career are you most proud of?

Interesting question! I think I’m most proud of the Müller et al., 2008 paper I co-authored. It was published in G-cubed. We started this project in 1987 with a first edition of the ‘digital global plate tectonics map of the world’ in 1997. It basically took 20 years of work and I think the publication is a fantastic result, used and cited by many researchers. It shows that hard work pays off!

As soon as you can, start international collaborations […] they give you a different view on the world.

After all these years in the field of plate tectonics, you have seen many questions solved, but also arise. What do you think are the biggest challenges today?

Many questions still remain about the initiation of subduction. We basically do not understand how this works. Recently, we had two cruises in the South-East Pacific where we acquireseismic data to figure out how subduction starts. Also in terms of plate boundaries, there still many questions. For example between North and South America, we don’t exactly know where the plate boundary is, nor the style of deformation that is associated with it.

[…] you should force yourself to go a bit further every time you do something and make yourself capable of reflecting on the things you have done.

One last question, Walter, what would be your advice to Early Career Scientists that aspire a career in geosciences?

I actually have multiple tips and tricks that might boost your (early) career. As soon as you can, start international collaborations. I have worked with Chinese, Russian, Brazilian and American research groups, amongst others. They give you a different view on the world. For example, when I first worked with the Russians, they did not think that seafloor spreading was happening, even though we together interpreted magnetic lineations as isochrons. Another advice is that you should force yourself to go a bit further every time you do something and make yourself capable of reflecting on the things you have done. A last advice: every now and then go to conferences by yourself, don’t stick with your group or the people you already know. You will have the best encounters. For example, I met Dietmar Müller with whom I eventually wrote many papers, at a poster session at the AGU in San Francisco in 1978. So even when you are shy, just go for it, get out there!

 

Interview conducted by Anouk Beniest

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 – Mathilde Cannat

Meeting Plate Tectonics – Mathilde Cannat

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 Mathilde Cannat


Mathilde Cannat started her career at the early age of 26 when she obtained her Doctorate in Geology at the University of Nantes, France. After a PostDoc at Durham University, England, she took a position at the National Center of Scientific Research (CNRS). She researched at the University Paris 6 since 1992 and obtained her present position at the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris (IPGP), France, in 2001. She was awarded with the ‘Médaille d’Argent’ of the CNRS in 2009.

Scientist should be able to take time to produce publications, even if this means that there would be fewer publications

Mathilde, could you share with us your research interests and the methods you use to solve your research questions?

I work on the processes of oceanic accretion. I want to understand how new oceanic domains are created at mid-ocean ridges. My focus lies on the specific case of slow-spreading ridges, where tectonic processes are prevalent, and I unravel the interactions between tectonics, magmatism and hydrothermalism. I’m primarily a geologist, but in addition to submersible studies and rock sampling I also use several geophysical methods, that include gathering time series data on active processes such as seismicity and the temperature of hydrothermal vent fluids.

That’s quite a lot different topics you address. What is the favourite part of your research?

Mathilde Cannat – Credit: ODEMAR scientific cruise

Participate in sea-going cruises is the best part of the job. In particular, the use of manned or remotely operated submersibles to explore the seafloor is a very exciting business. I also very much enjoy good collaborations with colleagues, and the last stages of writing a paper, when it is almost finished. Lastly I am also fond of working with and advising PhD students.

Creating new concepts and knowledge is highly relevant no matter the topic

What do you think makes your research relevant and connected to real world applications?

In my opinion, creating new concepts and knowledge is highly relevant no matter the topic. I completely disagree with the notion that creation of knowledge belongs to some other less real world. I even go further and believe that research is a fundamental part of our culture. In my view whether it can be applied to some material objective at short or longer term does neither increases or decreases its relevance.

After being in the field for quite some years now, what do you consider your biggest academic achievement?

In the ’90s, I proposed a new concept for the formation of seafloor that is partially made of tectonically uplifted rocks from the earth’s mantle. I was the principal proponent of this idea and until today it is still an accepted and commonly used concept.

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

I don’t believe that science problems are ever truly solved. It is more like conceptual hypotheses that are made based on our current understanding. These hypotheses can then be tested which in most cases results in updating the concept and so on. So for this question, I can say that in my most recent project I have been able to gather observations that appear consistent with the hypothesis that I made with a colleague a few years back concerning the formation of new seafloor at mid-ocean ridges that have a very low melt budget.

Scientist should be able to take time to produce publications, even if this means that there would be fewer publications

Over the years you have seen the system in which scientists manoeuvre their work being changed and adapted. What would you like to change to improve how science in your field is done?

I would definitely change science funding and general organisation to put the emphasis back on teamwork. Also, the pressure that scientists have on publishing their work should go down. Scientist should be able to take time to produce publications, even if this means that there would be fewer publications but these would have been more thought about!

Sauter, Cannat, et al., 2013. Nature Geoscience, 6, 314-320.

 

For the near future, what do you think are the biggest challenges right now in your field?

We should definitely look at plate tectonics in relation to a more global picture. This means that it would include the interactions and impacts between the solid Earth and the biosphere, the oceans, the atmosphere. This global picture should be regarded both in the present, with a better understanding of time variable processes, and in the past through the Earth’s history.

[To ECS] Do not become bitter when it seems to be so hard to get a stable position

One last question for the Early Career Scientists (ECS) that read this blog, when you were in the early stages what is the best advice you ever received and what advice would you give to them?

When I was an ECS myself, I saw myself staying in academia. The best advice that I was given at the time, I guess, was not to become bitter because it seemed to be so hard and take such a long time to get a stable position during my postdoc years. And so to ECS, I would definitely suggest not to hesitate to contact people, even senior people, if you like their work. Don’t be afraid to ask them questions, explain your own ideas and get into a scientific discussion with them.

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