2012 Balzan Prize for Solid Earth Sciences, with Emphasis on Interdisciplinary Research
Acceptance Speech – Rome, 14.11.2012
Chairmen of the Balzan Foundation,
Ladies and Gentlemen.
I am deeply honoured – as well as, obviously, delighted – by the distinction that the Balzan Foundation has bestowed on me but also feel challenged by the obligations that go with it. I am pleased that this ceremony is held in Rome. In my early days in space research, working at the Harvard-Smithsonian Observatory, I had two very distinguished Italian role models: “Bepe” Colombo, who demonstrated how to think beyond conventional boundaries, and Luigi Jacchia, who demonstrated the importance of careful analyses of observations. In more recent years I have had the great pleasure of working closely with Italian colleagues on Roman period fish tanks and their use as sea-level gauges. That also has been a scientifically very worthwhile experience that has widened my horizons and that has permitted me to see many parts of Italy that I may not otherwise have visited.
The Prize is for my work in “Solid Earth Sciences, with emphasis on interdisciplinary research”. The Earth is a very dynamic planet indeed, involving its “solid” part and its fluid regimes. Solid earth science is very much about understanding how one part, the solid part, of this Earth System works. But as most of our observations are taken of or from the surface one cannot ignore the other components. In fact, it is the interactions between these fluid and solid parts that can give us insights into the physical properties of the deeper earth. This is good science in its own right but it also allows us to use the observations of these interactions to develop a deeper understanding of the surface processes that shape our environment with their consequences on society.
Earth scientists continue to live in an exciting time with the development of new instrumentation to probe the planet, to observe with the highest accuracies its surface deformations and movements, and with improved methods for reading and interpreting the geological record and putting it into a proper chronological time-frame. Much of my recent work has been at the interface of the earth’s fluid regimes – the oceans, atmosphere and ice sheets – with the more solid part of the planet: how ocean tides deform the solid earth and dissipate energy that feeds back into the evolution of the lunar orbit; how atmospheric wind circulation affects the Earth’s rotation; how the growth and decay of ice sheets impacts on the planet’s shape, gravity and sea level. The focus of my work has been on understanding processes using a wide range of observations: instrumental records for recent times, geological records for the distant past and historical and archaeological records for the in-between time interval.
This makes for a truly interdisciplinary research effort and I am pleased that the Balzan Foundation has recognized the importance of such interdisciplinary work. It has not always been easy to master the range of disciplines involved and it has sometimes been frustrating when there are not enough hours in a day to untangle the many strands of information from very diverse disciplines and methodologies. But it is also an exhilarating journey as one begins to recognize new insights into the workings of our planetary system.
The broad nature of the work is such that it cannot be done alone and if I have made any progress it is only because of collaboration with colleagues from many disciplines. These include other geophysicists, geologists and geochemists, oceanographers and atmospheric scientists, mathematicians and computer specialists, archaeologists and pre-historians.
Young researchers have played a particularly important part in this because of their skills, enthusiasm and willingness to try the unconventional, and I would like to acknowledge here their contributions, not just to my research but to all research. They are what allows science to progress and they are a resource that governments and institutions have to nurture. By emphasizing that the research component of the Prize be preferentially directed towards the support of young researchers, the Balzan Foundation recognizes this. I anticipate that I will be able to fulfil that important function and, in fact, look forward to that.
My own career has spanned many countries and many institutions. These include the Smithsonian Institution, the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris, and the Australian National University; the Technical Universities of Delft and Athens and Oxford University where I spent my graduate student days that prepared me for my research career; and a variety of funding agencies in the Netherlands, Sweden, France and elsewhere that subsequently allowed me to periodically recharge batteries. This international experience has been another important element in my success through the provision of access to new ideas and resources, through access to new field environments, and by providing the opportunity to stumble across the unexpected. Science is very much an international adventure and, coming at a time when I am supposed to be retired, the Prize will enable me to continue working with others, young and old alike, and pay back in a small way some of the great benefits I received in the earlier parts of my career.
Finally, I wish to thank my family, especially my wife Meg, for her unstinting support and forbearance throughout my journey of science, and my children for not complaining too bitterly that I was not there when homework needed to be done.
I accept with pleasure the 2012 Balzan Prize.