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Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014

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Suppe receives Humboldt award for research

John Suppe, the Blair Professor of Geology at Princeton, has been selected to receive a Humboldt Research Award.

The award, conferred in recognition of lifetime achievements in research, includes support to spend a year conducting research in Germany. The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation grants up to 100 such awards each year.

Suppe currently is on a one-year sabbatical and has spent the first six months as a visiting professor of tectonics at the California Institute of Technology. He will spend the second six months at Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich; he plans to use the remaining six months of support from the Humboldt award at a later date.

In Germany, Suppe will be completing a book on deformation in the crust of the Earth. He also will be working on a classic and controversial problem concerning the strength of the Earth's crust and the processes controlling that strength. He will be collaborating with Sara Carena, who completed her Ph.D. at Princeton in 2003, and Hans-Peter Bunge, a former Princeton faculty member who is now chair of geophysics at Ludwig Maximilians.

"Great faults like the San Andreas fault in California or the fault of the giant Sumatra earthquake seem to be vastly weaker than laboratory friction measurements, for unknown reasons, yet the crust that contains these faults appears to be rather strong," Suppe said. "There are many theoretical proposals for why this might be true, but there are conflicting claims that faults are in fact quite strong. It's an area of very active research. This 100-year-old problem is particularly challenging because the crust of the Earth is largely inaccessible to making the relevant large-scale in-situ measurements.

"During a visit to Munich a little over a year ago to give a lecture, I discovered a very simple and remarkable theoretical way of determining the large-scale strength of the crust and of these great faults," he said. "It's remarkable because it involves essentially no assumptions and only a few lines of high-school algebra. So I'm returning to Munich to reap the benefits of this theory."

A faculty member in Princeton's geosciences department since 1971, Suppe is a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

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