Morgan to receive National Medal of Science

Princeton geophysicist honored for discoveries underlying modern studies of earthquakes, volcanoes

By Steven Schultz

Princeton NJ -- Geophysicist W. Jason Morgan has been selected to receive the National Medal of Science, the nation's highest scientific honor, for theories that describe how land masses move, volcanoes arise and many other features of the land and sea take shape.

W. Jason Morgan

W. Jason Morgan, a leading figure in geosciences for more than 30 years, often participates in field research with students to help give them a firsthand appreciation of the forces that shape the planet. Here, Morgan joined a May 2003 trip led by Professor Lincoln Hollister to the Skeena River Valley in northern British Columbia where ancient mountains once may have rivaled the Himalayas in size.


Morgan, the Knox Taylor Professor of Geography, is among eight scientists and engineers selected to receive the award, which President Bush will present in a White House ceremony Nov. 6.

The award recognizes Morgan for his work pioneering two fundamental ideas -- plate tectonics and mantle plumes. The first describes how the Earth's surface consists of a dozen plates that move with respect to each other. This work provided a unified framework for understanding earthquakes and volcanoes as well as the formation of mountains, ocean basins and other surface features. It also underlies nearly all current research into deposits of petroleum and other natural resources and the evolution of the Earth's climate and life.

"The theory of plate tectonics he published in 1968 is one of the major milestones of U.S. science in the 20th century," said Anthony Dahlen, chair of the Department of Geosciences.

"Essentially all of the research in solid-earth geophysical sciences in the past 30 to 35 years has been firmly grounded upon Jason Morgan's plate tectonic theory," Dahlen said. "The scientific careers of a generation of geologists and geophysicists have been founded upon his landmark 1968 paper."

The second area of Morgan's work cited in the award explains how heat within the Earth forces columns of solid, but ductile material through the Earth's mantle creating "hot spots" at the surface. This rising material, known as a mantle plume, causes ridges and volcanoes to form when oceanic plates pass above it. Morgan first reported his findings regarding mantle plumes in 1971 and has published extensively on the subject over the last three decades.

"I am thrilled to see Jason Morgan honored so appropriately," President Tilghman said. "He is not only a remarkable scientist, but a skilled and enthusiastic teacher. He has mentored generations of students, often taking them into the field to experience firsthand the power of science to explain the most basic workings of our planet."

After receiving a bachelor's degree from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Morgan came to Princeton as a graduate student in physics and studied under Robert Dicke, a renowned mentor of many important 20th-century physicists. Morgan received his Ph.D. in 1964 and joined the geosciences department the same year. In 1988, he was named to Princeton's Taylor professorship. He has received numerous awards, including the Japan Prize, the Maurice Ewing Medal, the Leon Lutaud Prize, the Alfred Wegener Medal and the Walter Bucher Award. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1982. Morgan has announced he will retire in February 2004.

"I am surprised and very honored to receive the National Medal of Science," Morgan said. "This is very personal to me as my thesis adviser, Bob Dicke, also received this award. I owe a great debt to Bob. My apprenticeship with him 40 years ago was where I learned what science is -- how to formulate and attack a scientific problem. His approach and attitude toward science remain with me today."

Morgan's award brings to 15 the number of Princeton faculty members who have received the National Medal of Science. Princeton astrophysicist Jeremiah Ostriker was a recipient in December 2000 and mathematician Elias Stein in 2001, the last times the awards were given. The awards for Morgan and the seven other recipients are designated as the 2002 awards.

The National Medal of Science was established by Congress in 1959 and is administered by the National Science Foundation. A total of 409 scientists have received the medal. A 12-member presidentially appointed committee reviews nominations and recommends potential recipients to the president.


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