The Vetlesen Prize

Vetlesen Committee Report

October 7, 1968

In accordance with the terms of the agreement between the University and the G. Unger Vetlesen Foundation, The Vetlesen Jury of Award, appointed by the Trustees on March 4, 1968, has been considering candidates for the Vetlesen Award to be made in 1968. The Jury consists of Professor Maurice Ewing, Marshall Kay, and Lodewyk Woltjer of Columbia University, Professor Frank Press of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Henry Allen Moe of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

The Jury has unanimously voted to recommend that the Prize be shared by Professor Francis Birch and Sir Edward C. Bullard.

The shared prize was recommended for work in the solid state physics and the fundamental geophysics leading to our recent knowledge of condition in the deep interior of the Earth. Their work and that of their students and associates is central to the present extensive growth in understanding of major tectonic processes. The opinion of the Jury was that the field demanded recognition and that these two men were the leaders, and that it was impossible to recognize either one alone without obvious slight to the other.

Professor Birch is 65 years of age (August 22, 1903). He received the B.S. in Electrical Engineering, Harvard University, 1924, M.A., 1929, Ph.D., 1932. He has taught at Harvard since 1928 and has been Sturgis Hooper Professor of Geology since 1949. He was awarded the Legion of Merit, 1945, the Arthur L. Day Medal of the Geological Society of America, 1950, Bowie Medal of the American Geophysical Union, 1960, and the National Medal of Science, 1968.

The application of solid state physics to the problems of the Earth’s internal constitution is a key field in geophysics. Francis Birch is the most important figure in this field. He pioneered the application of high pressure techniques, the study of physical properties, equations of state and phase transitions of materials which are likely constituents of the Earth’s interior. He correlated his results with the latest data of seismology, and showed how seismic data can be used to infer densities, constitution, and physical state of Earth’s deep interior. His application of theoretical and experimental thermodynamics to mineral systems was taken up by many of the students who are now continuing this work all over the world. We have in mind such workers as Ringwood in Australia, Clark at Yale, MacDonald at UCLA and Simmons at M.I.T., among others.

Francis Birch is also a pioneer in the use of heat flow as an index of thermal regime of the Earth. Not only is he responsible for large numbers of measurements all over the world, but he also showed how to interpret these measurements and make corrections for topography, for variations in radioactive constituents, and for climatic variations.

Although he did not make the measurements himself, Francis Birch was the first to apply shock wave data to problems of the deep interior. The powerful tool makes it possible to discuss properties at the very center of the Earth, and Birch was the first to exploit these data. Birch has also made important contributions to the regional geophysics in New England, and to the overall questions of the evolution and differentiations of the Earth.

There is no question that Francis Birch is one of the major figures in modern geophysics; not only for his past contributions, but also for his current work.

Sir Edward is 61 years of age (September 21, 1907). He received the M.A. degree, the Ph.D. degree, and Sc.D. degree from Cambridge, England. He has taught at Cambridge since 1929, and has been Professor of Geophysics since 1964. He was awarded the Sedgwick Prize, 1936, the Hughes Medal of the Royal Society, 1953, Chree Medal of Physical Society, 1957, Day Medal of the Geological Society of America, 1959, Agassiz U.S. Medal, National Academy of Sciences, 1965, and the Wollaston Medal, Geological Society of London, 1967.

Bullard was trained in physics, at the Cavendish Laboratory, and undertook a research problem on electron scattering, under Rutherford, before he received an appointment under Lenox Conyngham in the Department of Geodesy and Geophysics and entered upon a distinguished career of investigating the Earth by use of the methods and tools of mathematics and physics.

His first field campaign was measurement of gravity across the East African rift valley. These results attracted the interest of geologists all over the world and forecast his ability to select significant problems for study.

He made considerable improvements in the accuracy of pendulum measurements of gravity and with B.C. Browne undertook a comparison between the absolute results at the National Physical Laboratory and The Bureau of Standards.

He used the seismic refraction method to trace basement in East Anglia, and made interesting studies on geothermal heat in his own country before his pioneering development of a method for determining heat flow though the ocean floor. His interest in thermal problems was heightened by the desire to specify in some detail the heat engine that produces the tectonic forces.

Before World War II he commenced a program of marine seismic work that was continued by Gaskell, Hill and Swallow.

Bullard’s nationally important wartime work in H.M.S. VERON, closely related to his geophysical studies, was followed by successive appointments as Professor of Physics at Toronto, and Director of the National Physical Laboratory.

He has made important contributions to the theoretical aspects of the problem of determining the age of the Earth and has stimulated the experimental work in this field at Cambridge.

He was among the first to apply modern computer methods to geophysical problems and use the computer in strengthening the arguments for continental drift by measuring the accuracy with which continents bordering the Atlantic could be fit together.

His work on the Earth’s magnetic field is of major importance. Over a period of many years he has developed the hypothesis that self-excited dynamos can account for the major features of the geomagnetic field and its secular variation.

Subsequent discoveries support this hypothesis and the central role of geomagnetism in the new hypothesis on fundamental tectonic processes demonstrate anew Bullard’s knack for selecting studies that lie in the main stream of geophysical advance.

Under Bullard’s leadership a major center for geophysical research has been built up at Madingley Rice where he conducts an active program of research and lends directional encouragement to colleagues and students.

Testimony to Bullard’s production of important scientific results may be found in his publications; and to the wide recognitions of his achievements in the list of appointments and honors received.

The Committee concurs in the recommendation and offers the following resolution for adoption:

Resolved, That the G. Unger Vetlesen Prize for 1968 be awarded as follows: A Gold Medal and a cash award of $12,500 to Francis Birch and a Gold Medal and cash award of $12,500 to Sir Edward C. Bullard.



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