Well, they did it again. That committee in Sweden announced all sorts of science prizes (and a lot of money, too) to pioneers in medicine, physics, chemistry, and even peace. OK, that last one isn’t a science prize, I think. But – once again – the good committee missed handing out a Geophysics Nobel Prize. Or one for geology, geography, oceanography, environmental science, or – you’re with me aren’t you? What’s with that?
Granted, a Nobel Prize in Earth Science would not be greeted by the nerd-humor that accompanied this year’s Physics Award for inventing light emitting diodes, aka LEDs. Jokes like this one about the three discoverers who LED the way: “How many Nobel Prize winners does it take to change a light bulb?” – Three.
To whom does one award the prestigious prize in the geosciences? I wrote a bit about this in The Mountain Mystery . . .
. . . the plate tectonics model with its spreading seafloor, plunging trenches, colliding plates, and convection currents is the best general explanation for ocean basins, islands, continents, and mountains. Every geologist accepts there will be modifications of plumes, channels, blobs, megablobs, and things yet undiscovered that will rewrite this story. However, as Marcia McNutt, past president of the American Geophysical Union recently said, “The development of plate-tectonic theory certainly warrants a Nobel Prize. There is no doubt that it ranks as one of the top ten scientific accomplishments of the second half of the 20th Century.”
The Nobel committee does not honour earth science. No one will ever get the prize for showing us how mountains have formed. But if they did, to whom should the trophy go? Alfred Wegener is recognized for continental displacement, but Arthur Holmes showed the power source for moving the continents. And he proved that the Earth is billions of years old, not millions, allowing time for processes to occur. Alexander du Toit in South Africa bravely heaped evidence upon continental mobility. Marie Tharp and Bruce Heezen discovered the ocean rifts, Harry Hess said the seafloor spreads from those rifts, and Morley, Matthews, and Vine saw the magnetic striping that proved it all. Isacks, Oliver, and Sykes pointed out how the ocean crust is subducted and recycled. Jason Morgan and Xavier Le Pichon carved up the plates and used Euler’s laws to rotate them. Tuzo Wilson fixed a host of messy loose ends – finding plumes, transform faults, and cycles of ocean birth – and ocean death. It is our tendency to select a single figure as the symbol for progress and creativity, but none of these scientists worked in isolation. They all borrowed from Steno and Hutton and Lyell and Smith – who in turn built upon the ideas of their predecessors. There are discoveries worthy of a dozen Nobel Prizes.