2020 G. K. Gilbert Award

Presented to Jim Zimbelman

Jim Zimbelman

Jim Zimbelman
Smithsonian Institution


Citation by Tracy K. P. Gregg, University of Buffalo

As planetary geoscientists, we are trained to separate observations from interpretations; G.K. Gilbert exemplified this as he rode horseback through the American West, documenting geological wonders like the paleo Lake Bonneville. Therefore, to honor Dr. Jim Zimbelman’s receiving the prestigious G.K. Gilbert Award from the Planetary Geology Division (PGD), I here attempt to separate my observations from my interpretations.

Jim Zimbelman, by the numbers, is an impressive and impactful comparative planetologist. He has co-edited 3 books, authored more than one hundred peer-reviewed research articles, and has received over $2.7 million in grant funding. His geologic research encompasses 8 orders of magnitude, including the small-scale movements of individual sand grains (10-3 m) to enormous lava flows that extend for hundreds of kilometers (105 m). Jim recognizes the importance of geologic mapping to understand the evolution of landscapes throughout the Solar System, and has published 3 geologic maps of Mars as well as served on NASA review and advisory panels for planetary mapping. He has submitted over 440 abstracts to scientific conferences.

While a staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, he co-directed their summer undergraduate internship program; and has managed to supervise 6 post-doctoral scientists at the Smithsonian’s Center for Earth and Planetary Studies. Jim was the Lead Curator for the National Air and Space Museum’s “Exploring the Planets” gallery at the end of the last century, and is currently Lead Curator for the new “Exploring the Planets” gallery that will open in 2022. More than 8 million people see the museum each (non-COVID-19) year, so Jim’s work has enlightened tens of millions of visitors.

Those quantitative observations are valuable information, but reveal only part of Jim’s scientific abilities; so here I provide some interpretations. As a scientist, Jim has an uncanny ability to identify an unanswered scientific question and almost simultaneously develop a pathway for answering it. While the Mars community was debating the presence or absence of shorelines surrounding the northern plains of Mars, and arguing about why the shorelines were visible in Viking Orbiter images but disappeared in Mars Orbiter Camera images, Jim realized he could look at Lake Bonneville shorelines (Gilbert would’ve been proud). Jim demonstrated, with a series of photographs, that Lake Bonneville shorelines are easily seen from across the valley, but become less obvious as the observer gets closer—a brilliantly simple explanation for the Mars observations.

Significantly, Jim is genuinely a kind, generous person. Every GK Gilbert recommendation letter for Jim included mention of Jim being a “nice guy.” As a former PGD officer, I assure you that this quality is not typically stated in Gilbert Award letters. Jim has repeatedly gone out of his way to work with, and encourage, young scientists. When discussing science, he utters the phrase “That’s neat!” with heartfelt enthusiasm. His breadth of scientific expertise, his love of the American West and his use of it as a planetary analog, and his authentic kindheartedness make Jim most deserving of the G.K. Gilbert award.


Response by Jim Zimbelman

I am humbled and honored to have my name added to the long list of distinguished scientists who have received the Gilbert Award. Thanks to Tracy for her thoughtful citation.

It is instructive to reflect briefly on Grove Karl Gilbert. The career of this remarkable scientist includes serving as chief geologist of the U.S. Geological Survey (under legendary Director J.W. Powell), twice elected President of GSA, and he was a founding member of the National Geographic Society. Geologists associate his name with classic studies of the Henry Mountains (1877) and Lake Bonneville (1890), but he also made significant contributions to studies of glaciation (1899), the 1906 San Francisco earthquake (1907), and hydraulic mining (1917). R.S. Anderson said “Gilbert focused on the processes responsible for landscapes and their evolution at all scales” (Eos, 12-28-18). Gilbert is a magnificent role model for all of us who study the history of planetary surfaces.

My career can’t begin to compare to that of Gilbert, but we both share a passion to understand how landscapes attained their present state. My eyes were opened to the wonders of planetary geology by Hugh Kieffer, my advisor at UCLA, who allowed me to be involved in the Viking IRTM investigations of Mars, which started a life-long fascination with aeolian features. A dual interest in both aeolian and volcanic features developed under the guidance of Ron Greeley, my advisor at ASU. Ron taught me how to prepare for and enjoy giving both technical and public presentations, a tool that developed during my time at the Lunar and Planetary Institute and proved essential to my 32+ years at the National Air and Space Museum. The mission statement of the Smithsonian Institution (‘the increase and diffusion of knowledge’) made NASM the perfect place for me to pursue both research in planetary geology and to develop ways to make planetary knowledge accessible to the general public.

It was the desire to do research that brought me to NASM but the experience of watching the ‘lightbulb’ turn on as people ranging from first graders to retired engineers grasped the wonder of the planets and moons became more rewarding to me than publishing another paper. The Planetary Geology Division of GSA is in a unique position to take advantage of the long-standing public fascination with space, and to turn that interest into a hook to draw the public into more than a cursory understanding of how science operates, and why good science is important to every aspect of our lives. We all have an opportunity to turn STEM into more than just an educational goal; it can provide the means to improve the knowledge base and enhance lives of people around the globe. Our increasing understanding about the complex histories of Mars and Venus can illustrate why climate change is not about politics; these planets can serve as a warning sign for everyone to take ownership of a substantial threat to future generations.