GSA Medals & Awards

Penrose Medal

W. Gary Ernst
W. Gary Ernst
Stanford University

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Presented to W. Gary Ernst

 Citation by Bruce R. Doe

W. Gary Ernst's family moved from St. Louis, Missouri, to St. Paul, Minnesota, when he was nine. We became schoolmates in the 5th grade. Up the street from his house was a large open field with a backstop the home of the Syndicate Cyclones baseball team. Gary was generally the sole player roaming the outfield, as we were not able to field a full team. Perhaps this is where he developed his abilities to meet challenges. At the age of nine, I had decided to become a chemical engineer, and Gary wanted to be a zoo director. In high school, Gary ran the mile, and, using his skills in persuasion, he rescued a high school fraternity from oblivion. During two summers after our senior year, we camped for a week at Glacier National Park (GNP). His parents held their breath but lent us the family car. We had two memorable trips to that wonderful country, broken by drives across the rolling plains of the Dakotas and Montana while listening to 45 minutes of country/western music, ten minutes on meet your neighbor, and five minutes on live stock.

Gary attended Carleton College in Minnesota, where he took up geology, lettered in hockey and football, and received a B.A. in 1953. He had the unusual distinction of publishing his undergraduate thesis on the St. Peter Sandstone Glenwood Shale in the American Mineralogist in 1954. Our trips to GNP had a lasting impression on me, such that I switched from Chemical to Geological Engineering at the University of Minnesota (U of M), being, I suspect, Gary's first convert to geology. Gary then went to the U of M and received an M.S. in 1955 with Samuel S. Goldich, who could have a difficult personality. No doubt Gary honed his abilities at diplomacy dealing with Sam. Gary's Masters Thesis on diabase granophyre relations in the Endion sill near Duluth, Minnesota, was published in 1960 in the Journal of Petrology.

Gary received a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1959 with Aaron Waters as advisor. He also had a pre Doctoral appointment to the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution of Washington (CIW) with Joe Boyd and Hans Eugster providing guidance. There he approached the vexing problem of synthesizing chain silicates, starting with the sodic amphiboles. His initial paper on these concerned magnesioriebeckite which appeared in 1960 in Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta. For these and related field and geochemical works on low grade metamorphism, Gary received the Mineralogical Society Award in 1968 and was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences eight years later.

Gary received an appointment to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1960 where he remained for 30 years, rising to Professor. He spent many years exploring low temperature, high pressure assemblages such as the glaucophane bearing blueschists of the Franciscan in California and elsewhere through both field and laboratory studies. In performing these investigations, he tested and supported them with detailed element partitioning, trace element, and an array of spectral and optical studies. By 1970 Gary had become interested in the plate tectonic environments of metamorphic rocks. I and many others felt that such things as blueschists were simply trash, but here he was blithely studying rejuvenated subduction and obduction zones; as it turned out, he converted the proverbial sow's ear into a silk purse. By 1976 his interests expanded to eclogites and peridotites in the Western Alps, Taiwan, and central China. Gary did all this while carrying a heavy administrative and teaching load. At UCLA, he was Chairman of the Department of Geology, Department of Earth and Space Sciences, and Director of the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics.

In 1989, Gary moved to Stanford as Dean of the School of Earth Sciences from 1989 to 1994 and as a Professor in the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences until his retirement in September, 2004. Two exciting series of investigations began with publications beginning in 1990. One concerns the Al content of hornblende (later including titanium) as a semiquantitative thermobarometer in a 1990 paper with Thomas and that was nicely presented in an experimental study of MORB in a 1998 paper with Liu. The other series concerns superhigh (or ultrahigh) pressure metamorphism, beginning with a paper coauthored with Zhou, Liou, Eide, and Wang in 1991. Superhigh metamorphism led him into new areas, such as the Maksyutov complex of the south Urals (discovering unusually low temperature metamorphic microdiamond), northern Kazakhstan, and eastern China. Gary had started two new research frontiers at age 60, an age at which youth considers you should only be watching the grass grow. And he has expanded into environmental geology, with a Geological Society of America (GSA) Bulletin paper last December on vegetation communities, geologic substrate, and microclimatic zones in the White Inyo Range.

Among his honors, he has served as the President of both GSA and the Mineralogical Society of America, is a Trustee of CIW, has had a W. Gary Ernst Scholarship established in his name at UCLA, and received the first Geological Society of Japan Medal in 1998. A three-day Ernstfest was held at the 2003 GSA Annual Meeting.

What became of Gary's early interest in being a zoo director? Maybe he did that too because he has had an impressive stable of strong-willed graduate students (14 M.S., 35 Ph. D.) and postdoctoral fellows (44), many with highly successful careers of their own. As impressive as Gary's research career has been, his real legacies are these students.

 top 2004 Penrose Medal - Response by W. Gary Ernst

Rob, Bruce, fellow geologists, you do me a very great honor, and I feel especially humble when I consider the list of past Penrose Medal recipients. Be that as it may, many, many thanks! We celebrate scientific accomplishments with our awards, and far more of us contribute incrementally and substantially to the advancement of the discipline than can ever be properly recognized. To be singled out for such an honor, one must be industrious, intelligent, and lucky — and if I had to choose, I'd go for the latter. I should know. Here is a personal story I relate to my research students:

Long ago as a pre-doctoral fellow at the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, I was investigating the physical conditions under which the sodic amphiboles are stable. To simplify, I started with mixtures of oxides plus excess H2O that in aggregate yielded the exact composition of the particular mineral to be studied. Among the sodic amphiboles I worked on was glaucophane, Na2Mg3Al2Si8O22(OH)2 — but you knew that formula, right? I was quite aware of the geologic occurrence of glaucophane-bearing schists, and suspected that this mineral would be stable only at relatively high pressures and low temperatures. To my surprise, it crystallized in my laboratory experiments at more than 800 °C at 1-3 kilobars fluid pressure. So, I conducted further phase equilibrium experiments, characterized the synthetic glaucophane in considerable detail, and computed its thermodynamic properties. Seemingly, peculiar chemical conditions including low Ca, high Mg and Na concentrations, not high pressures, were required for its crystallization in nature — or so I thought. At the same time studying mafic glaucophane schists (i. e., blueschists) in the California Coast Ranges, I was confounded to discover that the well-known Franciscan blueschists were not of unusual chemistry, but were normal metabasalts in bulk composition. On further pondering, I concluded that, even though it was indeed stable at low pressures and high temperatures, other mineral assemblages took the place of glaucophane in common greenschists, and that multi-phase reactions (which I and others calculated) promoted the crystallization of glaucophane in the metabasalts only at elevated pressures. Further geologic mapping combined with analytical studies confirmed the presence of additional high-pressure, low-temperature minerals in the blueschists of California and indeed, around the World. At that time, no one could explain how such physical conditions could have arisen, but fortunately, along came the recognition of a dynamic Earth in the form of plate tectonics. The high-pressure, low-temperature thermal structure of subduction zones provided a persuasive answer to the glaucophane schist problem. The story is not quite over, however, for later experimentalists demonstrated that actually, I had not synthesized Na2Mg3Al2Si8O22(OH)2 after all — but rather the rare amphibole sodium-magnesiorichterite. My oh-so-careful glaucophane work was thrown into a cocked hat, but by then I was pushing plates for a living. Using the California Coast Ranges as a base, I moved on to conduct diverse petrotectonic studies in SW Japan, the western Alps, Taiwan, southern Russia, Kazakhstan, and central China, involving both field-based and experimental phase relations of mafic and ultramafic rocks, and ultrahigh-pressure metamorphism. From this experience, my advice to students became "Do the very best you can, but don't ever look back, and don't beat yourself up over honest mistakes!" I concluded that it's good to be smart, but it's a whole lot better to be fortunate in the scientific problems that you choose to study.

Although I gratefully and sincerely thank friends and scientific colleagues for this special recognition, as a teacher, I insist that this Penrose Medal must recognize my own professors' intellectual guidance and support — Dunc Stewart and Eiler Henrickson at Carleton College, Sam Goldich at the U of M, Aaron Waters at Johns Hopkins, and Joe Boyd, Hans Eugster, Frank Schairer, and Hat Yoder at the Geophysical Laboratory; this recognition is partly their doing. Some of the other responsible geologists are my colleagues at UCLA, the USGS-Menlo Park, Stanford, and Japan (e. g., Clarence Hall, Bob Coleman, Louie Liou, Yotaro Seki, Shohei Banno, and Shige Maruyama), as well as a terrific group of students (of whom I am inordinately proud); they have given me much more than I gave them. Lastly but certainly not least, my wife Charlotte has provided me with steadfast love, unflinching support during geologic capers to various far-away corners of the World, and has insistently, persistently attempted to educate me to the finer things in life for longer than most of you have been on the planet. So, my heartfelt thanks to all of you for this special geologic recognition — I'll try to do a little better next time.