GSA Medals & Awards

International Division Distinguished Career Award

Alan Gilbert Smith
Alan Gilbert Smith
Cambridge University

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All 2007
Division Award Recipients

Portrait drawn by John Edwards, reproduced by permission of The Master and Fellows of St John's College, Cambridge.

Presented to Alan Gilbert Smith

 Citation by Eldridge Moores

I’d like to introduce my long-time friend, Dr. Alan Gilbert Smith of Cambridge University, winner of the GSA International Division’s 2007 Distinguished Career Award. I have known Alan since we matriculated simultaneously as geology graduate students at Princeton University in 1959 (48 years ago last month). One year, we roomed together in Princeton’s pseudo-Gothic Graduate College. I have many fond memories of good times, about which we have agreed to remain mostly silent. However, I will say that his witty, understated sense of humor became more robust at times, and included hilarious impersonations of assorted professors. We have remained friends and in touch though the decades.

As graduate students, we experienced the traditional criticism of continental drift, then Harry Hess’s doubts about the reigning paradigm because of new evidence from the oceans, followed by Hess’s conversion and distribution of his famous preprint on sea floor spreading. Princeton became a very exciting place to be, as the implications of Hess’s hypothesis were immediately obvious.

Alan was a pioneer computer geek, working hard to develop skills and computer programs to apply to geological problems on the single available vacuum tube-equipped computer at Princeton. This computer involved stacks of paper cards and invariably late night sessions—the only time the computer was available for a lowly graduate student.

Alan did his Ph.D. in NW Montana on an area of overthrusting of the Mesoproterozoic Belt Supergroup. His work forms part of the foundation for our knowledge of the stratigraphy in the northern Rocky Mountains of this important sedimentary sequence.

After finishing his Ph.D., Alan returned to Cambridge as a research assistant to E.C. Bullard and J. A. Miller, setting up an age-dating program for South American and African rocks. Other things intervened, however, and Alan became involved with the effort to produce a quantitative fit of continents around the Atlantic. This work was eventually published as the classic Bullard, Everett and Smith (1965) paper on the fit of continents around the Atlantic. As luck would have it, I was present in Cambridge the day that he converted his computer numbers to a paper map. What emerged was the first quantitative map of the northern Atlantic fit and—the “scales fell from our eyes”. It is hard to overemphasize the importance of that paper, as it essentially put to rest any lingering doubts about the fit of continents about the Atlantic Ocean, originally suggested by Alfred Wegener in 1912.

Alan’s published two papers in the early 1970’s, that stand out in my mind. His 1970 Nature paper with Tony Hallam, entitled “Fit of Southern Continents” was first quantitative attempt to re-assemble the Gondwana continents. His 1971 GSA Bulletin paper, entitled “Alpine deformation and the oceanic areas of the Tethys, Mediterranean and Atlantic” was the first paper to correlate spreading history in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans with Alpine-Mediterranean tectonics. It marked a major breakthrough in our views of the relationship between sea floor spreading, the then-new plate tectonics, and orogeny.

In 1965, Alan turned his attention to problems of the geology of Greece. His pioneering work during the latter part of the 20th century focused on detailed studies of problems of Greek geology, especially the Othris Mountains of central Greece. His many publications and those of his students on the geology of Greece and surrounding were major contributions to our understanding of that complex area.

Alan generalized his work in Greece into many publications on the general issue of Mediterranean ophiolites and tectonics. Although I occasionally have disagreed with him on some points (I’ve forgotten which), I have to salute him for major contributions to our understanding of these important sequences, their significance, and and to the general tectonics of the eastern Mediterranean region..

Smith’s several books with co-authors on the fit of continents throughout the Mesozoic and Phanerozoic have proved useful for workers in many fields. The books have been translated into German and probably also into Chinese.

Over the years, Alan applied paleomag-netism to various geologic problems. His work on the geological time scale includes several fundamental contributions to global geology.

For his seminal geological work, Alan Smith has received several awards, including the Sedgwick Prize of the University of Cambridge, and the Bigsby medal of the Geological Society of London. He has also served as a member of several international boards and committees including a working group of the International Commission on the Lithosphere, the Commission on Structural Geology of the International Union of Geological Sciences, and a special group of the International Association of Geodesy focusing on long-term variations of the Earth’s rotation.

Without a doubt Alan Gilbert Smith’s contributions to our understanding of orogeny, the geologic time scale, tectonics of the Eastern Mediterranean, and variations in the Earth’s rotation make him a giant of his generation in geology. There is no question in my mind that he merits the GSA International Division’s Career Achievement Award.

 top 2007 Distinguished Career Award - Response by Alan Gilbert Smith

I am delighted and deeply honoured to receive this award from the International Division and the GSA Council. I believe it is customary for one’s nominator, in my case Yildirim Dilek, to make the citation, but after consulting him I asked Eldridge Moores if he was willing to undertake this, because Eldridge and I have been good friends for nearly half a century. I thank them both for their generous remarks.

When I was an undergraduate in Cambridge I had little idea what an academic career involved. The first tentative steps were taken as a result of a handwritten letter from Harry Hess, who had the ability to put himself into one’s own position and explain why, after four years of strenuous courses, another year or two of coursework was basically a good idea. As a result, I embarked on a Ph.D. in the Whitefish Range in Montana under the supervision of John Maxwell, with Al Fischer and Franklyn Van Houten as other members of my Committee.

By today’s standards writing a thesis in the early 60s was primitive. In my case it involved using a portable typewriter and cutting stencils, with corrections made by pasting over any errors with liquid wax. Fortunately, my wife, Judy, whom I met at Princeton, did all this for me, as well as teaching me how to write. Without her constant help and companionship over the past forty-five years I would not be here today.

I was also lucky to have a research assistantship with Bill Bonini through which I began to learn computing, something that has always been invaluable. The Faculty at Princeton were outstanding, not only for their open-door policy, which allowed one to simply walk into an office and discuss any scientific problem at almost any time, but particularly through Harry Hess, for fending off the administration, who wanted us to take still more courses. Harry wanted to give us as much time as possible to think. It is not clear that this led to any new theories, but it did lead to an unexpected result hatched one evening by the shores of Lake Carnegie in which all of us there decided we would not become geologists: we would become writers; explorers; drive a Land Rover from Europe to India, that sort of thing. However, all of my class, except one, became geologists along with other fellow graduate students that included Ron Oxburgh, Noel Hinners, and Creighton Burk.

While at Princeton I listened politely to Hess’s ideas about ocean-floor spreading, not believing a word of it, because I had been strongly influenced in Cambridge by Harold Jeffreys’ great book, The Earth. On returning to Cambridge I found myself working with Teddy Bullard, Jack Miller and Jim Everett. Bullard did not mind how one worked so long as one “brought home the bacon”. It was from working with him and with Jim Everett that I began my continuing fascination with global reconstructions, the commercial interest in which has supported a small software company for the past 20 years or so. Shortly afterwards I became a so-called demonstrator (a job description I used to put in my passport), which started a collaboration with Brian Harland, leading to my continuing interest in improving the geological time-scale.

Fortunately, Eldridge Moores used to stay with us on his way home from his fieldwork on the Vourinos complex in Greece. His infectious enthusiasm convinced me that wandering around the Greek mountains was a much more interesting summer pastime than abstracting time-scale data. Thus began yet another abiding interest, this time in regional tectonics, particularly of Greece and of Mediterranean ophiolites.

Geology has become a science in that much of what we see on the Earth can now be accounted for by physical, chemical and biological models. It has been my good fortune to be in the same department as Dan McKenzie, whose physical models embody enough of reality to make them interesting and plausible: they also always lead to new avenues of research. They have stimulated some of my research on basins, most of it unfortunately unpublished. Despite this quantification, the essence of geology is easily understood by school children and by the public at large. One is acutely aware about how lucky one has been to be paid out of the public purse for something that is a consuming interest. In academia, we respond to this largesse by serving on worthy committees, by training research students, and by giving talks to schools, college and societies on some of the many questions that people have about the Earth, such as its age, earthquakes, tsunamis, dinosaurs, evolution—the list goes on.

However, I would like to finish with a few words on a more fundamental issue—terraforming. Terraforming is the process of changing the environment of other planets so that they will permit comfortable and free human habitation. In this sense it is still science fiction, but here on Earth mankind now has enough terraforming machines (including cars), to change the Earth itself. Geologists are directly involved in terraforming inasmuch as they decide where and how many oil platforms are built; how much coal or ore is taken out of this mine or that quarry; geological engineers are involved in deciding where to build dams, or place waste disposal sites or route roads through virgin territory. On a local scale the public would like to know the answers to questions such as: will this project increase or decrease the risk of flooding or of forest fires where I live, and so on. But on the planetary scale we have to ask ourselves whether these activities are making the Earth more habitable or less habitable. This is not a new question and there are many people working on it, but in today’s world a correct answer is more urgent. If the answer is less, then what can we, as geologists, do about it?

I am sorry that geography has prevented me from serving the Geological Society of America as much as the Geological Society of London, but I am absolutely delighted to receive this award. I regard my mentors, colleagues, and students, as sharing it because they have all greatly helped me along the way.

Thank you.