GSA Medals & Awards

Penrose Medal

Kevin C.A. Burke
Kevin C.A. Burke
University of Houston

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Presented to Kevin C.A. Burke

 Citation by Celâl Şengör

I appear before you today to undertake a task that marks one of the happiest occasions of my entire life: to present to you Professor Kevin Burke as this year’s Penrose medalist. A simple way of presenting him would have been to say that Kevin Burke has massively furthered geology during his lifetime. In Kevin’s case, “furthering geology” must be taken at its literal sense, implying furthering the entire earth sciences taken at one embrace, as, for example, did Sir Charles Lyell in his time, or Eduard Suess in his, for I am unable to think of any branch of geology, taken at its Lyellian breadth, that Kevin has not furthered.

Kevin’s contributions start in the fifties with field descriptions in his Ph.D. area in western Ireland and continue, till the mid-sixties, through his field papers concerning the geology of Africa and the Caribbean. Already, in these early years, through the problems tackled (such as granite problems in Ireland, marine geology in Jamaica, beryllium prospecting and the gases in the African lakes in the Great Rift Valley, classical field descriptions, geomorphological problems ranging from processes of tropical erosion to pedology, and gravity studies), one sees the inclination to diversify and a predilection to put forward explanations in the form of daring, but testable hypotheses in the best Popperian spirit. In those days this was not common among field geologists. When plate tectonics came about in the mid-sixties, Kevin was therefore one of the readiest geologists to receive it.

Kevin’s contributions to geology since the late sixties are great in range, including: models of the birth of rift valleys; ocean basins; vast areas of collision-related basement reactivation; influence of oceanic plateaus on the evolution of oceans and continental margins; the nature of the Archean and Proterozoic tectonics and related environments; the tectonic controls of basaltic volcanicity; the nature of mantle plumes and their relations to hot spots; how tectonic processes interact and control the hydrosphere and the atmosphere and how they act on other rocky planets such as Mars and Venus; and, how extraterrestrial intervention in terrestrial affairs influence geological and biological processes.

Ladies and gentlemen, trying to list Kevin’s contributions is impossible; impossible even if one keeps only to the general topics he has tackled throughout his professional life. This is so, not only because the large numbers prevent us from doing so in a short time, but also because of the ways Kevin contributed to science. In addition to his published books, papers and abstracts, he has always been a great debater in meetings and an enthusiastic conversationalist. During his numerous conversations he has generously given ideas and data to many a future author. He purposefully annoyed many to drive them to produce better arguments and more data to support their positions and thus to enrich our understanding of the problems under debate. His memory is unequalled; his knowledge of world regional geology is truly staggering. I have not yet met a geologist anywhere more knowledgeable in the entire sweep of the earth sciences, i.e., geology in the old, Lyellian, that is to say, proper sense, than Kevin Burke. His incredible quickness of mind and the speed with which he can review and bring to bear upon whatever may be at hand the relevant information, are a wonder to watch. Equally wonderful are his generosity and selflessness in sharing his ideas, his data, his time.

I have been Kevin’s student in Albany for 6½ years. I have admired him as a great teacher not only in geology, but also in literature, music, history, philosophy, geography, and many subjects pertaining to general culture. The atmosphere he and John Dewey created in Albany was the best academic and research atmosphere I have ever breathed anywhere in the world. The most valuable thing I learned from him was how to think in and about science. His boldness in generating hypotheses and his mercilessness and unbending honesty in testing them, including his own most cherished views, and his sincerity and generosity in communicating his knowledge, have been the best lessons for a budding researcher.

I must say honestly that I do not have the capacity to judge Kevin as a geologist or as an intellectual. He towers far too high above me in brains and in knowledge. I have been both a student of geology and of its history. Three giants of geology remind me of Kevin most by their character and the nature of their accomplishments and by their love for what Kevin calls “our beloved planet”: Alexander von Humboldt, Sir Charles Lyell and Eduard Suess. Giving Kevin the Penrose Medal honors not only Kevin Burke, but also the Geological Society of America, and will add further luster to its already illustrious annals. That this honor comes to Kevin (and to the Society) at this stage in Kevin’s career is I think the best testimony to his being so much further ahead than most. Its bestowal reflects on us all as members of the international geological community comprehended under the celebrated umbrella of the GSA and we, the recipients of Kevin’s light, all bask in the glory that Kevin Burke has added to the attainments of our wonderful science.

Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen, I consider it as one of the most wonderful moments in my life to present to you this year’s Penrose medalist, Professor Kevin Charles Antony Burke, geologist.

 top 2007 Penrose Medal - Response by Kevin C.A. Burke

The Penrose medal is an overwhelming honor. The humbling terms of the endowment say:

“The award shall be made in recognition of outstanding original contributions or achievements which mark a decided advance in the science of geology.”

I make little claim to “contributions or achievements” but I do confess to having spouted “new ideas” as a result of spotting unfamiliar, or overlooked, relationships. But “new ideas” rarely prove to be original and are eventually always proved wrong so I am both delighted and astonished by the award. Luck and career diversity have helped in the path I have followed.

I spent time in greenstone belts in my first two jobs, at a University in Ghana (1953–56) and with the British Geological Survey traveling in Africa (1956–61). While teaching at the University in Jamaica (1961–1965) I realized that the Cretaceous rocks of the Greater Antilles and greenstone belt rocks were the same—but I did not know why. It was not till the plate tectonics thunderbolt hit that I understood.

Plate tectonics struck me in a 1967 paper by Lynn Sykes on earthquake mechanisms in the equatorial Atlantic. Lynn demonstrated that the sense of ridge to ridge transform motion was as had been predicted by Tuzo Wilson in 1965. I read Sykes because I was teaching at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria and thinking about the structure of the Guinea coast I ran to the nearest library and read Wilson’s paper. Geology changed for me. My experience in Africa and the Caribbean immediately showed me that the record of Earth history was likely to be the record of ocean opening and closing by plate tectonic processes. Reading Nature and the JGR kept me from isolation and in Cambridge during the fall of 1969 John Dewey rounded out my education in plate tectonics.
To avoid unrest in eastern Nigeria we did field work in the Benue rift and took a student field class to my old haunts in Ghana where I found that I had lived on a suture marking a Precambrian continental collision (later with Lew Ashwal and Sue Webb I confirmed the suture location from occurrences of nepheline gneiss). I realized how rifts and sutures fitted in to what later came to be called the Wilson cycle.

In 1970 my wife Angela, whose strong support has been vital to me and who with my three children has suffered from my inattention, explained to me that it was time to go somewhere with children’s schools—but I couldn’t get a job. All I could find was for one-year at Erindale College in the University of Toronto BUT Tuzo Wilson was principal of that college. Tuzo showed me that tectonics is “The large scale evolution of planetary lithospheres.” He encouraged my interest in hot spots and mantle plumes and together we related the unique topography of Africa to arrest over shallow mantle convection. Canada was great for learning more about the Precambrian especially from Paul Hoffman.

I abandoned Tuzo because John Dewey, to whom I am eternally grateful, arranged a tenured job for me at Albany. There for ten years (1973-83) with Dewey, Bill Kidd, Celal Sengor and other outstanding graduate students we wrote papers based on Tuzo’s recognition that you cannot know too much regional geology and geophysics and that the oceans and continents must be considered together. I got back into Caribbean geology where I made my first contact with a Large Igneous Province.

A NASA project: “Basaltic Volcanism on Terrestrial Planets” introduced me to the solar system and by 1983 I found myself director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute and a professor at the University of Houston. I was a poor space geologist because I failed to get excited by the data then available. Today would be different.

Houston put me in contact with oil geologists. I have given talks and written reports for them but I have learned more from oil geologists than they have from me. Twenty years on an ocean drilling safety panel helped keep me up with global geology and I manipulated that and other national and international panel memberships to see the geology of parts of all the continents except Antarctica.

South Africans invited me to give their Du Toit lecture in 1994. There is no greater honor for a student of Africa. Realizing that my audiences knew all about the Precambrian I chose to review (in 50,000 words) what had happened on the African plate during the past 30 My. Many of my present interests stem from writing that review. Yanni Gunnell, Bill Bosworth, Nick Cameron and Duncan MacGregor have guided me in the study of coupled African uplift and erosion on land and deep-water deposition offshore. The idea that Africa’s present topography is related to shallow mantle convection rather than to the underlying Large Low Shear Wave Velocity province at the core mantle boundary led me, with Trond Torsvik, to discover that although Africa’s topography is very young the underlying deep structure has been unchanged for at least 300 My.

The second half of my life spent in America has given me opportunities of working with an exceptional and diverse group of the world’s leading Earth scientists. I have received the best collaboration in research. Nowhere outside the United States could I have had my kind of career and I have deeply appreciated the opportunities. Finding out about the Earth has been its own reward and because I deal in ideas rather than real work I have told myself that recognition was not to be expected. Nevertheless recognition—all the sweeter for being unexpected—is special and I am most grateful to the Society and to all who have helped me.