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Top Planetary Scientist to Lead Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

2012-04-04
Sean Solomon has been named Lamont-Doherty's new director.

Sean Solomon has been named Lamont-Doherty's new director.

Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger and Provost John H. Coatsworth have named Sean C. Solomon, a leading geophysicist whose research has combined studies of the deep earth with missions to the moon and the solar system’s inner planets, to be director of Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Solomon, a research scientist and director emeritus at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., currently leads NASA’s orbiting exploration of the planet Mercury. From 1996 to 1998, he was president of the American Geophysical Union, the world’s largest organization of earth and space scientists.

“Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, respected around the world for its pioneering research on geophysical science and climate change, is a unique and essential part of our University,” said Bollinger. “We are fortunate to have someone of Sean Solomon’s extraordinary scientific accomplishments and executive experience become Lamont-Doherty’s new director. He is an admired leader who has served on our Earth Institute’s board of advisers, and we now welcome him as our fulltime colleague in applying Columbia’s great scientific expertise to the urgent questions facing our society.”  

Research at Lamont focuses on the earth itself — its oceans, atmosphere and deep interior — but Lamont scientists also sent the first seismometers to the moon in 1969, and their work on plate tectonics in the 1960s revolutionized the study of how all planets evolve. The observatory is a key part of Columbia’s Earth Institute, which aims to mobilize science as part of a broadly interdisciplinary approach to maintaining a sustainable planet. 

“I have enormous admiration for the achievements that have been made by Lamont staff in science and education,” said Solomon. “The observatory’s emphasis on fundamental research and its tie to the Earth Institute, where science is applied to address social issues, is a package that I found difficult to resist. With many interests in earth sciences, I have spent pleasant times between spacecraft missions during my career studying the problems of our own planet.”

Solomon, 66, is the principal investigator for NASA’s MESSENGER mission to Mercury, which entered orbit last year and is now mapping Mercury’s surface and delving into the planet’s origins, atmosphere, magnetic field and interior. Some of his other projects are household names in space science: the Magellan mission to Venus, and the Mars Global Surveyor mission. He is also a co-investigator for NASA’s GRAIL spacecraft mission, which is now mapping the moon’s gravitational field.

Back on Earth, Solomon is a veteran of numerous oceanographic cruises aimed at studying mid-ocean ridges and the dynamics of the deep subsurface. Most recently, he has been involved in the PLUME project, which is using seismology on land and at sea to study the deep origins of the volcanic processes that have formed the Hawaiian Islands.

“Sean Solomon’s presence will provide a valuable new opportunity to expand and deepen the interdisciplinary collaborations between Lamont-Doherty’s scientists and Columbia faculty conducting related research,” said Coatsworth. “I look forward to the multi-school partnerships we anticipate emerging across the University.”

Solomon has already been involved with the Earth Institute, as a member of its external advisory board since 2004. He will start at Lamont on July 1, replacing interim director Arthur Lerner-Lam.

“Earth is at a turning point, and the earth sciences are in the midst of an intellectual transformation,” said Lerner-Lam, who previously headed the observatory’s Division of Seismology, Geology and Tectonophysics, and is a Lamont Research Professor. “Sean’s international stature and distinguished record of scientific leadership combined with Lamont’s institutional strengths will undoubtedly usher in a new era here.”

Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute, said that “Sean Solomon will bring remarkable scientific leadership to Lamont. His renowned expertise extends from the very frontiers of basic science, across the solar system, and to the interface of science policy and human needs. We are all thrilled that he will join us a colleague, as director of Lamont, and as a member of the leadership team of the Earth Institute. Sean will also continue to be a leader of global science as well, at a time of remarkable discoveries but also of remarkable urgency for the well-being of Earth and humanity.” 

Solomon was born in Los Angeles, the son of New Yorkers: his mother was an artist and his father a chemical engineer who worked in water treatment. He says he was fascinated early on with dinosaurs, and thought of becoming a paleontologist. But his path changed in the summer of 1965 after his junior year at California Institute of Technology, when images from the Mariner 4 mission that flew by Mars were broadcast live on TV screens on campus. “That mission whetted my appetite for planets,” he said.

After finishing his Ph.D. in geophysics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1971, he stayed on to teach and conduct research there for two decades. In 1978, a paper he published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters provided an elegant explanation of the thermal evolution of relatively small bodies such as the moon and Mercury, which apparently do not have multiple tectonic plates like those on Earth. This “one-plate planet” concept became the paradigm for understanding the tectonics of the solar system’s rocky inner planets.

At MIT, Solomon ran one of the earliest ocean-bottom seismometer labs. He investigated earth’s mid-ocean ridges by leaving those instruments at the bottom of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans to record earthquakes on the seafloor and measure earth’s structure below. As a result, he made important contributions to understanding how earth’s multiple plates generate new crust below the sea, where most plates intersect. He moved to Carnegie in 1992, where he headed its Department of Terrestrial Magnetism until last fall. Among other roles, he served as principal investigator for Carnegie’s part of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, which seeks to understand the origin of life on earth, and its potential to exist elsewhere.

“One of the important perspectives Sean brings is his knowledge of the other planets,” said Lamont’s previous director, G. Michael Purdy, now the university’s executive vice president for research. “The earth is not unique. The mapping of other planets has helped in our understanding of this planet’s evolution and vice versa.”

Solomon has been a member of both the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and is the recipient of numerous awards. These include the Geological Society of America’s G.K. Gilbert Award for solving broad problems in planetary geology, and the American Geophysical Union’s Harry H. Hess Medal, given for outstanding research on the evolution of Earth and other planets. Last fall, when he stepped down as a director at Carnegie, colleagues arranged to have a previously discovered asteroid named after Solomon. Asteroid 25137 Seansolomon, about a mile and half wide, is currently orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter.