Geophysicist Sean C. Solomon appointed director of Lamont-Doherty

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Sean C. Solomon / Photo by Jenica Miller

Sean C. Solomon can tell you a lot about a planet by looking at its surface. Smooth plains? The sign of lava flow, and thus a fiery interior. Long vertical cracks? A side effect of heat expansion. Mountainous ridges? Left behind a few billion years ago after the planet cooled and deflated.

“In my field, you learn to make good use of all of the evidence you have,” says Solomon, “because it certainly isn’t easy to get.”

Solomon, a geophysicist who is internationally renowned for his studies of Mercury, Venus, and Mars, was recently named director of Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO). Located on a 157-acre campus in Palisades, New York, LDEO is home to two hundred geologists, seismologists, oceanographers, and climatologists.

“I’ve admired Lamont my whole career,” says Solomon. “It is a pillar of earth science and a very special place. The scientists here are true explorers — fiercely independent and creative.”

If it seems odd that a space researcher would be picked to lead a group of earth and environmental scientists, Solomon can explain: the study of Earth and the study of other planets are closely related, and have always informed each other. LDEO seismologists, he points out, were the first to measure seismic signals on a celestial body other than Earth, when Neil Armstrong and his Apollo 11 crew delivered their instruments to the moon in 1969.

“Back then, Lamont studies on Earth’s plate tectonics and the moon were revolutionizing our understanding of how all planets evolve,” he says. “A lot of the seismology work done at Columbia in the 1960s actually inspired me to go into geophysics.”

Great shakes

Early in his career, Solomon conducted research on Earth’s plate tectonics, earning his PhD in geophysics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1971. He stayed on there for another two decades to teach and oversee one of the earliest ocean-bottom seismology labs. Solomon and his graduate students, by placing instruments on the bottom of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, gained insights into how the shifting and grinding of tectonic plates create new crust.

Solomon then used his knowledge of Earth’s plate tectonics to explain the development of other celestial bodies. In 1978, he published a paper in the journal Geophysical Research Letters theorizing that billions of years ago, the moon, Mercury, and Mars — relatively small bodies that do not appear to have multiple tectonic plates — each began cooling and contracting at a pace roughly associated with its size and internal temperature. Over the years, additional research on the moon, Mercury, and Mars has supported Solomon’s argument.

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