Geophysicist Sean C. Solomon appointed director of Lamont-Doherty

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“Sean’s model still represents the paradigm today, which is absolutely amazing,” says G. Michael Purdy, a geophysicist who was LDEO’s director from 2000 to 2011. “Most papers in our field are made irrelevant within five or ten years, because the field is young and our knowledge is rapidly improving.”

Solomon, 66, currently serves as principal investigator of NASA’s Messenger mission to Mercury and co-investigator of NASA’s Grail spacecraft mission to the moon.

The Messenger spacecraft, which entered orbit around Mercury last fall after a nearly seven-year journey to the innermost planet in our solar system, is now mapping the planet’s surface and taking spectrometer measurements to assess its chemical composition and that of its thin atmosphere.

“These observations will tell us more about the planet’s history and how it has been changing,” says Solomon. “And this, in turn, will tell us more about how all planets evolve — including our own.”

Our future planet

Solomon came to Columbia July 1, succeeding LDEO interim director Arthur Lerner-Lam, a seismologist who stepped into that position last year when Purdy was named the University’s executive vice president for research. Solomon was previously a research scientist and director emeritus at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, DC.

Solomon says he does not expect to make radical changes at LDEO: “I’m definitely not coming to Columbia with a particular agenda to strengthen planetary science. Might I like to see some new areas of research grow here? Sure. But those types of priorities will be developed in consultation with my new colleagues. My primary goal is to preserve Lamont’s existing strengths and nurture them.”

One of the reasons he came to Columbia, Solomon says, is that he believes in the mission of its Earth Institute, a University-wide enterprise that brings together researchers whose work has the potential to improve environmental, social, and economic sustainability, especially in the world’s poorest countries. (Solomon served on the advisory board of the Earth Institute, which encompasses LDEO, from 2004 until last year.)

“I think it’s a wonderful model — to take our scientific knowledge and use it to address the future state of our planet, whether this pertains to resource management, public health, poverty amelioration, or climate-change mitigation,” says Solomon. “I believe this is the way scientists at an international university should be approaching their work.”

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