One of America's unsung senior geologists, E-an Zen, died on 29 March at the age of 85. Born in China, he emigrated to the U.S. and earned a doctorate in 1955 from Harvard. A 30-year career followed at the U.S. Geological Survey, then 23 more years on the faculty of the University of Maryland. He was basically a mineralogist, but his field skills were formidable and he made large contributions to Appalachian geology, metamorphic petrology, and mapping of northern Rockies. Anyone who's looked into the literature of those fields has read his papers. He earned his full share of awards: membership in the National Academy of Sciences, the Geological Society of America's Day Medal, the Mineralogical Society of America's Roebling Medal, the Geological Society of London's Coke Medal, and more.
In 1991 Susan Werner Kieffer, no slouch herself, recalled fieldwork with Zen: "I pride myself on being fit, but when I'm in the field with E-an, I'm always so out of breath that I can't talk, and thus I'm subjected to questions. For example, I was recently subjected to 34 days of questions about granites, migmatites, structural geology, epidote, and eucalyptus while working with E-an at the Cooma Granite in Australia. . . . I was so out of breath and confused by the rocks we were in that I wasn't providing him any feedback. E-an could sense my frustration and, with the sensitivity so characteristic of the man, politely changed the questions: to ones about scientific ethics, education, literacy, policy, religion, or philosophysubjects about which he is deeply concerned."
Those wider concerns marked Zen's tenure as president of the GSA in the early 1990s. In his Presidential Address of 1992, published in GSA Today, he told his audience, "Science is too important to be left to the scientists. Geology directly impinges on human welfare and so cannot be an ivory-tower science. Conservation of the environment, discovery and recovery of Earth's resources, avoidance of natural hazards, disposal of wastes, forecasting of global change, decisions on land use, equity for the futurethese and other issues need geological knowledge both for technical resolution and for guiding public policy. Public policy needs public support; we ignore the public at our peril." He went on to discuss scientific literacy, ethics, education and geologists' obligation to do public outreach.
I wasn't there that day, but I recall being impressed when I read his words, and I continue to take his ideas seriously in my work here on About.com.