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What Is Geology's Nobel Prize?

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The Nobel Prize is the most widely recognized award given to scientists. But the three Nobel sciences are physics, chemistry and medicine. What is the nearest thing to a Nobel Prize for geology?

The Nobel Criterion

Alfred Nobel's will laid out a single criterion of merit: the prizes go to people who have "conferred the greatest benefit on mankind." Thus in physics we see awardees like Wilhelm Röntgen, discoverer of x-rays (1901 prize), in chemistry we get Linus Pauling for his profoundly useful explanation of the chemical bond (1954), and in medicine we get Barry Marshall and Robin Warren for showing that stomach ulcers are simply a bacterial disease (2005). And thus Albert Einstein (1921) is named for his work on the photoelectric effect, not his more fundamental theories of relativity.

Compared to other science prizes, Nobel's criterion of the "greatest benefit" is a stroke of genius, a deliciously unclear standard. It highlights something that engages every scientist: the lucky chance that following one's curiosity might turn into a discovery undreamed of, even revolutionary, that spills beyond science to affect the whole world.

Geology Medals from Geological Societies

Most of the hundreds of geology prizes honor more parochial advances. Many are awarded by professional or scientific societies on the basis of "excellence" or "outstanding accomplishments" in their particular science, or to their particular organization. Any efforts these groups have made along the "greatest benefit" direction have been recent and tentative.

  • The original Geological Society, that of London, has awarded its Wollaston Medal since 1831 to "geologists who have had a significant influence by means of a substantial body of excellent research." The rest of its eight medals are likewise for purely scientific achievements.
  • The European Geosciences Union grants 28 medals, all for scientific achievement.
  • The American Geophysical Union confers 20 Union prizes. Its top award, the Bowie Medal, is for "outstanding contributions and unselfish cooperation in research." Its most Nobel-like award is the Falkenberg Award, started in 2002, for scientists under age 45 who add "to the quality of life, economic opportunities and stewardship of the planet through the use of Earth science information."
  • The Geological Society of America's medals are mostly for research advances. In 1998 GSA began its Public Service Award, informally called the Shoemaker Award, "for contributions that have ... significantly served decision-makers in the application of scientific and technical information in public affairs and public policy."
  • The Geological Association of Canada restricts its medals to achievements in Canada. The Geological Society of France's prizes are purely scientific, and all other nations I checked were similar.

Geology Medals from Scientific Societies

The picture is clear: the geological societies are no match for Nobel. The more encompassing science societies do worse still.

  • The Royal Society of London gives 12 medals, none for geology alone. Its Copley Medal last went to a geologist in 1964, its Davy Medal was awarded to a geochemist only once, in 1895, and its Hughes Medal names only a sprinkling of Earth scientists since its inception in 1902.
  • The American Association for the Advancement of Science's Abelson Prize has never gone to a geologist.
  • The Franklin Institute, in Philadelphia, has presented awards to geologists, but only 15 in the last hundred years. The 2005 award, a gold medal, went to Peter Vail for his fruitful work on sediments and ancient sea levels.
  • The National Academy of Sciences has the Thompson Medal for "service to geology and paleontology," but it is given only intermittently.

The Geology Medal from the Nobel People

The Nobel Prize's caretakers at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences do have the Crafoord Prize, meant to recognize and support sciences beyond Nobel's original three. The geosciences take turns with mathematics, astronomy and biosciences, coming up every fourth year.

The $500,000 prize is awarded to fund research, there's a nice medal, the academy holds a symposium for winners, and the King of Sweden is on hand, just like the real Nobel Prizes. But the Crafoord Prize generates no world headlines, no buzz, no barroom arguments. Its geologic winners are people of the first rank, but the quadrennial Crafoord Prize in Geosciences is clearly not as grand a thing as the Nobel, nor is it awarded for the same criteria.

The Vetlesen Prize

In my judgment, the nearest thing to a Nobel Prize in geology is the Vetlesen Prize, presented in New York City every other year or so "for scientific achievement resulting in a clearer understanding of the Earth, its history, or its relations to the universe." G. Unger Vetlesen, a shipping magnate, cared deeply for Earth science, and his foundation awards the Prize and other support for geologic research.

Recipients of the Vetlesen Prize, from Maurice Ewing in 1960 to Susan Solomon in 2012, are of the greatest eminence, and most can be found in my Biographies category. The money is good ($100,000), there's a black-tie dinner at Columbia University, and the medal is handsome.

But even the Vetlesen Prize does not carry Alfred Nobel's charge of conferring "the greatest benefit on mankind." By that criterion, who would geology's Nobelists be? That's an interesting question.

PS: The Geological Society presents an award to amateur geologists or those who inspire them: the R H Worth Prize. Its 2008 winner was Ian West, builder of the great Jurassic Coast site.

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