The Department of the Geophysical Sciences
5734 S. Ellis Avenue
Chicago, IL 60637
Main phone line: (773) 702-8101
Fax: (773) 702-9505
One of the oldest journals in geology, The Journal of Geology is published by the Department of the Geophysical Sciences.
Prof. Carl-Gustaf Rossby created the "Chicago school" of meteorology in the late 1930's and 1940's leading and established the foundations of modern weather forecasting.
Willard Libby, Professor in the Chemistry Department of the University of Chicago, created the carbon-14 method of radiometric dating and established the methodology by which changes in Earth's climate can be timed.
Robert Clayton was awarded the 2004 National Medal of Science by the White House for his leading contributions to cosmic chemistry, from pre-solar system dust to planets, and for being an exemplary role model as a mentor, teacher and advocate for rigorous science.
The Department of the Geophysical Sciences covers a wide range of disciplines related to the Earth, including its origin, life, fluid envelopes, and cosmic environment. Concepts and methods in mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology are applied to the problems of the atmosphere, the oceans, the solid earth, and the evolution of life.
Research facilities include laboratories for sediment transport, high pressure geophysics, mass spectrometry, environmental chemistry, and rock and fossil preparation, scanning electron microscopy, and general chemical analyses. Special types of equipment include a wave tank, a scanning electron microscope, an electron probe, and X-ray diffractometers. Computing resources in the department are devoted to mathematical modeling, simulation, and data analysis across the spectrum of the geophysical sciences.
Most graduate programs fall into one of three broad areas: (a) atmospheres, oceans, and climate; (b) solid earth geology, geophysics, and geochemistry; and (c) paleobiology and historical geology. The boundaries between these areas are anything but rigid, however. Students may, for example, combine meteorology, geophysics, and paleobiology in studies of paleoclimate and paleogeography. Work in geophysical fluid dynamics may be directly applicable to topics as different as mantle convection and ocean tides. As a result, the curriculum of a graduate student is highly flexible, and programs can be designed to meet the needs of the individual. Much of a student's course work and research may actually be carried out in other departments of the University. This is especially common in evolution and paleobiology and in aspects of geochemistry and cosmochemistry.
The Department of the Geophysical Sciences was formed in 1961 by merging the previously existing departments of Geology and of Meteorology. Brief histories of the two original departments appear below.
The Department of Geology (1892-1961)
The Department of Geology was founded in 1892 by T.C. Chamberlin, the most distinguished geologist of his day. Chamberlin's research interests concerned the origin and early history of the solar system, a theme that has persisted at Chicago to the present time. Together with Rollin D. Salisbury, he wrote the most influential textbook in geology of the first half of this century.
The early years of the Department were dominated by outstanding scholars engaged in research on glacial geology, areal surveys and economic geology. In addition to Chamberlin and Salisbury's three volume Geology, these were the years of Chamberlin's Origin of the Earth, Johannsen's Manual of Petrographic Methods and the founding of the Journal of Geology (1893). Chamberlin was responsible for the rebirth of the Illinois Geological Survey, and Stuart Weller served as the first member of its staff while still on the faculty.
During the period 1917 to 1941 research in the Department of Geology began to shift from regional studies toward more fundamental problems. Late in this period Norman L. Bowen established a high-temperature laboratory for the study of equilibrium relations among mineral systems. This pioneering work ultimately led to the establishment of a strong school in geochemistry at Chicago. Francis Pettijohn completely revised the field of sedimentary petrology with his Manual of Sedimentary Petrology (with W.C. Krumbein) and Sedimentary Rocks. At the same time, the next advance in sedimentary geology was initiated by Krumbein's development of modern quantitative methods of analysis.
The work of the vertebrate paleontologists Samuel W. Williston, Alfred S. Romer and E.C. Olson was largely responsible for revealing the early history of the reptiles and the beginnings of the mammalian radiation. After World War II, Olson, together with R.L. Miller, introduced multivariate quantitative methods to the study of fossils. The work of Stuart and Marvin Weller provided much of the geological framework for the development of the midcontinental coal industry.
The strong tradition begun by Bowen in experimental petrology was strengthened and continues to this day. Chicago is preeminent in the area that encompasses geochemistry, experimental petrology, mineralogy, and crystallography.
John Jamieson established a program in geophysics to determine the behavior of earth materials under high pressures and temperature. Robert Miller turned his mathematical skills from paleontology to the statistical analysis of sedimentary data and the physics of sediment transport.
Throughout its history, the Department of Geology played a major role in the training of geologists. Salisbury and J Harlen Bretz were particularly noted for their rigorous, forceful teaching in the field and lecture hall. Up until the time it was absorbed into the new Department, the Department of Geology had turned out more Ph.D.'s than any other department of geology in the country.
The Department of Meteorology (1942-1961)
Meteorology as a separate discipline was started at the University of Chicago in 1940, first as an Institute under the auspices of the Department of Physics, but became independent in 1942. The Department was organized by Carl-Gustaf Rossby, considered to be the outstanding meteorologist of his generation. A magnetic personality, Rossby attracted to Chicago some of the leading meteorologists of that period, and created an atmosphere of intense excitement in the new views of the upper troposphere then unfolding. By the time he returned to his native Sweden, Rossby had established what was known as the "Chicago School" of meteorology. The Chicago School was characterized by the development of dynamic models of the general circulation. This research revealed the existence of the jet stream, a discovery in which the distinguished Finnish meteorologist Erik Palmen, then a visitor, was intimately involved. It also established the importance of vorticity theories of wave motion in both the atmosphere and the ocean. War-time needs led to the establishment of the Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Puerto Rico. It was there that Herbert Riehl began the development of models of tropical weather disturbances.
The momentum of the Chicago School of meteorology carried the Department beyond the end of World War II. Dave Fultz developed laboratory-scale models of atmospheric flows. The results from his laboratory were so stimulating that similar laboratories were subsequently established at a number of other institutions. The thunderstorm project under the direction of Horace Byers led to a program in physical meteorology. Byers, later joined by Roscoe Braham, was the first to reveal the life cycle of thunderstorms. Braham continued this program with pioneering work in the physical and chemical aspects of the nucleation processes responsible for precipitation in the atmosphere. As an outgrowth of the thunderstorm project, T.T. Fujita began his work on mesoscale disturbances. Later he turned his attention to the use of satellites to detect severe storms and to obtain data on the general circulation.
Rossby, although primarily a theoretician, recognized the importance of keeping in touch with the real atmosphere. In concert with Byers, he invited Sverre Petterssen to join the faculty to provide the bridge between theory and practice. Petterssen applied the important theoretical results of the Chicago School to practical forecasting. Earlier, George Platzman, a theoretician, participated in the first experiments in numerical forecasting. Applying these methods to oceanography, he made the first numerical storm-surge forecast.
As in the case of the Department of Geology, the Department of Meteorology was deeply committed to teaching. During the war, the Department trained over 1,700 air corps weather officers. Subsequently graduates of the Department have taken positions of leadership in meteorology in this country and abroad.
(From The Department of the Geophysical Sciences Student Handbook)
N.L.Bowen (1887-1956), after many years at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, joined the University of Chicago faculty in 1937, and remained for 10 years, introducing the field of experimental petrology, which has continued to be an important subject at Chicago. All students of igneous geology are familiar with Bowen's 1928 book: "The Evolution of the Igneous Rocks", and the "Bowen reaction series", summarizing the sequence of minerals formed in a crystallizing magma.
Department of Geology, 1941. Bowen is second from the right in the front row and Bretz is second from the right in the back row. Front row, left to right: W. C. Krumbein, E. C. Olson, E. S. Bastin, N. L. Bowen, C. Croneis. Back row, left to right: F. J. Pettijohn, P. C. Miller, R. T. Chamberlin, J. H. Bretz, D. J. Fisher.
J Harlen Bretz (1882-1981) advanced the hypothesis that the "channeled scablands" of eastern Washington state were created by catastrophic floods (J H. Bretz (1923), The Channeled Scabland of the Columbia Plateau. Journal of Geology, 31, 617-649). In those days, catastrophism in geology was not considered to be responsible science, and Bretz met with strong opposition. Subsequent research has vindicated his position, and his work has provided a basis for interpretation of the geomorphology of Mars. In recognition of his important studies, Bretz was awarded the Penrose Medal of the Geological Society of America (at the age of 97).
T.C.Chamberlin (1843-1928) founded the Department of Geology at the University of Chicago in 1892, and remained a professor here until 1918. He is well-known for his "Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses" (J. Geol. 5, 837-848, 1897) as a general approach to scientific research. Although he was a specialist in glacial geology, the breadth of his interests is shown in his collaboration in 1919 with F.R.Moulton in a planetesimal mechanism for the origin of the solar system, much of which is still considered valid today.
J.R. Goldsmith (1918-1999) followed in N. L. Bowen's footsteps as an experimental petrologist, with special emphasis on the mineralogy of carbonates and feldspars, and the application to metamorphic rocks. A major intellectual advance was the recognition that the Earth's solid, liquid and gaseous realms are all part of an interactive system, which should be studied as such. This led to the merger, in the early 1960's, of the Department of Meteorology and the Department of Geology into a single Department of the Geophysical Sciences. Such integration is now commonplace in American universities, but was a major innovation, not without controversy, in the 1960's.
Ralph Gordon Johnson (1927-1976) was a pioneer in the application of modern ecology to paleontology. His studies of present-day marine communities led him to the conclusion that the distribution and abundance of species are largely determined by physical factors rather than interactions between species, a view that was controversial when proposed but has been quite influential. He also did groundbreaking work on how fossil assemblages form---the processes that take place between the death of organisms and their ultimate burial and fossilization---which is essential to understanding how the fossils found in rocks can be interpreted as once-living communities. Along with Thomas J. M. Schopf, Johnson in 1974 founded Paleobiology, the leading journal in the area of biological paleontology.
W. F. Libby (1908-1980) was a physical chemist who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1960 for the development of the carbon-14 dating method, which has become the standard radiometric clock for dating geological and anthropological events over the last 50,000 years. 14C has also become an essential natural tracer for oceanographic and atmospheric processes. This field has blossomed with the study of other radioactive nuclides, produced in the atmosphere by cosmic-ray bombardment, such as 7Be, 10Be, 81Kr, 85Kr and 129I. These also are exploited as tracers of natural processes at the Earth's surface.
Everett C. Olson (1910-1993) was trained as a vertebrate paleontologist and carried out pioneering research on the evolution of terrestrial ecosystems, documenting major changes in the structure of vertebrate communities through the Paleozoic. In 1958 he published the seminal book Morphological Integration (along with R. L. Miller of the Department of Geology), which used modern statistical techniques to identify sets of anatomical characters that mutually covary, providing evidence for developmental, functional, and evolutionary integration of these characters and for relative independence from other sets of characters. A fair range of developmental and evolutionary studies to this day rest upon the foundation built by this book. Olson recognized the importance of interdisciplinary research and was instrumental in founding the interdepartmental degree-granting Committee on Paleozoology, forerunner of today's successful Committee on Evolutionary Biology.
Francis Pettijohn (1904-1999) was a sedimentary petrologist who pioneered the systematic characterization of sedimentary rocks based on their chemistry and the statistical distribution of the size and shape of their constituent grains, and related these features to the provenance and genesis of the rocks. His many texts, including Sand and Sandstone and Sedimentary Rocks, have influenced many generations of students and are still in use today.
David M. Raup (1933- ) was one of a core of people who, in the 1960s and 1970s, infused modern biology and geology into paleontology. He studied the crystallography and stable-isotopic composition of echinoderm calcite and was one of the first to document vital effects in isotopic composition. Raup's landmark studies of the geometry of shell coiling founded the field of theoretical morphology in its modern form, which seeks to explain the distribution of forms that have evolved in relation to the spectrum of forms that are theoretically possible. This work is also noteworthy for its early recognition of the important contribution that electronic computers could make to paleontology and other fields. Raup also brought the mathematical modeling of evolution into paleontology, and, along with Thomas J. M. Schopf and J. John Sepkoski Jr., raised consciousness about the importance of stochastic processes in evolution and earth history. Raup's pioneering analyses of biological extinction in the history of life, also carried out with Sepkoski, led to the recognition that the average rate of extinction has declined substantially during the Phanerozoic, and to the controversial and influential hypothesis that mass extinctions may be periodic. An enormous range of paleobiological research today is strongly influenced by Raup's work.
Thomas J. M. Schopf (1939-1984) infused modern population biology into paleobiology, and preceded these efforts with some of the earliest studies of how genetic variation within living species relates to environmental gradients and the spatial distribution of species. His Models in Paleobiology assembled leading biologists and paleontologists to demonstrate how general theoretical principles, rather than particular descriptions of taxa or ecosystems, could contribute to a broader understanding of the history of life. This seminal book was one example of the general theme Schopf pursued---that biology, like chemistry and physics, could generate general laws and that one way to discover these laws is to put aside the individuality of species and consider conceptual and mathematical models involving "species as particles." Along with Ralph Gordon Johnson, Schopf in 1974 founded Paleobiology, the leading journal in the area of biological paleontology.
J. John Sepkoski, Jr. (1948-1999) carried out seminal studies of diversification and extinction in the history of marine life. To this end he extended population-biology models to paleontology (where origination and extinction of species and higher taxa take the place of birth and death of organisms) and assembled detailed, global-scale compendia of the times of first and last appearance of genera and families in the fossil record. His factor analysis of these data led to the recognition of three great Evolutionary Faunas (Cambrian, Paleozoic, and Modern), each with successively lower rates of origination and extinction and successively higher diversity. He demonstrated that the pattern of diversity of these faunas is consistent with a coupled logistic model, in which the aggregate diversity of each fauna is limited by its own carrying capacity and by negative interactions with the other faunas. His taxonomic compendia formed the basis of analyses of the history of extinction, including collaborative work with David M. Raup demonstrating the decline in extinction rate over the history of life and the possibility of periodically spaced mass extinctions. Virtually any analysis of global diversity today uses Sepkoski's work as a touchstone.
J. V. Smith (1928-2007) was a mineralogist/ crystallographer/ geochemist, and a world authority on the feldspar and zeolite mineral groups (see, for example the books: Feldspar Minerals (1988) and Zeolites (2000)). He was a pioneer in the application of microbeam techniques for mineral analysis, from the electron microprobe in the 1950's, to secondary ion mass spectrometry in the 1970's to synchrotron X-ray fluorescence in the 1990's. He was a major contributor to petrogenetic studies of lunar rocks in the Apollo program.
H. C. Urey (1893-1981) was a physical chemist who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1934 for the discovery of deuterium. After World War II, he turned his attention to the planets of our solar system, and was influential in the Apollo program to study the Moon (see "The Planets" ,1952). Urey opened the field of stable isotope geochemistry through a seminal paper (Thermodynamics of Isotopic Substances, J. Chem. Soc. (Lond.) 1947, 562-581), which forms the basis for most paleoclimate studies today, both in carbonate sediments and in ice-cores. A remarkable series of graduate students and post-doctoral researchers studied in Urey's laboratories, including H. Craig, C. Emiliani, S. Epstein, J. Geiss and G. J. Wasserburg. Another graduate student, S. L. Miller, carried out the famous Miller-Urey experiment to synthesize amino acids in the laboratory from a mixture of gasses resembling a primitive planetary atmosphere (Miller, Science 117, 528-529 (1953)).
J. Marvin Weller (1899-1976) carried out early research on the Late Carboniferous paleontology and stratigraphy of Illinois. This work led him to recognize for the first time a strikingly regular alternation among marine sediments, nonmarine sediments and coal seams. The resulting model of cyclothems provided a framework for the interpretation of sedimentary rocks in much of the stratigraphic record beyond the Carboniferous Period. Weller's exploration of Northwest China (see Caravan Across China, published in 1984) led to the discovery of that country's first oil fields.
Alfred M. Ziegler (1938 - ) carried out groundbreaking studies of the spatial distribution of ancient marine communities, using the Silurian of Wales as a case study. This seminal work documented bathymetric changes in community composition and pioneered the use of three-dimensional block diagrams to interpret and portray the position and life habit of species within benthic communities in relation to the substrate and to other species. Ziegler later founded the Paleogeographic Atlas Project, which trained numerous graduate students and post-docs over the years. This important effort synthesized a vast set of geological publications into a database that can be used to establish the geographic distribution of sediments, especially those that are climatically sensitive such as coals and evaporites, and to reconstruct the position and features of ancient land- and water masses.
A departmental field trip around 1984. D. B. Rowley (far left); A. I. Miller (PhD 1986) (next to Rowley); J. J. Sepkoski, Jr. (top center, with hat); A. M. Ziegler (far right).