50 Years Ago, The Theory Of Plate Tectonics Was Radical Counterculture
The Geological Society of London, a learned society and not-for-profit membership organisation serving the Earth sciences community in the UK and overseas, has been privileged to receive the archive of one of Britain’s greatest living scientists, geophysicist Dan McKenzie.
Professor Dan McKenzie was central to formulating the ideas that led to the theory of plate tectonics which, in 1967, represented a paradigm shift in what is now referred to as Earth science.
He and other key protagonists offered a unifying context for almost all disciplines of geology and physical science.
Through storytelling, and illustrated by the papers and photographs McKenzie kept throughout his career as well as recorded interviews.
Dan Peter McKenzie was born on 21 February 1942 in Cheltenham, England.
He first attended a school in Aylesbury, then three public schools in London, most notably Westminster School where he would later state that he was not a particularly academic pupil until the age of 14 or 15 when he began to properly learn mathematics, physics and chemistry.
The publication of his seminal paper on plate tectonics in 1967 had made McKenzie famous in US geoscience circles, but he was virtually unknown in Britain.
Yet despite being offered permanent (and well-paid) full academic posts in America, McKenzie returned to Cambridge University in August 1969 as he felt very English and wanted to work and establish his scientific reputation in his own country.
McKenzie has remained in the Department of Geodesy and Geophysics, Cambridge for the rest of his academic career, first as Senior Assistant in Research (1969-1973), then as Assistant Director of Research (1973-1979).
Later as Reader in Tectonics (1979-1985), a post specially created for him, and as Professor of Earth Sciences (1985-1996).
Between 1996-2006 he was the Royal Society Research Professor (1996-2006), finally retiring from academic teaching in 2012.
Although other papers on plate tectonics followed, McKenzie had all but given up on the subject by 1972, instead broadening out his studies to trying to understand the principal processes by which continents deform.
His theoretical investigations into lithospheric stretching resulted in McKenzie’s most widely cited paper of them all, “Some remarks on the development of sedimentary basins” (1978).
The ‘McKenzie model’ now forms the basis of most sedimentary basin models that are used by the oil industry.
Other major areas of research include his work on mantle convection and the behaviour of vigorously convecting fluids, and melt generation within the Earth and subsequently the planet Venus.
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