Philip England

Philip England recognizes that the goal of science is to understand nature’s processes, the essence of understanding is the ability to predict from general conditions, bringing understanding to Joe Sixpack requires simplicity, and simple understanding can be expressed most clearly by algebraic expressions, or scaling laws. With Steve Richardson and later with Margaret Moore (and Carslaw and Jaeger), he showed how erosion affects crustal temperatures. With Alan Thompson, he showed how the thermal history of buried rock, and therefore metamorphism, depends on rates and depths of burial and exhumation. With Tim Holland (and Archimedes), he revealed the conditions required for ultrahigh-pressure rock to return to the surface in the face of subduction shear. With Greg Houseman, Dan McKenzie, and Leslie Sonder, he combined the two major forces that limit elevations of deforming lithosphere—friction or viscosity and gravity—into one dimensionless number, the Argand number. With this simplification, he then explained many aspects of the large-scale distribution of active deformation, like present-day velocities and strain rates, rotations about vertical axes, crustal thicknesses, and subcrustal seismic anisotropy. With Stephen Bourne and Barry Parsons, he showed how slip rates on faults can scale simply with the spacing between faults. With Richard Katz and Catherine Wilkins, he showed how the positions of volcanoes at subduction zones depend simply on the subduction rate and the dip of the downgoing slab. In a counterintuitive, homely analogy, the faster you thrust ice beneath your bed, the warmer you will be (provided that the movement of your ice forces a circulation of warm water above it)! Not just a theorist who has reduced nonlinear differential equations to algebraic scaling laws, he has also led efforts to obtain new data, especially GPS measurements. Finally, as a public servant, he organized a multidisciplinary program, Earthquakes Without Frontiers, to study both the science and the societal impacts of earthquakes in continental regions, where they have taken their greatest toll but are least well understood.

Philip England has brought simple understanding to a wide variety of thermal and mechanical processes in the solid Earth. Young scientists could benefit from examining how he chooses, then poses, and finally solves problems.

—Peter Molnar, Department of Geological Sciences, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado Boulder


Thank you, Peter. Your nomination and the support of friends who must have written unreasonably kind letters embody what I value most. Receiving the Bucher Medal evokes many memories of interactions with the dynamic and inclusive community that is AGU.

Nothing of worth that I have done would have been possible without Pam; doing justice to her support would require volumes, which she would not want me to write. Our children provide a counterpoint: By their unremitting ridicule and disrespect, they inspire me constantly to question the value of what I do.

I have been extraordinarily fortunate in the people who influenced me. I cannot imagine a better introduction to research in the Earth sciences than Stephen Richardson and Ron Oxburgh provided. They had inexhaustible curiosity about the Earth, and encouraged their students to employ whatever tools were available to solve problems of interest. Few who know Dan McKenzie would dispute that an exchange of views with him is one of the most bracing experiences our discipline has to offer; 4 years of Dan’s stimulation and generosity were an outstanding experience.

Decades ago, when you and I first grouched together, the search for simplicity in geology seemed natural. The facility with which computer models now spin seductive webs of “realistic” images has made that view unfashionable. I nevertheless remain convinced that nature does leave clues lying around that reveal her working through their simplicity. It has been immense fun to pursue those clues with friends much smarter than I, particularly you, Greg Houseman, and Rich Katz. I’ve had equal fun, with added scenery, in the company of Haris Billiris, James Jackson, Demitris Paradissis, Barry Parsons, and George Veis (whose understanding of satellite geodesy predates satellites themselves). It has been stimulating and sobering to work with James, and new friends in other disciplines, on the far from simple challenges of seismic risk across Eurasia. Lack of space prevents mention of many others; I hope you know who you are.

For what it’s worth, my advice to young scientists is embedded above. Choose a nascent field and seek the best mentors; I was fortunate, but your choice now is even richer. Lastly, for the not-so-young: Pressures from has-been counters, from those who mindlessly equate universities with businesses, and from bigots of all shades imperil the openness, inclusivity, and liberality that are essential to the flourishing of young minds. Resist.

—Philip England, University of Oxford, U.K.


(2018), Philip England receives 2018 Walter H. Bucher Medal, Eos, 99, Published on 20 December 2018.

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