W. Jason Morgan, the renowned geophysicist who developed the theory of plate tectonics in 1967, passed away on July 31 at the age of 87. His theory revolutionized the study of earthquakes, volcanoes, and the movement of continents across the Earth’s mantle. Morgan’s children, Jason and Michèle, confirmed his death.
Before Morgan presented his theory, the idea that the Earth’s surface shifted was not new. People had already noticed that certain edges of continents seemed to fit together like puzzle pieces. However, it wasn’t until Morgan’s groundbreaking work that a comprehensive framework was developed to explain these observations. By the mid-20th century, researchers had made significant progress in studying the movement of the Earth’s surface, but the concept of continental drift was still highly debated.
Morgan’s initial plan for the Geophysical Union meeting was to discuss underwater trenches. However, after reading a paper about fracture zones on the ocean floor, he changed his focus. By examining a map of these zones in the Pacific Ocean, Morgan realized that they could be understood as the result of colliding and separating plates moving around the Earth. He also proposed that the plates were rigid and fixed in shape, contradicting previous theories that suggested the continents moved on a malleable mantle. This insight allowed for the measurement and prediction of plate movement.
With just weeks before his presentation, Morgan immersed himself in gathering data and building a computer program to test his hypothesis. He worked tirelessly on his research, causing some concern for his wife. Nonetheless, Morgan presented his findings at the Geophysical Union meeting and later published a paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research in 1968.
Around the same time, researchers Dan McKenzie and Robert Parker published a similar theory but with different evidence. While McKenzie is sometimes credited with discovering plate tectonics, he acknowledges that Morgan should be recognized as the one who defined the theory. The impact of plate tectonics was immediate and transformative. It provided a unified framework for various scientific disciplines, leading to advancements in seismology, volcanology, and evolutionary biology.
The acceptance of plate tectonics among academics and the public was swift. Within a decade, it became standard knowledge in grade-school science textbooks. Skeptics eventually came around when satellite and GPS data confirmed Morgan’s theory. It was a paradigm shift in the field of geophysics.
Born on October 10, 1935, in Savannah, Georgia, to William and Maxie Ponita Morgan, W. Jason Morgan initially studied mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech. However, he fell in love with physics and switched majors, eventually pursuing graduate studies. He obtained his doctorate from Princeton in 1964 and remained at the university until his retirement in 2004.
Morgan married Cary Goldschmidt in 1959, and together they had two children. He continued to make significant contributions to the field of geophysics after his groundbreaking paper on plate tectonics. He collaborated on research related to triple junctions and mantle plumes, further expanding our understanding of the Earth’s geological processes.
Despite his monumental discoveries, Morgan remained humble, believing that someone else would have made the same breakthrough if he hadn’t. However, his colleagues recognized the significance of his work. Anthony Dahlen, a former chairman of Princeton’s Department of Geosciences, stated that Morgan’s theory of plate tectonics was one of the major milestones of 20th-century U.S. science. The theory paved the way for an entire generation of geologists and geophysicists.