W. Jason Morgan

William Jason Morgan, Princeton University’s Knox Taylor Professor of Geology, Emeritus and a professor of geophysics, emeritus, was a pioneer of the theory of plate tectonics. He died at home July 31.

6 thoughts on “W. Jason Morgan

  1. Lincoln Hollister

    Some thoughts of Jason Morgan, a colleague and friend for over 50 years. Lincoln Hollister, Aug 5, 2023.

    Jason Morgan was the last man who knew everything. He was not just a pioneer in geology, he grasped the full historical context for geological details and was fully aware of how each detail connected to everything else.

    One former student wrote, “Jason was a professor at Princeton when I was a graduate student 40 years ago; he was one of the kindest, lowest-key, but most erudite and wisest people I have known. He was foremost among those who shaped and developed the modern theory of plate tectonics and put it on a sound theoretical basis. If there were a Nobel Prize in earth sciences, Jason would certainly have received it.”

    “Loose lips sink ships.” Jason, a Navy veteran, followed this rule. For example, his close friends did not know he had been awarded an honorary degree by Harvard University until after the fact. He always found the good in someone even if their science was not really worthy of note. He made everyone he knew feel like they were outstanding scientists and people. His lips were not loose!

    If one had a question … any question … Jason had the answer. “Ask Jason” was a frequent refrain. One former student and wife writes that they “drove him around 1600 km of the German countryside, and he knew something about everything everywhere we went.”

    I chatted on the phone with Jason about four times a week, for the last 20 years since he moved to Massachusetts. The last chat was the Sunday evening when he died. He was fine then and was packing up to drive to Princeton with his children, Michele and Jason Jr, and a grandchild. The purpose of their planned visit was to see the construction holes in the ground where they had all lived. He also asked me some questions about the Colorado Plateau which we had visited on a field trip with a class.

    Jason went on every field trip he could hitch a ride with. He would patiently learn from the students on the trips and would help them understand the bigger story, like how did the Colorado Plateau form? Or how did the plates move across the Earth’s surface? Every rock was a data point for understanding the bigger picture.

    His patient teaching extended to a boat operator in Prince Rupert, British Columbia. On receiving the news of Jason’s death, he wrote me: “When I saw his picture I instantly remembered the man that I met briefly in 1994. He was always smiling and tried so hard to explain to me the geology in my own back yard. As an old friend of yours, I understand your sadness of your old friend passing.”

  2. Larry Cathles

    I was Jason’s first graduate student. Princeton was a very exciting place when I arrived in 1966. There was lots of discussion on how sea floor spreading might work. Jason, was hard at work demonstrating Fred Vine’s lineations meant plate tectonics. And yet somehow he found time to take on a graduate student. He was an ideal advisor, never intruding too closely in day to day work, but always available for questions, and always clear and thoughtful in discussions. We became good friends, and I later spent many fascinating visits with his family in their small apartment next to campus. Time has passed far too quickly, and it is very hard for me to believe that Jason will no longer be there for discussions and suggestions. A great many people will miss him very much, and I am certainly included in that very long list.

  3. Frederik Simons

    Jason Morgan, the Physicist, was to Geology what Darwin, the Geologist, was to Biology – towering figures with probing, synthetic minds, who became synonymous with the paradigm shifts they engendered. Evolution, for Darwin, Plate tectonics, for Jason Morgan and the very few peers of his generation.

    Entire books, tens of them, have been written about the history of plate tectonics (and its acceptance) and the crucial role of Morgan in it.

    His early work contributed seminally to the study of Earth’s gravitational field, the interactions between static and dynamic force fields generated by density anomalies, and how these constrain Earth’s viscosity structure on a planetary scale.

    We rarely anymore cite Newton for F=ma, or Einstein about E=mc^2, and we no longer need to cite Morgan’s early work on plate tectonics, which was, essentially, universally, accepted by the late 1960s, and now the stuff of school books and college texts.

    Perhaps paradoxically, Morgan (Nature, 1971), which postulated an explanation for the origin of hotspots and volcanic island chains in the *interior* of plates (thus, not part of the original theory) as a feature of convection currents in the deep mantle, remains as relevant as ever. Cited, debated, argued over, and still the stuff of NSF grant proposals like I literally just submitted, two days after his death.

    Jason was patient, and Jason was kind. Jason did not envy, he did not boast, and he was not proud. It was known that his name did not appear on half or more of the publications that were written out of his collaborations with students.

    When you talked to Jason he would take long pauses, to formulate deep thoughts, fed from encyclopedic knowledge and profound insight.

  4. Barbara Romanowicz

    When I think of Jason Morgan, I think about mantle plumes, of course, but my most treasured memory of him dates from the Spring 1990 AGU in Baltimore, which I had travelled to from France. At that time, the Spring AGU was a rather small meeting, and the Honors Ceremony was no frills, in a large but not huge room, and the dozen or two new Fellows – of which I was one, had to take care of themselves, and take a seat on the stage. I remember standing outside of the room, intimidated and wondering what I was supposed to do, when Jason came up to me, warmly congratulated me and asked whether anyone was accompanying me. As this was not the case, explained the process to me, and kept me company during the whole ceremony. He was a towering figure in the Geosciences community, and also a real gentleman!

  5. Jeroen Tromp

    A memory of Jason that brings a smile to my face dates to when I was a graduate student at Princeton in the 1990s. I was sitting next to my advisor, the late Tony Dahlen, and asked him how old Jason was. Jason’s office was across from Tony’s, so Tony yells across the hall: “Jason, how old are you?”. There is no answer. So, Tony yells again: “Jason, what year were you born?”. Jason yells back: “1935”. Tony replies: “Jason, you are 55 years old.”

    The same year, Jason’s office was declared a fire hazard by the Princeton University Fire Marshall, because it contained about 15 man-sized stacks of reprints and papers. But if you came to ask him a question, he would be able to locate the right reference instantly, without fail.

  6. Love Zubiller '98

    Few college students have the opportunity to go on a geology field trip to Scotland with the father of the theory of plate tectonics. For one week in 1995, twelve of my classmates and I had the pleasure of climbing around on rocks in the windiest, bitterest, and craggiest parts of the Isle of Arran. Jason Morgan was the most down-to-earth and congenial genius-scientist a girl like me could ever hope to meet.

    Unfortunately for me, I have only pictures of me with my classmates from that trip — none with my professors. The class was co-taught by another most inspiring man, Kenneth Deffeyes, who passed away several years ago in San Diego. I was so inspired by this freshman seminar and my professors that I toyed with the idea of majoring in geology. The advanced geophysics class I took afterward taught me to appreciate geology in a supportive role and to major in a field of study more appropriate to my strengths. No regrets there — being an English major rocked! (See what I did there?)

    Alas, Professor Morgan is one of the people I am proudest to have known. To say that I gained a love of geology, the Earth, and all of its hidden mysteries from his class is truly special. To say that I had my first shot of Scotch at a rundown pub on the Isle of Arran, Scotland, with the Nobel-worthy pioneer of geologic science? That is priceless.

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