The story, says Cornell geologist Bryan Isacks, is usually pretty much the same. People study geology because they have a certain set of characteristics: They love physics and the outdoors; they're adventurous and curious.
It was his story, too. But colleagues are quick to point out that his career has been exceptional from the beginning.
Isacks, Cornell's William and Katherine Snee Professor of Geological Sciences, will be honored at an Oct. 8-10 symposium, "Subduction, Orogeny and the Surface of the Earth." The event, organized by Cornell's Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and the Institute for the Study of the Continents (INSTOC), will celebrate Isacks' recent 70th birthday and mark the beginning of his phased retirement (he will retire fully in 2008).
The symposium will include presentations by a host of Cornell alumni, including Isacks' former and present graduate students and other leading earth scientists. A banquet Oct. 9 will feature appreciations from colleagues, among them Frank H.T. Rhodes, president emeritus of Cornell and professor of geology.
Isacks began his career as a seismologist in the 1960s, when he contributed fundamental research on plate tectonics in the islands of the southwest Pacific. A pivotal 1968 paper co-authored by Isacks, Cornell Professor Emeritus Jack Oliver and Lynn Sykes of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory was a major advance in better understanding of the process of subduction.
When he joined the Cornell faculty in 1971, Isacks began studying geomorphology in the central Andes, initiating a Cornell presence in Argentina which has grown into the largest U.S. academic group working in South America. He is currently a leader in using remote sensing techniques to study how atmospheric conditions alter the Earth's surface in mountain chains.
Isacks chaired Cornell's geology department from 1994 to 2003 and was a major force in Cornell's merging of its earth and atmospheric sciences departments and in developing the undergraduate earth systems major.
The symposium will cover topics from seismology to climate change. Peter Molnar, professor of geological science at the University of Colorado-Boulder, will give the most curiously titled speech: "Wallowing Among Erosion, Tectonics, Climate Change, Human Evolution, Chickens, Eggs, Red Herrings, Pink Elephants and Bryan Isacks."
"Nobody has contributed more to the understanding of the subduction process than Bryan," said Molnar. "He saw good stuff early. And he's extremely careful -- meticulously careful. I have a huge debt to him. He made me think, 'Come on, Molnar, slow down. Do it right.'"