W. Gary Ernst, PhD

Nobel Conference 50
Oct. 7 & 8, 2014

Petrologist and geochemist W. Gary Ernst, PhD – Benjamin M. Page Professor Emeritus, Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences, Stanford University, Calif.

W. Gary Ernst was a pioneer in the study of rocks called blueschists, a type of metamorphic rock characterized by high pressures but low temperatures. One of the key pieces to the puzzle that was to become plate tectonics in the mid 1960s was the development of an understanding of these enigmatic rocks. They did not fit into the pre-plate tectonic models for earth dynamics. With plate tectonics came a new understanding that these rocks were a result of the subduction process, a process whereby the leading edge of a colliding plate is forced downward or "subducted" beneath another. Because of the low heat conductivity of rock, “cool” oceanic rock can be carried to depths represented by the required high pressures—thus forming the minerals characteristic of these high-pressure rocks.

As a pre-doctoral researcher at the Carnegie Geophysical Institute, Ernst carried out experiments to synthesize the mineral glaucophane (a bluish colored, sodium-magnesium variety of a complex group of minerals known as amphiboles, the mineral that imparts the color to “blue” schist), that led to an understanding of the stability conditions of glaucophane.

Upon completion of his doctoral work Ernst accepted a faculty position at UCLA, whereupon he began field and laboratory studies of blueschists present in the Coastal Ranges of California. That work eventually led him to such places as Japan, Taiwan, and the Alps to study similar rocks, and more broadly the processes of metamorphism associated with convergent plate margins. In later years, Gary began to study rare ultra-high pressure rocks from such places as the Urals, Kazakhstan, and China.

Though Ernst was born in St. Louis, his family soon after moved to St. Paul, MN, where he received most of his primary schooling. Gary went on to do his undergraduate work in geology at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. From there he went on to the University of Minnesota for his masters, and then to Johns Hopkins for a Ph.D. Ernst then spent 30 years as a faculty member at UCLA, eventually becoming director of the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Sciences. In 1989 he moved on to Stanford University as Dean of Earth Sciences until his retirement in 2004, where he is now professor emeritus. Gary is still active, and is currently an affiliated faculty member at the Woods Institute of the Environment.

Ernst is the author or editor of 25 books, and author or co-author of nearly 300 scholarly articles. He is a member and past chair of the National Academy of Sciences. He has received numerous awards including the Penrose Medal from the Geological Society of America, the Mineralogical Society Award and Roebling Award from the Mineralogical Society of America, and the Geological Society of Japan Medal.