Donald L. Turcotte

2003 William Bowie Medal Winner
University of California


Donald L.Turcotte was awarded the Bowie Medal at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, which was held on 10 December 2003, in San Francisco, California. The medal honors “outstanding contributions to fundamental geophysics and for unselfish cooperation in research.”


“Few have contributed more to fundamental geophysics, or been better at encouraging others to contribute, than Donald L. Turcotte. Don trained as an engineer, receiving a Ph.D. in aeronautics and physics from the California Institute of Technology in 1958. After a year at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, he joined the Cornell Graduate School of Aeronautical Engineering, rising to full professor. He established expertise on seeded combustion, magnetohydrodynamic and electrical phenomena in turbulent boundary layers, and shock waves, and authored a book, Space Propulsion and Statistical Thermodynamics, and co-authored a textbook, Statistical Thermodynamics.

“In 1965 he went on sabbatical to Oxford and returned an Earth scientist. The catalyst was Ron Oxburgh. Plate tectonics was just on the horizon, and Don joined his quantitative abilities and physical intuition with Ron’s skills and knowledge of geology to produce over the next decade a remarkable series of 24 papers that explored topics such as the many implications of the Earth’s thermal boundary layer, ridge melting, subduction zone volcanism, and intraplate tectonics and magmatism, and established the physical bases for many of the processes operating on our planet. Shifting to the Cornell Department of Geological Sciences in 1973, Don explored virtually every aspect of physical Earth geology and became an expert on planetary remote sensing and geophysical interpretation. He published over 150 papers on thermal subsidence in sedimentary basins, two-phase hydrothermal porous media convection, lithosphere flexure, cyclic sedimentation, and stick-slip earthquakes and the lithospheres and mantles of the other planets. He worked and published with outstanding students and colleagues including Ken Torrance, Gerald Schubert, David Spence, Marc Parmentier, Bill Haxby, John Ockendon, Kevin Burke, Jud Ahern, Steve Emerman, and Charlie Angevine. In 1982 he published Geodynamics with Jerry Schubert, a book that became the primary reference in the field.

“In 1985 Don was introduced to fractals by Bob Smalley, and his intellect engaged. He showed how fractals and chaos apply to almost every Earth process and at last explained why geologists place rock hammers in their photographs. In 1992 he published Fractals and Chaos in Geology and Geophysics, a book that became the primary Earth sciences reference in this new field. In 2001 he published a comprehensive book on mantle convection with Jerry Schubert and Peter Olson.

“Don has been a member of innumerable academy committees, editorial boards, and working groups. He is a past president of the Tectonics Section of the AGU, past chair of the Geophysics Section of the National Academy of Sciences, and was chair of the Department of Geology at Cornell for 9 years. Few in the profession will not have interacted with Don in one capacity or another. All appreciate his managerial style and ability to routinely turn mountains into molehills.

“Most amazing is how with such apparent ease and equanimity one person could be so prolific, so effective in applying fundamental physical and chemical principles to understand the Earth and planets, and so successful in establishing long-term and productive collaborations. Few deserve an award honoring ‘outstanding contributions to fundamental geophysics and unselfish collaboration in research’ more than Don Turcotte.”

—LAWRENCE M. CATHLES, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.