Constable Receives 2013 William Gilbert Award

Catherine Constable received the 2013 William Gilbert Award at the 2013 AGU Fall Meeting, held 9–13 December in San Francisco, Calif. The award recognizes outstanding and unselfish work in magnetism of Earth materials and of the Earth and planets.


constable_catherineI am honored to present the 2013 William Gilbert Award to Catherine Constable in recognition of her fundamental contributions to our understanding of secular variation of the geomagnetic field and exemplary service to the geomagnetism and paleomagnetism (GP) community.

Cathy’s theoretical research is steeped in observation, ranging from time variation of the geomagnetic field and its implications for the state of the Earth’s deep interior to applications of satellite magnetic field observations that bear on electrical conductivity of the Earth’s mantle. Her work directly impacts all three arms of our GP section: geomagnetism, paleomagnetism, and electromagnetism. She has authored more than 80 highly cited books and journal articles and quite simply leads the way in melding rich and disparate paleomagnetic and archaeomagnetic data sets into practical and insightful global geomagnetic models.

Cathy exemplifies true scientific leadership through her service to AGU and the GP section. She served as president-elect and president of the GP section from 2006 to 2010 during a time of dramatic change in AGU governance. She was instrumental in directing that change, serving as a voting member of the AGU Council and participant on both the AGU Future Focus Task Force and the AGU Mapping Alignment Project. Thanks in large part to her leadership in AGU, the GP section emerged from major restructuring of AGU governance with strong Council representation. Cathy now serves on the AGU Board of Directors, assuring us that she will continue to be a player in AGU and GP’s future.

Cathy is also an unselfish leader in the development of cross-disciplinary research. She is the lead principal investigator and chair of the Steering Committee for the MagIC Database initiative, a critical service for rock magnetic and paleomagnetic research. Perhaps her most obvious and prominent contribution to cross-disciplinary science is her work with the geomagnetic dynamo research community, helping to incorporate paleomagnetic statistics into dynamo models. Her geomagnetic field models are widely used by researchers outside geomagnetism as well, ranging from historians who seek past evidence of auroras in biblical times to carbon- and beryllium-dating researchers estimating isotope production in the atmosphere from cosmic rays.

For her fundamental contributions to research in time variation of the geomagnetic field and her exemplary service to AGU and the GP section, we congratulate Cathy Constable, our 2013 William Gilbert Award recipient.

—RICHARD J. BLAKELY, U.S. Geological Survey, Menlo Park, California


Thank you for the generous citation. I am truly honored that the GP section considers me a worthy recipient of this award. As you might guess, I don’t deserve exclusive credit for everything in Rick’s citation, and if you look at the coauthors on all my publications, you can get a pretty good idea of who really did the work. I have been fortunate to work in a highly collegial environment at the University of California, San Diego, where my mentors, colleagues, postdocs, and students at Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s Institute of Geophysics of Planetary Physics have been tremendously important to me. Additionally, this year (2013) marks 30 years since I first attended the AGU Fall Meeting, and the GP section has really been my scientific home within this organization, connecting me to a broader range of collaborators from all over the world. I owe thanks to a large number of people who have contributed to the fun of doing science and provided opportunities to discuss things in a highly collegial environment.

I think it’s also important to keep my 30 years of dabbling around in a broader perspective. Today is 10 December, the 410th anniversary of William Gilbert’s death from bubonic plague in 1603. We still consider him an intellectual giant because of his interest in experimental science and the legacy of his publications. He was part of the scientific revolution in Europe that unfolded between Copernicus’s proposition of the heliocentric cosmos and Isaac Newton’s proposition of universal laws for a mechanical universe.

Gilbert was key in developing the ideas of experimental science as a means to confirm ideas. His life work essentially produced two volumes, De Magnete published in 1600 and De Mundo published posthumously in 1651 by his half-brother, and had a strong influence on his contemporaries. If you’ve ever attempted to read De Magnete, you’ll realize that it’s quite a slog even in its 19th century English translation—in large part because at that time there was no language yet available for Gilbert to describe what he observed. Still, in De Magnete, he followed the basic structure we would today. He reviewed what others before him had said—often in disparaging terms as, for example, when citing those who claimed repeatedly that lodestone could be demagnetized by rubbing with garlic. Then he went on to describe his experiments in electricity and magnetism, which were substantial and significant. Three hundred years after his death, the Gilbert Society translated his work and reinvented him as the first great English scientist, noting that his work “constituted the absolute starting point of the science of electricity.”

Newton subsequently provided a mathematical language for doing science and noted the idea of “standing on the shoulders of giants,” but Gilbert really was building from the ground up. So the question is, Where will we be 410 years from now? We don’t want to be rubbing lodestones with garlic. We still have lots of new observations to make. In my particular world, I’m excited that the European Space Agency’s Swarm mission was launched in November 2013, with three satellites to improve high-frequency imaging of the geomagnetic field, and that at longer periods, we still have scope to improve images and understanding of magnetic field variations. I firmly believe our science must continue to be mathematical and reproducible, and we have the language for that now.

William Gilbert remains an impressive example to us as a scientist, and I am delighted to receive this award.

—CATHERINE CONSTABLE, Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego