Kirschvink Receives 2011 William Gilbert Award

Joseph Kirschvink received the William Gilbert Award at the 2011 AGU Fall Meeting, held 5–9 December in San Francisco, Calif. The award recognizes outstanding and unselfish work in magnetism of Earth materials and of the Earth and planets.


kirschvink_josephI am honored to present the 2011 William Gilbert Award to Joseph Kirschvink in recognition of his fundamental contributions to research and education in paleomagnetism and geology.

Joe started making major discoveries almost immediately upon finishing college, when he obtained some of the first early Cambrian magnetostratigraphic records and participated in the discovery of the first five Cambrian carbon isotope anomalies. He also collected Moroccan ash samples, which ultimately led to a redefinition of the Cambrian time scale, which meant that early animal evolution was even more explosive than had been previously thought. This led Joe to propose that this might be linked to true polar wander, the coherent large-scale rotation of Earth’s mantle and crust.

Joe went on to study even older rocks, demonstrating a positive fold test for the near-equatorial glaciogenic Elatina Formation. This provided critical support for his snowball Earth hypothesis that the Earth was globally glaciated in the Proterozoic.

Simultaneous with these geologic peregrinations, Joe helped found the new field of biomagnetism. He discovered south seeking magnetotactic bacteria and was the first to identify magnetofossils. His subsequent work led to the discovery of the magnetic field sensory organelles in animals, the first truly new sensory organ identified in higher animals since sonar in bats was discovered 70 years ago.

Joe’s contributions to paleomagnetic methodology have also profoundly changed our field. As a student, he introduced the use of principal component analysis to paleomagnetism. With Mike Fuller, he critically supported the development of the 2G magnetometer and had the very first one installed in his lab. He also played a major role in the development of SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device) microscopy, a new paleomagnetic mapping technique with unprecedented sensitivity and spatial resolution.

On top of all of these and other unmentioned research achievements, Joe is a truly extraordinary mentor and teacher. I count myself among a huge loyal following of former students working in paleomagnetism, geology, biology, and planetary science.

In summary, Joe represents everything we are looking for in a William Gilbert awardee. He is an “ideas man,” a gadfly, working at the edge of the crowd while the crowd chases after him!


Benjamin P. Weiss, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge


Ben, thank you for your overly generous citation, which I think minimizes the contributions and stimulation I’ve received over the years from the off-the-scale students I’ve had! I was recently trying to clean up my office, and I found a batch of the “nut” term papers from my Earth history class from approximately 30 years ago. There were essays on true polar wander, low­latitude glaciation, panspermia, crazy mass extinction hypotheses, and even earthquake prediction by animals. By deliberately having my students track down and write scientific review papers on unconventional and wacko topics, a lot has obviously rubbed off on me over the years. I’m particularly indebted to Dawn Sumner, Paul Filmer, Robin Chang, Rob Ripperdan, Linda Maepa, Rob Ferber, David Evans, Chris Pluhar, Jack Holt, José Hurtado, Kevin Boyce, Ben Weiss, Tim Raub, Francis Macdonald, Isaac Hilburn, Cody Nash, Bob Kopp, Sonia Tikoo, Sarah Slotznick, and many others. Also, I would really like to thank my wife, Atsuko, for being extraordinarily patient with me, and my boys, Jiseki and Koseki, for actually liking their geological names.

And the William Gilbert Award? Egad. I’m humbled. I’ve always been fascinated by magnets, and I have fond memories of doing a fourth- or fifth-grade science report on William Gilbert. I built my first pulse magnetizer in grade school, wrapping a coil around a cardboard tube and crafting a “fuse” with a thin strip of aluminum foil. Plugging this into a wall outlet made a wonderful flash, and anything in the tube was hit with a great magnetic pulse. I’m glad I did not burn our house down! I am a bit worried, though: William Gilbert apparently died in one of the Black Plague epidemics that swept through Europe 400 years ago. I hope I never encounter (or create!) a pathological strain of magnetotactic bacteria!

When you work in interdisciplinary fields, awards like the Gilbert are few and far between. I sometimes feel that the crowds following me have been throwing bricks and tomatoes! The medal is beautiful, so round and heavy. I’ll happily accept this one and run with it! Many thanks.


Joseph L. Kirschvink, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena