G. Michael Purdy

2006 Maurice Ewing Medal Winner

Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University, Palisades, N.Y.

G. Michael Purdy was awarded the Maurice Ewing Medal at the AGU Fall Meeting honors ceremony, which was held on 13 December 2006 in San Francisco, Calif. The medal recognizes significant original contributions to the scientific understanding of the processes in the ocean; for the advancement of oceanographic engineering technology and instrumentation; or outstanding service to marine science.


It is an honor for me to deliver the citation for G. Michael Purdy, the 2006 recipient of AGU’s Maurice Ewing Medal. Mike Purdy has made significant and original contributions to our understanding of ocean crustal structure, been an innovative developer of marine seismic instrumentation, and served for over two decades as an important leader of the oceanographic community.

Mike received his undergraduate training in physics, and studied for his Ph.D with Drum Matthews at the renowned Bullard Laboratory at Cambridge University (U.K.). He arrived at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI; Mass.) in 1974, and over the next two decades Mike and a succession of outstanding students spearheaded efforts to elucidate the seismic structure of ocean crust. They demonstrated that crust beneath oceanic fracture zones is generally much thinner than crust beneath normal seafloor, carried out the first three-dimensional crustal seismic tomography experiment on the East Pacific Rise, and determined the fine structure of upper oceanic crust and its variation with age. Purdy and Sean Solomon, his close colleague then at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT; Cambridge), and their students conducted a series of pioneering microseismicity studies along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge providing important new insight into the state of stress and thermal structure of this slow spreading ridge.

At Woods Hole, Mike assembled a team of engineers and technicians whose reputations for developing innovative new approaches for making seismic measurements at sea remain unsurpassed. In the late 1970s this group constructed the first low-cost, reliable ocean-bottom hydrophone instruments for active-source, seismic refraction studies. He designed, built, and operated a novel, deep-towed explosive seismic source that allowed high-resolution measurements of the shallow ocean crust. In the 1980s he led a multi-institution group that with support from the U.S. Office of Naval Research designed and built the first standard U.S. instrument for ocean-bottom seismology. The successors to these pioneering instruments are today revolutionizing low-frequency, ocean-bottom seismometry in much the same way that PASSCAL broadband, portable seismometers revolutionized seismology on land.

The third component of Purdy’s profound contributions to the ocean sciences has been his scientific leadership. He was chair of the Geology and Geophysics Department at WHOI from 1991 to 1995. Moving to the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1995, Mike initiated an NSF-wide Life in Extreme Environments (LEXEN) Program and established the innovative Centers for Ocean Science Educational Excellence (COSEE). He formed an international planning group for a new Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) and tirelessly oversaw that planning effort. He strongly supported the establishment of ocean observatories, and helped lay the foundation for NSF’s Ocean Observatories Initiative. Mike is currently the director of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (Columbia University, Palisades, N.Y.), the institution Maurice Ewing founded. In all of these endeavors, Mike has earned the respect of his colleagues for his vision, fairness, and ability to navigate complex issues.

The Ewing Medal is unique among AGU awards in that the citation recognizes, in equal measure, scientific accomplishments, technical innovation, and community leadership. I can think of no ocean scientist who is more deserving of this honor on all three counts than Mike Purdy.

—ROBERT S. DETRICK, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, Mass.


Thank you, Tony, and thank you to the U.S. Navy and AGU.

I appreciate deeply the recognition that the Maurice Ewing Medal conveys, and I sincerely thank AGU and the U.S. Navy for this honor.

It is often said, and it is certainly true in my case, that whatever success I have achieved has been due, always and primarily, to the help, guidance, and support of friends, colleagues, and students. So this great honor that I am now receiving is shared with many tens of people who have helped and inspired me over the years.

I consider the beginning of my career in this magnificent business of Earth and ocean sciences to be the summer of 1968, when, as a physics undergraduate at Imperial College London (U.K.), Tony Laughton gave me a summer job at the National Institute of Oceanography, in Wormley, England. I had the privilege of going to sea that summer with the legendary John Swallow, deploying current meter moorings in the Bay of Biscay. From there, after 6 months at Bedford Institute of Oceanography, in Dartmouth, Canada, through my graduate studies with Drum Matthews at the University of Cambridge in the U.K., the glory days working with John Ewing at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the enlightenment of 5 years at the U.S. National Science Foundation, and now the privilege of leading one of the great research institutions, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (Columbia University, Palisades, N.Y.), it is difficult to recall making a tough career decision. In each case an opportunity that seemed irresistible appeared at the right time.

Having spent the bulk of my research career collecting data from ocean floor instruments and being dependent for success upon the reliable operation of a myriad of complex electronic and mechanical systems, I very firmly do not believe in luck as a controlling force in the natural world. But I have to admit that I find myself where I am today due to a remarkable coincidence of multiple fortunate circumstances.

This profession remains a source of constant and profound joy for me; every week I learn something new about the world that helps me understand what I see and experience around me. I do not need to know at that very moment why a particular piece of new knowledge is important—that is not always knowable; but for me, and for most of us I am sure, just the act of understanding, the knowing why, is its own reward. I am convinced that this natural curiosity is one of humankind’s most important, fundamental, and long-standing survival systems. The passion that our species has for understanding the forces that control what it sees and feels and hears is what has allowed us to thrive on this planet for hundreds of thousands of years as modes of living have changed dramatically, long before the professions of philosophy and science were invented. We must celebrate this natural curiosity as a force of good and nurture its growth as a necessary component of our continued successful occupation of this planet.

Once again, I emphasize that I share this medal, named for the founding director of the institution I now have the privilege to lead, and whose boundless curiosity set the foundations for several different key research areas within our field; I share this honor with all my research assistants, technicians, engineers, colleagues, students, and postdocs, without whom none of the research or other accomplishments associated with my name would have been possible.

—G. MICHAEL PURDY, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University, Palisades, N.Y.