John R. Delaney

2012 Athelstan Spilhaus Award Winner

John R. Delaney received the Athelstan Spilhaus Award at the 2012 AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 5 December 2012 in San Francisco, Calif. The award honors “individuals who have devoted portions of their lives to expressing the excitement, significance, and beauty of the Earth and space sciences to the general public.”


John Delaney’s research encompasses volcanic processes on land and in the oceans, their geologic record, their oceanographic impact, and their implications for life on Earth and other planets. This research led John to develop professional and public enthusiasm for understanding the complex interdependent relationships that link volcanic processes to a wide array of oceanic phenomena. In doing so, he fostered collaboration mechanisms that transformed study of mid-ocean ridges and fostered transformational new capabilities for ocean observations that have become a key element in our national ocean observing system.

Within the science community, John advanced interdisciplinary study of mid-ocean ridges by founding, then leading, the Ridge Interdisciplinary Global Experiment that was, for example, instrumental in discovering the deep biosphere. He made this effort international, founding and chairing InterRIDGE,with over 20 nations focused on ridge crest research.

To enable observation of highly intermittent ridge crest processes in real time John envisioned an array of high-power high-bandwidth cabled ocean “observatories” with thousands of sensors connected to the Internet, providing unparalleled access to the oceans in both space and time. His vision is becoming reality with installation of the Regional Scale Nodes of the $700M NSF Ocean Observatories Initiative and complementary NEPTUNE Canada. The cabled sensor arrays will provide real-time communication and data flow from in situinstruments and sensors.

John communicates science beyond professional colleagues with enthusiasm. A Chief or Co-Chief Scientist on >50 research cruises, his passionate message about the oceans enthralls audiences, and he is a highly sought after speaker giving >50 invited talks/year at professional meetings, universities, and to the public. He is as excited to share his excitement with school children as with TED audiences and national committees.

John worked with colleagues to develop the first formal programs bringing middle and high school teachers to sea, now common opportunities. For broader audiences, John worked with NOVA to film the successful recovery of black smokers from ocean ridges. Intrigued by the excitement of viewers watching scientists work, he envisioned them looking over our shoulders as we make discoveries in real-time. In 2005 John’s group was the first to stream high-definition video live from sea floor. Over 1 million viewers across the globe watched in fascination on the web.

John makes science relevant to broader culture. He evokes emotionally important themes and strips away the myth of scientists as cold, unemotional people uninterested or uninformed about the arts and humanities. He explains the historical relevance of our discoveries and their relation to art and literature. He is known for his use of poetry to articulate the mystery and beauty of our science. He brings artists into contact with scientists: nationally known poets have written about our science as a result.

John’s powerful outreach and innovative activities developed public support for the vision of the powerful and technologically advanced ocean observing system now under construction. He has earned a special place among those who have conveyed the excitement, significance, and beauty of Earth and space sciences to the general public.

–Margaret Leinen, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, Florida Atlantic University, North Pierce, Florida


It is humbling and exhilarating to be honored as this year’s recipient of the Spilhaus Award.Humbling because Athelstan himself set the standard as a highly productive scientific innovator with a gift for making science not just accessible, but engaging to the public at large. Exhilarating because we are all now poised on the threshold of being able to achieve universal scientific engagement with a global audience. Rapidly emerging technologies, global societal problems, shifting international attitudes, and novel social media are converging to power a new paradigm of scientific inquiry and engagement. Scientists are now enabled to operate transparently on a stage of planetary to microscopic scale. The boundaries between research and education begin to blur as this convergence embraces scientific investigation, the arts, the environment, the economy, ethics, energy, health, and entertainment. It is into this complex cultural tapestry that we scientists must weave our stories of struggle and success to engage entire communities in the essential roles that science, technology, and people play.

My particular passion is the global ocean, which is nothing less than the ultimate life-support system for our entire planet. We humans face challenges and opportunities in our quest to understand, protect, and utilize the entirety of our global ecosystem. Yet few of our fellow citizens realize the influence that the ocean has on our daily lives here on the continents; few are aware of the intricately interlinked processes, complex history, and essential roles the ocean plays in supporting life on Earth. A vision for public outreach might involve hundreds to thousands of compelling researcher-teacher voices equipped with the capacity to captivate audiences across the planet with the power and elegance of conducting comprehensive ocean science in real time.

Moore’s Law-type growth curves for a host of technologies—digitalimaging, eco-genomics, robotics, electrical power extraction from the sea, high-speed communications via submarine electro-optical cables, and the computational capacity to synthesize, visualize, and model complex systems—are but a few of the resources developed mostly by investment from outside oceanography. The advent of science-oriented, submarine fiber-optic cable networks providing in situ electrical power and unprecedented communication bandwidth enable us to rapidly import many innovative engineering and analytical capabilities into the oceans. These technologies arrive at an investment level that requires adaptation, not development, and will enable humans to be present throughout the rapidly changing, previously inaccessible oceans without having to be physically there.For me, this represents a bold new chapter in our ability to understand, and, perhaps, eventually influence the evolution of our planetary life support system. We must bring the public along on this journey of discovery and exploration by using every tool in our communication/scientific workbench.

I am deeply grateful to my colleagues, friends, and family for the consistent and generous support I have received over decades of trying to push the envelope on what seemed to be the next steps.I am especially grateful to those who nominated me and who provided supportive letters leading to this award that in the end belongs to all of us in our quest to share the magic of scientific inquiry.

–John R. Delaney, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington