Mervyn S. Paterson

2004 Walter H. Bucher Medal Winner

Australian National University, Canberra

Mervyn S. Paterson received the Bucher Medal at the 2004 Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony on 15 December, in San Francisco, California. The medal is given for original contributions to the basic knowledge of the crust and lithosphere.


It is the nature of modern research in the Earth sciences that observations of natural phenomena are often made and interpreted through the prism provided by the enabling sciences and technologies. Thus it has been with Mervyn Paterson’s career. His undergraduate training in engineering in Adelaide formed the basis for his Ph.D. study of X-ray line-broadening in cold-worked metals under Orowan at Cambridge. This interest in the deformation of metals was fostered during his employment at the Aeronautical Research Laboratories in Melbourne and by postdoctoral experience at the Institute of Metals at the University of Chicago. Mervyn’s general background in engineering and his particular interest in mechanical behavior have underpinned a distinguished career at the Australian National University in the experimental deformation of rocks, providing fundamental new insight into the mechanical behavior of the Earth’s crust.

The study of rock deformation required the development of high-pressure techniques’ initially at room temperature and, from the 1960s, at high temperature. The progressive enhancement of the capabilities of Mervyn’s deformation machines has required solutions to several major technical challenges. Most significant among these have been internal heating and measurement within the pressure vessel of load and piston position, and arrangements for torsional deformation at both the microstrains of seismic wave dispersion and attenuation and the very large strains sometimes encountered in natural rock deformation. It is no small testimony to the quality of Mervyn Paterson’s designs that his high-temperature testing machine has become the instrument of choice for experimental rock deformation worldwide.

Mervyn’s development of versatile equipment for experimental rock deformation has been motivated by a desire to understand the mechanical behavior of the Earth’s crust and a keen interest in material behavior more generally. His experimental studies of that distinctive class of materials known as rocks and minerals, supported by relevant theory, have provided insight into many naturally occurring phenomena. These range from folding and fabric development to dehydration embrittlement as a possible cause of earthquakes, from changes in porosity and permeability associated with dilatant behavior to the constitutive laws for high-temperature plastic deformation, from water weakening of quartz to geological applications of nonhydrostatic thermodynamics.

As a role model for his students and colleagues over many years, Mervyn Paterson has set a consistently formidable standard. He always shuns the superficial, instead showing the determination and persistence required to expose and illuminate the essentials of the subject. In particular, he has invariably sought to develop microstructural explanations for observed macroscopic mechanical behavior. Remarkably, he maintains a refreshing, youthful openness to new ideas’even now in his 80th year.

Published in 120 journal articles and his 1978 classic Experimental Rock Deformation: The Brittle Field soon to appear in second edition coauthored by Teng-Fong Wong, Mervyn Paterson’s research has made a major and lasting impact on the field of experimental rock deformation and on our understanding of the Earth’s crust. He is indeed a worthy recipient of the Walter H. Bucher Medal.’

—IAN JACKSON, Australian National University, Canberra


Thank you, Ian, for your kind words, and thank you, AGU, for this auspicious recognition. When I look at the illustrious list of previous recipients of the Walter H. Bucher Medal, I am especially conscious of what an honor it is to be chosen to join this group. And I am particularly impressed to note that three of this group have been rock deformers, Dave Griggs, John Handin, and Bill Brace, all of whom have been my good friends and colleagues over time.

One only gets to be standing here through the support and generosity of many people. I come from a small-scale farming background, and I am enormously appreciative of the opportunity afforded by my parents’ encouragement to undertake university studies. I was lucky over the years, first at one-teacher country schools and later at a city high school and at university, to have very supportive and inspiring teachers. And since then I have enjoyed the support, encouragement, and friendship of many colleagues, far too many to name here. However, I must mention the loving support of my wife of 53 years, Katalin, and our children, Barrie and Elizabeth, and I am very happy that Elizabeth is here on this occasion.

What are some of one’s reflections on the passage of these years? One point is the importance of having as general an educational background as possible so as to adapt to changing demands. As Ian has alluded to, I started off studying extraction metallurgy, which was basically an engineering course at Adelaide University, but then I switched to metal physics and finally went over from deforming metals to deforming rocks. I once heard Frank Turner describe me as “a metallurgist gone wrong.” However, the important thing for flexibility in scientific research is to have an adequate fundamental underpinning of mathematics, physics, and chemistry. Anything can then follow.

Another thing that strikes me is the increasing pace of life over the years. It seems that there has come to be less time for family, for hobbies, for reading, for travel, and so forth. Instead, there is a relentless push to be more competitive, to produce more papers. Perhaps in part, it reflects pressures from a dramatically increasing population in a finite Earth.

Finally, I count it an enormous privilege to have been able to spend most of my life doing research in scholarly institutions, mainly at the Australian National University. It is, of course, great if one’s research has some practical applications, and I am very conscious of this, but it is also great to be able to do basic research for its own sake, as adding to humanity’s stock of knowledge and understanding of the world we live in. In this connection, I would like to express an appreciation of AGU as a great organization that among its multifaceted activities, promotes fundamental research. One of its stated aims is “to promote the scientific study of Earth and its environment in space and to disseminate the results to the public.” May it long continue to do so.’

—MERVYN S. PATERSON, Australian National University, Canberra