Michael L. Bender

2008 Roger Revelle Medal Winner

Princeton University, Princeton, N. J.

Michael L. Bender was awarded the 2008 AGU Roger Revelle Medal at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held 17 December 2008 in San Francisco, Calif. The medal is for “outstanding contributions in atmospheric sciences, atmosphere-ocean coupling, atmosphere-land coupling, biogeochemical cycles, climate, or related aspects of the Earth system.”


It gives me great pleasure to present the 2008 AGU Roger Revelle medalist, Michael Bender. Michael has tackled an amazingly broad range of problems in ocean geochemistry and biogeochemistry, in all of which he has shown deep scholarship and profound originality. He has a knack for taking on the most intractable of problems and through the development of new measurement techniques and imaginative interpretation of his observations, coming up with truly original contributions that get us all thinking in new directions.

Michael did his Ph.D. with Wally Broecker at Columbia University and was a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island from 1972 to 1997 before joining the Geosciences Department at Princeton University. Most of his early research was on the cycling of metals in the ocean, including valuable insights on the role of hydrothermal circulation and atmospheric deposition. He was also an important contributor to early work on sediment diagenesis, including valuable insights by him and his graduate student Flip Froelich on the zonation of biogeochemical reactions in the sediments and its relationship to thermodynamics.

The primary contributions for which Michael is being recognized today grew out of a visit to the Centre des Faibles Radioactivités, near Paris, in 1983–1984, where he began making measurements of oxygen isotopes in trapped air bubbles in ice cores, building on some ideas he had first begun to explore in 1980 and which he then continued to investigate in his own lab with his graduate student Todd Sowers. His initial paper on this topic was published in 1985, and his contributions since then have included an impressive array of related applications based on measurements of oxygen isotopes and of O2/N2 in firn air, in the atmosphere, and in the ocean. A partial list of his major accomplishments includes the first robust and general methods for temporal correlation among ice cores and between ice cores and sediment records using the 18O/16O ratio and more recently the O2/N2 ratio; dating of ice cores by correlation of these properties with insolation changes; development of the theory of gas isotope fractionation in firn air that was carried out by Jeff Severinghaus working in his lab and that has since had many interesting applications; the use of oxygen isotopes to reconstruct aspects of biospheric productivity over glacial/interglacial cycles; and the use of oxygen isotopes as tools for the study of biological productivity in the ocean.

Michael is the most considerate and thoughtful of colleagues and the most thorough and careful of intellects. He is deeply respected for the strength of his intellect and his unflagging commitment to scientific rigor and personal integrity. I consider myself fortunate to count him and his wife, Yvette Mintzer, as my friends. Michael’s accomplishments have been recognized by his election to fellowship in the Geochemical Society and AGU, his receipt of the Patterson Medal of 1998, and his election to the National Academy of Sciences in 2001. I am happy to see the Roger Revelle Medal added to his well-deserved list of honors.

—JORGE SARMIENTO, Princeton University, Princeton, N. J.


There are three things I’d like to write about my career.

First, I owe a huge debt to the people who taught me to do the science and to be part of the community. Wally Broecker was my thesis advisor. He influenced me profoundly at the time, and still does. Truman Kohman, Bill Sackett, Oliver Schaeffer, Paul Gast, and Karl Turekian were important mentors early in my career. I learned a lot by watching Jorge Sarmiento, Danny Sigman, and my other colleagues at Princeton, and at the University of Rhode Island before that. I’ve had the good fortune to work with, and learn from, younger and older colleagues and collaborators in the United States and abroad. In this context I’d like to remember four friends and mentors who died too young: Norman Watkins, John Edmond, Oliver Schaeffer, and Tony Dahlen.

Second, many of the events of my career happened by chance. I had planned to study theoretical chemistry in graduate school and ended up in geochemistry more or less by blind luck. I started in the field at a time when you could measure almost anything and learn something significant about the Earth; the trick at that time was just making good measurements. Many of the ideas and opportunities my lab has pursued through the years originated from reading random papers or from chance meetings with colleagues. Some of the most significant contributions of my lab resulted from measurements whose relevance I didn’t correctly foresee beforehand. On the other side, there is also bad luck, and we could have accomplished other interesting things, if only.

Third, almost all of my work after the Ph.D. has been collaborative, and most of my papers have been first-authored by my students and postdocs. These people had ideas, planned studies, carried out the work, interpreted the data, and wrote the publications. Whatever we’ve accomplished has been a team effort involving students and postdocs working in my lab, supported by skilled and devoted technical people who worked with me for long periods of time. Much of our work has involved external collaborations with American and foreign scientists. I owe a particular debt to American, French, Australian, and South African collaborators in pore water studies, studies of atmospheric oxygen, studies of ocean productivity, and ice core research.

Finally, family is the most important thing, and I could not be a good scientist if I weren’t part of a loving family.

—MICHAEL L. BENDER, Princeton University, Princeton, N. J.