Richard J. O’Connell

2000 Inge Lehmann Medal Winner

Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

Richard J. O’Connell was awarded the Inge Lehmann Medal at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, which was held on December 17, 2000, in San Francisco, California. The medal recognizes outstanding contributions to the understanding of the structure, composition, and dynamics of the Earth’s mantle and core.


“Members of the Union, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, and friends.

“Inge Lehmann was a highly inventive and creative scientist as a young woman and persisted in making outstanding contributions to geophysics, seismology, and Earth structure for over three-quarters of a century. At a time when there were few people in the field and almost no women, she was a singular example of quiet excellence. I often heard of her from Beno Gutenberg and Hugo Benioff. In honor of her contributions, the AGU established the Inge Lehmann Medal for ‘outstanding contributions to the understanding of the structure, composition, and dynamics of the Earth’s mantle and core.’ The quality of an award is really determined by the excellence of the selection committee’s nomination. They have made an excellent choice.

“Rick O’Connell was born in Helena, Montana, the son of a ranching family. I have known him since he arrived at Caltech in 1959 as a physics major. I had the privilege of working with him during his graduate studies where, well before he finished his Ph.D., he had completed a study on the viscosity of the Earth with Don Anderson (1967), and one with me on the dynamics of a phase change (MOHO) that was a whole volume of Reviews of Geophysics (1967). Rick had a combination of unusual traits: 1) a truly deep physical insight into geophysical problems; 2) the good taste to select very important, do-able problems; 3) the ability to carry through and to do an imaginative quantitative analysis without getting lost in the maze, while still respecting nature; and 4) an easygoing, gentle, generous character with good humor.

“Rick was a gentleman cowboy with excellent taste in good food and wines and an abiding interest in art (also with good taste). He did, in those early years, smoke a lot of my cigarettes; but would, after an extensive period of mooching, present me with a carton of cigarettes. Of all the vices enumerated above, the only one he gave up was smoking.

“During his years at Caltech, there was a wonderful comic strip by Stan Lynde called Rick O’Shay. This hero was the modest, gentle, but sharp-shooting, tough and just sheriff of a town in Montana called Conniption-a town of unruly, wild, unkempt inhabitants. Well, Rick O’Connell had his name changed-we all called him Rick O’Shay and he is still Rick O’Shay to me today.

“O’Connell’s pioneering contributions and good taste in the field of geodynamics are world renowned as is his gentle and positive influence as a mentor and colleague of young people in geophysics and the Earth sciences in general. The committee has cited him: for his work on postglacial rebound; for determining that the whole mantle was subject to flow; for his model of the mantle flow associated with plate motions and subduction; for creating a model that globally predicted plate motions in which plate tectonics stir the upper mantle; and for the way he has connected geophysics with geochemistry.

“Madame president, it is a privilege and great personal delight for me to present to you Rick O’Connell, a scholar of great accomplishments and personal grace in a society of sometimes unruly inhabitants. As the recipient of the Inge Lehmann medal, he will, I trust, continue his contributions for the remainder of his 3/4 of a century of science.”

—GERALD J. WASSERBURG, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif.


“Thank you, Jerry, for your generous and kind remarks.

“When I received the letter from John Knauss informing me that I had been awarded the Lehmann Medal, I was immensely surprised, pleased, and gratified. The study of the Earth’s interior has been mostly the domain of seismologists, who are able to see into the deep Earth. I am pleased that this award has been given for work in geodynamics, and I am honored to represent those who work to relate the Earth’s geologic history to the dynamics of the Earth’s interior.

“Understanding how the Earth works and how the landscapes and seascapes we live in came about has always seemed to me to be an intellectual endeavor that can stand on its own merits, just as exploring the stars does. I have been lucky to be able to follow my interests throughout my life, pursuing understanding of how the Earth works.

“I grew up in Montana, where I had many opportunities to marvel at the magnificent mountains, valleys, and plains-occasionally while sitting on a horse as the Sun came up. Fortunately, my parents were supportive and allowed me to seek answers to how things worked, even at the risk of an explosion in my basement laboratory. They would have been especially gratified by this award.

“They also encouraged me to see a world beyond my father’s ranch, and, prompted by the first snowfall of September, I went to Caltech to study physics. There, Jerry Wasserburg showed me that studying the Earth was just another application of physics, and an unusually interesting one at that.

“Jerry later persuaded me to come back to graduate school at Caltech after I had taken a year off and seen a bit of the world. He showed me the difference between following curiosity and choosing the most promising problem to pursue. Jerry started me on a geodynamical problem-I later learned that the Moho is not a phase change, but I really learned how to construct a model to figure out what such a phase change would do. In the process, Jerry’s broad interests and joy of doing science, and, I hope, a bit of his intellectual style, rubbed off on me.

“As a postdoc, I was again given the opportunity to follow new interests. I had previously worked on post-glacial rebound of the whole Earth, but Don Anderson (with Hartmut Spetzler’s expert guidance) let me discover the fun of laboratory work, measuring high-pressure elastic properties and satisfying my desires to take things apart and then figure out how to put them back together.

“When Ray Siever recruited me to Harvard, I once again found opportunity, inspiration, and superb colleagues, both inside and outside the geology department. One day, Bernie Budiansky walked into my office, and I had the chance to explain geophysics to a first-rate intellect and a person who became a close friend. In return, he taught me mechanics and how to figure out the elastic properties of real rocks. In the mid-1970s, the dynamics of plate tectonics seemed the most important and challenging problem. A seminar with Geoff Davies and Brad Hager (among others) sent us all into geodynamics for good. At the same time, Adam Dziewonski started imaging lateral mantle structure, and the profound confluence of seismology and geodynamics really began.

“During one of those humbling moments-reading reviews of a proposal that didn’t make it-I noted that one reviewer acknowledged that ‘… at least the PI’s students had done good work.’ About that he was right; I have been lucky to work with outstanding students. Brad Hager was the first (I couldn’t have had a better one), and I now interact with his academic progeny, through several generations; I continue to learn from my current students. Throughout my career I have always tried to give my students the same encouragement and freedom to pursue their interests that I have had. As was said about a young Julian Schwinger, ‘The best guidance for such outstanding students is to leave them to their own devices.’

“I am lucky to have the love and understanding-and forbearance-of my family, and I am extremely pleased that they are here tonight. My son Brian is here with his wife Claudia. He has been with me from Caltech to Harvard, with meetings and sabbaticals in between. He has always been a source of good humor, sense, and perspective, and an inspiration for going through life and overcoming difficulties with grace. My wife Susan has good-naturedly adapted to sharing a life with a scientist who is frequently distracted and has horrible work habits. She also taught me about sailing on Buzzards Bay and makes my life more fun than it deserves to be. My stepdaughter Lily shared my commute for several years; I miss her company and the new perspective she brought me.

“I’ve been lucky in my opportunities and in having support from those who allowed and encouraged me to pursue them, as well as in having good colleagues and good students. They all share this award.”

—RICHARD J. O’CONNELL, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.