Robert H. Higgs

2003 Edward A. Flinn III Award Winner

Robert H. Higgs received the Flinn Award at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, which was held on 10 December 2003, in San Francisco, California. The award honors “individuals who personify the Union’s motto “unselfish cooperation in research’ through their facilitating, coordinating, and implementing activities.”


“In 1958, the Navy Hydrographic Office hired Robert H. Higgs as an aspiring young geophysicist. His first task involved collecting geomagnetic survey data at sea in support of classified Navy operations. The Office was not a research institution. It was dedicated to performing surveys that would enhance the war-fighting capabilities of the U.S. Navy fleet. Over the years, Office policies toward allowing its scientists to publish in the open literature waxed and waned. Bob’s early years were spent at a point during the Cold War when these policies were extremely tight. Office scientists were discouraged from publishing in the open literature. They could document survey results only by presenting them anonymously in technical reports published under the commanding officer’s name.

“In 1961, Bob analyzed unclassified geomagnetic survey data collected over the Pacific-Antarctic Ridge. They revealed patterns of linear magnetic anomalies like those observed earlier in the northeast Pacific and elsewhere. He noted that these anomalies ran parallel to the ridge axis, were symmetrical around it, and could be correlated over long distances. He noted inverse relationships between bathymetric features and magnetic anomalies, suggested they indicated changes in paleomagnetic field direction, and suggested it should be possible to determine the age of the oceanic crust by comparing sea floor magnetic anomalies with paleomagnetic data from land. These ideas were published in a technical report sent worldwide to the most prominent geomagnetic scientists almost a year before the ‘magnetic tape recorder’ explanation for sea floor ridge formation and spreading was introduced in the scientific literature.

“In 1963, Bob became head of the Marine Section within the Geomagnetic Division. He expanded the contributions of the Office by arranging for the scientists in his group to ride ‘ships of opportunity’ to obtain unclassified geomagnetic data. He encouraged these scientists to document these unclassified surveys, publish them as technical reports, and circulate them within the scientific community. These reports had a noticeable impact. Prominent scientists from around the world began to visit the Office to confer with Higgs and his colleagues and review their analyses and interpretations. When these efforts became highly visible, they generated concern over deviating from the mission of the Office and were curtailed.

“As the plate tectonics debate continued throughout the 1960s, Bob became convinced that the classified geomagnetic data held the best supporting evidence. To share the scientific essence of the classified data with research scientists without security clearances, he created ‘sanitized’ versions in the form of low-resolution ‘zebra’ charts. These were presented at an AGU meeting in April 1969 and were significant in facilitating a more widespread acceptance of plate tectonics.

“Bob became Director of the Geomagnetic Division, Director of the Hydrographic and Geophysics Departments, then Scientific and Technical Director. He steadfastly recognized that data collected for military purposes had important scientific content and repeatedly found ways to share data and insights with research scientists. It should be obvious that Robert H. Higgs is eminently qualified to receive the Edward A. Flinn III award for unselfish cooperation in research.”

—BEN J. KORGEN, Hope Valley, R.I.


“Thank you, and thanks to Dr. Korgen and all those who supported the nomination. It is a totally unexpected honor.

“Working in the field of geophysics during the early 1960s was an exciting experience, as the concept of plate tectonics slowly began to evolve and be accepted. The U.S. Navy and especially the Naval Oceanographic Office made a number of significant contributions to the development of this concept, but they were often anonymous and unrecognized.

“I had the good fortune to work with dozens of outstanding scientists at our office whose names rarely or never appear in the scientific literature. But these were people who continually pushed the edges of science and technology forward by developing and refining geophysical survey equipment and techniques, and by spending years at sea collecting and processing geophysical data to produce charts disclosing features never seen before. They also developed new computer processing techniques and performed analyses and interpretations that provided data and insight that eventually led to a new understanding of the way the Earth really works.

“I accept this award on their behalf and on behalf of other scientists in government and private industry who have been restricted in publication of the results of their work, but who have unselfishly found a way to share it with others and moved on.

“It has been a grand ride, made even more so by this recognition. I thank you again for the honor.”

—ROBERT H. HIGGS, Sevierville, Tenn.