Yun-tai Chen

2010 International Award Winner

Yun-tai Chen received the International Award at the 2010 AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 15 December 2010 in San Francisco, Calif. The award honors “an individual scientist or a small team for making an outstanding contribution to furthering the Earth and space sciences and using science for the benefit of society in less favored nations.”


In the mid-1970s I worked with John Filson on Asian tectonics. While researching this, we looked at Chinese publications and discovered that they did not yet accept the theory of plate tectonics! On a recent visit to China I saw where their science was today, and on understanding who had contributed greatly to this, I realized I had found a very worthy candidate for AGU’s prestigious International Award.

Yun-tai Chen received his Ph.D. in geophysics from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 1966. He spent some time in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at Cambridge University in the 1970s and then came to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in the early 1980s to work with Leon Knopoff on earthquake fracture mechanics. Though I had met Chen briefly in the 1970s, it was in the 1980s that I came to know and admire his research. Chen then returned to China and became a professor in the State Seismological Bureau in Beijing, where he is still an emeritus professor.

Chen was elected to the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 1991 and as a Fellow of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World in 1999. From 2001 to 2008 he was the dean of the School of Earth and Space Sciences at Peking University.

Chen played a major role in the development of modern seismology in China and in the wide deployment of digital seismic instruments there. His own research has concentrated on modeling the seismic source as a propagating crack and on simulating earthquake sequences. He has also worked on analysis of both teleseismic and strong ground motion data, particularly from significant Chinese earthquakes, to extract information on the earthquake rupturing process. In recent years he has made great efforts to promote the application of studies of the earthquake rupturing process to rapid emergency response to earthquake disasters and has obtained some success for Chinese earthquakes. Since the mid-1970s, Chen has published more than 200 scientific papers in peer­reviewed journals.

Chen is currently a member of the Bureau of the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics (IUGG), as well as a member of the International Association of Seismology and Physics of the Earth’s Interior’s (IASPEI) Commission on Earthquake Hazard, Risk and Strong Ground Motion, having served on these committees for several years. He was an indefatigable and unselfish organizer or co-organizer of several international workshops or training courses in many locations that promoted international scientific cooperation. To list an example, in 2006 as cochair, he and his colleagues organized the 2006 Western Pacific Geophysics Meeting in Beijing, which is widely considered to have been a successful regional AGU meeting.

For his lifelong achievements and dedication, Chen has received many awards and medals in China as well as a medal awarded by Luxembourg for scientific achievements and promotion of friendship between the Chinese and Luxembourg people, in 1987. It is very fitting that he has been selected to receive the 2010 International Award “for making an outstanding contribution to furthering the Earth and space sciences and using science for the benefit of society in less favored nations.” Even though China may not be a truly “less favored nation” today, during much of Chen’s long and illustrious career it was considered to be so. It is therefore a great honor and a pleasure for me to present this citation to him.

—SHAMITA DAS, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK


Thank you, Shamita, for your generous citation. It is a great honor for me to be bestowed the 2010 AGU International Award. It was a total surprise and a great pleasure for me when I received the notification letter from Tim Grove, AGU president. Almost 1 month later, I just knew that I had received this prestigious award because of the nomination of an international group of distinguished geophysicists. I sincerely thank Shamita Das, Leon Knopoff, Peter Suhadolc, Giuliano Panza, Raul Madariaga, and Brian Kennett for their generous nomination and enthusiastic support.

Among my generation, very often I was complimented on being a person of good fortune, as my Chinese name means. I must admit that these compliments are generally true. It has happened that I fortunately have been in the right place at the right time when I came to the significant turning points of my life. I thank my teachers at high school for their teaching and guidance; in 1956 I succeeded in passing the keen entrance examination and being admitted to the prestigious Department of Physics of Peking (Beijing) University. I thank the late professor Fu Cheng-yi, a Ph.D. postgraduate of Beno Gutenberg of the California Institute of Technology in the 1940s, not only for the unforgettable teaching he has done since the late 1950s, when I was an undergraduate at geophysics in Peking University, but also for his guidance in the theory of seismic waves and sources and his profound influence on me throughout my research career. I thank Zeng Rong-sheng for his guidance since 1962, when I became a Ph.D. graduate student at the Institute of Geophysics, Chinese Academy of Sciences (IGCAS). Both professors are modest, prudent, and free from arrogance and rashness in their style of work, and because of their perseverance in scientific research even though under adverse circumstances, both are my lifelong paragons.

Once again, in 1966, I fortunately commenced my Ph.D. just a few months before the Cultural Revolution broke out in China. I thank the senior scientists at ­IGCAS, the late professors Fu Cheng-yi, Gu Gong-xu, Li Shang-ban, Zeng Rong­sheng, and Xie Yu-shou, who gave me plenty of encouragement and guidance even though they were under extremely difficult circumstances in the Cultural Revolutionary period in China. Without their encouragement and guidance I would not have been able to make any progress in the studies of source processes of the significant earthquakes that occurred on the Chinese mainland in the period 1966–1976.

In 1981–1983 I was lucky to be enthusiastically recommended by both the late professors Fu Cheng-yi and Gu Gong-xu to UCLA to work on earthquake fracture mechanics as a postdoc under the guidance of Leon Knopoff. I am deeply grateful to Leon for the guidance and influence he gave me in scientific insight and for his innovative thinking, his hard work in scientific research, his tirelessness in teaching, and his unselfish and cooperative spirit.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank my wife, Zeng Qi-qin; my parents; all the members of my family for their support and understanding of my research so that I was able to focus my energies on science; all of my colleagues and friends who helped me in various ways; and at last but not least, AGU, which has awarded me the prestigious International Award in recognition of the work I have done in my scientific research career.

—YUN-TAI CHEN, Institute of Geophysics, China Earthquake Administration, Beijing, China