A Talk with Sean Solomon, Lamont-Doherty’s New Director

“The Observatory has remained a powerhouse in Earth science research and a very special place. The scientists here are true explorers—creative and fiercely independent.”

Kim Martineau
September 21, 2012

[This post was first published on Aug. 27 and updated on Sept. 21, 2012.]

Geophysicist Sean Solomon is the new director of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. He comes to the Observatory from the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., where he has spent the last 12 years leading NASA’s MESSENGER mission to Mercury. In addition to this Q&A, you can watch a video below of Solomon talking about the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Q: You have studied Mercury, Venus and Mars. What drew you to Lamont-Doherty, where research is focused mostly on planet Earth?

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Sean Solomon

I began my career as an Earth scientist, and I’ve always been interested in the nature and dynamics of our planet from regional to global scales. I regard each of the Solar System’s inner planets as an experiment in how an Earth-like planet formed and evolves. The very different outcomes of those experiments tells us that we still have much to learn about the processes that govern the planet we call home.

I’ve admired Lamont my entire career. When I was a graduate student, Lamont scientists assembled the observations that ushered in the plate tectonics revolution. At nearly the same time, Lamont scientists led the geophysical exploration of the Moon. The rapid advances in understanding in both of those areas influenced deeply my own research directions.

The Observatory has remained a powerhouse in Earth science research and a very special place. The scientists here are true explorers—creative and fiercely independent. These traits will serve Lamont well as we tackle new scientific questions and challenges.

Q: You have been a longtime supporter of the Earth Institute. Why?

The Earth Institute is an ambitious yet critical experiment for an academic institution. By bringing together Earth scientists, engineers, and economists with experts in public health, agriculture, urban planning, law, and public policy, the Earth Institute strives to lead research and train students in programs designed to improve environmental, social, and economic sustainability across the globe. I served on the Earth Institute’s advisory board from 2004 until last year, and I look forward now to helping the Institute enlarge the reach and impact of its programs.

Q: What are Lamont-Doherty’s strengths? What areas of research would you like to see grown?

The Observatory is renowned in the scientific community for its entrepreneurial culture and breadth of expertise—from geochemistry to biological oceanography, and from climate physics to marine geology. It houses academia’s largest sediment core collection and most sophisticated ultra-clean laboratory. It also operates the research vessel Marcus G. Langseth, which is unique in the academic fleet in its ability to image the seafloor and the structure of the underlying crust and mantle and continues the Observatory’s long tradition of seagoing exploration.

[vimeo]https://vimeo.com/49476461#[/vimeo]Lamont has recently strengthened substantially its efforts in the biogeosciences—with new staff and major new laboratories—in recognition that understanding the interactions between the biosphere and the physical and chemical evolution of the oceans, atmosphere, and land areas constitutes a critical frontier for the Earth sciences. The next step for Lamont is to develop a strategic plan for the Observatory and the campus, one that will identify the most promising scientific directions for growth and will provide a basis for setting priorities for recruitment, laboratory and space needs, and infrastructure renewal.

Q: You continue work on the MESSENGER investigation of Mercury. What have you learned?

MESSENGER has spent the last 500 days assembling the first orbital observations of the innermost planet. MESSENGER’s geochemical remote sensing measurements indicate that Mercury is much more abundant in volatile elements than expected for the planet closest to the Sun. Measurements of Mercury’s topography and gravity field indicate that an iron-rich core occupies a higher fraction of the planet’s interior than previously appreciated. MESSENGER has discovered that Mercury has an internal magnetic field that is markedly offset from the planet center and that Mercury’s magnetosphere, although demonstrating many parallels with Earth’s magnetosphere, responds much more rapidly to changes in solar and heliospheric conditions. These and other findings are leading to new ideas for the formation, internal structure, and interior dynamics of the inner planets, ideas that provide a fresh context for understanding Earth.

Q: To what extent should scientists engage with the public on environmental problems such as manmade climate change, ocean acidification and so on?

Earth scientists tackle many scientific problems of direct relevance to society. I would like to see Lamont increasingly recognized, by the public and among policy makers, as a source of expert and objective scientific information on the broad sweep of global environmental issues such as climate change, severe weather, natural hazards, geochemical cycles, and ecosystem evolution. Moreover, Earth scientists at Lamont and elsewhere bear a collective responsibility to work, in partnership with experts from other fields such as our collaborators in the Earth Institute, toward the development of solutions to these issues.