Berner, Robert (earth scientist)

(1935- ) AmericanGeochemist, Sedimentologist

Robert Berner has an interesting approach to scientific research. His work is a prime example of how small-scale, curiosity-driven science can produce big-scale scientific results. He works with modest funding, relatively simple equipment, and small groups of highly motivated scientists. Collaboration with biologist Alfred Redfield in his early career began this approach for him as well as convincing him of the advantages of a holistic approach to science. Berner attacks his research problems using all available resources and methods regardless of the subdiscipline or even the field, be it geology, biology, chemistry, physics, meteorology, or oceanography, or what techniques it may entail. He can be considered the “father of Earth system science,” the newest and among the most popular directions in Earth science. Earth system science involves the collapse of walls between disciplines of the Earth and related sciences, as well as those in ecology and related biosciences. The interactions of processes take precedence over their individuality. There are now many books on the subject and even research projects must have their interactions demonstrated in order to receive federal funding in many programs.

Robert Berner has been among the leading innovators of scientific thought in the field of sedimentary geochemistry. His research interests are in geochemical cycles of carbon, phosphorus, and sulfur within these sediments largely using stable isotopes (nonradioactive) as tracers. Related areas that he researches include biogeochemistry, dia-genesis, mathematical modeling of Earth’s surface geochemistry, chemical oceanography, and chemical weathering. His research on the early stages of diagenesis of sediments revealed the complexity of interrelationships among physical, chemical, and biological processes occurring near the sediment-water interface. This research inspired his mathematical models for diagenesis, which were the first of their kind. His work on the physical chemistry of carbonate minerals in seawater set the mark for chemical oceanography as well as current work on climate modeling. His research on the surface chemistry of silicate minerals undergoing weathering set the standard for much of the research that was to follow. He has modeled the global carbon cycle and the role it plays in controlling atmospheric oxygen and carbon dioxide, and global climate over Phanerozoic time (the past 535 million years). He is particularly interested in how the evolution of land plants may have influenced global weathering rates and the carbon cycle. This work provides the basis for the climate change analysis that is currently being conducted at a remarkable pace. Robert Berner is a true pioneer in this, the most vigorous field in Earth science today.

Robert Berner was born on November 25, 1935, in Erie, Pennsylvania, where he spent his childhood. He attended the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and earned bachelor of science and master of science degrees in geology in 1957 and 1958, respectively. He earned his Ph.D. at Harvard University, Massachusetts, in 1962. He joined Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California at San Diego, as a Sverdrup Postdoctoral Fellow in 1962 to 1963. He then joined the faculty of the University of Chicago, Illinois, in 1963. In 1965, he moved to Yale University, Connecticut, where he remains today.

Robert Berner has had a very productive career. His accomplishments are reflected in the fact that he is among the most frequently cited earth scientists in scientific literature. In addition to having published more than 200 articles in international journals, he wrote four successful books including Principles of Chemical Sedimentology in 1971, Early Diagenesis: A Theoretical Approach in 1980, The Global Water Cycle, which he wrote with his wife, E. K. Berner, in 1987, and Global Environment (also with E. K. Berner) in 1996.

Berner has been recognized with numerous honors and awards for his groundbreaking research. He was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences at a young age and he is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was awarded the Huntsman Medal in Oceanography from the Geological Society of Canada in 1993 and the V. M. Goldschmidt Medal from the Geochemical Society in 1995. He was awarded the Murchison Medal from the Geological Society of London in 1996 and the Arthur L. Day Medal from the Geological Society of America in 1996. He was awarded the Bownocker Medal from Ohio State University in 2001 and an honorary doctoral degree, Doctor Honoris Causa, Universite Aix-Marseille III, France, in 1991.

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