W. Jason Morgan, discoverer of plate tectonics (1935–2023)


Portrait of W. Jason Morgan

Credit: Office of Communications, Princeton University

In 1967, Jason Morgan provided an innovative paper at the yearly conference of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in Washington DC. It revealed that Earth’s surface area includes about a lots stiff plates. They are produced at mid-ocean ridges, damaged in subduction zones where they assemble, and move past one another along excellent faults, such the San Andreas Fault in California. Other documents followed, discussing that volcanoes happen where plates subduct, mountains increase where and when continents clash, and earthquakes arise from shearing and scrambling at plate margins.

Within a years, the theory of ‘plate tectonics’ was broadly accepted. Morgan had actually provided the geological equivalent of Charles Darwin’s theory of development not long after being selected as an assistant teacher at Princeton University in New Jersey and had actually changed geology permanently. He has actually passed away aged 87.

Morgan was born in Savannah, Georgia. After secondary school, he fell for physics at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. He invested 2 years in the United States Navy as a trainer at the Naval Nuclear Power School in New London, Connecticut, prior to relocating to Princeton to study for a doctorate in the physics of relativity with Robert Dicke. After acquiring his PhD in 1964, he ended up being a postdoc in the geosciences department, where he was promoted to assistant teacher in 1966.

Dicke had an interest in the force of gravity and, in specific, whether the ‘gravitational continuous’ ( G; an essential criterion in gravitational theory) was in fact continuous. Earth would broaden like a balloon if this force damaged. He charged Morgan with searching for proof of this in the pattern of earthquakes throughout Earth, which Morgan was studying to look for geophysical indications of gravitational waves. Harry Hess, the chair of the geosciences department, had actually mapped the topography of the sea flooring and found mid-ocean ridges– the excellent chain of submarine mountains that covers itself two times around the world like the joints on a baseball. He had actually proposed that brand-new crust types at the relocations and ridges away, a system referred to as sea-floor dispersing. In the end, earthquakes supported Hess’s concepts and the idea of plate tectonics better than they did Dicke’s balloon hypothesis.

Meanwhile Fred Vine, a college student at the University of Cambridge, UK, had actually found that the ocean crust is magnetically removed: Earth’s electromagnetic field modifications polarity, the north pole ending up being the south pole and vice versa, on timescales from 10s of thousands to countless years. The instructions of the electromagnetic field is frozen into the sea flooring when the ridge lavas cool and spread, producing stripes parallel to the ocean ridges– verifying Hess’s concept. Hess employed Vine and offered him a desk in the exact same workplace as Morgan. The set did not release together, years later Morgan informed

Quanta MagazineW. J. Morgan J. Geophys. Res. 73, 1959–1982; 1968 that, of the lots of individuals who contributed to the theory of plate tectonics at Princeton, “the individual who was most valuable for me was Fred Vine”. Vine and his Cambridge manager Drummond Matthews are well acknowledged for the contribution that their magnetic research studies made to the discovery of plate tectonics.

Remembering the round trigonometry he had actually discovered at school, Morgan understood how to specify the movement of the plates– as turning around repaired points or ‘poles’ on a sphere. The poles may alter periodically with time, however the interiors of the plates did not warp. His design described all the observations. Therefore, all of geology might be summed up with impressive beauty. He provided his findings in his 1967 AGU talk and a subsequent paper, both entitled Rises, trenches, excellent faults, and crustal blocks (


Morgan’s 2nd essential contribution to geophysics remained in examining convection in the mantle, Earth’s hot, fluid interior, and resolving what made plate movements possible. He analyzed chains of volcanoes in regards to poles and plate rotation, an incredible example being the Hawaiian Island chain of volcanoes. An abrupt bend in the chain near Midway Island shows that the nearby plates had actually rearranged about 40 million years back.

Morgan proposed that these volcanic chains were tracks– when hot upwellings in the mantle (called plumes) approach the surface area, they set off volcanism in the plate above it. As the plate relocations, direct chains of volcanoes are produced. The history of plate movement can be presumed from these tracks due to the fact that the plumes do not move much. Morgan likewise made computer system designs– an ingenious technique at the time– that compared where the tracks ought to be in theory to where they were geologically. All the proof followed stiff plates moving over a repaired set of plumes.

Jason invested his whole profession at Princeton, residing on school with his household and retiring in 2004. He invested his ins 2015 living outside Boston as a checking out scholar at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Jason was granted the National Medal of Science in 2002, and lots of other awards. It would be reasonable to state that nobody in current times has actually contributed more to comprehending geology, and he did so with such modesty. Jason constantly had time to assist and talk; he was incredibly thoughtful, and an extremely reliable instructor. You needed to understand that it might take him a minute to react when speaking, and needed to wait patiently for his reply. His action was constantly worth the wait.

Competing Interests(*) The author states no completing interests.(*)


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here