National Treasure #155: John Tuzo Wilson

Welcome to post #777. Just sayin’.

With a geophysicist for a father, I heard relatively early about John Tuzo Wilson, who was the first person to graduate from a Canadian university in geophysical studies. In our house we sometimes simply called him Tuzo, but we never referred to him as Jock, leaving that familiarity to his intimates.

He didn’t exactly invent the theory of plate tectonics (which is what I always thought), but he did contribute to it in important ways:

  • Hotspots in the mantle – Helping to explain why volcanoes were found thousands of miles from plate boundaries
  • Transform faults – Envisioning a third type of plate boundary that helped explain regions like the San Andreas Fault

In his field, he won pretty much every award going:

  • Officer, Order of Canada
  • Companion, Order of Canada
  • Fellow, Royal Society of Canada
  • Fellow, Royal Society of London
  • Fellow, Royal Society of Edinburgh
  • Legion of Merit
  • Order of the British Empire
  • Ewing Medal, American Geophysical Union
  • Bucher Medal, American Geophysical Union
  • Penrose Medal, Geological Society of America
  • Wegener Medal, European Union of Geosciences
  • Wollaston Medal, Geological Society
  • Vetlesen Prize, Columbia University
  • Canada Centennial Medal
  • 125th Anniversary Medal (Canada)
  • John J. Carty Award (1975)

Or, to look at it another way . . .

Recognition of his contributions to geophysics included his election as president of the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics (1957-60), 15 honorary degrees, the naming of an award after him, at least 35 medals or awards from the Royal Society of Canada (1955) and various physics, geology and geography organizations including the Vetlesen Prize, considered equivalent to a Nobel Prize for earth scientists. He was a Companion of the Order of Canada.
The Canadian Encyclopedia

But never mind all the honorary degrees and the awards and scholarships/prizes named after him. The best thing is the “immovable spike” outside the Ontario Science Centre, which indicates the amount of continental drift in Wilson’s lifetime.

Need more? There’s a readable and personal biography here.





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