Robert Berner, 1935-2015

The “Picasso of low-temperature geochemistry” has died

February 5, 2015

Robert Arbuckle Berner, an acclaimed geochemist known for his contributions to understanding the carbon cycle, was born in Erie, Pennsylvania on 25 November 1935. He enrolled at Purdue University in 1953 to study chemistry, but left after one semester because he felt pushed towards engineering. He transferred to the University of Michigan to read mathematics and physics, but found the fields “too demanding” and so switched to geology. In his senior year, Professor Berner met his future wife Elizabeth – the daughter of the geologist Marshall Kay. The couple married in 1959 and went on to write three books on the global water cycle together.

Professor Berner studied for a doctorate at Harvard University, researching iron sulphides and the sulphide electrode. His interest soon turned to the sulphur cycle, and he collected a number of sediment cores from the Gulf of California as a research fellow at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. From 1963, Professor Berner worked at the University of Chicago, where he studied dolomite formation in samples from mid-Pacific atolls.

Two years later he was offered an associate professorship at Yale University’s department of geology and geophysics. He was made Alan M. Bateman professor in 1987 and taught at Yale until his retirement in 2007.

His research on the application of chemical thermodynamics and kinetics informed hundreds of journal articles, and he was classed as one of the most highly cited scientists by the Institute for Science Information. In 1983, he produced the BLAG model of the carbon cycle with Tony Lasaga and Bob Garrels, and later modelled the effects of atmospheric carbon dioxide and oxygen on the palaeoclimate. In 2013, he received the Franklin Institute’s Benjamin Franklin Medal in Earth and Environmental Science.

Jay Ague, chair of Yale’s department of geology and geophysics, described Professor Berner as a “giant of geology. Bob’s research in any one of the areas he studied would have made a spectacular career. The fact he made such fundamental contributions to so many areas makes his achievements and legacy all the more remarkable.”

Timothy W. Lyons, distinguished professor of biogeochemistry at the University of California, Riverside, said Professor Berner was “the Picasso of low-temperature geochemistry”. “He would dominate, or, more often, create a fundamentally new area of research and then blaze another path, often in a very different area of research, for others to follow. His impact runs so deep and in so many directions that it’s impossible to quantify.”

Harriet Line

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