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The Earth below, the sky above: MIT's trend-setting EAPS turns 25

Twenty-five years ago, MIT decided to bring together the Earth and the sky. In the years that followed, many others did the same.

Until 1983, MIT, like most universities, had separate departments for geology (Earth and planetary science) and for the sea and sky (meteorology and physical oceanography), but in that year they were brought together to form the present Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS). Soon after, many other institutions followed suit in bringing these interrelated disciplines together.

"In many universities, those are still separate today," says Maria Zuber, a planetary scientist who has been the chair of EAPS for the last five years. "But if you think about it, so many of the interesting questions about the Earth, about energy, about the environment, about climate, require that you have some aspects of these different parts of the Earth system. We were able to do things others weren't, because we had these people co-located."

For example, Zuber, the E.A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics, cites an ongoing study on "the effects of climatic conditions on the growth and erosion of mountain belts. We've had a very successful study of this in Tibet, which has been going on for decades." And the connections between what wrre once disparate fields have only increased over the years, she adds. "Now, we're even studying the atmospheres of extrasolar planets. Who'd have thought?"

The creation of that united department was quickly influential. "By virtue of the fact that we're MIT, people watch what we do," Zuber says. "Now, everybody appreciates and realizes how multidisciplinary Earth science is." But even with that realization, "it's not easy to make these changes anywhere. But it's easier at MIT than at a lot of institutions."

One of the common aspects of many of the disciplines encompassed by the departtment, Zuber says, is analysis of fluid dynamics. While fluid processes obviously apply to both oceanography and atmospheric science, she says, it turns out the same principles also apply to the semi-solid processes taking place in the Earth's crust and mantle.

The department, which has 39 faculty positions and currently about 160 graduate students, "covers a lot of intellectual ground," Zuber says. And like the planets themselves, the department is always evolving. "One of the things we're very excited about in the department is a new emphasis on geobiology," she says. "It's something we've wanted to get into for some time." For example, now "we have people looking at the biota of the early Earth, at how the proliferation of life affected the atmosphere."

To celebrate the anniversary of the department's creation, EAPS is holding a daylong symposium on Wednesday, June 4, which will include talks on some of the most interesting and controversial ideas in the field, including whether a sudden flooding of the Black Sea was the basis for the biblical story of the flood, and whether the uncertainties in climate-change projections are growing or shrinking. Details on the symposium are at:

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 4, 2008 (download PDF).

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