|NOTE TO JOURNALISTS:
A photo of Kevin Burke is available on the Web at http://www.uh.edu/media/nr/2007/
06june/kburkeph.html. A high-resolution photo is available by
contacting Ann Holdsworth.
‘FATHER FIGURE’ OF PLATE TECTONICS WINS AWARD 40 YEARS
Kevin Burke Helped Revolutionize Thinking on Planet’s Surface
HOUSTON, June 12, 2007 – Continental drift and plate tectonics
may seem like elementary science these days, but in the 1960s, a
University of Houston geologist was helping turn the science world
on its head. Forty years later, they’re honoring him for it.
The Geological Society of America announced in May that Kevin
Burke, a professor with the UH College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics,
won the 2007 Penrose Medal for his pioneering research in plate
The theory that the Earth’s crust was made up of a few massive
plates helped explain earthquakes, volcanic activity, mountain ranges
and the movement of continents. It is orthodoxy now, but most geologists
rejected this theory in the 1960s.
Burke was at the forefront of this paradigm shift and is considered
a “father figure” of plate tectonic theory, said John
Casey, chair of the UH geosciences department. Burke also was one
of the first to write about how the collision of the Indian and
Asian plates created the Himalayas.
Because the plates move at roughly the rate fingernails grow—or
four centimeters a year—Burke’s research takes him hundreds
of millions of years into the past to understand how plate movements
have reshaped continents and formed new seas and oceans.
Plate tectonics also explained continental drift and how Africa
and South America seemed to fit together like a puzzle, outdating
previous theories along the way.
“We suddenly understood how the world works,” Burke
Burke also is well-known among geologists for his work explaining
the origin of hot spots such as Hawaii and Iceland. While most volcanic
activity occurs along plate boundaries, hot spots are areas where
narrow streams of hot mantle have created volcanic islands far from
the plate margins.
Burke will pick up his award in October at the society’s
annual meeting and will join the ranks of colleagues he has long
“I know you’re kind of expected to say you’re
overwhelmed, but it’s true,” Burke said. “People
I think very highly of have won this award.”
Burke also joins fellow award winner and colleague, UH geologist
John Dewey, who won the award in 1992.
“It is a rare honor to have two Penrose winners at one university,”
said Donald Foss, provost and vice president for academic affairs
at UH. “Kevin Burke is an exceptional scientist who has made
significant contributions both in the field and in the classroom.”
Burke came to UH in 1983 after working at universities in Africa,
Canada and the Caribbean. The Britain native has traveled around
the world—hammer in hand—throughout his five-decade
career. At 77, he does not get out into the field as much as he
used to, but his passion for geology is undimmed, and he still has
more research and insight to contribute to the field, Casey said.
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