In Memoriam: Robert Berner
January 13, 2015
Dear G&G Community:
I write to bring you the sad news that Robert A. Berner, Emeritus Professor of Geology and Geophysics, passed away as a result of pneumonia this weekend. We extend our deepest, heartfelt condolences to his family at this most difficult time.
Bob got his B.S. and M.S. degrees from the University of Michigan, and his Ph.D. from Harvard. He did a postdoc at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography before moving to the University of Chicago as an Assistant Professor in 1963. He came to Yale in 1965, and stayed here for the rest of his career.
Bob was one of the greatest geochemists and, more broadly, geologists who ever lived. It is simply impossible to list all of his accomplishments. Much of his research centered on the quantitative geochemistry of sediments, and it's not an exaggeration to say that he defined the field as we know it. He made seminal contributions to, for example, the geochemistry of sulfides and carbonates in the oceans, diagenesis, weathering, and geochemical cycling. He was a thoughtful teacher and mentor, inspiring a whole generation of geochemists who got their Ph.D.'s or did their postdoctoral research in his lab. Today the students of Bob's students are now making their impact on the field!
Bob's research in any one of the areas he studied would have made a spectacular career. The fact that he made such fundamental contributions to so many areas makes his achievements and legacy all the more remarkable. Arguably his broadest impact has been in the area of carbon cycling. For example, Bob spearheaded the quantitative interpretation of the CO2 content of the atmosphere over the last 600 million years of Earth history. His work provided the basis for virtually all modern carbon cycling research going on today. This understanding of past CO2 levels and paleoclimates has provided an invaluable baseline of comparison for determining the impact of today's anthropogenic CO2 emissions on the atmosphere and the associated climate change.
Bob served the field of geochemistry as the President of the Geochemical Society, and received countless accolades (Guggenheim Fellow; Member, National Academy of Sciences; and many, many others). Bob's long association with the American Journal of Science (Silliman's Journal) as Associate Editor or Editor held special significance for him; indeed, many of his most influential papers were published there.
Bob had a tremendous sense of humor and could talk about almost any topic with enthusiasm and insight. He was an expert on wine (including it's chemistry!) and loved music. Given the importance of what he worked on regarding atmospheric chemistry and carbon cycling, he attracted quite a bit of media attention. I remember one instance where the news media had become very interested in his research on trapped air samples in ancient amber. Part of this translated into print as something along the lines of: Scientists Capture Dinosaur Breath! Bob thought that was hilarious and we all had a great laugh over it too.
I remember a dinner in Bob's honor some years ago. Many of his family members were present. He was holding one of his grandchildren in his arms, pontificating about some great insight he had had about geochemistry. And the little baby just reached up and grabbed his nose. He immediately dissolved into the world of that baby---the science left his mind and you could see how the love that he had for his family was such an integral part of what made him so special.
In accordance with the family's wishes, in lieu of flowers, please consider making a donation in Bob's name to the Geology and Geophysics Graduate Research and Field Studies fund. You can send these by mail to the G&G Chair's office c/o Rebecca Pocock. I highly recommend Bob's fascinating autobiography, which can be found here: http://people.earth.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/Berner/Robert%20A_%20Berner%20Autobiography.pdf
Jay J. Ague, Henry Barnard Davis Professor of Geology & Geophysics
Chair, Department of Geology & Geophysics
Yale University, P.O. Box 208109
New Haven CT 06520-8109 USA
Phone: 203-432-3171 FAX: 203-432-3134
Curator-in-Charge of Mineralogy & Meteoritics, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History
Reprinted with permission.