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Thomas J. Ahrens (1936–2010)

Published onDec 01, 2011
Thomas J. Ahrens (1936–2010)

Thomas J. Ahrens, a leader in the use of shock waves to study planetary interiors and impact phenomena, died at his home in Pasadena, California on November 24, 2010, at the age of 74. He was the California Institute of Technology’s Fletcher Jones Professor of Geophysics, formally emeritus since 2005 but professionally active to the end.

Tom was a pioneer in experimental and numerical studies of the effects of hypervelocity impact, arguably the most important geophysical process in the formation, growth and – in many cases – surface evolution of planets. As a professor at Caltech, he established the foremost university laboratory for shock wave experiments, where students and research associates from around the world pursued basic research in geophysics, planetary science and other disciplines. Previously, high-pressure shock experiments were primarily conducted in national laboratories, where they were initially associated with development of nuclear weapons.

The shock wave laboratory at Caltech was noted for key measurements addressing major questions in planetary geophysics. Equation-of-state studies on silicate melts showed that magma deep in Earth’s mantle could be denser than the coexisting crystals, implying downward transport of melts (and associated heat) rather than the upward eruption of lavas observed in volcanic regions at Earth’s surface. Shock-melting experiments on iron at pressures of Earth’s core provide a crucial constraint on the temperature at the center of our planet. And studies of hydrous, carbonate and sulphate minerals under shock compression document how climate-altering molecules can be released by major impacts, such as the K/T event associated with the most recent mass extinction of biota in Earth history. In addition, Tom was a leader in numerical simulation of cratering, bringing the most recent laboratory measurements into the modeling of planetary impacts.

Tom’s training was in geophysics and applied experimental physics, as exemplified by the ultrasonic wave-velocity measurements of his Ph.D. research at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (geophysics Ph.D. in 1962, following a B.S. in geology and geophysics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1957, and M.S. in geophysics from Caltech in 1958). He served in the U.S. Army (1959-60) and was employed at Stanford Research Institute (1962-67), where he conducted shock wave experiments, before joining the faculty at Caltech in 1967.

With such a broad background, Tom combined condensed-matter physics, continuum mechanics, petrology and seismology, for instance in characterizing polymorphic phase transformations in Earth’s mantle (1967 J. Geophys. Res. Paper with Y. Syono); using shock wave measurements to interpret seismological data on Earth’s deep interior (1969 Rev. Geophysics paper with D. L. Anderson and A. E. Ringwood); modeling geodynamic effects of phase-transition kinetics (1975 Rev. Geophysics paper with G. Shubert); characterizing the effects of gravity and crustal strength on crater formation (1981 Rev. Geophysics paper with J. D. O’Keefe); and quantifying impact erosion of terrestrial planetary atmospheres (1993 Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences). The span of his science was also reflected in collaborations with – among others – Paul D. Asimow, George R. Rossman and Edward M. Stolper at Caltech, as well as Arthur C. Mitchell and William J. Nellis at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

His accomplishments included conducting the first shock-wave experiments on lunar samples and solid hydrogen; measuring the first absorption spectra of minerals under shock loading; discovering major phase changes in CaO, FeO, KAlSi3O8, and KFeS2; measuring shock temperatures in silicates, metals, and oxides; conducting the first planetary cratering calculations for mass of melted and vaporized material, and mass and energy of ejecta as a function of planetary escape velocity; experimentally documenting shock vaporization on volatile-bearing minerals, and applying the results to understanding the formation of oceans and atmospheres; conducting the first dynamic-compression experiments on molten silicates, with applications to characterizing the maximum depth of volcanism on terrestrial planets, as well as the crystallization sequence of magma oceans; performing the first thermodynamic calculations delineating the impact-shock conditions for melting and vaporization of planetary materials; carrying out the first smoothed particle hydrodynamic calculations to investigate energy partitioning upon impact in self-gravitating planetary systems; and conducting the first quantitative tensile failure studies for brittle media, relating crack-density to elastic velocity deficits and the onset of damage. Tom was also Co-Investigator on the NASA Cosmic Dust Analyzer Experiment, and the NASA/ESA Cassini Mission to Saturn.

Honors included the AGU Hess Medal, Geological Society of America Day Medal, Meteoritical Society Barringer Medal, APS Shock Compression of Condensed Matter’ Topical Groups’s Duvall Medal and AAAS Newcomb-Cleveland Prize. He had been President of AGU’s Tectonophysics Section, Editor of Journal of Geophysical Research, founding member of both the Mineral and Rock Physics and Study of Earth’s Deep Interior focus groups, and Editor – more like key driving force – for AGU’s Handbook of Physical Constants. He was a fellow of the AGU, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Geochemical Society; and member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, as well as Foreign Associate of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Main-belt asteroid 4739 Tomahrens (1985 TH1) was named after him.

Tom made it clear, however, that it was his students (more than 30), research associates (15 or more) and many collaborators who were the real mark of success. No doubt driven by the need to sustain a major, expensive research facility, as well as to satisfy an inner drive, he maintained a daunting work schedule – including evenings, weekends and holidays – that challenged and stimulated so many around him, perhaps even frightening or frustrating some. He could play as hard as he worked, enjoying sailing, skiing and other outdoor activities over the years.

Photo: Thomas Ahrens, Provost Robert Bacher and Clarence Allen, at Kresge Seismo Lab., Pasadena, CA, 5-29-1968.

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