Header NAS Award in Early Earth and Life Sciences

Header NAS Award in Early Earth and Life Sciences

Established by the NAS Council in October 2008 by combining two awards: The Charles Doolittle Walcott Medal established by a gift of Mrs. Mary Vaux Walcott in memory of her husband, Charles Doolittle Walcott, and the Stanley Miller Medal established through a bequest from NAS member Stanley Miller. The award rotates presentation between the Charles Doolittle Walcott Medal for research on Cambrian or pre-Cambrian life, and the Stanley Miller Medal which recognizes research on Earth's early development as a planet, including prebiotic chemistry and the origin of life; planetary accretion, differentiation, and tectonics; and early evolution of the atmosphere and oceans. Each medal is presented with a $10,000 prize.

The Stanley Miller Medal was established upon bequest of Stanley L. Miller in 2007.  Miller is best known for his groundbreaking work in the Miller-Urey Experiment.  In the experiment, Miller combined gasses believed to be present in the early Earth’s atmosphere into a closed environment.  To simulate the electrical charges emitted by lighting during Earth’s youth, Miller pumped a continuous electrical current through the gasses. After one week of emitting the electrical current, 10-15% of the carbon contained in the simulated atmosphere formed into organic compounds and 2% of the compounds formed into amino acids, clearly demonstrating the ability of organic compounds to form under Earth’s early atmospheric conditions.  While criticisms now exist as to how accurately Miller’s experiment emulated Earth’s early atmospheric conditions, Miller’s findings still provide invaluable insight into the formation of essential organic compounds.

James F. Kasting, Evan Pugh University Professor of Geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, received the 2016 NAS Award in Early Earth and Life Sciences, presented with the Stanley Miller Medal. The composition of a planet’s atmosphere affects the climate on the planet’s surface. A thick layer of carbon dioxide, for instance, drives the temperature on Venus to a whopping 467°C. On Earth, in contrast, the atmosphere is dominated by nitrogen, but there is enough carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to keep the surface warm enough for life. In the past, though, Earth’s atmosphere has been very different, with levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide fluctuating over time. 

Kasting has made fundamental insights into this atmospheric evolution through the development of numerical models. The core of his research has been the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. He has calculated the minimum levels of carbon dioxide needed to prevent the planet from freezing into a “Snowball Earth” scenario, for instance. And he and his colleagues have used his models to determine when the planet’s carbon dioxide will run out and its water will be lost, calculating that the Earth will no longer be able to support life in another 2 billion years or less. Kasting’s studies into the evolution of carbon dioxide and other atmospheric gases—such as oxygen, methane, and nitrous oxide—have provided insight into the proliferation of life on the early Earth. He has also made major contributions in the search for life on other planets, including refining the concept of the “habitable zone”—the region around a star where a planet can support liquid water and possibly life.

Recipients: 

James F. Kasting (2016, Stanley Miller Medal)
For his outstanding modelling studies of planetary atmospheres and habitability that constrain the environmental context for the origin of life.

J. William Schopf (2013, Charles Doolittle Walcott Medal)
For his pioneering studies of Precambrian microfossils and for his generous and inspirational leadership of the Precambrian Paleobiology Research Groups.

Gerald F. Joyce (2010, Stanley Miller Medal)
For his pioneering experiments on the self-sustained replication and evolution of RNA enzymes (ribozymes), which illuminate key conceptual steps in the origin of life.

Charles Doolittle Walcott Medal Recipients: 1934-2007

John P. Grotzinger (2007)
For the insightful elucidation of ancient carbonates and the stromatolites they contain, and for meticulous field research that has established the timing of early animal evolution.

Hans J. Hofmann (2002)
For his pioneering discoveries of fossils that have illuminated life's early evolution, from Archean stromatolites and Proterozoic cyanobacteria, to the rise of multicellular organisms.

Mikhail A. Fedonkin (1997)
For his meticulous and insightful documentation of the body fossils, tracks, and trails that record the earliest evolution of animals.

Stefan Bengtson (1992)
For his leadership in studies of the enigmatic faunas of the Cambrian radiation, evidence for a major evolutionary event that his meticulous research has illuminated.

Andrew H. Knoll and Simon C. Morris (1987)
For their meticulous and insightful research on plant evolution from its microbial roots to vascularization, especially during the transition from Proterozoic to Phanerozoic.

Martin F. Glaessner (1982)
For his perceptive, worldwide biological and paleoecological analyses of the earliest Metazoa, which have extended over a quarter century and have illuminated the beginnings of Phanerozoic evolution.

Preston Cloud (1977)
In recognition of eminence and distinguished achievement in the advancement of sciences in pre-Cambrian paleontology and the early history of life on the primitive earth.

Elso S. Barghoorn (1972)
For his outstanding contributions in pre-Cambrian paleobiology.

Allison R. Palmer (1967)
For his research in pre-Cambrian or Cambrian life, in recognition of his eminence as a specialist in the studies of the Cambrian.

Armin A. Opik (1962)
For his contributions to Cambrian geology and paleontology.

Pierre Hupe (1957)
For his monumental work entitiled Contribution a l'etude du Cambrien inferieur et du Precambrien III de l'Antiatlas marocain.

Franco Rasetti (1952)
For his contributions to Cambrian paleontology.

Alexander G. Vologdin (1947)
For his studies of Pre-Cambrian and Cambrian algae and his researches on the Archaeocyatha, a distinctive group of Cambrian organisms.

A. H. Westergaard (1939)
For researches on the stratigraphy and paleontology of the Cambrian formations of Sweden.

David L. White (1934)

 

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