Plate Tectonics and People

W. Jason Morgan

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W. Jason Morgan receiving National Medal of Science from President George W. Bush, 2003

W. Jason Morgan receiving National Medal of Science from President George W. Bush, 2003.  Source: Wikipedia


Biographical Information


William Jason Morgan, known as Jason Morgan, is a tall, lanky, southern gentleman who is quiet spoken and has a big smile. He retired as a Knox Taylor professor emeritus of Geology and professor of Geophysics at Princeton in 2003 after almost thirty-seven years as a faculty member. He is a highly recognized scientist with many awards and is a pioneer in plate tectonics theory.


Morgan was born in Savannah Georgia in 1935. He matriculated at Georgia Institute of Technology where he was encouraged to change his major from mechanical engineering to physics. Morgan received his bachelors of science in physics from Georgia Tech in 1957. He served in the Navy for two years and then went to Princeton University and completed a Ph.D. in Physics in 1964. He joined the Geology faculty at Princeton as assistant professor in 1967.


One of his mentors was Robert Dicke, who Morgan credits for encouraging his propensity to question assumptions. Morgan taught many courses during his tenure at Princeton, which often included a freshman course on earthquakes and volcanoes. He enjoyed novel questions from his students because they caused him to go back and look at topics in a new way. His favorite class was to teach an on-site freshman seminar class in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. His legacy as a teacher contributed to the future plans of some of his students and his son pursuing research in plate tectonics. Currently his son is a professor at Cornell University.


Morgan described himself as being an "intuitive and theoretical" scientist as well as being lucky. During his postdoctoral work, while he shared an office for two years with Fred Vine, Morgan became interested in the fractures on the ocean floor. Vine is another great in plate tectonic theory who studied the magnetic anomalies on the ocean floor. Vine encouraged Morgan to continue questioning the origins of the fracture zones and faults along the ocean floor and he did. Morgan was a thoughtful theorizer and enjoyed mulling over questions he had. His son has described his questioning as a strength because his father wants to know why something is happening. This tendency led Morgan to look at plate tectonics differently than previous scientists.


Tectonic Plate Movement

Tectonic Plate Movement.  Source:

Specific contributions to plate tectonic theory


After reading a paper by H. W. Menard, Morgan recognized a pattern he had seen on the ocean floor previously while in the Navy. He used his mathematical skills to explain how these patterns formed the fracture zones seen on the ocean floor. At the time, scientists thought that the crust deformed and did not understand the motions of the crust. As Morgan continued to research the great faults along the ocean floor, his idea was that the crust consisted of a dozen rigid plates, which were moving relative to each other. The use of plate rotation vectors and geometry along a spherical Earth allowed Morgan to calculate the motions of these tectonic plates. In 1967 at an American Geophysical Union meeting, in lieu of the paper he was supposed to present on the Puerto Rico Trench, Morgan presented his paper, "Rises, Trenches, Great Faults, and Crustal Blocks". In the paper, he identified three types of plate boundaries he had found by studying the rotation of the rigid plates around an Euler pole. Years later GPS technology showed that Morgan's predicted plate motions depicted Earth's crustal movement indeed. This study has helped scientists explain many aspects of geological history as well as earthquake movement and has become part of the foundation of plate tectonic theory.


Morgan became interested in J. Tuzo Wilson's studies of hot spots and thermal plumes found in the middle of the plates rather than at plate boundaries. In 1971, Morgan published a study showing the motion of the Pacific plate as it rotated over the Hawaiian hot spot. He proposed that convection plumes came from the lower mantle. Since 1971, he  continued to study and publish about mantle plumes. However, scientists today disagree about how deep hotspots originate and whether they are fixed in one place over geologic time.


Other interesting scientific contributions

  • Morgan was a professor at Princeton and influencd many students through his teaching.  He has several active researchers in plate tectonics today.
  • Morgan researched the Great Meteor Seamount, a mantle plume, under the Canadian Shield.
  • Morgan and his son, Jason Phipps Morgan, a geophysicist professor at Cornell University, have collaborated in the study of geochemistry of mantle rocks in an effort to explain more about mantle flow.

Other cool stuff you should know


W. Jason Morgan received the following medals and awards over several decades of his career.

  • Walter H. Bucher Award (1973, AGU)
  • Alfred Wegener Medal (1983, European Union of Geosciences)
  • New York Academny of Science Award in Physical and Mathematcial Sciences (1984)
  • Leo Lutaud Prize (1986, French Academy of Sciences)
  • Maurice Ewing Award (1987, AGU and U.S. Navy)
  • Japan Prize (1990, Science and Technology Foundation of Japan)
  • Wollaston Medal (1994 Geological Society of London)
  • Honory Doctor of Science (1997, Harvard University)
  • Vetlesen Prize (2000, Columbia University)
  • National Medal of Science (2002, NSF)
  • Alexander von Humbolt Foundation Senior Fellowship (2003)


Archibald, E. (n.d.). A Time of Revolution. Retrieved June 1, 2010, from Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine Online:

Christensen, U. (1998). Fixed hotspots gone with the wind. Nature , 739-740.

Morgan, W. J. (1971). Convection plumes in the lower mantle. Nature 230 , 42-43.

Morgan, W. J. (1972). Mantle Convection Plumes and Plate Motions. The American Association of Petroleum Geologists Bulletin , 203-213.

Morgan, W. J. (1968). Rises, Trenches, Great Faults, and Crustal Blocks. Journal of Geophysical Research , 1959-1982.

Stock, J. (2003). Hotspots Come Unstuck. Science , 1059-1060.

Stock, J. M. (2006). The Hawaiian-Emperor Bend: Older Than Expected. Science , 1250-1251.

The Princeton Geosciences Newsletter, T. S. (2003, Fall). Jason Morgan Retires. Retrieved June 01, 2010, from