Plate Tectonics and People

Don L. Anderson

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Don L. Anderson is an American geophysicist and, currently, a Professor of Geophysics in the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences at the California Institute of Technology. He is best known for his work on determining the large-scale structure and composition of Earth's interior using data generated from seismological methods; however, he is also known for authoring the popular textbook, Theory of the Earth, which is often used as a supplemental resource in geophysics, geochemistry, and planetary science courses.



Don L. Anderson


Image Source:;jsessionid=B0DFCDFCF031B3FC1CDB26890E997B89 Retrieved 28 May 2012.


Biographical Information


Don Lynn Anderson was born in 1933 in Frederick, Maryland. He lived in Baltimore throughout his childhood and went to Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, a public high school that emphasized engineering, mathematics, and the sciences. Anderson then attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York State, where he received his Bachelor of Science in Geology/Geophysics (1955). He later attended the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where he received his Ph.D. in Geophysics/Mathematics (1962).


Having briefly worked in private industry (Chevron) and for the military (ROTC and Air Force) during the 1950s, Anderson presently works within the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences at Caltech, where he is the Eleanor and John R. McMillan Professor of Geophysics, Emeritus. Anderson has actually been at Caltech--in some capacity--since his research fellowship began in 1962.


Don L. Anderson has received numerous honors and awards throughout his long career in geophysics. His first award was the James B. Macelwane Award, given by the American Geophysical Union in 1966, for significant contributions by an outstanding young scientist. In 1999, Anderson received the National Medal of Science from President Clinton "for his leading contributions to understanding the composition, structure, and dynamics of Earth and Earth-like planets, and his influence on the advancement of Earth sciences over the past three decades nationally and internationally" (see photo below).




President Clinton awards Don L. Anderson the National Medal of Science


Image Source: Retrieved 29 May 2012


Most recently, in 2005, Anderson was inducted into the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Hall of Fame. He also holds honorary doctorates from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (2000) and L’Universite de Paris, L’Institute de Physique du Globe de Paris (2005).



Specific contributions to plate tectonic theory/solid Earth geophysics


Don L. Anderson has made significant contributions to the understanding of the theory of plate tectonics through his research on convection currents in Earth's mantle using seismological methods. Early on in his career, Anderson studied how the mantle behaves under high pressures and temperatures, and how minerals in the mantle transform between the solid and liquid states.


Don L. Anderson may be best-known in his field for pioneering seismic tomography, a method of producing a 3-D image of the internal structure of the Earth using seismic waves. Through his research, Anderson described the upper mantle and lower crust as “richly complex in structure, with patterns of hot and not-so-hot areas.” He also used seismic tomography to support his theory that tectonic plate interactions and geometries affect mantle movement.


In the 1980s, Anderson developed a somewhat unconventional model of the mineral composition of the Earth's upper mantle. According to his model, the deeper parts of the mantle contain piclogite, a garnet-rich rock. Anderson also proposed that plate tectonics was not possible without the presence of calcium carbonate, which can be found at the edges of subduction zones. According to Anderson, it is the weight of CaCO2 sediments that triggers the process of subduction.


Throughout the years, Don L. Anderson's research has included the following:

  • Interpretation of seismic data (seismic tomography) to develop models for the composition and evolution of Earth's interior
  • Synthesis of geophysical, geochemical, and geodynamic data
  • Interactions of the lithosphere and asthenosphere
  • Description of mantle plumes/”hotspot” volcanism
  • Explanation of planetary volcanism
  • Creation of tectonic maps of the northern and southern hemisphere and oceans


Image Source: Retrieved 5 June 2012



According to his current research bio at Caltech, "Don L. Anderson is interested in the origin, evolution, structure and composition of Earth and other planets. His work integrates seismological, solid state physics, geochemical and petrological data."


Most recently, Anderson has centered much of his research on “hotspot” volcanism and the idea behind mantle plume models. A “hotspot” is the term that geophysicist use to describe concentrated hot regions of the shallow mantle. A mantle plume is an upwelling or downwelling feature in a fluid (the mantle) that is maintained by thermal buoyancy. In addition to authoring numerous scientific papers on mantle plumes, Don L. Anderson manages the informative web site,, which discusses various aspects of the origin of “hotspot” volcanism.


Other interesting scientific contributions


Don L. Anderson has made significant contributions to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) since the mid-1960s. He was initially on the Planetary Advisory Subcommittee from 1966 to 1969, after which he received the Apollo Achievement Award in 1969. He then went on to be involved in the Committee on Earth Sciences, the Earth Dynamics Working Group, and the Viking Science Steering Group. He was also the Viking Seismology Team Leader, heading a group of researchers who designed a seismology experiment to study the level of seismic activity on Mars. Following his involvement in the Viking 2 Lander project, Anderson received the NASA Distinguished Scientific Achievement Award in 1977.


Other cool stuff you should know about Don L. Anderson

Anderson was in the Air Force for a short time; his job in the service was to determine how thick Greenland ice needed to be in order to support disabled Air Force planes that landed on it. Anderson ended up writing several scientific papers on sea ice growth rates and overall strength.




Anderson, Don L. Interview by Shirley K. Cohen. Pasadena, California, February 24, March 10, April 13, 1999. Oral History Project, California Institute of Technology Archives. Retrieved 29 May 2012 from


Anderson, Don L. (earth scientist) [Web article] Retrieved 5 June 2012 from


"Don L. Anderson" [Web page] Division of Geological Planetary Sciences. Retrieved 28 May 2012 from


"Don L. Anderson" [Web page] Seismological Laboratory. Retrieved 29 May 2012 from


"Don L. Anderson" [Web article] Wikipedia. Retrieved 28 May 2012 from


"Seismology: NSSDC ID: 1975-083C-08" [Web page] NASA National Space Science Data Center. Retrieved 29 May 2012 from


“What is a plume?” [Web article] Don L. Anderson. Retrieved 5 June 2012 from