Early curiosity helped shape Smith’s geophysical sciences career
When Joseph Smith was a boy on his parents’ farm in the north of England, he would pull away from his farm work, look at the moon and wonder why part of it was white and part was black.
Years later, Smith found himself conducting tests on Apollo 11 lunar samples. In early December 1969, the answer to his boyhood question about the moon’s colors dawned on him. The white material was rock enriched with feldspar. The black material was basalt, solidified lava.
Smith realized that feldspar crystals, being lighter than basalt, probably floated to the highland areas of the moon when the planet was a ball of molten lava. The moon’s crust must have been extensively melted, Smith concluded, in a series of catastrophic meteorite impacts.
“There had to have been tremendous collisions. There’s no way the moon could have got where it was without melting. This was heresy in those days,” Smith said in a 1999 interview, recalling prevailing theory of 1970. His model of a “hot moon” has gained increasing support over the cooler models and has led to a greater understanding of the origins of the solar system.
Smith, the Louis Block Professor Emeritus in Geophysical Sciences and the College, died of pneumonia at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston on Friday, April 6, after a five-year battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 78.
Author of more than 400 scientific articles, Smith also wrote Geometrical and Structural Crystallography, and a three-volume scientific reference series on feldspar minerals.
“Feldspars are the most abundant, most important minerals in the crust of the Earth, and Joe Smith was the world authority on those minerals,” said Robert Clayton, the Enrico Fermi Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Chemistry, Geophysical Sciences and the College. Smith also studied an industrially important mineral group called zeolites, as well as volcanism in east Africa and lunar geology, said J. Barry Dawson, professor emeritus of earth science at the University of Edinburgh. “A very multifaceted man was Joe,” Dawson said.
For much of his career, Smith served as a consultant to Union Carbide Corporation and UOP for his zeolite expertise. Smith helped industry harness zeolites as molecular sieves to improve the yield of gasoline from oil and produce environmentally friendly, phosphate-free detergents.
In the early 1970s, Smith collaborated with Dawson in analyzing the composition of rocks and minerals brought to the Earth’s surface from the upper mantle, the layer below the outer crust. Their studies identified the first sample of diamond in garnet lherzolite, a solid rock from the mantle. Their work showed that diamond formation was not connected with volcanic activity, which geologists had previously assumed.
Smith also was an entrepreneur in the development of scientific instruments, Clayton said. At the Carnegie Institution of Washington in the early 1950s, Smith built an X-ray generator out of junk equipment and chicken wire.
When Smith arrived at the University in 1960, he immediately built an electron microprobe for the Department of Geophysical Sciences. “Now every geology department has to have an electron probe, and the department here was one of the first to get it,” Clayton said. “He was a real pioneer in developing the instrument.”
As a visiting physicist and consultant to Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York since the mid-1980s, Smith helped develop a microprobe for precision X-ray analyses of experimental samples. And in the early 1990s, he organized a multi-institutional, multidisciplinary group of scientists to found the Consortium for Advanced Radiation Sources to use the Advanced Photon Source in their research. The U.S. Department of Energy’s APS at Argonne National Laboratory provides the most brilliant source of X-ray beams for research in the Western Hemisphere. Smith directed CARS from its founding until 1993.
Smith was born July 30, 1928, in Derbyshire, England. He received a B.A. with first class honors in natural science in 1948, and a Ph.D. in physics in 1951, both from Cambridge University. Smith married his wife, Brenda Wallis, at St. Mary’s Church, Crich, Derbyshire, on Aug. 31, 1951.
He began his research career at the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, in 1951, returning to teach at Cambridge in 1954. From 1956 to 1960 he was a faculty member at Pennsylvania State University, where he began his seminal research on feldspar minerals. He joined the Chicago faculty as a full professor in 1960 at the age of 32.
Smith received many honors during his career, including election to the National Academy of Sciences, the Geological Society of London’s Murchison Medal and the Mineralogical Society of America’s Roebling Medal and MSA Award.
Smith is survived by his wife, Brenda Smith, of Brookline, Mass., and two daughters, Virginia Smith, Brookline; and Susan Werther, Madison, Wisc.; and four grandchildren.
He will be buried in Crich, Derbyshire, in June. A memorial service will be held at Bond Chapel later this year.