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June 12, 2007

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NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: A photo of Kevin Burke is available on the Web at
. A high-resolution photo is available by contacting Ann Holdsworth.

Kevin Burke Helped Revolutionize Thinking on Planet’s Surface

HOUSTON, June 12, 2007 – Continental drift and plate tectonics may seem like elementary science these days, but in the 1960s, a University of Houston geologist was helping turn the science world on its head. Forty years later, they’re honoring him for it.

The Geological Society of America announced in May that Kevin Burke, a professor with the UH College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, won the 2007 Penrose Medal for his pioneering research in plate tectonics.

The theory that the Earth’s crust was made up of a few massive plates helped explain earthquakes, volcanic activity, mountain ranges and the movement of continents. It is orthodoxy now, but most geologists rejected this theory in the 1960s.

Burke was at the forefront of this paradigm shift and is considered a “father figure” of plate tectonic theory, said John Casey, chair of the UH geosciences department. Burke also was one of the first to write about how the collision of the Indian and Asian plates created the Himalayas.

Because the plates move at roughly the rate fingernails grow—or four centimeters a year—Burke’s research takes him hundreds of millions of years into the past to understand how plate movements have reshaped continents and formed new seas and oceans.

Plate tectonics also explained continental drift and how Africa and South America seemed to fit together like a puzzle, outdating previous theories along the way.

“We suddenly understood how the world works,” Burke said.

Burke also is well-known among geologists for his work explaining the origin of hot spots such as Hawaii and Iceland. While most volcanic activity occurs along plate boundaries, hot spots are areas where narrow streams of hot mantle have created volcanic islands far from the plate margins.

Burke will pick up his award in October at the society’s annual meeting and will join the ranks of colleagues he has long admired.

“I know you’re kind of expected to say you’re overwhelmed, but it’s true,” Burke said. “People I think very highly of have won this award.”

Burke also joins fellow award winner and colleague, UH geologist John Dewey, who won the award in 1992.

“It is a rare honor to have two Penrose winners at one university,” said Donald Foss, provost and vice president for academic affairs at UH. “Kevin Burke is an exceptional scientist who has made significant contributions both in the field and in the classroom.”

Burke came to UH in 1983 after working at universities in Africa, Canada and the Caribbean. The Britain native has traveled around the world—hammer in hand—throughout his five-decade career. At 77, he does not get out into the field as much as he used to, but his passion for geology is undimmed, and he still has more research and insight to contribute to the field, Casey said.

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