Letter from the Directors: A New Year, A New Name, Same Great Science

2019 Broad Branch Road Campus group photo
The 2019 Broad Branch Road campus group photo brought together both the Geophysical Laboratory and the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, which are merging into the Carnegie Science Earth and Planets Laboratory in 2020.
Tuesday, February 04, 2020 

A New Year.  A New Name.  Same Great Science.

The Carnegie Institution of Washington established the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism (DTM) in 1904 and a year later created The Geophysical Laboratory (GL). In 2020, these two great departments that both seek to learn more about our world and its place in the Universe will come together as the Carnegie Science Earth and Planets Laboratory.

DTM’s scientific focus wandered significantly over decadal time scales from its initial charter to map Earth’s magnetic field through fields as diverse as nuclear physics, radio astronomy, and biophysics on its way to its current focus on Earth and planetary sciences.  The Geophysical Laboratory was established as a center for experimental investigations of rocks and minerals and the physics and chemistry of Earth’s interior. Programs in volcanology, seismology, and experimental petrology followed soon after, and like DTM, the GL broadened its investigations over time to include biogeochemistry, microbiology, and mineral physics.

Our two departments have long shared overlapping research interests. Both DTM and GL have always been leaders in developing new instrumentation to explore the natural world, both beneath our feet and far out into the universe. The initial forays into seismology done by GL’s first Director Arthur Day beginning in the 1920s were renewed under DTM’s Director Merle Tuve in the 1950s and continue there to the present day. The field of radioactive geochronology was pioneered in a joint GL-DTM effort that began in the 1950s and continues at DTM today.  Both departments shifted their research efforts during the World Wars when GL created the techniques needed to produce high-quality optical glass, and DTM developed the proximity fuse based on an early form of radar.

Since 1990, the two departments have been co-located on a single campus in Northwest Washington.  One outgrowth of that association has been an increase in collaborative efforts in broad areas of Earth and planetary science. Still, the research in the departments has been evolving in similar directions since the 1950s. Good examples of projects that involved substantial collaboration between GL and DTM staff include the multidisciplinary study of the crust and mantle of the Kaapvaal Craton of southern Africa from 1995 through 2004, the NASA Astrobiology Institute on our campus from 1998 to 2015, and the Deep Carbon Observatory that involved investigators from both departments as well as from around the world.

A Story of Collaboration: Planet Formation

As our investigation of the natural world has become increasingly sophisticated, previously separate fields of science must combine efforts to adequately address the scope of questions that can now be asked. 

A good example is the question of how planets form and evolve to their current state, a topic at the heart of a good fraction of the work done on our campus.  The discovery of the vast array of exoplanetary systems via transit and radial velocity astronomy illuminates the many outcomes that can arise when a molecular cloud condenses into a star and planet system.  DTM astronomers both detect exoplanets and study the disks of material around distant stars from which planetary systems are currently forming. DTM astrophysicists contribute to the theoretical understanding of the forces driving planet formation in such settings. At the same time, DTM cosmochemists provide evidence of what was happening during planet formation over 4.5 billion years ago in our own Solar System.

Geochemists at both GL and DTM determine the sequence of events and the processes that transformed these raw materials into the Earth and other terrestrial planets.  High pressure and temperature experiments done at GL provide the basic information on how melting in planetary interiors leads to the segregation of elements that make up planetary atmospheres, oceans, crust, mantle, and core. 

Mineral physics experts at GL extend these experiments to the extreme temperatures and pressures needed to understand the thermal and dynamic properties of materials deep in planetary interiors.  Their results contribute to the theoretical and observational investigations of DTM geodynamicists and seismologists who seek to understand the dynamics of planetary interiors. These interior dynamics then influence the surface environment of the planet via volcanism and plate tectonics through mechanisms that are being revealed by the studies of DTM geophysicists. 

What it takes for these environments to be capable of allowing life to develop and then sustained for billions of years is a question asked by GL’s biogeochemists and molecular biologists.  While there are a multitude of detailed, discipline-specific questions to be addressed in a topic as broad as planet formation, answers to the biggest questions require input from a wide range of fields.  Most of those disciplines are well represented among the combined scientific staffs of DTM and GL.

What comes next?

The growing overlap of the research directions of the two departments is one of several observations that led to Carnegie Science exploring a new strategic plan for its second century of investment in basic science. The strategic plan recognizes the potential benefits to be gained when we enhance opportunities for collaborative research across the many fields pursued within Carnegie Science. With the growing interdisciplinary nature of science in general, and Earth and planetary science in particular, the boundaries between the historical departments of the institution have become blurred.

In the case of DTM and GL, the institution has decided that the long-permeable boundary should be removed. Our two departments are on the way to becoming one, the Earth and Planets Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution for Science.  We will continue to remember, celebrate, and treasure the first century of discoveries made by our two departments, and we also look forward to the next century of discoveries to be made by the Carnegie Earth and Planets Laboratory.

Richard Carlson, Director, Carnegie Earth and Planets Laboratory
Carnegie Institution for Science

Michael Walter, Deputy Director, Carnegie Earth and Planets Laboratory
Carnegie Institution for Science


February 2020 Newsletter