Photo of Francis Birch

Francis Birch

  • National Medal of Science
  • Physical Sciences

For outstanding contributions to geophysics which have immeasurably increased our understanding of the composition and the processes of the interior of the earth.

Much of what we know about the Earth and its four distinct layers can be attributed to a man who was never formally educated in geology. In fact, Francis Birch earned his engineering degree at Harvard, spending two years at an electrical company before dabbling in geophysics with a fellowship studying magnetic properties of matter.

Many of Birch’s studies concerned elastic properties of materials, a measurement for how much something – in this case, elements of the planet’s interior – will compress under pressure. In a 57-page landmark article, published in 1952, Francis Birch described his key findings.

But first, he wrote a joke:

“Unwary readers should take warning that ordinary language undergoes modification to a high-pressure form when applied to the interior of the Earth.” He continued the quip, listing examples of terms such as “vague suggestion” and “perhaps” – arguing they transform into the exaggerative words “positive proof” and “undoubtedly” when pressure is applied.