Photo of William W. Rubey

William W. Rubey

  • National Medal of Science
  • Physical Sciences

For showing by profoundly original observations and clear physical reasoning how sand grains and mountains move and from whence the oceans come.

Each summer, millions of Americans visit the beach. As they frolic through the waves, few ask the overarching question: Where did all that water come from?

In 1951, an intrepid researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey gave an answer.

William Rubey theorized that the Earth’s oceans and atmosphere are results of outgassing – the expelling of gases and vapors from deep inside the planet through activities like volcanic eruption and hot springs.

But Rubey didn’t stop there.

His research topics range from the origin of sedimentary rocks to the composition of lunar samples collected through the Apollo program. In 1960, Rubey began teaching a seminar at UCLA, urging students to ponder the unsolved mysteries of the Earth. “It can truly be said of him that he illuminated the motions of sand grains and mountains, the origin of the hydrosphere and the atmosphere, and, especially, the lives and careers of numerous colleagues,” according to a 1978 biological memoir.