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'Zircons and Hell?' focus of Chauncey D. Holmes Lecture and Award Ceremony

John Valley, the Charles R. Van Hise Professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, will present keynote

Feb 2, 2012 | Article by: Judy Holmes

illustration of a cool early earth

The textbook view that earth spent its first half billion years drenched in magma could be wrong. The surface may have cooled quickly--with oceans, nascent continents and the opportunity for life to form much earlier. Illustration from article by John W. Valley, Scientific American October 2005


Twelve Syracuse University undergraduate students were recognized for excellence in introductory Earth science during the annual Chauncey D. Holmes Lecture and Award Ceremony on February 16. The featured speaker for the event was John Valley, the Charles R. Van Hise Professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who presented “Zircons from Hell?” 

The annual event is presented by the Department of Earth Sciences K. Douglas Nelson Colloquium Series in SU's 
College of Arts and Sciences.

Valley studies conditions that were present shortly after the Earth formed by investigating the mineral zircon found in some of the oldest rocks on Earth. He has conducted fieldwork in Asia, Australia, and Europe, and extensively in New York State’s Adirondack Mountains. “The earliest Earth was highly energetic and had a steam-rich atmosphere,” Valley says, “but how long did the ‘hell-like’ conditions last and what came next?”

It’s a mystery that scientists hope to resolve by studying zircon. They’ve found zircon crystals as old as 4,400 million years—1,400 million years older than the rock in which they are entrapped. “These zircons provide direct evidence of geologic activity prior to 4 billion years ago,” Valley says. “But while zircon analysis answers some questions about the conditions that were present when they formed, the research fuels debate on a number of other issues. Are the zircons evidence of early granites, continents, and plate tectonics? When did the Earth’s surface cool? Why are there no known rocks older than 4 billion years?”
hot earth illustration

Illustration of a molten Earth.

Valley is a Fellow of the Geological Society of America, the Mineralogical Society of America, the Geochemical Society, and the American Geophysical Union. He has published more than 280 professional papers and is dedicated to developing procedures for microanalysis and novel applications of stable isotope geochemistry. He holds a master’s and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan.

Alumnus Chauncey Holmes G'27, who received a master's degree in geology from SU in 1927, established the Chauncey D. Holmes Award. An esteemed geologist, Holmes considered raising geologic awareness among undergraduate students a prime objective of his academic career. The awards were established to recognize outstanding students in introductory geology courses.


Recipients of the 2012 Chauncey D. Holmes Awards are:

  • Alberto Alvarado, a sophomore in the Whitman School of Management
  • Luke Andrews, a junior in the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science
  • Amanda Cariddi, a freshman in the Whitman School of Management
  • Tessa Carlson, a sophomore in The College of Arts and Sciences
  • Carolyn DaCunha, a sophomore in The College of Arts and Sciences
  • Gregory Jacks, a sophomore in The College of Arts and Sciences
  • Preston Jessee, a sophomore in The College of Arts and Sciences
  • Peter Nelson, a junior in The College of Arts and Sciences
  • Drew Shapiro, a sophomore in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications
  • Molly Shea, a junior in The College of Arts and Sciences
  • Rose Tardiff, a sophomore in The College of Arts and Sciences
  • John Wilson, a sophomore in the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics

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Contact Information

Judy Holmes
jlholmes@syr.edu
315-443-8085