Beloit College Magazine

Spring 2013 (March 14, 2013 at 12:00 am)

Getting to the Core of the Matter


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March 14, 2013 at 12:00 am
By John Morgan’96
Nick Schmerr’01 is making waves in the world of seismic science

Rambling along the Yukon’s Alaskan Highway and stopping periodically for bushwhacking into a buggy wilderness to dig big holes in the dirt may not seem like the most romantic of times. But for Nick Schmerr’01, a planetary seismologist, the experience was captivating. The holes were for seismometers—devices used to study earthquakes—but the trip was more than that for the then-graduate student. It also offered a look into the lives of a rugged, independent people living at the northern edge of the Earth.

“Typical Beloiter,” Schmerr muses, referring to his interests in, well, just about everything.

Nick Schmerr’01“People who choose to live in that part of the world are a hardy type, and it was often pretty interesting to get them talking about why they came there and how they got to that point in their lives,” he says. “The locals were also pretty interested in what we were doing, and many had a tale or two of hidden riches somewhere out in the wilderness. It was funny how many stories I heard about lost gold mines and such!”

Today, the research riches sought by Schmerr aren’t gold, nor are they anthropological. Instead, he’s after information about what’s going on deep in the Earth’s interior. What is learned from this work can be critically important.

“Earthquakes happen, buildings fall down, and people get hurt or killed. So knowing where those areas are and how those earthquakes happen is the societal relevance of it,” Schmerr explains. “The kind of work I do is trying to figure out how the interior of our planet works—what the heat budget is, why the plates move around on the surface, for example.”

Like an onion, the Earth is composed of many layers, including—from outermost to innermost—the crust, the mantle, the outer core, and the inner core.

“I’ve spent most of my career studying the mantle and the layers within it,” Schmerr notes. “The mantle underlies the crust and is made of rock that is viscously deforming very slowly. This is not to say the mantle is molten—a very common misconception among the public—but rather something right on the border between a solid and fluid.”

Mantle rocks, Schmerr stresses, behave more like softened butter, which is spreadable and deformable, but not actually fluid. His work seeks to add to the understanding of the properties of rocks and other materials in Earth’s mantle (and on other planets, too).

The longstanding view, called “thermal” hypothesis, suggested that the Earth’s interior is like a pot of boiling water. Just as water in a pot heats up and cools down in a process known as convection, scientists believed this to be true of the mantle, with warm spots and cooler ones. Today’s view includes a more nuanced understanding of a complex relationship between temperature, chemistry, states (solid or molten), and mineral phases of the materials found there.

Modern seismology offers more information about the properties of the materials from one layer to another, and the story now includes both thermal and material aspects. Schmerr has not only contributed to this discussion, he is also helping to lead it.

“The work that I’ve been doing is adding another complexity,” Schmerr offers. “And the kind of imaging that I’ve been doing with my seismology lets me unravel these two things a little bit.”

Schmerr’s work is so hot, in fact, that he has published two papers in the highly exclusive journal, Science. He contends that the reason for his work’s notoriety is its multidisciplinary nature, which provides relevant information to modelers, geochemists, and seismologists.

“I wouldn’t say [my work] leads to better predictions for earthquakes exactly, but it allows scientists to understand why a particular fault or volcano happens to be in any given location,” he suggests. “That kind of work gives scientists looking closely at earthquakes or volcanic activity a better context in which to frame their work.”

Schmerr grew up near Ames, Iowa, his mother a biochemist and his father a professor of mechanical engineering. During high school, a geology researcher at Iowa State University mentored him, and he competed in the Science Olympiad, focusing on geology. He landed at Beloit, where he was a teaching assistant for several semesters, went on every field trip possible, and completed three summer internships at the University of Minnesota, the Carnegie Institution for Science, and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Grad school at Arizona State University followed. Today, he has returned to Goddard as a postdoctoral researcher.

“It was apparent from the very beginning that he was a superstar,” says Carl Mendelson, chair of Beloit’s geology department and holder of the Solem Chair in the Natural Sciences.

Mendelson lavishes praise on Schmerr, who he says embraced quantitative analysis in a way most students do not. In return, Schmerr stresses that while the geology department at Beloit is small, it is known nationally as a leader in educating field geologists. Schmerr blended Beloit’s geology offerings with a minor in physics and took advantage of the guidance and training that helped educate him as a future scientist, particularly with regard to writing.

“Basically that’s one of your key tools in science, communicating what you’re doing,” he recalls. “And I think Beloit really made you strive to perfect that skill.”

As deep Earth exploration blazes a trail into the unknown, Schmerr is enjoying every minute of it.

“You feel like you have the ability to find your path even in a thick wood,” he says. “A lot of the Beloit experience is about finding what you want to do.”

John Morgan’96 is a freelance writer and editor living in Stoughton, Wis.

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