Dan McKenzie, Royal Society Professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge, has been awarded the prestigious Crafoord Prize for Geosciences 2002 for his groundbreaking work on the earth's evolution.

The prize is awarded each year by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences - the same organisation that awards the Nobel Prize. Professor McKenzie has been recognised for his contributions to the understanding of the dynamics of the lithosphere - the rigid outer layer of the earth - particularly plate tectonics, sedimentary basin formation and mantle melting.

Professor McKenzie started his career by contributing to the birth of plate tectonics - the unifying theory which explains how and why the continents move and the oceans open and close. Later he analysed the deeper mechanisms underlying earthquakes, making them easier to predict. He went on to revolutionise our understanding of how sedimentary basins form. Most recently his research has provided new insights into the evolution of Mars and Venus.

The fundamental idea underlying plate tectonics - that the continents had all once been joined together, later to move apart - was first suggested almost a century ago. At that time it was treated with scorn and scepticism by much of the science community, and it was not until the late 1960s that the authoritative theory of Plate Tectonics was presented, with key contributions by Professor McKenzie.

This new global theory described the earth's lithospheric plates, their composition and movements and the forces acting on them. In the boundary zones between the plates, natural forces take their toll; mountain ranges are formed, volcanoes erupt and earthquakes shake the crust. In the inner parts of the plates, conditions are more calm and predictable.

During the 1970s Professor McKenzie's research concentrated on the deformation taking place in the boundary zones between the plates, especially the formation of mountain ranges. His analysis of the source mechanisms of earthquakes has had profound implications for hazard risk assessment in such areas as the Eastern Mediterranean.

In more recent years Professor McKenzie has applied his expertise to other planets, collaborating with NASA on their missions to Venus and Mars. He has analysed the surface features of the planets and the geophysical evidence for internal structure and composition. By comparing and contrasting the main characteristics of the three planets, he has been able to interpret some of the remarkable differences in their origin and evolution, for instance, providing explanations for earlier vast river canyons on Mars.

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