Peter Molnar
Peter Molnar ( Picasa )

Peter Molnar, a professor in geological sciences at the University of Colorado, has been named the recipient of the Crafoord Prize, one of the most prestigious honors in science, for his groundbreaking contributions to the understanding of global tectonics.

The Crafoord Prize is awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the same body that awards the Nobel Prize. It covers research in fields of science not addressed by the Nobels, including astronomy and mathematics, geosciences, biosciences and rheumatoid arthritis.

It carries with it a cash award of 4 million Swedish Krona, the equivalent of just over $618,000.

Molnar, calling the honor "hard to imagine," said Thursday that he had not yet even had a chance to read the letter notifying him of his honor thoroughly — and certainly had no plans yet for his prize money.

"It wouldn't go into vacations," said Molnar, 70, who lives just north of Lyons. "I think it's meant to go into research, but I think I'm free to spend it however I want, and I assume I'm free to give it to places that might be able to use it wisely.

"I'm going to live my life as I have lived it — and maybe a little better."

Molnar, a fellow at the CU's Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences for the past 13 years, is credited for pioneering the use of seismology to investigate the relationship between deep earthquakes and plate motion, showing that the sinking of oceanic crust into the mantle in subduction zones provides the main driving force for moving the plates.

Molnar said he had no idea he was even up for consideration for the prize, and stressed that such honors typically stem from others having gone to the trouble to satisfy fairly rigorous protocols

"I don't know how many people went to how much work," Molnar said. "The Royal Academy in Sweden doesn't tell me that. All l can say is a lot of people did a lot of work, and in some ways as big an honor as getting this, is just having such friends who care that much about me."

And, Molnar said, "None of the work was done alone. I've written a few papers in my life where I am the only author, but it's only few. I have worked with people all over, and am completely dependent on others. I suppose I bring something to these various studies, but there's a lot that other people, too, and I'm lucky to have fantastic colleagues in who live in different parts of the world and work on different topics that interest me."

In naming Molnar a Crafoord Laureate, the prize committee lauded his work in exploring "the driving forces behind plate motions and the place of continents in the plate tectonic model of Earth's evolution. Innovatively combining geological and geophysical methods of inquiry with satellite measurements and modelling, the Laureate has also paved the way to a new understanding of the formation of mountain ranges and their role in global tectonics."

More recently, Molnar has focused — in partnership with CIRES fellow Balaji Rajagopalan — on the upward and outward growth of eastern Tibet and how that might have affected Asian climate, and specifically, the South Asian monsoon.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, in recognizing Molnar, said "The Laureate focused his investigations on southern Asia and the collision between India and Eurasia, a process that began 50 million years ago and continues today, involving frequent major earthquakes in the Himalayas and Tibet."

His research included interpretations of satellite images with other geological and geophysical tools of inquiry, including reconstruction of the plate convergence prior to collision.

Through such research, the academy said Molnar and his colleagues were better able to explain the pattern of deformation in that continent-continent collision zone.

Contact Camera Staff Writer Charlie Brennan at 303-473-1327, brennanc@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/chasbrennan.