When University of Chicago professor Joseph Victor Smith was a boy on his parents’ farm in the north of England, he would pull away from his farmwork, look at the moon and wonder why part of it was white and part was black.
Years later, Smith found himself conducting tests on Apollo 11 lunar samples. In early December 1969, the answer to his boyhood question about the moon’s colors dawned on him. The white material was rock enriched with feldspar. The black material was basalt, solidified lava. Smith realized that feldspar crystals, being lighter than basalt, probably floated to the highland areas of the moon when the planet was a ball of molten lava. The moon’s crust must have been extensively melted, Smith concluded, in a series of catastrophic meteorite impacts.
“There had to have been tremendous collisions. There’s no way the moon could have got where it was without melting. This was heresy in those days,” Smith said in a 1999 interview, recalling prevailing theory of 1970. His model of a “hot moon” has gained increasing support over the cooler models and had led to a greater understanding of the origins of the universe.
Smith was the Louis Block Professor Emeritus in Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago, where he taught and conducted research from 1960 to 2003. He died of pneumonia at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston on April 6, aged 78, after a five-year battle with Parkinson’s disease.
Smith had a longstanding concern for the environment and the preservation of the Earth. Since the 1980s, he had drawn attention to threats to the human race presented by Earth — colliding asteroids, comets and other natural hazards— in a series of articles and conference presentations. In 1982, in accepting the Roebling Medal from the Mineralogical Society of America, he argued that society must shift funds from “war machines” to science, and work toward an understanding that “we all belong to one human race, and must learn to live in peace on this planet.”
In 1998, he organized a National Academy of Sciences colloquium on “Geology, Mineralogy, and Human Welfare.” At the time of his death, he was completing a manuscript titled “Living Safely,” which was part-memoir of his life as a farmer’s boy and research scientist, part-environmental treatise.
Smith wrote more 400 scientific articles that were published in journals including Science, Nature, Journal of Geology, Scientific American, and Proceedings of the International Seminar on Nuclear War. He also was author of Geometrical and Structural Crystallography, published by Wiley, and a three-volume scientific reference series on feldspar minerals.
“Feldspars are the most abundant, most important minerals in the crust of the Earth, and Joe Smith was the world authority on those minerals,” said Robert Clayton, the Enrico Fermi Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Chemistry and Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago. Smith also studied an industrially important mineral group called zeolites, volcanism in east Africa, and lunar geology, said J. Barry Dawson, Professor Emeritus of Earth Science at the University of Edinburgh. “A very multifaceted man was Joe,” Dawson said.
For much of his career, Smith served as a consultant to Union Carbide Corporation and UOP for his zeolite expertise. Smith helped industry harness zeolite as molecular sieves to improve the yield of gasoline from oil and produce environmentally friendly, phosphate-free detergents.
In the early 1970s, Smith collaborated with Dawson, who was then at the University of St. Andrews, in analyzing the composition of rocks and minerals brought to the Earth’s surface from the upper mantle, the layer below the outer crust. Their studies identified the first sample of diamond in garnet lherzolite, a solid rock from the mantle. Their work showed that diamond formation was not connected with volcanic activity, which geologists had previously assumed.
Smith also was a scientific entrepreneur in the development of scientific instruments, Clayton said. At the Carnegie Institution of Washington in the early 1950s, Smith built an X-ray generator out of junk equipment and chicken wire. When he arrived at the University of Chicago in 1960, he immediately built an electron microprobe for the Department of Geophysical Sciences.
“Now every geology department has to have an electron probe, and the department here was one of the first to get it,” Clayton said. “He was a real pioneer in developing the instrument.” Smith was also a pioneer in championing the careers of women scientists, whom he believed were unfairly underrepresented in science.
As a visiting physicist and consultant to Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York since the mid-1980s, he helped develop a microprobe for precision X-ray analysis of experimental samples. And in the early 1990s, Smith organized a multi-institutional, multi-disciplinary group of scientists to found the Consortium for Advanced Radiation Sources — CARS — to use the Advanced Photon Source in their research. The U.S. Department of Energy’s APS at Argonne National Laboratory provides the most brilliant source of X-ray beams for research in the Western Hemisphere.
Reflecting Smith’s broad interests, CARS embraced the geophysical sciences, soil and environmental science, structural biology, chemistry and materials science. Smith directed CARS from its founding until 1993.
Smith was born July 30, 1928, in Derbyshire, England. Raised on a farm in the Peak District of Derbyshire, he won a scholarship to Cambridge University. There he received a B.A. with first class honors in natural science, in 1948, and a Ph.D. in physics in 1951. Smith married his wife, Brenda Wallis, at St. Mary’s Church, Crich, Derbyshire, on Aug. 31, 1951.
He began his research career at the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, in 1951, returning to teach at Cambridge in 1954. From 1956 to 1960 he was a faculty member at Pennsylvania State University, where he began his seminal research on feldspar minerals. He joined the University of Chicago faculty as a full professor in 1960 at the age of 32.
Smith received many honors during his career, including election to the National Academy of Sciences, and was awarded the Geological Society of London’s Murchison Medal and the Mineralogical Society of America’s Roebling Medal and MSA Award.
He was an elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Geophysical Union, Geological Society of America, Meteoritical Society, Mineralogical Society of America and The Royal Society of London. He also was an Honorary Fellow of the Geological Society of London and of the Mineralogical Society of London.
He stayed connected to his native England, spending three months every year in Derbyshire when his daughters were young. “He never forgot his place of birth, and returned each summer to help with the hay-making,” Dawson recalled. “He was exceptionally loyal to family and friends.”
Professor Smith is survived by his wife, Brenda Smith, formerly of the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, now of Brookline, Mass., and two daughters, Virginia Smith, Brookline; and Susan Werther, Madison, Wisc.; and four grandchildren: Katie, John and Meg Hitchcock-Smith, and Jessica Werther.
He will be buried in Crich, Derbyshire in June. A memorial service will be held at Bond Chapel at the University of Chicago later this year.