Earth Institute Director Alex Halliday Honored with Knighthood
Years before Alex Halliday joined Columbia University’s Earth Institute as its director, he was changing the field of geochemistry. It was during the early 1990s that he saw the potential of a new kind of mass spectrometer for studying small isotopic variations in elements that were difficult to ionize and measure using current methods. Halliday’s research team was the first to get its hands on one of these instruments.
New discoveries ensued and soon he was studying problems like the age of the moon, how oceans evolved, and eventually even the role of trace elements in cancer tumors. Many labs around the world now use these instruments and it was Halliday who helped pave the way. Because of his pioneering research he was recognized in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours 2019, with a knighthood for services to science and innovation. The investiture ceremony will take place at Buckingham Palace May 9.
Sitting in his office recently, Halliday quoted another knight, the chemist Sir Humphry Davy, who said some 200 years earlier: “Nothing begets good science like the development of a good instrument.”
“If you can develop a completely new technique,” said Halliday, “then often you can make new discoveries. Focusing on technique development is always something I’ve cared about deeply.” Though he is honored and delighted with the recognition, Halliday says he’s aware that it is not all about himself. “I've been fortunate to have amazing colleagues, students, friends and, above all, family members, who have supported and inspired me,” he said. And indeed many from the past have reached out to offer their congratulations including his geology teacher from high school.
Halliday talks about searching through the periodic table looking for isotopic variations much like an explorer in the New World. There is an excitement about developing and applying new techniques to discover something about the natural world that was largely unknown or under-constrained. By opening up the periodic table to the study of small isotopic variations in natural samples, the methodologies now have been used for dozens of different applications, from unlocking secrets of our solar system to better understanding human biology.
Halliday hopes his knighthood will bring more recognition to the importance of supporting cross-disciplinary activities and innovative technologies. This is an area in which the Earth Institute can help. “In the past, there’s been a tendency to work on environmental problems in small groups,” he said. “However, planetary management, better climate modeling and forecasting, sea-level change; and decarbonizing society really need large, multi-facetted teams of researchers.”
The team approach has worked well for global efforts, like space programs or particle physics, because there is a common, long-term goal that unites researchers, he said. “But if we can pool our resources and efforts, we may be able to work more effectively on these global problems, and institutions like Columbia will be seen as more directly relevant to the work of communities; businesses; and local, regional, and national governments.”
Halliday believes one of the reasons why climate change issues may not have been considered with a sufficient sense of urgency is that there’s no obvious straightforward fix and the problems are complex. “The subject of sustainability is strongly interdisciplinary,” he said. “One needs physicists, chemists, global health experts, statisticians, engineers, economists, policy experts, and those studying ethics, law, and governance. All these individuals have to work together. Then we need people who think about communication and the media—how to create a narrative that resonates in a human way with people. The reason why the Earth Institute exists is because the problems are multifaceted and we have to get these people together to solve it. Columbia is a great place to start.”