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Runcorn, Stanley Keith


(b. Southport, Lancashire, England, 19 November 1922; d. San Diego, California, 5 December 1995), geophysics, geomagnetism, planetary science.

Runcorn ranks among the most innovative geophysicists of the late twentieth century, having endeavored to interpret geomagnetic data and its relation to possible movement of Earth’s continents over geological time. He also contributed to the elaboration and testing of theories of Earth’s main magnetic field and was a pioneer in pale-omagnetism and the investigation of the magnetism of the Moon, Mars, and other planets.

Early Years Keith Runcorn was born in Southport, Lancashire, England. He was the only son of William Henry Runcorn, a monumental mason, and Lily Idena Runcorn (née Roberts). He had one younger sister. Little is known of his childhood. He studied at King George V Grammar School in Southport and entered Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University, in 1940. There he read electrical engineering; passed the tripos, or final examination, in mechanical sciences in 1943; and received his BA degree in 1944.

In 1943 Runcorn was temporarily transferred to the Royal Radar Research and Development Establishment (RRDE), Malvern, Worcestershire, as an experimental officer. At the end of World War II, Charles W. Oatley, who had been the director of the RRDE, moved to Cambridge as reader in electrical engineering and accepted Runcorn for PhD work. However, the government required Run-corn and other researchers to remain at RRDE for three years, his time ending in September 1946.

Interest in Geomagnetism Meanwhile, Runcorn realized that his interest was shifting to physics, so he applied for a fellowship in that subject at the University of Manchester. Although he did not get the fellowship, Manchester— where Patrick M. S. Blackett was dean of science and headed the Physics Department—asked him to apply for a position as an assistant lecturer in physics. Runcorn began lecturing there in 1946 and worked with Clifford Butler and George Rochester to recondition Blackett’s pre-war cloud chamber for cosmic ray research. Runcorn considered concentrating in this subject.

This interest, however, lasted less than one year. Shortly after Runcorn arrived in Manchester, Blackett presented a colloquium in November 1946 on the magnetic fields of the Earth and Sun. He noted that the ratios of the magnetic dipoles to the respective angular momenta of the two bodies were roughly equal. Following Horace Babcock’s discovery that the star 78 Virginis has a magnetic field, Blackett revived the theory that rotating bodies produce a magnetic field because of a fundamental but unknown physics. Runcorn quickly switched to investigations of Earth’s magnetic field.

Runcorn noted in a letter to geophysicist Ted Irving in September 1980 that “Blackett’s excitement was immense.” After Blackett presented his theory to the Royal Society in May 1947, Runcorn and Blackett collaborated on an experimental test of it. Edward Crisp Bullard had noted that if Blackett were correct that all of Earth’s rotating mass contributes to its magnetic field, then intensity should decrease with depth in the Earth, whereas if electrical currents in Earth’s core produced its magnetism, then the magnetic field should increase with depth.

Runcorn first worked out the theory behind the test and was satisfied that these effects should be measurable. Then he directed a series of magnetic measurements in mines in the United Kingdom from 1947 to 1951. He drew his instrumentation and methods from colleagues in Holland and Scandinavia. Although Runcorn’s initial results (and those of others) supported Blackett’s theory, later results contradicted it. Runcorn’s first research project in geomagnetism demanded significant theoretical and experimental acumen. While part of the team measured magnetic intensity 900 meters (2,950 feet) down, others observed magnetic diurnal variation at the surface, and still others flew an aeromagnetic survey overhead. This large-scale experimental approach to geophysics came to characterize Runcorn’s research. Likewise, following the leads of Blackett and Bullard, Runcorn developed geomagnetic research projects that tested elements of theory against observables. This contrasted sharply with the gulf between physical speculation and magnetic data gathering of previous generations of researchers. Runcorn obtained his PhD from Manchester in 1949 based on this project.

During his time at Manchester from 1946 to 1950, Runcorn also had his first experience measuring the magnetism of sediments and familiarized himself with similar research underway in Europe and at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism of the Carnegie Institution of Washington in Washington, D.C. He taught the geomagnetism part of a course on geophysics for postgraduate students and attended meetings of the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics and the Geophysical Section of the Royal Astronomical Society. At the latter in 1949, J. M. Bruckshaw introduced him (and others) to the possible reverse magnetization of some rocks, until then a neglected (though known) phenomenon. Runcorn shifted his interest to paleomagnetism and to questions of deep-Earth processes this ancient record could address.

Move to Cambridge Meanwhile, Runcorn was elected to a fellowship at his alma mater, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University, in 1948 and was also promoted from assistant lecturer to lecturer at Manchester. In 1950 Ben Browne invited him to apply for Bullard’s former position as assistant director of research at the Cambridge Department of Geodesy and Geophysics, and he moved to Cambridge, at that time one of the leading research centers in geophysics in the world. As at Manchester, at Cambridge Runcorn included research students in his coordinated research projects. Many of these students later developed significant research careers.

In the 1950s Runcorn investigated paleomagnetism from many perspectives. To measure the weak remanent magnetism of rocks, he borrowed the very sensitive astatic magnetometer Blackett had designed for testing his theory of the rotational origin of magnetism. He had Kenneth Creer, a research student, produce a copy of this instrument for use at Cambridge in 1951, thus beginning a second British paleomagnetic research program. This program began an active collaboration between geologists and geophysicists at Cambridge. Runcorn also strengthened cooperation with the British Geological Survey.

Trained as an engineer and a physicist, Runcorn admitted his limited knowledge of geology.

Given that background, Runcorn directed his attention not to Earth’s crust but toward the mantle and core. When Jan Hospers published his paleomagnetic study of Tertiary Icelandic lavas in 1951, Runcorn noted the axial character of the magnetic field at that geological epoch and thought this indicated a connection between the Coriolis force and core motions. He assigned research students to conduct rotating convection experiments as a model of convection in the core and to investigate electrical conductivity of minerals and the paleomagnetism of the Precambrian Torridonian formation. He collected rock samples at the Grand Canyon in Arizona in 1954 and 1955 for the same purpose. Runcorn intended to determine the changing orientation of Earth’s magnetic dipole axis through paleomagnetic measurements.

While some other scientists in the early 1950s entertained the possibility of continental drift, Runcorn saw his paleomagnetic work in a different context. Having rejected Blackett’s rotational theory of Earth’s magnetism, he considered a core dynamo more likely. This led him to assume the alignment of Earth’s dipole axis with its rotational axis. He linked magnetic reversals to a dynamo model and to paleomagnetic results. That these results indicated a strongly oblique magnetic axis, differently oriented at different geological periods, led Runcorn to consider the possibility that Earth’s rotational axis had “wandered.” Polar wander became Runcorn’s alternative, overarching theory. Already in 1954, he and colleagues had produced a “polar wander curve” on a globe for a Royal Society soirée.

The idea of polar wander led him and then graduate student Neil Opdyke (at Columbia University in New York City) to investigate paleoclimates correlated against paleomagnetic results. Initial paleomagnetic results from Britain and the Grand Canyon indicated roughly the same axial orientations (erroneously). Wandering poles should mean wandering polar and equatorial climatic zones. Hence, Runcorn and Opdyke investigated paleocli-mate, too. New field results in 1955 and 1956 indicated that the “latitude” was wrong. As he, Edward Irving, and others obtained paleomagnetic results from the United States, Australia, and elsewhere, it became clear that results from different continents indicated different dipole axes. That is, Runcorn came to see this as evidence of continental drift. In 1956 Runcorn became enthusiastic about this evidence; it changed the context of paleomagnetic research for him from polar wander to continental drift. Notably, this is several years after Blackett, Ronald A. Fisher, and other British colleagues had begun to consider drift seriously. He did not, however, abandon the idea of polar wander; he now considered how polar wander and drift could both occur and both contribute to the observed phenomena.

Planetary Studies In January 1956, Runcorn accepted the chair of physics at King’s College, University of Newcastle at Newcastle upon Tyne (then the University of Durham). He also served as head of the Physics Department from 1956 until his retirement in 1988. Runcorn brought former research students to Newcastle as junior faculty members and built a strong geophysical research program within the Physics Department. The group contributed to many research areas, including convection in the Earth and Moon, the magnetic fields of the Moon and planets, magnetohydrodynamics of Earth’s core, changes in length of day, and various topics in paleogeophysics. He organized many conferences funded by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, bringing international colleagues together in Newcastle to consider geophysical issues.

During his thirty-two years as head of the Physics Department at Newcastle, Runcorn traveled almost incessantly, lecturing to geophysicists around the world. For example, in 1957 he was visiting professor of geophysics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, California, in 1961 and 1962 a visiting scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech, and in 1963 a senior visiting fellow at the Australian Academy of Science. Although most of these visiting posts occurred during summer breaks in the academic schedule, a number were during the academic year. Runcorn also attended a great many scientific meetings. He was sometimes referred to as the “theoretical visiting professor of physics in Newcastle.”

Runcorn never abandoned the idea that the core of a planet (or a moon) might display complex interactions with its surface. That is, acceptance of continental drift did not deny the possibilities of polar wander and a slippage between Earth’s core and mantle. These just became secondary phenomena. In the 1960s he continued to publish articles such as “Paleomagnetic Methods of Investigating Polar Wandering and Continental Drift” (1953) and many articles on the effects of convection currents in the mantle on continental displacement.

Runcorn also considered possible electromagnetic linkages between the core and mantle and how these could affect the rotation of the planet. He saw Earth as part of a complex system of interacting forces, including these electromagnetic linkages as well as tidal friction interactions with the Moon. He even saw coral growth rings as an independent way to check other means of studying Earth’s rotation rate. When Runcorn undertook an empirical study, whether of paleomagnetism, coral growth rings, or predominant climates or wind directions in ages long past, it was never a simple empirical study. It was always part of a deep investigation of possible Earth-system phenomena. It was always tied to profound, if tentative, theory.

Runcorn received many honors. The Royal Meteorological Society awarded him its Napier Shaw Prize in 1959 for studies of paleoclimate. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1965. He received the Charles Chree Medal in 1969 from the Physical Society (which merged the next year with the Institute of Physics) and the most valued prize for earth science, the Vetlesen Prize, in 1971 from Columbia University and the Vetlesen Foundation (known as the Nobel Prize of Geology). In recognition of his research in planetary physics, the Royal Astronomical Society awarded him its Gold Medal in 1984. In 1987 the European Geophysical Society awarded him the Wegener Medal, a most appropriate award given Runcorn’s important role in supporting the theory of continental drift. He was a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, the Institute of Physics and the Physics Society, the American Physical Society, and the American Geophysical Union. Lastly, he received honorary doctorates from Utrecht, Ghent, Paris, and Bergen universities and was named Honorary or Foreign Fellow of the Indian National Science Academy, Royal Netherlands Academy of Science, Pontifical Academy of Science, Royal Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, Academia Europaea, Bavarian Academy of Science, and Royal Society of New South Wales.

Keith Runcorn never married. A homosexual, he did not keep that fact secret, but neither did he make it a topic of conversation. He was murdered in a hotel room in San Diego, California, by a professional kickboxer who claimed he was defending himself from an unwanted sexual advance. The court convicted the kickboxer of first-degree murder and robbery and sentenced him to twenty-five years to life in prison.

Runcorn primarily dedicated himself to promoting geophysics and to his research. When he was murdered he was on his way to a meeting of the American Geophysical Union, which he attended regularly and where he was known for his active discussions with colleagues and students of geophysical theory and research. Keith Runcorn’s curiosity and open mind about the deepest processes within Earth’s core and mantle, and his broad vision of Earth as one of many planets, are his greatest legacies.


Runcorn’s correspondence, manuscript notebooks, and other papers are at Imperial College, London. The collection of Sir Edward Crisp Bullard at Churchill College, Cambridge, U.K., includes extensive Runcorn correspondence. A bibliography of over four hundred research articles and monographs is available in the database GEOREF.


“The Radial Variation of the Earth’s Magnetic Field.” Proceedings of the Royal Society Series A, 61 (1948): 373–382.

“Variation of Geomagnetic Intensity with Depth.” Nature 161 (1948): 52.

With A. C. Benson, D. H. Griffiths, and A. F. Moore. “Measurements of the Variation with Depth of the Main Geomagnetic Field.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series A, 244, no. 878 (1951): 113–151.

“The Earth’s Core.” Transactions of the American Geophysical Union 35, no. 1 (February 1954): 49–63.

“Rock Magnetism: Geophysical Aspects.” Advances in Physics 4 (14) (1955): 244–291.

“The Earth’s Magnetism.” Scientific American 193, no. 3 (September 1955): 152–162. A readable overview.

With D. W. Collinson, K. M. Creer, and E. Irving. “The Measurement of the Permanent Magnetization of Rocks.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series A, 250, no. 974 (1957): 73–82.

With Edward Irving. “Analysis of the Palaeomagnetism of the Torridonian Sandstone Series of North-west Scotland.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series A, 250, no. 974 (1957): 83–99.

With Kenneth M. Creer. “Palaeomagnetic Results from Different Continents and Their Relation to the Problem of Continental Drift.” Annales de Geophysique 14 (1959): 492–501. “Rock Magnetism.” Science 129, no. 3355 (17 April 1959): 1002–1012.

With D. W. Collinson. “Polar Wandering and Continental Drift—Evidence from Paleomagnetic Observations in the United States.” Geological Society of America Bulletin 71, no. 7 (1960): 915–958.

With Neil D. Opdyke. “Wind Direction in the Western United States in the Late Paleozoic.” Geological Society of America Bulletin 71, no. 7 (1960): 959–971.

“Climatic Change through Geological Time in the Light of the Palaeomagnetic Evidence for Polar Wandering and Continental Drift.” Royal Meteorological Society Quarterly Journal 87, no. 373 (1961): 282–313.

“Palaeomagnet Methor or Investigating Polar Wandering and Continental Drift.” Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists 10 (1963): 47–54.

“Palaeomagnetic Comparisons between Europe and North America: Symposium on Continental Drift.” Royal Society of London, Philosophical Transactions Series A, 258, no. 1088 (1965): 1–11.

“Planetary Magnetic Fields as a Test of the Dynamo Theory.” Geophysical Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 15 (1968): 183–189.

“On the Interpretation of Lunar Magnetism.” Physics of the Earth and Planetary Interiors 10, no. 4 (August 1975): 327–335.

“Mechanism of Plate Tectonics: Mantle Convection Currents, Plumes, Gravity Sliding or Expansion? Orthodoxy and Creativity at the Frontiers of Earth Sciences.” Tectonophysics 63 (10 March 1980): 297–307.

With Kenneth M. Creer and John A. Jacobs. “The Role of the Core in Irregular Fluctuations of the Earth’s Rotation and the Excitation of the Chandler Wobble—The Earth’s Core: Its Structure, Evolution, and Magnetic Field: Discussion.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series A, no. 306, no. 1492 (1982): 261–270.

“The Moon’s Ancient Magnetism.” Scientific American 257, no. 6 (December 1987): 60–68.


Collinson, D. W. “Stanley Keith Runcorn.” Biographical Memoirs of the Royal Society of London 48 (2002): 391–403.

Creer, Kenneth M. “(Stanley) Keith Runcorn.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 48. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Lowes, Frank J. “Keith’s Early Work in Geomagnetism.” Physics and Chemistry of the Earth 23, nos. 7–8 (1998): 703–707.

Nye, Mary Jo. Blackett: Physics, War, and Politics in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Gregory A. Good

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Runcorn, Stanley Keith

Runcorn, Stanley Keith (1922–95) A geophysicist and head of the School of Physics at the University of Newcastle, Runcorn was best known for his studies of polar-wander curves, but he also did work on convection currents in the mantle. In 1959 he was able to show that the curves for N. America and Europe could be reconciled if it were assumed that the Atlantic Ocean had once been closed.

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