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U of M geology and geophysics professor elected to the National Academy of Sciences

R. Lawrence Edwards is best known for his climate change research

May 3, 2011

University of Minnesota geology and geophysics professor R. Lawrence Edwards in the College of Science and Engineering was elected today as a member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) for his excellence in original scientific research. Membership in the NAS is one of the highest honors given to a scientist or engineer in the United States.

“This is the honor of a career, and an honor for Minnesota as well,” Edwards said. “It recognizes the research carried out at the University of Minnesota, as I have spent my entire professional career here."

Edwards is known worldwide for his development of extremely precise methods for measuring the ages of rocks and how that relates to climate change. To determine the age of rocks, he uses the "uranium-thorium" (also called the "thorium-230") dating method, in which he must detect incredibly small amounts of the elements uranium and thorium. He uses these methods to date rocks found in caves in China to document climate change patterns in history.

By also measuring the proportions of different forms of oxygen, he can tell how much rain fell at the time the rock was deposited. He and his research team have tracked the monsoons with great accuracy back 400,000 years, when Homo erectus, not Homo sapiens, inhabited the region.

In more recent research, Edwards and his colleagues published research on a rock found in 2007 in a Chinese cave that contained what was determined to be a 100,000-year-old jawbone. In dating the rock with the jawbone, Edwards raised profound questions of whether modern humans could have made it across the vast expanse of Asia far earlier than suspected. Because the remains also bore characteristics of more primitive humans who were already in the area, it is possible that the two groups could have coexisted for some time the way moderns and Neanderthals did in Europe.

“Edwards’ research findings are groundbreaking. We are proud of his accomplishments and his election to the National Academy of Sciences,” said Steven L. Crouch, dean of the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering. “Like many of our faculty, he is humble about his ongoing, cutting-edge research. We’re happy he’s in the spotlight with this honor.”

Edwards is one of only 72 researchers nationwide to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences this year. He will be inducted into the Academy next April during its 149th annual meeting in Washington, D.C. Among the Academy’s renowned members are Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer, Thomas Edison, Orville Wright and Alexander Graham Bell. More than 180 living Academy members have won Nobel Prizes.

The National Academy of Sciences is an honorific society of distinguished scholars engaged in scientific and engineering research, dedicated to the furtherance of science and technology and to their use for the general welfare.

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University of Minnesota geology and geophysics professor R. Lawrence Edwards in the College of Science and Engineering was elected today as a member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

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