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David Turnbull died on 28 April 2007

Zhigang Suo's picture

David Turnbull died peacefully at home last Saturday, April 28th, at age 92.

He was for many years Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics at Harvard University. His seminal work included theoretical and experimental studies of nucleation of crystals, the glass transition and the amorphous state, crystal growth, and atomic diffusion.

In 1992 the Materials Research Society (MRS) established the David Turnbull Lectureship to recognize each year the career of a scientist who has made outstanding contributions to understanding materials phenomena and properties through research, writing, and lecturing. His autobiography and a biography are available on the MRS website.

He retired in 1985 but was active and visited his office on the second floor of Pierce Hall right up until the last six months or so.


Michael Aziz's picture

David Turnbull's death saddens us all.  He had an enormous impact on so many of us and his presence will be sorely missed.  His legacy includes a strong and growing materials science program at Harvard; and his unique way of thinking about materials, which he taught to his extraordinary extended family of academic progeny -- see

Teng Li's picture

A recent visit to 2003 David Turnbull lecturer, Ellen D. Williams' office reminded me the great Turnbull. I still remember those days Prof. Turnbull sitting with us enjoying the Thursday Materials Science Seminars in McKay Lab, The Turnbull Room.


Few people may be aware of David Turnbull's influence on the explanation of a perplexing residual problem of the well known organizing principal for world-wide tectonics called plate tectonics. Back in 1963 I took my sabbatical from UCLA at Harvard. Jim Thompson and Jim Hays from the then Division of Geological Sciences arranged a joint seminar on behavior of materials with the people across Oxford Street. The point of the seminar was cross-fertilization between the fields of material science and geology. Among the other participants in the seminar were Bruce Chalmers and David Turnbull.

At the time of the seminar plate tectonics was just emerging in print. Also simultaneously I had no recognition of the possible linkage of David Turnbull with plate tectonics. In the following period of field and microscopic observations by a number of geologists of the predicted consequences of that theory there arose the thorny problem of the survival of the dimorph of calcium carbonate, aragonite, in rocks of the relict subduction zone in the California Coast Range. Aragonite is the higher pressure equivalent of calcite, the stable form of calcium carbonate under surface conditions. The prevailing view was that erosional denudation of the higher pressure rocks should have resulted in slow cooling and inversion of aragonite into calcite. But there had been no accurate determination of the kinetics of the transition to help guide geological interpretation. But careful microscopic examination of the rocks displayed many examples of topotactic intergrowths of the two dimorphs, a crucial clue. Many years later during another seminar, this time at UCLA, Bill Carlson and I decided to use the petrographic microscope and heating stage to apply experimentally Turnbull’s Arrhenius-type equation for velocity of movement of the coherent interface between the two dimorphs. The results conformed beautifully with Turnbull’s relationship and showed that the simple denudational model would require too high a temperature in the calcite stability field for the aragonite to survive. This result dove-tailed neatly with the simultaneous work of Cloos and Shreve showing that circulating sediment in the sedimentary wedge of the underthrust subduction zone behaved as a high-pressure, high-velocity cooling system. The work, including the work of Cloos and Shreve, is described in: Carlson and Rosenfeld., 1981, Jour. Geol. 89: 615-638.

I cannot say definitely whether or not the above-mentioned seminar launched me into the above line of research, but I am inclined to think that it did. For that I am grateful. David Turnbull was a great teacher and a fine scientist. We will miss him.

After I left Harvard University,  I appreciated even more the quiet scholarship of my thesis advisor, David Turnbull.  He never had to sell his ideas, as his intellect and depth of  understanding spoke for themselves.   Prof. Turnbull was dyslexic as a child and his mother spent many hours reading with him.  He credits her with overcoming this significant obstacle.  I remember him also telling me he was "lazy"!  If only we could all be so lazy as him..the world would be a smarter place.  I enjoyed his story about having to give a paper on undercooling of mercury droplets and he had not yet done the experimental work.  He created the droplet emulsion in a blender, as I recall and got the data for his seminal work on undercooling of liquid droplets, a topic which he and his students studied over many years to come.  On a personal side, he was very quiet but cared deeply about his students.  I came to know this through his wife.  I visited with Prof. Turnbull several months before his death.  In spite of severe disability at this time, with limited ability to talk, his eyes still twinkled.   I am indeed grateful for the opportunity to have been his student.  He set a wonderful example of how to be a scientist and to seek truth by careful experimental method and data analysis. 

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