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BC professor wins Kyoto Prize for developing theory of frozen Earth

BC professor wins Kyoto Prize for developing theory of frozen Earth
BC professor wins Kyoto Prize for developing theory of frozen Earth

Paul Hoffman, a geology professor at UVic, has won a prize seen as Japan’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize

Paul Hoffman, a professor at the University of Victoria, was awarded the Kyoto Prize for Fundamental Sciences on June 14 for his contributions to geological research, including his groundbreaking “snowball Earth hypothesis,” which proposes that the Earth’s surface was once almost completely frozen.

“Dr. Hoffman’s immense 60-year field research in Arctic Canada and sub-Saharan Africa is critical to our understanding of the Earth’s surface — knowledge that students now, and for years to come, will build on in their academic pursuits,” said Lisa Kalynchuk, UVic Vice-President, Research and Innovation, in a press release.

The Kyoto Prize is awarded by the Inamori Foundation and is the Japanese equivalent of the Swedish Nobel Prize. It is given to individuals who have made significant contributions to science and technology or art and philosophy. Recipients of the prize receive 100 million yen as part of the prize, which is approximately C$850,000.

Hoffman is the first geologist to receive the award, and only the third Canadian in any field to win.

Hoffman’s Snowball Earth hypothesis was initially dismissed by other scientists as improbable. They argued that if the Earth had ever been so frozen that there was no liquid water in the atmosphere, the Earth would never be able to recover from such an extended ice age.

So Hoffman set out to test the theory, conducting geological surveys in the African country of Namibia to study 600 million year old glacial deposits that exist there. These surveys were able to prove aspects of his hypothesis, and he published his findings in 1998.

“At the beginning of this work, and especially after I published my 1998 scientific paper, other scientists thought I was wasting my time and even that I was putting science in a bad light,” Hoffman is quoted as saying in his UVic biography. “But I believed that if I defended the hypothesis, I would find out sooner if it was wrong. But if the idea was right, the consequences would be great.”

Although questions remained in the scientific community after his initial research was published, Hoffman persisted. The snowball Earth theory is now widely accepted, the university said.

Hoffman began his career at the Geological Survey of Canada, where he studied plate tectonics. In 1992, he began his first of two terms at UVic. He then went on to work as a professor of geology at Harvard University for 14 years. In 2011, he returned to UVic, where he continues to work as an associate professor, primarily focused on research.

He is working on a new study book on Snowball Earth that will be published in 2025.