Symposium honors Paul Ribbe for contributions to mineral and geochemical science

BLACKSBURG, Va., Nov. 30, 2004 – Feldspars, which make up 60 percent of all the rock on the earth's surface, were little understood as recently as the 1950s. Professor Helen Megaw of Cambridge University was the expert and led a research group of Ph.D. students including Paul Ribbe who was to make significant advances in the crystallography of feldspars and, as a byproduct, launch a series of books that have become the definitive work on mineralogy.

Ribbe, who retired in 1996 after 30 years as professor of geosciences at Virginia Tech and editor of 57 volumes of what became "Reviews in Mineralogy and Geochemistry," was honored with a symposium at the 116th national meeting of the Geological Society of America.

As a Ph.D. student in the early 1960s, Ribbe began to look at the atomic structure of albite feldspars. By the time Ross Angel was an undergraduate at Cambridge in the next decade, Ribbe's research was the subject of classroom instruction.

"Feldspars are horribly complicated," said Angel, research professor in crystallography at Virginia Tech, who is co-organizer of the symposium. "People were doing a kind of stamp-collecting version of classification — almost a green one, a blue one .... Dr. Ribbe built a systematic connection between the atomic structure, or how the atoms are arranged, in feldspar and related that to macroscopic parameters that you can measure, such as thermodynamic properties. So that, based on a sample's structure you can figure out the temperature and pressure at which it formed."

Known as the "micro to macro" approach, it is now also applied to other minerals. But before that began to happen, Ribbe put the feldspar work into a review course, then he taught a short course on feldspars sponsored by the Geological Society of America (GSA). When he published the short course notes, it became the second volume of "Reviews in Mineralogy."

The first book in the "Reviews" series was actually a set of formal notes by Ribbe, J.V. Smith, and Dave Stewart from a 1965 workshop Ribbe led on sulfides. Ribbe turned the notes into a small yellow book nine years later and had it printed locally. Virginia Tech professor of geosciences Michael Hochella said "Sulfide Minerals" had a press run of several hundred, "and not many people noticed."

Most of the volumes are still associated with short courses. The organizers must make a proposal to the Mineralogical Society of America, and since, the Geochemical Society became a co-publisher in 2000, to a joint council. "In the early editions, Paul was involved in the proposal and production of the short courses as well as the Reviews," Angel said. "Paul's job was to make sure the volume appeared on time and in the right format. In far too little time, he produced high quality output from often incompatible files. He continued to do the Review after his retirement until a year ago."

"Having a chapter in the Review is an honor. It means high visibility for your work," Hochella said.

Hochella, who earned his bachelor's and master's degrees at Virginia Tech, knew Ribbe as a teacher as well as a colleague. "Paul taught me X-ray crystallography. He was special as a scientific and personal mentor — a personal inspiration. But that is not what the GSA program is about. The Reviews are his legacy," Hochella said.

"There are thousands of pages of science in 57 volumes sold worldwide. He put every volume together. It was all privately done and the impact is international," Hochella said. "Any mineralogist or geochemist knows about these books. Without Paul, it wouldn't have happened. Hundreds of thousands of copies have been sold — for hard-core science, that is a lot. It is also sent to all the libraries that get American Mineralogist."

The Mineralogical Society of America awarded Ribbe their distinguished service medal in 1993. "He deserved it five times over," Hochella said.

Hochella's former Ph.D. student, Jodi Junta Rosso, joined Paul as co-editor for a few years and became sole series editor when Ribbe retired. She works from her home in Richland, Wash.

The Ribbe symposium, from 1:30 to 5:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 8, in rooms 103/105 of the Colorado Convention Center, and 8 a.m. until noon Tuesday, Nov. 9, in rooms 708/710/712, is sponsored by Council of the Mineralogical Society of America. Following a historical introduction by Hochella, three internationally recognized scientists will give keynote addresses: Patricia Dove, a Virginia Tech alumnus and now professor in geosciences, will speak on recent advances in the fields of biomineralogy. Mickey Gunter, a Virginia Tech alumnus now on the faculty at the University of Idaho, will speak on environmental mineralogy, and Frank Hawthorne of the University of Manitoba will speak on "Short range order in amphiboles," another example of the micro to macro approach pioneered by Ribbe. Angel, who will talk about novel behavior in feldspars at high pressure, said "feldspars continue to remain the most stringent testing ground of our understanding of the behavior of not just minerals, but the crystalline state."

Founded in 1872 as a land-grant college, Virginia Tech has grown to become among the largest universities in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Today, Virginia Tech's eight colleges are dedicated to putting knowledge to work through teaching, research, and outreach activities and to fulfilling its vision to be among the top research universities in the nation. At its 2,600-acre main campus located in Blacksburg and other campus centers in Northern Virginia, Southwest Virginia, Hampton Roads, Richmond, and Roanoke, Virginia Tech enrolls more than 28,000 full- and part-time undergraduate and graduate students from all 50 states and more than 100 countries in 180 academic degree programs.