Staff Scientist, Geophysical Laboratory, Carnegie Institution for Science

Clarence Robinson Professor, George Mason University

Earth scientist Robert Hazen has an unusually rich research portfolio. He is trying to understand the carbon cycle from deep inside the Earth; chemical interactions at crystal-water interfaces; the interactions of organic molecules on mineral surfaces as a possible springboard to life; how life arose from the chemical to the biological world; how life emerges in extreme environments; and the origin and distribution of life in the universe just to name a few topics. In tandem with this expansive Carnegie work, he is also the Clarence Robinson Professor of Earth Science at George Mason University. He has authored more than 400 articles and 25 books on science, history, and music.

As principal investigator of the Deep Carbon Observatory, Hazen oversees the primary mission of work to promote the transformational understanding of the chemical and biological roles of carbon in Earth's interior—a program in part supported by the Sloan Foundation.

In work on mineral-molecule interactions, it turns out that the origin of life’s biochemicals have “handedness,” like left and right handiness in people. Hazen and team believe that these so-called chiral mineral surfaces may have played a significant role in the selection and concentration of molecules necessary for life.

Although minerals are necessary for essential tasks, science has assumed that the mineral species found on Earth today are much the same as they were during Earth’s first 550 million years—the Hadean Eon—when life emerged. Hazen found this not to be true. He compiled a list of every plausible mineral species on the Hadean Earth and concludes that no more than 420 different minerals—about 8 percent of the nearly 5,000 species found on Earth today—would have been present at or near Earth’s surface.