Brown geologist elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Alberto Saal, a geology professor at Brown, is honored for his work in helping scientists understand the formation and early history of Earth and the Moon.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Brown University Professor Alberto Saal has been elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the nation’s most prestigious honor societies.

Saal, who joins 269 new members of the academy, is an expert in Earth science and known for his work examining the interior of Earth and the Moon. A professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Brown, Saal’s work is important in shedding new light on the formation and early history of these two celestial bodies.

The election to the society caught Saal almost completely off-guard.

“I received an email and it said the ‘Your Election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences,’ so when I read that I was almost ready to delete it because I receive a lot of spam like this,” Saal said. “I then read on and realized this one was real. I was completely surprised by it. I never expected anything like this. I'm very humbled by it.”

Saal joins 43 current and former Brown faculty members who have been elected to the academy, including University President Christina H. Paxson, Nobel Laureates Leon Cooper and Michael Kosterlitz, and National Medal of Science winner S. James Gates Jr.

Founded in 1780, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is one of the nation’s oldest learned societies and independent policy research centers, convening leaders from academic, arts, business and government sectors to examine new ideas and address critical challenges facing global society. Members are selected through a highly competitive process that recognizes individuals who have made preeminent contributions to their disciplines and to society.

“With the election of these members, the Academy is honoring excellence, innovation and leadership and recognizing a broad array of stellar accomplishments,” said David W. Oxtoby, the Academy’s president. “We hope every new member celebrates this achievement and joins our work advancing the common good.”

The new members join a distinguished group of individuals elected to the academy before them, including Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Mead and Martin Luther King Jr. This year’s new class of members features prominent scholars and artists, including Lin-Manuel Miranda, Zadie Smith and Ilya Kaminsky.

“In its earliest days, the Academy sought members who would help address issues and opportunities confronting a young nation,” said Nancy C. Andrews, chair of the Academy’s board of directors. “We feel a similar urgency and have elected a class that brings diverse expertise to meet the pressing challenges and possibilities that America and the world face today.”

Saal joined Brown’s Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences in 2003. His research group has been working to determine the origin, scale, composition and evolution of the mantle of the Earth and Moon respectively.

Through numerous studies, Saal and his research group have advanced scientific understanding of water in the Moon’s interior, how Earth and the Moon share common water source and what drove the Moon’s ancient “fire fountain” eruptions.

In a recent paper analyzing volcanic glass from the Moon, Saal and his research group also helped clarify long-standing questions about the composition of the Moon’s interior, including formation of the Moon’s iron core and the crystallization of the lunar magma ocean — a sea of molten rock thought to have covered the Moon for around 100 million years after it formed.

Saal received his Ph.D. in geology from the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba in Argentina and a Ph.D. in oceanography from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s joint program. He decided on his career path as a way to merge two subjects he was most passionate about.

“I was born in Córdoba, Argentina, and every weekend I would go to the mountains near there,” Saal said. “So I thought a nice way to combine what I loved — which was chemistry and the outdoors — was through geology and geochemistry so that’s what I did.”