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May-June 2010

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In Memoriam: Brian Harold Mason (1917–2009)

Brian Harold Mason (1917–2009)Autobiographies of scientists seldom make my must-read list. They are often self-aggrandizing attempts to make the trivial important and the mundane glamorous. It was much to my surprise when Brian Mason's autobiography, From Mountains to Meteorites, cowritten by New Zealander Simon Nathan, opened my eyes about the life of my next-door neighbor at the Smithsonian. Born in New Zealand in 1917, Brian graduated from the University of Canterbury in 1936, earning master's degrees in geology and chemistry. His commitment to Canterbury continues with the Mason Trust Fund for student research in geology and the Brian Mason Research Facility. He was an avid climber and explored much of the Southern Alps. After graduation, Brian worked for the New Zealand Geological Survey and Shell Oil.

By 1939, Brian was ready to pursue a PhD and the next great adventure. He was accepted to work with Victor M. Goldschmidt, founder of the modern science of geochemistry, in Oslo, Norway. In 1940, the Nazis swept into Norway and Brian escaped to Sweden, where he earned a doctorate in 1943 from the University of Stockholm. Brian published the biography Victor Moritz Goldschmidt: Father of Modern Geochemistry in 1992.

The next ten years took Brian around the globe. Slipping out of Sweden in 1943 on a planeload of military parts, Brian moved back to the University of Canterbury, staying until 1947. He spent the next six years at the University of Indiana, where he wrote the seminal textbook Principles of Geochemistry. Although Goldschmidt established geochemistry as a discipline, Brian popularized it. First published in 1952, it has been through four editions, sold more than sixty thousand copies in the United States, and been translated into four languages.

In 1953, Brian moved to the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the field of meteorites. In 1962, he published the simply named book Meteorites, which became another standard text. Brian joined the Smithsonian in 1965. He traveled to Allende, Mexico, in 1969 to collect meteorites that contain the oldest material in the solar system. He was a principal investigator for the lunar samples and, with Bill Melson, wrote The Lunar Rocks. In 1976, Brian began classifying meteorites from Antarctica, eventually classifying more than ten thousand, including the first lunar meteorite.

Mineralogy was infused throughout Brian's career. His PhD was on the iron-manganese minerals from the Langban mine in western Sweden. In 1959, Brian published, with L. G. Berry, Mineralogy: Concepts, Descriptions, Determinations. His last major publication was Dana's New Mineralogy, an 1800-page treatise on mineralogical systematics, in 1997.

Throughout his career, Brian was widely honored, including with the Leonard Medal of the Meteoritical Society in 1972, the Roebling Medal of the Mineralogical Society of America in 1993, the naming of asteroid 12926Brianmason, and the naming of the minerals brianite, Na2CaMg(PO4)2, and stenhuggarite, CaFe3+SbAs2O7, (meaning “stone mason” in Swedish).

I will always remember Brian for his wry sense of humor, his impressive memory, and, most of all, his love of the written word. I was to become Brian's successor in the classification of Antarctic meteorites. Despite having been retired for a dozen years when I started at the Smithsonian, Brian never rushed me to take over the task. In truth, only the arrival of a new electron microprobe finally inspired him to step aside. Several years later, I had struggled for some time to decide one of the new meteorites was similar to a rare Australian meteorite named Brachina. In typical Brian style, I showed him the Antarctic thin section, and, without any comment on my part, he said it looked like Brachina.

His love of the written word was unsurpassed. He wrote standard texts in mineralogy, geochemistry, and meteoritics, all typed on his trusty Smith-Corona. As he was cleaning out his office one day, he pointed to his voluminous book collection and told me to take whatever I wanted. I had been a book collector for some years, but this was the offer of a lifetime! I took the five-volume Deer, Howie, and Zussman set, and one of my most prized books is Brian's copy of Goldschmidt's Geochemistry. When Brian learned that I had a soft spot for books that might be described as left-of-center, he insisted that I take We Never Went to the Moon.

Brian passed away on 3 December 2009, at the age of ninety-two. His was a life fully lived, and, though we miss him, his words live on to future generations of geologists.

Dr. Timothy McCoy is the curator-incharge of the National Meteorite Collection at the Smithsonian Institution.

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