Skip over navigation

James Head

Geological Sciences
Phone: +1 401 863 2526

Professor Head studies themes of planetary evolution and the role of volcanism and tectonism in the formation and evolution of planetary crusts. Several research projects are underway in the field in Antarctica, on the Earth's seafloor, and in assessing data from planetary surfaces to study climate change on Mars, volcanism on the Moon, Mars and Venus, the geology of the surface of Mercury and the tectonic and volcanic evolution of icy satellites.


Prof. Head earned a B.S. from Washington and Lee U. in 1964 and his Ph.D. from Brown University in 1969. During 4 years with Bellcomm, Inc. in Washington, DC in the NASA Systems Analysis Branch, his research focus shifted to planetary geology studies relating to the Apollo Lunar Exploration Program including training of Apollo astronauts. Following a position as Interim Director of the Houston Lunar Science Institute, he joined the Brown Department of Geological Sciences as assistant professor (research) in 1973, then was promoted to full professor in 1980, named to the James Manning Chair in 1990, and in 1995 was named to the Louis and Elizabeth Scherck Professorship in Geological Sciences.


Research in progress relates both to 1) understanding the fundamental physical aspects of geological processes operating on the planets and satellites and, 2) the application of this knowledge to deconvolving the complex signal of the history of the planet contained in the geological record.

Recently, specific emphasis has been placed on the following areas:

1) Volcanism and the Earth's seafloor as a planetary environment: Theoretical modeling of the ascent and eruption of magma in the high-pressure deep seafloor environment (equivalent to that of Venus) and understanding the transition to shallower submarine and subaerial volcanism; analysis of basic theory and comparison to images and topographic data obtained on oceanic cruises and deep submersible dives.

2) Interpretation of the tectonics of Venus and implications for Earth: Documentation of the geological history of Venus and its tectonic and volcanic processes, assessment of possible catastrophic and episodic volcanic and tectonic activity, and analysis of implications for the formation of continents on Earth and the processes that might have initiated plate tectonics on our own planet.

3) Crustal formation and evolution on one-plate planets: How do crusts form and evolve? Analysis of secondary and tertiary crust on Mars, Venus and the Earth's Moon and assessment of implications for Mercury and early Earth.

4) Volcanism and tectonics on outer planet satellites: Analysis of the characteristics and history of the Galilean satellites, Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto with emphasis on volcanic and tectonic processes and comparative geological and thermal histories of these satellites. Application of this knowledge to other outer planet satellites.

5) Geological evolution of Mars: What are the major factors in the geological evolution of Mars, and how does Mars differ from the other terrestrial planetary bodies? What role does volcanism play in the resurfacing of the planet and in crustal formation and evolution? How does volcanism create shallow crustal situations (e.g., dike emplacement, heating, melting of ground ice) that might be conducive to the production of environments favorable to life? Where might these sites be located on Mars? How do volcanic processes interact with subsurface water, the cryosphere, and surface glacial and volatile-rich deposits?

6) The History of Water on Mars: What is the nature of the martian hydrological cycle and how has it changed with time? What is the evidence for the presence of large standing bodies of water in the history of Mars and what was the fate of any such water? What is the nature of the cryosphere and how has it changed with time? What is the history of the water table? How is the history of water linked to environments conducive to life?

7) Climate Change on Earth and Mars: What is the recent and ancient history of the polar caps? Is there evidence for glaciation? How do these compare with examination of terrestrial glacial environments in Iceland and to the Antarctic Dry Valleys? What is the evidence for migration and deposition of ice on Mars and how does the record of the Antarctic Dry Valleys inform us of this? What is the significance of tropical mountain glaciers on Mars and how do they relate to recent ice ages there?


Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993.
Fellow, Meteoritical Society, 1994.
Fellow, Geological Society of America, 1995.
Fellow, American Geophysical Union, 1997.
Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2006.
Geological Society of America G. K. Gilbert Award, 2002.
European Geosciences Union, Runcorn-Florensky Medal, 2010.


Geological Society of America, Fellow.
American Geophysical Union, Fellow.
American Association for the Advancement of Science, Fellow.
Meteoritical Society, Fellow.
American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Fellow.
American Astronomical Society.
International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth's Interior.
European Geophysical Society.
International Union of Geological Sciences.
International Academy of Astronautics.


GEOL 0050: Mars, the Moon and the Earth
GEOL 0160: First Year Seminar: Exploration of Mars
GEOL 1960: Oceans on Planets
GEOL 2860: Planetary Volcanology
GEOL 2910 & 2920: Problems in Antarctic Dry Valley Geoscience
GEOL 2820K: The Hydrological Cycle of Mars

Current Graduate Students:
James Cassanelli
Tim Goudge
Erica Jawin
Lauren Jozwiak
Kat Scanlon
Will Vaughan
David Weiss
Jennifer Whitten

Recent Former Graduate Students:
Michael Beach, Sc.M. '13
David Hollibaugh Baker, Ph.D. '13
Debra Hurwitz, Ph.D. '12
Seth Kadish, Ph.D. '11
Laura Kerber, PhD. '11
Joseph Levy, Ph.D. '09
Gareth Morgan, Ph.D. '09
Caleb Fassett, Ph.D. '08
Mark Salvatore, Ph.D. '13
Samuel Schon, Ph.D. '11

Funded Research


Professor Head's research is funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and by the National Science Foundation.

Web Links

Curriculum Vitae

Download James Head's Curriculum Vitae in PDF Format