Obituary: Using space rocks, V. Rama Murthy learned Earth's age

  • Article by: JEREMY OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 14, 2012 - 8:12 PM

V. Rama Murthy, a geochemist and teacher who made people smile.

V. Rama Murthy

Tinkering with moon rocks and meteorites, V. Rama Murthy, Ph.D., made astounding discoveries at the University of Minnesota about the Earth and its relative age and place in the universe.

The internationally known geochemist and professor died Oct. 12 at age 79, leaving a legacy of influential research and geologists who have continued on the rocky paths he cleared.

While Murthy made discoveries that undermined older geologic theories, he earned the friendship of numerous colleagues, said his wife, Janice Noruk.

"He was a gentleman, to the core," she said.

Murthy, born in India, earned his doctorate in geology at Yale University in 1957; he was a fellow in geochemistry at the California Institute of Technology and an assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego, before joining the U of M faculty. In Minneapolis, he studied the composition of the Earth and its core and examined samples of moon rocks from Apollo lunar missions.

Comparing rock samples from the Earth, moon and meteorites, he reached the conclusion that the Earth was much older than previously believed -- about 4.5 billion years old, to be exact. His aging theory is widely accepted by scientists today.

"To the average person in the street, the age of the Earth doesn't perhaps mean very much," said Peter Hudleston, a professor in the U's Department of Earth Sciences. "But it provides a framework for understanding all of the other geologic processes that we see."

Murthy later became the U's vice provost and associate vice president for academic affairs before retiring in 2006 and moving with his wife to Corrales, N.M. His teaching legacy now is remembered in U of M geology fellowships given annually in his and his wife's names.

Noruk said her husband strongly believed in creating opportunities in geology for talented women; one of the fellowships is earmarked for female students. He also pioneered a program by which the U found jobs for spouses of top researchers and professors it was trying to recruit.

Colleagues described Murthy as a natural story-teller. Dutch geologist Wim van Westrenen recalled a curiosity in Murthy that transcended their work together. "It is hard to think of Rama without getting a smile on your face," he said.

Murthy took great pride in mentoring his children, grandchildren and students. Noruk recalled a recent speech he gave at the U as a distinguished lecturer. "He started it by saying to the students, 'Everything I studied in geology has been proven wrong,'" Noruk said. "His message to them was: 'Don't be afraid to come up with new ideas.'"

Murthy is survived by his wife; a son, Aanand Murthy Varanasi; a daughter, Katyayini Murthy; four stepchildren, Monica Surber, Gary Surber, Joy Surber and Rachel Surber; one grandchild and several step-grandchildren. A memorial event at the U is being planned for December.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744

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