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In Memoriam: Distinguished Professor An Yin

By Distinguished Research Professor Mark Harrison

Professor An Yin in Eastern Washington, September 2022

Professor An Yin, Distinguished Professor of Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences, passed away suddenly on July 12, 2023 while instructing undergraduate field camp in the White Mountains of eastern California. He is survived by wife Sandy and children Daniel and Hanah. An had a luminous and jocular persona beneath which lay an extraordinarily incisive and original mind.  

Born in Harbin, Manchuria, in 1959 during the Great Chinese Famine, he was originally named Jisheng, or “helped by others”, in recognition of a neighbor’s prenatal supplements to his mother’s meager rations. The state subsequently demanded that his name be changed. An grew up during the Cultural Revolution, which provided him with both a social model to react against and the motivation to pursue a career in science.

Indeed, his openness to new ideas and resistance to groupthink coupled with his remarkable intellect made him one of the great geologists of his generation. After excelling in the nationwide university entrance exam, An studied Geomechanics at Beijing University. He graduated in 1982 and joined the M.S. program in structural geology at the University of Southern California. His promise was quickly recognized by Prof. Gregory Davis and he was advanced to the Ph.D. program under Greg’s supervision. Before graduating he was offered a tenure-track faculty position in what is now the Department of Earth, Planetary and Space Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles where he remained for the rest of his career. 

Initially appointed in 1987 as Acting Assistant Professor pending his Ph.D. defense, by 1996 he had ascended to Full Professor and was made Distinguished Professor last year. He shared a joint appointment with the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics from 1995 to 2011. 

Professor Yin made profound contributions to understanding how planetary lithospheres form and deform by integrating an unusually broad range of geological and geophysical observations into rigorous interpretations of heretofore unexplained features. He began his career applying elasticity theory to the formation of low-angle faults before migrating to the Indo-Asian collision zone where he developed the tectonic reconstruction for the continent that has been the starting point of research there for over a quarter century. 

He took advantage of the opening of Tibet to undertake a vast range of studies that discovered a multitude of geologic and tectonic phenomena, establishing him as the single greatest authority on the Indo- Asian collision. While the principal scientific focus on that continental collision zone has been the dramatic Tibetan and Himalayan topography, its distal effects have resulted in far more earthquake-related deaths.

Returning to his former home of Tianjin, An documented a 160-km-long seismic gap that has not ruptured in over 8,000 years and is capable of generating a similar magnitude quake to that in nearby Tangshan that killed more than a quarter million people. Upon the recognition of slow earthquakes, he developed a diffusion-induced pressure-wave model that, for the first time, relates slow earthquakes to tectonic tremor propagation. 

Over the past decade, he investigated extraterrestrial tectonic processes leading to the provocative proposal that Mars had once experienced localized plate tectonics and explaining the origin of the tiger-stripe fractures on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. His scientific influence is documented by both the citation metrics (>38,000 citations; H = 83) of his 200+ published papers and award of the highest honors in the field, including the Penrose and Donath medals of the Geological Society of America.

Equal to his remarkable record of research contributions is Professor Yin’s role as supervisor of nearly 40 graduate theses, undertaken by a remarkably diverse range of students. Eleven of them have gone on to professorships (mostly at R1 universities) and one of his PhD graduates is a NASA astronaut selected to the Artemis lunar lander team. An was a mesmerizing and inspirational undergraduate teacher and the backbone of the UCLA field research curriculum for over 30 years. 

He was unstintingly generous in support of his scientific community through numerous editorships and organization of international activities. His meteoric ascent to tectonics stardom made him a global magnet for young scientists from emerging nations. Over 40 visiting scholars from China, India, Taiwan, Mongolia, Turkey, and Iran came to UCLA to learn from the master and left as apostles of An’s credo (borrowed from a TV commercial): Just do it! That is, no excuses; just hard work, astringent logic, and a skepticism of intellectual authority.

Beneath An’s jovial and rational exterior was a deeply emotional and ardent human being who wore the love of his children and geology on his sleeve. He was reflexively impatient with diktat and many a university administrator have glimpsed the side of him forged in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. The sudden loss of this intellectual giant will be felt acutely across the geologic world mitigated only by the model he left us of how the combination of intellectual rigor, originality, and passion can lead to new insights into how planets work.

There will be a memorial service held in late September or early October at UCLA; we will update with more information as we draw closer to that date.

We would also like to share a website honoring An, made by his friends and colleagues in Beijing:

In the coming days, we will be adding a photo album, as well as a website where people can leave comments and share their memories of An.

Posted on July 21, 2023