The greatest contributions in science come from those that are able to see the big picture, to be able to see relationships between seemingly very different observations and bring them together into a coherent hypothesis. Marion King Hubbert is widely recognized for his ability to contribute in this manner.
Hubbert was born on October 5, 1903 in San Saba, Texas. He received his Bachelor of Science, Master of Science, and Doctor of Philosophy degrees all from the University of Chicago, with a double major in geology and physics, and a minor in mathematics. In the process of obtaining his Ph.D., Hubbert began teaching geophysics at Columbia University, and continued for several years afterwards. During these summers he performed geophysical work with the Illinois State Geological Survey, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Amerada Petroleum Corporation in Oklahoma.
Hubbert made a name for himself by finding unconventional solutions to some of earth science's most puzzling problems. In 1937, the year that Hubbert received his Ph.D., he succeeded in demonstrating that the hard rocks that compose the Earth's crust show evidence of flow when under pressure, much like clays. Three years later, Hubbert published "The Theory of Ground-Water Motion," which was the first publication of several groundwater flow models still accepted today.
For 20 years, Hubbert worked for the Shell Oil Company in Houston, Texas, first as the director of the research laboratory, and eventually as chief geology consultant. One of the results of his research was the creation of methods to calculate the amount of remaining oil and natural gas in the world, during a time when it was assumed that natural resources could never be depleted. In 1956, Hubbert's calculations resulted in the prediction that an oil production peak would occur in the late 1960s to early 1970s, an estimate which was later validated.
Hubbert also improved the manner of locating oil and natural gas by researching the fracturing and deformation of rocks, and developed a technique called "hydraulic fracturing." This technique uses fluid, placed under great pressure, to produce fractures (cracks) in the rock to enhance the recovery of oil and natural gas in hard-to-retrieve places.
In 1959, Hubbert solved one of the great paradoxes facing geologists at the time, involving overthrust faults. In parts of the world such as the Alps, there is evidence that long but relatively thin plates of Earth had moved many kilometers without being significantly fractured. The prevailing ideas suggested that the thinness of these rocks would cause them to be too weak to be pushed without breaking, considering the friction along their bases. However, Hubbert suggested that resistance would be minimal if the rocks floated on high-pressure fluids. It was established that fluids can indeed exist at such pressures, and his hypothesis was accepted.
Retiring from Shell in 1964, Hubbert became a senior research geo-physicist at the U.S. Geological Survey while also teaching at Stanford and Berkeley. Hubbert received many honors throughout his life, including the Vetlesen Prize from Columbia University, the Penrose Medal from the Geological Society of America, and the Rockefeller Public Service Award. He was a member of many organizations, including the National Academy of Sciences, the Geological Society of America (of which he was president), and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Hubbert died in 1989, 6 days after he turned 86.
Amy B. Parmenter
Raleigh, C. B. "The Vetlesen Prize to M. King Hubbert". EOS 63, no. 17 (1982): 249–251.
"Hubbert, Marion King." The Handbook of Texas Online. The Texas State Historical Association. <http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/> .
"Tribute to M. King Hubbert." Hubbert Peak of Oil Production. Ecotopia. <http://www.hubbertpeak.com/hubbert/tribute.htm> .
The origin of many thrust faults (low-angle, reverse fractures, where older rocks are thrust over younger rocks) has not always been clear: Do these faults result from compression, or from simple downhill sliding, or both?
Marion King Hubbert devised a simple, often repeated experiment in support of gravity sliding, rather than compression. He placed a beer can on a very low-angle pane of chilled glass, wherein the angle was well below 5 degrees from the horizontal. The can moved down-slope perceptibly, indicating a push was not necessary. In the field, however, it is recognized that the presence of water in the rocks is critical to the thrusting.