Remembering Paul Tapponnier (1947-2024)

A memorial to Paul Tapponnier, a scientist at all scales.

By Yann Klinger, Institut de Physique du Globe, Université de Paris Cité

Paul Tapponnier. Credit: Jmuffat, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Paul Tapponnier. Credit: Jmuffat, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


The first time I physically met Paul Tapponnier was on the day of my Ph.D. defense. Indeed, as anyone who studies active tectonics, I knew the name and his papers. But meeting him in person was both an exciting — and stressful — perspective.

The encounter went as might be expected. Paul Tapponnier, who had reviewed my Ph.D. manuscript and was part of my committee, let me unravel my presentation. Then, as first speaker from the committee, he stood up, congratulated me for the work, and said that he did not believe the results were right. Any young but prepared student defending their Ph.D. could find this a bit destabilizing, to say the least. A long discussion commenced about details of observations as I tried to convince him that my results were correct. I believe that I changed his mind, and it is from there that a unique friendship began.

Eventually, that day I graduated, and during the post-defense celebration, Paul told me I should apply to work in his lab. It took two years before I succeeded in securing a permanent position in his group at Institut de physique du Globe de Paris, probably one of the finest labs worldwide in the early 2000s when it came to active tectonics.

Although Paul often had the reputation, especially with scientific opponents, of being stubborn, merciless in his judgement of colleague’s work, and prompt to use a colorful language to qualify his peers, he was in fact very open-minded. You could change his mind if you presented him with solid observations. No need to come first with models; this would be a waste of time. No, the key was the observation. Paul valued good, first-hand observation above anything else. This was his alpha and omega. Then, indeed he would be the first one to suggest how to integrate your observations into meaningful models.

The Tapponnier way of integrating observations at all spatial scales is what made him so efficient and insightful; a model had to be consistent at all scales or it would not be valid at all. So many times, I saw him abruptly asking to his students and close collaborators to zoom in or to zoom out, to consider one problem under all possible facets at once. He was that person in the field who would draw his magnifying glass to look at a sample, though a minute before, he was inspecting a satellite image picturing half of Asia. He was able to bridge that gap.

Paul Tapponier on a field trip in Asia in the 1990s. Credit: courtesy of the tectonics lab at IPGP
Paul Tapponier on a field trip in Asia in the 1990s. Credit: courtesy of the tectonics lab at IPGP


If there is one thing that he tried to pass to his many students and close colleagues, it was this permanent care for consistency at all scales — this was his battle. This is what allowed him to build the extrusion model of Asia, which included all mapped faults at local scale, but could also explain an observation at the scale of continents.

Paul was a great teacher. Many of us have enjoyed traveling across the world with him to explore and learn about active faulting and discuss tectonic issues. These trips were often conducted in difficult terrains and harsh, uncomfortable conditions. The hardships of these field trips strengthened the connection between Paul and his group — his academic kin.

Indeed, Paul was a great scientist, but he was first a great person. He was always supportive, giving you the feeling that what you were doing was worth it. He was a mentor at all scales, as science and scientists need more often than not.


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