Andrew Knoll

Andrew Knoll ’73 (at left in Newfoundland) has conducted fieldwork around the world.

Understanding Earth’s First Three Billion Years

Paleontologist Andrew Knoll ’73 wins prestigious 2022 Crafoord Prize in Geosciences.

Andrew Knoll’s fascination with fossils began at an early age in Wernersville, Pennsylvania, where he grew up. 

“I can remember the feeling when I was 12 years old and just the idea that you’d break this rock open and you’d see something that no human being has ever seen,” Knoll said in a recent interview with CNN. “That was a wonderful, wonderful thought, and I still get excited if I discover something or have an idea that no one else has had.”

Knoll’s deep interest in fossils and what they reveal about Earth’s earliest history eventually led him to Lehigh, where he received a bachelor’s degree in geology in 1973, then Harvard University, where he received his Ph.D. also in geology.  

Now Knoll, the Fisher Research Professor of Natural History at Harvard University, has been awarded the prestigious 2022 Crafoord Prize in Geosciences from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for his “fundamental contributions to our understanding of the first three billion years of life on Earth and life’s interactions with the physical environment through time.” 

The award is a complement to the Nobel Prize. It alternates every year among mathematics and astronomy, geosciences, biosciences and polyarthritis.

Photo of Book A Brief History of Earth

The most recent of Andrew Knoll's five books, A Brief History of the Earth.

Knoll developed and combined methods for the geological, biological and chemical analysis of ancient rocks that are widely used by researchers around the globe, the academy said. By studying tiny fossils of unicellular and multicellular organisms as well as the chemistry of the rocks in which they occur, he was able to reconstruct life and environments through Earth’s deep history.

“By analyzing the oldest microscopic fossils on Earth,” said Vivi Vadja, a curator of paleontology at the Swedish Museum of Natural History, “he has been able to answer major questions concerning the evolution of life.” 

Knoll will officially be presented with the award in late April at Lund University in Sweden.

“I was born curious and have always felt that discovery provides ample reward for curiosity,” Knoll said in a news release announcing the award. “To receive the Crafoord Prize is beyond aspiration, both humbling and deeply appreciated.”

Upon finishing his Ph.D. at Harvard, Knoll spent five years on the faculty of Oberlin College, then returned to Cambridge as a professor of natural history in 1982. He has been a member of the Harvard faculty since then. 

Based on insights from experimental physiology, Knoll and his colleagues articulated a widely accepted explanation for the third mass extinction 252 million years ago—an environmental catastrophe that resonates with 21st century global change. He also has described how life returned after the disaster in the form of new plants and animals. 

Additionally, for nearly 20 years, Knoll served on the science team for NASA’s MER mission to Mars, a research interest that continues to today. 

Knoll has written five books. His most recent, A Brief History of the Earth, draws on his decades of research. In addition to the Crafoord Prize, he has won several other awards, including the Walcott and Mary Clark Thompson medals of the National Academy of Sciences, the Paleontological Society Medal, the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society of London and the International Prize for Biology.

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