Peter Kirkland Haff, 1944-2024
Peter Kirkland Haff, Professor Emeritus at Duke University, known for his pioneering contributions across a spectrum of Earth sciences — from the physics of ion sputtering, granular flows, and sediment transport to recent work in the nascent fields of the neo-environment and the “technosphere,” a term he coined to capture the intricate relationship between human technology and the Earth's environment — passed away on Sunday in Hillsborough, North Carolina. He was 79.
Peter was born on June 29, 1944 in Boulder, Colorado, the first child of Dr. Edgar Lewis Haff Jr. and Mrs. Guinevere Kirkland Haff. He spent his childhood in Davis, California; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Alexandria, Virginia. In Alexandria he enjoyed playing in creeks and the natural environment, sparking his lifelong love of nature. Peter’s academic inclination presented itself early in life—he was valedictorian of his high school class at St. Stephen's School, and an Eagle Scout by age 17. Peter graduated from Harvard College and earned a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Virginia. During his time at UVA, he met and married his wife of 54 years, Suzanne Mason Haff.
Peter pursued postdoctoral work at several of the world’s leading scientific institutions, beginning at the University of Washington, and then Caltech in Pasadena, California—where his daughter, Tonya Mason Haff, was born. His journey then took him to the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen, and Yale University, where he welcomed the birth of his son, Jesse Kirkland Haff, before returning to Caltech. It was at Caltech that his understanding of physics and his love of the outdoors combined in a new career focus: desert geology. Peter’s adventures in his red and white Ford Bronco to Death Valley, Mojave and Joshua Tree with both colleagues, friends and family became a regular occurrence and source of deep fulfillment.
In 1988, after 14 years at Caltech, Peter and his family moved to North Carolina, where he began his professorship at Duke University. At Duke, Peter served as a professor of civil and environmental engineering, before negotiating his way back to his true passion in the geology department, where he ultimately became the Chair of the Division of Earth and Ocean Sciences, and Director of Graduate Studies in the Nicholas School of the Environment. In 2016 he was inducted as a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union. Throughout his career, Peter inspired and mentored students, imparting a legacy that transcends traditional academic boundaries.
Peter was an incorrigible intellectual, and his retirement in 2015 did not hamper his drive to understand how Earth systems work. During his years as Professor Emeritus, Peter shifted his attention to examining technology's impact within the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch that is the subject of intense debate. In this pioneering work he moved out of traditional geological and physical sciences, and worked across disciplines to develop his ideas. Specifically, he argued that technology functions as a geological force, and that extensive technological systems represent a novel domain—the technosphere. In keeping, Peter pursued the notion that technology is not merely a product of human ingenuity but serves as a semi-independent entity with significant impact on modern human life. This work culminated in contributions and collaboration with the Anthropocene Working Group in Berlin, Germany.
Despite being a fierce intellectual with towering academic achievements, those close to Peter always felt accepted and appreciated for their unique interests and pursuits. He always encouraged those around him to think deeply and differently from the status quo. A lover of music, he enjoyed playing guitar and attending live concerts with his wife Suzanne. He was particularly fond of the intimate experience at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, which he regularly frequented while on sabbatical at Vanderbilt University. Whether learning Spanish, cooking, voraciously reading, or journeying to the Galapagos, the enduring constant in Peter’s life was his unyielding commitment to learning.
He is survived by his loving wife, Suzanne Mason Haff; his daughter, Tonya Mason Haff, and his son, Jesse Kirkland Haff; his son-in-law, Robert Lanfear, and daughter-in-law, Paola Maria Bailey; his sister, Paula Haff Mehring, and brother-in-law, Walter Mehring; his nephew, Jonathan Haff Mehring, niece-in-law Heather Waraksa, and great-nephew Oliver Mehring; and his grandchildren, Farley Leaf Lanfear and Nyah Skye Lanfear.
The family requests that remembrances be made in the form of contributions to the Mojave Desert Land Trust.
I'm proud and honored to be the son of such a remarkable and brilliant human being. I'm devastated that brain cancer so decisively cut short our time with him. His mind and humor were sharp until the very end. I loved my father deeply, and I will forever miss him.