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Norman Bowen studied chemistry and mineralogy at Queen's University and received the honors degree of M. A. in 1907. For the next six summers, Bowen worked in the field for the Ontario Bureau of Mines and the Canadian Geological Survey, most notably in British Columbia with R. A. Daly in 1911. Bowen returned to Queen's University in 1907 to enter the School of Mining, receiving the B. S. in 1909. In 1909 he entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The geophysical laboratory had been founded in 1906 under the direction of Arthur L. Day for the specific purpose of experimentally defining the physicochemical parameters governing geologic processes, particularly the formation of igneous rocks. A lifelong association with the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, D. C. , began in 1910, when Bowen, who had entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology the previous year, experimentally defined the conditions of crystallization for the pair of minerals nepheline-anorthite (expressed in the form of the phase-equilibrium diagram).
In 1910, although a well-developed body of theoretical physical chemistrywas at hand, almost nothing was known of the actual temperatures and pressures at which real rocks are formed.
Classical methods of observation in the field and under the microscope were the basis for the inference of geologic processes, but their relation to the laws of physical chemistry was unknown. Harry Rosenbusch of Heidelberg headed the petrologic school that sought in the rock specimen itself the evidence of its origin and evolution; the method was essentially a posteriori. J. H. L. Vogt found artificially produced assemblages of silicate minerals in metallurgical slags.
In his student paper "On the Order of Crystallization in Igneous Rocks" (1912), Bowen employed Rosenbusch's classicalmethod even while disputing his conclusions. Bowen's early papers mention the influences of Vogt and the metallurgist Cecil H. Desch, as well as Alfred Harker and the petrologists Louis V. Pirsson and Joseph P. Iddings.
During the next forty-six years, alone and with other geologists and physical chemists G. W. Morey, J. W. Grieg, F. C. Kracek, E. Posnjak, O. R. Tuttle and J. F. Schairer Bowen established the phase diagrams for the principalcomponents of igneous rocks and applied them to develop the modern magmatic theory of petrogenesis. In doing so he made Washington, with its twin laboratories of the Carnegie Institution and the U. S. Geological Survey, the world center of experimental petrology.
Bowen's first phase diagram, nepheline-anorthite, was the basis for his dissertation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1912.
His Princeton lectures, published in 1928 as The Evolution of the Igneous Rocks, embodied a complete physicochemical theory of magmatic differentiation based on more than fifty of his articles that had been published since 1913, the majority being phase diagrams of silicate systems. No other twentieth-century work exerted a comparable influence on petrology.
In 1915, Bowen discussed laboratory and field evidence for crystallization differentiation in silicate liquids through the gravity settling of early-formed olivine crystals and the floating of silica minerals, a mechanism proposed also by Darwin.
He died in Washington, D. C.
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While continuing as an assistant petrologist at the geophysical laboratory, Bowen undertook the study of the plagioclase feldspars, the most important mineral component of igneous rocks. In two months Bowen fused, quenched, and analyzed seventy-five separate silicate charges. He showed that the plagioclase feldspars were miscible in all proportions, and he established that the particular plagioclase (proportion of soda to lime) crystallizing out was determined solely by temperature.
In melting silicate charges of a given composition, Bowen used the lowest temperature at which any glass could be obtained to determine the position of the melting-point curve (called the solidus) and the temperature of the first appearance of crystals in cooling down a silicate fusion to determine the freezing-point curve (liquidus). The results were checked against runs with natural crystals and against the newly published curves of Esper S. Larsen, Jr. , for optical determination of the composition of plagioclase glass.
Bowen explained the plagioclase solid solution by using the crystal structure theory of William Barlow and William J. Pope, anticipating the first X-ray determination of any crystal structure by only months. In this classic paper of crystal chemistry, "The Melting Phenomena of the Plagioclase Feldspars" (1913), Bowen accounted for the association of different igneous rock types by proposing the separation of crystals and liquid at various stages of the crystallization of a magma. The work contained all the essential ideas of modern magmatic petrology.
Also in 1915, Bowen published the complete theory as "The Later Stages of the Evolution of the Igneous Rocks, " accounting for the differentiation of magmas by the process that he later named "fractional crystallization. " The assimilation of country rock by fusion with a magma, his laboratory results showed, would affect the quantities of various rocks produced but not their compositions. The temperature and composition of the final magma depended upon the events of its history, such as the settling, flotation, and filtration of early-formed crystals.
In 1917, Bowen explained the problem of monomineral rocks, such as the anorthosites, as segregations from a gabbroic melt. In the polemical "Crystallization-Differentiation in Igneous Magmas" (1919), he asserted the authority of the phase diagram over hypotheses derived from field studies and coined the term "filterpress" for processes that he considered in detail in "Differentiation by Deformation" (1920).
In "The Reaction Principle in Petrogenesis" (1922), Bowen asserted that the two principal reaction series of silicate petrology, the continuous plagioclase and the discontinuous ferromagnesian series, together forced an order of crystallization confirming Rosenbusch's empirical order and contrary to that predicted by the law of massaction.
In "The Behavior of Inclusions in Igneous Magmas" (1922), he showed how the assimilation of foreign matter by a magma affects principally rates of crystallization and relative amounts rather than the mineralogy of the differentiates.
Bowen was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society (ForMemRS) of London in 1949. He was also a member of the Mineralogical Society of America and of the Geological Society of America.
On October 3, 1911, Norman Levi Bowen married Mary Lamont. They had one daughter.