He was Professor of Physical Science at a university in Fairbanks, Alaska, and was head of the physics department at the University of Newcastle in England from 1956 to 1988.
The professor, a bachelor, was a pioneer in the theory of continental movement, known as plate tectonics, according to Syun Akasofu, director of the University of Alaska Geophysical Institute.
He worked on radar research during the Second World War, took part in projects throughout the world. He was made a member of the Royal Society in 1965 and awarded a Gold Medal by the Astronomical Society in 1984.
He was also famous for his work in nuclear physics and earth magnetism, said William Nierenberg, former director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.
"He was a prominent figure in geophysics for years, going way back," said Mr Nierenberg. "I've known of, and respected, him for 35 years."
Professor Runcorn had held the endowed chair in natural science at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, since 1989. He also sat on a committee of scientists overseeing the experimental Biosphere II "space habitat" in Arizona from 1991 to 1993.
He had travelled to San Diego to meet officials from a local institute. When he failed to arrive for the conference, American scientists rang his room where police answered, saying the professor was dead.
His body was found lying in the bathroom of his suite at the Hotel San Diego yesterday morning. He had been beaten to death by his attacker, who had ransacked his room.
He had been dead several hours by the time he was found by a member of the hotel cleaning crew, said San Diego police homicide detective Lieutenant Glenn Breitenstein.Reuse content