Down to Earth With: David Montgomery

by Julia Rosen
Monday, December 15, 2014

From the length and breadth of his body of work, you might assume that David Montgomery, a geomorphologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, is approaching the end of a highly successful career. After all, among other accomplishments, he pioneered our understanding of how river channels shape landscapes, explored how glaciers and climate determine the height of the world’s highest mountain ranges, and helped elucidate how erosion has shaped human civilizations through time. He has authored or co-authored more than 140 academic papers as well as three (going on four) books, and even snagged a MacArthur “genius grant” in 2008. However, Montgomery is only a youthful 51 and shows no signs of slowing down — he even manages to find time to write songs, play guitar and sing in two Seattle-based bands, Big Dirt, a folk rock group, and High Noon, a bluesy jazz rock ensemble. Recently, EARTH’s Julia Rosen caught up with Montgomery before he headed off to Africa for another season of fieldwork.

JR: You’ve worked on many different topics in your career. How have your interests evolved over time?

DM: I have the blessing — or the curse — of being interested in all kinds of things. I did my thesis on the question of where stream channels begin. Then I moved to the University of Washington and took a research position looking at anthropogenic impacts on mountain rivers and how they affect salmon. Then I started to get very interested in larger-scale analyses — sort of mega-geomorphology — like the evolution of mountain ranges. Later, the door opened to geomorphologists working on Mars because NASA was starting to bring back so much cool data, and recently, I got interested in really big floods. If you look at that pattern, you can see I’m not someone who’s picked a topic and stuck with it. I enjoy the luxury of being able to change what I work on every few years. I find it very stimulating, and I’m always learning new stuff that way.

JR: Is there an intellectual or philosophical undercurrent that links all of these ideas, like a particular type of question that attracts you?

DM: I’m very interested in feedbacks within systems and the way that geologic processes influence ecological systems and human civilizations. I find effects that cross disciplinary bounds inherently attractive, like the relationship between climate, tectonics and erosion and how they influence each other. Traditionally, geomorphologists didn’t talk to structural geologists, who didn’t talk to atmospheric scientists. And yet, when you start looking at the borders between disciplines, to me, that’s where things start to get really interesting.

JR: You’ve also written numerous well-received popular science books. What inspired you to do that?

DM: Like with many of my research interests, it was a chance encounter. I have a friend who is an author and who encouraged a publisher to talk to me about the possibility of writing a book. By that time, I thought I had something to say on the salmon issue. I had been sitting on a government panel to evaluate Washington state’s salmon recovery plans and one of the first questions I asked was, “Has anyone ever looked at what happened to the salmon in New England and England, in the previous experiments where people came in and changed everything and then the fish went away?” The response I got from the state was, “What? There were salmon in New England?” There was zero cultural memory. The response to that simple question sent me off doing the research that became “King of Fish,” my first book. I found that I really enjoyed that kind of writing because it’s fundamentally synthetic. You are putting together pieces of a puzzle and trying to tell the story of the science to a broader audience in an engaging way without losing the rigor.

JR: You have a new book, “The Rocks Don’t Lie,” about using geologic evidence to investigate Noah’s flood and the age of Earth. Was writing that book a delicate task given the subject matter?

DM: The short answer is yes. I thought that I was going to write a fairly straightforward refutation of flood geology: why Young Earth Creationism is wrong. But the more I started researching the subject matter, the more I came to really appreciate the long history of cross-pollination between science and religion. For example, as a geologist, I had heard of Nicolas Steno, the great-granddaddy of geology, but I didn’t realize that he ended up as a Catholic bishop. In fact, many early geologists were clergy seeking to understand how God put the world together. As evidence started to pile up, they started to build principles and practices that became the science of geology, and eventually overthrew the idea of a global flood.

In that sense, Steno was too successful, although I think he would totally appreciate that! From what I’ve learned about him, Steno would have been wildly excited to embrace new ideas about the age of Earth based on reason and physics. He wouldn’t have dismissed science to embrace a particular reading of a particular biblical passage — he would have thought that was heresy, and yet that’s exactly what Young Earth Creationists do.

As I wrote, I became more interested in understanding where modern Young Earth Creationist thinking came from and why it’s bad theology, and not simply demonstrating why it’s bad science.

JR: Do you think there is any conflict in an academic scientist writing popular science books on subjects that might be considered controversial?

DM: I have to honestly say no. I don’t think that a scientist who completely removes himself or herself from the equation does popular communication any service. I think a reader is perfectly capable of understanding that there’s no such thing as a completely objective observer, and if there were, would you really care what they thought about anything? What I’ve tried to do with my books is to take on issues that may be controversial, and to advance people’s thinking by trying to lay out what happened. If you do that fairly, I think you earn the opportunity to say, “Here’s what I think about it” — as long as you are very clear about when you take your scientist hat off. I think more scientists should be less afraid to do that in the realm of public policy and even advocacy. Why should the opinions of the people who know the most about a subject be the first ones discounted from the discussion? To me, that’s a recipe for bad policy.

JR: You were named a 2008 MacArthur Fellow. What was it like to be chosen?

DM: It was a complete surprise, first of all. When I got the phone call, I was in a hotel room in Baltimore at a conference, and my first reaction was, “OK, who put you up to this? This is a terrible prank to pull on somebody.” And the guy on the other end of the phone was like, “Yeah, we get that every now and then.” Four years later, I am still kind of stunned. I’ve tried to take it as a message that there really is a need for more translation of science into popular science, so I’ve been trying to further my book writing. The fellowship gave me that luxury and confidence. It’s always a bit risky for a scientist to take on a topic that’s not strictly science.

JR: Like you, there seem to be many musicians in geoscience. Why do you think that is?

DM: I’ve thought a lot about this and I think it boils down to the fact that they are both very creative disciplines. People who tend to be very creative are attracted to both. The other connection could be simply that both are great fun, and they preferentially attract people who are into great fun.

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