Finding Science in the Mountains

Finding Science in the Mountains

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Spare me!

When I was sixteen years old, I was sitting on the cliff face of Charlies Bunion in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with one of my best friends, T---. We were in the midst of a two-week backpacking trip with a pair of other
Taken on Charlies Bunion two...Charlies Bunion, early 1970s.
friends from school. Part of this excursion was a series of very leisurely strolls of only a few miles from shelter to shelter along the AT before we would reach Newfound Gap and a ride from his parents to another point farther south along the Appalachian Trail.

As T--- and I surveyed the amazing topography before us, under ideal
This is one of the major...Exfoliation.
conditions of clear, blue skies and cool breezes, my friend sat up from where he was reclining on the ancient rock and exclaimed, “How can anyone look at this and not believe in God?”

And I said, as I generally do, the first thing that popped into my head. That thing was, “How can anyone look at this and not believe in Plate Tectonics and erosion?”

“You asshole,” T--- exclaimed, rising and stalking off to where our other two friends were standing, joining his Christian company. Leaving me, as usual, sane man out.

I stitched this panorama...Botany.

This has always been an amusement to me: how others see supernatural silliness in the landscapes of the mountainous terrain of this planet. I can understand how any person can be emotionally spurred by a panorama of peaks and ridges and forests and gorges and hollows and canyons and ice and rock. But to see the hand of a super-being that doesn’t exist is
I liked the colors and...Lichenomotry
laughable. I finally understood that this tendency to see this kind of thing in the workings of physical science lay not in spontaneous emotions, but in lifelong brainwashing that generally begins in very early youth.

When I look upon the mountains, I see the real world in action. I see how the movement of tectonic plates grinding one against the other can thrust the very crust of the planet skyward. I see faults in the Earth, forming commanding ranges that loom above lower terrain. I see rift valleys
created by the moving away of one plate from another. I see volcanic peaks rising high above hot spots. I see wind and rain and snow and Mr. Gravity (Ha! Let’s personify physics!) pulling and drawing inexorably on the work that opposing forces have made in molding the ranges.

LeConte from Sevierville, the...Plate tectonics.

When I was sitting there in the middle of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I knew that I was within one of the world’s great areas of floral diversity. In this park alone, there were almost three times as many species of trees than there was in the entire continent of Europe.
SmallPuny human.
Almost everywhere one looked in the forests and on the rocks and in the dark loam there were blossoms of many types. Here, there were dozens of mammal species, reptiles, amphibians; hundreds of types of birds; and as-yet uncounted kinds of insects, arachnids, and other invertebrates. From whence this dizzying array of living things?

Well, not from any god.

I have never, in all of my life, seen the hand of anything supernatural in the vast lands where I most love to hike. In fact, my longing for the solitude of the mountains comes not from seeing any weirdness such as religious origins to the Universe. The reasons that I go to walk these
Blackwater Canyon.Erosion.
ridgelines and to explore these valleys and walk among these forests is to escape from the insanity of religion, the most evil creation of Mankind. I go there to get away from your god, whichever god others may believe in and worship.

For myself, I don’t see any wacky god in the phenomenal details of a butterfly’s wings. I don’t see any god at work in the absolutely
Red newt.Biology.
astounding complexity of a red newt. When I see a newt consuming a worm, I don’t for one second think that this tiny drama was wrought by some silly god existing with his googleplex of fingers on every atom. The idea is inherently preposterous and, I would add, insane.

There is no magical power at work in the science of mountain building. There is no human incarnation of some idea in the tearing down of thrust
Wolf SpiderArachnology.
faults by wind and rain and the constant drag of gravity. There is no god in the mountains. There is no god in the valleys. There is no god on the cliffs. There is no god in the gorges. There is no god in the trees. There is no god on the forest floor. There is no god in the sky. There is no god.

However, I am there. And my companions are there, when I hike with friends.

Best of all, though, there is solitude when I go to hike alone. There is, quite often, only me and the physical world that amazes me when I go to hike and scramble and sleep among the mountain peaks in the high country that always draws me up to the highest points. Sometimes I encounter insects scrambling across the earth or up an old tree. Occasionally I spy an elk in the woods at the edge of a field. There are times when I note a raptor soaring on thermal waves that I cannot see. But the nicest thing about these times and these encounters is that none of them bring along a god; and I am content.

From a cliff near the summit...No people!


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Bob Sihler

Bob Sihler - Jan 1, 2008 7:32 pm - Hasn't voted


I happen to see both. I don't go to church and really can't tolerate people who wear religion on their sleeves, and I'm a strong believer in science, but I have to admit I feel something divine in the majesty and complexity and perfection of it all. I'm not arguing, just stating; I guess I fall more into that category of people who think a superior being may have wound the clock and then let it go.

Anyway, I recommend changing this to an article, Bob. It will spur a spirited debate that will be an interesting contrast to one of the other articles currently on the front page. As has happened with that other, some responses might be mean-spirited and insulting, but I think it will be interesting overall.

For what it's worth, I see and respect your points.


BobSmith - Jan 1, 2008 10:32 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Interesting

How do I change it to an article? (Oh! I see. Never mind.)

And thanks.


BobSmith - Jan 1, 2008 10:32 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Something Else:

I was born and raised in GA, but in a home devoid of religion. I wasn't exposed to religion until I was eight years old, and very quickly ascertained that I did not care for it (to say the least).

When I attended high school in the mountains of northern Georgia, the county where I lived didn't allow alcohol sales AT ALL. It was one of the proverbial "dry" counties. Shortly before we moved away the county commissioners voted to allow the sale of beer and wine.

There were moonshiners aplenty up there. I went to school in the county on which James Dickey based his novel, DELIVERANCE (Gilmer County).


BobSmith - Jan 1, 2008 11:09 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Something Else:

Well...turning corn into alcohol was the most economical way of converting the popular crop into a salealbe and storable commodity that could be moved to market at will, any time of the year. It was legal to do this for many decades, and suddenly laws were passed to eliminate the small producer in favor to the mass produced "bonded" liquors made by big corporations. Of course thus began the long struggle 'twixt the locals and the Revenuers. It was a little guy vs. corporation struggle. Still is, to some extent.


nartreb - Jan 2, 2008 10:54 am - Voted 10/10

Re: Something Else:

The story's as old as the US:
Whiskey Rebellion


BobSmith - Jan 3, 2008 2:46 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Something Else:



txmountaineer - Jan 2, 2008 2:27 pm - Voted 9/10

Daniel's Thoughts

I believe in plate tectonics. I believe in erosion. I believe in botany. I believe in herpetology. I believe in gravity. I believe in biology. I even believe in arachnology. I do not, however, believe in lichenomotry as I think you just made it up. ;-)

I also pursue, sometimes successfully but most-often not, a monotheistic belief system that knows a Prime-Mover who kicked off all of the natural processes at which we marvel during our treks through wilderness. I call this Prime-Mover by a specific name, though others with differing belief systems choose to utilize a vast array of names.

I'm making the assumption that you're writing this article in response to the "Finding God in High Places" posted by shanrickv. I would only comment that Patrick's article didn't intentionally poke non-high-place-God-finders with invective statement similar to one that you included:

"I finally understood that this tendency to see this kind of thing in the workings of physical science lay not in spontaneous emotions, but in lifelong brainwashing that generally begins in very early youth."

I personally don't feel brainwashed, but then again I suppose I wouldn't even know it if I was. I guess then, I feel hurt that you'd make the comment actively indicating that I'm brainwashed simply because I have a world-view differing from yours. Other than this statement, there are a few more instances where your tone and word choice indicate an attempt to provoke theistic individuals into response. I know that none of these were directed specifically at me, and were probably intended as general statements, but all the same it hurts my feelings to be effectively put down in such a manner.

I'm sorry that your childhood friend called you an @$$hole, but please recognize that his statement was simply made from ignorance. Some of my best friends and hiking companions have been proclaimed atheists, and some have been non-practicing "religious" folk who might as well have carried the same moniker. To date, the best theological & religious discussion I’ve ever had was with an atheist. At no time have I ever intentionally judged them by spoken comment to or about them. If I have ever judged them internally, via thought or opinion, then my belief system indicates that I have committed a wrongful act. It is no woman or man’s job to judge another’s beliefs. My world-view would state that it is the Prime-Mover’s job alone to judge.

The Prime-Mover I follow is composed solely and completely of Love. I am human and utterly fallible. My Prime-Mover’s nature is perfect. The nature of Daniel is imperfect and prone to wrongfulness. Far be it from me to try and impose my beliefs on you; my greatest “strength” is that I’m one of the best and most prolific sinners out there.

All I would ask is that IF your article is intended as an criticism of shanrickv’s article, please don't intentionally poke the proverbial stick at us theists. After reading his piece, I don’t feel it was his intention to jab at any belief system with his comments.

The beauty of SP, and any free-speech-society for that manner, is that you’re fully entitled to take shots at anyone you want or type anything you want. I suppose in this community, however, it must, in some way, relate to a post on a summit… or even a summit without a post. That in mind, I did enjoy reading this article. On many a mountain trip, I too have marveled at the beauty of plate tectonics, erosion and evolution, assuming I’m quiet enough so as not to scare the lattermost’s specimens away when I hike.

The only difference between our enjoyments of wilderness is that I believe a Prime-Mover is behind it whereas you don’t. That doesn’t make us any better than or worse than each other, but just different.

On a separate note, where in Georgia were you born? My Smith family was in Wilkinson Co & Baldwin Co back in the 1820s - 1850s.

All the best pursuing your outdoor endeavors!!

Daniel Smith
aka txmountaineer


BobSmith - Jan 2, 2008 4:57 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Daniel's Thoughts

Thanks! The Smith clan from which I came were based around Tifton, GA. Some were born in a town in Tift County that doesn't exist anymore: El Dorado, GA.

Basically, I hate all religion. Have since I was a little kid. I see no good in it, at all. Yes, I wrote the piece in response to that article posted on the front of Summitpost. Fine and all that to believe whatever weird thing you wish, but I didn't care to see something like that on the front of Summitpost. Thus, an opposing view.


BobSmith - Jan 2, 2008 4:59 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Daniel's Thoughts

Oh: And "lichenomotry". I nabbed that from a friend who's an arborist. He swears it's a real word.


seanpeckham - Jan 4, 2008 8:25 pm - Voted 5/10

Re: Daniel's Thoughts

Well, "lichenometry" is a real word. A very useful one for demolishing young-earth-creationism, BTW.


CheesySciFi - Jan 12, 2008 10:55 am - Voted 10/10

Re: Daniel's Thoughts

From Wikipedia: In archeology and paleontology, lichenometry is the study of dating a surface using lichens as age markers: lichens increase in size radially as they grow. Measuring the diameter of the largest lichen on a rock surface can thus be used to determine the time the rock has been exposed. Lichen can be preserved on old rock faces for up to 10,000 years, providing the maximum age limit of the technique. The use of lichnometry is of increased value for dating deposited surfaces over the past 500 years as radiocarbon dating techniques are less efficient over this period.

You get a 10 for the contribution to my vocabulary!

The Lower Marmot

The Lower Marmot - Jan 2, 2008 11:39 pm - Hasn't voted

An Opposing View

My objection is not with your viewpoint in and of itself, for although i hold my own perspective on the issue, i am not going to try to suggest that you are not entitled to hold your own, but rather with the manner in which this viewpoint was expressed.

i feel like it's one thing to write an article about how you find the beauty of science in the mountains, but i feel like it is in bad taste to use such an article not as a way to talk about what you believe, but instead to speak derisively of what others believe.

i do not intend to get into any sort of long-winded debate.

i do not intend to tell you what you should or should not believe.

i do not intend to tell you what to look for in the mountains.

i do not intend to tell you what you can or can't write about.

But i do encourage you to consider the spirit within which you posted your article. If you genuinely feel that this article was intended to be informative and productive for summitpost... then perhaps i am out of line in saying anything at all. But if the idea behind this article was the belittling of others, then i question its place outside of P&P.

All the same, i wish you an enjoyable year in the mountains, and i hope that you find what you are looking for in them.


BobSmith - Jan 3, 2008 12:05 am - Hasn't voted

Re: An Opposing View

Nice writing style. Where'd you steal that?

The Lower Marmot

The Lower Marmot - Jan 3, 2008 3:24 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: An Opposing View

Lurking P&P. i just try to write like attm.


MoapaPk - Jan 3, 2008 6:51 pm - Voted 10/10

Faith in what?

A lot of very smart people didn't believe in plate tectonics up through the 1970s. There was a slight matter of proving that the mantle could convect, when we had no idea how the viscosity of materials would behave at those pressures and temperatures. There was, in fact, a big debate about whether the mantle would transition to mixed oxides or perovskite structure. Computing power and the existing fluid mechanics solvers were not adequate to do a direct simulation of mantle convection.

If you had a profound belief in plate tectonics in 1974, at 16, you were probably basing your belief largely on faith. That is, faith that what you read in popular sources was correct, faith that smart people would not give you a simplified representation that seemed cut-and-dry, when the aggregate of truth was a lot murkier and statistical.

FWIW, I "believe" in plate tectonics. But brainwashing is not limited to the deeply religious.

EDIT: Wegener didn't have much to motivate continental drift, other than the "fit" of the continents (when you conveniently broke them up and shoved them back together). At the beginning of the debate on mechanisms, scientists had to deal with the whole earth rigidity calculated via the frequency of the Chandler wobble. Lord Kelvin's estimate was that the bulk earth had a rigidity like steel at room temperature. Hence it took a lot of faith to believe there would be any way to drive plate movement via mantle convection.

It really wasn't until the second wave of "magnetic stripe" data that people began to feel convinced that the mechanism must exit.


BobSmith - Jan 3, 2008 7:16 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Faith in what?

Actually, even when I was a very small kid, my mom and dad used to get out maps and show me how the continents "fit" together. And one of my dad's pals in 1965 was a Georgia Tech professor who even then had a lot of information about plate tectonics.


MoapaPk - Jan 3, 2008 8:57 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Faith in what?

Did they "fit" the continents together at the continental shelves, or at the shorelines?


BobSmith - Jan 3, 2008 10:12 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Faith in what?

The shorelines, dude. I don't recall seeing a map of the mid Atlantic ridge until I was in high school.

Another of my dad's friends, a guy named Herschel (I've forgotten his last name), thought that the idea of shifting continents was a fairy tale. Later in life, my dad told me how Herschel believed in a literal interpretation of the Bible (but only the Old Testament, as Herschel was Jewish). Herschel had even come up with a theory of how gravity from passing asteroids had pulled the Red Sea apart for Moses.


MoapaPk - Jan 3, 2008 10:17 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Faith in what?

The shelves are not the mid-ocean ridges.


seanpeckham - Jan 4, 2008 8:21 pm - Voted 5/10

Re: Faith in what?

The originally proposed mechanism for plate tectonics was incorrect and did not fit the data available at the time. It was justifiable not to accept it until more data had been gathered and a new mechanism proposed. The fact that the original believers in plate tectonics turned out to be superficially correct does not vindicate believing in something without evidence. It absolutely does not vindicate faith. Rather, it goes to show that sometimes people make lucky guesses.

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