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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Viewing: 21-40 of 224

MoapaPk - Jan 4, 2008 8:54 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Faith in what?

Well, that's my point. If a 16-year-old in the 1970's had a deep belief in the correctness of plate tectonics, that belief would be based on faith (unless he was a remarkably perspicacious lad who knew something the experts did not). I don't see how looking at one mountain range could convince anyone one way or the other, when the experts had to peruse masses of circumstantial evidence to come to a tepid consensus. Maybe plate tectonics were driving orogeny; or maybe the giant turtle had just moved a smidgen. From the evidence available in one mountain range, either might be a satisfactory explanation.

Summation: we shouldn't be so quick to deride people with different ideas. In a normal workday, 50% of scientists are skeptical of the other 50%.


seanpeckham - Jan 4, 2008 10:49 pm - Voted 5/10

Re: Faith in what?

Okay, I see your point now, and it's a good one. However, given the evidence and theories that we NOW have, one might be skeptical of string theory or the possibility of strong AI, but not plate tectonics, evolution, and such things that make our experiences in the mountains so much more meaningful and educational. Whether mountains were created by a god or by plates driven by mantle convection currents, wind, water, and ice, is no longer a controversy to be taken seriously. It's one thing to respect differing views on a contemporary speculative issue; it's quite another to respect the idea that the universe was put here by some Cosmic Idiot Savant (the only remotely plausible description of the "intelligent designer") or some petulant ancient tribal god or some mythical god-man who rose from the dead and is going to torture the majority of the human race in hell forever for not believing in him.

Looking at the mountains isn't doing science, you're right. But you CAN do science in the mountains, whereas the best place to do theology is in the 13th century, all alone in a dark and dreary room.


MoapaPk - Jan 4, 2008 11:22 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Faith in what?

Why do you equate belief in a god with intelligent design? I'm not personally religious, but the vast majority of religious people whom I meet disdain intelligent design.


seanpeckham - Jan 6, 2008 4:07 pm - Voted 5/10

Re: Faith in what?

I didn't think I was equating them, but obviously they are related. I thought I was just giving examples of faith-based beliefs I don't think deserve any respect. If the vast majority of religious people you meet don't hold those beliefs (that is not my experience, but then I do live in Utah), well, that is encouraging.


alex - Jan 7, 2008 3:34 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Faith in what?

Not quite accurate...
I just talked with my advisor who was in grad school studying geology during the late 60s and early 70s. Any earth scientist at the time was undoubtedly familiar with two papers that put to rest any debate regarding the validity of plate tectonics.
1) "History Of Ocean Basins" by H. H. Hess
2) "A New Class of Faults and their Bearing on Continental Drift" by J.T. Wilson (yes that Wilson)
Both of these papers were based on an accumulation of data - not faith. By the mid to late 60s, anyone who held on to some other hypothesis was willfully ignoring a growing body of evidence that pointed to plate tectonics. An inability to model the mechanism(s) underlying a large body of evidence does not necessarily preclude the validity of that body of evidence. I don't mean to diminish the importance of the debate regarding mantle convection, but I do think your comment unnecessarily obscures the larger pattern of evidence in favor of trying to understand the details of the underlying mechanism.
Using a large body of evidence to explain a phenomenon or agreeing with someone's logical interpretation of a large body of evidence does not imply "faith" (other than assuming that the data were truthfully collected and recorded).
Also, in the interest of historical integrity, it is worth noting the contributions of Charles Lyell and James Hutton (prior to Wegener) with regards to understanding and interpreting geologic scale.


MoapaPk - Jan 7, 2008 6:51 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Faith in what?

And do you think a 16-y-old kid had read those papers? That's where the faith comes in. People watch Nova and trust what they see; they rarely have the background to make a truly detailed evaluation themselves. They base their conclusions on a faith that they are getting correct summaries (and often they aren't). (By the way, the papers you want are those by Turcotte et al; and MacKenzie and Weiss.)

I took geophysics courses in the early 70's, and was (at one time) quite familiar with the works you cite. Have you read them? I'm guessing that at the time of your writing, you had not; you were relying on a belief that your advisor gives you a correct summary. I have Hess' paper in front of me right now; it is fairly long and detailed (22 pp in the original text); did you check his speculations of the temperature of melting beneath the mid-ocean ridges? I also have Wilson's paper right here; it's shorter, but like Hess', just assumes that there must be a driving force. (Why do I have these 2 papers? They were included in a popular volume by Preston Cloud, often used as a text.)

When a theory becomes accepted, people tend to forget (years later) all the wringing of hands that took place during birth.

When one must rely on a magic unknown force to explain a process, and can not model the process with known physics, the debate is not over. The belief that exists is not that different from religion. The first credible models of mantle convection that didn't rely on magic, started to come in about 1971.

For every theory like plate tectonics, which eventually became accepted, there are ten more that ended up on the scrap heap of unsupported ideas. It is interesting to pick up geophysics text books from the 70's and look at the theories (prediction of earthquakes by Vp/Vs comes to mind) that were at one time accepted, then trashed, then accepted again, then trashed again.

Go back to 1989 and look at all the papers claiming to have found evidence for cold fusion. I was one of the lucky ones who didn't get to publish such enthusiasm, because we failed to reproduce any of the results. And there's a telling lesson: negative papers don't tend to get published.

Bubba Suess

Bubba Suess - Jan 13, 2008 7:07 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Faith in what?

Herschel did not come up with that on his own. A well read person would have a cursory familiarity with Immanuel Velikovsky and the claims he makes in his book "Worlds In Collision".


MoapaPk - Jan 14, 2008 12:23 pm - Voted 10/10

Re: Faith in what?

An interesting sidelight: One of Velikovsky's biggest defenders was was H.H. Hess, of Plate Tectonics fame (mentioned above). Hess didn't necessarily believe Velikovsky, but thought he should have a right to express his viewpoints. Apart from the weird stuff, Velikovsky also exposed many (then) unresolved issues, such as the problem with the origin of Cl in the oceans. Many physicists (including Harlow Shapley) tried to arrange a boycott of the company that published "Worlds in Collision", and it was that censure of free speech that convinced Hess to support Velikovsky.

Bubba Suess

Bubba Suess - Jan 14, 2008 11:35 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Faith in what?

It is amazing how this thread tangent has come full circle. Nicely done.

I cannot believe that we are talking Velikovsky on Summitpost.


seanpeckham - Jan 4, 2008 8:13 pm - Voted 5/10

good to stick up for this minority view...

but I'm only giving it a 9, for the reason that I posted on the "finding God" article when it was suggested that if I didn't like the god article I should post my own:

"do you really want SummitPost to degenerate into a contest with people trying to claim that their own particular kind of spirituality has a monopoly on the mountains? I don't think so, so I'm not going to participate the way you suggest. It is precisely the aversion to such a possibility that has people uneasy about the present article..."

Now with that said, when I take your article by itself, not as a response to the god one, my reaction is positive. I agree with a lot of your sentiments. I think that religions and gods are a cheap and delusional form of spirituality, and I agree the mountains are an amazing place to witness the beautiful and fascinating, and indifferent, processes of nature. Also a great place to get away from the insanity of a superstitious and scientifically illiterate culture (it is the mountains that keep me from getting the hell out of Utah).


BobSmith - Jan 13, 2008 10:26 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: good to stick up for this minority view...

"(it is the mountains that keep me from getting the hell out of Utah)."

I can only imagine the horror living around that brand of religion (insanity).


BobSmith - Jan 4, 2008 9:41 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: You see, Bob?

I never mind if anyone adds photos to my posts. Sometimes I change the primary ID photo to one taken by someone else.

bob adams

bob adams - Jan 6, 2008 11:48 am - Hasn't voted

Hey Bob are you the Bob Smith that used to post sometimes over on

I realize Bob Smith is a very common name but just wondering? Also I'd like to point out that a statement you made in the original post is not provable. That statement is:

"But to see the hand of a super-being that doesn’t exist is

The existence or the non-existence of God (a super-being if you will) cannot be proven. Therefore it is a matter of faith to believe in either position. Faith is not science. Science is a method not a position. Science is cold hard facts. All too often, scientists can be as dogmatic as organized religion. The world in general suffers from the orthodoxy of both parties.

Other than that, nice photographs that bring good memories to mind.


BobSmith - Jan 7, 2008 6:52 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Hey Bob are you the Bob Smith that used to post sometimes over on

I've been at, but not in some time. I kept losing my password and, from what I recall, I'd have to do a completely new registration every time. I don't recall what name I used when I did post there.


dwhike - Jan 6, 2008 6:11 pm - Voted 10/10

A Real Response...

Well, if you were looking for a reaction you certainly got one;) I am not going to get into a religious debate here as one of the most futile things you can do online is try to convince someone of their faith. It's easy to be a bible banger to a computer screen. I just wanted to compliment you for making a well-thought out response to the previously posted article for which this is a response. Although I don't share your views exactly (please don't hold this against me) I do appreciate someone taking the time to think out their response rather than just posting a comment like "Hey, retard, anyone who believes in God is a p-----!" We're all here because of one shared love of the outdoors and all lits wonders. How you believe it got there I don't think matters as much as how you appreciate and do your part to care for it. Again, thanks for sharing and good hiking!


BobSmith - Jan 7, 2008 10:37 am - Hasn't voted

Re: A Real Response...

I wasn't trying to sway anyone. I know enough about religionists to understand that's pointless. I did, however, feel like making my own comments after the front page posted that religious article.


BobSmith - Jan 7, 2008 9:37 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Controversy



awagher - Jan 7, 2008 12:42 am - Voted 10/10

Good Start

Although it is cynical (which is not automatically a bad thing), I do think the opportunity to post something like this was well taken advantage of. I think in general, modern U.S. society has become complacient with the Christian folks regurgitating their belief system all over us and expecting no reply. Well here it is. Not exactly representative of what I may believe but good to see none the less. They will however fight you to the end over all of it as you can see. I for one never understood the common Christian myths being so popular, considering all of the ones that their information is borrowed from are much more colorful (yet equally irrelevant)...but hey, to each his own.


BobSmith - Jan 7, 2008 9:40 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Good Start


The nice thing is...religion is slowly on its way out. Permanently. It took about 400 years for christianity to replace Paganism...and that was at the point of a sword.

The inexorable appeal of science, logic, and Darwin's work is putting an end to religion. I hope that within a couple of generations it will all be considered quaint in the Western world and something of a horror elsewhere.

Mountain Jim

Mountain Jim - Jan 8, 2008 10:02 am - Voted 10/10

Re: Good Start

Amen & Hallelujah ... Peace, Jim

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