Montgomery, Meet MacArthur
The MacArthur Foundation works so quietly on its genius grants, UW scientist David Montgomery didn’t even know he’d been nominated until he learned of his selection.
Montgomery, professor of Earth and space sciences, was named one of 25 fellows
for 2008 by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in September. The awards each carry an unrestricted five-year grant of $500,000.
|Dave Montgomery. Photo by Mary Levin.|
Montgomery was honored for contributions to understanding forces that shape our world—specifically how soil and rivers shape civilizations. His research has ranged from looking at why the Skokomish River on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula is so prone to flooding to the complex forces at work along the Tsangpo River in Tibet, the highest river in the world. His work has been published in peer-reviewed journals such as Science, Nature, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
A statement from the MacArthur Foundation praised Montgomery’s work, saying, “With a scientist’s rigor, a historian’s curiosity, and an environmentalist’s
passion, Montgomery is leading investigations into the ecological consequences of
a wide range of Earth surface processes.”
A dedicated researcher, Montgomery also is a lifelong musician. He plays guitar in a local folk-rock band named, appropriately, Big Dirt.
“It’s an incredible thing for complete strangers to give you a half-million dollars to do what you think is important,” Montgomery says. “They went through the list of why they give it to the people they give it to — to foster creative endeavors —so I plan to use the money to support the creative things I do, which are research, writing, and playing music.”
Montgomery has written two well-received books that explore different aspects of how rivers and soil have influenced history and human civilization. King of Fish: The Thousand Year Run of Salmon was published in 2003, and Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations in 2007.
King of Fish describes how vast salmon runs were depleted in England in the early 1700s and again a century later in northeast North America. Montgomery argues that history could be repeating itself today in northwest North America. (Click here for 2004 A&S Perspectives story on King of Fish.) In Dirt, he traces the downfall of a number of civilizations to depletion of their soil and warns that humans could be on the verge of exhausting Earth’s supply of arable soil unless farming practices are changed.
Montgomery says his next book will be a history of geological and theological thought about great floods, and how the two “cross-pollinated each other, and not just in the classic story of war between science and religion.”
The MacArthur money, he says, “could fundamentally change the way I do things and open all kinds of doors in the next five years.” But he adds, “I’ll also probably buy a guitar or two.”
Montgomery was in Baltimore, preparing to give a keynote address at a convention, when he got the call telling him he’d been selected as a MacArthur Fellow. It was also the official first day of his sabbatical. “It’s absolutely the best way to start a sabbatical,” he says.
News of his award brought a deluge of congratulatory and other emails, including “the classic email from someone I haven’t seen since high school,” Montgomery says with a laugh. “Basically, he said he should have copied his homework from me instead of the guy he did it from.”
The media frenzy and emails have died down since the announcement in September, but Montgomery is still getting used to the idea of a half-million dollars coming his way over the next five years.
“It’s really kind of like winning the lottery,” he says.
Adapted from an article in University Week, September 25, 2008.