My Science Life: Dr. Stephen Johnston – University Of Alberta Earth & Atmospheric Sciences

Age of the bedrock underlying North America, from red (oldest) then blue, green, and yellow (newest). (USGS)

Welcome to the My Science Life feature of Dr. Stephen Johnston, Chair / Professor in Tectonics at the Earth & Atmospheric Sciences Department, University of Alberta.

I graduated with a B.Sc. in Geology from McGill University and completed an M.Sc. and Ph.D. at the University of Alberta in structural geology and tectonics. I have worked in exploration and development for Shell Canada Ltd., as a project geologist for the Yukon Geological Survey, and as a professor at the University of Durban, South Africa. I was a professor of structural geology and tectonics in the School of Earth & Ocean Sciences (SEOS) at the University of Victoria from 1999 to 2015, and the chair of the school for my last 5 years in SEOS. And since 2015 I have been the chair of the Department of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Alberta.

I was the Fondation Herbrette Professor of Science at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland in 2005; the Profesor Visitante at the University of Salamanca, Spain in 2008; and was a Visiting Prestigious Scholar in the Faculty of Science at the University of Nanjing, China in 2017.  In 2007 I was the featured geologist in a CBC  Nature of Things: Geologic Journey episode entitled ‘The Rockies’, and again in 2010 in a Geologic Journey II episode entitled ‘Tectonic Europe’. I have served as the Secretary of the Canadian Geoscience Foundation, the editor of GSA Today, and as the President of the Geological Association of Canada. I currently sit on the board of the Canadian Federation of Earth Sciences as their Director of  International Relationships, and I am a member of the Executive Committee of the International Union of Geological Sciences. I am the 2017 recipient of the J. Willis Ambrose Medal, awarded annually by the Geological Associate of Canada in recognition of sustained dedicated service to the Canadian Earth Science community.

Field of Research – Structural Geology, Plate Tectonics and Paleogeography

I am interested in how the Earth’s Geography has changed over geological time, and determining the significance of Earth’s changing geography for the evolution of the biosphere and atmosphere, and for what it says about plate tectonic processes. I study current and ancient mountain belts, as mountain systems develop along plate margins and provide a record of the long-term movements and plate interactions of continents.   The tools I employ include basic geological mapping, geochronology (determining the age of rocks) and geochemistry, and paleomagnetism (as rocks preserve a record of the Earth’s magnetic field when they form, and this information can be used to constrain the latitude at which those rocks formed).

Favourite Quotes

Bob Dylan

Play F*cking Loud!

Bob Dylan, with his back to the audience, barked the instruction to the Band just prior to their final song (Like a Rolling Stone) at the May 17, 1966, Manchester concert.  A fan had just heckled Dylan, infamously shouting out ‘Judas’. That one word summed up the public opinion that Dylan, in going electric but more importantly, in evolving from a writer of protest songs to someone exploring the depths of humanity, had abandoned them.

Dylan’s response was beautiful – play louder, be more committed, don’t let them get you down.  In science, changing how you explain a data set or stepping away from a conventional interpretation, is usually met with blatant hostility from the rest of the scientific establishment.  It takes a great deal of courage and fortitude to not let the criticisms get you down.  You need to be able to turn your back on the crowd and, as Dylan said so well, just Play F*cking Loud.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Who are you who are so wise in the ways of science?

Bedevere to King Arthur (upon Arthur correctly surmising that ducks, like wood, float on water).
I can think of no better illustration of how the scientific method can lead us down blind alleys.  Just because science comes up with an answer, it doesn’t always mean that the answer is correct, even if there is consensus within the scientific community.  Look no further than the decades of rejection of continental drift despite a huge and growing number of data sets that required continental mobility.

Biggest Challenges in my Field

We are still crawling out from under pre-plate tectonic interpretations of continents and mountain belts.  Pre-plate tectonic models explaining the origin of mountain belts still exert a tremendous control over modern interpretations.  Not surprisingly, mountain belts were originally interpreted as having developed in place and all of the geological observations were interpreted within a fixist framework.  Most of that framework was maintained even after the advent of plate tectonics.  For example, in the Cordilleran mountain system of western North America, correlations of sedimentary rock units from the stable heart of the continent all the way the west coast remained unquestioned despite those correlations having been developed prior to the advent of plate tectonics.

Instead, these stratigraphic correlations became viewed as constraints on plate tectonic interpretations of the Cordillera.  The problem that has arisen is that paleomagnetic data show that major portions of the Cordillera are not North American and instead resided thousands of kilometers to the south in the geologically recent past.  The stratigraphic correlations cannot be correct.  And yet, despite an increasing number of data sets that are inconsistent with the correlation of stratigraphic units across the Cordillera, the bulk of the geological community has simply rejected the new data on the basis that it makes predictions that are inconsistent with the previously established geological ‘framework’ for the Cordillera.  This despite the fact that much of that ‘framework’ is pre-plate tectonic.

A famous Canadian geologist has suggested that our science will only progress one death at a time. And indeed it does seem like several generations of geologists will have to pass through the halls of academia before we are able to fully shed the fixist frameworks that continue to hamper the development of our understanding of plate tectonics and mountain belts.

Advice for those pursuing a career in my field

In terms of being a good geologist, I would simply repeat the advice that I received as an undergraduate: the more rocks you’ve seen, the better you will be as a geologist.  The flip side of this advice is to always try to put forward interpretations that are as broadly applicable as possible.  A model that explains the development of your ‘postage stamp’ but cannot be employed to explain the geology of anywhere else on Earth, is almost certainly wrong.

To put this another way, a ‘unique’ explanation in geology is bound to be wrong.  The processes that have shaped the Earth have been operating in a consistent manner for eons, so you can be sure that the rocks you are studying share much in common with similar rocks elsewhere on Earth. There is a human tendency to want to believe that you have found something unique.  We even tend to reward, at least in the short term, scientists who profess to have found something unique.  And developing an interpretation that is broadly applicable is far more difficult than developing a unique model.  But trust me, the extra work is worth it.  And remember, Play F*cking Loud.

The ‘My Science Life’ project is a core part of Science Trends’ mission to give a voice to scientists and allow them to connect with tens of thousands of people. It is an opportunity for people, like yourself, to share their “story” and in doing so, make science more approachable and personal.

Interested in being part of the My Science Life project? You can find the details about submission here.

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