In appreciation: M. Lee Allison, 1948 – 2016

by Sarah Andrews, 2016 Geological Society of America President’s Medalist

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Lee Allison, Credit: Arizona Geological Survey

Lee Allison promoted scientific understanding.  That may sound like an overly simplified statement, but helping all people understand the geological systems and resources that are essential to life on this planet is not a simple task.  Neither is it easy.  It requires a lot of intelligence, creativity, heavy lifting, sustained effort and moral clarity.  Lee delivered on all of these fronts, and in so doing he was unstinting and, until his painfully early death, unstoppable.

Lee was a builder of bridges.  He wanted all people to benefit from geoscience’s broad, detailed, and beautifully integrated perspective on what makes this planet tick; however, he understood that not everyone could or would take his route toward this understanding by engaging in the long years of study it took him to achieve his PhD in the field, or the decades of hard work and learning he had invested in it since.  Instead, he took geoscience to the public, using all existing avenues of communication and fostering or creating new ones.  As a director of state geological surveys, he focused sharply on getting information to the people he was mandated to serve, and, his enthusiasm knowing no bounds, he promoted and enlisted the interest and cooperation of colleagues across the profession, using whatever channels of communication arose.

The first conversation I had with Lee illustrates the novel way he went about fulfilling his mandate.  He introduced himself to me at a geological conference, one of three that, as director of the Utah Geological Survey, he organized or hosted that year in Salt Lake City.  Awarding me his trademark bright smile, he said, “Hey, I hear you’re writing mystery novels about geology!  Why not set the next one here in Utah?  You can make it about dinosaurs, put a dinosaur on the cover, and it will sell like hot cakes!”  The exclamation marks I use here are no exaggeration.  Lee kept his bandwagon on a continual roll, and snatched me up onto it at high speed.  I was writing fiction because science and scientists, especially women, were underrepresented in that medium.  He saw a way to push his mandate through recreational reading, getting the public to consume geoscience education like it was so many bonbons.

In that first conversation, Lee told me that it was extremely difficult to get news media to award more than a sound bite to science, and tougher yet when the story didn’t involve an explosion, catastrophic collapse, or other immediate threat to human life.  Even NASA, with the excitement of rocket ships and the exploration of distant planets, was having trouble engaging the news cycle, and getting Utahns to read about good old terra firma was proving downright difficult.  But I had 100,000 words at my disposal for each story!  How about taking science education to his constituency through storytelling, the oldest form of communication?  And wrap it in an appealing jacket!  Lee showed me how he had changed the packaging of reports coming out of the Utah Geological Survey, putting landscape photographs on the once drab covers, because, he had discovered, even the most jargon-riddled tomes are more inviting to the public if jacketed by inviting illustrations and short, pithy titles.

Lee didn’t just pitch his concepts to me, he engaged deeply in the process of creating the next title (Bone Hunter), gleefully shedding ideas and opening doors for me to his vast network of contacts.  He instinctively understood how best to collaborate, cheerfully leaving authorship to me while supercharging my research for the work through direct suggestions and by mailing pertinent articles to me from the Salt Lake Tribune several times each week.  He understood that the best fiction was based tightly on the facts, creating a portal through which readers could enter into the world of science and scientists, more fully comprehend what we study and why we study it, and thereby more deeply receive and benefit from our work.  And he was right about putting a dinosaur on the cover:  Bone Hunter went into three printings, and has always been a best-selling book in the series.

I credit Lee fully with keeping the Em Hansen series focused on science.  When Lee and I first met, reviewers and critics had pretty much beaten me into submission with repeated claims that the books had “too much science,” and I was beginning to swerve from writing about a scientist solving crimes by doing science to more conventional interests, such as the protagonist’s love life.  Given this trajectory, the series would have quickly coasted to a stop.  But with Lee behind me I pulled out all the stops and loaded as much science into the books as they could hold—to paraphrase the movie The Martian, I commenced to science the hell out of them.  The mainline mystery community never quite knew what to think of the books after that, but the series became firmly established, and readers continue to comment about their delight in learning science.

I wish to here emphasize that this is not an essay about me and my work, but I can best illustrate what Lee did and how he did it by describing how he got me to take a series of books that would otherwise have quickly run out of steam and boost it into a sustainable teaching tool.  Others can and will write volumes about Lee’s scientific achievements and bounty of other accomplishments, but I had a unique opportunity to observe what he accomplished off the beaten path and (literally and literarily) behind the scenes.

With Bone Hunter off to the printer, Lee ushered me even farther into the fascinating and complex world of state geologists, that arena in which science meets public policy.  Bespeaking me to his colleagues in the Association of American State Geologists, Lee sent me on a Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride through the landscapes and issues that state geological surveys and other information outlets were having trouble communicating to the public.  Nevada State Geologist Jon Price saw the merit in a book set in the mining industry in Nevada, and provided individual tutelage during a two-day Geological Society of Nevada field trip.  While Jon did not agree with all of the more philosophical comments that surfaced in that work, I found in him the same moral clarity I had observed in Lee: the overarching point was to present the science accurately and use the complexity of storytelling to show how science is done and how it supports the lives of those it serves.  Next, Pennsylvania State Geologist Jay Parrish led me through two days of field orientation to the powers of GIS for a book set in his state and Assistant Florida State Geologist Tom Scott showed me how to read geology in flat, swampy places, and the success of these efforts opened the way to a collaboration with the USGS’s Gene Shinn, a book about ground water with the Denver Museum of Science and Nature’s Bob Raynolds, and a National Science Foundation grant to set a book in Antarctica.  And none of that would have happened without Lee’s support and example.

Lee’s candor over the difficulties of working with vested interests and politicians guided the series back to Utah for Fault Line, in which fictional geologist Em Hansen rides out an earthquake and the policy wrangles that follow.  When, as part of my research, I asked what the maximum probable earthquake might be along the Wasatch Fault, Lee advised that I instead turn the story around moderate-sized temblor, “Because,” he said, “it’s what we’re more likely to experience once or twice within a human lifetime.”  People would be less able to discount or deny the impact of a smaller quake, he advised, because, “And with a moderate-sized quake, there’s still plenty that can and will go wrong.”  The subject was particularly apt for Lee, who was in the midst of discussions with the Utah governor’s office over fault evidence uncovered in excavations for the construction of a major public building in Salt Lake City.  When Lee was asked by the press for comment, vested interests complained to the governor, and Lee was ordered to be silent.  Citing that muzzling would prevent him from carrying out his mandate to support public safety, Lee again demonstrated his moral clarity by resigning his post in Utah.  In recognition of his sacrifice, I wrote a Utah State Geologist into the story as a murder victim (jauntily recast as Screamin’ Sidney Smeeth), and Lee cheerfully continued his promotion of science by joining me at book signing events to sign as victim.

Lee wasn’t done advising the series through his own experience.  Between the time he left Utah and reported as the director of the Kansas Geological Survey, the Kansas school board voted 3 to 2 to bar teaching of evolution in school curricula.  Again opening his professional process to me, Lee detailed how he and others worked—successfully—to teach the public what science is and is not.  When I was invited to give a talk at a fundamentalist church, he counseled against it, but if I decided to go ahead, he advised, “Don’t let them draw you into an argument.”  He explained that such debates compared apples and oranges, and too often put science and scientists on the defensive, making both look untrustworthy.  With his coaching, I was able to accept the invitation, respectfully decline to argue, and instead follow his example of reframing the debate, to good result.

Lee found the final and best match for his talents at the Arizona State Geological Survey, where he was serving as director at his untimely death.  Always ready to make the best use of media, he embraced both social media and the exponentially growing power of computing, and the internet, to communicate to his constituency, and to guide and promote the use of geoinformatics to achieve the goals he held dear.  And he assisted with yet another Em Hansen novel by once again engaging his network to bring in advisement and assistance for Rock Bottom, which takes place in the Grand Canyon.

Peering into the world of science through the novelist’s lens, I observe that the mystery story is a good match for teaching the public about the geosciences because scientists are detectives.  Behind any scientist’s or detective’s curiosity is a basic, elemental drive to know what is true, and this leads us on a classic pattern of risk and learning as we climb the rocky path toward knowledge.  The scientific method equips us for this path toward discovery, providing toolbox, field guide and GPS.  Lee Allison understood this.  He lived his mandates as state geologist and detective-scientist to the fullest.  By following, or more accurately, by charging headlong up the path of science, he engaged the ethical power that illuminates the path most clearly.  He stood up for this truth:  that it is essential that the wisdom and knowledge of scientists be centrally involved in creating public policy so that the intellectual talents, knowledge, and experience gained in the pursuit of science be utilized fully in the service of humankind.

Editor’s Note: Lee Allison was a long-standing member and Fellow of the Geological Society of America (GSA), and was instrumental in the formation of GSA’s Geoinformatics Division.

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