Neato Person Profile 2: Stephen T. Johnston

Stephen T. Johnston

Stephen T. Johnston,
geologist, professor, and explorer.
Scientist/adventurer for the CBC’s
Geologic Journey: Rocky Mountains.
Photo courtesy Stephen T. Johnston.

  1. Who are you?
    I am the son of immigrant parents: My mother was born in Dublin, Ireland, but moved as a young child to southern England. My father was born and raised in central Scotland. My dad immigrated to Canada in 1957, and my mother joined him there in 1959. They married soon thereafter, and I was born, a first-generation Canadian, in 1960. I now live in Victoria, British Columbia, with my wife and two daughters. I am the first person in either my Dad’s or Mom’s families to have had the opportunity to finish high school. My parents experienced significant poverty as children — their climb out of poverty has shaped my life. I was the first from either side of the family to finish high school, and from there I went on to complete a Ph.D. in geology. I now work as a professor at the University of Victoria.
  2. What or whom do you think is neato?
    I have always been fascinated by exploration: past present and future. I was always in awe of the great explorers: Magellan, De Gama, Columbus, Cabot and many more. I could never get enough of them as a kid, and devoured books about their exploits. In the same way, I loved NASA’s space program. John Glenn, Wally Schirra, Neil Armstrong, and all the rest of those fabulously brave men. Similarly, mountain climbers fascinated me. Chris Bonington was my mountain climbing hero. I read his books about Everest and other Himalayan ascents over and over and over again. And finally, I turned to science fiction, mostly Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov, for their exploration of the future. I have read Childhood’s End and 2001: A Space Odyssey (both by Clarke) more than 10 times each. Exploration: that is what I find NEATO.
  3. Name three quick facts or fantasies about yourself that you didn’t include in your answer to my first question.
      I am a scientist, a geologist, but what I love most about my science is writing. I became a geologist because of a love of the outdoors, and I still love hiking and camping out, but writing is what I love most about my job.
      There are two people that I would love to be able to meet. I would love to meet Nelson Mandela. He is the most important person of the second half of the last century, and I would love to just shake his hand and say “thank you.” And I wish I had had the chance to shake hands with Terry Fox. Fox, who died of cancer while running, one legged, across Canada, was a great influence on me. Here was someone who lost a leg to cancer, yet went on to do something that no one thought possible: he ran half way across Canada on one leg. He died trying to achieve what no one thought was possible. Terry believed. Any time I feel hard done by, I think of Terry Fox.
      Alfred Wegener was the scientist (he was a climate scientist) who figured out that the continents moved and that 300 million years ago the continents had all been joined together forming a super continent that he named Pangea. Unfortunately no one believed him. When he died, in 1930 at the age of 50, almost no one believed his “mobilistic” ideas concerning Earth evolution. I would love to be able to wake him up and tell him that he was right, and that despite the fact that he was ridiculed in his time, everyone now knows that he had it right.
  4. Please ask a question you would like to see answered by the global community. This can be existential or pragmatic, realistic or silly.
    Would Earth spin faster if everyone took a step toward the equator at the same time? I thought of suggesting this as something we could all do to celebrate the start of the new millennia: have everyone step toward the equator at a set time. Such an act would bring us all closer together (literally) and I suspect would have a measurable effect on the rate of spin of the Earth. How NEATO would that be: that by doing something as simple as a step that you could contribute to increasing Earth’s rate of spin.
  5. Please tell me something about your profession that you think someone younger than you, or who is just starting out, would like to know.
    It is a great privilege to be a geologist. We get to work outdoors. We walk in the footsteps of some of the greatest scientists and people who have ever walked the face of the Earth, including Wegener (who discovered that the continents moved); Darwin (evolution); and Hutton (who showed that Earth is immeasurably old). And we, as geologists, have much to contribute to society: geologists are responsible for finding the mineral and hydrocarbon resources upon which our health and prosperity is dependent, and we are equally responsible for determining how and why Earth’s climate has changed over time. Dealing with anthropogenic global warming is the biggest challenge currently facing humanity, and geologists have much to contribute in determining how to face this threat.
  6. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
    Enjoy yourself, give it your best, and trust your intuition.

Note: This is the second in a series of profiles of people whom I think are neato. Learn more at https://keaneato.net/neato-people-profiles/.

About Gem

Writer, photographer, editor, wife, friend, sister, dog mother.
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