MSU professor looks at how mountains shaped thinkers


Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez/MSU

Michael Reidy, a history professor at Montana State University, will be speaking on Jan. 23, as part of the MSU Provost’s Distinguished Lecturer Series.

A Montana State University history professor whose work focuses on the impact of mountains on some of history’s most influential scientific minds will discuss his work at Montana State University’s next Provost’s Distinguished Lecturer Series, set for 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 23, in the Museum of the Rockies’ Hager Auditorium. 

Michael Reidy will lecture on “Mountaineering and Science: How Alpinism Fundamentally Transformed the Nature of Scientific Research in the Nineteenth Century.” The lecture will be followed by a reception at 8.

Reidy, who is the is the Michael P. Malone professor of history in MSU’s Department of History and Philosophy in the College of Letters and Science, has been studying how mountaineering experiences influenced important scientific thinkers in the 19th century, including Charles Darwin and John Tyndall.

While Tyndall, an Irish scientist who was an early researcher of the natural greenhouse effect among other concepts, has long been associated with mountains – the Tyndall Glacier in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park was named for him, for instance – Darwin’s work is usually associated with ships and islands. However, Reidy has found that Darwin’s journals are full of inspiration resulting from trips the scientist took to two high mountain passes in Chile.

“(Darwin’s) writings transformed the way we think about geology, and his thinking about biogeography and mountains as barriers – as islands on the land – affected his thinking about coral reef formation and evolutionary theory,” Reidy said.

Reidy said he understands first-hand how experiences in mountains can have a transformational effect on research. A native of Mississippi who graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame, Reidy spent nine summers on a commercial fishing boat in Alaska. His adventures there fostered an interest in the science of oceans and research into the history of tides.

“I love everything about science except for doing it,” Reidy said. “When I learned you could study science from a humanistic and cultural angle, when I found that there was a field that did that, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

That led to Reidy earning a doctorate in the history of science and technology from the University of Minnesota. His dissertation was on the early Victorians’ study of tides. His book on the subject, “Tides of History,” was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2008. He is also the co-author of both “Exploration and Science,” published by ABC-Clio in 2006, and “Communicating Science: The Scientific Article from the 17th Century to the Present,” published by Oxford University Press in 2004.

Reidy came to MSU in 2000 to join a department that has long been known for the quality of its historians of science and technology, beginning with professor emeritus Pierce Mullen and now including several noted environmental historians.

“Often the fields of science and humanities don’t talk to each other, so it is important to have people in between the two spheres to fill the gaps,” Reidy said.

Reidy said that because there are no oceans in Montana, he turned his professional and recreational sights to the nearby mountains and became interested in how a change of perspective can revolutionize thought, something he calls “vertical thinking.” His longstanding interests in both the history of 19th-century scientific thinkers and mountaineering naturally led him to Tyndall, an experimental physicist who Reidy says was “one of the most outspoken advocates and controversial defenders of science in the 19th century.” Tyndall was also one of the pioneers of modern mountaineering, spending each summer climbing in the Swiss Alps.

Reidy said that through Tyndall’s position as a prominent “scientist, lecturer, defender of naturalism and mountaineer,” Tyndall built a network of friends and correspondents from nearly every field possible in the 19th century.

“A list of his correspondents in Britain and abroad reads like a ‘who’s who’ of 19th century cultural and scientific life,” Reidy said. Tyndall kept a correspondence with Darwin and other scientists including Michael Faraday, Asa Gray, Hermann Helmholtz, T. H. Huxley and Charles Lyell, as well as important literary figures, such as Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin and Alfred Tennyson.

Tyndall died in 1893 when his wife accidentally gave him an overdose of a powerful narcotic he took for insomnia, Reidy said. Tyndall’s widow received control of all of his journals, correspondence and unfinished writings so she could celebrate his life in a book. However, she had not published anything by the time she died in 1940.

In recent years, Reidy has become one of a handful of historians in the world specializing in Tyndall and helping to resurrect Tyndall’s work. Reidy is the general editor of the ongoing 19-volume John Tyndall Correspondence Project published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, a collection of writings by scholars from around the world who have collected Tyndall’s prolific correspondence. The third volume of the set was published in December. He has also co-edited “The Age of Scientific Naturalism” in 2014, a volume about Tyndall.

Reidy said the legacy of Tyndall, Darwin and other innovative scientific thinkers inspired by time in the mountains is particularly relevant at MSU, where the vertical landscape influences a cadre of scientists and alpinists making new discoveries about the planet and beyond.

“The more we climb, the more we have access to what in the universe there is yet to know,” Reidy said. “We still have room to grow.”

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