Sunday, August 3, 2008

A Great Geologist Passes: John Shelton

John Shelton passed away on July 24th at his home in La Jolla, California.

If you have been following my blog from early on (the olden days of January 2008), you will know that I am thrilled by plane rides, and the unique perspective that aerial photographs add to one's understanding of geology. I haven't talked much about why I feel this so strongly. I didn't get to fly much as a child and teen, but I lived in southern California, and I was surrounded by high mountains: the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains were only a short drive away, the Sierra Nevada and the Mojave Desert just a little farther. My favorite weekends were those spent climbing mountains that gave me a view. If I was stuck at home, I climbed to the very top of a deodar tree in my backyard that gave me a look at the surrounding neighborhood (I thought as a child that it must have been 50 feet high, it was more like 20...). When I took my first geology class in 1975, I was introduced to the perfect book that would feed my mania for high places: Geology Illustrated by John Shelton, published in 1966.

Shelton was a great teacher, a pilot, and a photographer. If the teachers among you have ever shown a slide with an aerial view of a geologic feature, there is a good chance that he took the picture. His set of 400 aerial photographs is still sold in geoeducational catalogs. His book, despite being out of print for decades, is considered one of the 100 most influential books in science for the last century by American Scientist. Get it if you can at the used bookstores or online, it is priceless. My dog-eared copy is one of my single most treasured books.

John was a graduate of Pomona College (in 1935), and received his PhD from Yale in 1947. He taught at Pomona College from 1945 to 1960, and then he served as a scientific advisor for the American Geological Institute from 1962 to 1974, developing a series of scientific films with Encyclopedia Britannica. If you remember seeing "Beach: River of Sand", "Why do we still have Mountains?", "How Solid is Rock?" and lots of others, you were also influenced by Shelton's contributions to the geological sciences. In retirement, he assisted in the development of the "Earth Revealed" telecourse series.

As a young student at Pomona College, I had a single opportunity to meet Dr. Shelton, and we corresponded a bit when I began searching for a geological career. I appreciated his assistance, but I can barely imagine any books that were more influential in defining the direction of my own career, and as a teacher, his pictures are one of my most valuable classroom resources. I offer my condolences to his family, and I want them to know how much I appreciate his contributions to the geological sciences, as well as the inspiration he provided in the direction of my life.

Picture from the San Diego Natural History Museum

More information about John Shelton can be found here, or here , and info on the exhibit of his photography at the San Diego Natural History Museum can be seen here (through November 2).


Erik said...

If you like aerial photos of geology then check out this site:

Unknown said...

I've just read Shelton's book. As an airline pilot, I particularly appreciated his aerial photographs. I feel like he provided me a lexicon to help me "read" the book spread out below me.

Consequently, I appreciate your blog posting. It was nice to learn more about the late author.

Will Mahoney said...

Garry, Thanks very much for your nice obit for John Shelton. When I studied geomorphology as part of my M.A. program in geography at the University of Montana, Shelton's GEOLOGY ILLUSTRATED was our textbook. His wonderful photographs greatly enhanced my appreciation of landscapes of the Western U.S. and helped me learn to "read" geology from the air. What a talented guy!

Will Mahoney, P.G.
Senior Environmental Scientist
Denver, Colorado