Marine Geologist Robert S. Dietz by Annie Laurie Gaylor (November 1994)

Scientist Robert S. Dietz jokes that one way his career differs from that of nearly all research scientists is that “I have never had a government grant.” He adds, “but not for lack of applying.”

A Foundation member, Prof. Dietz is emeritus professor at Arizona State University-Tempe. Following a distinguished science career in government and the military, Dietz joined the faculty in Arizona in 1977.

“In 1985 I became active emeritus. I never gave any thought to retiring to the quiet life. Being a professor in a research-oriented university strikes me as the best of all possible worlds even as an emeritus without compensation. I find that people my age are too old for me. Working with college students helps one to remain young, at least in mind. An end to age discrimination is one of the new rights that has enhanced the quality of life.”

One of his principal interests today is challenging creationists. He is active as one of the sponsors for the National Center for Science Education.

“I have locked horns with the resurgent creationist movement and especially to the claim of ‘scientific’ creationism. The integrity of science must be defended from the onslaught of pseudo-science. I find it particularly galling for religion to attempt to trade on the prestige of science.” Dietz fought an attempt to introduce creationism into the science curriculum in Arizona public schools.

A recent project bringing “considerable satisfaction” was his work, with two peers, to get Arizona petrified wood designated as the official state fossil in 1988. “Now, more than a score of states have state fossils.” Four years of work were thwarted by the veto of then-Governor Evan Mecham, the Mormon creationist. When Mecham was involuntarily removed from office, the new governor signed the resubmitted Arizona fossil bill.

Dietz was born in New Jersey in 1914, second youngest of seven children, his mother a Christian Scientist. “By high school,” he noted, “I had largely rejected all religions and developed a serious interest in science.”

He worked his way through eight years of classes and three degrees at the University of Illinois, earning his BS, MS and Ph.D there, Phi Beta Kappa. He recalls that out-of-state tuition was only $65 per semester. He rented a windowless “closet” for only $5 per month.

Marine geology became his field of study: “The oceans are, of course, where life began.”

Dietz did military service from 1941-1945, taking flight training and working in a photo mapping squadron, with a total flying time of nearly 3,000 hours, “which was twice the normal life expectancy in terms of flying hours for a WWII pilot.” To his disappointment he never saw duty in Europe or the Pacific; his principal mission was photo mapping in South America.

Following the war he joined the Naval Electronics Laboratory as a civilian scientist, his 16 years interrupted for a one-year (1953) Fulbright Fellowship in Japan and four years (1954-1958) with the Office of Naval Research in London, England. His first expedition was as oceanographer with Admiral Byrd on his Navy-sponsored fourth and last expedition to Antarctica.

“These were productive years with much work at sea and numerous scientific publications. Science was simpler in those days so it was possible to make contributions outside of my speciality in marine geology.”

In 1952, Dietz co-led a joint Navy-Scripps Mid-Pacific Expedition to the Bikini Atoll, site of the recent atom bomb tests.

“Work as a Navy scientist was not without its frustrations. There were great geographic and geologic discoveries to be made about the virtually unknown Pacific floor. But all our work required military justification and an ‘admiral’s page’–something the ‘brass’ could understand if they ever actually bothered to read it.”

His fellowship in Japan brought him a 90-minute audience with Emperor Hirohito, whom Dietz considered “a very shy, average Japanese, and a bird in a gilded cage.”

He took a four-year leave from his military position to “help rehabilitate war-ravaged research institutes in the United Kingdom and western Europe.” Dietz notes that a generation of scientists “had been lost to World War II.”

A series of dives off Italy in the late 1950’s produced the book Seven Miles Down: Story of the Bathyscaph Trieste co-written with Jacaques Piccard and published by G.P. Putnam & Sons in 1961.

His research on the marine geologic evidence for continental drift by spreading of the sea floor, and a speculative paper published in Nature in 1961 attracted much attention as an early explanation of how continents had drifted, a reality not yet accepted at large by scientists.

“Nearly three decades ago we learned how our world works–by plate tectonics . . . Mountains, volcanoes, and earthquakes and even the continents and ocean basins are the result.” Continental drift seemed “nonintuitive,” Dietz writes, but “plate tectonics ranks as a paradigm if not the paradigm of geology.”

During the “heydey years of oceanography which unfortunately were short-lived,” Dietz joined the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in Washington, D.C. (1963-1977).

“The Kennedy and Johnson years supported science, unlike the subsequent administrations.” One expedition took place in Indian Ocean, another was an around-the-world cruise on the Oceanographer. Deitz also helped re-survey Antarctica.

“My inborn yen to see the world has been amply fulfilled by sailing the seven seas (North and South Atlantic, North and South Pacific, India, Arctic and Antarctic Oceans) as an oceanographer. I have spent a total of about four years at sea,” permitting research on all 7 continents. One of his “more exotic exploits” was gaining entry into Cuba in 1991 to check whether the Isle of Pines was the ground-zero site for the cosmic impact believed to have caused extinction of the last dinosaurs. (It was not. That turned out to be in Yucatán.) Dietz has received much attention for his scientific contributions.

Dietz prefers the term “nontheist” in describing his views:

“The tenets of religion can and should be subject to exacting scrutiny and testing. Miracles, the power of prayer, life after death, heaven versus hell, and the god concept should not be placed off-limits for investigation. Religion should not remain exempt from criticism and science should not avoid confrontation . . . Our ethics in turn must be based on the realities of the human condition and these are Darwinian. We must not appeal to some Santa-Claus-in-the-sky. This would be like throwing a drowning man both ends of a piece of rope.”

ZEES is Dietz’ proposed solution to the basic world problems, his acronym for: zero population growth, evolution, eugenics and secularization. Alas, he adds, “these are currently all politically incorrect concepts.”

Quotes are from “Earth, Sea, and Sky: Life and Times of a Journeyman Geologist” by Robert S. Dietz, Annual Review, Earth Planet, 1994.

Freedom From Religion Foundation