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Tribute to Bill Riedel from David Johnson

Bill Riedel: A Personal Appreciation (by David Johnson, PhD Scripps 1971)

One morning in the fall of 1967, Bill Riedel wandered into my Scripps office. He had a problem: He was unable to be chief scientist on an upcoming Alexander Agassiz expedition to the equatorial Pacific. Could I take over? I agreed to do so. I recruited a half-dozen other grad students to my team, and purchased two dozen “boomerang” corers. Four months later we joined the “Agony” in Pago Pago. We sailed to a small region at 04 degrees South where prior gravity cores had recovered middle Eocene siliceous-calcareous chalks. Thus began my twenty-year career as a marine micro-paleontologist. Bill’s trust in me long ago, and his wise mentorship afterwards, was foundational to my first vocation. I joined five drilling cruises (legs 22,33,41,72,115) as rad specialist, and relied upon Bill, Annika S., and Cathy Nigrini to steer me through the taxonomic subtleties of theoperids and artiscins.

Late one afternoon two years ago, I visited Bill at his home on Neldner Road in the Marananga region of the Barossa Valley, South Australia. My visit with Bill in his retirement home that September day – and his recent TEDx talk – brought forth his enduring passion for paleontology and ever-youthful zest for life. Following happy-hour, Bill navigated us to a nearby restaurant in Tanunda where we feasted, and toasted our reunion with local vintages of Shiraz. As the evening progressed, Bill voiced his perplexity and dismay: Why had I bid farewell to full-time research in order to become a minister? How could I forego evidence-based knowledge, and wander into a strange land – widely scorned by its “cultured despisers” (in Schleiermacher’s words), and which Carl Sagan called a “demon-haunted world”?

I had no succinct response to Bill’s skepticism about my vocational re-direction. For me, science (based on empirical evidence) is absolutely necessary. Yet it may not be sufficient in addressing stuff-that-matters: relationships, meanings, values. Steve Gould described these two distinct realms as non-overlapping magisteria. That has been my reference point.

Sadly, my return visit to Oz in May of 2020 was not to be -- due to COVID. The land of drop bears, yowies, and bunyips must await another time. Nonetheless, I shall return to Adelaide, and celebrate Bill’s enduring legacy with some infamous Australian cuisine: the “Adelaide pie floater”. I shall also offer a toast to Bill’s mentorship for me, and for hundreds of other Riedel-arians. Rest in peace, Bill. Well done, thou good and faithful servant.

David Johnson
PhD Scripps 1971
Overland Park, Kansas