Link to jump to start of content The Seattle Times Company Jobs Autos Homes Rentals NWsource Classifieds
The Seattle Times | Pacific Northwest

Cover story
By William Dietrich

Prophet, Populist, Poet of Science

Thinking big and talking straight, Peter Ward takes on the great unknowns

LET'S SINK WITH scientist and scuba diver Peter Ward deep into time.

Imagine going back 250 years. The United States has not been born, the Pacific Northwest is a blank spot on maps, and no one travels faster than 30 miles an hour.

Now jump 10 times further back, to 2,500 years ago. Greece is entering its golden age, and Rome is a cantankerous village.

Multiply by 10 again, 25,000 years back, and our caveman ancestors are battling the Ice Age while Neanderthals are dying out.

Ten again, and ape-related hominids have not yet evolved into our own species, homo sapiens.

Another 10, and the saber-tooth tiger first appears on Earth.

Ten again, to 25 million years ago, and India is still an island while South America has only recently split from Africa.

Ten times again and we leapfrog the entire history of dinosaurs and find ourselves an almost incomprehensible 250 million years back, in a world of giant ferns and primitive conifers. We're at the dawn of both mammals and dinosaurs, and many creatures look like a weird cross between the two.

Welcome to Peter Ward country.

Ward, a University of Washington professor of paleontology, geology, biology, zoology and astrobiology — whew! — is at home in the swamps of time. One of his passions is the Great Permian Extinction, when 95 percent of the planet's species abruptly disappeared, a cataclysm so complete that it makes the later extinction of the dinosaurs seem a fender bender. For nearly a decade, Ward roamed the Permian rocks of South Africa's harsh Karoo Desert in search of the extinction's smoking gun.

Yet Ward ranges back further than that, to times when the planet was completely frozen into what colleague Joe Kirschvink dubbed "Snowball Earth." And he catapults billions of years into the future, when our world will fry. He roams outer space, too, speculating on the evolution of alien life.

In an age when politicians can't look past the next election, Ward and his sometime writing partner, UW astronomer Don Brownlee, take the ultimate long view. They have suggested that biologically, Earth has already peaked and is in decline. And science-fiction hopes to the contrary, the pair also think that the chance of finding intelligent life on other worlds — or human colonization of distant planets — is slim.

Future Evolution


Rare Earth


While most scientists are necessarily focused specialists, Ward is a Roman candle of fiery ideas that shoot across different fields. What caused the periodic mass extinctions in our planet's history? What is the ultimate fate of the Earth? What kind of life could exist on other worlds? How should we look for it? He's paid to answer such questions.

These days he suggests that Permian life was mostly asphyxiated, is proposing new trees of life to encompass extraterrestrials, pops up regularly on TV science documentaries, and teaches a steady class load. He's also authored or co-authored 12 books — including one, "Gorgon," that just won a Washington State Book Award — and another, "Life As We Do Not Know It," out last month.

Ward is unusual in being able to synthesize and explain science findings from a number of fields, creating a coherent story for lay people. But where he particularly excels as a writer is his mix of autobiographical candor and vivid renderings of prehistoric landscapes that put you in an H.G. Wells kind of time machine.

Splaying his ambitions, exhaustions and oscillating moods on the written page, he captures as well as any living American author what it's like — intellectually, physically and emotionally — to be a field scientist. Ward is not the Harvard stylist that Stephen Jay Gould was, nor does he have the telegenic cool of the late Carl Sagan. Instead his voice is distinctly Northwestern: unpretentious, enthusiastic, disarmingly simple, marked by a fierce appreciation of the outdoors, and candid.

Ward lets it all hang out, in a way academics rarely do.

Now he's become an organizer. Impatient with the lack of communication between branches of science, Ward has reached across disciplines to assemble new teams proposing startling new approaches. He's a fossil hound who has wrangled multimillion-dollar research grants from NASA.

While the cliché is that scientists come up with their best ideas in their 30s, he's doing his best work at 56. At an age when many slow down, he's been speeding up. In a profession where many are shy, he's at ease on television and in front of a crowd.

He is also, by consensus of his colleagues, gregarious, fiercely ambitious, underpaid, excessively moody, tireless, charismatic, volatile, brilliant, articulate, argumentative, and a world traveler so stubbornly wedded to the Seattle he grew up in that it has hampered his career.

"I can't understand how he does it," says Kirschvink, a professor at the California Institute of Technology who drilled rock cores with Ward in the Karoo. The pair would lug a chainsaw-driven drill and jerry cans of lubricating water up and down canyon walls, trying to pinpoint when everything died. "He's incredibly intense. He gets up before anyone else and works later than anyone else. He's almost a maniac in the field. Then he writes all these books."

Kirschvink pauses. "He's an interesting character."

IF YOU WANTED to interest a promising youngster in a career in science, you would probably point to someone like Peter Ward, who himself grew up enchanted with the books of famed dinosaur-bone hunter Roy Chapman Andrews.

Ward has fossil-hunted in the San Juan Islands, rock-dated in Baja, looked for dinosaurs in the Methow Valley, scuba dived to observe chambered nautilus in the South Pacific, scaled cliffs to identify dinosaur extinction in France and Spain, and hunted for the bones of a ferocious Permian predator called Gorgon in South Africa.

One of his strengths, the willingness to shift views in response to new information, makes his ideology hard to pin down. After casting doubt on the likelihood of our ever meeting intelligent aliens in his book "Rare Earth," he concedes the possibility of less earth-like organisms in "Life As We Do Not Know It." After initially doubting that a comet killed the dinosaurs and allowing that an impact might have ended the Permian age, he reconsidered both stands — coming up with a non-comet ending to the Permian and then producing some of the clearest fossil-record evidence (the extinction of a marine creature called an ammonite) to prove the dinosaur calamity actually happened.

This liberal dosage of judiciousness and doubt is also classic Seattle, the process city that likes to think everything over eight times.

His parents, Joseph and Ruth Ward, were New Yorkers who moved to Seattle after World War II. Peter was a middle-class baby boomer who grew up in a brick home near Seward Park, enjoyed a summer cabin on Orcas Island with his brother and sister, and graduated from Franklin High School.

Both parents made their expectations clear: You started work (as a box boy) at age 16 — and achieved ever-after.

Ruth was a stay-at-home mom who once wanted to be an archeologist and was passionate about the arts. Joseph was an economic consultant who helped site the Kingdome, the Seattle Aquarium and the Ala Moana shopping center near Waikiki: a one-time English major and engineer who corrected his son's grammar 'til the day he died. Peter Ward's career choice baffled his father, who, even on his deathbed, wouldn't grant his son the approval he craved. When Peter was doing geologic field work in the San Juans, his father would ask him how the work as a "surveyor" was going, as if his son were laying out house lots.

Ward was not a science nerd. Naturally athletic and an enthusiastic outdoorsman as a teenager, he taught himself to scuba dive in Lake Washington by building his own oxygen tank out of a fire-extinguisher canister. Unable to afford a full wet suit, he would come out shaking with cold.

He also showed broad talent. He was editor of his high-school newspaper, and, while an undergraduate at the UW, was inspired when famed English professor Nelson Bentley told him, "You can write."

He supported himself during college as a commercial diver — despite having never taken a scuba lesson — and worked for aquarium owner Ted Griffin in the 1960s when killer whales were being captured and kept for display.

"As time went on I began to see how horrid this was," Ward recalls. The whales were supposed to be monsters of the deep, but at one point he had his leg in the mouth of one and the whale declined to bite. "I began to re-evaluate." He's been doing so ever since.

At age 10 he'd found fossil snails on an outcrop of Seward Park, and by the time of his senior year in college in 1971 he decided to turn from oceanography to whale paleontology. Then came a master's in geology and — at graduate school in Ontario — conversion to the wonders of ancient marine ammonites and their modern nautilus descendants. Ward decided to understand the extinct creatures by studying the modern ones during night scuba dives off the reefs of New Caledonia, when nautilus rise to the shallows to feed.

"I got to live the dream," he says. "I was 15 miles from shore, diving at night with a crazy Frenchman who wore a motorcycle helmet with a light on top." He met a French woman, Colette, whom he married in 1978. Their son, Nicholas, now 22, is a student at the UW.

More prosaic work on the fossils of Vancouver Island earned a Ph.D, and he got his first job in 1976 at Ohio State University, earning $13,000 a year. Unable to afford more than the one brown Nordstrom suit his father had bought him, he wore it every day for two years to meet the university dress code. Hating the Midwest, he soon landed a job at the University of California at Davis, then gave up a full professorship and better pay there to come back to the UW in 1985. Seattle was in his bones.

To this point, Ward was a traditional scientific specialist, publishing two books about the nautilus, on which he was a world authority. He was also increasingly unhappy. In 1984, research colleague Mike Weekley drowned on a New Caledonian reef and Ward, in hastily bringing his friend to the surface, suffered the bends so badly he wound up on crutches. His body recovered, but the trauma turned the research lark into haunting tragedy.

His first marriage ended in 1988, and at the UW he felt isolated as a dinosaur-era paleontologist in a department filled with Ice Age and volcano experts. He was fighting lifelong symptoms of depression and became embroiled in faculty feuds.

What saved him was the extinction of the dinosaurs, or rather the Luis Alvarez theory that instead of being wiped out by a cooling climate or egg-chewing mammals, the dinosaurs went out with a bang when an asteroid hit the earth. Here was an idea so heretical — and fascinating — that Ward scrambled to get into the debate.

He took his ammonite expertise to the cliffs of Europe to see if he could prove the dinosaurs disappeared suddenly. The result was 1991's "On Methuselah's Trail," a book that not only explained the science but also captured the agony-ecstasy experience of field work.

Instead of trying to be a foremost fossil hunter — Ward readily admits that colleagues such as South Africa's Roger Smith are far better — he began to combine his writing and thinking skills to become a theorist, pumping out a steady stream of scientific papers and popular books.

The questions began to accelerate. If the end of the dinosaurs was a sudden event, what about other mass extinctions, including the granddaddy Permian? What did planetary catastrophes say about the process of evolution? What does past Earth change suggest for our future? And what does Earth's history say about the chance of life on other planets?

His personal life was improving. He married his present wife, Chris, in 1995, and had a second son, Patrick, in 1997. He also began hosting renaissance gatherings in his home. Colleague Brownlee recalls one that included Seattle science-fiction writers Neil Stephenson and Greg Bear and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. The group migrated from Ward's home overlooking Lake Washington to Magnuson Park to illegally fire off model rockets. When one parachuted down into a tree, Bezos horrified his wife by going hand over hand out on a limb to fetch it.

"If the board of directors of Amazon could have seen him they would have fainted dead away," Ward says. "Here was 2 billion dollars of a man out on a limb for my son's model rocket."

Ward was pals with Paul Allen (trying unsuccessfully to get him to finance a big Seattle natural-history museum) and science personality Bill Nye. Television producers found Ward himself to be highly quotable. He became more adept at getting research grants. He could take colleagues into the desert and keep them content with speculative conversation, good food and better wine after hard days swatting insects and pecking at the earth.

As an author, Ward remained relatively obscure until the 2000 partnership with Brownlee produced "Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe." New York Times science writer Bill Broad featured it, the kind of benediction that authors lust for. Other publications followed suit, TV called, and suddenly the pair had a best-seller.

"The Rare Earth book," says Ward, "changed everything."

SOME SCIENTISTS are the experimenters and quantifiers who do narrow tasks carefully and well. Others, the Newtons and Darwins and Einsteins, are idea guys, focused on the big picture. Ward has worked hard to sustain his credentials as both a data hound and a big thinker.

"His research has evolved to take on the big questions," said David Hodge, dean of Arts and Sciences at the UW. "He tackles questions others can't or won't. He's as far out as you can get, figuratively and literally. He's also a fomenter and connector."

Hodge concedes that Ward's frustration with the pay structure at the UW — longtime faculty have been kept at low pay while recruited outsiders get more — is justified, but turned down his request for an increase.

Whether Ward is appreciated at the UW or not, his ambition and impatience in a clubby and fiercely competitive field has earned him enemies. While he bends over backward in his books to credit other scientists and laments lost friendships, his paranoia and impatience sometimes get the better of him. "He's bruised a few relationships along the way," says Hodge.

"Peter sometimes views life like an ancient Greek, with the gods always picking on him with thunderbolts," jokes friend Tom Daniel, chairman of biology at the UW.

Ward clashed bitterly with Karl Hutterer, former director of the Burke Museum, over whether to try to expand the museum on campus, as Ward wanted, or downtown, as Hutterer dreamed. The result was no substantial expansion at all.

He has had love-hate relationships with a series of book agents and editors.

Similarly, chemist Luann Becker of the University of California at Santa Barbara found Ward overwhelming and combative when they clashed on the reasons for the Great Permian Extinction. She believes a comet or asteroid was responsible, while Ward thinks there may have been a disastrous decline in oxygen tied to volcanic eruptions and methane emissions.

He's a big-picture guy, she says, but also "a very competitive guy and likes attention." She felt professional disagreement became unfairly personal, and vetoed Ward's inclusion on a research trip to Antarctica.

Others find Ward warm, generous and energizing. "He's volatile and has intense likes and dislikes," concludes Greg Retallack of the University of Oregon, who has worked successfully with both Ward and Becker. "But I've always found him a lot of fun." Ward's enthusiasms are infectious, Retallack says, and his intensity is because "he's pushing hard, he's energetic, he's ambitious. He's top rank."

Ward, adds the UW's Daniel, "will challenge people, but that's good, that's what a scientist should be. He's never short of ideas."

Ward says he's mellowed somewhat with age, thanks to his new wife and son, and the realization that you can't do it all. His scuba years have caused so much joint damage that he's scheduled for a hip replacement. A spider bite from the Karoo forced him to cancel conference participation in Japan.

But physical adventure is being supplanted by intellectual adventure. "Some people have an edge and they can't get things done because of it," says astronomer Brownlee, one of his biggest fans. "Peter seems to painlessly pump out these papers and books. We go do these talks or TV. I have to prepare, but he just pops things together and the result is magnificent. I truly don't know how he gets done all that he does."

Brownlee also applauds Ward's willingness to write for a popular audience, a talent that can sometimes incite disdain or envy.

"That's extremely important. When I was young, science had a high level of attention. You would always have science stories in Life and Time. Now the news magazines are being turned into People magazine. It's rare for them to do a science story."

So is Peter Ward the next Carl Sagan? Will his occasional work on PBS, National Geographic, the BBC, the Discovery Channel and others some day blossom in "Cosmos"-like fame?

He's acutely aware that a lifetime of work on the biggest science questions has left him considerably less known than the most ephemeral pop-star-of-the-month. "The atomic-bomb guys were household names," he remarks. "Science today is more anonymous and more complex." Fame is a full-time job, and Ward's determination to be taken seriously as a down-in-the-trenches field scientist limits self-promotion.

Still, if anyone has the energy to take on the burden of science spokesman, it's Peter Ward.

And his real legacy, besides his ideas, may be what can't be quantified. Somewhere a 14-year-old is reading Peter Ward as Ward once read Roy Chapman Andrews — and deciding to be the next great scientist.

William Dietrich is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.