Dr. John Barlow Reid Jr., 63, noted professor of geology
Dr. John Barlow Reid Jr., a geology professor at Hampshire College who might have solved the mystery of the moving rocks of Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park, died of prostate cancer Aug. 28 at his Essex home. He was 63.
A strapping, outdoorsy man, Dr. Reid was a scientist of great enthusiasms who had no trouble sucking bystanders into the vortex of his latest project. "He always had a glint in his eyes and a beard and a thick head of hair flying in the wind," Steve Roof, a fellow geology professor at Hampshire, said yesterday.
His energy was remarkable. "He could move up the mountains faster than his college-age students," said Roof, "and there was always something new in his mind, something he wanted to figure out."
In the mid 1980s, Dr. Reid decided he wanted to figure out the mystery of the roving rocks of Racetrack Playa, large chunks of dolomite, some as heavy as 700 pounds, that move around, gouging long tracks on the surface of a remote dry lake bed, sometimes in tandem.
Nobody has seen the rocks move, leading to some scientific speculation and many tall tales. Were aliens responsible, super strong squirrels, or merely the wind?
Dr. Reid and his graduate students visited the site several times between 1987 and 1994. They made measurements, restrained rocks in wooden boxes, and monitored the wind.
With computer modeling, they determined that it would take a 175-mile-per-hour wind to move a 44-pound rock, and a 280-mile- per-hour wind to move a 700-pounder. Both unlikely.
The result of the studies? "It's the ice sheets that make it possible," Dr. Reid said in a story published in Earth magazine in 1996, explaining that annual freezing and melting of ice moved the rocks, much like the glaciers that dropped boulders in their wake to create New England's current landscape.
"He could see interesting problems all around him and somehow connected them to geology," John Brady a professor of geology at Smith College, said yesterday.
Dr. Reid was born in Yonkers, N.Y. He graduated from Williams College and Harvard University's School of Education, and earned a doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Dr. Reid often rushed from his lab at Hampshire College to buttonhole a clerk or administrator and bring them in and show them a wonder that he was viewing through his microscope.
"He was a generous teacher and an accomplished scientist who always made others feel welcome in his world," said Aaron Berman, dean of faculty at Hampshire College.
Dr. Reid enjoyed comparing geologic formations to food. The strata or rocks looked like "layers of icing on a cake," the Sierra Mountains were formed in a process akin to "sucking the juice out of a Popsicle," and glaciers with the consistency of "pancake batter with chocolate chips" retreated north from New England dropping rocks along the way.
Dr. Reid told his students that the earth's history is like a movie and we can only see one frame. He said his mission was to make the movie come alive and help them see the earth's past and imagine its future.
"He was a man who loved a good mystery," said Roof.
In 1996, when Dr. Reid was told there were scientists who disagreed with his theory about the rocks of Racetrack Playa, he wasn't upset. On the contrary, he welcomed the controversy. "I'd hate it if the average person thought this was the end of the story," he said.
He leaves his wife, Lee Nameche-Reid; two sons, John B. III of Taos, N.M., and Joshua S. of Waterbury, Vt.; a daughter, Juliana of Montague; his parents, John and Margaret Brown Reid of Hillsborough, Calif.; two sisters, Margaret Blatchford and Caroline McCallister, both of California; a brother, William, also of California; two stepchildren, Jared and Shelby Strong of Essex; and three grandchildren.
A walk in his memory will be held tomorrow at 2 p.m. at Halibut Point State Park in Rockport. A memorial service will be held at Hampshire College at a later date.
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