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Originally published Tuesday, September 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Seattle rocker/scientist wins "genius grant"

David Montgomery, an author, musician and University of Washington scientist, will have $500,000 to spend over the next five years as one of this year's MacArthur Fellows.

Seattle Times environment reporter

David Montgomery's voracious intellect and appetite for adventure have earned him a long list of titles: noted University of Washington scientist, author, rock musician and public speaker.

Now he can add another: genius.

Montgomery, a 47-year-old geomorphologist at the University of Washington's Department of Earth and Space Sciences, is one of 25 scientists, artists and public figures to win this year's MacArthur Fellowships, commonly known as the "genius grants."

The award, which comes with $500,000 over five years for each person, is among the most prestigious in the nation, and is designed to free people to pursue their interests without worrying about income.

"The beautiful thing about a MacArthur is it's unrestricted," said Montgomery, who learned of the award a week ago but was sworn to secrecy until the recipients were announced. "Having unrestricted funding is a luxury I've never had before."

Not that he's shown signs of narrow restrictions in his work up to this point.

As a geomorphologist, studying the way the Earth's surface is shaped by forces such as erosion, he has scoured the banks of the Puget Sound area's Skokomish River to understand why it's flood-prone, and scrutinized images of Mars to help uncover a landslide the size of the United States. This spring he visited north India to trace evidence of ancient floods on one of the world's highest rivers.

"He's been exceptionally influential in a lot of studies," said Professor Robert Winglee, chair of Montgomery's department.

Montgomery's work on landslides, salmon habitat and rivers, along with his outspokenness, has earned him repeat appearances before state-government panels. In January, at a state legislative-committee hearing, he delivered a critique of logging in Southwest Washington and its ties to landslides set off during storms last winter.

He's also found time to write two well-received books delving into the historical intersection of science and society. His first, "King of Fish," was about the history of salmon and the way societies have driven them toward extinction. His second book, 2007's "Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations," traces the history of soil and how farming helped bring down ancient societies, and what that could mean for today.

Now, he's at work on another, "Phantom Deluge," about the interaction between science and religion when it comes to massive floods, such as the story of Noah.

"I plan to use [the award] supporting research, writing and music, the three most creative aspects of my life," Montgomery said. "It will help me work on the next book."

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Other winners of this year's fellowships include an inventor of musical instruments, an urban farmer, a saxophonist, a stage-lighting designer, an astronomer who studies the geometry of the universe, a novelist who writes about ethnic conflict and a critical-care physician who studies how to avoid human error in clinical practices.

The foundation cited Montgomery's prolific scientific work, as well as his books aimed at broader audiences, in announcing the award.

"With a scientist's rigor, a historian's curiosity, and an environmentalist's passion, Montgomery is leading investigations into the ecological consequences of a wide range of Earth surface processes," the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation stated.

The foundation didn't note his more playful side. He's a guitarist, singer and songwriter in a local band, Big Dirt, which the band's MySpace site describes as "boot stompin, hip swingin, neo-psychedelic alt/folk revival."

The band also shows signs of his political leanings. The feature song on the Web site is "Everything You Say is a Lie," with a photo of President Bush next to it. In 2004, Montgomery helped his wife, Anne Biklé, make the bumper sticker "Bush on Mars 2004," after Bush announced an initiative to boost exploration of the red planet.

For people hoping to get a look at genius in action, his band is playing at the High Dive music club in Fremont on Oct. 10 from 6 to 8 p.m.

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or wcornwall@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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