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Alumnus Wendell Duffield pays tribute to his hero, Prof. Siemon Muller

February 27, 2014
Siemon W Muller, Wendell Duffield
Siemon W Muller (left), circa 1944; Wendell Duffield (right)

Throughout his career as a volcanologist with the US Geological Survey, in academia at Northern Arizona University and in life in general, Wendell A. Duffield said he has remembered powerful advice from Stanford geology Prof. Siemon (Si) Muller. A foremost expert on the permanently frozen ground in the Arctic, Muller is credited with coining the term “permafrost.” But that’s not what elevated him to hero status for Duffield. Rather, it happened when Muller was prepping him for a mapping trip to the California Coast Range Mountains.

Today Duffield is partially retired and lives on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound with his wife Anne. He continues to serve as an adjunct professor in geology for Northern Arizona University, and enjoys writing for general readers. His blog called “Duff’s Stuff,” which explores geologic and other topics, is available here.

And he has several books available on, ranging from What’s So Hot about Volcanoes (What’s So Cool about Geology) to Yucca Mountain Dirty Bomb. For Duffield’s tribute to Prof. Si Muller, read on. And if you have memories about your Stanford experiences you’d like to share with the alumni community, please contact Earth Matters editor Nancy Peterson.

Remembering Siemon “Si” Muller

By Wendell A. Duffield
(Geology, MS 1965, PhD 1967)

I believe that all students, whether they be academic types in a formal education setting or simply people navigating a less rigid path of life, encounter an unforgettable teacher or two along the way — an instructor in the broadest sense who becomes a permanent part of the student’s existence.

One such hero of mine was a geology professor at Stanford University while I was a graduate student there in pursuit of a PhD degree, from 1963 to 1967. His name is Siemon William Muller, popularly called Si. We were somewhat of an odd couple, since Si was primarily interested in learning what successions of layered sedimentary rocks could tell him about Earth’s history, whereas I was on a track that led to a career studying igneous rocks, especially volcanic types. Nonetheless, we bonded as personal as well as professional friends.

Along my Stanford PhD path, I was required to complete a Master’s Degree thesis. Muller was assigned to be my Advisor. He directed me to map a brush-covered mountainous area of the California Coast Ranges near the town of Coalinga. And his one guiding instruction that has stuck with me throughout my later career as a field geologist and is the motivation for now writing this essay was “Never ever locate a contact between different rock formations without actually walking along the path that will show up as a line on your geologic map.” I could tell from his tone of voice and facial expression that he was serious about this advice. I did my best to follow it.

So instead of shortcutting some of my field-work traverses, I laboriously beat through the brush. There I encountered my first ever rattlesnakes outside the scenes in an oater movie — scared the crap out of me — and learned after the fact that I was not allergic to poison oak. A friend who spent a day with me in the field wondered aloud if I knew what that plant was that I so cavalierly charged right through, pushing it aside with bare arms! With Muller’s advice in mind, I endured the scratches and scrapes and copious sweat that come with literally walking on a geologic contact in those Coast Ranges rather than following an easier path to the next convenient exposure. Muller was satisfied with my efforts and its product, and I was awarded my MS from Stanford in 1965.

In addition to developing a friendship with this incredibly talented and personable man, his general advice of avoiding shortcuts — the convenient and easier path — when dealing with important issues, seems to pop into my consciousness on such occasions as a year-end holiday season. Happy trails, Si, wherever you are!

For more information about Muller, I recommend a Google search for Siemon W. Muller.