BY MAINGON LOYS
A few days ago, the scientific world, Canada, the Comox Valley as a whole and Comox Valley Nature (CVN), in particular, lost a 5-foot 2-inch giant. Nobody is ever likely to replace Dr. Chris Pielou.
I knew her long before I came to the Comox Valley. I joined CVN largely because she was a member – what self-respecting scientist wouldn’t have. I was shocked and amazed that she was given so little recognition locally.
If I had to rate Canadian biologists or Canadian environmental scientists, I would have to say that she was perhaps Canada’s greatest contribution to our global understanding of the environment.
I knew Chris intimately (I choose that word carefully- and she laughed when I slyly told her that), because I, as many postgraduate biology students, had learnt multi-variate statistics from her classic book, “The interpretation of Ecological Data,” which is the a key work for any mathematical ecologist. In this, she towers above a David Suzuki, whom I also respect, but while he gives mere information, Chris gave us the tools to get the information, destroy corporate lies, as we are obligated to communicate.
Every serious biologist in Canada is a student of Dr. Pielou, and she deserved every bit of respect she claimed. Regrettably, few people in the Comox Valley understood how important, how brilliant she was and how much she deserved to be heard. And man, thank god she could roar.
She was an extremely important member of CVN, who worked tirelessly at the head of the group’s conversation committee, which for decades was CVN’s advocacy voice, taking on both local and provincial issues. In addition to being provincially well-known as the Chair of the Scientific Panel on Clayoquot Sound in 1991-1992, which led to Clayoquot Sound being designated as a United Nations Biosphere Reserve, she had been an avid outspoken and a forceful environmental protester.
Her drive led to the creation of the Comox Lake Ecological Reserve, for which she was appointed the first voluntary warden.
Chris had a delightful lack of patience for fools and people she disdainfully referred to as “twits.” She hated presentations of “pretty pictures.” She demanded substance in everything and always met the highest environmental standards. And she had cause to demand high standards, because she always met them herself.
She was known world-wide as a pre-eminent bio-statistician. As a brilliant ecological mathematician she pioneered multivariate statistics, which is now the universal standard for ecological research.
After obtaining a PhD in mathematics, she went on to do a second PhD on mathematical ecology at The University of London, and went on to teach at Yale, Dalhousie and ultimately at Lethbridge University on a Canada Research Chair – which gave her a free hand.
She published widely, both professionally and as a consultant. Late in life she wrote a series of popular books for naturalists that endeavoured to make the wonder of science accessible to everybody, such as books on flora and fauna, and on popularized physics, such as, “The Energy of Nature” ( highly recommended).
This diminutive lady was not only a giant in the recognition of women’s equality in science, she was widely recognized internationally for her endeavours and merit, by the University of British Columbia which granted her yet another honorary PhD in 2001. Part of her 2001 address to UBC’s graduating class is worth quoting, if only because it encapsulates the quintessential Chris, and it is a belief I share:
“This may explain why so many people say, complacently, “Of course, I’m lousy at math but … ” and then go on to imply that their mental powers are perfect apart from this trivial defect. Well, it isn’t trivial – a person who blocks out math is a mental couch potato.”
Sharp as ever at 90, she once pointed out to me that most anti-environmentalists were dunces at math. One in particular who caused me grief at UBC and her grief on the Scientific Panel, was a forester who was a mathematical dullard and fraud, and she could prove it, he had failed her class.
Today, the world is poorer, and nature is diminished. CVN has lost a very great friend, leader and mentor and the naturalists’ and environmentalists’ community is greatly diminished internationally.
We owe it to Chris to perpetuate her environmental commitment, as she once said to me: “Fight every day, and have the math to prove it!”
And so we will, death be damned. I am sure she would appreciate that.