Growing up with the Mission Mountains as the backdrop of his youth, Caden Howlett became captivated with geology.
“My parents basically raised me in the mountains,” said Howlett, 23, whether it was hiking, camping, rafting or skiing. “And that childhood led me into my interest in studying those very mountains.
“I find nothing as impressive as just the sight of mountains. I knew there must be an incredible story of how they came to be,” he said.
The 2014 Polson High School graduate followed his curiosity of these “dominating features on earth’s surface,” to Montana State University where he is in the first year of completing a Master of Science degree in geology.
“I’m studying, specifically within geology, the process of mountain building,” Howlett said about the focus of his master’s thesis. “Basically, I’m trying to unravel the evolution of mountains in Montana.”
Howlett said he decided to pursue a master’s degree because it’s the next step in obtaining a doctorate, which is his end goal, in addition to serving as an opportunity to conduct his own research out in the field and in the lab.
“You can look at the orientation of different rocks and relationships in space between different rock types and make conclusions of history,” he said, giving an example of what can be learned in the field.
“Another thing I do is geochronology,” Howlett said, explaining it as the science of determining the age of rocks or dating geologic events. “We’re able to date minerals very precisely through radiometric dating.”
Why is it important to know how old a rock is?
“We’re learning about what processes led to the landscapes we see ...,” he said. “In time, it can give us an idea when these things will happen again and how.”
With a thorough understanding of geology, is there any mystery left to the mountains?
“It makes it more exciting even with solid knowledge how rocks form. Once you get into the field, the mystery definitely is still there. When you come across rocks outside, you still have to figure out how it got there. Being able to identify the rock is a very small part of the process how it got to where it did and why,” he explained.
There are moments that stump even seasoned field geologists.
It’s bound to happen that a geologist ends up with a collection of rocks, whether or not it’s research-related.
“I think when you are a geologist you don’t even think about it and end up with a rock collection — collecting rocks when they catch your eye,” Howlett said. “My apartment is full of rocks.”
Howlett enjoys studying metamorphic rocks, in particular.
“Metamorphic rocks are rocks that have experienced really high temperatures and pressure,” he said, later noting, “they’ve been through a lot, is why I like them very much.”
Metamorphic rocks also pertain to his research. His thesis is focusing on the role of magma activity in the process of mountain formation.
As much as he is grounded in investigating the earth’s crust, his hobby is looking upward to outer space and astronomy.
“As everyone who’s pondered it, I was just always amazed at the size of the universe and astronomy deals with vast cosmic distances,” Howlett said.
Howlett describes himself an amateur astronomer and has a basic telescope where he spends time viewing the moon, Mars and Saturn.
“I’m really interested in the geology of Mars,” he said, noting in his teens he dreamed of visiting the red planet as a geologist if space travel made it possible in his lifetime. “In the back of my mind, I had the goal, and still do, of studying Mars in some way.”
In 2016, he shared his interest in astronomy online by creating the Instagram account, “AstroDaily1,” where he compiles images, primarily from NASA, and includes not only snippets of science, but also injects his philosophical ponderings. More than 600 posts later, posting to the social media account has become a morning ritual over two cups of coffee. Howlett said it has “been such a cool way to progressively improve my writing.”
“One of the goals of AstroDaily is to give perspective to people on the universe through a more philosophical lens. People understandably have a very tough time understanding astronomy and earth sciences in general because it’s so complex, so I try to make it more relatable. I treat that as more of a personal journal to be honest,” he said. “I just share my thoughts on science and existence.”
Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.