Thursday, 19 August 2010
You might think it's a bit rich to claim Geology as an Unspeakably Scots Thing, and it is verging on cheek since, after all, rock forms the whole planet. If you slice through Earth like a peach, you would reach the inner core, then the outer core, the mantle and finally the crust. Unless you happen to be at sea, in the air or in space right now, you're on a teeny weeny bit of crust. If Mount Everest were on the aforementioned peach, it would be naught but a grain of sand. It is in our understanding of these matters that Scotland has played a respectable contribution, so indulge me here... particularly since the acknowledged 'Father of Modern Geology' was a Scot.
During the Enlightenment, (one of Scotland's Absolute Best Things...let's have another one), James Hutton was hanging out in Edinburgh with his mates, a spectacularly nerdy bunch of guys which included Joseph Black the chemist and Adam Smith, the economist and philosopher. Despite achieving a medical degree from Edinburgh University, James decided to farm, an occupation which sparked off his interest in rocks. Presumably because he and his pals didn't waste time watching Eastenders, they chilled out by just being very brainy. For James, rocks just could not have been more fascinating, and after a while he came up with his most famous book, 'Theory of the Earth'.
It's an ambitious title, and it changed people's thinking....considering all I can come up with of an evening is a shopping list for tomorrow's edibles, it does make me wonder what I've been doing all these years. I don't know what it is about nerdy swots, but I have a bit of thing about them....imagine being able to enhance our understanding of the universe just by staring at stuff...(mental note - must stand about staring vacantly into space more often). Hutton's theory was revolutionary in that he put forward the idea of a rock cycle, in which old rocks were destroyed by weathering and new ones were formed from their sediments.
This rock at Siccar Point near Dunbar, is a Mecca for geologists. Known as 'Hutton's Unconformity', he worked out that the junction between the vertical and horizontal rocks represented a gap in time of many millions of years. Up until now, Time had been limited to the biblical 4000-6000 or so years - 'Hutton's Unconformity' gave him the proof he needed that rocks were far older.
This was Big News, and an almighty shock to society too. But it was just the start of Scotland's contribution to geology. Five years after Hutton died in 1797, Hugh Miller was born in Cromarty on the Black Isle. His father had been lost at sea when Hugh was only five, so he was brought up in straightened circumstances with a minimal education. However, when he started work as a stonemason, he became obsessed by the fossils he found amongst the rocks. He looked at ammonites in the Eathie Burn and noticed that their shapes changed as they moved up the rock...Evolution. Time began to stretch from thousands of years to millions. For a deeply religious man whose beliefs were rigidly anchored to a creationist interpretation of events, this realization was nothing short of terrifying.
As his work took him to different areas of Scotland, Miller also became concerned with the social hardships he had witnessed, (especially the Clearances) and by 1829 his urge to write had taken over. He produced verse, and wrote articles on social and political matters, theology and Church politics. Soon his knack for communicating established him as an icon of Victorian Scotland.
However, despite his success Miller suffered a tragic end. Religion was vital to him, but he was never able to reconcile his scientific findings with his religious beliefs. Tortured by his own discoveries, he shot himself on Christmas Eve in 1856. His last work, 'The Testimony of the Rocks' was published posthumously in 1857 and it is clear that his ideas held considerable influence on Charles Darwin ('The Origin of Species' was published in 1859).
So, while standing on a bit of crust today, I was trying to add up just what these guys had achieved. I can't help thinking that if they were around nowadays, both of them might well be some kind of oil man.
Relish your crust.
Posted by Returning Scot at 11:56