Mountains & Deep Time

I found this lecture fascinating about how geological knowledge change. Burnet’s idea of ‘The Mundane Egg’ led me to trying to read some of his book ‘The theory of the earth : containing an account of the original of the earth, and of all the general changes which it hath already undergone, or is to undergo till the consummation of all things’ from 1697. You can download an original here The bit about needing eight oceans worth of water to cover the highest mountains during the Christian Deluge is on p. 39 of the pdf.

Charles Lyell’s volumes of Principles of Geology are also worth looking through. They are available on the Darwin Online. I liked this from the introduction of volume 3:
‘It was therefore necessary to reverse the doctrine which had acquired so much popularity, and the unexpected solution of a problem at first regarded as so enigmatical, gave perhaps the strongest stimulus ever yet afforded to investigate the ordinary operations of nature. For it must have appeared almost as improbable to the earlier geologists, that the laws of earthquakes should one day throw light on the origin of mountains, as it must to the first astronomers, that the fall of an apple should assist in explaining the motions of the moon…We hear of sudden and violent revolutions of the globe, of the instantaneous elevation of mountain chains, of paroxysms of volcanic energy, declining according to some, and according to others increasing in violence, from the earliest to the latest ages. We are also told of general catastrophes and a succession of deluges, of the alternation of periods of repose and disorder, of the refrigeration of the globe, of the sudden annihilation of whole races of animals and plants, and other hypotheses, in which we see the ancient spirit of speculation revived, and a desire manifested to cut, rather than patiently to untie, the Gordian knot’

If anyone who wants a challenge, there’s always James Hutton’s ‘Theory of the Earth’, which Bill Bryson, in his ‘Short History of Nearly Everything’, stated ‘is a strong candidate for the least read important book in science (or at least would be if there weren’t so many others). Even Charles Lyell, the greatest geologist of the following century and a man who read everything, admitted he couldn’t get through it.’
It comes in 4 volumes. This is volume 3, with it’s rather apt line (p.16) for MOOC addicts ‘In matters of science, curiosity gratified begets not indolence, but new desires’


I did not expect to find “history of Geology” to be so fascinating. I was hooked for the entire 20 minutes.

I found this line in Wikipedia about Theory of Earth funny:

Hutton’s prose hindered his theories. They were not taken seriously until 1802, when Edinburgh University mathematics professor John Playfair restated Hutton’s geological ideas in clearer English.

@Hamish Would love to read you review when you finish the 4 volumes :stuck_out_tongue:

You wouldn’t want to read over a thousand pages of this?

‘That no such theory as this, founded upon water as an agent operating in the changes of this earth, has yet appeared, will, I believe be easily allowed. With regard again to fire as an agent in the mineral operations of this earth, geologists have formed no consistent theory. They see volcanoes in all the quarters of the globe, and from those burning mountains, they conjecture other mountains have been formed. But a burning mountain is only a matter of fact; and, they have not on this formed any general principle, for establishing what may be called a theory of the earth. Those who have considered subterraneous fires as producing certain effects, neither know how these have been procured, nor do they see the proper purpose for which they are employed in the system of this world. In this case, the agent fire is only seen as a destructive element, in like manner as deluges of water have been attributed by others to changes which have happened in the natural state of things. These operations are seen only as the accidents of nature, and not as part of that design by which the earth, which is necessarily wasted in the operations of the world, is to be repaired.’

Maybe I’ll try after I finish the 1466 pages of Les Miserables. I read it has 365 chapters, so I’m trying one a night for this year.