BOOK: Reading the Rocks: How Victorian Geologists Discovered the Secret of Life

I am a few chapters into Reading the Rocks, a new book about the history of geology in the nineteenth century. I am enjoying Maddox’s writing style, and so far think this book would serve great as a good overview of the topic for those who don’t wish to delve into the much lengthier works of Martin Rudwick (that the author is much familiar with). I did spot two errors in the first chapter, which I hope is not indicative of pages to come – it’s a shame it wasn’t spotted!*

Reading the Rocks

Brenda Maddox, Reading the Rocks: How Victorian Geologists Discovered the Secret of Life (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2017), 272 pp. 

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Publisher’s description The birth of geology was fostered initially by gentlemen whose wealth supported their interests, but in the nineteenth century, it was advanced by clergymen, academics, and women whose findings expanded the field. Reading the Rocks brings to life this eclectic cast of characters who brought passion, eccentricity, and towering intellect to the discovery of how Earth was formed. Geology opened a window on the planet’s ancient past. Contrary to the Book of Genesis, the rocks and fossils dug up showed that Earth was immeasurably old. Moreover, fossil evidence revealed progressive changes in life forms. It is no coincidence that Charles Darwin was a keen geologist. Acclaimed biographer and science writer Brenda Maddox’s story goes beyond William Smith, the father of English geology; Charles Lyell, the father of modern geology; and James Hutton, whose analysis of rock layers unveiled what is now called “deep time.” She also explores the lives of fossil hunter Mary Anning, the Reverend William Buckland, Darwin, and many others–their triumphs and disappointments, and the theological, philosophical, and scientific debates their findings provoked. Reading the Rocks illustrates in absorbing and revelatory details how this group of early geologists changed irrevocably our understanding of the world.

* In the first chapter (pp. 14-15) is the following passage: “… scientists estimate the age of the earth at roughly 4.6 billion years. The encompassing solar system is believed to have emerged around 13.7 billion years ago as a result of the ‘Big Bang’ – the collapse of a fragment of a giant molecular cloud.” The encompassing solar system would have been formed roughly the same time as did earth, 4.6 billion years ago. Our solar system did not form as a direct result of the Big Bang. Further, on p. 15, Maddox states incorrectly that life first emerged an estimated 540 million years ago, “first as single cells deep in the ocean, then as creatures with head, tails and segments.” It was the Cambrian explosion that occurred roughly 540 million years ago, not when life first evolved – the earliest fossils of life are from about 3.5 billion years ago.

Check out reviews of Reading the Rocks from Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Wall Street Journal (paywall), Washington Post, and

ARTICLE: Darwin and Deep Time: Temporal Scales and the Naturalist’s Imagination

A new article in the journal History of Science (March 2016):

Darwin and Deep Time: Temporal Scales and the Naturalist’s Imagination

Peter Dear

Abstract Charles Darwin built a world around an implied metaphysics of time that treated deep time as something qualitatively different from ordinary, experienced time. He did not simply require a vast amount of time within which his primary evolutionary mechanism of natural selection could operate; in practice, he required a deep time that functioned according to different rules from those of ordinary, “shallow” time. The experience of the naturalist occupied shallow time, but it was from that experience that Darwin necessarily had to build his arguments concerning a transformism that took place on an entirely different temporal scale. Much of his reconstruction of what took place in deep time relied on inferences drawn from taxonomic classification, and those inferences in turn depended to a large degree on conclusions reached through the already-established practices of his fellow non-transformist naturalists. By bootstrapping his transformist arguments, focused on both natural and sexual selection, with non-transformist classificatory judgments, Darwin attempted to convince his fellow naturalists of the truth of evolution in deep time. In other words, while Darwin argued for the existence of selectionist processes themselves in contemporary shallow time, their transformist consequences could only be traced out in deep time, being evidenced by both contemporary and paleontological slices, or laminae, of shallow time. This served to protect transformism from the dangers of unorthodoxy by preserving uniformity within shallow time.

BOOK: Right Where You Are Now (children’s book about geologic time)

Another recent children’s book, this one covering geologic time.

Right Where You Are Now

Written by Lisa Montierth | Illustrated by Ashley Burke

Right Where You Are Now is a bedtime story for children. Vibrant illustrations transport readers millions of years back through geologic time, from worlds of flowing rivers of lava to the tribes of early Americans. A new and exciting journey begins with every turn of the page. Right Where You Are Now is scientifically accurate, so it’s more than just a bedtime story—it’s an educational adventure.

Recent articles of interest

From the journal The Plant Cell:

Charles Darwin and the Origins of Plant Evolutionary Developmental Biology

William E. Friedman and Pamela K. Diggle

Abstract Much has been written of the early history of comparative embryology and its influence on the emergence of an evolutionary developmental perspective. However, this literature, which dates back nearly a century, has been focused on metazoans, without acknowledgment of the contributions of comparative plant morphologists to the creation of a developmental view of biodiversity. We trace the origin of comparative plant developmental morphology from its inception in the eighteenth century works of Wolff and Goethe, through the mid nineteenth century discoveries of the general principles of leaf and floral organ morphogenesis. Much like the stimulus that von Baer provided as a nonevolutionary comparative embryologist to the creation of an evolutionary developmental view of animals, the comparative developmental studies of plant morphologists were the basis for the first articulation of the concept that plant (namely floral) evolution results from successive modifications of ontogeny. Perhaps most surprisingly, we show that the first person to carefully read and internalize the remarkable advances in the understanding of plant morphogenesis in the 1840s and 1850s is none other than Charles Darwin, whose notebooks, correspondence, and (then) unpublished manuscripts clearly demonstrate that he had discovered the developmental basis for the evolutionary transformation of plant form.

From Earth Sciences History:

Religious assumptions in Lord Kelvin’s estimates of the Earth’s age

Leonard G. Wilson

Abstract Lord Kelvin’s estimates of the Earth’s age were not necessary consequences of his physics. Religion influenced his physics and his arguments for a limited age of the Earth. Kelvin’s primary aim was to destroy Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection by attacking the uniformitarian geology on which Darwin’s theory was founded. His calculations of the age of the Earth contained a fundamental contradiction. He assumed that the Earth began as a hot liquid sphere, but Fourier’s mathematics, which he used to calculate the rate of cooling, applied only to heat conducted through a solid. Kelvin’s assumption of an initially hot liquid Earth was a necessary consequence of his thermodynamics. Energy could neither be created nor destroyed. The heat within the Earth must, therefore, be derived from its first creation by God. Kelvin never admitted the contradiction between the original hot liquid Earth and his calculation of its cooling on the assumption that the Earth was solid throughout, but in 1897 his imagined account of the initial Earth was a search for a solid Earth amenable to his calculations. The heat flow through the solid crust was very small in proportion to the total internal heat of the Earth. If Kelvin had included the total internal heat in his calculations, he would have arrived at much higher figures for the age of the Earth.

From the Journal of the History of Biology:

Karl Beurlen (1901–1985), Nature Mysticism, and Aryan Paleontology

Olivier Rieppel

Abstract The relatively late acceptance of Darwinism in German biology and paleontology is frequently attributed to a lingering of Lamarckism, a persisting influence of German idealistic Naturphilosophie and Goethean romanticism. These factors are largely held responsible for the vitalism underlying theories of saltational and orthogenetic evolutionary change that characterize the writings of many German paleontologists during the first half of the 20th century. A prominent exponent of that tradition was Karl Beurlen, who is credited with having been the first German paleontologist to present a full-fledged theory of saltational evolution and orthogenetic change. A review of Beurlen’s writings reveals motives and concerns far more complex, however, and firmly rooted in contemporary völkisch thought and Aryan Science. Beurlen’s mature theory of evolution can indeed be understood as his own contribution to Aryan Geology and Biology, tainted as it was with National-Socialist ideology. Evolutionary biologists of the time who opposed the theories of Beurlen and like-minded authors, i.e., idealistic morphology, typology, saltational change, orthogenesis and cyclism did so on Darwinian principles, which ultimately prevailed. But at the time when the battle was fought, their adherence to the principle of natural selection was likewise ideologically tainted, namely in terms of racial theory. National-Socialist ideology was unable to forge a unity of evolutionary theory in Germany even amongst those of its proponents who endorsed this ideology.

From the British Journal for the History of Science:

Charles Darwin’s use of theology in the Origin of Species

Stephen Dilley

Abstract This essay examines Darwin’s positiva (or positive) use of theology in the first edition of the Origin of Species in three steps. First, the essay analyses the Origin‘s theological language about God’s accessibility, honesty, methods of creating, relationship to natural laws and lack of responsibility for natural suffering; the essay contends that Darwin utilized positiva theology in order to help justify (and inform) descent with modification and to attack special creation. Second, the essay offers critical analysis of this theology, drawing in part on Darwin’s mature ruminations to suggest that, from an epistemic point of view, the Origin‘s positiva theology manifests several internal tensions. Finally, the essay reflects on the relative epistemic importance of positiva theology in the Origin‘s overall case for evolution. The essay concludes that this theology served as a handmaiden and accomplice to Darwin’s science.

Also from the British Journal for the History of Science:

By design: James Clerk Maxwell and the evangelical unification of science

Matthew Stanley

Abstract James Clerk Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory famously unified many of the Victorian laws of physics. This essay argues that Maxwell saw a deep theological significance in the unification of physical laws. He postulated a variation on the design argument that focused on the unity of phenomena rather than Paley’s emphasis on complexity. This argument of Maxwell’s is shown to be connected to his particular evangelical religious views. His evangelical perspective provided encouragement for him to pursue a unified physics that supplemented his other philosophical, technical and social influences. Maxwell’s version of the argument from design is also contrasted with modern ‘intelligent-design’ theory.

BOOK REVIEW: Brian Switek’s “Written in Stone”

Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature. By Brian Switek. New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2010. 320 pp. Illustrations, notes, references, index. $16.95 (paper).

It’s Monday, and many of you are probably getting back to school or work from a nice holiday vacation. Did you enjoy your turkey? Did you think about evolution while you feasted? Check out this clip of paleontologist Robert T. Bakker from the TLC show Paleoworld (you know, back when they had shows worth watching):

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all had a Bakker to make our Thanksgiving meal a science education opportunity? (If you wish to explore Thanksgiving dinosaurs further, try this activity from the University of California Museum of Paleontology.)

Two parts to cover: background image of nautiloids represents the material fossils themselves; foreground image of a label represents human understanding of fossils, i.e., a specimen card

Birds are descended from dinosaurs. But there is a lot of history to that idea. Paleontologists did not simply uncover fossils of dinosaurs and realize that living birds are a surviving lineage of theropods. Where can one turn to learn of all this? Brian Switek, whose blog Laelaps (in its current evolutionary stage with Wired) I have been reading for several years now, has just published his first book, Written in Stone. Each chapter focuses on a particular group of animals that we now have great fossil evidence showing their evolutionary history: birds, whales, early rodent-like mammals, elephants, horses, and humans, to name a few. We come away with a full understanding of the branching nature of the evolution of life on Earth, as Switek dispels the notion of progressive, ladder-like, and human-oriented evolution. He also gives us the sense of the vast amount of extinct vertebrates (relatives of ours included), for some of what we see on the planet today – horses, for example –  are just a peek of the diversity of forms in the groups in which they are nested. “To focus solely upon our ancestors is to blind ourselvves to our own evolutionary context” (21).

Brian Switek

Photo credit: Tracey Switek

Wielding a wealth of science information while attending to historical detail, Written in Stone offers a very-readable narrative of how European and American scientists have understood fossils over the centuries. While not an academic historian – he is a freelance science writer and a Research Associate in paleontology at the New Jersey State Museum – Switek gives importance to the historical development of ideas in paleontology. Here we are introduced to not only various species of vertebrate animals and the myriad of transitional forms bridging them, but also to their discoverers and the thoughts of those who have studied them (in some cases, this includes indigenous peoples, with a nod to the work of Adrienne Mayor).

One of the criticisms Darwin knew he would receive on publishing On the Origin of Species was that the fossil record was incomplete. Maybe so, but move ahead in time a century and a half, and the amount of material evidence for past life on earth is remarkable, thousands upon thousands of specimens across the kingdoms packed away or lining cabinet drawers in museum collections worldwide, a minute percentage on view to the public. Despite what we do have, it will never be complete, and the answers to paleontologists’ questions about what animal is related to another, and how are those in turn related to this group will never be, well, set in stone. Like any field of science, paleontology is an ongoing human process. Ideas are constantly refined based on new evidence or someone coming along and looking at things differently. In Written in Stone, Switek shows us that in paleontology, this is definitely the case.

There are generally two ways we could look at the history of paleontology. One, as Switek does, is to tell the story of those involved (we get Darwin, Huxley, Owen, Marsh, and Cope, but we also learn about a lot of relatively unknowns, too, such as Albert Gaudry; and there’s a female paleontologist as well, Jennifer Clack), their ideas, conflicts and competition between figures, and the contingent nature of history – this happened, so therefore this happened; or, this only happened because this happened. We receive such history for the early nineteenth century all the way up to, well, now. Just as evolution is contingent (what say you, Gould?), certain events can happen that change the course of paleontological history. For example, Switek tells us about how only when a graduate student dropped a specimen did that act help to understand the evolutionary history of whales. Today, CT scanning is the norm in paleontology for peering into the insides of bones. Before, such were chance opportunities, or, deliberative slicing of specimens.

The other, which Switek acknowledges but does to a lesser degree (but he does get some in there!), is to show how factors seemingly beyond the purview of science actually inform it, and vice versa (how culture, politics, economics, geography, etc. play a role in the conduct of science). “The places paleontologists looked for fossils and how those fossils have been interpreted have been influenced by politics and culture, reminding us that while there is a reality that science allows us to approach the process of science is a human endeavour” (23). Covering so much about geology, the age of the earth, and fossils of animals, Switek shows how religion affected the ideas of some naturalists or paleontologists. We learn how politics enabled naturalists to travel, “natural science, pressed into the service of empire” (69, 181, 183); of the public’s thirst for spectacles (145); how national pride pitted Thomas Jefferson against the Comte de Buffon concerning large mammals in North America; and how Philip Henry Gosse attacked evolution because of personal reasons (204-5).

And, so what? Does it matter if we understand how life on Earth evolved? Yes, it surely does, since we are part of that story. In the last two pages of the penultimate chapter and in the short final chapter, Switek pulls his thoughts together and unpretentiously puts us in our place. “We are merely a shivering twig that is the last vestige of a richer family tree.” If that saddens you, then: “Life is most precious when its unity and rarity are recognized, and we are among the rarest of things.” Humans are just like any other organism on the planet, and all should be appreciated together.

There have been several books over the last few years that look at the evidence for evolution (particularly, Richard Dawkins’s The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution and Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True, and another to be published next June, The Evidence for Evolution by Alan R. Rogers). What value, then, is Written in Stone? One, because it is so very well-written by a young writer. And two, for its coverage of the history of science, however limited. Three, it is the perfect antidote to the ignorance of some members of our society [largely creationists; however, Switek does not explicity engage with anti-evolutionists in his book, rather, his text works as “letting the evidence speak for itself,” or, as Switek states, “the bones of our distant ancestors… should speak to us from the earth” (18)]. For example, I think someone needs to send this woman a copy of Written in Stone for the holidays:

That said, Mr. Switek, congratulations on writing a fantastic book about evolution, which I think could be titled Strange Beings à la Darwin (see this 1863 letter from Hugh Falconer to Darwin, which Switek quotes in the book). I look forward to meeting you at Science Online 2011 in January! (Switek also blogs for Smithsonian’s Dinosaur Tracking Blog.)

Evolution Game: Evolve or Perish

Evolve or Perish boardgame

From the ETE Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History comes “Evolve or Perish,” an evolution-based version of Chutes & Ladders:

you use chips and a die to reach the finish. Evolve or Perish, however, also takes you through 630 million years of evolution from life in the sea to life on land. A glossary explains important events. Evolve or Perish can be played at two levels, beginner and advanced.

You can print the board and instructions from the website. The artist is Hannah Bonner. Hat-tip to Brian Switek‘s twitter feed (@Laelaps).

Darwin/evolution issue of The American Biology Teacher

The February 2010 issue of The American Biology Teacher has much on Darwin and evolution:

From the President

Do You Believe in Evolution?

Guest Editorial, William F. McComas

Where is the “Origin” in the Origin of Species?

Experience Millions of Years, Larry Flammer

Here’s a relatively concrete activity to teach the large numbers representing evolutionary deep time.

Were Australopithecines Ape—Human Intermediates or Just Apes? A Test of Both Hypotheses Using the “Lucy” Skeleton, Phil Senter

Mainstream scientists often claim that australopithecines such as the specimen nicknamed “Lucy” exhibit anatomy intermediate between that of apes and that of humans and use this as evidence that humans evolved from australopithecines, which evolved from apes. On the other hand, creationists reject evolution and claim that australopithecines are “just apes.” Here, a point-by-point visual comparison with the skeletons of a chimpanzee, “Lucy,” and a human is presented in order to evaluate both claims, treating them as testable hypotheses. The results support the hypothesis that australopithecines are anatomically intermediate between apes and humans. Classroom applications of this test of hypotheses are also discussed.

Charles Darwin’s Botanical Investigations, Suzanne M. Harley

Charles Darwin’s botanical studies provide a way to expose students to his work that followed the publication of On the Origin of Species. We can use stories from his plant investigations to illustrate key concepts in the life sciences and model how questions are asked and answered in science.

Darwin’s “Imaginary Illustrations”: Creatively Teaching Evolutionary Concepts & the Nature of Science, Alan C. Love

An overlooked feature of Darwin’s work, is his use of “imaginary illustrations” to show that natural selection is competent to produce adaptive, evolutionary change. When set in the context of Darwin’s methodology, these thought experiments provide a novel way to teach natural selection and the nature of science.

Education’s Missing Link: How Private School Teachers Approach Evolution, Michael W. Schulteis

Over 5 million students and 28,000 schools are consistently marginalized or left out of statistics that describe evolution and science education. Although they are relatively few in number compared with their public school counterparts, the millions of students and hundreds of thousands of teachers in private schools need to be counted in research about teaching and learning in the biology classroom. Assumptions have been made about how teachers in these often religious schools teach evolution, but do we have verifiable data? Could teachers in these schools be similar to those in public schools in their teaching of evolution, or is there a silent undercurrent that has not been detected? It is the purpose of this study to reveal more about this underrepresented segment of the population of science teachers.

Florida Teachers’ Attitudes about Teaching Evolution, Samantha R. Fowler, Gerry G. Meisels

A survey of Florida teachers reveals many differences in comfort level with teaching evolution according to the state’s science teaching standards, general attitudes and beliefs about evolution, and the extent to which teachers are criticized, censured, disparaged, or reprehended for their beliefs about the teaching of evolution.

PopGen Fishbowl: A Free Online Simulation Model of Microevolutionary Processes, Thomas C. Jones, Thomas F. Laughlin

Natural selection and other components of evolutionary theory are known to be particularly challenging concepts for students to understand. To help illustrate these concepts, we developed a simulation model of microevolutionary processes. The model features all the components of Hardy-Weinberg theory, with population size, selection, gene flow, nonrandom mating, and mutation all being demonstrated in the simulations. By using this freely available computer model, students can develop and test hypotheses with replicated virtual experiments. Because the model is an agent-based simulation, there is biologically realistic variability in the results. Students using the model see results both numerically and graphically and these are reinforced by an animation of the virtual fish in the simulated experiment.

The Power of Natural Selection: A Guided Investigation of Three Case Studies, William Beachly

I describe a quantitative approach to three case studies in evolution that can be used to challenge college freshmen to explore the power of natural selection and ask questions that foster a deeper understanding of its operation and relevance. Hemochromatosis, the peppered moth, and hominid cranial capacity are investigated with a common algebraic formula that illustrates the application of mathematics in biology.

A Lesson on Evolution & Natural Selection, Anthony D. Curtis

I describe three activities that allow students to explore the ideas of evolution, natural selection, extinction, mass extinction, and rates of evolutionary change by engaging a simple model using paper, pens, chalk, and a chalkboard. As a culminating activity that supports expository writing in the sciences, the students write an essay on mass extinction. All activities are geared for high school biology and perhaps introductory college biology classes. With little modification, activities 1 and 2 can be used successfully in middle school and perhaps in the higher elementary grade levels.

Evolution & Phylogenetic Analysis: Classroom Activities for Investigating Molecular & Morphological Concepts, Wilfred A. Franklin

In a flexible multisession laboratory, students investigate concepts of phylogenetic analysis at both the molecular and the morphological level. Students finish by conducting their own analysis on a collection of skeletons representing the major phyla of vertebrates, a collection of primate skulls, or a collection of hominid skulls.

PHOTO: Free DVD creation seminar

Free DVD creation seminar., originally uploaded by mr walker.

The caption for this photo, taken in Sydney, Australia:

“For all the heathen fools who trust science over mythology. Y’know, the same science that gives us technology like, um, DVDs. (Shhh!! Don’t spoil his fun!)”

The sign reads:

Creation Seminar
Dr. Kent Hovind
Topics: Dinosaurs, the Flood,
the Age of the Earth,
Lies in the Textbooks,
Evolution, Carbon-Dating”

JOURNAL: Darwin Special Issue of ‘History of Science’

The December 2009 issue of History of Science (Vol. 47, No. 4) is devoted to Darwin:

Iwan Ryhs Morus

Charles Darwin Solves the “Riddle of the Flower”; or, Why Don’t Historians of Biology Know about the Birds and the Bees?
Richard Bellon

Darwinian Struggles: But Is There Progress?
Michael Ruse

The Eclipse of Pseudo-Darwinism? Reflections on Some Recent Developments in Darwin Studies
Peter J. Bowler

The Undead Darwin: Iconic Narrative, Scientific Controversy and the History of Science
Amanda Rees

Darwin Online and the Evolution of the Darwin Industry
John van Wyhe

Essay Reviews

Origins: Selected Letters of Charles Darwin, 1822–1859(Anniversary edition), edited by F. Burkhardt, and other works by Charles Darwin
Jim Endersby

Bursting the Limits of Time: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution, and Worlds Before Adam: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Reform, by Martin J. S. Rudwick
Adelene Buckland

February 2009 Magazines cover Darwin

Be looking forward to the February issues of Natural History, National Geographic, and Smithsonian.

Natural History contains an article (“Seeing Corals with the Eye of Reason,” not online) by Richard Milner about a rediscovered painting that celebrates Darwin’s view of life. Also, Natural History has their own blog that I didn’t know about, but there’s no RSS for it, factotem: findings and musings from Natural History’s fact checker.

Nat Geo, February 2009

Nat Geo, February 2009

National Geographic will have articles by David Quammen, “Darwin’s First Clues,” and Matt Ridley, “Modern Darwins.”  Also, a video with Quammen and a Darwin quiz.

Smithsonian, Febuary 2009

Smithsonian, Febuary 2009

Smithsonian‘s cover story is on Darwin and Lincoln, with three articles: “Lincoln’s Contested Legacy,” “What Darwin Didn’t Know,” and “Twin Peaks” (on their connection).

Today in Science History

From Today in Science History:

Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden (Born 7 Sep 1829; died 22 Dec 1887). American geologist who was a pioneer investigator of the western United States. Just out of medical school in 1853, he turned to paleontology under James Hall, who sent him west to collect fossils in the Badlands and the Upper Missouri Valley. It is generally accepted that the first discovery of dinosaur remains made in North America was in 1854, by Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden during his exploration of the upper Missouri River. After serving as a surgeon in the Civil War, Hayden continued his western explorations. His explorations and geologic studies of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains helped lay the foundation of the U.S. Geological Survey. Hayden is credited with having the Yellowstone geyser area declared the first national park (1872).

Comte Georges-Louis de Buffon (Born 7 Sep 1707; died 16 Apr 1788). Buffon was a French naturalist, who formulated a crude theory of evolution and was the first to suggest that the earth might be older than suggested by the Bible. In 1739 he was appointed keeper of the Jardin du Roi, a post he occupied until his death. There he worked on a comprehensive work on natural history, for which he is remembered, Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière. He began this work in 1749, and it dominated the rest of his life. It would eventually run to 44 volumes, including quadrupeds, birds, reptiles and minerals. He proposed (1778) that the Earth was hot at its creation and, from the rate of cooling, calculated its age to be 75,000 years, with life emerging some 40,000 years ago.

Jan Ingenhousz (Died 7 Sep 1799 (born 8 Dec 1730) Dutch-born British physician and scientist who discovered photosynthesis by identifying that sunlight gave green plants the ability to take in carbon dioxide, fix the carbon, and purified the air (returned oxygen) to the benefit of respiration of animals. Earlier, as a physician, he promoted Edward Jenner’s use of inoculation with live smallpox vaccine to induce protection against the disease. Ingenhousz was a diligent experimenter, who studied soils and plant nutrition. He introduced the use of cover slips on microscope slides. He improved phosphorus matches and an apparatus for generating static electricity; investigated Brownian motion and heat conduction in metals, invented a hydrogen-fueled lighter, and mixed an explosive propellant for firing pistols

Today in Science History

First, from The Red Notebook: Darwin puts pen to paper; and from Prof. Olsen: Gregor Mendel born

From Today in Science History:

Sir Richard Owen (Born 20 Jul 1804; died 18 Dec 1892). English anatomist and paleontologist who is remembered for his contributions to the study of fossil animals and for his strong opposition to the views of Charles Darwin. He created the word “Dinosaur” meaning “terrible reptile” (1842). Owen synthesized French anatomical work, especially from Cuvier and Geoffroy, with German transcendental anatomy. He gave us many of the terms still used today in anatomy and evolutionary biology, including “homology”. In 1856, he was appointed Superintendent of the British Museum (Natural History).

See Mystery of Mysteries and Prof. Olsen for more.

John Playfair (Died 20 Jul 1819; born 10 Mar 1748). Scottish mathematician, physicist, and geologist who is remembered for his axiom that two intersecting straight lines cannot both be parallel to a third straight line. His Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth (1802) gave strong support to James Hutton’s principle of uniformitarianism, essential to a proper understanding of geology. Playfair was the first scientist to recognise that a river cuts its own valley, and he cited British examples of the gradual, fluvial origins of valleys, to challenge the catastrophic theory (based on the Biblical Flood in Genesis) that was still widely accepted. He was also the first to link the relocation of loose rocks to the movement of glaciers. Playfair published texts on geometry, physics, and astronomy.

Today in Science History: Geologist James Hutton born

From Today in Science History:

James Hutton (Born 3 June 1726; died 26 Mar 1797). Scottish geologist who initiated the principle of uniformitarianism with his Theory of the Earth (1785). He asserted that geological processes examined in the present time explain the formation of older rocks. John Playfair effectively championed Hutton’s theory. Hutton, in effect, was the founder of modern geology, replacing a belief in the role of a biblical flood forming the Earth’s crust. He introduced an understanding of the action of great heat beneath the Earth’s crust in fusing sedimentary rocks, and the elevation of land forms from levels below the ocean to high land in a cyclical process. He established the igneous origin of granite (1788). He also had early thoughts on the evolution of animal forms and meterology.

LECTURE: Archbishop Ussher and the Age of the Earth

From the Geological Society of London:

A Burlington House Lecture for the general public at the Geological Society of London

Archbishop Ussher and the Age of the Earth
Professor Graham Parry (University of York) and Dr Patrick Wyse Jackson (Trinity College, Dublin)

Archbishop Ussher’s pronouncement that the Earth was created on the evening preceding Sunday 23 October 4004 BC has tended to make him a laughingstock. However Ussher’s was a serious work of scholarship that began a tradition of inquiry into geochronology at Trinity College Dublin that led directly to the radiometric dating techniques that have now established the Earth’s age at 4567 million years. The speakers will examine the man behind the legend, the great work he left behind, and his successors at Trinity College – such as Professor John Joly, the man in the radioactive hat. A copy of Annales Veteris Testamenti (1650) by Ussher will be on display.

Date: 13 June Tea: 1730 Lecture: 1800 Close: 1900

Entry is free to all, but by ticket only. To reserve a ticket please email

Died This Day: Two Charlies (but not Chuck)

From Today in Science History:

Sir Charles Lyell (Died 22 Feb 1875; born 14 Nov 1797). (Baronet) Scottish geologist largely responsible for the general acceptance of the view that all features of the Earth’s surface are produced by physical, chemical, and biological processes through long periods of geological time. The concept was called uniformitarianism (initially set forth by James Hutton).

Lyell’s correspondence with Darwin

Charles Willson Peale (Died 22 Feb 1827; born 15 Apr 1741). American portrait painter and naturalist who opened the first U.S. popular Museum of Natural Science and Art. Alongside fame as a portraitist, Peale maintained a diverse interest in science. He used a physiognotrace machine used to record profiles and make silhouettes. He patented a fireplace, porcelain false teeth, and a new kind of wooden bridge. He invented a technique to put motion with pictures and wrote papers on engineering and hygiene. He perfected a kind of portable writing desk, named the polygraph, which reproduced several copies of a manuscript at once. In 1786, he established the first U.S. scientific museum with both living and stuffed specimens, and later a complete mastodon skelton he helped excavate (1801).

Born This Day: Charles R. Darwin, naturalist and experimenter

From Today in Science History:

Charles Darwin (Born 12 Feb 1809; died 19 Apr 1882). Charles Robert Darwin was an English naturalist who presented facts to support his theory of the mode of evolution whereby favourable variations would survive which he called “Natural Selection” or “Survival of the Fittest,” and has become known as Darwinism. His two most important books were On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859) and The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex.

Note that February 12th is also the birthday of British naturalist Edward Forbes (correspondence with CD), American geologist James Dwight Dana (correspondence with CD), and American paleontologist Barnum Brown.

Died This Day: Adam Sedgwick, geologist

From Today in Science History:

Adam Sedgwick (Died 27 Jan 1873; born 22 Mar 1785). English geologist who first applied the name Cambrian to the geologic period of time, now dated at 570 to 505 million years ago.

Sedgwick’s relation to Darwin (from Wikipedia):

Charles Darwin was one of his geological students and the two kept up a correspondence while Darwin was aboard the HMS Beagle. However, Sedgwick never accepted the case for evolution made in the Origin of Species any more than he did in the Vestiges. In response to receiving and reading Darwin’s book, he wrote to Darwin saying:
“If I did not think you a good tempered and truth-loving man I should not tell you that … I have read your book with more pain than pleasure. Parts of it I admired greatly; parts I laughed at till my sides were almost sore; other parts I read with absolute sorrow; because I think them utterly false and grievously mischievous. You have deserted – after a start in that tram-road of all solid physical truth – the true method of induction …”

In the same letter, once again, Sedgwick emphasized his distinction between the moral and physical aspects of life, “There is a moral or metaphysical part of nature as well as a physical. A man who denies this is deep in the mire of folly.” To break this distinction would be to degrade and brutalize humanity. In a letter to another correspondent, Sedgwick was even harsher on Darwin’s book, calling it “utterly false” and writing that “It repudiates all reasoning from final causes; and seems to ♥ shut the door on any view (however feeble) of the God of Nature as manifested in His works. From first to last it is a dish of rank materialism cleverly cooked and served up.”

Despite this difference of opinion, the two men remained friendly until Sedgwick’s death.

More detailed bio at UCMP
Sedgwick’s correspondence with Charles Darwin
Information about Charles Darwin the Geologist, an exhibition (2009) at the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences

Catching Up with Today in Science History

Born Dec. 16:

Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (Born 16 Dec 1805; died 10 Nov 1861). French zoologist noted for his work studying anatomical abnormalities in humans and lower animals, for which he coined the term “teratology” in 1832. Although his father, Étienne, had initiated such studies, Isidore was the first to publish an extensive study of teratology, organising all known human and animal malformations taxonomically in Histoire générale et particulière des anomalies de l’organisation chez l’homme et les animaux. This taxonomy of mutants paralleled the Linnean system of natural species: assigning to each a class, order, family, genus, and even species. Many of the principles governing abnormal development were enunciated for the first time in this work. Many of hundreds of names for specific malformations are still in use.

Died Dec. 16:

Thomas Pennant (Died 16 Dec 1798; born 14 Jun 1726). Welsh naturalist and traveller, one of the foremost zoologists of his time. He was a prolific author of natural history and topographical works. His first book was the 1766 folio, British Zoology. Further works of natural history appeared over the years including the Synopsis of Quadrupeds, Arctic Zoology, Genera of Birds, and Indian Zoology. Pennant believed in meticulous research and preparation and in the importance of high quality illustrations. He popularized and promoted the study of natural history, though on the whole he was not a propounder of new theories. Pennant is best known for his travels and extensive writings about touring in Wales, her language, people, history and landscape.

Born Dec. 17:

Alexander Agassiz (Born 17 Dec 1835; died 27 Mar 1910). Alexander (Emmanuel Rodolphe) Agassiz was a Swiss marine zoologist, oceanographer, and mining engineer. He moved to the U.S. in 1849 to join his father, naturalist Jean Louis Agassiz, and studied at Harvard for degrees both in civil engineering (1857) and zoology (1862). Alexander Agassiz made important contributions to systematic zoology, to the knowledge of ocean beds, and to the development of the copper mines of Lake Superior (1866-9). He was curator of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology (1873-85), founded by his father. He made numerous oceanographic zoological expeditions, wrote many books and examined thousands of coral reefs to refute Darwin’s ideas on atoll formation. [See Reef Madness]

Died Dec. 17:

Lord Kelvin (Died 17 Dec 1907; born 26 Jun 1824). (baron) Born as William Thomson, he became an influential physicist, mathematician and engineer who has been described as a Newton of his era. At Glasgow University, Scotland, he was a professor for over half a century. The name he made for himself was more than just a temperature scale. His activities ranged from being the brains behind the laying of a transatlantic telephone cable, to attempting to calculate the age of the earth from its rate of cooling. In 1892, when raised to the peerage as Baron Kelvin of Largs, he had chosen the name from the Kelvin River, near Glasgow. [See this post at The Red Notebook on Kelvin and Darwin, and Kelvin is one of this week’s featured biography at ODNB’s website]