Tuesday, March 22, 2016

When Did Mankind Start Studying Geology?

History always helps us view complex things in a wider perspective that helps us to understand them better. The history of geology is no exception.

Q: When Did the Study of Geology Start?
- Christian C

A: There is a good article in Wikipedia on this, and it begins with "...in the 4th century BC Aristotle made critical observations of the slow rate of geological change. He observed the composition of the land and formulated a theory where the Earth changes at a slow rate and that these changes cannot be observed during one person’s lifetime <in other words, he introduced the paradigm of Gradualism>. Aristotle developed one of the first <evidence> based concepts connected to the geological realm regarding the rate at which the Earth physically changes." In a larger sense, Aristotle was the father of all of the sciences.

Avicenna <Ibn Sena> (981-1037), a Persian scholar, made significant contributions to geology, and Shen Kuo (1031-1095), a Chinese polymath, also contributed the first treatise on geomorphology.

The actual term "geology" was not established until 1751 (by Denis Diderot in his "Encyclopedie"). Some people credit the Scotsman James Hutton with being the first modern geologist. However, William Smith published the first true geology map of any significance (of Great Britain) in 1815. He used fossils and stratigraphy to correlate units all over the country with each other, and made an initial estimate of the age of the Earth as possibly being millions of years old. Charles Lyell challenged the biblical-based Catastrophism of the 17th Century with the publication in 1830 of his book "Principles of Geology." These two are whom I would consider the real first geologists. Darwin, who followed later, was Lyell's first disciple; he carried a copy of Lyell’s book with him on his famous three-year voyage of HMS Beagle.

Since the time of Aristotle, we have had other geology paradigms, including  the more recent Punctuated Gradualism. You can probably figure that out from its title.

Incidentally, I was touched that the Wikipedia article gives credit to my good friend and paper co-author Gene Shoemaker as the father of Astrogeology; Gene was killed in a car accident in Australia in 1996 and I still miss him. 

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