The Man Who Found Time
Jack Repcheck
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Buy *The Man Who Found Time: James Hutton and the Discovery of Earth's Antiquity

The Man Who Found Time: James Hutton and the Discovery of Earth's Antiquity
Jack Repcheck
256 pages
May 2003
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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This is a sad story, of a man whom history passed by. The author, Jack Repcheck, does his best to fill it with tone and bustle, taking us to old Edinburgh and the heyday of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Curled Up With a Good BookThe Man Who Found Time's central figure poses the dilemma. James Hutton was a farmer turned geologist who discovered, largely through his own observations, that the earth could not be as young as Biblical scholars - and all scholars were Biblical in the late 18th century - dogmatically posited. "The belief that the earth was less than 6,000 years old was deeply entrenched in the psyche of most Christians." This belief had been carefully schematized by such enlightened and determined church leaders as Constantine, and was as well accepted then as would be the belief that men had landed on the moon today - only a handful of cranks would bother to question it.

An innovative agriculturalist, Hutton spent a lot of time looking at grass, soil and stones, and the formation of rock strata. In the cold gloom of an Edinburgh day he would be seen stalking around Arthur's Seat and its neighboring crags and fens where such observation could lead him to amazing and, for the times, unacceptable conclusions. He finally released the results of his research, arguing that from what we can plainly see of the effects of erosion and the build up and break down of soil and plant life, it is clear that the earth is unknowably old. This was immediately distorted by less enlightened academics - it was claimed that Hutton believed the earth to be eternal and this "wild and unnatural notion...leads first to skepticism, and at last to downright infidelity and atheism."

Yet 100 years after Hutton's death, Charles Darwin was able to promulgate much the same "wild and unnatural" theories to a world of thinkers more willing to listen. Darwin had read Hutton, after first believing him to be an object of mere ridicule. He was confronted with the simple logic of Hutton's theory through the work of later geological scholars. Darwin's own work was surely influenced by "Huttonians" in the academic community.

Hutton became known as the "Father of Modern Geology" - yes, but unfortunately geology is not an aggressive or "sexy" member of the pantheon of hard sciences. Therefore his name is hardly a household word. One of the main contributions he made to the science was the idea of uniformitarianism - sounds like, and almost is, a kind of religious belief, which has it that there was no single catastrophic event which, like a great flood, affected global change. Highlighting this doctrine, geologists say "The present is the key to the past." An earth day many thousands of years ago would be much like an earth day in the 21st century - geologically speaking. This belief was so dearly cherished that many scientists resisted "the discovery in the 1970's that the impact of an asteroid...killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago." Interesting that the ideas of a man who fought against dogma could, with time, become dogma to be rebelled against in the light of fresh data.

Hutton was not a very exciting character, though said by his friends to be charming and "lovably eccentric." His admirers, including Repcheck, attribute his failure to achieve the recognition of a Darwin to the fact that his written work was ponderous and, frankly, nearly unreadable. His major work, The Theory of the Earth, "contained turgid passages from other works in other languages. A book that unwieldy simply would not be read today and was not widely read then." Repcheck has attempted to bring Hutton and his enthusiasms back to life and has done his subject justice.

© 2003 by Barbara Bamberger Scott for Curled Up With a Good Book.

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