Between a rock and an old place

The geological evidence that James Hutton collected shattered the biblical record of Earth's age

Having read this interesting little book, I find it hard to open the mail and not think of James Hutton. That geological pioneer would love the cover photo on the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's annual report. There, in vivid colors, is the definitive evidence that he so eagerly sought: Dayglow minerals in a rock sample reveal a history of formation and evolution under intense heat and pressure deep within Earth's crust starting 11 million years ago.

That's the sort of process and immense time Hutton said were needed to form crustal rocks. His revolutionary idea about the nature of Earth illuminated 18th-century Edinburgh during the Scottish Enlightment.

But his proposition insulted the mind-set of his era. Virtually all of his contemporaries - including some of the Enlightment scholars - adhered to the young Earth creationism that permeated Christian theology: Rocks were either laid down by Noah's flood or left over from Earth's original creation 6,000 years ago. Field observations that suggested otherwise were ignored or "interpreted" to fit the dogma.

Hutton didn't buy it. Decades of unprecedented chemical analyses and detailed observations convinced him that only great heat and pressure could form rock. Only they had the oomph to uplift such spectacular formations as the Scottish highlands.

In his scientifically disciplined imagination, Hutton saw repeated cycles of land formation, land erosion, rock formation from the eroded material, and subsequent new land formation. He realized that it would take vast time periods for these processes to work. Thus was born a foundational concept of geological science.

It doesn't matter that Hutton understood only part of the story, or that he wasn't the first person to question the young Earth chronologies. He candidly admitted that no one, in his day, could estimate Earth's true age, and he knew nothing of ice ages or the jostling of crystal plates that rearranges continents. But what Hutton brought to the party was Isaac Newton's conviction that nature is better understood in terms of natural law than in terms of supernatural power.

Hutton translated that conviction into what has become the geologist's credo: "The present is the key to the past." The rock formations we see today were shaped by the geological processes we see today as those processes operated over past eons. No prior miracles needed.

Considering how profoundly that concept helped reshape people's perceived relationship to Earth and the larger universe, author Jack Repcheck can be forgiven the hype of claiming that Hutton's work had cosmic significance in "The Man Who Found Time."

So why did Hutton fade from memory as a significant historical figure on a par with such Enlightment colleagues as philosopher David Hume, economist Adam Smith, and steam-engine designer James Watt? Why did his definitive book attract so few readers?

Repcheck makes a stab at answering these questions with indifferent results. It is true that Hutton's book was so turgid that its thesis would have been forgotten but for the efforts of friends to popularize it posthumously. It also is true that Hutton's thesis did not have its full impact until it inspired Charles Lylle to put geology solidly on a modern footing in the mid-19th century. Yet, as Repcheck notes, these truths don't really explain Hutton's continued obscurity.

However, Repcheck's purpose in writing "The Man Who Found Time" is to rescue Hutton from oblivion, not account for it. In this, he may have some success. He has produced an entertaining and informative essay rather than a scholarly tome. While some apt illustrations would be helpful, the narrative is a good read on its own.

As for opening my mail, a recent issue of Science has a research paper claiming that our roughly 4.5 billion-year-old Earth may be a few tens of millions of years older than we thought. It seems that pinning down geological time is still a work in progress. Hutton would be delighted.

Robert C. Cowen writes about science for the Monitor.

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