Monday, October 24, 2011

Review: "The Man Who Found Time"

I've mostly been reading for research lately, so I'm not doing that well with finishing any books. This explains the recent radio silence here.

However, I have just finished reading a book that I picked up for research purposes but then found so fascinating that I read it through. It is The Man Who Found Time: James Hutton and the Discovery of the Earth's Antiquity (Basic Books, 2003; 247 pages), by Jack Repcheck.

In one way, the title says it all. This is the story of how James Hutton, considered to be the "father of modern geology", figured out that the Earth isn't really 6,000 years old, which was the conventional wisdom among Western scholars when he was working in eghteenth century Scotland. While Hutton himself never ventured an estimate of the age of the Earth, his work opened the way for later scholars to figure the earth's actual age in years.

One of the interesting details of the book, in fact, was that the current estimate of 4.6 billion years as the Earth's age was not reached until 1956, the year I was born, really not all that long ago in the wider scheme of things.

But in other ways, the title of Repcheck's book falls far short of giving the reader a complete picture of what he or she will find in the book, since despite centering on Hutton and his theory of the Earth, there are plenty of other interesting subjects broached there. Repcheck gives us a tour of Edinburgh, where Hutton was born, attended university and did much of his work. But in addition, the reader is treated (and I mean that in the best way) to a brief explanation of the Highlander uprising of 1745 and 1746. The reader also gets an overview of the Scottish Enlightenment, during which an generation of Scotland's finest minds made huge strides in many areas of inquiry.

So, I arrived for the geology, as an important side note to my research into the history of anthropology and archaeology, and found a delightful sketch of a period of time that I knew very little about, in a place that often seems to get short shrift in conventional histories.