Friday, June 3, 2016

The Origin Of Geological Terms: Geology

MAY 18, 2016
David Bressan ,

I deal with the rocky road to our modern understanding of earth

Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.

“…make them like me adorers of the good science of rock-breaking.” - Charles R. Darwin in a letter dated to 1838 to his friend and mentor Charles Lyell

Specimen of geologist in his natural environment

Curiously enough the, first time the word “geology” was used in the modern sense was in the last will of Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605).

It was in the 17th century that commoners and noblemen alike began collecting natural objects in their cabinets and private museums. The displayed natural oddities and specimens were mostly acquired by chance from lucky discoverers. It was only later that naturalists started to go in the field, even if such an activity was considered more a necessity to gather more specimens than a means to explore the natural world.

In the 18th century, Swiss professor of philosophy Horace-Bénédict de Saussure was one of the first to propose that “savants” should not only collect specimens, but also take observations and exact measurements in the field. (“Savants” was a general term then applied to well educated people interested in philosophy, art and medicine, and sometimes the earth sciences. People interested and dedicated to the slowly emerging fields of “natural history” and “natural philosophy” were more specifically referred as “naturalists” and “natural philosophers.”)

Natural philosophy was interested in all observable phenomena in nature, from the physiological reaction of the body on the summit of Mount Blanc (climbed by de Saussure in 1787) to the rocks composing the mountain. Natural philosophy itself later became divided in three sub-disciplines: zoology (collection of animals), botany (collection of plants) and mineralogy (collection of minerals and rocks). Still all of these disciplines focused more on collecting and simply describing specimens and naturalists were happy doing so.

However miners were more interested how minerals and rocks are distributed in the landscape, if there were certain natural rules much money could be made by following the most rich veins.

In Germany, leading in mining technologies at the time, so the science called “geognosie” (translated maybe in “knowledge about the earth”) evolved from geography. Mapping the distribution of rocks on a map, geognosts tried to project the rock formations also into depth. This science was referred also as “mineralogical geography” or “géographie souterraine”, may the Italian name “anatomia della terra” – anatomy of earth – best describe what it was about.

Geognosie was however more a practical discipline, less interested in formulating theories. You may say geognosie could describe of which rocks a mountain is made of, but it couldn´t explain how a mountain formed.

In 1778, Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon stressed in his “Nature’s Epochs” the need to create a geotheory to understand the evolution and structure of earth.

In that same year, the term geology was introduced (hesitantly) in the literature by Swiss naturalist Jean-Andre de Luc in his opus “Letters on Mountains.”

I mean here by cosmology only the knowledge of the earth, and not that of the universe. In this sense, “geology” would have been the correct word, but I dare not adopt it, because it is not in common use.

Despite de Luc’s concerns, geology became synonymous with the proposed theory of earth, a part of cosmology dedicated to the description and explanation of earth and its relationship with animals, plants and humans.

In now addressing my brother -geologists – and under this term I would comprehend all who take an interest in the progress of a science whose problems are inseparably interwoven with the whole study of nature – I have been influenced by the conviction that it is good for us, as workers in the same field, occasionally to pause and question ourselves as to the ultimate bearing of our investigations.
- David Page (1863): “The Philosophy of Geology”

The word geology itself has much older roots, however. In his testament written in 1603, the Italian Renaissance naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi introduced the term “giologia” to refer to the study of “fossilia” – the unearthed things.

Aldrovandi had tried his whole life to classify nature, and to separate specimens of rocks and fossils from similar looking animals and plants. The science “giologia,” so Aldrovandi’s hope, would study the origin of rocks, minerals, petrified organisms (Aldrovandi recognized some fossils as once living things) and the layers of earth.

Two hundred years later, the name geology would become largely known to the public by the work of many professional rockhounds, like Sir Charles Lyell and, like Charles Darwin. Those rockhounds in turn hoped that many people would follow its call and become geologists (like me).

Interested in reading more? Try:

RUDWICK, M.J.S (2005): Bursting the limits of time – The reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, London: 708

No comments:

Post a Comment