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How James Hutton rocked the world

Revolutions in the Earth: James Hutton and the True Age of the Earth by Stephen Baxter

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 16.99

The Man Who Found Time: James Hutton and the Discovery of the Earth’s Antiquity by Jack Repcheck

Simon & Schuster, 15.99 Reviews by Jim Gilchrist

NOT five minutes’ walk from this newspaper office, on St John’s Hill in Edinburgh, tucked incongruously off a flight of concrete steps between a multi-storey car park and a housing development, a small circular garden comprises some shrubs, a cluster of disparate boulders and a sandstone centrepiece, carved with the legend: "We find no vestige of a beginning ... no prospect of an end."

They are the words of the remarkable James Hutton, "father of modern geology", who gave an 18th century still thirled to a biblical timescale its first glimpse of the breathtaking immensities of geological time. His Theory of the Earth, first expounded to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1785, showed how the formation of landscape was an endless cycle of deposition of sedimentary rock, subsequently raised, buckled and broken by immense subterranean upheaval, then worn down by erosion. Such processes would require millions upon millions of years, knocking Bishop Usher’s widely accepted 6,000 year age of the Earth into a cocked hat.

The commemorative garden marks the site of his house, which he shared with three spinster sisters. Overlooking Salisbury Crags, once a subject of his pioneering geological research, the building vanished during the ruthless razing of much of south side Edinburgh in the 1960s. In the years following Hutton’s publication of his theory, it was his reputation which risked demolition, although he was eventually vindicated by eminent Victorian scientists Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin, largely thanks to the efforts of Hutton’s devoted protgs John Playfair and James Hall.

Hutton the man remains a comparatively shadowy figure in that pantheon of Scottish Enlightenment luminaries such as Hume, Black, Smith and Ferguson, and biographies have been thin on the ground since Playfair’s affectionate if somewhat sanitised 1805 memoir. Now along come two books at once, although Baxter and Repcheck, having little in the way of personal record to go on, tend to concentrate on the contemporary social, scientific and religious context of his work and its impact, as well as describing friends such as Adam Smith and James Watt (whose steam engine experiments with steam engines may have influenced Hutton’s view of the earth as a self-sustaining "heat engine").

Baxter is the more eloquent storyteller, though inclined to overdo it when trying to flesh out Hutton the man. It seems that the personality behind the rather bland features portrayed in the well-known Raeburn portrait of Hutton was a convivial one, given to bawdy remarks in his broad Scots speech and his letters. Baxter, however, can sound presumptuous with airy assurances such as "we can be sure that young Hutton was a lively, stimulating and gregarious companion, who made friends easily". Similarly, dealing with the Jacobite occupation of Edinburgh in 1745, when Colin Maclaurin, the distinguished maths professor at Edinburgh University was among those who unsuccessfully tried to lead a rag-tag volunteer militia against the rebels, Baxter speculates somewhat effusively how "Hutton must have thrilled to see his old maths professor assuming command in such a way".

Both books reveal that Hutton sired an illegitimate son, who turned up, much to his friends’ astonishment, after his death. He seems to have had an unhappy relationship, or possibly even marriage, from which he fled, first to the Continent, to study medicine (which he never practised) at Paris and Leyden, then to rural Berwickshire, via Norfolk, to lead the life of a gentleman farmer. He was 41 before he returned to his native Edinburgh, to concentrate on his geological research.

Repcheck , an American science publishing editor, places Hutton alongside Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin as a key figure in "freeing science from the straightjacket of religious orthodoxy", but he can sound a bit shaky on some historical aspects. The Bank of Scotland, for instance, might be surprised to learn that it "never recovered" from the Darien disaster. Better proof-reading might have avoided some spelling errors, while a glaring apostrophe misuse - "Hutton’s Boswell’s" - is allowed to run uncorrected as a chapter heading.

Reactions to Hutton’s theory ranged from initial indifference, through outrage and accusations of blasphemy, to eventual acceptance. His problem seems to have been that although an original thinker, he was not a communicator, and after his death in 1797, it was Playfair and Hall, who carried the torch for his poorly couched theories.

Today, while the rocks remain, and these books do justice to his grand vision, the man himself remains elusive, apart from some affectionate glimpses, such as Joseph Black writing to James Watt: "I wish I could give you a dose now and then of my friend Hutton’s company; it would do you a world of good."

 
 
 

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