Say the name “Charles Lyell” and most people will look at you blankly. Say “Charles Darwin” and the recognition is instant the world over.
Fame can be a fickle thing. Even though Darwin said geology was “enormously indebted to Lyell – more so, as I believe, than to any other man who ever lived” and that “my books came half from Lyell’s brains”, the Angus-born scientist has a much tinier fraction of renown.
There is a tendency to see major scientific breakthroughs as the work of an individual genius, but as Isaac Newton once said “if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” (putting aside speculation this was actually a dig at Robert Hooke, a rival scientist said to have been quite short).
Lyell’s notebooks, containing correspondence between him and Darwin, are now set to be sold abroad, unless the money can be raised to keep them in this country before an export ban expires.
So far £600,000 has been pledged, but another £314,000 is needed by October.
Whether or not the campaigners succeed, it can only be hoped that Lyell gains the recognition that his work seems to deserve.