Dienstag, 20. April 2010

Accretionary Wedge 24: Heroes VS Cartoons

Callan Bentley at Mountain Beltway will be hosting the next edition of The Accretionary Wedge and he is searching heroic earth scientists.

I was influenced by many people in my approach to geology, contemporary parents, friends and teachers, but also by historic personalities in form of their biographies and achievements in science.
Nevertheless I wouldn't speak about them only as heroes - they were after all men, and displaying them as infallible scientist seems somehow to put them on an unattainable podium.
Let's also remember the words of the theoretical physicist Philippe Blanchard

"The scientist should take the science seriously, but they should not take themselves to seriously."

People that propose revolutionary ideas, ahead of their time, often get misunderstand, even attacked verbally and ridiculed. William Smith for example, considered a pioneer of stratigraphy, was nicknamed "Strata-Smith" after his proposal that the earth is organized in defined layers. And the caricatures of Charles Darwin and Thomas Henry Huxley are today part of history.
On the other hand, some personalities gather such a reputation, that no critic is allowed or tolerated. Criticism can only be addressed in a indirect way, for examples by caricatures or satiric drawings.
Even if it's exactly not the gentlemen's way (or perhaps it is - the best known examples are made by Victorian gentlemen in the golden age of geology in the years between 1780 and 1900) satirical drawings, in a certain manner, are a funny way to criticise - both in a fair or unfair manner.
A caricature can refer to a portrait or a behaviour that is exaggerated or distorted, the sense of a satirical drawing is to capture the essence of a person or thing to create an easily identifiable visual likeness - the drawing should be simple, but unmistakable for someone that has some background information (for example knows the depicted person or the context) and transport as much meaning as possible. Although this kind of satire is usually meant to be funny, its deeper purpose is often an attack on something strongly disapproved by the satirist, using the weapon of wit. But these prerequisites make the drawings also a source of information's to explore the history of earth sciences, the caricatures carry a lot of information, not only about the depicted person or geological model, but also how new theories are accepted or refused by society, and as last but not least, the personal opinion of the caricaturist on the matter.

The first geologists had to face many prejudices and hostilities, like James Hutton (1726-1797), facing the many critics of his ideas on deep time and rock formations.
One of the most famous caricatures, depicted many times in books dealing with geology and palaeontology, was produced by the English geologist Henry De la Beche (1796-1855) to lampoon the theories of Charles Lyell.

Fig.2. "Awful Changes.", see also the Ichthyosaurus installment at ART evolved.

The prominent "Professor Ichthyosaurus" was considered first to represent William Buckland (1784-1856), but the geologist and dedicated earth-science historian Martin J.S. Rudwick realized the connection of this scene with some drawings produced in 1831 by De la Beche in his diary, where he ridiculed the uniformity-principle of Lyell.
Lyell proposed that even if earth is much older then previously thought, and the forces that sculpt the planet are inexorably but slow, these forces follow a eternal circle of climate and fauna - so in a distant future, after our recent ice age, it is may possible that after mammals again reptiles live in a greenhouse (note the palms in the background), following as highest "social class" the human race.

In the other drawings of De la Beche diary a lawyer (the reference to Lyell seems obvious) is carrying a bag with "his" theory around the world, or he is shown wearing particular glasses to see the world in a personal view, and offering this "theoretical approach" to a geologist carrying a hammer, a reference to the applied working researcher. It's obvious that De la Beche could not overcome his prejudice against Lyell as a lawyer, that he considered much more a theory foreigner then a real researcher (considering how much Lyell travelled and how much geological phenomena he visited this is a very unfair insinuation).
In a second cartoon (brought to light by Haile 1997) De la Beche is mocking on the effects of present causes, operating at the same slow magnitude and rate throughout geologic history. We see a vast U-shaped valley, and in the foreground a nurse with a child.

Fig.3. De la Beche´s cartoon of 1830-1833 mocking the effects of present causes. The cartoon is entitled "Cause and Effect".

The child is peeing into the huge valley and a caption has his nurse exclaiming, 'Bless the baby! What a valley he have made.!!!'

On the 24 July of 1837 the Swiss geologist Agassiz was to be thought to hold a lecture about his studies on fossil fishes - instead the members of the venerable Swiss Society of Natural Sciences heard from their young president a theory, emerged some years before, to explain the origin of erratic blocks and scratches on rocks in the Alps. "O Sancte de Saussure, ora pro nobis!" - O holy de Saussure, pray for us, was the only comment of the German geologists Leopold von Buch (1774-1853) as he left the room. Another proposed great idea caused disbelief in the public and gave cartoonist much to work on. Agassiz showed in his study "Études sur les glaciers" (1840) that glaciers were the explanations of erratic blocks and scratches on rocks in the Alps, the idea of a large ice cap covering the Alps, and the Ice Age was ready to meet the broader public.

Agassiz introduced with his former mentor Buckland in the autumn of 1840 the glacial theory to the British Isles.
Professor Buckland, was a highly respected scientist, but also eccentric and very perky, and in a first moment struggled with the idea of his friend Agassiz, but became convinced after he saw the spurs of glaciers and moraine deposits in the Alps and Scotland.
Maybe the public was anyway chuckling over the debate about the importance that highly respected men gave to this apparently tiny marks on rocks, in every case the well-known mining engineer Thomas Sopwith (1803-1879) thankfully poked fun on his fellow countryman and on the subject of the dispute.

Fig.4. Costumes of the Glacier.

The cartoon sketch that he scratched/draw of the Professor, titled "Costumes of the Glaciers", shows Buckland dressed for fieldwork. The numerous captions are difficult to read, but the lines at Buckland's feet are noted to be "Prodigious Glacial Scratches" produced by "the motions of an IMMENSE BODY, not allow to change its course upon Slight Resistance" (we ignore if this is referred to the glacier or the appearance of Buckland). Buckland holds - like all true geologist do - a geological map under his arm, a "Map of Ancient Glaciers".
On the erratic stones scattered around his feet's captions tell, that this stone was scratched 33.333 years ago, but on a other rock this prodigious age is relativated, claiming that a similar looking stone was just scratched by the wheel of a passing cart, just the day before yesterday, and in the background it's seems that some new scratches are just in the making by a passing carriage.

Caricatures and cartoons can bring science and scientific discussion to the attention of a broader public, but to appreciate them, they have to be understood.
What I choose, are only two examples and theories, and many others were worth to be told, but they show us how certain geologists and their support of new ideas have influenced society, and how they were seen by their contemporaries, and how society understand (sometimes wrongly) the work of the researchers.

We are only humans - and maybe that’ s the most important teaching that cartoons can give to us.


BROWNE, J. (2001): Darwin in Caricature: A Study in the Popularisation and Dissemination of Evolution. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 145(4): 496-509
CLARY, M.R. & WANDERSEE, J.H. (2010): Scientific Caricatures in the Earth Science Classroom: An Alternative Assessment for Meaningful Science Learning. Sci & Educ 19:21-37
GORDON, E.O. (1894): The Life and Correspondence of William Buckland. John Murray, London
LEEDER, M.R: (1998): Lyell's Principles of Geology: foundations of sedimentology. Geological Society, London, Special Publications 143: 95-110
MACDOUGALL, D. (2004): Frozen Earth - The once and future story of Ice Ages. University of California Press, Berkely-Los Angels.

RUDWlCK, M. S. (1975): Caricature as Source for the History of Science: DE LA BECHE'S Anti-Lyellian Sketches of 1831. Isis, Vol. 66 (234): 534--560
RUDWICK, M.J.S. (2005): Bursting the Limits of Time. The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution. The University of Chicago Press.

Introduction Image: The Trilobite, cartoon from The Punch 1885


mountainbeltway hat gesagt…

Awesome. I love the cartoon of the kid's pee carving the U-shaped valley!

Suvrat Kher hat gesagt…

good one David!