Non-Fiction Reviews

James Hutton - James Hutton and the Discovery of the Earth's Antiquity

(2003) Jack Repcheck, Pocket Books, 7.99, pbk, pp247. ISBN 0-743-45087-6

This is the 2004 edition for European release of the 2003 US edition.

It is hard to believe that as recently as the 18th century learned thought in Europe considered that the Earth was around 6,000 years old. In the space of just 300 years, that is just a score or so generations, humanity has gone from a pre-industrial society to touching the planets and peering billions of light years between sheets of galaxies. Indeed, though it can be frustrating for SF readers that we have not done so much more and so have no choice but to rely on SF to glimpse vistas of wonder, we really have come along way. In fact we are so used to looking forward, when not concerned with our day-to-day mundanity, that we forget that those early faltering steps were for their time extremely bold. Step up then Jack Repcheck whose short book is both a delightful history recap and a reminder of the distance we have travelled. We really should never take our present understanding for granted.

Repcheck's choice of Hutton as a subject is most valuable. It speaks to biology as much as geology (or should that be vice-versa?). We all think of evolution as being founded by Darwin (and some of us also by Charles Lyell) but what of geology? James Hutton was the first to truly appreciate that the timescales needed to create present-day strata took far, far longer. Indeed Lyell links Hutton to Darwin in the chain of events.

However do not think that this book is just about biology and geology for it is not. Indeed the science only forms the backdrop of Repcheck's account. The foreground concerns learned understanding of the 18th century, and the setting of the Scottish enlightenment, means that chemistry and physics are also touched upon. There are existing beliefs, if not downright dogma to overcome, religion, and historic events such as the Jacobite uprising. All of which are covered together with glimpses as to what it was like to live back then.

James Repcheck's writing style is very readable, has a certain passion, and the story being told really is a cracking one. Hutton's name does not deserve to wallow unforgotten by a wider public so that this book really does have a useful function and I have no hesitation in recommending it. In fact if Repcheck were to write about some other historic scientist I would have no hesitation in seeking it out.

Grumbles? A couple. My old bete noir that is becoming increasingly common by sloppy editors of the word 'earth' being designated a common noun. Let's be clear editors, the world on which we live is the 'Earth' and the stuff on which we stand is 'earth'. Got it? This distinction is not just a subtle one of grammar but far more important when the book is about both the age of the planet and geology that relates to the meaning of the word in both senses. My other grumble is that it would have been nice to have had a picture of Hutton. Maybe this was not possible. What we did get was a simple map of Great Britain (presumably for the first edition's US readers) which sites London over St Albans and somewhere north of the Firth of Tay as the Firth of Forth. Ho hum. Can't have everything.

One final thing. If you are coming to the UK this year (2005) to the Glasgow Worldcon, you may particularly want to check this book out as Glasgow is just 35 miles from where Hutton grew up and Glasgow played its own role in the Scottish enlightenment with at least four mentions in Repcheck's book.

Jonathan Cowie

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