TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 21 December 2007
After the turgid and tedious Mao, the book preceding this one on my reading list, I needed something well-written and interesting; something I wanted to read as opposed to something I thought I ought to read, which unfortunately was the case with Halliday and Chung's tome. In Bursting the Limits of Time I hit the jackpot.
The subject in itself is certainly potentially fascinating - the few decades around the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries when geology and palaeontology became serious objects of study - a global "scientific" revolution taking place with a global political revolution as its backdrop. Fortunately, the subject is given the literary treatment it deserves, so instead of dragging myself with trepidation to crawl through a few more pages every day I was motivated to consume the book in chapters.
The principal players are the protoscientists known at the time as "savants", gentlemen scholars of means and education who both carried out their own research and also acquired that of others in a manner which might seem quite shocking in today's Intellectual Property-aware atmosphere.
One of the first conjectures I made on the back of this was that, as in geology, so also in my own chosen "science", ornithology (OK, I do a bit of birdwatching), the great names must have accumulated a considerable amount of their knowledge from "locals", the small-time savants whose sphere of knowledge was limited geographically but comprehensive in their own locale. So one of the key savants featured in the book, Saussure, is guided on his trek up Matterhorn by a local, Balmat, who had himself accompanied local savant Paccard the previous year on what was in fact the first known ascent of the mountain.
The occupations of these local savants varied - lawyer, physicians such as Paccard, priest. This last the author uses, rather dubiously, I would contend, as proof that a church/science split is imagined. Rather, I would think, in the time in question the priestly calling would have been a great way of taking money off somebody for work mostly done on Sunday in order to spend the rest of the week pursuing more worldly pastimes. As we are now aware, some of those pastimes were more worldly than others, and at least the pursuit of scientific knowledge provided a more pious veneer than the pursuit of carnal knowledge. Similarly Rudwick refers to the emerging techniques of textual criticism, and the consequent gathering evidence that the extant translations of The Bible may not have been as true to the original as most were led to believe. The leading exponents, such as Halle and Göttingen, he asserts, kept their faith nevertheless. How does he know? It could be argued that had their faith been shattered, as was that of Bart Ehrman, a modern practitioner (see Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed The Bible And Why), it would not have been in their interests to have said so, financially if nothing else. Later on, in fact, he refers to Giusseppe Recupero, a canon in Catania whose studies of Etna lead him to conclusions he himself finds dismaying and which result in the issuing of warnings of dire consequences by his bishop.
One of the key realisations from reading this work, although Rudwick makes little play of the fact, is how much we take certain things for granted nowadays. Maps, for example, were nowhere near as common at the time in question. Similarly, when reference is made to glaciers nowadays even those who have never been near one have an idea of what one looks like due to photography and, more importantly, television. In the 18th Century, an artist would have to drag himself and his materials a considerable distance, at considerable effort, in order to capture the appearance of certain geographical features, an appearance only a privileged few would have access to.
At around the time in question also there was a transition from savants' sending their minions out to collect rocks and other samples to the savants themselves going out to take in the entire landscape.
Perhaps the most intriguing of the mysteries under debate at the time, which we now do not even consider, was how some basalt deposits were stuck on top of hills comprising other materials and why some valleys were U-shaped and others V-shaped. The processes of glaciation, in other words, were still unknown, as was, as it happens, the origin of basalt, which some - the "Neptunists" - considered to be created in a watery environment.
Some savants, Rudwick relates, constructed entire world systems, "geotheories", around slivers of evidence wrapped around with specious conjectures and conclusions. These are, however, afforded the respect they deserve, bearing in mind the resources and foreknowledge available at the time, and also recognising that in scientific discovery there are no absolutes; that as "sophisticated" as we may be now, the additional knowledge accumulated in even a century's time will make us look quite primitive as understanding ramps up exponentially. So it is that the works of such savants as Buffon, de Luc and Hutton, all in their own ways wrong, are also recognised as all in their own ways brilliant within the context of their times.
Underlying much of Rudwick's narrative there are abundant hints at the Political, Economic, Social and Technological influences on the protoscience of the day.
He describes the border- and nationalism-free environment of the time, the polyglot nature of the community, and the fact that French was, at the time, the lingua franca (appositely) of protoscience, in the days before economics shifted the centre of gravity to the USA and English. In those days, scientific activity was very Eurocentric, a circumstance acknowledged by George Washington and Benjamin Franklin themselves, who felt obliged to make the journey to Europe in order not to remain forever on the periphery.
There is a section explaining the social environment, the status of the savants themselves and the ability or otherwise of women to participate in any of the research activities - Mary Wollstonecraft had, it must be noted, yet to darken the illusions of the chauvinist masses.
Additionally, the plight of the hapless Paccard who, despite having beaten Saussure to the punch in the first conquest of the Matterhorn, nevertheless was unable to capitalise on it through publishing an account due to his lowlier status.
Technology and Economics are exemplified in the role of mining in the earth sciences: in the way mines opened up corridors for research, the adoption of mining tools and techniques, and the reflection that maps featuring mines were effectively state secrets given the strategic importance of the materials extracted.
The book itself is laid out in scholarly format, and the style and vocabulary themselves are also scholarly, though fortunately without being wooden. Sub-sections as well as chapters are numbered, each rounded off with its own Conclusions, and the approach to footnotes is the most elegant I have come across. Well done for that! Worth five stars in itself!
Other interesting asides concern the modality of semantics: Rudwick explains how many of the words we have inherited from the savants and their like have altered radically over the centuries, so that in what we think of as the Age of Revolution, the word Revolution had none of the world shattering overtones it now possesses. Similarly, Physics, Geology and Physical Science now have completely different meanings.
Overall then I found the book enjoyable and intellectually stimulating; my regret at the time was that there were not more hours in the day in which to read it.