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Reading the Rocks: A review


I just finished Reading the Rocks by Brenda Maddox. It is the story of how Victorian geologists worked to determine the age of the earth and the evolution of life. This is a book about the men and women who contributed to the development of the science now known as geology. The narrative begins in the very late 18th century and takes us past the publication of Darwin's book, On the Origin of Species, to the late 19th century. The earliest geologists were religious people looking for evidence of the biblical flood. Their findings, however, took them in an entirely different direction. Many early geologists started with cabinets of curiosities which became the base collection in the formation of some of our modern science museums in both the UK and US. Not only that, these early geologists gave their advice on university education leading to science becoming a major portion of modern university education. Some of them played major consulting roles to Prince Albert as he applied his progressive ideas about science and industry in England during the early Victorian age.

Reading the Rocks could be considered a group biography of the early geologists. Such luminaries as William Smith, Charles Lyell, Mary Anning, William Buckland and of course Charles Darwin are highlighted in this book. I knew previously Charles Darwin was influenced by geologists, especially Charles Lyell. I did not know how close the relationships were between these scientists until I read this book. The contribution of Mary Anning is interwoven through several chapters of the book. I learned how Henry De la Becher turned his artistic work Duria Antiquior into early crowdsourcing to raise money for Mary Anning when she went through hard times during an economic downturn in Britain.

Brenda Maddox is a well-known biographer, she has been writing biographies since the 1970s on individuals including Elizabeth Taylor, D.H. Lawrence and Rosalind Franklin. Maddox tells us in Reading the Rocks that when she began researching George Eliot (real name Mary Ann Evans) she discovered that Eliot was an ardent geologist. This led Maddox to the wider question of how geology developed as a science.

This is a fascinating book about the history of early geology. I felt as if I were almost in the room as these early scientists were having discussions and arguments about the age of the Earth. I think this book would be of particular interest to geologists, paleontologists, science teachers and keen students. I'm glad I read Reading the Rocks.

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Reading the Rocks: A review

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