Edinburgh World Heritage - The volcano man - James Hutton, 1726-1797, Geologist

The volcano man - James Hutton, 1726-1797, Geologist

James Hutton, a geologist who was interested in everything, from volcanoes to canals, and plant dyes to soil erosion - although his grammar was not very good!

Hutton was a physician, a chemical manufacturer (sal ammoniac if you’re interested…), a naturalist and an ambitious and innovative farmer – the perfect example of an interdisciplinarian! He is known as ‘the father of geology’, and the strange volcanic rock formations of Edinburgh were an inspiration for his work.

Hutton was an observer! He looked at the rocks around him and questioned. He went onto Arthur’s Seat and out to Siccar Point (arguably the most important geological locality in the world) and surmised from looking at the rocks that Earth was perpetually being formed,  molten material forced up into mountains, eroded, and then washed away. He considered volcanoes as a ‘safety valve’ releasing heat from the Earth. Hutton stood strong against the accepted theories at the time, he discovered ‘Deep Time’ and established geology as a proper science. Earthquakes did not really feature predominantly in his writings though his theories alluded to, though didn’t prove, plate tectonics.

Another of Hutton’s key concepts was the Theory of Uniformitarianism. This was the belief that geological forces at work in the present day—barely noticeable to the human eye, yet immense in their impact—are the same as those that operated in the past. This is one of the fundamental principles of earth science today!

The effect of Hutton’s thinking influenced those much more notable than him in the future:  Charles Darwin, was well acquainted with Hutton’s ideas - without Hutton’s explanation of the enormity of geological time, he would have struggled to adequately find the time for his theory of evolution to take place. Just in case you think he was too clever, his writing style is considered terrible - he used commas like confetti!

Why was he important?
-    James Hutton changed the way we think about the Earth
-    He explained how mountains and volcanoes are formed

Things to do:

Climb Edinburgh’s volcanic sites: Arthur’s seat, Castle Rock, Salisbury Crags

Make a papier mâché volcano

Our Dynamic Earth and Earth Science Galleries at National Museums of Scotland, National Galleries of Scotland.

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