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The Scientific Approach to Geology

Patrick Brydone's Tour Through Sicily and Malta (1773) was one of the century's most popular travel accounts. Roughly a quarter of the way through his Tour , Brydone begins his description of Mount Etna, a description that incidentally struck most eighteenth-century reviewers as the most interesting part of his book. At the base of Etna, a Signor Recupero led Brydone and his fellow travelers to a deep well


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where they could observe many layers of lava, each covered with a considerable amount of soil. By examining these layers, this clergyman had reasoned as follows: "If it requires two thousand years or upwards, to form but a scanty soil on the surface of a lava, there must have been more than that space of time betwixt each of the eruptions which have formed these strata." Counting these strata, Recupero had calculated that lava had been flowing from Etna for at least fourteen thousand years.

While this may strike us as good scientific reasoning, Brydone and Recupero both knew that it flew in the face of Archbishop Ussher's calculation that the world began in the year 4004 B.C. More important, Ussher had based his calculation on biblical rather than geological inquiry. Thus Brydone hastens to add: "Recupero tells me he is exceedingly embarrassed, by these discoveries. . . . That Moses hangs like a dead weight upon him, and blunts all his zeal for inquiry. . . . What do you think of these sentiments from a Roman Catholic divine?—The bishop . . . has already warned him to be upon his guard: and not to pretend to be a better historian than Moses."[37] Here Brydone seems primarily interested in poking fun at those silly Italian Roman Catholics. Elsewhere in his Tour , however, he comes out firmly on the side of Recupero's scientific method. Thus while ascending Etna, Brydone marvels at how smoke and heat are still evident from an eruption that occurred some four years earlier. This leads him to a scientific reflection: "There is an easy method of calculating the time that bodies take to cool:—Sir Isaac Newton, I think, in his account of the comet of 1680, supposes the times to be the squares of their diameters; and finding that a solid ball of metal of two inches, made red hot, required upwards of an hour to become perfectly cold, made the calculation from that to a body of the diameter of the earth, and found it would require upwards to twenty thousand years."[38]

In calculating that the world is at least twenty thousand years old—and not six thousand according to Ussher—


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Brydone gets himself into serious trouble with some of his orthodox English readers. Johnson and Boswell both found fault with its "antimosaical" attitudes; Johnson thought Brydone would have been a better travel writer if he had been "more attentive to the Bible."[39] But that would have been fundamentally antithetical to the scientific spirit of Brydone's account.


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