Georgius Agricola – Renaissance Geologist


"Why, yes I did walk the Earth at the same time as Da Vinci and Copernicus." - G. Agricola

“Why, yes, I was around at the same time as Da Vinci and Copernicus.” – G. Agricola

Georgius Agricola…the name conjures up images of togas, but not at a modern party.

Actually he wasn’t Roman. This German by the name of Georg Bauer just took the Latin name because all cool people did back in the early 16th century. It’s punny: “bauer” means “farmer” in German, and so does “agricola” in Latin (sorry to ruin 24 for you).

But what possible relevance could a Georgius Agricola have today?

Well, he did lay the basis for the mining and metal working industries that have brought you smartphones and skyscrapers. And he could think straight in an age of alchemy and religious fervor.

Agricola didn’t go along with the crowd. While others talked how everything is made of different proportions of earth, wind, fire, and air, he checked things out objectively (and got rich in the process).

And UC Berkeley’s Museum of Paleontology calls him “the founder of geology as a discipline.” So there’s that, too.

Agricola’s life

Unlike some of the earth scientists we’ve looked at, Georg Bauer wasn’t an aristocrat. His father was a cloth merchant in Saxony (part of modern Germany) and was prosperous enough to send Georg to Leipzig University, which was strongly Catholic, in 1517.
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Guest video: J. William Dawson, Time Traveler


J. William Dawson and the plants and animals of the Carboniferous age.

J. William Dawson and the plants and animals of the Carboniferous age.

Believe it or not, Steven Spielberg did not invent the word “paleobotany.” People have made a science out of the study of fossilized plants since the 19th century, thanks in part to Canadian John William Dawson.

He had studied under the famous British geologist Charles Lyell, who sometimes accompanied Dawson into the field. In fact, Lyell was with him when Dawson found fossils of the earliest known reptile, which Dawson christened Hylonomus lyelli.

Like many early geologists, Dawson’s first “day job” (in his case, as an educator) gave him an excuse for traveling and geologizing. He eventually became a geology professor and principal at McGill University and also did paleobotanical research for Canada’s geological survey. His reputation grew. First a fellow of the British Royal Society, he was appointed the first president of the brand-new Royal Society of Canada.

Sir William Dawson was human and so wasn’t always right. He didn’t believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution, for instance. And he stirred up one of the biggest controversies of 19th century earth science when he mistakenly identified a structure in metamorphic rock as a fossil.

On the whole, though, we owe thanks to this man, whom the Dictionary of Canadian Biography calls a “geologist, palaeontologist, author, educator, office holder, publisher, and editor,” for opening our eyes to the wonders of the Carboniferous world during the Age of Coal, some 300-400 million years ago.

Luna Leopold


Luna Leopold doing field work in Idaho.  USGS

Luna Leopold doing field work in Idaho. USGS

Water shapes the desert landscape. This seems strange until you’ve stood in a New Mexico downpour, watching the impact of big raindrops on boulders and cliffs and getting out of the way as muddy floodwaters rage through the nearest arroyo.

Luna Leopold probably recognized the power and importance of water early on, during his childhood in Albquerque, New Mexico, early in the 20th century. As a meteorologist, engineer, and geologist, he went on to pioneer the scientific study of water’s effects on landscapes everywhere and became a champion of the movement to protect rivers and other bodies of water.
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Etheldred Benett – “Lady Geologist”

In the late 18th and early 19th century, men like James Hutton and Sir William Hamilton were widely respected earth scientists.

At the same time women were also contributing to the founding of the science of geology, but quietly. Today we know very little about them. For instance, meet T. Etheldred Benett, 1776-1845 – fossil collector, stratigrapher, and scientific correspondent:

"It makes me look at least ten years older than I am."  - Etheldred Barnett, 1835.  Image source

“It makes me look at least ten years older than I am.” – Etheldred Benett, 1837. Image source

That’s it – that’s all we have for an image of her.

However, this “lady of great talent and indefatigable research,” as Gideon Mantell described her:

  • Left behind a huge collection of Cretaceous and Jurassic fossils from south Wiltshire in England, including the first mollusc fossils ever found that contained preserved bits of the original soft anatomy
  • Corresponded with some of the foremost naturalists of the day
  • Wrote a publication, A catalogue of the organic remains of the county of Wiltshire (1831), that remains a classic work today

In a time when women weren’t admitted to centers of higher learning, Tsar Nicholas I gave her an honorary doctorate from the University of St. Petersburg…but only because he thought her first name was that of a man.

Library of Congress

In the late 19th century, Walter Shirlaw painted the spirit of geology as a woman for the Library of Congress.

Ever the sharp commentator, Miss Benett (she never married) said of the incident (link added):
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Alexander von Humboldt, Part 3 – Kosmos



Friedrich Georg Weitsch painted Humboldt two years after his return to Europe.

Imagine if Albert Einstein had been the first person to summit Mount Everest.

That is how Gerard Helferich, author of Humboldt’s Cosmos, describes, for a modern audience, Alexander von Humboldt’s achievements and impact on the public in the early 1800s. Helferich is spot on.

Humboldt had the acute mind and energy a scientific traveler needed back in the Age of Sail. And he actually did set a world climbing record, too.

During his five-year journey in the New World (1799-1804), he and his companion Aime Bonpland climbed Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador, considered the highest mountain in the world at that time.

They also collected thousands of plants, animals, and geologic specimens and brought them back to Europe.

Along the way, their work was both physical – proving, for example, that the Amazon and Orinoco river basins were connected by exploring the Orinoco in a canoe – and mental, such as Humboldt’s invention of isoclines for use on maps or his ground-breaking recognition that the same sorts of plants grew in both the Old World and the New.
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Alexander von Humboldt, Part 2: A New World Narrative


Humboldt, local villagers, Aime Bonpland (in the shelter), and Mount Chimborazo (in the background). Source

Alexander von Humboldt traveled to the New World with botanist Aime Bonpland at the turn of the 18th century.

After his return to Europe, he wrote up his travels in such books as Historical account of the voyage to the equinoctial regions of the New World, made in 1799, 1800, 1801, 1802, 1803, and 1804, aimed at both scientists and the general public. Many of the individual volumes were best sellers.

This scientific traveler’s observations inspired explorers from Charles Darwin to John Muir. Humboldt also laid the basis for such fields as biogeography, modern meteorology, anthropology of the New World, and environmental science.

Yes, as we saw last week, Alexander von Humboldt’s life would make a terrific biopic (this would be an appropriate soundtrack).

It was not an ideal time to be a quiet thinker.  Source

It was not an ideal time to be a quiet thinker. Source

When last we saw our hero, it was 1796 and his mother had just died, leaving him a fortune. He had resolved to use his fortune to travel and study “the unity of nature.”

Getting started

There were several false starts before Humboldt could get going. The details are a little unclear, but certainly the political and social turmoil of Europe during the Napoleonic Wars often thwarted him.
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Alexander von Humboldt, part 1 – A Mind Well Suited

Self-portrait at age 45.  Wikipedia

Self-portrait at age 45. Wikipedia

I don’t know where to begin telling you about Alexander von Humboldt. This romantic German had all the right qualities to become a scientific adventurer, and he was born into the ideal circumstances for doing exactly that. He ended up the most famous man in Europe, after Napoleon, and was given a state funeral when he passed away in 1859 at the age of 90.

Humboldt didn’t visit every single place where a memorial to him stands today, but he definitely got around. He explored the Orinoco River in South America and found its connection with the Amazon; in the process, he was severely shocked by an electric eel, nearly poisoned himself with curare, and walked away from an unexpectedly close encounter with a jaguar, noting “There are moments in life when it is useless to call on reason.”
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Inge Lehmann – Discoverer of Earth’s Inner Core

Inge Lehmann was a Danish mathematician and Earth scientist who discovered Earth’s inner core without using most of the modern tools we take for granted today. She did have seismometers, a social network that included physicists and geodesists, as well as two seemingly unrelated things: training in actuarial science and lots of cereal boxes.
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Frank A. Perret Versus the Volcano

Library of Congress

Library of Congress

All volcanologists must be a little crazy somewhere deep down inside.

Frank Alvord Perret was perhaps the craziest, or so it seems to a layman. Why else would he stick a crowbar down almost the length of his arm into the brightly glowing fissure of an erupting volcano and then pull the bar out again…just to test a hypothesis?

At the time of the writer’s visit, the lava was incandescent, but not liquid, on the inner walls of fissures overstanding the main vents of Chinyero, where the electric pyrometer showed temperatures ranging from 750 degrees to 860 degrees Centigrade. Convinced that these surface temperatures could not be due to conduction from below and that, instead, they were maintained by the ascending gases, the writer was able to demonstrate this by experiment. A place was found where the fissure could be obstructed by the introduction of an iron crowbar, horizontally, at a meter below the surface, whereupon the flow of gas was stopped and the incandescence rapidly died out. On the withdrawal of the bar, the gases re-ascended and gradually kindled the inner walls to a bright red glow, as before.

— From “The Volcanic Eruption at Tenerife in the Autumn of 1909” (PDF).

By all accounts, Frank Perret was also one of the best volcanologists ever.
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