Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Tracing Geology Back To Copernicus

Walter Alvarez and Henrique Leitao argue in a paper in Geology that the geological revolution began not with James Hutton and other geologists in the 18th century but centuries earlier with Copernicus:

We offer a new interpretation of the Copernican Revolution, aimed at generating interest among geologists in the history of their own science. We stress that it is not intended as an in-depth study in the history of science, but as an exploration of a novel idea that may subsequently merit that kind of attention from historians of science. Those scholars of course know that considerations of the Earth played an important role in the Copernican Revolution (Goldstein, 1972); our new point is that that revolution can be viewed as part of the history of geology. We thus hope to raise the awareness of geologists about a major episode in the history of science that can be seen as a geological development, and of the critical role that Earth science has played in the rise of the modern scientific world system.

Far from viewing the Copernican revolution as one that demoted the earth from its original place at the center of the universe to just another planet, the authors suggest that recognizing the earth as just another planet paved the way for understanding universal laws.

...we realize that recognizing Earth as a planet was a precondition for understanding the universe. When that recognition destroyed the Aristotelian view that Earth is fundamentally different from celestial bodies, the Earth could become a laboratory for studying the universe. For example, had Newton’s worldview not been shaped by decades of challenges to Aristotle, he would probably never have had the idea (symbolized by the perhaps apocryphal story of the apple) that the same force of gravity that acts on Earth was keeping the planets in orbit around the Sun.

In an article in Discovery news Alvarez makes the point that geology has been traditionally neglected or at least placed on a lower pedestal than physics and chemistry at the school level and that a lack of understanding of the history of geology may be partly responsible for this. He and Eldredge Moore press the case for making geology an important component of school science syllabus.

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