Category Archives: About Lyell

Earth Day

Lyell, his notebooks, and the quote "The past is the key to the present."

Of the many celebrations of Earth Days, Earth Day 2020 will be remembered.

Not only because it is the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day, but that it occurs during this unprecedented public health crisis; the parades, marches, and demonstrations characteristic of Earth Day have now been moved online, in the form of Earth Day Live. This intersection of Earth Day and COVID-19 is significant, as it comes at a time when we likely have heightened awareness of the power of nature, and its ability to stop humanity in our tracks, and shift our focus to the natural world we live in (which, here in Edinburgh, is springing to life in truly magnificent ways).

Sir Charles Lyell, known as a founder of modern geology, was innately interested in the course of nature, and keenly observed natural phenomena to form and prove theories about the Earth’s age, and continuous processes. Today, our understanding of climate change is built upon the concepts laid down by early geologists

like Lyell. Only with the concept of the Earth’s continuous process of deposition and erosion are we able to understand how our actions have consequences on the Earth and climate. Daryl Green, Head of Museums and Special Collections, writes,

“Lyell made acceptable the theory that the earth was millions of years old and that it was shaped by geological processes still active in the modern era.  He made it possible for people to think about the earth as a dynamic and developing planet in the way we do today.”

-Daryl Green, Head of Special Collections, Deputy Head of Centre for Research Collections

In his seminal book, Principles of Geology, Lyell constructed a main, pivotal point: “The present is the key to the past.” This keenly illustrates his outlook on geology, as he observed modern phenomena, data, and formations to interpret the geological history of the Earth. His book was key to implementing evidential methods to geology, but also to illustrating these ideas in a way that the public could understand. Dr. Gillian McCay, Curator of the Cockburn Museum writes,

“He was one of the first to open up the development of science through publishing books aimed at a more general reader, allowing lay people to access ideas, and thus allowed more people to examine the world around them and draw conclusions.”
– Dr. Gillian McCay, Curator, Cockburn Museum
On this landmark Earth Day, we highlight the outstanding work of Charles Lyell, through his observation and writing, which allows us to study the Earth and make conscious decisions in our daily lives. In the weeks to come, we will be sharing more from our collection of his scientific notebooks, and correspondence.

Two new films on Charles Lyell and his notebooks

Professor Withers and others viewing a selection of Charles Lyell notebooks, University of Edinburgh’s Playfair Library, February 2020

There are two new films on Charles Lyell and his notebooks: The Travels of His Own Mind – Travels of His Own Mind where Professor Charles Withers, Emeritus Professor of Geography, University of Edinburgh and Geographer Royal for Scotland, discussing the importance of Charles Lyell’s notebooks.

Also ‘Two Hundred and Ninety Four Notebooks, One Thousand One Hundred Donors’ – 294 notebooks, 1,100 donors where Professor Withers and Jacky MacBeath, Head of Centre for Research Collections and Head of Museums, University of Edinburgh, on why we are excited about Lyell!

 

Professor Richard Fortey on Lyell

  Lyell expert and enthusiast

Professor Richard Fortey is one of the most authoritative and engaging experts on the importance of Charles Lyell. A welcome supporter in the Lyell notebook campaign, he has recently been interviewed by Professor Brian Cox for the joint BBC and Royal Society series People of Science. Watch here for a persuasive account of Lyell’s scientific significance: People of Science

We’d also recommend Richard’s fascinating article on Lyell and deep geological time for the Geological Society (of which he is a past President): Lyell and Deep Time

Lyell Rocks! Saving & Sharing the Charles Lyell Notebooks

Sir Charles Lyell (1797 – 1875) was a Victorian Scottish geologist, recognised as one of the outstanding scientists in an age of remarkable thinkers.

He’s best known as the author of Principles of Geology (1830-33), which has been called the most important scientific book ever,  and which presented to a wide public the idea that the earth was shaped by natural forces over a very long period of time not unique catastrophes – such as Noah’s flood and other biblical events.  He pioneered an explanation of climate change and is credited with providing the framework that helped Darwin develop his evolutionary theories.  So it is for this and more that Lyell is counted amongst the founders of modern geology.

Lyell’s 294 notebooks are his field notes and they capture, in remarkable detail, his daily engagement with scientific and social issues. They contain travel accounts of his journeys all over the UK, Europe, and the US and are full of queries and discussions on the letters and books he was reading at the time. As a result, we have his thoughts on social and political issues such as slavery in the United States of America, women in science and university education. There are also geological observations, long essays on earthquakes and volcanoes, real sense of the man standing there in front of Mount Etna or in Pompeii, observations on glacial moraines, lists of fossils and shells and notes on threats to species diversity, and letters to Darwin.

Earlier this year it came to light that, having been kept safely in the Lyell family for generations, the Sir Charles Lyell notebook collection was at risk of being sold abroad.  The Government set an export bar giving us until 15th October 2019 to buy the books at a cost of £966,000. The University of Edinburgh began a campaign to save the notebooks for the nation and mounted an awareness and fundraising campaign with our colleagues in D&A. Lectures, advocacy events, a website, social media campaign and a flurry of meetings, phone calls and funding applications were done at speed. Support and funding was secured from leading institutions, groups and over 1000 individuals who pledged donations and, as a result, we have been able to buy the notebooks.

We know that the pledgers will want to see the notebooks as soon as they get here, so it is our duty to make them as accessible as possible as quickly as possible. We’ll do some initial work to make that happen including digitation and display.

The collection will join our existing extensive archive and geology collections, giving us an unrivalled Lyell collection. Working with our colleagues in Geosciences, we are considering the best ways we can make our extended Lyell collections accessible and used. We’re also going to virtually join up all the Lyell Collections across the world, mount an exhibition on climate change with cultural partners in Edinburgh, and make the books and the data open. Finally – in some eerie echo to the future: in notebook 39 in 1830 Lyell refers to his concerns about ‘present and future climate changes,’ in Paris no less.

Earth sciences are relevant to us all – given the impacts of climate change and the changing geographical environment – and understanding the Lyell story has huge potential impact on us all.

That is why Lyell rocks.

 

Jacky MacBeath
Head of Museums & Centre for Research Collections