Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Don't be so Sure, Saussure

I came across this quotation the other day in a review by Jean-Paul Poirier of a book called The Coming of Materials Science by R.W. Cahn.

"I also enjoyed being told of the disparaging remark of the Swiss geologist de Saussure about Sorby, the founder of metallography, who was the first to look at petrographic thin sections under a microscope in transmitted polarized light. Saussure thought it perfectly ridiculous "to look at mountains through a microscope".

At first I thought this must be incorrect because the Swiss geologist Horace Benedict de Saussure, pictured above, was an early founder of Geology and was dead by 1799, before the time when polarising microscopes for study of crystals and rocks had been developed.

Henry Sorby wasn't born until 1826 and didn't start to develop petrographic microscopy - the microscopic examination of very thin sections of rock - until 1849. He did this by grinding rock to very thin slices which he was able to examine under a microscope in normal and polarised light. Sorby, in fact, stated that it was OTHER PEOPLE who had QUOTED Saussure's comments (not necessarily about Sorby as far as I can tell) who had attempted to disparage his efforts:

"In those early days people laughed at me. They quoted Saussure who had said that it was not a proper thing to examine mountains with microscopes, and ridiculed my action in every way. Most luckily I took no notice of them."

Notice he does not specify which Saussure he is talking about. In fact there were two well known Swiss Saussures, for Horace was the father of Nicolas-Théodore de Saussure (14 October 1767 - 18 April 1845), a renowned chemist and student of plant physiology who made seminal advances in phytochemistry.

According to this site, Nicolas was Professor of Mineralogy and Zoology at the University of Geneva, as was his father Horace. One of his notable geological discoveries was the chemical identification of magnesium carbonate rock samples collected by his friend, the geologist Dolomieu. He named this rock 'dolomite' after Dolomieu and, ever since, the well known range of mountains from whence the dolomite samples came have been known as The Dolomites.

Nicolas Saussure was much older than Sorby. Sorby was 19 when Nicolas died, and so it is unlikely that Nicolas could have actually made a disparaging comment about Sorby. Nicolas understood very well the work of his father and had climbed with him in the Alps and helped him with his experiments. I think Nicolas may be the source of the remark about it being ridiculous to look at mountains under microscopes, since it was during his lifetime that the developments in microscopy were occurring, but I could be wrong.

Sorby would have probably been familiar with Nicolas de Saussure's work since Nicolas made breakthroughs in the study of photosynthesis while Sorby and George C. Stokes were the first to describe the chemical nature of chlorophyll.

Those early mountain explorations of Saussure and Son are referred to in this very interesting article by Jean Nardin about Mary Shelley's novel 'Frankenstein'. The novel was written during the Shelleys' stay in the Alps around 1820.

Nardin's paper suggests that Mary Shelley may have based her character Victor Frankenstein, inventor of the renowned monster, around a certain type of scientific Alpine mountaineer that typified the 18th Century. The most famous of these was Saussure. Saussure, born in Geneva in 1740, was a Professor at the University of Geneva. He was wealthy, like most scientists of the age of the enlightenment, and ranged freely as a naturalist, geologist, mineralogist, and physician.

Visiting Chamonix in 1760, Saussure offered a reward to the first man to climb Mont Blanc and followed the route himself in 1787, accompanied by his valet and 18 guides. At the top of the mountain, the group made a large number of experiments and tests, as was the custom of such early Alpine scientists. Saussure was also an inventor of instruments including an 'electrometer', a 'solar thermal collector', a 'cylindrical panorama' and a 'hygrometer'. According to this site Saussure actually introduced the word 'geology' to science.

Nardin notes that there are differences in the way Victor Frankenstein's relationship to nature are structured between the first version of the novel and the later rewrite. In the first version, Victor's view of nature is corrupted by his learnings in science. When he is young he is able to appreciate the sublime character of the mountains, but later, when he has finished his university studies, he is unable to look at the mountains in the same way, but instead wishes to discover their secrets.

In the second version of the novel, Victor Frankenstein is always unresponsive to nature. It is more by nature of being a male that he is unable to appreciate the beauty of the mountains. Mary Shelley's novel amounts to a criticism of such types who want to 'dominate', 'penetrate' and 'unveil' the secrets of nature as essentially 'macho'.

The irony of this longing to discover the secrets of nature is that in doing so, Victor creates a monster whom he leaves to wander in the mountains. He is thereby creating a situation which had, until the end of the 17th Century, only existed in folklore, that is to say, the traditional fear of mountains as the home of dragons, giants, demons and trolls.

But to return to Sorby, this site suggests "the advances (in petrographic microscopy) constituted a true technological revolution which have nearly no more recent equivalent excepted the remarkable invention of the electron microprobe by Castaing 150 years later. Thanks to the remarkable technical progress made during a few years by some major microscope manufacturers, like Nachet in France, Leitz and Zeiss in Germany, Reichert in Austria, the determination of the optical characters of minerals became one of greatest scientific adventure of the 19th century."

You may wonder what relevance all this has, apart from being a potted history of early geological science. What if I tell you that Horace had another son, Henri de Saussure, who was a well known biologist and that his son was Ferdinand de Saussure the Swiss-born originator of structuralist ideas in philosophy that were highly influential on the anthropological thinking of Claude Levi-Strauss. Ah yes, now it's all starting to make sense...

So is it ridiculous "to look at mountains through a microscope"? No, not at all. A friend of mine studied for his doctorate by riding a donkey over the Andes and whacking a chunk of granite off the mountainside every few miles. These fieldwork samples were shipped back home in a couple of trunks and became the main source of his research for the next couple of years, primarily through microscopic study. He did, literally, develop his ideas about the formation of the Andes down a microscope.

Saussure could not have imagined why this was possible, because he did not know about the Andes. His experience was of the Alps, a chain of mountains formed by the compressive uplifting of once buried marine sediments. The Andes, by constrast, are a chain of mountains formed by volcanic activity coming from within the earth. The mechanism is completely different.

There is indeed much more to be gained from fieldwork analysis of structure in the study of Alpine compression than there is to be gained from microscopy. For the Andes, the opposite holds true, all the history of the mountain development is 'memorised' within the crystal structure of the rock itself, at a minute scale that can only be appreciated with a microscope.

Thus Saussure's comments (whichever Saussure that was) merely demonstrated his limited range of experience and serve as a useful lesson in many areas. When we try to generalise about any subject we run the risk of showing only the limitations of our experience. If we were to extend this thinking to poetry, for example, we might now wonder if the critical apparatus developed in the appreciation of one type of poetry were completely unsuited to the appeciation of poetry arising from a completely different source (a poetry of magmatic eruptions as opposed to a poetry of plate compression).

The critic, or indeed the poet, should not disregard this other poetry just because its origins are unfamiliar and difficult to fathom. The other poetry may be ignored, but this does not mean it does not exist, or that it is in some way inadequate. No, it is simply different, and in reality, another aspect of the bigger picture.

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