Friday, February 08, 2008

Slow Reading

I am a very slow reader, partly because my window of opportunity is narrow (30 minutes on the RER train each day), partly because I tend not to use a bookmark and hence read over and over the same section trying to find out where I was before, and partly because I am just a bit slow.

I like to read slowly however, especially if the book is dense and packed with information as is the book I am currently reading: 'The Founders of Geology' by Sir Archibald Geikie - the book I mentioned a couple of posts ago here.

This evening, at around page 196 (the one benefit of not using a bookmark is that you turn yourself into a sort of living indexing system), I realised that Geikie had hit upon an important fact about geologists and, I suppose, scientists in general. In his observations on the relationship between the Swiss geologist de Saussure, an early explorer of the Alps and the man who bought the word 'geologist' into common parlance (as opposed to the previously applied term: cosmologist), and Hutton, the Scottish geologist who developed the important concept of 'unconformity' in stratigraphy.

Geikie characterises de Saussure as the man who climbs to the roof of the world and sees all, but makes only a small contribution to the advancement of geological theory. Hutton, on the other hand, is perceived as a man who does not need to climb, but is inspired by the work of de Saussure and who, by an act of imagination, applies his findings to a geological theory which represents a real advance in science.

This seems to me a rather profound insight, and almost an iconic example of two types of scientist: the one profoundly interested in seeing everything, the other involved in the work of imaginative synthesis. The fact that two geologists are required to make the advance in science would almost seem to suggest that two brains are required: the one taken up with perception, the other with reimagining from basic principles, almost as if the mind of the perceiver was overwhelmed by the details and unable to function on the simple logical level required to build theory.

This is what I would call "being blocked by data". Standing on top of his mountain, de Saussure saw eveything and was able to understand little. Hutton, receiving a few morsels of de Saussure's description was able to create much that was profound from his few scraps because he was not distracted by the overall chaos.

This is not to suggest that de Saussure was not intelligent - his credentials and works prove that he certainly was, but there is a certain irony in the observation of Hutton's ability to advance further on less.

And if we go further back, we find other early geologists who more or less personify one or other of the roles. Some, such as the French geologist Guettard, who spent their lives gathering data but eventually were unsure what to make of it. Others like Buffon who spent little time gathering data but much time proposing possible histories of the world. Again, the roles are divergent, but equally necessary. Without one half or other of this coupled geological brainpower, geology would have advanced very little.

While Buffon's model of a history of the World (from start to finish in 35,000 years) has ultimately been proved incorrect, it represents an important first step in extending the history of the earth towards the billions of years that we now know to be the reality. It is important to remember the imagination (and courage) that this required in a time of religious doctrine and conformity which insisted the life of the earth was but a few thousand years.

What this shows is the importance of imagining to the advancement of science, even if the imagining is shown later to be several parts incorrect, the simple fact of an imagined fact is enough to put the process of testing and verification into effect.

3 comments:

Dave said...

As a synthetic/syncretic thinker, I appreciate your recognition of the value of multiple roles. (Plus, I'm a geology junkie - I've probably mentioned that before.) Thanks for being here.

Ian H said...

I see a similar thing in the mundane act of core logging. Too many (usually young) loggers get snowed under or overwhelmed with the detail and can't extract the bigger picture which can of course be obtained from a much more cursory approach to the exercise focussing on one or two lithological variables. There seems to be two logging styles, one searching for the big picture from the mass of detail and finding it very hard while others bypass a lot of detail and come up with the big picture very quickly. They can often both learn a bit from each other's approach. Cheers.

Michael Robinson said...

Interesting post! I just started reading Fallen Giants which talks about Hutton and Saussure as well. I wonder, though, whether the divide between the synthetic armchair geologist back home and the data-seeking scientist in the field always holds up so well. In the cases of Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin, we see two explorer-naturalists who collect data as fast as they can...yet at the same time, they are extremely synthetic individuals, applying the data big picture problems. Indeed, I would argue that both Humboldt and Darwin's greatest strength was in seeing objects in their larger holistic contexts. Anyway, very interesting stuff. I just wrote a post about mountaineering at my blog http://timetoeatthedogs.com if you are interested. All best,
Michael