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No. 379:
Hutton's Cyclic Universe

Today, we look at a world that neither begins nor ends. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

James Hutton was a Scottish geologist, famous for his Theory of the Earth, published in 1795. In 1795 scientists were still trying to fit geological evidence into Biblical chronology. Hutton's new theory was far less friendly to Genesis than anything science claims today. Hutton didn't extend the origins of earth to millions or billions of years. He eliminated origins entirely.

Hutton was part of a remarkable intellectual circle. He met regularly with Adam Smith, David Hume, and Joseph Black at Edinburgh's Oyster Club. Hutton and Black would go off together into the Scottish wilds. Black unraveled the mysteries of heat and cold in that forbidding northern land. He set the stage for the science of thermodynamics.

Hutton also gazed at the Scottish glens and crags -- at the eerie world that was, even then, moving Walter Scott to write,

O Caledonia! stern and wild,
Meet nurse for a poetic child!

But what Hutton saw was evidence for his theory. He found it in formations that he called "unconformities" -- substrata of rock standing at right angles to the surface strata. And they, in turn, were perpendicular to the next stratum below.

Hutton believed that earth is shaped by cyclic deposits of silt, formed into rock, and followed by upheaval. The drama repeated over and over. There is "no vestige of beginning, no prospect of an end," he said. Historian Stephen Jay Gould calls Hutton's earth "a machine without a history." Hutton himself likened earth to a cyclic mechanism.

So Hutton banished all history, Biblical or otherwise. He failed to see that fossils progress from one unconforming layer to the next. His prose was so turgid he probably would've been forgotten. But he had a powerful prophet in John Playfair, another member of the Oyster club. Playfair wrote brilliantly about Hutton's theories. He toned down the rigid claims and forged a powerful influence on future geology.

It was Hutton who first opened our eyes to the idea that time reaches back far, far beyond Biblical family trees. But he did it by echoing the Newtonian vision of a clockwork universe. A few years later, thermodynamics would tell us that nothing can ever cycle along like that forever.

I see Hutton's drawings -- the wild and beautiful images of Scotland that fueled his vision of an eternal present. And I hear Walter Scott saying to him and to me:

Mountains divide us, and the waste of seas -- ...
And we in dreams behold the Hebrides!

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Gould, S.J., Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987 (See especially Chapter 3.)

Craig, G.Y., McIntyre, D.B., and Waterson, C.D., James Hutton's Theory of the Earth: The Lost Drawings. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1978. (I am grateful to Pat Bozeman, Head of Special Collections, University of Houston Library, for calling the Hutton drawings to my attention and making them available to me.)