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Geoscientist Online

Great Geologists

Simmons Great GeologistsI wish I had had this book, the first of its kind, as an undergraduate. Back then, a seasoned, wise researcher informed me that, Kuhnian scientific revolutions and paradigm shifts notwithstanding, there is no such thing as a theory neutral observation. In other words, when we write of something new to us, we interpret it using our existing theoretical knowledge. If we don’t, we write science fiction. In presenting 35 great geologists’ summarized biographies in chronological order (I cannot discuss them all, so my apologies to James Hutton), Simmons has produced a very readable book showing how the work of successive geoscientists built, and still builds, on their predecessors’. We learn that some of our present geological theories and methods have very deep roots.

The histories commence with Nicolas Steno and end with Maureen Raymo (and include, of course, the Geological Society’s Janet Watson). Biostratigraphy is shown to range back to William Smith. Sedgewick’s and Murchison’s contributions to the classification of the stratigraphic record into distinct time periods are covered, as is their great falling out over the Cambrian-Silurian issue. Lapworth is lauded for his solution to this—the erection of the Ordovician Period. Alcide d’Orbigny, despite his palaeontological work, is described as being “the architect of the cornerstone of chronostratigaphy”. His view of successive unconformity-bounded marine transgressions is regarded as being the first step on the road to sequence stratigraphy. That road we follow through Grabau’s expression of Palaeozoic transgressions and regressions, via Milankovich, to Vail’s sea-slug model of sedimentation and eustacy curve. Wegener’s model of continental drift is shown to have been inspired not only by looking at an atlas, but also by a comment by Krenkel regarding the geological similarities between Brazil and west Africa, and by Keilhack’s work on the distribution of Carboniferous glacial drift across the southern continents. We follow this to plate tectonics, though Arthur Holmes, Marie Tharp’s maps, Harry Hess and Fred Vine to John Tuzo Wilson. That geological research is a continuous, developmental process is made clear.

Simmons asks, have we have reached ‘Peak Geoscience’? Have we discovered the main paradigms, being left with only small projects that fill gaps in our knowledge? This he doubts. Technological advances and data science will tease out patterns in geological data beyond the capacity for easy recognition by humans. What an exciting prospect! I recommend Simmons’ book to higher undergraduates, graduates and aging geologists alike, it being a source of awe and inspiration. 

Reviewed by Brent Wilson

GREAT GEOLOGISTS, by M.D. Simmons (2018). Published by Halliburton, Abingdon, UK. 141 p. ISBN 978-1-9160054-1-9 (print), 978-1-9160054-0-2 (ebook). List Price: Free (Available as a free gift to the geoscience community from Mike and his employers, Halliburton) W: