Ralph O’Connor, The Earth on Show: Fossils and the Poetics of Popular Science, 1802-1856

Ralph O’Connor, The Earth on Show: Fossils and the Poetics of Popular Science, 1802-1856 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 448 pp. £ 31 hb. ISBN 9780226616681.

The geologist, like the historian, is constantly faced with the difficulties of incomplete evidence. Gaps in strata spanning thousands or millions of years, partial skeletons, and limited information about past environments all mean geologists have to resort to their imaginative faculties more than most. Whilst challenging for the scientist, the narrative power of geology is an opportunity for the science communicator. And, as Ralph O’Connor’s wonderful study of the early years of the science shows, this has always been the case. Covering a vast array of sources and case studies, and always readable and entertaining, The Earth on Show explores the first half century of the new science of geology, how it struggled to establish itself amongst existing orthodoxies, and how examining science as literature can bring new dimensions to the traditional fable of geologist vs the establishment.

Despite being primarily a literary study, the book draws on a wide range of sources, from letters, notebooks and published studies to exhibitions and dioramas. Crucially, O’Connor takes care to point out the different audiences for these various media, and the prohibitive costs of even those books which were aimed at a ‘mass’ audience. Like now, science communication in the nineteenth century was a complex interaction of literature, objects and individuals. Appropriately, then, O’Connor’s story neither begins nor ends with purely literary events. The book opens with the discovery and display of ‘the first reasonably complete mammoth skeleton’, put on show in London with an accompanying text. This relationship between the object and the word is a theme which continues throughout – dioramas and exhibitions are rarely isolated, but accompanied by guidebooks and explanatory texts, and O’Connor spends considerable time exploring the relationship between image and words in a variety of publications.

A central theme of the story is how champions of this new science drew on old iconographies to tell their tales, likening the creatures they discovered to dragons or biblical monsters, the worlds they evoked to scenes from the bible or popular poetry. It is a technique just as much in use today – in October this year, for example, the Geological Society of America’s now notorious press release, ‘Giant Kraken Lair Discovered’, provoked a frenzy of journalistic activity, and widespread frustration amongst scientists. ‘A cunning sea monster’ the release argued, could be responsible for a mysterious bone assemblage containing the remains of nine ichthyosaurs; ‘a kraken of such mythological proportions it would have sent Captain Nemo running for dry land.’ ‘Modern octopus will do this’ said palaeontologist Mark McMenamin, referring to the apparently purposeful arrangement of bones. ‘What if there was an ancient, very large sort of octopus, like the kraken of mythology? I think these things were captured by the kraken and taken to the midden and the cephalopod would take them apart.’ ‘Imagine an animal of the lizard tribe’ writes Gideon Mantell at the climax of his 1827 and 1833 treatises, ‘three or four times as large as the largest crocodile; having jaws, with teeth equal in size to the incisors of the rhinoceros; and crested with horns; such a creature must have been the Iguanadon!’ Whilst new technologies give greater opportunities for reconstructing past worlds – Walking with Dinosaurs is just one example of many – such passages show that the written word remains the most powerful way to capture the public imagination.

Analogies between the new science of geology and pre-existing ideas about the history of the Earth were being drawn on a subtler level too, particularly in attempting to reconcile the geologists’ story of creation with the biblical account. Probably the most often repeated story about the early days of geology is the idea that its early champions were at loggerheads with the religious establishment; rebellious scientists fighting against entrenched traditions and expectations. O’Connor’s examination of the literature of the period demonstrates the far less combative nature of this relationship. Science writers frequently drew on images and phrases from texts which remained key to the public’s perception of Earth history, such as Genesis, Paradise Lost and some contemporary poetry. Thus, Buckland analogises a pterodactyle and ‘Milton’s fiend’, Lyell compares the geologist to Byron’s Childe Harold, and Hell is frequently compared with the ancient world they were trying to understand. It was by incorporating, not challenging, these established ideas, that early geologists were able to make a name for themselves. In doing so, they created new narratives but – like the mythical monsters they drew comparisons with – these were based on familiar tropes.

Criticisms of the new science, then, were not simply that it challenged Genesis, but were a more basic attack on the methodology used – critics of Buckland, for example, claimed he allowed ‘his imagination to run away with his judgement.’ Such suspicions of hypothesis and conjecture were being levelled at scientists of all disciplines, and continue to be – but perhaps geologists are more vulnerable than most. ‘The giant prehistoric squid that ate common sense’ was the headline of one response to McMenamin’s kraken press release. What all the critics missed here was that, wildly speculative though it was, it is stories like these which bring geology to life for the uninitiated, just as they always have.

The Earth on Show does much, then, to highlight the emergence of science communication as a discipline in its own right, with all the conflicts and complications that still exist. In the early days of geology, there was much less distinction between those who did the science and those who wrote about it. To establish their subject, geologists had to be charismatic communicators both on the page and in person – Davy, Buckland, Hawkins and Millar all succeed where the likes of William Smith fall short. Contemporary scientists, whether celebrating the fact or complaining about it, often view requirements for them to ‘perform’ to a public audience as a new development. Clearly, this is far from true. And the argument for why they should is the same now as it was then; as John Crosse put it in 1845, ‘If men competent to the task disdain to popularize science the task will be attempted by men who are incompetent: popularised it will be.’

O’Connor’s story ends with the death of Hugh Millar, whose writings, especially the celebrated Old Red Sandstone, represent for him the most significant in his argument that nineteenth century scientific writing ‘demands to be taken seriously as imaginative literature.’ Equally, though it is a historical study, The Earth on Show demands to be taken seriously by today’s scientists and science communicators, all of whom could learn much from its thorough analysis of how an emerging science engaged with the pre-existing ideas and beliefs of its audience. It is a brilliant reminder of how communicating science is not just about presenting the best factual evidence as clearly as possible and hoping for the best, but requires an understanding of how your audience thinks and feels – insights which perhaps come more naturally to the poet. As Thomas Hawkins put it, in a passage which could be explaining last month’s ‘kraken affair’:

‘Over these vestiges of Ichthyos and Plesion-sauri we love to dwell. Such countless hosts of associations are connected with these gone-by things – they are sensations – operations – that concentrate infinity and identifies it, a something that the human understanding can grasp bodily and be satisfied therewith, like the opium-eater, and his drug, for awhile.’

Sarah Day, Geological Society