Facts and fancies:: the Geological Society of London and the wider public, 1807–1837
Ralph O’Connor, 2009. "Facts and fancies:: the Geological Society of London and the wider public, 1807–1837", The Making of the Geological Society of London, C. L. E. Lewis, S. J. Knell
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The leading lights of the Geological Society announced the birth of a newly scientific form of Earth science by claiming to dissociate geology from the grand theories, theological controversialism and flights of fancy that they felt had dominated eighteenth-century practice. For these gentlemen, geology was to comprise strict empirical induction. They cultivated a historical myth according to which their predecessors had been hopelessly romantic theory-mongers with overactive imaginations, while they themselves were sensible, sober men of science.
But if this was so, how did geology succeed in winning such an enormous middle- and upper-class public by the late 1830s? Public support required public interest, and public interest in this period was most easily stirred by the romantic, the speculative and the poetical. Older theories of the Earth remained popular for this very reason, as did biblically literalist reconstructions of Earth history. The challenge for the new school of geology was to dissociate Earth science from the content and methodology of such theories while retaining their accompanying sense of excitement, wonder and pleasure. This paper explores how members and allies of the Geological Society negotiated (or ignored) their own suspicions about the deceptive power of the ‘imagination’ when promoting geology as a science worth the public’s attention.
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The Making of the Geological Society of London
Founded in 1807, the Geological Society of London became the world’s first learned society devoted to the Earth sciences. In celebration of the Society’s 200-year history, this book commemorates the lives of the Society’s 13 founders and sets geology in its national and European context at the turn of the nineteenth century. In Britain, geology was emerging as a subject in its own right from three closely related disciplines — chemistry, mineralogy and medicine — disciplines that reflect the principal professions and interests of the founders. The tremendous energy and cooperation of these 13 men, about whom little was previously known, quickly mobilized like-minded men around the country and fuelled the nation’s passion for geology; an enthusiasm that soon spread to America and Australia. Two previously unpublished works from this period, essential to understanding the founding of the Society, are reproduced here for the first time. The book closes with a review of the Society’s 2007 Bicentenary celebrations.