Published:July 01, 2012
Neither earlier nor later in our country has there been a more original, more completely creative person with a more distinctive identity [than Mikhail Vasil'evich Lomonosov].
It is with great pleasure that I introduce this first English translation of Lomonosov's On the Strata of the Earth to the Anglophone world. Russian scholars have long considered Lomonosov to have been a true giant among eighteenth-century scientists and scholars. And Russian historians of science consider On the Strata of the Earth to be Lomonosov's most important contribution to geology. Published in 1763, On the Strata of the Earth predates James Hutton's celebrated Theory of the Earth by a quarter century, with provocative similarities and insightful differences. Regrettably, relatively few people beyond the borders of Russia have been able to read what Lomonosov wrote, so his views on rock-forming processes and Earth history have languished in obscurity. Science has no nationality, but Lomonosov's science has been linguistically inaccessible to most of the world. Until now.
Who was Mikhail Lomonosov (1711–1765)? The descriptors “first” and “unique” exactly characterize his position in Russian culture. Lomonosov's time was the initial, heroic period in the history of science in Russia and the rest of Europe. The Enlightenment—and along with it science—was introduced into Russia by Peter the Great, who ruled Russia from 1682 to 1725. The first Russian scientific center—the Academy of Sciences and Arts in St. Petersburg—was founded by Peter in 1724 to educate and enlighten Russia. In the absence of native-born scholars, this mission was entrusted to Western European naturalists who were named the first members of the Academy.
In eighteenth-century Russia, education was a privilege of the nobility. Lomonosov, who was born in a village near Arkhangelsk, in the far north of Russia, did not belong to that elevated stratum of Russian society. However, through a combination of native ability, perseverance, and subterfuge, he was able to overcome the handicaps of distance and class prejudice, and he gained entrance to the Slavonic, Greek, and Latin Academy in Moscow—the school for future members of the Academy of Sciences and Arts. Later, as one of Russia's most talented young scholars, he was sent to the University of Marburg, in Germany, where he studied with the eminent philosopher Christian Wolff. Lomonosov then studied with the German chemist, Johann Henckel, in the silver-mining town of Freiberg, where he developed an expertise in mining and metallurgy. In 1741, with a Weltanschauung shaped by the works of Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz, Christian Wolff, and Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, Lomonosov returned to St. Petersburg and proceeded to make his mark on Russian culture—most prominently with his poetry—and also on the world of science—most prominently in chemistry, physics, and geology. In the following year he was named an adjunct member of the physics department of the Academy of Sciences, and in 1745, at the age of 33, Lomonosov became one of the first two Russian-born scholars elected to full membership of the Academy, as professor of chemistry.
Lomonosov was a proud, purposeful, and broad-minded person with indefatigable energy. His talents and scientific intuition yielded contributions in a wide range of fields, including chemistry, physics, geology, mining, astronomy, history, philosophy, literature, and linguistics. His life was short but intense. He died at the age of 53, with much work left incomplete.
On the Strata of the Earth is Lomonosov's main geological work, and this translation by Rowland and Korolev inspires considerable admiration. Lomonosov's language was a true contribution to Russian literature of the eighteenth century, but it is quite out-of-date and abstruse today. To translate Lomonosov, one should have extraordinary linguistic abilities; encyclopedic knowledge of geology, geography, and history; and a strong component of simple desire! The translators took on a formidable task, and the results are fantastic.
Appreciate your reading, and be indulgent with Lomonosov. He has long been number 1 in Russia, and his geological thoughts are finally available to the English-reading world.