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I first read about Mikhail Lomonosov while teaching historical geology with the second edition of the classic textbook Evolution of the Earth by Robert H. Dott, Jr., and Roger L. Batten. In their opening chapter, Dott and Batten mentioned that Lomonosov's uniformitarian ideas had predated those of James Hutton, the putative “Father of Modern Geology.” My interest was piqued, and I wanted to read what Lomonosov had written, but I learned that few of Lomonosov's works, including On the Strata of the Earth—his most significant geological work—had been translated into English.

Exploring the idea of translating it myself, I obtained the relevant volume of Lomonosov's voluminous complete works from the Library of Congress. The edition I received—and the one we used to prepare this translation—had not been typographically modernized. (I later became aware of a modernized, footnoted edition, but we did not use it.) I quickly discovered that the Russian language has undergone considerable modification since the eighteenth century, including the elimination of some letters in the alphabet. The letters ï and ъ, which were part of the Old Russian alphabet, are now gone, and the “hard sign” (ъ), which is very sparingly used in modern Russian, was ubiquitous in Lomonosov's day. Due to these changes the word for snow, for example, in modern Russian is снег; in Lomonosov's Russian, it is снъгъ. These alphabetical relicts are charmingly intimidating to a non-native reader, but they are not debilitating. Much more challenging are Lomonosov's eighteenth-century vocabulary and his tortured sentence structure. I wrestled with Mikhail Vasil'evich for a while, and then I set him aside.

This translation project finally began in earnest during a Fulbright lectureship year at the Institute of Geology and Geophysics in Akademgorodok, near Novosibirsk, in central Siberia. I brought my copy of the Lomonosov book with me, with the hope that I would find a Russian colleague who would be interested in collaborating on the translation. My collaborating colleague turned out to be Slava Korolev, who was just completing his undergraduate degree in geology at Novosibirsk State University. About once a week we would meet in Slava's dormitory room to knock out a few sentences, often with fellow students dropping by to drink tea, kibitz, and help out with problematic passages. The following year Slava came to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas to work with me on a Master's degree in geology (doing research on Cambrian stratigraphy). As time allowed, we continued to plug away on our Lomonosov translation. By the time Slava finished his graduate studies, we had completed a very rough draft of the translation, but the usual academic distractions pushed the manuscript to the proverbial back burner. Prodding by my Russian history-of-geology colleague Irena Malakhova, together with the looming 300th anniversary of Lomonosov's birth year, 1711, provided the incentive for us to polish our translation and finally get it published.

On the Strata of the Earth (O Слоях Земных) consists of 185 numbered paragraphs. (The paragraph numbers were assigned by Lomonosov; there are actually 186 paragraphs, but he accidentally assigned the same number—131—to two consecutive paragraphs.) It was originally published as an appendix to a much longer work on mining and metallurgy. The two works were published together in 1763, two years before Lomonosov's death. Russian science historians have always considered the appendix to be the more original and significant work, and it is standard reading for Russian geology students. A German translation appeared during the years of the German Democratic Republic; we are not aware of translations into other languages.

Although not without its frustrations, this project has been a tremendously joyful, rewarding experience for me, due in part to the wonderful collaboration with my friend and colleague Slava Korolev, and also to the sublime challenge and privilege of taking an obscure (outside of Russia), historically significant treatise by a brilliant, eighteenth-century Russian polymath and making it available to the English-reading world. To mention just one of many memorable passages, I am especially fond of paragraph 157, in which Lomonosov quotes tiny creatures trapped in amber, in support of his assertions—contrary to the views of some of his contemporaries—that amber is petrified tree resin. The immense pleasure derived from translating such passages sustained me through the more prosaic portions of the book. Our aim was always to capture the essence of Lomonosov's descriptions and interpretations of the materials, morphology, processes, and history of the Earth, and to transform these descriptions and interpretations into accessible English. As much as possible, we tried to be faithful to Lomonosov's style and voice, but readability trumped style, so we split many of his painfully long sentences. Endnotes explain obscure geographical and bibliographic references, as well as the reasons we chose a particular English word or phrase.

I gratefully acknowledge the Council for the International Exchange of Scholars for funding my Fulbright lectureship in Russia, and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas for granting me a sabbatical leave to complete this project. I thank my Russian colleague Irena Malakhova for kindly agreeing to write a foreword. I take this opportunity to honor the memory of my amazing first-year Russian teacher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, the late Ben Clark—perhaps the best teacher of any subject I ever studied. Огромное спасибо, Винямин Виняминевич! And, most of all, I thank my wife, DeeAnn Emmer, for her love and encouragement, for enthusiastically agreeing to move to Siberia for an academic year with three young children, for countless discussions about the best translation for this or that Russian word, and for putting up with Lomonosoviana spread across the dining room table for weeks at a time.


I first became acquainted with Lomonosov during my early school years. In the highly politicized Soviet educational system, Lomonosov—along with Peter the Great and Pyotr Tchaikovsky—was a pillar of Russian national pride. The Soviet propaganda machine shamelessly exploited Lomonosov's extraordinary life story: an uneducated young man from an obscure fishing village comes to Moscow on foot and becomes an internationally recognized scholar. It was mandatory reading in every elementary school curriculum. For a long time, I could not fully appreciate Lomonosov's historical significance because of my acquired distaste for propaganda, especially Soviet propaganda. However, I eventually came to realize that it is not fair to Lomonosov to view his scientific accomplishments through this politically distorted lens. I began to appreciate the brilliance and magnitude of Lomonosov as a chemist, a physicist, and a geologist—one face at a time.

When Steve proposed that we work together on this translation, it sounded like a good opportunity to improve my English. Soon enough I realized that it was an equally challenging exercise in the Russian language, and that working with this text was far more than a simple translation project. We found out that since Lomonosov's time, many geographic names he referred to have either completely disappeared or have been replaced by others. We were continuously challenged to find the modern Russian equivalent for some old noun or verb, and then to figure out how to render it into English. Also, the grammar of the Russian language has evolved significantly since the eighteenth century. On top of that, Lomonosov's unique style and the tangled, poetic expressions he used created challenges. I can say that the way Lomonosov's wording sounds to modern Russians is somewhat similar to the way Shakespearean English sounds to contemporary Americans.

I am very happy that, despite some distractions and delays, Lomonosov's On the Strata of the Earth can finally be presented to the English-speaking world. I'd like to thank my old friend Victor Serbo, who contributed to this project in its early stages by providing his natural linguistic skills and insights, as well as some tasty treats for the tea. Also, I want to thank my wife, Lera Korolev, for her unmatched help with many passages, for our numerous discussions on the text, and for being so patient with me during all these years.

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