Saturday, August 20, 2011

Mad Scientists - II

Another scientist that Bill Bryson writes about in his A Short History of Nearly Everything was one of the fathers of geology as a science, 18th century Scotsman James Hutton, a physician, chemist, naturalist and farmer. Bryson: “It’s hard to imagine now, but geology excited the 19th century – positively gripped it – in a way that no science had before or would again.” And Hutton laid the groundwork for it all (pun).

By all accounts Hutton was a brilliant mind with the keenest of insights and a delight to talk to. Unfortunately, it was beyond him to set down his geological notions in a form that anyone could begin to understand. One of his biographers would charitably pen that Hutton was …”almost entirely innocent of rhetorical accomplishments.” Nearly every line he wrote was an invitation to slumber – and be totally confused.

In his 1795 masterpiece, A Theory of the Earth with Proofs and Illustrations, he stated:

"The world which we inhabit is composed of the materials, not of the earth which was the immediate predecessor of the present, but of the earth which, in ascending from the present, we consider as the third, and which had preceded the land that was above the surface of the sea, while our present land was yet beneath the waters of the ocean.”

Huh? That kind of writing would never have gotten me through an undergraduate, let alone a graduate degree.

Although as an undergrad I did take mineralogy from a professor who totally confused me and most of the class with his absentmindedness and his teaching style. He had two quirks that I remember humorously now, but was pained by every time they would happen in the class I was already finding to be a struggle. Professor S. would furiously write all sorts of equations on the blackboard along with elaborate diagrams of mineral crystal structures - all with complete confidence and authoritative assuredness. Then he would pivot from the blackboard rapidly like a courtroom prosecutor turning to drive home a point to the enraptured jury. Facing our class, Professor S. would scrunch up his face as he started to make some great pronouncement about the blackboard diagrams and then stop and pivot back to the board saying, “Wait, did I do that right??”

Herr Professor had a similar quirk when he would ask the class a question and one of us would volunteer an answer. His eyebrows would shoot way up on his head at the same time that a look would cross his face indicating “Of course you are correct my brilliant student!” But then his facial expression would change in an instant to one reflecting seriousness of deep thought, and he would spout, “You would think so, wouldn’t you?” meaning the answer offered was off target. To this day that phrase with all of its comical images from my long-ago mineralogy class,”You would think so, wouldn’t you?” often leaps to my brain when I ask someone a question and get a reply.

There’s a little James Hutton in every geologist.


Erin said...

Reminds me of my high school calculus teacher, who would spend 10 minutes or more writing out a lengthy derivative (I don't even remember if I have the terminology correct; I did, after all, end up teaching myself calculus to only some degree of success). He'd finish with the answer at the bottom, glance down at his answer booklet, glance up at the board, smack his lips together several times in thoughtful reflection, then say, "forget what I just told you--I made a mistake in step two." It happened at least once a week, hence my attempts at self-teaching.

Texan99 said...

I had a law professor who always would announce that there were three (or four or five) important points to remember about some issue, then list one or two and drift off, never to return.

Most teachers never get much beyond stream of consciousness. Lecturers who can organize and communicate their thoughts are rare and wonderful creatures. In this respect Richard Feynman is my hero.