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Book Review: On the Strata of the Earth


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The Russian scholar Mikhail Vasil´evich Lomonosov (1711-1765) was a typical polymath of his time, dedicated to poetry, art, literature, history, philosophy, meteorology, astronomy, chemistry and mineralogy.

Born into a relatively wealthy fisherman and trader family from the village of Denisovka (North Russia) he got interested in natural science in early years accompanying his father on trading missions. With nineteen he fled from his family and went to Moscow to inscribe into the Slavic Greek Latin Academy by falsely claiming to be a priest’s son. Despite financial problems and advanced age he exceeded into his studies and in 1736 he was granted an application for the University of Magdeburg. In the years 1739-1740 he studied mineralogy, metallurgy, and mining in the city of Freiberg (Saxony), one of the most important mining centers at the time. In 1741 he returned to Russia, where he helped to establish the Russian Academy of Science and Moscow State University. Today Lomonosov is considered one of the founding fathers of Russian sciences.

Lomonosov´s role in the history of geology is however still poorly studied, in part due the long decades of political isolation of the former Soviet Republics, in part due the language barrier and inaccessibility of his original texts to western historians and geologists.

With the special paper No. 485 by the Geological Society of America, Stephen M. Rowland and Slava Korolev (University of Nevada) provide a modern translation of Lomonosov´s “On the Strata of the Earth” – a 186 paragraph long appendix introducing basic concepts of physical geography and stratigraphy, intended to be used with a monographic work of mining and metallurgy industry, published in 1763, just two years before Lomonosov ´s early death.

What a grand enterprise it would be to penetrate into the depths of the Earth with one’s mind, where our hands and eyes are forbidden by nature to go, to wander trough the subterranean world in one’s meditations, to penetrate by thoughts into narrow clefts, and to bring objects and processes out from the obscurity of eternal night into the sunlight of human understanding.

Lomonosov poetic language should not distract from the practical use of his work, as he describes the distribution of precious metals or coal as results of physical processes and “tectonic” forces. Understanding these processes, so he explains, increases significantly the probability to discover and exploit such mineral deposits.

Searching for stones without testing what you find is boring and not very productive

It is interesting to note that Lomonosov discusses the formation of soils as results of physical processes acting over long periods of time. Such thoughts predate those of James Hutton‘s dissertation on the regeneration of eroded soils by almost 20 years.

And so, there is no doubt that black soil is not primordial matter, but that it has been produced by the decomposition of animal and plant bodies over time.

In a time when the age of earth was still a matter of wild speculations, Lomonosov argues, based on astronomical irregularities of the axis of the earth, that earth must be at least some 100.000 years old.

Also other important ideas, promoted later by Hutton and Victorian geologists, can be found in Lomonosov´s work.

Now we must penetrate farther into the Earth’s interior, as deeply as our diligence permits us to travel

He describes the metamorphic origin of some rocks by deposition, chemical alteration and finally transformation by heat and pressure. He recognizes volcanoes as important features, shaping entire landscapes. However he considers them products of burning materials distributed in earth’s crust, following the traditional view of earlier Renaissance scholars.

I know (as probably most geologists do) of Lomonosov only as an unusual underwater ridge was named in his honour in 1948. However the now available translation of “On the Strata of the Earth” introduced me to a fascinating man and scholar, which ideas, contributions and role for the development of geology must be reconsidered, also outside Russia.

Bibliography:

ROWLAND, S.M. & KOROLEV, S. (2012): On the Strata of the Earth – A Translation of О Слояхъ Земныхъ; by Mikhail Vasil’evich Lomonosov. Geological Society of America Special Paper 485: 41

DISCLAIMER: This review is based on a copy of “On the Strata of the Earth – A Translation of О Слояхъ Земныхъ kindly provided by Mr. L. April and Mr. M. Hudson of the GSA; However I have no affiliation with the publisher or author; the review reflects my personal opinion on the discussed book.

Image Copyright GSA, used here under Fair Use conditions for review purpose.

David Bressan About the Author: Freelance geologist dealing with quaternary outcrops interested in the history and the development of geological concepts through time. Follow on Twitter @David_Bressan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Snowballsolarsystem 3:32 pm 01/18/2013

    In retrospect, 18th and 19th century geologists seem to be better observers than their more-recent counterparts who emphasize specialization and interpretation over observation.

    Link to this
  2. 2. David Marjanović 8:36 am 01/19/2013

    The State University of Moscow, sorry, the State University of Moscow has been named after Lomonosov since 1940.

    Link to this

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