Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Goethe and geology

From The New Yorker (click to enlarge)
A friend reminds me that I have not posted much lately. True: most of my time is devoted to the book I am trying to finish, which is not directly about Goethe, but I came across something yesterday that gave me an opportunity to think about him.

I was at the M.D., one who has copies of The New Yorker, and an issue from earlier this year had a rather thrilling piece by Hector Tobar on the Chilean miners who were trapped 69 days at 2,3000 feet below the earth — and survived. The piece contains some factoids about the geology of the mining environment, which reminded me that I have been asked to prepare 100 words on “Goethe and Geology” in connection with a book exhibit for the forthcoming conference of the Goethe Society of North America.

For those unfamiliar with the subject, Goethe was a member of a commission in the duchy of Weimar that investigated the possibility of re-opening the mine at Ilmenau as a way of producing revenue for the duchy. The venture eventually came to nought, but Goethe struggled with it for a decade. He also familiarized himself with the mineralogy of the region and with "geology," a subject that was not yet known as such, as it was then a field only coming into being. The first scientific writing he produced was on granite, which was believed at the time to constitute the earliest building block of the earth. (See my essay in the Goethe Yearbook.)

Goethe went on to pursue other scientific areas, perhaps because they were more easily accessible: for instance, botany, anatomy, and colors. In retrospect, it might seem that to theorize about geology took a leap of the imagination that was nigh impossible for people, even for Goethe. James Hutton’s revolutionary insight into the age of the earth was something hard to wrap your mind around. Here is Hutton, a Scottish farmer who is known as "the father" of modern geology (emphasis added):

James Hutton, by Sir Henry Raeburn (1775)
"As there is not in human observation proper means for measuring the waste of land upon the globe, it is hence inferred, that we cannot estimate the duration of what we see at present, nor calculate the period at which it had begun; so that, with respect to human observation, this world has neither a beginning nor an end."

The above is from 1785, from a "dissertation" Concerning the System of the Earth, its Duration, and Stability. Hutton's point was that the earth was continually being formed, a process that we could not observe because it took place over such a vast extent of time.

In the early years in Weimar, when Goethe was studying mineralogy, there were certainly writers who already estimated that the earth was much older than the Biblical account would suggest. I believe Buffon thought in terms of 75,000 years. If Goethe been able to visualize millions of years, he might have come to accept the concept of a dynamic planet, especially the massive forces of volcanoes and hot springs in the formation of the earth.

So, what about the Chilean miners? As for the age of the stone forming the mountains in which they worked, it was “born of the earth’s magma more than 140 million years ago. For aeons, a mineral-rich broth rose up through the fissures of the Atacama Fault System. Eventually, the broth solidified, becoming ore layered with interlocking veins of quartz, chalcopyrite, and other minerals.”

And as for the slab that blocked their escape? “It was later estimated to weigh seven hundred thousand tons, twice the weight of the Empire State Building."

Such figures are something that we moderns have come rationally to assimilate. Ah, yes: twice the weight of the ESB. Of course! Yet, confined as we are to our tiny place on the earth and in the universe, do we really understand the infinity of time or the enormous weight of the earth? As the author of The New Yorker piece writes: "The men couldn’t see the extent of the slab, but one could sense the enormity of the disaster.”

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