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Thinking about the Earth

Thinking about the Earth

A History of Ideas in Geology

David Oldroyd

ISBN 9780674883826

Publication date: 11/01/1996

Not quite a history of geology, Thinking about the Earth is a history of the geological tradition of Western science. Beginning with a discussion of "organic" views of the earth in ancient cultures, David Oldroyd traverses such topics as "mechanical" and "historicist" views of the earth, map-work, chemical analyses of rocks and minerals, geomorphology, experimental petrology, seismology, theories of mountain building, and geochemistry. He brings us back to the idea that the earth may, in a sense, be regarded as a living entity, or at least that life is an essential feature of its behavior.

Oldroyd offers a broad-brush contribution to the history of ideas and theories about the earth, providing a general synthesis of what science-historians have written about the history of the earth sciences. He shows us that ideas about the earth have been changing constantly since the beginnings of geological science in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and indeed that ideas changed much more rapidly after the establishment of this science than in preceding centuries.

Thinking about the Earth does not assume previous knowledge of earth science. What it does require is an openness to the notion that an understanding of what geologists have to tell us today about the earth can be achieved by examining the evolving history of ideas in geology. This book will be of considerable interest to historians of science, historians of ideas, geologists, students of earth science, and general readers as well.


  • Oldroyd's panorama is...huge. As the chapters unfold, he conducts us from the creation myths of the ancient world, through the ambitious seventeenth-century theories of the earth, and into the increasing sophistication of the nineteenth century with its national geological surveys, its seismological explorations of the Earth's interior, and its new-found beliefs in periodic desiccation, episodic glaciation and titanic denudation. Finally, we arrive at the present through a nicely concocted account of the evolution of plate-tectonic theory, and the whole delectable edifice is topped off--as might be expected of a chef from 'down under'--with a summary of the history of Warren Carey's ideas on the subject of an expanding Earth. Those familiar with Oldroyd's previous literary offerings might hope to find this new work well laced with philosophical liqueur. I can assure them that their palate will not here suffer disappointment...I found the book easy and enjoyable reading...The publication of Oldroyd's book is an important event. It is the most broadly significant English-language addition to the literature of the history of the Earth sciences since the appearance of the first edition of Geikie's work in 1897. Oldroyd's words deserve to be read--his conclusions deserve to be pondered--by all those desirous of insight into the nature of the geohistorical drama that, over the centuries, we have compiled both for human edification and for human entertainment.

    —Gordon L. Herries Davies, Nature


  • David Oldroyd is Honorary Visiting Professor in the School of Science and Technology Studies, The University of New South Wales, Australia. His previous books include Darwinian Impacts, The Arch of Knowledge, and The Highlands Controversy.

Book Details

  • 440 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press