13 SEPTEMBER 2003, Page 62

Glimpses into the abyss of time

Robert Macfarlane

THE MAN WHO FOUND TIME: JAMES HUTTON AND THE DISCOVERY OF THE EARTH'S ANTIQUITY by Jack Repcheck Simon & Schuster, £15.99, pp. 247 ISBN 0743231899 The Scottish geologist James Hutton (1726-97) is credited with the discovery of what is often called 'deep time': the sense of time whose units are not days, hours, minutes or seconds, but millions of years, or tens of millions of years. It was Hutton's breakthrough which helped to refute the biblically based 'Young Earth' orthodoxy. which held that the earth was less than 6,000 years old. His insights can thus be seen as instrumental in laying the groundwork for Darwinism, in collapsing Christianity, and in making possible the development of humanity's modern sense of itself. Jack Repcheck, in this plainspeaking biography, goes so far as to nominate Hutton as one of the three men — along with Copernicus and Darwin — who 'helped to free science from the straitjacket of theology'.

Like all of the founding geologists — William Smith, H. B. De Saussure, Hugh Miller — Hutton was a prodigious walker, and for decades he strode back and forth across the landscapes of southern Scotland, attempting by a blend of induction and imagination to intuit the processes which had brought it to its present state. Hutton possessed an instinctive ability to reverse physical processes — to read landscapes backwards, as it were. Fingering the white quartz which seamed the grey granite boulders in a Scottish glen, for instance, he understood the confrontation that had once occurred between the two types of rock, and he perceived how, under fantastic pressure, the molten quartz had forced its way into the weaknesses in the mother granite.

To be in the field with Hutton, therefore, was to inhabit a world with a past so deep as to be terrifying. A colleague and admirer, John Playfair, famously described visiting with Hutton a geological site of 'non-conformity' on the Berwick coast. As Hutton explained the implications of the rock configuration, wrote Mayfair. the mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time'.

Between 1785 and 1799 Hutton published his three-volume magnum opus, The Theory of the Earth — the distillation of years of meditation on landscape formation. The earth we presently inhabit, Hutton proposed, is merely a snapshot in a series of an unknown number of cycles. The apparent permanence of mountains and coastlines is in fact an illusion born of our diminutive life-spans. Were we to live for aeons, Hutton suggested, we would witness not only the collapse of civilisations, but the utter re-arrangement of the earth's surface. We would watch mountains being worn down by erosion to become plains, and we would see new landmasses being formed beneath the sea. Thus it was, he said, that the shells which could he found embedded in the rocks of mountain-tops had not been washed there by the Deluge, but had been elevated from sea-floor to mountain top by the patient, implacable processes of the earth.

Hutton put no parentheses around the age of earth. According to his vision, the earth's history stretched backwards indefinitely into the past, and unfurled indefinitely into the future. The memorable final sentence of his book would toll through the centuries: 'The result therefore of our present enquiry is that we find no vestige of a beginning — no prospect of an end.'

Jack Repcheck, a scientist and experienced science publisher, has written the second biography of Hutton to be published this year (the other being Steven Baxter's Revolutions in the Earth). Hutton has also been magnificently treated by John McPhee — without doubt the finest living reportage writer in English, and

scandalously under-appreciated in Britain — in his masterwork Annals of the Former World. Repcheck, like Baxter, sets Hutton within the wider context of the Scottish Enlightenment, and also traces a now familiar line of influence from Hutton, through the geologist Charles Lyell, to Darwin. The Man Who Found Time does, however, makes two additions to our understanding of Hutton. The first comes through Repcheck's appealing appreciation of his parochialism. Much of Hutton's research was carried out on the .small tract of land' which he owned in the Borders, and Repcheck's gentle description of the years Hutton spent here reminds us how new worlds can be found through a profound concentration on the local. The second is Repcheck's suggestion that writerly 'style' plays almost as important a part in the history of science as it does in the history of literature. Hutton, he observes, 'could not describe his findings in graceful and readable prose', and so his name has never attained the prominence of those who came after him. Repcheck's own prose, it is worth noting, is readable but rarely graceful. His book is written in a chatty, sleeves-rolled-up vernacular. Readers who are looking for a clear and intelligent explanation of Hutton's life and legacy will find much to please them here; those in search of grace, concision and elegance should go to McPhee.