Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 354:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 354.

Today, an old geologist faces modern science. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Stephen Jay Gould writes about the great lurch in perception that stretched earth's age from a few thousand years to several billion. He calls it the discovery of deep time. He tells about a geological theorist named Thomas Burnet. Textbook writers have treated Burnet badly. They're very quick to make yesterday look like nothing more than ignorance of today's knowledge.

Burnet wrote an important geological treatise during the 1680s. He called it Sacred Theory of the Earth. His Bible-based earth begins as chaotic void. He shows how it congealed into a perfect sphere -- the home of Eden. He details rational means by which the Great Flood ruined that perfect earth when it left in its wake continents, mountains, seas, and general disorder. At the second coming, Burnet's earth is burned by fire. It reverts to spherical perfection and is finally made into a star at judgment day.

That's pretty hard for us to take seriously. So we paint Burnet as a misguided biblical literalist. Writers have spoken of his "romantic and unprofitable labors," of "wild fancies that deserve to be called travesties!" One even said flatly that his writings were the sort of stuff we sweep out of stables.

In fact, Burnet exchanged long letters with Isaac Newton. They agreed on the substance of Burnet's Sacred Theory. They argued only over details. It was Newton, not Burnet, who suggested we get around logical problems by assuming that God kept changing the rules of natural law during the Creation. Burnet stayed away from that sort of thing. We find a comment that's remarkable for its time in his work. He says:

'Tis a dangerous thing to engage the authority of scripture in disputes about the natural world, in opposition to reason; lest time, which brings all things to light, should [reveal that what we] made scripture to assert [was false.]
A new observational science had grown up around Burnet. Now scientists had to go where the nontechnical language of the Old Testament was never meant to go. They had to accommodate hard observations. That's what Burnet and Newton struggled to do. A century later scientists realized that the Bible gave them a different kind of information altogether. And they went on to face the fact that earth was almost incomprehensibly old.

When they did that, modern scientists overlooked the pioneering nature of Burnet's attempts to model geological time. They rewrote history to match knowledge that they'd never been forced to question. They dishonored the inventive minds of an earlier age when they forgot the terrible limits of their own imperfect attempts to explain the things they saw.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Gould, S.J., Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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