David Oldroyd (1936-2014)
David died, from cancer, on November 7 of this year, well before his time. This is a sad loss indeed for the HPS, especially here in Australasia. David leaves considerable legacy. This is most obviously due to the excellent work in the form of publications he produced during his career, acknowledged with many prizes and awards – none of us can claim to have such a distinguished record . But there is also the ways he affected the lives of his students and friends, surely always for the better, something less tangible and non-quantifiable but as important.
This is not the place to try to list David’s achievements. What we have done is to reproduce an interview conducted in Norway and published in the INHIGEO Newsletter in 2009 – thanks to Barry Cooper for kindly sending this – which gives a good deal of information about David, and in his own words. Also, for David’s many former students, colleagues and friends, we have set up a system where people can leave (short) comments and anecdotes about him, for others to see. Please do not feel that these all have to be solemn tributes.
David was a decent and kind man. He was good-natured, clever and funny and old-fashioned and eccentric. He was an excellent companion and a good and loyal friend. We will miss him greatly, and we offer our sincere condolences to Jane, Ben and Monty Oldroyd.
David's entry in the Australian Academy of the Humanities
David's funeral will be held at Camelia Chapel at Macquarie Park Crematorium, Plassey Road, North Ryde on Tuesday 18th November 2014 at 10.30.
INHIGEO and the research on the History of Geology – An Interview with David Oldroyd, Oslo, Norway, 7–8 August 2008
Jiuchen Zhang, Institute for the History of Natural Science, Academia Sinica, Beijing
Introduction: In the summer of 2008, I met Professor Oldroyd during our attendance at the 33rd International Geological Congress in Oslo. I had previously met him in Beijing when he had given some lectures at the Institute of Natural Sciences of the Chinese Academy of Science, at Beijing University and at the Chinese Geoscience University; and I acted as interpreter. A topic at one of his lectures was the use of non-written sources in the study of the history of geology and this made a strong impression on me.1 So taking advantage of our meeting the Oslo conference, I conducted an interview with Professor Oldroyd and we had an interesting conversation, as follows.
1.1 Early life
Zhang: Could you please tell us something about your early life?
Oldroyd: I was born in 1936 at Luton, which is an ugly industrial town thirty miles north of London; but for my first ten years we lived in a nearby village in the country. When I was a child, my father wanted me to be a doctor. So when I went to senior high school, I had to take the subjects appropriate to be a doctor. I did physics, chemistry, botany and zoology, as I had to do four subjects to get into the university. But the school where I studied (Luton Grammar School) was not at all a good one: the chemistry teacher was competent but bored with his work and therefore idle. The zoology teacher was seriously ill and was often absent. The botany teacher was quite good and the physics teacher was very good. So I thought I was good at physicsthough I’m not. Then I thought I should become a physicist, and after a year I changed my programme: I stopped doing botany and started doing mathematics again but I had to do a course that should have taken two years in one year. So my results were not as good as I had hoped (though I passed everything). I stayed an extra year at school to try to improve my marks and get into Cambridge.
Zhang: How about your higher education?
Oldroyd: In 1955, I went to Emmanuel College, Cambridge. (At that time there were about twenty colleges in Cambridge.) When I went to the interview before admission, the Master of college said that there were no places vacant for medicine. But if I wanted to do science, that would be possible. So I said I’d do science. But after I got there, during my first year, I began to think of changing from physics to chemistry. At high school I’d thought the chemistry teaching was awful (and it was) and I had no special interest in the subject, but in college it was really good (whereas the physics tuition wasn’t). So chemistry began to be my preferred subject for a career.
Normally one did three subjects in Cambridge for a science degree: three subjects for two years and one of those subjects for the third year. But one could also do an additional ‘half-subject’ if you wanted to. So in the first two years, I did geology, which was new to me, and chemistry, physics, and ‘half mathematics’. As it turned out, I liked geology a lot, though I also liked the chemistry. I still didn’t really know what I was going to do with my life, but I thought there were more job opportunities for chemists. So after two years, I stopped doing the other subjects and just studied chemistry for the third year. Therefore my degree was eventually in chemistry, even though I actually liked geology best, because of the fieldwork.
But I met some problems. One was that I spent most of time playing the cello! And in my last year, my mother got very ill so that in the last week, when I had to take the final examinations, she died of cancer. So I didn’t do very well at the examinations. I got a second class, which meant I couldn’t then go on to do a research degree.
At that time, there were three kinds of jobs one could do if one didn’t want to do national service in the army. One could become a research scientist. One could become a coal miner. Or one could become a science teacher. (These were the three occupations for which there were particular shortages in Britain in the 1950s.) I didn’t want to go into the army and unsurprisingly I didn’t want to be a coal miner. I wanted to be a researcher, but I couldn’t. So I became a high school teacher at John Lyon School in Harrow, in northwest London, and got married.
After two years of teaching, I heard about a Master’s degree course in history and philosophy of science, taught by evening classes, at University College, London. It was thought useful for school teachers to know about this (to help bridge what was called the ‘two-cultures’ gap) and with my strong interest in music I did have a foot in the cultures of both the humanities and science. Also I imagined that if I had a Master’s degree that might help advance my career, and maybe I could become a headmaster one day.
So I started to do the course on history and philosophy of science – three evenings a week – at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at University College. But the teachers there were poor too. The history of chemistry was good and the history of physics, taught by the same lecturer, was reasonable. The history of astronomy was all right (but dull). The history of biology was quite good and somewhat philosophical (but the lecturer never finished the syllabus). And there were a few interesting lectures on the history of geology. The philosophy of science was terrible! Unbelievably bad! So much so that you couldn’t really say that overall it was a history and philosophy of science program at all. Anyway, I had to study for three years: two years for lectures and coursework, and one year to do a thesis. We did very few assignments. In fact, come to think of it, I can’t recall doing one at all, other than a presentation on a paper from a book of readings on philosophy of science. It was just lectures and then examinations after two years. Learn and regurgitate! You couldn’t call it a good course. But we worked quite hard.
1.2 Immigrant to New Zealand
Zhang: It seems your career was going on quite smoothly. What made you emigrate from Britain?
Oldroyd: After I’d been working for four years in England, my wife and I decided to migrate to New Zealand. It was the middle of the Cold War (the Cuban crisis and all that) and things seemed very uncertain in Europe. We didn’t have much money in London and we wanted to travel. If we went to New Zealand, their Government would pay for our tickets and furniture removal and find a house for us. We liked the idea and thought it would be an adventure. It was!
So in 1962, we left London. I didn’t take the HPS examination in England because we were already on the boat at the time of the examinations. But next year London University sent the 1963 examination papers out to New Zealand. And I had to do the examinations by myself: just one student and one person who made sure that I didn’t cheat! I wrote continuously for two days and was pretty tired afterwards. But apparently they passed me all right. After that, I had to do a dissertation. The professor in London said: “we can’t provide a supervisor if you’re going to write a dissertation. It’s your problem”.
Zhang: So, you wrote the thesis without a supervisor?
Oldroyd: Yes. I wrote a thesis called “Geology in New Zealand prior to 1900”.
Zhang: Why did you choose that topic?
Oldroyd: Well, doing a geological topic ‘justified’ our travelling round New Zealand and having many camping ‘holidays’. There wasn’t much chemistry and physics done in New Zealand in the nineteenth century, except that of Ernest Rutherford (whose work in New Zealand had already been studied to some extent) and I didn’t know anything much about biological subjects. Of course, I didn’t know a great deal about geology either, which was why I kept to the study of the simpler pioneering work of the nineteenth century.
At the beginning, I didn’t know how to do it. Nevertheless I did it. I had to travel around New Zealand and look at the rocks and also work in libraries, at my own expense and with no supervision. And at the end my thesis was passed. I have no idea whether the examiners thought it was a good or indifferent piece of work. But I think it was the first extended study of the history of geology in New Zealand, and it still gets cited occasionally. Writing the thesis was a major part of the adventure of going to New Zealand.
At first I was teaching in Hastings Boys’ High School in the North Island, which was really quite a dreadful place, as I soon discovered. The science laboratories and other facilities were utterly inadequate and the staff members were poorly qualified or lazy. About ten boys were beaten (by teachers) with a cane every day and the only thing that anyone really cared about was rugby football. But after 1966, I moved to another job, teaching chemistry at Christ’s College in Christchurch, which was one of the finest schools in the country, run on the lines of English ‘public schools’. After Hastings, it was a joy to work there, except for the religiosity of the place, which my wife disliked even more than I did! But the science facilities were excellent and so was the music. I could use the Canterbury University library. And I played in the semi-professional Christchurch Civic Orchestra too.
When at last I got my Master’s degree, I thought I might apply to become a university teacher. And just at that time, they were beginning to open up courses in history and philosophy of science in Australia universities and I applied for a vacancy for a lectureship in the School of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of New South Wales. I was the only person who applied who had a higher degree in history and philosophy of science! So I got the job. I was very lucky. It would be impossible today: I had no publications and no teaching experience at university level.
1.3 In Australia
Zhang: You were first a Britisher, then a New Zealander, and finally an Australian. So which nation do you think you belong to?
Oldroyd: International. That is, I don’t really owe any special allegiance to any particular country. All countries have their good and bad points. And some can change enormously over time. For example, Germany is an infinitely better place than it was in the 1930s – better than Britain in many ways, I think.
Zhang: So what happened to you when you got to Australia?
Oldroyd: Well, I went to Australia in 1969. When I got there, the Head of School said: “You must do a PhD”. So I had to think what could I do. The man who examined my thesis in England was an elderly gentleman, Victor Eyles.2 So I wrote to him and said I still had no idea about what I might do for a thesis. Then I found an article in a history of science journal by Rhoda Rappaport, which suggested some research topics that could be done in history of geology.3 And some of them seemed feasible. So I wrote to Eyles for further advice. He said: “You should visit a man named Tom Vallance,4 who is a professor at Sydney University and is very interested in the history of geology”. So I went to visit Tom. He was an amazing man. He had thousands of valuable books in his house. I was very impressed. It seemed he knew everything and I knew nothing. But he was willing to help me and lent me many books.
My Head of School also said: “You have to get your PhD in five years. If you pass, you can probably get your job permanently; if you don’t, we’ll not be able to keep you any more”. So I sat down and worked. In fact, that PhD examination seemed very easy to me, compared with the Cambridge examinations, which were exceedingly difficult and where you had to do everything in a set amount of time: three hours for a theory exam or six for a practical exam. For a thesis you could take your time, and write things down; so you didn’t have to rely on memory so much. But languages were a problem, as I’d never studied German though I could read French reasonably well. The lack of German made difficulties for me, of course, as much of the early geological literature was written in that language. But fortunately for me many of the major texts were available in English or French translations. I did make some effort to learn German but perhaps I was already too old for that and I was exceedingly busy with my new job.
Anyway, I eventually decided to write a thesis about the history of the relationship between mineralogy and chemistry, where my knowledge of chemical analyses from my days of teaching chemistry would be useful. I finished my thesis in 1974, after a period of study leave in London. Its title was: “From Paracelsus to Haüy: the development of mineralogy in relation to chemistry”. It covered the period from the Renaissance to the beginning of the nineteenth century. Incidentally, Rhoda Rappaport, whose paper in History of Science had given me a clue as to where to find a thesis topic, was one of the examiners for my PhD thesis. That was nice!
Of course, I also had to start teaching in Australia as well as writing the thesis. I taught courses, such as the Darwinian Revolution, the history of the philosophy and methodology of science, history of chemistry, etc. And later I worked up a lot of other different things about which I knew very little, such as the relations between art and science, science and ethics, sociology of science. To tell you the truth, I never acquired a great deal of knowledge of these topics. I just ‘borrowed’ information and repeated (and expanded) it year after year, instead of integrating it well with the results of my own research. But I wrote two introductory books on the basis of my teaching. One was called: Darwinian Impacts: An Introduction to the Darwinian Revolution.5 It was reprinted in 1983 and 1988 and was used by the Open University in Britain. Another was called: The Arch of Knowledge: An Introductory Study of the History of the Philosophy and Methodology of Science.6 It was reprinted in 1989 and also translated into Italian and Spanish. And a Chinese edition of it appeared in 2008, all these years later.
Zhang: How did you find the time to do your research besides your busy teaching job?
Oldroyd: We’re very fortunate in Australia as they give you six months of study leave after every three years of teaching. One can go anywhere one likes during these periods of leave. It’s a real opportunity for research. I always left Australia and went to stay in different universities in England, getting away from all the entanglements that are inevitable in one’s own university. Also from 1984 to 1985, I was a distinguished visiting scholar at Concordia University, Montreal.
In 1990, I published a book, The Highlands Controversy: Constructing Geological Knowledge through Fieldwork in Nineteenth-Century Britain,7 based on work done during a period of study-leave, mostly in Scotland. It was very successful and I received the Sue Tyler Friedman Medal of the Geological Society of London in 1994, mostly for that book. Then I received the History of Geology Award of the Geological Society of America in 1999, and after that a Centenary Medal from the Australian Government for my work as an historian of science. I became a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities in 1994, being the first historian of science to be elected to that academy; and later again I became a full Member of the International Academy of the History of Science.
I retired in 1996 and have since had more time to do my research and writing so I have written and published several further books.8 In recent years, I’ve also done much editorial work, such as the editor of Earth Sciences History, the language editorial work for the Japanese Association for the History of Geology’s Newsletter, the Newsletter of the International Commission on the History of Geological Sciences and quite a lot of editorial work for Episodes, as well as a bit of paid editing. And many, many times I’m asked by non-Anglophones to help them put their papers into good English, or write letters or even school reports (!) for Chinese friends in Sydney.
So from a Science Master, I became a Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Associate Professor, Head of School, Professor, and so on and so forth. I just kept working and climbed the tree. At the end when I retired, I think I’d reached as far up the tree in my university as I wanted to go. I don’t like university administrative work as it involves battles with people on committees (or sometimes battles with colleagues if you become a head of department and some of their interests conflict with those of the department). It’s been OK!
2. Research on the history of geology
Oldroyd: The task of the geohistorian is to keep an historical eye on an endlessly changing and moving historical frontier and a hinterland that seems to change as historical knowledge and understanding develop. The historian has to try to understand the past and make it intelligible and interesting to others – sometimes specialists and sometimes a more general audience – by writing about that history.
2.1 Fieldwork is important for the geohistorian
Zhang: You have travelled to many places during your research. You know, our Chinese scholars haven’t done this during our researches on the history of geology. Why do you do fieldwork?
Oldroyd: Besides written sources such as all historians use, I think the observations that historians may make through their own fieldwork can and does contribute towards historical understanding. Local first-hand knowledge can be of supreme importance for understanding texts. It may be very difficult to understand geological problems if one hasn’t been to the places where the geological work relating to those problems was originally done. Or one can make mistakes. With first-hand experience you can also make your writing much more lively and illustrate it with your own photos.
As I mentioned, after teaching for three years in Australian universities, we get six months to go somewhere else. And I always went outside Australia to see the places where the geologists I’m interested had done their work. After I retired, I’ve had more time to get around the world. I don’t just wander around with a historically blank mind. I go armed with a problem, furnished in part by study of the relevant published and unpublished written sources. I collect the geological literature of an area for the period that interests me. I try to secure copies of every map, guidebook, textbook, or whatever, that I can lay my hands on. I visit the displays in local museums, and perhaps talk to the curators. I get whatever tips I can from geologists who know the area well.
For example, I took four years to collect material for my book Earth, Fire, Water and Ice: Two Hundred Years of Geological Research in the English Lake District. It was a big job. I used that region as a kind of ‘lens’ through which to focus attention on the histories of different aspects of geology through two centuries. During my first year, I spent a lot of time collecting all of the hundreds of papers that had been written about that area and I made a preliminary visit to the Lake District. In the second year I looked at archives more and collected many old books from second-hand bookshops, and got to know the geology of the Lake District better. The third year I again spent most of the time walking around by myself with guide books and getting to know the local topography and the rocks even better. And in the fourth year I started to interview the geologists who’d worked there and I made tapes of our conversations. So I was able to talk to most of the relevant people still alive today. Without fieldwork, my task would have been quite impossible. The local names in the literature would have defeated me entirely. And the geologists would not have wanted to talk to me unless I already knew something about the geology of the Lakes. But they were most helpful, telling me their memories of events and their side of controversies. Sometimes they were very candid!
Zhang: Why have you done so much research on the history of British geology instead of Australia?
Oldroyd: That’s a good question. Well I could do it myself, the way I wanted, in a small area in Britain. I don’t need a big exploration team in that quite small country. In Australia, I can do fieldwork in the small area around Sydney. The area of the Sydney Basin is about 1/7th the size of the United Kingdom. So you could take one small area, such as that of the Basin, look around, and write a history of geology for that area. But it’s difficult to publish a whole historical book about a small area where the geology is rather uniform (though complex in detail). Who would want to read it? A place where I could do some research similar to that which I’ve done in Britain is the Hunter Valley, north of Sydney (actually within the Sydney Basin), and a lot of geology has been done there because of its coal deposits. But I don’t know that area very well and my friend David Branagan, who did geological research there years ago, has already written much about the history of geology in that area.
And another reason why I’ve found Britain well suited to what I try to do is that it has excellent maps. (You can buy them in any local shop, unlike in China, as I understand.) The Survey’s geological maps are also available to anyone who wants them. And Britain has many small roads and footpaths that make detailed travel easy in six months. Of course, maybe another reason is that I was born in Britain. The Lake District is a most beautiful area. I was a child during the Second World War and my parents sent me to Lake District to escape from the bombs. So I lived there for several years and loved the place. But I wanted to get to know it really well, which writing my book towards the end of my career made possible.
2.2 Originality is important
Zhang: Besides the fieldwork, what else do you think is important during the research of history of geology?
Oldroyd: I think originality is certainly important for the geohistorian, as for other kinds of academic work. Researchers should be independent thinkers and should have imagination and creativity.
I once marked an examination for a Japanese PhD student from Melbourne University. He’d written a thesis on the history of geology in the seventeenth century but he said nothing critical about any other writers who’d written on the topic previously. In fact he didn’t really advance knowledge at all. It was just a summary of all the things that had been written previously. I sent it back and said: “there is nothing new in this thesis. You can’t just expect to get a doctorate by telling us what we already know. You should say what is good and what is bad about previous work and add to it. And don’t be frightened about criticizing your teachers”. A year later I received the rewritten thesis. It criticized everybody, and notably what I had written! The student followed instructions and obeyed orders. He did it because he was told to do so. Probably his instinct was not to be creative or critical. Anyway, he was now looking for faults in what others had done, rather than just saying what they’d done; and he added some new information too. So I cheerfully passed it.
It used to be somewhat like this in Europe hundreds of years ago. The eighteenth-century Swedish botanist Carl von Linné gave lectures to his students. In fact, he dictated his latest work to the students. They would write it down, and would study it and learn it. And when they came to the examination they had to show that they knew and understood Linné’s ideas quite well or by heart; and they had to ‘defend’ them against the questions or objections raised by the examiners. (They weren’t the students’ opinions or ideas, but Linné’s.) Otherwise they couldn’t get their degrees. This was how it was in the eighteenth century. (Actually a lot of what we know about Linné’s later thought comes from what we find in his students’ theses.)
And I think in some parts of the world today there are students who aren’t encouraged to have original ideas. They learn their master’s system and obey their superior’s instructions. And they become his ‘disciples’ and advocates. In the Western world, though it’s usual today for a supervisor to suggest a problem to a new research student and also in many cases provide the necessary research funding, there can be – and sometimes are – honest scientific disagreements between supervisors and their students. My impression is that in the East such disagreements or differences of ideas would be unusual. I’m told that the professor in China acts as a ‘patron’ for his students, and ensures that they get jobs. So getting an influential supervisor is important. But then the students feel the need to support their teachers’ ideas, right or wrong. I suppose that happens in the West to some degree, but not to the same extent. However, I can think of a case in Australian geology where a professor’s ideas (which weren’t mainstream) stayed with his students for many years and are still held by a few. I’m thinking of the late Professor S. W. Carey’s ideas on Earth expansion as an alternative to plate tectonics, which he taught for many years at the University of Tasmania. I believe his theory is still upheld by a few of his former students.
On the question of originality, there’s also a story about Cambridge (though I’m not really sure whether it’s true) that may give an idea about the originality looked for in Western universities. A mathematics examiner preparing the final examination put in a question (or was it questions?) for which he didn’t know the answer(s). But maybe the best students could suggest solutions! Or that was what the examiner hoped. I can’t imagine that happening in China.
In Russia and China, in the early days of history of science research, historians of geology seem to have been trying to ‘glorify’ the work done in their countries. Nowadays things have changed somewhat, but the old style still seems to be there to some extent. It could be called ‘hagiography’ (or ‘writing the lives of saints’). There’s also what we call ‘kings and queens’ history – which focuses on the big names and pays no attention to what minor figures did or the interests of (for example) fossil collectors). Hagiography or ‘kings and queens’ history are no longer thought to be the be all and end all of history of science in the Western world.
Zhang: I agree with you. In fact, Chinese scholars have paid attention to the role of groups of scientists during their historical research in recent years. But it’s obviously the case that famous scientists have made many more contributions to science than rank and file scientists. Maybe we should pay more attention to common people in the social history or political history, but in scientific history, famous scientists are really more important than ‘common scientists’. Do you agree?
Oldroyd: Yes, up to a point. But the social system of science doesn’t operate just as a result of the work of ‘big shots’. So if you only look at them you only get a partial or incomplete view of science and how it functions. And many interesting questions that can be asked about science and society may not get asked if one only looks at the ‘big-shots’. Yet in Russia and China, as it seems to me, people still seem to be exceedingly (or excessively) interested in names, dates and places; and honours, distinctions and works accomplished. And I suspect there are rather few critical analyses. So (from what I can gather from the small amount of history of science from those countries that has been translated into English), a lot of hagiographical work has appeared there. I don’t like hagiography or ‘adulation’. We need creative and critical work. Of course, the ‘kings and queens’ of geology are obviously important, but just getting their ‘names and dates’ right isn’t enough.
2.3 ‘Whig’ historiography and anachronism
Zhang: Your book, Thinking about the Earth, has been translated into Chinese. Your criticism of ‘Whig historiography’ in the Introduction to the Chinese edition interests me a lot. Could you say something about it here please?
Oldroyd: Well, that term is often used by historians and especially historians of science but is mostly unfamiliar to scientists. Back in 1931, the English historian Herbert Butterfield published a book called The Whig Interpretation of History. He complained that some nineteenth-century historians such as Thomas McCaulay wrote with the general idea in mind that humans and human society progressed or got better as time passed. This was the optimistic view of the so-called ‘Whig’ party in British politics, which McCaulay supported. The Whigs corresponded with the liberal or progressive side of politics and opposed the conservative land-owning party, called the ‘Tory’ party, who were not too keen on social change.9 The thing was that if society progresses, then the most recent (or more recent) historians would have the better ideas, and should be able to form the better judgements. The most modern view would be likely to be the best informed and ‘the best’. Therefore the Whig historians were inclined to judge people and events of the past in terms of the ideas that they personally held. So, for example, by the standards of a nineteenth-century liberal (or Whig) historian, the Reform Bill of 1832 was a ‘good thing’ but slavery was ‘bad’, having been rejected during the course of the nineteenth century. I personally think that slavery is a bad thing, but possibly if I had lived in the southern states of America in the earlier part of the nineteenth century I would have regarded it as natural and good. Anyway, the Whig historian tends to judge the past in terms of the present. He is guilty of historiographical anachronism!10
Butterfield was making an important point, for obviously someone of 1830 could not have the knowledge and experience, or the political and social views, of someone of 1900. So if the historiographer of 1900 judges someone of 1830 by the standards of 1900 there is obviously something wrong with his historiography – as there would be if a film maker made a film about the Roman Empire and had the actor representing Julius Caesar wearing a watch!
Zhang: You mean that Whig historiography is a ‘bad thing’ for political or social history?
Oldroyd: By and large, ‘yes’, though it’s surely desirable to know modern views in some cases. For example, the earliest voyaging explorers of the New Zealand coastline did not know whether Banks Peninsula (as it’s now called) was an island or a peninsula. If you are writing about those voyagers’ explorations it obviously helps to know whether the land mass is in fact an island or a peninsula.
But do we make progress in society or morality? Perhaps we do, or perhaps we don’t! So the answer may not be clear-cut for social history. But leaving that aside, it seems clear to me that we do make progress in science. We do have more scientific knowledge now than in the past. And scientists recognise this and they commonly think that the latest ideas are the best, and can be used as a kind of ‘yardstick’ to judge previous work. So a common way of writing history of science has (at least in the past) been to judge things according to the knowledge of the present and write about past science accordingly. Thus, in geology, James Hutton was represented as a ‘good’ geologist; Abraham Werner was ‘bad’. Why? Because Hutton’s ideas were closer to those held today than were Werner’s. Similarly, for a Whig historian, in chemistry Lavoisier was ‘good’, Priestley ‘bad’; or in biology Darwin was ‘better’ than Lamarck. Some of the earlier work in history of geology was anachronistic or Whiggish in this kind of way. A good example was Charles Gillispie’s book Genesis and Geology (1951/1959).11 That was the first book I ever read in history of geology, and I thought it was great fun.
Supporters of what is now superseded science, such as Richard Kirwan or Jean-André de Luc, were treated by Gillispie as benighted obscurantists, while James Hutton or John Playfair were given very favourable treatment. I now realise that it would have been better for Gillispie to have tried to understand, and explain to his readers, how and why Kirwan and de Luc thought as they did.
Nationalism can also be unhelpful in science historiography. Archibald Geikie’s very influential Founders of Geology (1897) gave a negative view of the German Werner and a favourable view of the Scotsman Hutton. I doubt not that this opinion was written under the influence of the struggle for political and intellectual supremacy in Europe that culminated in the disaster of World War I.
So Whig historiography and anachronism are linked. They are best avoided, but they can sometimes slip through unconsciously. Think about the innocent little word ‘still’. For example, someone might write: ‘Harold Jeffreys still opposed continental drift until the 1970s’. This suggests that he ought to have known better! But that is a judgment that might be made by a later writer, after most people have accepted continental drift or plate tectonics. One needs to look out for solecisms like that and try to avoid them. The more interesting or important question would be why Jeffreys thought as he did in the 1970s.
2.4 Internal and external historiography; social history of science; an ‘inverse cube law’?
Zhang: Can you please say something about different ‘styles’ for writing the history of science? Can historians do ‘objective’ research?
Oldroyd: Well, on the first point, much of the earlier history of science was undertaken by trying to reconstruct what scientists had done or thought in their laboratories, in their studies or in the field. For example, one might try to discover how William Harvey arrived at the idea of the circulation of the blood, or how Isaac Newton arrived at his inverse square law, perhaps trying to reconstruct their thought processes as they did what they did. This approach tends to give rather little attention to the social context within which a scientist operates. We call this ‘internalist’ historiography.
Obviously it can be very important. If one knew, or could somehow reconstruct, what was going through Newton’s mind when he arrived at his law, or when Wegener arrived at the idea of continental drift, that would indeed be a valuable contribution. But these ‘great men’ (two ‘kings’ in their own way) obviously worked at a particular time and place, and if we want to know what happened when they made their scientific breakthroughs one will presumably need to know something about the social context in which they functioned. This could include the national/political and economic environment; the ideas about religion that obtained at the time; the social circumstances (e.g. wartime or peace); or the ideas picked up from the people around the scientist that we may be interested in. For example, as an extreme case I once read a book that argued that Albert Einstein developed his theory of relativity in mechanics because the people in his social circle as a young man believed that there were no absolute truths in morals or ethics. A person should be judged good or bad according to the values prevailing at the time. This we call moral or social relativism. And the idea was that this supposedly carried over to Einstein’s physical theory.
Could the social environment somehow have produced a relativistic scientific theory? If it did, or if we look for such connections, then we would be working as ‘externalist’ historians, or what are sometimes called ‘social constructivists’. On that view, scientific theories bear the mark of the social formations in which they are developed. For example, one sometimes hears of ‘bourgeois science’,
‘Nazi science’, ‘Jewish science’, or ‘Marxist/Leninist science’, for which the Lysenkoist biology of the 1930s would be a prime example. I talked a while back about different outlooks or approaches of history of science in Communist and Western/capitalist countries. Such differences are to be expected if you are a ‘social constructivist’. But who is to say which approach is ‘better’? Maybe it depends on which society prevails in the struggle for existence? Suppose the Germans had won World War II and Nazi science, society, and historiography had prevailed. Would that mean that Einstein’s relativity theory (a ‘Jewish science’ in the eyes of some Germans during the Nazi period) was wrong? Surely not!
Personally I think that both internal and external factors are involved in most scientific work; and some people argue that the internal/external dichotomy is unwarranted. If you accept what is sometimes called the ‘strong programme’ in the sociology of knowledge12 (and apply it to the historiography of science) one is left with an uncomfortable ‘relativism’, where nothing can be known to be true for sure. This question of relativism has got a lot of people stirred up in the last quarter of a century or so! So-called ‘positivists’ have reacted with anger against the work done in the sociology of knowledge, suggesting that if the social context can really determine the content of scientific knowledge then one might, for example, have a particular society where people believed in an ‘inverse cube’ law of gravitational attraction. But this of course is a reductio ad absurdum!13 Nevertheless, there have been cases where political pressure has produced a particular form of science, such as Lysenkoism in Stalin’s Russia. The trouble was of course that the Soviet agriculture was ruined for a time and people starved.14 Perhaps you had something similar in Mao’s time in China, when ‘proletarian’ science and technology flourished; and again people starved. Fortunately that phase didn’t last.
In history of geology a few attempts have been made to relate the form of geological science to the social formations in which geology developed. For example, the notable geohistorian Martin Rudwick, under the influence of the Edinburgh sociologists of knowledge in the 1970s, sought to relate four ‘cognitive styles’, as he called them, to four different kinds of social formation. For example, Survey scientists, who worked in a formalised hierarchical social structure with ‘routinised’ work practices, were said to be much concerned with the minute classification of strata and subdivision of time. Or, by contrast, independent scholars like Charles Lyell might form broad, grand, and original geological ideas.15 However, Rudwick has told me that he later gave up that line of enquiry, coming to the conclusion that it was not leading anywhere useful. Nevertheless, I found the idea interesting; and Rudwick himself continues to emphasise the social background to geological work. In his recent book, Bursting the Limits of Time (2005), he emphasizes the idea that the emergence of historical geology at the end of the eighteenth century was part and parcel of the movement at that time called ‘historicism’, when people tried to understand things by examining their history. (Why is a country the way it is? Because of its specific history, which makes it different from other countries. In Australia, for example, South Australia is said to have a different character from the other States, as it was never a convict colony.)
Now to go back to your question about historical objectivity, I do think there are certain knowable facts – for example that Charles Lyell published a book entitled Principles of Geology, and the first of its three volumes was published in 1830. But other things are much less certain, such as whether Geikie was in fact motivated by nationalistic considerations in his discussions of Hutton and Werner; or whether the advent of sea-floor spreading theory can correctly be ascribed to the outcome of investigations motivated by military interests. So, as there may never be conclusive evidence about such matters, or the role of ‘external’ factors in the history of science, I don’t think there can ever be a ‘definitive’ history of geology. There will always be changing and shifting interpretations and perspectives, and in consequence the work of a historiographer (or historian) of science is something like the work of an artist. It’s a kind of ‘art form’. But this ‘artistic’ work should rest on a foundation of correctly ascertained facts.
3. The role of INHIGEO
Zhang: Could you now say a few words please about INHIGEO (The International Commission on the History of Geological Science)?
Oldroyd: Well, INHIGEO is a long-standing Commission of the International Union of Geological Sciences (lUGS) and an affiliate of the International Union for the History and Philosophy of Science, Division of History of Science (IUHPS (DHS)) and its activities are funded by these two bodies.
3.1 A brief introduction
Oldroyd: The idea of establishing INHIGEO was proposed by the Soviet geologist I. I. Gorsky, at the 22nd International Geological Congress meeting in Delhi in 1964 and the Commission was formally founded at a meeting of the IUGS in Yerevan, Armenia, in 1967. INHIGEO initially had thirty-one members from sixteen countries: Australia, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, East Germany, France, India, Japan, New Zealand, Poland, Spain, Sweden, The Netherlands, Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union. The founding President was Professor V. V. Tikhomirov from the Soviet Union; the Vice-President was Professor R. Hooykaas from The Netherlands; and the Secretary-General was Professor K. Maslankiewicz from Poland. Tom Vallance was the chief Australian representative. All Members except Tikhomirov and Hooykaas were professional geologists with a strong interest in the history of geology, rather than professional historians of science. Some of them were among the most distinguished scholars in the post-war emergence of interest in study of the history of geology. Others are now largely forgotten, so far as work in the history of geology is concerned. At present, the INHIGEO’s officers include the President, the Secretary-General, and five Vice-Presidents from different parts of the world. Each country in the world can have up to eleven Members. The original Commission had a single Member for each country and a number of Corresponding Members (up to ten as I understand), who supplied information about their activities to their Member, who passed it on to the Secretary-General. So formerly there was a ‘two-tier’ system.
The chief goal of the Commission has been, and is, the promotion of international co-operation in the study of the history of the geosciences. So it established an annual Newsletter, giving information about work done in the history of geosciences in different countries. Today it also organizes useful symposia in various parts of the world, and conducts valuable field excursions, which make it possible for participants to study localities or sites of major importance in the history of geology. The proceedings of these meetings are published in various forms, and some substantial books have been produced as an outcome of the conferences.
Like academies more generally, INHIGEO is a self-perpetuating body. It conducts its elections to fill positions, both for the Executive Board every four years and for the general membership every two years. At present, INHIGEO has about 200 members coming from about forty countries worldwide. It’s the only truly international body for the study of the history of geology.
Most of INHIGEO’s administrative work is done by the Secretary-General. I think there are four qualifications that he or she should have for this rather onerous position: one is time; two is English ability; three is enthusiasm; and four is the knowledge of the subject. (I’m not giving those criteria in order of importance.) If he or she has access to a free mailing system, as some of us do, that is a huge additional advantage to the Commission.
3.2 Changes to INHIGEO
Zhang: When did you become an INHIGEO member?
Oldroyd: I became an INHIGEO Member in 1994, when my Australian friend David Branagan was President and the annual meeting was held in Sydney. David was kind enough to nominate me at that time. But I soon found that I was also nominated for the position of Secretary-General, and (with a good deal of help from my predecessor Ursula Marvin) I produced my first Newsletter in 1996, which was the year I retired; so it gave me a new thing to occupy me during the early years of my retirement. I served two terms, or eight years. Afterwards I was asked to stand for President but I thought it better to let someone else do the job. I suspected I might still be trying to run everything if I became President!
Zhang: Are there some notable changes for INHIGEO during these years?
Oldroyd: INHIGEO has changed gradually over the years. I have heard that in the early days there was much quarrelling between the Americans and Russians. It was part of the Cold War, which thus extended right down into our little corner of academic world. I don’t know any details, but I understand that the Russians and the Americans argued a lot about who was to be President, etc. Thankfully that has all died down now. And today there are many more people who are primarily historians of science in the Commission than used to be the case. In the early days the membership was largely geologists who had an interest in the history of the earth sciences – like my friend in Sydney, Tom Vallance, now sadly deceased. Today there are a number of professional historians of science also.
Before 1991, each country had, as I said, one Full Member and up to ten Corresponding Members. But at a meeting in Dresden that year, it was decided to abolish the distinction between Full and Corresponding Members. So at present, each country has up to eleven Members, all of equal status. Eleven is OK for some countries, but it has caused pressure for some others, such as Germany when East and West became one country. But the break-up of the Soviet Union allowed new Members to be elected for places such as Uzbekistan. Eleven Members is probably hardly enough to accommodate all the good historians of geology in the US and perhaps also in Japan. In other parts of the world such as India, the Middle East, and Africa, INHIGEO cannot find sufficient Members.
Nowadays, INHIGEO has much more connection with Russian members. Some Russian scholars lost their position because of the limitation of eleven Members. For example, Irena Malakhova lost her position after the Dresden meeting but she has come back again because there is now room for her, with the establishment of new countries out of the old USSR, and we are pleased to see her return.
Another change is that English has now become the document language of the INHIGEO Newsletter, and our Japanese colleagues also publish their English edition newsletter too. At the beginning, INHIGEO’s newsletters were published in Russian and English. Unfortunately, some of the older Members in INHIGEO can’t speak English, so we never hear from them. But now nearly all Members are English speakers and that language is almost a prerequisite to be a useful Member, or get anything out of what INHIGEO has to offer. As for many other international bodies, all correspondence is conducted in English and all papers at its conferences are presented in English, as are the Proceedings. So far as I know people don’t seem to mind. (But perhaps they do?!)
3.3 INHIGEO’s significance
Oldroyd: INHIGEO has taken quite an active role in research in the history of geology. It also uses its influence to encourage the preservation of archives and sites of special geohistorical interest and importance, such as the historically important obsidian deposits in the Lipari Islands in the Mediterranean. Or my opinion was sought about the nomination of the extremely important locality of the Glarus Thrust in Switzerland as a World Heritage Site. (I believe the nomination was successful.)
Zhang: The members of INHIGEO come from different countries (cultures), and, broadly speaking, they come from two difference research fields: one from geology, another from social sciences, such as history. As the cultural background and research methods are different, how does INHIGEO take a positive role to ‘blend’ them together?
Oldroyd: Well, I think INHIGEO’s meetings and publications provide the opportunity for people from the ‘two cultures’ to interact. The historians of geology who come from the social sciences can learn a lot from the practical ‘know-how’ and experience of the geologist–historians; and the scientist– historians can learn from the more socially-oriented historians about the kinds of questions that can be asked by historians over and above who did what, when, and where. ‘Why questions’, if you like. And perhaps they may come to realise some of the problems of ‘Whig historiography’ for example. For myself, I have consorted more with geologists than with historians of science since my retirement; and I think I am the better for that! As just a small example of the utility of INHIGEO, I have recently got to know about some very early geological survey work done in eastern Siberia at the end of the eighteenth century. I should never have heard of that without the help of INHIGEO correspondents. Yet it is important to know that that work was going in such a place at that time (for commercial reasons). I wish I had known about it when I wrote Thinking about the Earth.
Zhang: As a non-governmental organization, could you tell us the advantages and disadvantages in promoting the study of history of geology (i.e. comparing with the government-supported institutes (or academies). INHIGEO, of course, lacks strong financial support and full-time staffers.
Oldroyd: What you say is right. But, as I see it, the role of INHIGEO is to co-ordinate work that is being done world-wide. It is not an employer. It is not an Academy proper. It cannot conduct research, but it can certainly encourage it and to some extent facilitate it. And it brings like-minded people together. That seems to me to be very worthwhile. The annual conferences are, of course, organised by people in the host countries, but that means that, over time, the work gets shared around, and we have the opportunity to visit other countries and get to know their ‘geo-environments’ and archives, their societies, and their particular problems and interests. It can be a global learning experience therefore.
Zhang: I still remember you said in your book, Thinking about the Earth, that the book chiefly describes the history of geology in the English-speaking world. Because of the language barriers, it’s really difficult, or impossible, to write a book covering every corner of the world. Do you think it’s possible that one day a book including each culture’s history of geology could be written? If it is, what could INHIGEO do at present for this ‘great book’?
Oldroyd: Well personally I think INHIGEO is too diffuse a body to attempt to write a general history of the geosciences, and, in any case, ideas about it keep changing. Such a job would be impossible to accomplish and there would be tremendous linguistic problems. Also, as I hinted previously, I don’t think there can ever be a definitive history of anything. Nevertheless, through its excellent annual conferences, which have in several cases formed the basis of good books, I think INHIGEO does do really useful work. And now that I’m editor of Earth Sciences History, I find it absolutely invaluable to have a network of friends and colleagues round the world with similar interests to help me. In fact, you could say that my circle of colleagues has grown enormously since I retired from the University of New South Wales to the whole world. I’m a fortunate man!
- ‘Non-written sources in the study of the history of geology: pros and cons in the light of the views of Collingwood and Foucault’, Annals of Science, 1999, 56, 395–415.
- Victor Eyles (1895–1978), a former officer of the British Geological Survey, and in his day the leading and senior historian of geology in Britain, and an authority on economic geology (see Isis, Vol. 69 (1978), pp. 592–594). He and his wife Joan Eyles, who was one of the early authorities on the work of William Smith, created a huge private collection of early geological books.
- R. Rappaport, ‘Problems and sources in the history of geology, 1749–1810’, History of Science, 1964, 3, 60–78.
- Thomas Vallance was an igneous petrologist and associate professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at Sydney University. A friend of the Eyles’s, he too amassed an enormous collection of rare books, on geological topics and the history of exploration. And he wrote extensively on the history of Australian geology. He intended to work on this material full time after his retirement, but tragically died of cancer only two years after he left Sydney University. So his ambitions were never fully realised.
- Darwinian Impacts: An Introduction to the Darwinian Revolution, NSW University Press, Kensington; Open University Press, Milton Keynes; Humanities Press, Atlantic Highlands, 1980.
- The Arch of Knowledge: An Introductory Study of the History of the Philosophy and Methodology of Science, N.S.W. University Press, Kensington; Methuen & Co., London and New York, 1986.
- The Highlands Controversy: Constructing Geological Knowledge through Fieldwork in Nineteenth-Century Britain, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1990.
- Thinking About the Earth: A History of Ideas in Geology, Athlone Press, London; Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Mass), 1996; Sciences of the Earth: Studies in the History of Mineralogy and Geology, Ashgate Variorum Series, Aldershot and Brookfield, 1998; Earth, Water, Air and Ice: Two Hundred Years of Geological Research in the English Lake District, The Geological Society, London, 2002; Iconography of the Lisbon Earthquake (with J. T. Kozák and V. S. Moreira), The Geophysical Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague, 2005; Geological Cycles: A Historical Perspective, Greenwood Press, Westport, 2006. Also two edited books: The Earth Inside and Out: Some Major Contributions to Geology in the Twentieth Century, The Geological Society, London, 2002; and (with Rodney Grapes and Algimantas Grigelis), History of Geomorphology and Quaternary Geology, The Geological Society, London, 2008.
- The Tory Party still survives, and so does the Liberal Party, but their old nickname of Whig is now no longer used.
- History is ‘what happened’ in the past. Historiography is ‘the writing about’ the past. The two are often ‘conflated’ but it’s quite helpful to make the distinction. It might be better if we called people historiographers rather than historians, but the word ‘historian’ is so well entrenched that this is unlikely to come about.
- C. C. Gillispie, Genesis and Geology: A History in the Relations of Scientific Thought, Natural Theology, and Social Opinion in Great Britain, 1790–1850, Harper & Brothers, New York, 1959.
- It has the following four tenets, as enunciated by the Edinburgh sociologist of science David Bloor in 1976: 1. Causality: it examines the conditions (psychological, social, and cultural) that bring about claims to a certain kind of knowledge; 2. Impartiality: it examines successful as well as unsuccessful knowledge claims; 3. Symmetry: the same types of explanations are used for successful and unsuccessful knowledge claims alike; 4. Reflexivity: it must be applicable to sociology itself. (The last principle implies that the ideas of the sociologist of knowledge are themselves the product of the social environment, and therefore have no certainty or absolute foundation.)
- But I have read that the people in New Guinea classify humans and cassowaries together in their particular way of classifying living things! That surely seems mighty strange to us and, I suppose, it somehow reflects the social beliefs of the New Guinea Highlanders.
- So in a way there was a kind of horrible empirical test of both Lysenkoism and Marxism/Leninism.
- See: M. J. S. Rudwick, ‘Cognitive Styles in Geology’ in M. Douglas (ed.), Essays in the Sociology of Perception, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1982, pp. 219–241.