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Geology Through Literature


Where classic literature is used to help explain geological concepts.


Geology Through Literature


       I am trying to read the 100 Hundred Books ever written (you can check that out HERE) and I have come across several instances where there is geology placed into the books. Sometimes it is a description of a place, sometimes it is to give a background of a town, but it always something that gets me thinking, "Hey, I wonder if that is true". So I check it out, do some research, and before long I have an assignment ready to be given out to a class. Here is the compilation of that work, piece by piece. As I come across a topic I will add to this page.


Available Geology Reviews:

Reaper Man

The Last of the Mohicans

Idylls of the King


Paradise Lost

The World as Will and Presentation

Vanity Fair


Don Quixote

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

The Way of All Flesh

The Travels of Marco Polo

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Our Town


Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett


Recently I have been working my way through Terry Pratchett's Discworld series and I stumbled upon this reference to Evolution that I thought was perfect and I wanted to highlight here. The Discworld series is about a planet, which is in the shape of a disk, riding on four elephants, all standing on the back of a giant turtle, riding around through the cosmos. So it is a magical land in which anything can happen, and it often does. While reading the books I have found that Terry often has a satirical look at the world and his humor is not always for everyone but I find it fantastic.


Here is a humorous look at evolution from his perspective:

Whereas the oldest things on the Discworld were the famous Counting Pines, which grow right on the permanent snowline of the high Ramtop Mountains.


The Counting Pine is one of the few known examples of borrowed evolution. Most species do their own evolving, making it up as they go along, which is the way Nature intended. And this is all very natural and organic and in tune with mysterious cycles of the cosmos, which believes that there's nothing like millions of years of really frustrating trial and error to give a species moral fibre and, in some cases, backbone. This is probably fine from the species' point of view, but from the perspective of the actual individuals involved it can be a real pig, or at least a small pink root-eating reptile that might one day evolve into a real pig. 


So the Counting Pines avoided all this by letting other vegetables do their evolving for them. A pine seed, coming to rest anywhere on the Disc, immediately picks up the most effective local genetic code via morphic resonance and grows into whatever best suits the soil and climate, usually doing much better at it than the native trees themselves, which it usually usurps. 


What makes the Counting Pines particularly noteworthy, however, is the way they count. Being dimly aware that human beings had learned to tell the age of a tree by counting the rings, the original Counting Pines decided that this was why humans cut trees down. Overnight every Counting Pine readjusted its genetic code to produce, at about eye-level on its trunk, in pale letters, its precise age. Within a year they were felled almost into extinction by the ornamental house number plate industry, and only a very few survive in hard-to-reach areas.


The six Counting Pines in this clump were listening to the oldest, whose gnarled trunk declared it to be thirty-one thousand, seven hundred and thirty-four years old. The conversation took seventeen years, but has been speeded up. 


'I remember when all this wasn't fields.' The pines stared out over a thousand miles of landscape. The sky flickered like a bad special effect from a time travel movie. Snow appeared, stayed for an instant, and melted. 

'What was it, then?' said the nearest pine.


'Ice. If you can call it ice. We had proper glaciers in those days. Not like the ice you get now, here one season and gone the next. It hung around for ages.' 


'What happened to it, then?' 


'It went.' 


'Went where?' 


'Where things go. Everything's always rushing off.' 


'Wow. That was a sharp one.' 


'What was?' 


'That winter just then.' 


'Call that a winter? When I was a sapling we had winters -' 


Then the tree vanished. 


After a shocked pause for a couple of years, one of the clump said: 'He just went! Just like that! One day he was here, next he was gone!' 


If the other trees had been humans, they would have shuffled their feet. 


'It happens, lad,' said one of them, carefully.


'He's been taken to a Better Place, you can be sure of that. He was a good tree.' 


The young tree, which was a mere five thousand, one hundred and eleven years old, said: 'What sort of Better Place?' 


'We're not sure, ' said one of the clump. It trembled uneasily in a weeklong gale. 'But we think it involves . . . sawdust.' 


Since the trees were unable even to sense any event that took place in less than a day, they never heard the sound of axes.


The Last of the Mohicans (1826) by James Fenimore Cooper


There is only one instance of geology that I could find worth mentioning but it is a long one. 


Midway through Chapter 6

     A spectral-looking figure stalked from out of the darkness behind the scout, and seizing a blazing brand, held it toward the further extremity of their place of retreat. Alice uttered a faint shriek, and even Cora rose to her feet, as this appalling object moved into the light; but a single word from Heyward calmed them, with the assurance it was only their attendant, Chingachgook, who, lifting another blanket, discovered that the cavern had two outlets. Then, holding the brand, he crossed a deep, narrow chasm in the rocks which ran at right angles with the passage they were in, but which, unlike that, was open to the heavens, and entered another cave, answering to the description of the first, in every essential particular. 


     "Such old foxes as Chingachgook and myself are not often caught in a barrow with one hole," said Hawkeye, laughing; "you can easily see the cunning of the place - the rock is black limestone, which everybody knows is soft; it makes no uncomfortable pillow, where brush and pine wood is scarce; well, the fall was once a few yards below us, and I dare to say was, in its time, as regular and as handsome a sheet of water as any along the Hudson. But old age is a great injury to good looks, as these sweet young ladies have yet to l'arn! The place is sadly changed! These rocks are full of cracks, and in some places they are softer than at othersome, and the water has worked out deep hollows for itself, until it has fallen back, ay, some hundred feet, breaking here and wearing there, until the falls have neither shape nor consistency." 


     "In what part of them are we?" asked Heyward. 


     "Why, we are nigh the spot that Providence first placed them at, but where, it seems, they were too rebellious to stay. The rock proved softer on each side of us, and so they left the center of the river bare and dry, first working out these two little holes for us to hide in." 


     "We are then on an island!" 


     "Ay! there are the falls on two sides of us, and the river above and below. If you had daylight, it would be worth the trouble to step up on the height of this rock, and look at the perversity of the water. It falls by no rule at all, sometimes it leaps, sometimes it tumbles; there it skips; here it shoots; in one place 'tis white as snow, and in another 'tis green as grass; hereabouts, it pitches into deep hollows, that rumble and crush the 'arth; and thereaways, it ripples and sings like a brook, fashioning whirlpools and gullies in the old stone, as it 'twas no harder than trodden clay. The whole design of the river seems disconcerted. First it runs smoothly, as if meaning to go down the descent as things were ordered; then it angles about and faces the shores; nor are there places wanting where it looks backward, as if unwilling to leave the wilderness, to mingle with the salt. Ay, lady, the fine cobweb-looking cloth you wear at your throat is coarse, and like a fishnet, to little spots I can show you, where the river fabricates all sorts of images, as if having broke loose from order, it would try its hand at everything. And yet what does it amount to! After the water has been suffered so to have its will, for a time, like a headstrong man, it is gathered together by the hand that made it, and a few rods below you may see it all, flowing on steadily toward the sea, as was foreordained from the first foundation of the 'arth!" 


     While his auditors received a cheering assurance of the security of their place of concealment from this untutored description of Glenn's, they were much inclined to judge differently from Hawkeye, of its wild beauties. 



The location being described above is Glens Falls (spelled "Glenn's" in the story) on the Hudson River in current day New York. Although the story is fiction, the caves are based on an actual set of caves located on an island within the Hudson River at Glens Falls. The caves have been named in honor of James Fenimore Cooper for popularizing the caves and are now known as Cooper's Cave

Coover's Cave map


Cooper's Cave Aerial View

Aerial view of the river showing the island, which currently has a bridge laying on top of it (I'm pretty sure the bridge did not exist in the time of the story).


Cooper's Cave

An excellent image of Cooper's Cave (center crack) from the Wireman blog


Given the extraordinary detail that Cooper gives into describing cave formation in the story, I feel I really don't have much to add in that regards. It sounds good and it's pretty spot on with how it actually likely occurred.


The black limestone in question is a fossiliferous unit called the Glens Falls Limestone, and it is part of the Trenton Group from the Late Ordovician (Mohawkian).


Here is some text on the area from the Historic American Engineering Record on Glens Falls Dam:

The Glens Falls Dam is situated at the head of Glens Falls on the Hudson River, a natural rock descent over Glens Falls limestone. The top of the falls is at an elevation of approximately 256 feet. A descent of 36 feet of the limestone bedrock occurs over a horizontal distance of 200 to 320 feet, culminating in a pool at the bottom of the falls with an elevation of 220 feet. Two channels have developed at the falls. The secondary channel lies toward the south side of the Hudson River. The main channel is closer to the north side of the river. Since the main channel carries more water than the secondary channel, it has eroded upstream at a faster rate. Therefore, the falls begin farther upstream on the north side of the river than on the south side. This difference in erosion rates has determined the position and shape of the Glens Falls Dam. Instead of being a single straight-line structure perpendicular to the water's flow, and spanning the river from bank to bank, the Glens Falls Dam is constructed in three sections that follow the arc of the highest part of the bedrock at the top of the falls.

The Glens Falls Limestone can be subdivided into the into a lower unit, the Larrabee Limestone, and an upper unit, the Shoreham limestone. The limestone itself is abundantly fossiliferous and formed in the deeper-shelf  (Garver, 1995).


Here is a bit of the basic description of the unit from Geolex:

Named the Glens Falls limestone of the Trenton group for Glens Falls, Warren Co., eastern NY. Consists of thin layers of very fossiliferous limestone with shale intercalations near top and a 2 inch conglomerate layer at base. Contains ripple marks and other signs of shallow water conditions. Basal unit of Trenton group. Thickness is 17 feet. Overlies the Tribes Hill limestone or the Amsterdam limestone and underlies the Canajoharie shale. Fossils indicate that the Glens Falls is of Middle Ordovician age.

And a little bit of more in depth information from the US Geological Survey.

Middle Ordovician New York and Vermont and Ontario Canada  

G.M., Kay, 1937, Geol. Soc. America Bull., v. 48, no. 2, p. 264-267. 


Member of Sherman Fall formation. Constitutes zone of Cryptolithus tesselatus Green, the limestones of lowest Sherman Fall age. In type region, beds comprise upper Glens Falls limestone, overlie lower Glens Falls Larrabee member of Hull age, and underlie Canajoharie shale of later Sherman Fall age. Beds consistently contain Cryptolithus tessclatus, which is limited to the member and Prasopora orientalis Ulrich and Trematis terminalis Emmons. This zone persists in the Sherman Fall northwestward to Lennox and Addington County, Ont., in the equivalent beds of northern Lake Champlain, and northeastward to city of Quebec. In type section, lower 36 feet of member is exposed. Along Mohawk Valley, member is composed of 15 to 25 feet of dark-gray calcareous claystones and shales that contrast with subjacent Larrabee member, and are succeeded abruptly by Canajoharie shale. Member has exposed thickness of 30 feet north of McBrides Bay, South Hero Township, Grande Isle County, VT, with a metabentonite 11 feet from base. Overlying beds are Cumberland Head shaly limestone and Stony Point shale, both of later Sherman Fall age. In New York underlies Denmark member (new).

And there you have it. Another piece of evidence that a piece of historical literature can turn a geological based location into a landmark.


Idylls of the King by Alfred Lord Tennyson


Idylls of the King was published between 1859 and 1885. The story is an epic poem based on the life of King Arthur. There is only one geological instance worth noting in the story itself.


"Chapter": Gareth and Lynette

"In dewy grasses glistened; and the hair

All over glanced with dewdrop of with gem

Like sparkles in the stone Avanturine."

Avanturine, more commonly spelled Aventurine, is a gemstone variety of quartz (SiO2). However, unlike the typical varieties of quartz like amethyst, smokey quartz, or milky quartz (to name a few), aventurine contains flecks of mica and other materials incorporated into the crystal. It is these flecks that give the crystal a "sparkle" as the poem states (


Green AventurineGreen Aventurine

A green variety of aventurine.


Aventurine was named after the Italian words "a ventura", meaning by chance. This is in reference to the chance creation of the artificial aventurine variety now referred to as goldstone where flecks of copper were incorporated into a bit of glass creating a similar, but much more dazzling, appearance (


Artificial Aventurine

Goldstone, an artificial "gemstone" similar to aventurine in appearance, except it is often made with glass and copper flecks or other metals (wikipedia).


Candide (1759) by Voltaire


I had heard about the geological content of Candide many years ago after I had read the story. So, I had it on my list to eventually go back and find the information in order to present it here. Within the story of Candide, the titular character comes upon the shores of Lisbon, just as an earthquake begins. This is a historical event that took place on November 1st, 1755 (just four years prior to publication).


Chapter 5

     "Scarcely had they set foot in the city (Lisbon), still weeping over the death of their benefactor, than they felt the earth quake beneath their feet. In the port a boiling sea rose up and smashed the ships lying at anchor. Whirlwinds of flame and ash covered the streets and public squares: houses disintegrated, roofs were upended upon foundations, and foundations crumbled.


Thirty thousand inhabitants of both sexes and all ages were crushed beneath the ruins. The sailor said with a whistle and an oath: 


'There'll be some rich pickings here.' 


'What can be the sufficient reason for this phenomenon?' wondered Pangloss.' 


The end of the world is come!' Candide shouted."


 ...'This earthquake is nothing new,' replied Pangloss. 'The city of Lima felt the same tremors in America last year. Same causes, same effects. There must be a vein of sulphur running underground from Lima to Lisbon.' 


'Nothing is more probable,' said Candide, 'but for God's sake get me some oil and wine.' 


'What do you mean, "probable"?' the philosopher retorted. 'I maintain that the thing is proven.'


...'For all this is the best there us, If the volcanic activity is in Lisbon, it means it could not have been anywhere else. For it is impossible for things not to be where they are. For all is well.'"

Chapter 6

"After the earthquake which had destroyed three quarters of Lisbon, the wise men of the country had not been able to come up with any more effective means of preventing total ruin than to give people a splendid auto-da-fé. It was decided by the University of Coimbra that the spectacle of a few people being ceremonially burnt over a low flame is the infallible secret of preventing earthquakes.


...A week later... the earth quaked once more.


For my reading I had the Everyman's Library version of Candide and at the beginning of most Everyman's Library books is an Introduction. This introduction, by Roger Pearson talks about the actual earthquake which is portrayed in Candide and was experienced by Voltaire.

"...Voltaire's faith in God had been severely shaken by the Lisbon Earthquake on 1 November (All Saints' Day) 1755, which killed 40,000 or more people; and his poem on the subject, published in 1756, is a devastating cri de coeur against Pope and Leibniz, not to mention the Almighty. Subtitled 'An Examination of the Axiom: All is well', the poem begins by asking, first, how such carnage can be in accordance with the eternal laws of a good and free God and, second, how it can be a punishment from God. Why Lisbon, Why not London or Paris ('Lisbon lies in ruins, while in Paris they dance.') Did the volcanic activity that caused the earthquake really have to be part of the Creation?"

The Great Lisbon Earthquake is well known as one of the widest felt earthquakes ever on record. It was felt from its epicenter off the shores of Portugal, up through Great Britain and well into Africa (see image below). 

Lisbon Shakemap

Shakemap of the Great Lisbon Earthquake. (Gutscher et al., 2006)


Best estimates are that between 10,000 and 15,000 people died within the city of Lisbon. Many died later due to injuries, fires, and tsunamis and outside the city limits, hence giving the higher numbers often cited elsewhere.  As to the damage, many of the finer buildings in the city were mostly ruined and smaller houses and shops were completely destroyed. Observers in ships were said to see the city swaying corn before the buildings collapsed. These estimates and observations are based on eyewitness accounts in The Lisbon Earthquake by  T. D. Kendrick.


However, contrary to what was believed (at least by Candide at the time), this was not a result of volcanic activity. As you can see on the map below, there aren't even any even any volcanoes on the Iberian Peninsula. 


Volcanoes of the World

Active, dormant, and extinct volcanoes of the world.


Even with this blown up view of Europe showing any earthquake hazards in Europe, there isn't even a hazard within 1,000 km of Lisbon. And even that one has an uncertain eruption date.


Earthquake Hazard map of Europe

Earthquake Hazard Map of Europe


My guess is that Candide is aware of the volcanic activity and their corresponding earthquakes in Italy and attributed this earthquake to those causes. However this does not have the hallmarks of a volcanic eruption.  As the seismograms below can illustrate, volcanic eruptions have a drawn out shaking due to the magma moving through the Earth called harmonic tremors. This provides a steady shaking over a long period of time. Earthquakes due to fault action have a sharp start and peter out fairly quickly (over the course of 1-3 minutes). 


Seismic Line - Harmonic Tremor

Volcanic harmonic tremors


Seismic Line - Tectonic

Fault based seismic tremors


The earthquake had to be a result of fault movement then and not volcanic activity, so let's looks at possible plate tectonic activity. Looking at a plate tectonic map of the Iberian Peninsula we have the following:

Fault Slip Rates

Fault slip rates along plate tectonic boundaries (


There is a plate boundary running right near Lisbon (which is located right about where the "5" is in 0.05 north of the plate boundary). So where would the earthquake epicenter have been? Looking at the map below, a recent study has pinpointed the likely epicenter to being within the Marques de Pombal (Zitellini et al., 2001).


Bathymetry Map of Southwestern Iberia

Bathymetric map of the southwestern Iberia with location of seismic stations (Zitellini et al., 2001). 


It has also been determined that the cause of the earthquake was likely a shallow, eastward dipping thrust fault (Gutscher et al., 2006). This type of fault zone, along with it's location can cause the amount of damage caused in the fault as well as the following tsunamis that are associated with this fault. It is interesting to note that even though they compare this Lisbon earthquake to a Lima, Peru earthquake as both being caused by volcanic activity, both are actually caused by eastward dipping thrust faults. Lima, Peru was hit and destroyed by an earthquake and tsunami combo in 1746 ( These events are so similar, that it is no wonder that Voltaire used this example in his writing. Although, he did have the date off, it wasn't "last year" from the Lisbon earthquake, but close enough (9 years prior).


It is estimated that the Lisbon Earthquake had the magnitude of 8.5-9.0 on the moment magnitude scale (the Richter Scale).  The Richter Scale measures the amount of energy released from an earthquake. This number is comparable to other earthquakes because it does not care about the amount of damage that occurs. However, this can only really be measured with modern day equipment. Any earthquakes that occurred before the advent of earthquake reading equipment needs to be estimated differently to gain an accurate estimate.


What we can measure without the direct scientific readings of the energy released from the fault is the amount of damage that had been recorded by contemporary media. This information is then translated into the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale. It is on this scale that we are able to place estimates on the size of the earthquake. Based on this scale, the Lisbon earthquake would likely be at least a IX in the area of Lisbon (as shown on the first map above):


Damage considerable in specially designed structures; well-designed frame structures thrown out of plumb. Damage great in substantial buildings, with partial collapse. Buildings shifted off foundations.


And due to the construction at the time (wooden and brick houses, high percentage of people living in poverty), this type of damage would wipe out an entire city.


As a final note, the text states that some shaking started about a week later (presumable a week after the original earthquake). These later earthquakes are what are known as aftershocks. Aftershocks are smaller earthquakes than the original, however they can cause just as much, if not more, damage due to the already susceptible state that the city is in from the original earthquake.  Aftershocks are fairly common after large earthquakes as the fault settles out from a large movement (USGS). This was the case for the Lisbon earthquake as well (





Paradise Lost (1667) by John Milton


The geological content in the story is rather sparse but I did note one thing that I wanted to mention.


Book V

"Moon, that now meet'st the orient sun, now fly'st,With the fixed stars, fixed in their orb that flies; And ye five other wandering fires, that move In mystic dance not without song, resound His praise, who out of darkness called up light."

I highlighted this paragraph because the "five other wandering fires" refers to the five planets of the Solar System. That got me wondering, when were the planets discovered. If five planets (not including our own) were known by 1667, when did we know about them?


1st Planet Discovered - Earth. Year....duh.


2nd-6th Planets Discovered - Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, and Saturn can all be seen by the naked eye. So it is impossible to determine exactly when they were discovered but they were known since at least the 2nd century BC (Sachs, 1974).


7th Planet Discovered - Uranus - March 13, 1781. Discovered by William Hershel who realized that it was moving with respect to the stars (meaning that it did not move with the stars. It was doing it's own thing).


8th Planet Discovered - Neptune - September 18, 1846. Discovered by Johann Galle and Heinrich Louis d'Arrest based on predictions by Urbain Le Verrier. Le Verrier predicted there must be another planet further out due to the eccentric orbit of Uranus.


9th Planet Discovered - Pluto - February 18, 1930. Discovered by Clyde Tombaugh who used eccentricities in Neptune's orbit to predict the presence and location of Pluto. It is now known that the "eccentricities" were actually just measurement errors and Tombaugh got lucky.


9th Planet Rescinded - Pluto - August 24, 2006

    - Due to the redefinition of what a planet actually is, Pluto's planetary status was revoked. You can read more about it here:


Through most of history our reliance on the stars for navigation and even for light during the evenings had provided us with the knowledge of 6 of the planets in our Solar System. Only two (based on the current definition of a planet) remained to be discovered.




The World as Will and Presentation (AKA The World as Will and Idea) by Arthur Schopenhauer


The version I used was translated by Richard E. Aquila and David Carus. The World as Will and Presentation was initially published in 1818, however subsequent editions (1844 and 1859), make it difficult to ascertain when certain thoughts were initially developed and written down. 


The publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, shows that every edition of the The World as Will and Presentation was before that publication; before evolution was thrust into the public consciousness.  As you can see below, Schopenhauer goes heavily into evolutionary theory without even understanding all of the intricacies that may be involved. He understands not only evolving creatures, but evolving landscapes as well.


Many of the ideas brought up in this book relate to science and religion, a topic that I am greatly interested in, however generally falls outside of the realm of Geology Through Literature posts. For this post I am going to focus on the scientific aspects, with maybe only a sprinkling of the religious aspects of the work.


Volume 1: Book 1: Chapter 7 - Law of Causality

"...the law of causality and corresponding consideration and investigation of nature nonetheless necessarily lead us to the sure assumption that, within time, every more highly organized state of matter initially followed upon a crude one. For example, animals existed before human beings, fish before terrestrial animals, plants still before these, the inorganic prior to anything organic; so as a consequence, the original mass had to pass through a long series of alterations before the first eye could open."

The law of causality is logic that Schopenhauer had used to discredit the Creationist's view of the world. God could not have created the world from nothing, because then there would be an instant where there was nothing before and something after. However, I feel this could also (partially) apply to the Big Bang Theory, where many scientists are unsure of what was before the infinitesimal point that started our universe and some believe that nothing predated it. This theory though does fall in line with the cyclical theory of the universe, where after the universe expands, it then contracts and begins the process all over again.


Appendix (Page 597 in the original work)

"Spinoza says rightly...that even the stone that one throws, if it had consciousness, would believe it flew of its own free will"

This is rather humorous to consider that if a stone has consciousness, that it would assume that it was moving on it's own.


Volume 2: Chapter 4

"The only correct expression for the law of causality is this: every alteration has its cause in another, immediately preceding alteration. If something happens...then something else must have changed just before that, and so on, ascending ad infinitum; for a first cause is as impossible to think as is a beginning of time or a boundary of space."

See the above comment on the law of causality.


Volume 2: Chapter 18

"For not merely do the highest productions of nature, namely living beings, or the complex phenomena of the inorganic world remain unfathomable to us; but even every rock-crystal, every bit of pyrite, is by virtue of its crystallographic, optical, chemical, electrical properties an abyss of incomprehensibility and mysteries for penetrating consideration and investigation."

It's is amazing to consider how far science has come in the 150-200 years since this was initially published. We are now able to physically see into the crystalline structure of individual minerals. We now know more about minerals than we ever dreamed fathomable back in the 1800's.


Volume 2: Chapter 22

"Nature has equipped every animal with the organs needed for its preservation, the weapons for its thus bestowed upon each of the the most important of the outwardly directed organs, the brain, along with its function, the intellect. The more complex, namely, its organization became, through higher development, the more manifold and specifically determined became its needs, consequently the more difficult and more dependent on opportunity its procurement of their satisfaction. Thus there was need for a wider field of vision, more precise apprehension, and more accurate distinction between things in the external world, in all their circumstances and relations. Accordingly we see powers of presentation and their organs, brain, nerves, and instruments of sense, come ever more completely to the fore, the higher we ascend along the hierarchy of animals; and in proportion as the cerebral system develops, the external world displays itself in consciousness in a manner that is ever more distinct, multifaceted, complete."

He is essentially describing evolution here. More advanced animals take over from more primitive ones. Animals with better vision took over from those with worse vision. Animals with higher cognitive functions took over from those with less. This goes to show that evolution was on people's minds even before Darwin.


Volume 2: Chapter 23

"Through the different combinations produced by the constant change of positions of these three heavenly bodies (the Earth, Moon, and Sun) relative to one another, the movement of the moon is now accelerated, now decelerated, and it now approaches, now recedes from the earth: this however, in turn, differently at the earth's perihelion than at its aphelion, all of which taken together introduces such an irregularity into the course of the moon that it takes on an actual appearance of capriciousness, in that even Kepler's second law no longer remains invariably valid, but rather it describes unequal areas in time."

The moon does actually speed up and slow down, depending on where it is in it's orbit. As stated by Fourmilab:

"When the Moon is closer to the Earth, around perigee, its orbital motion is faster and carries it past the Earth faster than its constant rotation speed. When the Moon is near apogee, its slower orbital motion causes the rotation to get ahead of the orbital motion..."

But Schopenhauer adds that the sun's influence on the moon's orbit causes the speed of the moon to become practically unpredictable. This is not the case in modern day society, only very difficult, because not only does the Earth and Sun affect the moon's orbit but so do other planets, especially Jupiter, with the second largest gravity shadow in the Solar System.


Volume 2: Chapter 24

"However, it seems that the original generation of organic forms, the production of species themselves, is almost as difficult for nature to carry out as for us to comprehend; this is indicated in particular by its so altogether quite inordinate provision for the preservation of species once they exist. Nonetheless, on the present surface of this planet, the will for life has acted out the full range of its objectification three times, entirely independently of one another, with different modulations, but also with great difference in the degree and extent of completeness. Namely, as is well known, the Old World, America, and Australia all have their own unique series of animals, independent of and entirely different from those of the other two. On each of these great continents, the species are altogether different, but yet have, because all three belong to the same planet, a thoroughgoing and running analogy with one another, which is why the genera are for the most part the same. In Australia, this analogy can be pursued only to a very incomplete extent, because its fauna are very impoverished in regard to mammals, and contain neither predators nor apes; by contrast, between the Old World and America the analogy is evident, and in particular in such a way that America always displays the poorer analogue among mammals, but to the contrary the better among birds and reptiles. Thus it certainly has the advantage of the condor, the macaw, the humming-bird, and the largest amphibians and water-snakes; but it h as, e.g., instead of the elephant, only the tapir; instead of the lion, the cougar; instead of the tiger, the jaguar; instead of the camel, the llama; and instead of true apes, only long-tailed monkeys. It may be concluded from this last defect that nature was unable to rise to the development of human beings in America; for even from the closest level below, namely from the chimpanzee and orangutan, or pongo, the step to the human was still inordinately large. Accordingly, we find-equally primordial on indubitable physiological as well as linguistic grounds-the three races of man, the Caucasian, Mongolian, and Ethiopian, only at home in the Old World, with America by contrast populated by a mixed, or climatically modified, Mongolian stock that must have come over from Asia. On the surface of the earth immediately preceding the present, things had developed as far as apes in places, but not as far as human beings."

This is an old view of evolution, where it seems like life evolved completely separately on the different continents. This is long before plate tectonic theory, which has shown that the plates were once connected (many times connected in the past actually). Looking at his hypothesis though, that Australian animal life is the least like the other continents makes sense in a modern context with plate tectonics. This is because it separated off of the main land mass much earlier than the other continents.


I find these old views of science fascinating because they are right in many ways, but also wrong in many ways, and it is where they are wrong that you can pinpoint the evolution of the science.


 Volume 2: Chapter 26

"...every bone of the human hand and arm finds it analogue in the fin of the whale, the skull of the bird in the egg has exactly as many bones as that of the human fetus, and so on. All of this, namely, points to a principle that is independent of teleology, but that is the fundament on which it builds, or pregiven material for its works, and precisely that which Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire has propounded as the 'anatomical element'" 

Another instance of evolutionary study. Where bones are analogous across species.

Whale to Human hand comparison

Whale fin to human hand comparison.

"...nature does not start from the beginning with every production and create out of nothing, but rather, continuing to write as it were in the same style, adds to what exists, utilizes, develops, and potentiates previous forms so as to carry its work further: just as it has done in the ascending series of animals, entirely in accordance with the rule, 'Nature makes no leaps, and takes the most convenient path in all its operations' (Aristotle, de incessu animalium, chs 2 and 8)"

More evolution. Continued change through time. Starting with the last step and advancing from there.


Volume 2: Chapter 36

" frees the understanding from the bonds of ignorance"

This is just common sense in my book.


Volume 2: Chapter 46

"The fossils of entirely different kinds of animal species formerly inhabiting the planet provide us, as proof of our reckoning, with records of worlds whose subsistence was no longer possible, which were therefore even worse than the worst of those possible."

He is stating that the world is already pretty bad now, but fossils show us that animals unlike modern day animals were worse off in the past because they couldn't survive in that world. With this Schopenhauer is describing changing climates. That not only does the animals change (through evolution) but the land is also changing. He grasps, back in the early 1800's, that we live in an ever evolving world. Something that many people in the modern don't understand or grasp.




Vanity Fair by William Thackeray


Chapter XXV


There was only one instance of geology brought up in the story but it was one I had not thought about before.

"Who'd think the moon was two hundred and thirty-six thousand eight hundred and forty-seven miles off?"

This made me question when we actually figured out the distance between the Earth and the Moon. This story was written in 1848 and that seems very early compared to our modern day scientific techniques.


According to Nasa, the Earth is an average of 238,855 miles away, not that far off of the 236,847 miles quoted in the novel. And actually the distance between the Earth and Moon changes depending on the orbit. It goes from 225,623 miles up to 252,088 miles away

( So in reality, the novels distance quote was spot on. 


The distance from the Earth to the Moon was determined way earlier than the 1800's. In 270 BC, Aristarchus derived the Moon's distances using a lunar eclipse. The Greeks had already known the Earth was a sphere and that the Moon orbited the Earth (since it was assumed everything orbited the Earth at that time). He used this information, along with the duration of one lunar orbit (~a month) and the time it takes to fully cross through the Earth's shadow during an eclipse to determine that the Moon is about 60 Earth's away from the Earth. Without the actual Earth radius though, this couldn't be more refined, until Eratosthenes determine the Earth's circumference a couple of decades later (as discussed earlier). 


More detail on the mathematics of Aristarchus' calculations can be found on Nasa's website:


Another method was developed by Hipparchus to measure the distance between the Earth and the Moon using a total eclispe of the sun. You can read about his methods here:




Faust by J. W. Von Goethe


Part Two: Act I

"MEPHISTOPHELES: Wherever you go in this world there's always a shortage of something. It might be this, it might be that. Here it's money we're short of. Now you can't just pick up money from the floor. But there's nothing sunk so deep we con't get hold of it, if we use our wits. There's gold, coined and uncoined, under old walls or in the belly of the hills. And if you ask me who is to unearth it: An intelligent man using the brains that nature gave him."

Some good ole hard work and intelligence has helped many a geologist to find precious metals and other goodies that the earth has buried deep within it.


Part Two: Act II - Earthquakes


SIRENS:      The water came foaming back, but not in its old bed. The ground quaked, the flood piled up, the shore cracked and smoked. Let's away from here, all of us. This miracle's no good to anyone.    Away to the sea-festival, all you guests, where the glinting, trembling waves lightly lap the shore, and the moon shines double and wets us with its sacred dew. Life there is unconfined, and here - this fearful earthquake. The place is dreadful. No prudent man would stay. 

SEISMOS: (making noises under the earth)

     Another good shove. Another good heave with my shoulders. Then I'll be out and they'll all have to scatter. 

SPHINXES:      What a horrid vibration. What fearful tension in the air. Such a swaying and tottering and rocking this way and that. It's intolerable, it's monstrous. But we won't move, though hell itself breaks loose.      The ground's lifting like a vaulted roof, marvelous. It's the same old man, the same old greybeard, who made the island of Delos, pushed it up out of the sea to oblige a woman in travail.   Now straining and squeezing away untiringly with all his might, his arms tensed and his back bent like the giant Atlas, he's lifting the grass, the soil, the sand, and everything in the peaceful river-bed, and cutting a gap right across the quiet valley. He's like a colossal caryatid, still buried below the waist and holding up a huge mass of rock. But this is where he stops, because we're here. 

SEISMOS:      I managed this all by myself. You'll have to admit it. And if I hadn't done so much shoving and shaking, how would it have been with this lovely world? You'd never have had your mountains towering aloft against the blue sky in its purity and splendour if I hadn't thrust them up for your pleasure, showing off in front of our great ancestors, Chaos and Old Night, and in company with the titans tossing Pelion and Ossa about like playthings. We carried on this way in youthful exuberance till we got tired of it and wickedly clapped the two mountains on top of Parnassus as a double night-cap...Apollo sojourns happily there with his muses. And who was it but me that planted the throne on high for Jupiter and his thunderbolts? Now once more I've force my way with an immense effort out of the bowels of the earth and call for happy settlers to begin a new life here."

In the first part of the section, I believe they are referring to an earthquake triggering a tsunami. "The water came foaming back, but not in its old bed." Tsunamis are frequent with earthquakes, especially earthquakes with their epicenter's under the ocean. Depending on the type of earthquake, what sometimes occurs is that during the initial ground movement, the ocean floor drops down, then quickly bounces back up. This sudden water displacement is one method in which a tsunami can be set in motion (


The next part refers to the earthquake lifting land out of the sea, such as had happened with the island of Delos. Land being shifted upwards due to fault displacement is nowhere near an unheard of thing. As you can see in Chile, the coastline was uplifted during the 8.8 earthquake a few years ago, creating a new coastline. Since many earthquakes affect land not associated with a coastline it was difficult to determine relative changes in elevation, especially beneath the ocean. However, with modern GPS and other analytical methods, it is much easier and quicker to determine precise earthquake displacements not associated with a constant, like sea level, such as the rise in the ocean floor after the 2011 Japanese Earthquake.



Location of Delos, Greece


Has this happened in Greece though, specifically the island of Delos? Greece is far from a tectonically inactive area. They have been known to have earthquakes all through recorded history, however Delos sits in an area or relative stability compared with surrounding areas. In actuality, over the past few thousand years Delos has fluctuated up and down, with an overall subsiding trend. This fluctuation is likely what made it seem like Delos has remained stable through time (Pavlopoulos et al., 2011). So, even though it is stated that Delos was pushed out of the sea, it is more likely that Delos has always been out of the sea (during recorded history) and is currently slowly making it's way back.


Delos Subsidence

Figure 5 from Pavlopoulos et al. (2011) showing that the area surrounding Delos is relatively stable, with Delos in particular subsiding over time. 


Part Two: Act II - Rocks

"ANAXAGORAS to Thales:

     Will that rigid mind of yours never relent? What more is needed to convince you? 


     Water yields to any wind, but it keeps away from the sharp rock. 


     This rock was made by explosion, by fire. 


     Life began in the wet. 

HOMUNCULUS between the two:

     Let me go with you. I also want to begin. 


     Tell me, Thales, did you ever, in one night, make a mountain out of mud? 


     Nature, the flow of nature, never depended on hours and days. She lets every form grow under her control. Even on a big scale there's no violence. 


     But there was violence here. Cruel, plutonic fire, the tremendous bursting of aeolian vapous, broke through the old flat crust, so that at once a mountain had to arise. 


     What does it help? What does it lead to? The mountain's there. So far, so good. This sort of argument's a waste of time. It only leads people by the nose, if they let it. 


     The mountain's already alive with myrmidons, occupying the cracks. Ants and pygmies and other little busy-bodies."

The first part brings up the point "Life began in the wet". It is pretty well assumed that life did indeed first evolve in the water, due to the need for a transportation medium between adjacent components. Current research indicates that these components needed for life could have been brought in by the comet bombardment that saturated Earth in the early days (


The second part that I would like to address was the violence of the plutonic fire as it broke through the flat crust. What is being described here is the violence often associated with volcanic eruptions, especially explosive ones. The mountain building being described I take as the accumulation of lava on the surface to produce land, where there once was none.


On a related note, there is a rather interesting story about the cinder cone volcano, Parícutin, that arose in a farmer's corn field in Mexico. Over the course of the first 4 months since it's initial eruption, the volcano went from nothing to 200 meters tall. This continued and is currently 424 meters high (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History).





So, it is possible for a mountain to rise from nothing over a very short span of time. The number of earthquakes associated with the rise of Parícutin also increased exponentially immediately before the beginnings of the volcano. Perhaps Seismos had something to do with this one.



Pavlopoulos, K., Kapsimalis, V., Theodorakopoulou, K., and Panagiotopoulos, I. P. 2011. Vertical displacement trends in the Aegean coastal zone (NE Mediterranean) during the Holocene assessed by geo-archaeological data. The Holocene. v. 22 no. 6. pp. 717-728


Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes


The story is basically a man who has gone "mad", or more likely has dementia, who wants to rebuild the knights of old in Spain during a time period when they are considered by most to be merely legends. To do this he battles giants (windmills), evil villains (other people passing by), and massive armies of people (sheep). 


Although Don Quixote is a rather long book (over 1,000 pages) there is not much in the way of geological content. There are however, two scientifically related parts I would like to point out.


Part II, Book V, Chapter I

"Besides in Sicily thigh-bones and shoulder-bones have been found of so immense a size, that from thence of necessity we must conclude by the certain rules of geometry, that the men to whom they belong'd were giants, as big as huge steeples." 

This is actually a real life occurrence! For thousands of years people had been unearthing extinct dwarf elephant bones on Sicily, Italy. The people who had unearthed these remains had thought they were the remnants of giants, and not just any giants, it was where the origin of the cyclops began.   The skull of a dwarf elephant looks a lot like a human skull with one giant hole in it where the "eye socket" was. Because of reverence for the dead, these remains were often reburied, however now they were laid to rest in a more human like pose. When future people uncovered these now reburied remains, there was really no reason for them not to think that these were the remnants of ancient giants. 


Dwarf Elephant Skull

Dwarf elephant skull from Sicily, (c) AMNH


Part II, Book V, Chapter XVIII

"With that addressing himself to Don Quixote, Sir, said he, you seem to me to have frequented the schools; pray what science has been your particular study? That of Knight-Errantry, answer'd Don Quixote, which is as good as that of Poetry, and somewhat better too. I don't know what sort of a science that is, said Don Lorenzo, nor indeed did I ever hear of it before. 'Tis a science answer'd Don Quixote, that includes in itself all the other sciences in the world, or at least the greatest part of them: Whoever professes it, ought to be learned in the laws, and understand distributive and commutative Justice, in order to right all mankind. He ought to be a Divine, to give reason of his faith, and vindicate his religion by dint of argument. He ought to be skill'd in Physick, especially in the Botanick part of it, that he may know the nature of simples, and have recourse to those herbs that can cure wounds; for a Knight-Errant must not expect to find surgeons in the woods and desarts. He must be an Astronomer, to understand the motions of the celestial orbs, and find out by the stars the hour of the night, and the longitude and latitude of the climate on which fortune throws him; and he ought to be well instructed in all the other parts of the mathematicks, that science being of constant use to a professor of arms, on many accounts too numerous to be related. I need not tell you, that all the divine and moral virtues must center in his mind."

Although, this passage is not strictly geologically related, I found it interesting in that he seems want to list all the major "sciences" of his day (early 1600's). This is a satirical story though and only so much should be read into what sciences the author deemed important.




A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain


This story is essentially a time travel story so there are several aspects of "historical geology" in play for the book. The first part involves the occurrence of a solar eclipse.

"I knew that the only total eclipse of the sun in the first half of the sixth century occurred on the 21st of June, A.D. 528, O.S., and began at 3 minutes after 12 noon. I also knew that no total eclipse of the sun was due in what me was the present year --i.e., 1879." Chapter 2

As the story progresses it turns out that the narrator had the incorrect day and actually the eclipse occurred on the 20th. However that small change of a day does not really effect our interpretation in a scientific aspect.


The benefit of determining when solar eclipses have happened in the past is that eclipses have a pattern to them. They occur in cycles due to the repetitive motions of the sun, moon, and Earth. And it is possible to calculate out when exactly eclipses have occurred or will likely to occur. Luckily NASA has already done this for us.  The link goes to a document which catalogs all of the eclipses that have occurred from 2000 BC estimated up through 3000 AD. Unfortunately, Twain did not have access to such a document, or even the knowledge of when eclipses occurred. Since there are no written records from the sixth century listing all of the solar eclipses we have to assume that what is in the list is mostly accurate. There is a possibility that the dates and the times may be off, but there is a strong certainty that they are not off by much. According to the list, there were 4 eclipses during the year 528 (Feb 6th, Mar 6th, Aug 1st, Aug 30th). And even then, only two of those were visible in the northern hemisphere (Feb 6th and Aug 30th). So even with problems linking up the calendars (prior to 1582 a different calendar was used, the Julian calendar), it is unlikely that there was any total eclipse during 528 AD and not even a partial one in May, June, or July (the months surrounding the incident in the book).




The narrator also mentions that there was a total eclipse in 1879. There were 2 eclipses in 1879 (Jan 22nd and Jul 19th). Both of these are listed as Annular Solar Eclipses, which means that the moon is too far from the Earth to completely cover the sun (as pictured above) and produces what is known as a "ring of fire". So, even though this is not a total solar eclipse, it is rather noticeable, and could be thought of in a similar sense since the moon is entirely in front of the sun. This essentially negates both of the assumptions in the book based on the eclipses. So based on this, I would not be using A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court for my eclipse estimations.

The second entry has to do with the formation of geology as a science in general.

 "He said the most of Sir Dinadan's jokes were rotten and the rest were petrified. I said "petrified" was good; as I believed, myself, that the only right way to classify the majestic ages of some of those jokes was by geologic periods. But that neat idea hit the boy in a blank place, for geology hadn't been invented yet. He failed to catch on. However, I made a note of the remark, and calculated to educate the commonwealth up to it if I pulled through. It is no use to throw a good thing away merely because the market isn't ripe yet." Chapter 4

Geology in and of itself is an ancient study. It is known from the period of Aristotle, where he made comments on the geological rates of features. One of his pupils, Theophrastus, who was born in 371 BC also wrote up a book called On Stones where:

"...he goes on to classify them based on their reaction to heat, on their hardnesses, and on their power of attraction. He describes a great variety of stones according to their use and origins. He writes on coal and it's use as a source of heat by metal-workers, he writes on the minerals used on the fabrication of glass, of different pigments, of plaster. He traces the origins of pumice-stones to volcanos, of pearls to shell-fish, and speaks about fossilized remains of organic life. Theophrastus was also the first known person to have made reference to pyroelectricity, the capacity, by certain materials, to produce voltage when heated or cooled. From his text as well as from a later text by Pliny the Elder (Naturalis Historia from 77AD) the science of mineralogy emerged, arguably the founding science for geology."

Theophrastus could be considered as one of the founders of geology. However, modern geology does have a significantly different approach to it. The introduction of modern geology took a long road from these origins though. There are a couple of people who are credited with having founded modern geology. One of them being Nicholas Steno (1638-1686), who is credited with the main laws of stratigraphy: The law of superposition (the stuff on the bottom is older than the stuff on top), the principle of original horizontality (rocks are laid down horizontally), and principle of lateral continuity (rock units stretch over large areas of land). Later works by James Hutton (1726-1797) , such as his published ideas on uniformitarianism (everything happening now has happened in the past) are also credited with ushering us into the modern age of geological thought. Hutton is often considered to be the Father of Modern Geology although Steno surely also has a significant place at the top.


The narrator's comment also plays into the concept of the age of the Earth. The boy in the quote was not used to thinking of the Earth as an old place. To people before 1600, the bible was seen as a literal truth where everyone thought that the Earth was 6,000 years old. In the narrator's own time (1879 as mentioned before), Lord Kelvin had just estimated the Earth to be about 98 millions years old. Even though this is far younger than we now understand the Earth to be (4.55 billion years old), the narrator still understood his Earth to be much older than that of the boy in his presence. This lends weight to his "majestic ages" comment, where millions of years denotes the ages quite a bit better than thousands of years.


This paragraph involves two aspects of Historical Geology. The first part is that even though geological concepts were thought of prior to the "inventing of geology" in the 16 to 17 hundreds, it is possible to say that geology had not been "invented" yet. And it is without modern geology that the true age of the Earth was unknown with the only source for that information having been the Bible, which would have placed that age approximately 6,000 years before. The Earth being a very old place was the basis of the joke which the narrator tells to the boy, and without that long age, the joke would likely have fell on deaf ears.


The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler


Not much in the way of geology in this book, however I did find a couple of passages interesting. The book mainly is about Christianity taking place in the 1800's and a couple of passages mention some recent works that were released:

"It must be remembered that the year 1858 was the last of a term during which the peace of the Church of England was singularly unbroken... I need hardly say that the calm was only on the surface. Older men, who knew more than undergraduates are likely to do, must have seen that the wave of skepticism which had already broken over Germany was setting towards our own shores (England) - nor was it long, indeed, before it reached them. Ernest had hardly been ordained before three works in quick succession arrested the attention even of those who paid least heed to theological controversy - I mean Essays and Reviews, Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, and Bishop Colenso's Criticisms on the Pentateuch."

As a little bit of a background, On the Origin of Species was originally published November 24th, 1859, while events during the first paragraph take place during 1858. Even though The Way of All Flesh was published in 1903, Butler began working on it in 1873. This shows that, the upheaval due to the publishing of several works like On the Origin of Species still would have been fresh in his mind. Although, the ideas of evolution were slowly gaining hold, even before Darwin's publication, the Church of England firmly held the beliefs as posed in the Bible. Mainly, that species were created by their Creator and have remained unchanged since creation. Darwin's (among others) theories flew in the face of that, hence the paragraph describing the breakdown of the Church of England's hold. Very fitting for a book that seems to be very anti-established church.

"This was the course things have taken in the Church of England during the last forty years. The set has been steadily in one direction. A few men who knew what they wanted made catspaw of the Christinas and the Charlottes, and the Christinas and the Charlottes made catspaws of the Mrs. Goodhews and the old Miss Wrights, and the Mrs. Goodhews and old Miss Wrights told the Mr. Goodhews and the young Miss Wrights what they should do, and when the Mr. Goodhews and the young Miss Wrights did it the little Goodhews and the rest of the spiritual flock did as they did, and the Theobalds went for nothing; step by step, day by day, year by year, parish by parish, diocese by diocese, this was how it was done. And yet the Church of England looks with no friendly eyes upon the theory of evolution, or decent with modification."

I like this passage because it shows how "descent with modification" (i.e. evolution) works in the context of society. My personal point of view is that many people take the term "evolution" out of context, where it simply means "change over time". Also, Darwin never stated the term "evolution" within the Origin of Species. He just used "descent with modification", so I feel that the author's phrasing in the last sentence as a hat-tip to the original term.


Using The Travels of Marco Polo by Marco Polo


While seeming to offer no geological significance, several works can still be used to describe the beauty available in the natural world. The Travels of Marco Polo provides a first person narrative of the travels of Marco Polo across Asia and India during the 12th century. It is this unique perspective that we gain insight into a land and culture that otherwise would be unknown to the outside world of today. Although Marco Polo generally commented on the cultural aspects of the people in which he interacted, he sometimes referred to the geological aspects of the lands and how the people interacted with that geology. It is in these parts that we will focus our attention.

Part 1 - Book 2: Chapter 23

Read Book 2: Chapter 23 (Of the kind of wine made in the province of Cathay - And of the stones used there for burning n the manner of charcoal). A snippet of the chapter is provided below:

"Throughout this province there is found a sort of black stone, which they dig out of the mountains, where it runs in veins. When lighted, it burns like charcoal, and retains the fire much better than wood; insomuch that it may be preserved during the night, and in the morning be found still burning. These stones do not flame, excepting a little when first lighted, but during their ignition give out a considerable heat."

A Breakdown:

    Based on the description of the rocks that Marco Polo had seen, it is clear that he is referring to coal. The province of Cathay is now known as northern China. Looking at the Chinese Coal map below, you can see that there are abundant coal mines across northwestern China, emphasizing the point that Marco Polo was referencing coal in his chapter. There is also evidence that the Chinese have been excavating coal for the past 3500 years. One of the big questions, though is if Marco Polo would have known about coal. In Europe, during Marco Polo's time and before, there were significant coal mines in the 2nd century AD in the UK region conducted by the Romans. However, following the exit of the Romans there were no significant uses of the coal until the 12th century AD, around the time of Marco Polo. And even then, it appears that most of the mined coal remained within the UK region. It wasn't until the 15th century that Britain started to trade coal with the rest of Europe. This makes it plausible that Marco Polo didn't know about the existence of coal.


China Coal

Some Possible Questions:

1. What rock is being described here?

2. Is the Province of Cathay known for this type of rock?

3. Is it reasonable to assume that Marco Polo wouldn't know about this type of rock in his day ~1250 to 1300 AD?


Part 2 - Book 2: Chapter 27


Read Book 2: Chapter 27 (Of the river named Pulisangan, and of the bridge over it).

"Over this river there is a very handsome bridge of stone, perhaps unequaled by another in the world. It's length is three hundred paces, and its width eight paces; so that ten men can, without inconvenience, ride abreast. It has twenty-four arches, supported by twenty-five piers erected in the water, all of serpentine stone, and built with great skill. On each side, and from one extremity to the other, there is a handsome parapet, formed of marble slabs and pillars arranged in a masterly style... Upon the upper level there is a massive and lofty column, resting upon a tortoise of marble, and having near its base a large figure of a lion, with a lion also on the top. Towards the slope of the bridge there is another handsome column or pillar, with its lion, at the distance of a pace and a half from the former; and all the spaces between one pillar and another, throughout the whole length of the bridge, are filled up with slabs of marble, curiously sculptured, and mortised into the next adjoining pillars, which are, in like manner, a pace and half asunder, and equally surmounted with lions, forming altogether a beautiful spectacle."

A Breakdown:

     The Lugou Qiao Bridge, or the Marco Polo Bridge as it is more commonly known as, still stands today. As described by Marco Polo it contains abundant marble lions statues placed throughout the length of the bridge.  Marco Polo's text states that the pillars are made of "serpentine stone", however I can find no mention of the serpentine stone and he may have mistaken a different variety of marble for serpentine. An interesting note though is that it is often referred that it is impossible to determine how many lions are on the bridge since the statues of the lions contain more lions carved between the feet of the lions.

Some Possible Questions:

1. What types rocks have been included in the bridge construction (i.e. sandstone, basalt, etc.)?

2. Is this bridge still around today?

3. What does that say about the materials used to build the bridge (good, bad, etc.) and was it a good idea to build it in this way?

4. What other name is this bridge also known as?


Part 3 - Book 3: Chapter 19


Read Book 3: Chapter 19 (Of the island of Zeilan). A snippet of the chapter is provided below:

"(The island of Zeilan [Ceylon]) is in circuit two thousand four hundred miles, but in ancient times it was still larger, its circumference then measuring full three thousand six hundred miles, according to what is found in the mariners' map of the world for this ocean. But the northern gales, which blow with prodigious violence, have in a manner corroded the mountains, so that they have in some parts fallen and sunk in the sea, and the island, from that cause, no longer retains its original size."

A Breakdown:

     Today, the island of Ceylon is known as Sri Lanka. Modern day measurements place the island at 833 miles in circumference and 25,330 square miles in area. This is significantly smaller than the measurements given by Marco Polo during his time, as well as the measurements given for the historical size of the island. The earlier measurements and map that Marco Polo was referring to was likely a map created by Ptolemy in 150 AD, almost 1,150 years earlier.


Ptolemy Map


There are questions though as to the ability of Ptolemy to actually measure the size of Sri Lanka though, since his map is mostly based off of estimates by sailors and navigators of the time. Marco Polo as well may have had some difficulty in measuring the size of the island, not possessing the same tools that we have today. However,  I personally question whether the conversion from prehistoric measurements to modern measurements are correct. There could have been confusion translating between Ptolemy and Marco Polo and then Marco Polo and today, giving another form of error.

 Looking at the different size estimates of the island we have:



Date (approx.)

Circum. (mi)



Area (sq mi)

Size Difference

Rate of erosion

(Sq mi/yr)









Marco Polo
















If these numbers are correct, then we are looking at rates of erosion of 500 to 600 square miles per year from 150 AD to the present. This is just an astronomical rate and completely unrealistic. The island may be shrinking due to erosion, however there is zero indication that is it shrinking at such an astronomical rate. The possible forces though could change the size of the island are erosion, as stated by Marco Polo, and sea level rise. Erosion alone could not alter the size of the island as dramatically as depicted but sea level rise could, just not over the time period depicted. It is know that historically, humans have been able to walk from India to Sri Lanka across a land bridge produced from drops in sea level. The appearance of this land bridge was last seen about 7,000 years ago though and is far before even Ptolemy's time. The most likely cause for the mysterious shrinking island is inaccuracies in measurements and possibly errors in measurement conversions.

Some Possible Questions:

1. What island is this known as today?

2. What percentage of the island area has eroded away (assuming a circular island with circumference given), according to this description?

3. The earlier map that Marco Polo was referring to is likely a map created by Ptolemy in 150 AD, almost 1,150 years earlier. Calculate out the number of square miles that the island has been shrinking per year (assume 1,140 years has passed).

4. Is this a reasonable rate of erosion?

5. Determine the modern circumference of the island and calculate out the rate of erosion from the last 710 years (Marco Polo's to to approximately modern times. You can use the length of the coastline to calculate a circular area or use the actual area).

6. How do the erosion rates compare?

7. Could Marco Polo's assumption that the island was eroding away be correct or could something else be the cause? Or was Marco Polo incorrect and the island is not shrinking?


Using The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde


While seeming to offer no geological significance, several works can still be used to describe the beauty available in the natural world. One of those works is The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde where in one portion of the book the title character becomes obsessed with gems and minerals. This leads to a rather lengthy discussion and listing of several varieties of gems, minerals, precious metals, and a host of other things (some of which I still am not sure what are).


Project Description



Read Chapter 11 (around the middle of the chapter, begins “On one occasion he took up the study of jewels” of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. There are approximately 35 different varieties of gems, minerals, and precious metals mentioned in the text. The minerals mentioned in the text are listed out on the provided sheet.  



(A website that might be of some use is:, but I recommend using Google and Yahoo! as a back-up as well since that website does not always give the correct answers). Use the chart below for questions 1, 2, and 3.

  1. Several of the gems and minerals have multiple colors listed in the text. Write down the colors mentioned on the chart under the Color Variations column.
  2. Several of the gems and minerals also list special properties in the text. Write down the special properties on the chart under the Special Properties column.
  3. Gem names are often specific colored varieties of certain minerals (i.e. purple quartz is called amethyst). List what the mineral name is for the open boxes on the chart under the Alias column. (The red boxes I am unable to determine so I will not expect anyone else to determine them either. See Bonus Question 1.)
  4. There are 4 different varieties of Quartz (or chalcedony, which is a variety of quartz) mentioned. What are those gems mentioned?
  5. According to Mohs Hardness Scale, which of the minerals/gems mentioned are on the scale? (Fill in the blanks below, multiple blanks means multiple answers)
    1. 1 – Talc
    2. 2 – ___________
    3. 3 – Calcite
    4. 4 – Fluorite
    5. 5 – Apatite
    6. 6 – ____________; ____________
    7. 7 – ____________; ____________; ____________; ____________;
    8. 8 – ____________;
    9. 9 – ____________; ____________;
    10. 10 – ____________;
  6. Looking at all the duplicates in the Alias column (i.e. garnet, quartz, etc.) what is the principle difference, other than color, between the different varieties of the same mineral?
  7. What is the difference between Balas Rubies and regular Rubies?
  8. Amethyst is mentioned that it “drove away the fumes of wine”. What did the ancient Greeks do with amethyst that helped corroborate this claim?
  9. Which of the three gems mentioned are not inorganically formed but biologically produced?

Bonus Questions (i.e. harder than normal):

  1. Fill in the dark red boxes for Aliases of the 3 unknown gems (aspilate, hydropicus, and meloceus).  And if you do know what these are let me know as well.
  2. What is the difference between Turquoise and Turquoise de la vieille roche?



Color Variations

Special Properties



Agate of India (Agate)
















Balas rubies






























Cinnamon Stones


































































































































Turquoise de la vieille roche





 Click below for the The Picture of Dorian Gray directions in pdf format.



Answers can be obtained by directly emailing me at


Using Our Town by Thorton Wilder


Geology is not only useful for a scientific purpose but it can also be used as a scene setter. That is how it is used in Our Town. To give the audience a sense of time and place the narrator of the story describes the history and location of the town including the geology and anthropology. The purpose of this project is to take his description and determine whether it is valid or not. Or could this just be a case of the author taking geological and anthropological words and imputing them into a story, whether they make sense or not?


Project Description


1. Read Our Town by Thorton Wilder.

2. Write down all of the important sentences and phrases that describe both the geology of the town and it’s location on a map. You will use this information along with some references from the internet to determine what is correct and what is made up.

3.Use that information to answer the following questions:



  1. What is the name of the town and the state that the story takes place in?
  2. Does this town actually exist?
  3. What town is closest to the coordinates given in the text? Is it the town named? Note: The coordinates are given in NAD27 which is an old system but the difference to the more recent NAD83 is only about 10 meters so it should not matter.
    1. Use the coordinates from the text on the website: You have to place a negative “-” in front of the longitude since it is in the Western Hemisphere, otherwise you will get a result in Russia.
  4. The play mentions four different types of rocks that the town lies on. List the rock types and their respective ages. Note: You do not have a given age.
  5. Place the rocks in the cross section below with the oldest on the bottom and the youngest on top. Assume the one rock layer without an age is the second youngest.
  1. Does the comment “I may say it’s some of the oldest land in the world.” make sense regarding the rock that they are speaking about? Why or why not? I recommend using a geologic time scale for this one.
  2. Using the geology map at (there is a larger pdf on the site) does the age of the granite make sense? Why or Why not?
  3. Using the above geology map what is the oldest age the granite could actually be. Hint: You should probably look up what rocks make up the Massabesic Gneiss Complex and the Rye Complex.
  4. Assuming the town is southwest of Manchester, is it possible that one of these rock units could be what was actually described?
  5. Which one would be most likely?
  6. Rearrange the rock units with the corrected age of the granite below. Assume the rock unit without an age is now the youngest.
  1. Is the basalt mentioned logical? You might want to check out Why or why not?
  2. The text mentions some fossils. Which of the four units could be the likely source of the fossils? There may be multiple correct answers.
  3. Anthropology – What is the name of the Amerindian tribe mentioned in the story that originally occupied the region?
  4. What is the range this tribe actually covered and does it cover the area given in the story?
  5. What state is mentioned where the marble building stone comes from?
  6. Can you get marble here?
  7. If you can get marble here what is a formation it could have come from? Keep in mind the transportation distances, closer to the town the better. There may be multiple correct answers.

I recommend using this site: to find where they dig for the marble.

And this site: to find the name of the formations.

Click below for the Our Town directions in pdf format.



Answers can be obtained by directly emailing me at


Using Walden by Henry David Thoreau


            Science is not a new invention. People have been performing science for many thousands of years. Often they build on research of those before them and sometimes they start from scratch. The purpose of this project is to use a scientific study from the 19th century to produce a current contour map of lake depth.  


The study being described is in Walden by Henry David Thoreau, written before 1854. The book is typically considered “philosophical” literature but in this case he performs the basis of science. He identified a problem, determined how to solve the problem, and then executed the research.


His Problem

Often people would describe the depth of Walden Pond as bottomless. He wished to prove them wrong and determine the actual depth.


His Method

To determine the actual depth of the lake he used the simple method of a rock and string.


His Solution

That’s where you come in.


Project Description

  1. Read the “The Pond in winter” chapter of Walden by Thoreau.
  2. Write down all important sentences and phrases that have to do with the depth and shape of the pond.
  3. Summarize these into only the important points (like the location and depth of the deepest point.
  4. Use one of the outlines of Walden Pond provided to start and outline the important features (deepest point, sand bars, etc.) in pencil.
  5. Make a contour depth map with 20ft contours. The shore of the lake will be your 0 contour (provided). Then erase all of the mistakes and non-important items on the map so you just have a finalized contour map left.


Walden Pond


Click below for the Walden directions in pfd format.



Answers can be obtained by directly emailing me at