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Find Your Science at GSA
16 April 2009
GSA Release No. 09-18
Christa Stratton
Director of Education, Communication, & Outreach
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New GSA Volume Analyzes Early Geological Experimentation and its Role in the Emergence of Geoscience

Boulder CO, USA – The World in a Crucible probes the inception of geology as an experimental science in order to understand early, opposed, and sometimes paradoxical perceptions about rock origin. This new volume from the Geological Society of America also seeks to determine geology's place in the broader context of nineteenth-century experimental science. Rather than addressing all modes of geological inquiry, author Sally Newcomb focuses her analysis on investigations into the origins and properties of rocks and minerals.

"Early on," says Newcomb, "geological science was the territory of natural philosophers, who used causal and/or quantitative methodologies to ask questions about natural materials and phenomena, and natural historians, who worked to classify and describe natural objects." According to Newcomb's research, geology emerged as a recognizable discipline in the early part of the nineteenth century, "with the coming together of many strands of investigation and thought." Some early experimental geology topics cited by Newcomb include magnetism, earth density and tides, crater formation, microscopy and the invention of achromatic lenses, glacier ice flow and pressure effects, and the work of chemists in determining the chemical composition and physical properties of rocks and minerals.

During this period, James Hutton emerged as the person now credited with "having it right" with his suggestion of a central heat source for the formation of rocks on Earth’s surface (Plutonism), while Abraham Gottlob Werner and supporters of his Neptunist theory, proposing that rocks were basically formed from the crystallization of minerals in Earth's early ocean, continue to be derided (especially outside of the German-speaking world). However, and despite later claims that Hutton had "won the day," the primary literature from both England and the Continent reveals that the question was by no means settled even decades after Hutton and his scorn of information derived from looking into "little crucibles" (which included the work of his supporter, Sir James Hall). This Special Paper makes the case that it was the parameters of heat, pressure, solution, and composition investigated in the laboratory that prevented a straightforward resolution of the overriding questions about rock origin.

Individual copies of the volume may be purchased through the Geological Society of America online store,, or by contacting GSA Sales and Service, .

Book editors of earth science and history of science journals/publications may request a review copy by contacting Jeanette Hammann, .

The World in a Crucible: Laboratory Practice and Geological Theory at the Beginning of Geology
Sally Newcomb
Geological Society of America Special Paper 449
2009, 186 pages plus index, US$60.00, GSA member price US$42.00
ISBN 978-0-8137-2449-2