It is 1785. A young man is hurrying on the streets of Edinburgh, a bit late for his work appointment. On his right-hand side, he has a magnificent view of Edinburgh Castle, perched high up on a rock.
He admires the view, but thinks nothing of how that rock atop which the Castle sits was created. As far as he is concerned, the Earth is 6 thousand years old. That is the common dogma of his age and not to be questioned.
Yet not far away, a slightly-built man close to entering his 6th decade of life, is working on a theory that contradicts all this “knowledge”. In time, it will change our whole understanding of this world and usher in a new era of science.
However in 1785, that new era is still far off.
The name of the slightly built old man is James Hutton. He was a polymath who tried his hand at many different things, but his life’s work was centered around rocks and geology. His passion was to go around and observe natural phenomenon, which led him to form some very original theories.
By 1785, he felt ready to share these theories with the world. Being a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, a gathering of some of the finest minds of the 18th century, provided him with a natural place to do this.
On the 7th of March of that year, his friend Joseph Black read out a part of the theory and on the 7th of April, Hutton himself presented his theory. This was followed by another presentation on the 4th of July.
What he presented was met by utter disbelief and turned into hostile criticism. He was accused of going against the established order of things, of being an atheist, of lacking logic.
Hutton decided to go back and try to find further evidence for his assertions and to better defend his thesis. For the next few years, he travelled around Scotland, examining different rock formations, trying to find further proof for his theories.
In 1795, equipped with numerous examples to illustrate his points, Hutton published a huge book on geology. It met with little success.
Two years later, Hutton died without having his theory gain wider acceptance. In fact, it seemed that his opponents had won the day and his ideas were on their way to obscurity.
Yet today they form the fundamental basis of our own understanding of how our planet evolved. How is that possible? How did ideas that were almost stamped out, succeed in gaining dominance? And how come Hutton himself wasn’t able to do it?