A year ago, I argued that James Joyce's great novel Ulysses merits the geologist's attention because the book's project parallels the scientist's quest. Today, on yet another Bloomsday, I'm here to go up a level. Ulysses is worthy as a touchstone of the Victorian worldview that science once embraced.
It's not widely appreciated today, but in the early 1800s geology introduced a new way of doing science. The earlier triumphs of astronomy, chemistry and physics relied on the telescope, the laboratory and the calculuson precise observation, careful experimentation and numerical manipulation. But many thinkers found that sort of science cold and mechanical, and in 19th-century literature its practitioners appeared in the guise of three amoral Doctors: the hubristic Frankenstein, the stumbling Jekyll and finally the insane Moreau.
Geologists escaped this trap, and not only because their advances were more modest and less widely lauded. They studied everyday things, produced profitable knowledge, and moved among the people. But just as important, their visionary and inductive mode of thought was closer to common sense. My favorite literary avatar of the geologist is the Victorian private detective Sherlock Holmes. There is nothing so comforting as solving crimes, bringing dark characters into cleansing daylight.
Ulysses is a deep and intricate puzzle in which phrases in one place are echoed hundreds of pages later, where nothing is spelled out. It is an outcrop of the living world, a grab sample of time and space at the point Dublin, Ireland, 16 June 1904. From that single day's events, Joyce sought to encompass the entire human condition. Thus Ulysses appeals to the Victorian conviction that if we just gathered all the facts and exerted enough logic and ingenuity, we could crack the case of history, human nature and all that.
Today geology is well past that state. Research today involves intricate models rather than plain-language notions. Today we assess, with great precision, the degree to which we're uncertain. Progress consists of corraling truth inside a smaller fence, not roping it down once and for all. Earth becomes a stranger place the more we learn about it. But if we didn't retain a bit of that Victorian urge for sense and clarity, we wouldn't move forward. Even as its modern exploration of alternate realities and unreliable narrators puts us at an ironic distance from the classical worldview, Ulysses also tempts us with the ancient ideal of truth, the kind of science our dreams are made on.
PS: For a look at the ancient Ulysses, another linked story of geology and literature, don't miss Matt Herod's post "The Odyssey and Geology: The Search for Ithaca" on his GeoSphere blog.