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Dining with the Geological Society

Two hundred years ago, "In the winter of 1807, thirteen like-minded souls in London got together at the Freemasons Tavern at Long Acre, in Convent Garden, to form a dining club to be called the Geological Society. The idea was to meet once a month to swap geological notions over a glass or two of Madeira and a convivial dinner. The price of the meal was set at a deliberately hefty 15 shillings to discourage those whose qualifications were merely cerebral. . .In barely a decade membership grew to 400. . .” (Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything). Still going strong, the Geological Society is celebrating its bicentennial in Burlington House.

The original members were inspired by James Hutton, who was born in 1726, drifted into medicine, and out of it, turned to farming and drifted out of it, and moved to Edinburgh where he found his métier producing sal ammoniac and eating dinner at the Oyster Club with “the economist Adam Smith, the chemist Joseph Black and the philosopher David Hume, as well as such occasional visiting sparks as Benjamin Franklin and James Watt” (Bryson).

Becoming interested in questions about the age of the earth, and staring with renewed interest at the rocks on his old farm, Hutton single-handedly created the science of geology by theorizing that the process of erosion was countered by the Earth’s renewal and uplift, created by heat within the Earth, and that that these processes required vast amounts of energy and time. His ideas were revolutionary, and not completely understood for 200 years. They were published in 1795 and republished in less opaque prose in 1802.

We are in the position of knowing much that they longed to know about the Earth – while not being able to imagine what it is we don’t know, which is, as Bryson makes clear, quite a lot. I'm longing for the convivial dinners, too.