In Donizetti's Time

Geology Becomes A Science

During the time that Donizetti was composing The Elixir of Love and Lucia di Lammermoor, a geologist from the country in which Lucia is set was developing the science of geology. Sir Charles Lyell was born in 1797 to a wealthy Scottish family. Lyell became interested in geology in 1817, when he studied under the famous geologist William Buckland.

After studying at Oxford, his parents sent Lyell on a tour of Europe. This journey, the first of many, was a time for him to make geologic observations. Later in his career, he traveled to the United States, also to observe geologic formations. These opportunities for widespread fieldwork placed Lyell in a favorable position to create a unified view of earth history.

Lyell's Principles of Geology, which arose from these and subsequent travels, was an important text in the 19th century for anyone wanting to study geology. His Principles, besides being influential, was also revolutionary. The popular view of geologic history at the time was Catastrophism, which said that most of earth's geologic history could be reduced to a short time of flooding and violent upheaval.

In the first volume of Principles (1830), Lyell attacked this view, arguing instead that geological phenomena could be explained in terms of currently observed natural processes operating gradually over long periods of time. This concept was called Uniformitarianism.

Lyell himself expected that his three (1830, 1832, 1833) volumes of Principles would be widely chastised, due to his vehement disagreement with Catastrophism. However, this was not the case, as the books were widely read and praised. Moreover, as the three volumes were published, he updated each new edition to include his and other geologists' latest findings.

Besides his work with geology, Lyell was also a skilled zoologist. In fact, he combined the two fields of study when he classified the Tertiary rocks of northern Italy. Unlike many geologists of the time, who relied on differences in rock type, Lyell emphasized differences in fauna. He wanted to define "different tertiary formations in chronological order, by reference to the comparative proportion of living species of fossil (shells) in each."

Again, this new approach was successful. He defined four periods of time, now known as epochs: Newer Pliocene (renamed Pleistocene by Lyell), Older Pliocene, Miocene, and Eocene. These names, with some modifications, are still used today. Lyell's Principles was read enthusiastically by Charles Darwin before his voyage on his ship the Beagle (1831-1836). Lyell's descriptions of the vastness of geologic time undoubtedly established a frame of mind that paved the way for Darwin's return. Lyell helped Darwin's ideas get published, and eventually supported his theory.

Lyell, who died in 1875, was praised by Darwin: "The science of geology is enormously indebted to Lyell -- more so, as I believe, than to any other man who ever lived."

Used by kind permission of the Opera Company of Philadelphia's Sounds of Learning Program.

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