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
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
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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