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Time Traveller: Charles Lyell at Work

This exhibition in Edinburgh University's Main Library provides a unique insight into geologist and science writer Charles Lyell's developing ideas about the uniformity of nature.

Time Traveller: Charles Lyell at Work

About Time Traveller: Charles Lyell at Work

Listed Under Exhibitions Events

Today we understand the earth as an interconnected system involving life and its environment, including the atmosphere, oceans, ice, volcanoes, and the rocks of the crust. How do we comprehend forces that operate on global scales and deep in the past, beyond the capacities of human observation? How do we think about the relation between humans and animals? Can we establish a science that transcends deep divides of religion, race, culture, and politics?

This exhibition explores these questions through the work of a key figure in establishing this planetary vision, the geologist and science writer Charles Lyell (1797-1875), revealing how he travelled to gather evidence, and collaborated with others. Of particular significance are Lyell’s notes on his intimate conversations with Darwin before publication of the Origin of Species. Lyell is credited with playing a pivotal role in shaping Darwin's scientific thinking on the processes involved in evolution.

Location: Main Library, George Square, Edinburgh, EH8 9LJ

A key figure in the history of geology and science in the nineteenth century, Charles Lyell is known for advocating the theory that the processes that are shaping the Earth’s crust today, can be used to interpret events in the distant geological past. In his Principles of Geology, Lyell argued that processes such as erosion, sedimentation, and volcanic activity have been taking place gradually over a long period of time. This differed from the common belief at that time that catastrophic events unlike those ever witnessed by humans had shaped Earth's surface.

Lyell’s work is fundamental to environmental and ecological thinking and underlies the development of the science of geology.

The exhibition will provide a unique insight into his developing ideas about the uniformity of nature – including early ideas on climate change, extinction, and biodiversity – which are still influential today.

To add further context to Lyell’s life and career, the exhibition will draw on his collected fossils, specimens and shells alongside a selection of rare books by Isaac Newton and James Hutton, and contemporaries such as anti-slavery activist Frederick Douglass.

The archive documents Lyell’s disturbing views on slavery following a trip through the slave plantations of the American South and his conversations with plantation owners and enslaved women and men. During an era of imperial exploration and exploitation, his notes provide an unsettling insight into how scientific expeditions were intertwined with the deep divides of race, religion, culture, and politics.

Visitors will be able to explore the exhibition, Time Traveller: Charles Lyell at Work, from 27 October 2023 until 30 March 2024 at the University of Edinburgh’s Main Library Exhibition Gallery.

Image: Black and white engraving of Sir Charles Lyell, 1849

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