Jul 7, 2009

Darwin Rocks

Remarkable exhibition reveals Darwin's life-long love of stone collecting.
Category: 2009
Posted by: Sarah

Remarkable exhibition reveals Darwin's life-long love of stone collecting.

Charles Darwin is best known for his work on species, but a new exhibition opening at Cambridge University this week reveals another side to one of its most famous sons.
Aimed at debunking the popular image of Darwin as a white-bearded, old naturalist, Darwin the Geologist, at the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, tells an entirely different story.
The new exhibition projects the image of Darwin as a young, energetic field scientist, whose grounding and early training as a geologist informed much of his work on the Beagle and his fledgling career after returning to England.
Exhibition organiser Dr Francis Neary said: "Charles Darwin had an early passion for geology that stayed with him throughout his life. His collecting of rocks and fossils on the Beagle made his reputation as a scientist. His first theories and scientific publications were all concerned with geological topics.
"Many of Darwin's geological theories have been proved right by new evidence gathered in the 20th century. His ideas about continental uplift paved the way for the important unifying theory of plate tectonics in the 1960s.
"His theory about the formation of coral reefs by the subsidence of old, inactive volcanoes was confirmed by drilling into reefs by the US government in the 1950s, as part of their research for the testing of nuclear bombs."
"Unlike many of his animal and plant specimens, Darwin kept his geological collection close by him during his lifetime. It was only donated to the Sedgwick Museum by one of his sons after Darwin's wife's death in 1896. This is clear evidence of the importance that Darwin placed on his geological specimens."
On permanent display at the Sedgwick will be some of its vast collection of 2,000 rocks and fossils collected by Darwin while on HMS Beagle from 1831-6.
Darwin's own pistol, hand lenses and field notebook are also on display in a reconstruction of what Darwin's Beagle cabin might have looked like after a day of collecting rocks on Wollaston Island (south of Chile), as well as four of his Beagle dry specimen catalogues.
The exhibition also features a bust of Darwin as a young man by sculptor Anthony Smith.
The aim of Darwin the Geologist is to focus on the making of Darwin's scientific career, before his life-changing publication of On the Origin of Species, decades later.
During his early geological work, Darwin amassed a collection that took on a life of its own as it was re-interpreted by other scientists, as well as being used as a promotional tool by Darwin himself to create scientific social networks. He used the collection to build his reputation as a scientist and often sent samples to renowned experts to identify.
Neary added: "The exhibition is a unique opportunity to see important parts of a complete collection that Darwin made on his travels around the world 175 years ago and to learn how Darwin used it to make pioneering contributions to the science of geology."
As well as Darwin's Beagle specimens, the centrepiece of the exhibition is a Magic Planet globe that projects moving images of the Earth onto a plastic sphere. The globe traces the route of the Beagle voyage, triggering content about Darwin's experiences on the voyage at the location where specific samples in the exhibition were collected.
Funding for Darwin the Geologist was provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

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'Tools of the Trade'
Available to purchase in the Sedgwick Museum shop

Tools of the Trade

Agostino Scilla's
'Vain Speculation Undeceived by Sense'
English translation available to download.
Agostino Scilla download

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Studying Earth Sciences at Cambridge University

Did you know?
The University of Cambridge is listed at the top of The Complete University's Guide 2016 for geology.

Discover more about studying Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge in this video featuring Museum Curator of Mineralogy and Petrology Professor Marian Holness and Sir David Attenborough