Who was the great 19th century western American geologist?

Drop in to a bookstore and browse their American history area, or maybe biography or possibly even science or nature and look for books about geologists.  Odds are you can find some biographies on John Wesley Powell and Clarence King.  Wander anywhere near Yellowstone and you are sure to encounter the Hayden survey, run by Ferdinand V. Hayden, and you are likely to  see Clarence Dutton appearing in tomes on the Grand Canyon.  And these were names that were prominent at the time, too.

But professional geologists see it differently.  Consider this: works authored by John Wesley Powell were cited 310 times since the start of 2000. Ferdinand Hayden? 44 times. Clarence Dutton? 140 times. Really, not bad for guys whose work is mostly or entirely well over 100 years old.

There’s this other fellow, Grove Karl Gilbert, who died in 1918; his last publication, drawn from his notes, was published in 1928.  He never led a survey of his own or ran the USGS. There is one real biography available through Amazon (and probably not your local bookseller). Yet his work has been cited 1,544 times since the beginning of 2000, according to Science Citation Index. That is more than three times the sum of those other guys. Even established international geologists fade against Gilbert’s record: for instance, Louis Agassiz, the developer of ice ages, only merited 393 citations since 2000 despite the rapid growth of interest in climates and paleoclimate.

Now part of this, you could argue, is that Gilbert wrote a lot–except he wasn’t prone to writing a large number of short papers, as we are today.  He wrote some hefty tomes–Monograph #1 of the USGS might easily outweigh the complete production of many modern geologists (arguably both in volume and impact).  Because he did stay in geology and didn’t, for instance, wander into public policy and ethnology as did Powell, there was a greater focus in his work.  But Gilbert also lost a lot of time to administration work in the USGS; he was also very generous with his time.

What makes Gilbert so widely cited was the degree to which he was outside his time.  In 1883, he offered the first earthquake forecast at the very same time he was asserting that earthquakes were caused by slip on faults that could in many instances be seen to slip at the surface. In many ways, he defined geomorphology as it is understood today; he provided the basic observational and experimental work to understand transport of sediment. He made one of the first clear demonstrations of isostasy, carrying it even farther to make clear the concept, if not the terminology, of elastic plates. He described one major form of deltas so well that they are called Gilbert deltas. He largely advocated for the use of multiple working hypotheses (again anticipating several others in this). By seeking to understand the basic physics or process underlying phenomena, he made contributions that can continue to be applied to phenomena today; many of his contemporaries, though, were too mired in specifics or tangled in trying to make a preferred hypothesis fit observations.

So, if any historians of science are out there looking for somebody worth studying, have at G.K. Gilbert. It seems like his profile in bookstores should be elevated some….


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