Hooray for Victorian Science!

stew6bHoorah! For Victorian Science!

To understand the historical world of Dr. Lettie Gantry, there are a few items a reader should feel comfortable with. Victorian Volcanology just naturally seems to be the primary topic for a series of novels called The Volcano Lady.

So much has been explored and discovered in the last 128 years. Hypotheses have come and gone, and a few have become accepted theory. But as you may have noticed, people have a habit of clinging to theories and absorbing them with such enthusiasm that we forget how new they are. Take for example the lovely exchange I had with a young reader who was disappointed that Dr. Gantry, whom she thought was otherwise a bright girl, was so ignorant of Plate Techtonics.

Plate Techtonics is the understanding that the Earth’s crust is broken into large pieces, i.e. plates, that move under, over, and sometimes past one another. This motion explains a variety of geologic mysteries such as reasons for earthquakes, locations of volcanoes, and mountain-building activities that create twisting, uplifted layers of rock that can be seen with our own eyes. The concept was suggested, rebuffed almost violently, and finally embraced in the 1960s.

Yes, the 1960s, not the 1860s. The simple reason Lettie Gantry, in 1883, does not know about Plate Techtonics is that it wasn’t an understood Earth process during her time. Readers of Volume 1: A Fearful Storm Gathering may recall that Lettie has a hypothesis regarding Continental Rafts – that the continents ride on the magma and bump into each other at a slow pace. Of course this is not Plate Techtonic Theory, and she is wrong on a variety of levels, but it is a good hypothesis based on the knowledge at hand. Note also that she isn’t in a hurry to introduce her idea to the scientific community at large. When Alfred Wegener suggested continental drift in his 1915 book, he was met with verbal abuse, angry debate, and humiliating opposition. Yet Wegener was only expanding on what several geologists and volcanologists had expressed before him. It took nearly fifty more years before an often unimpressed academia was finally convinced. The invention of radar during WWII helped, as it gave scientists a new view of the spreading ocean floors and the evidence Wegener did not have.

This does not mean that the Victorians were completely ignorant of geological sciences – quite the contrary. Observers had always made note of the workings of the Earth going as far back as the Egyptians. However, staring in the 1700s, a dedicated science began to emerge. Soon the sciences of geology and Volcanology replaced speculation and mythology, and started requiring those who wanted to understand them to get out of their clubs and into the field. Observatories, such as the Vesuvius Observatory in Sicily, were set up in the early 1800s, along with seismographs. Victorians knew about rock forming events, fault lines (though the cause was still speculated,) crystallization, and many had abandoned the notion that the Earth was only 7000 years old. Geological Societies, both professional and amateur were quite popular. To best understand Victorian Volcanology, I recommend Volcanoes: What They are and What They Teach Us by John W. Judd, 1881. There are reprints available but I happened to find an 1881 edition.

And – it should be said – that not every development in geology came from European science. Japanese scientists were leading the world in research regarding earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes. The Japanese Meteorological Agency developed a four level scale for earthquakes in 1884, based on intensity. Japan was such a forerunner in the science that Lettie Gantry felt it necessary to visit the Imperial University in 1881. There she conferred with both Japanese and European geologists as well as visited the erupting Mt. Tarumae.

Did they know about Magma? Yes, Victorians knew that magma exists and had a few ideas about where exactly it was found deep in the Earth. Some believed that there were only pockets of molten material in an otherwise solid Earth; some believed that the entire center of the Earth was liquid; and some thought that the truth was a little of both hypotheses.

Speculation existed that all volcanoes were connected to one another, at least within a certain location such as Indonesia, and that if one erupted, others would follow. Sensational news articles were popping up with headlines declaring that all of the East Indies (as Indonesia was known then) were set to blow after Krakatoa (Aug 25, 1883.) Jules Verne himself speculated as much in his novel Journey to the Center of the Earth, when his characters escaped from underground worlds beneath Iceland and the Atlantic by being shot out of an Italian volcano. Verne was known for his ability to build his fantastic stories from a foundation of accepted science.

Of course, Krakatoa changed everything … but more on that later.

The Victorians were avid explorers (regardless of what country they came from,) and excellent record keepers. They had an understanding of the Earth and her processes, though sometimes erroneous or clunky, and through their constant questioning we have arrived at scientific facts. These facts can conceivably save lives but invariably (thank heavens!) bring up even more questions.

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