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20-Feb-1835: Darwin witnesses an earthquake

On 20th February, 1835, Charles Darwin was lying down in a wood having a rest in Valvidia, Southern Chile, when he experienced a major earthquake. A few weeks later, he described what happened in a letter home to his sister Caroline:

[Off Valparaiso]

March 10th.

My dear Caroline,

[…] We are now on our road from Concepciòn.— The papers will have told you about the great Earthquake of the 20th of February.— I suppose it certainly is the worst ever experienced in Chili.— It is no use attempting to describe the ruins—it is the most awful spectacle I ever beheld.— The town of Concepcion is now nothing more than piles & lines of bricks, tiles & timbers—it is absolutely true there is not one house left habitable; some little hovels built of sticks & reeds in the outskirts of the town have not been shaken down & these now are hired by the richest people. The force of the shock must have been immense, the ground is traversed by rents, the solid rocks are shivered, solid buttresses 6–10 feet thick are broken into fragments like so much biscuit.— How fortunate it happened at the time of day when many are out of their houses & all active: if the town had been over thrown in the night, very few would have escaped to tell the tale. We were at Valdivia at the time the shock there was considered very violent, but did no damage owing to the houses being built of wood.— I am very glad we happened to call at Concepcion so shortly afterwards: it is one of the three most interesting spectacles I have beheld since leaving England—A Fuegian savage.—Tropical Vegetation—& the ruins of Concepcion— It is indeed most wonderful to witness such desolation produced in three minutes of time.

Remains of the Cathedral in Concepción

The remains of the Cathedral in Concepción by John Clements Wickham (1798–1864); Engraving: S. Bull (fl. 1838–1846). Source: Wikipedia

Darwin also recorded a detailed account of the event in his Beagle diary, which was later adapted into a passage in ‘The Voyage of the Beagle’:

February 20th. - This day has been memorable in the annals of Valdivia, for the most severe earthquake experienced by the oldest inhabitant. I happened to be on shore, and was lying down in the wood to rest myself. It came on suddenly, and lasted two minutes, but the time appeared much longer. The rocking of the ground was very sensible. The undulations appeared to my companion and myself to come from due east, whilst others thought they proceeded from south-west: this shows how difficult it sometimes is to perceive the directions of the vibrations. There was no difficulty in standing upright, but the motion made me almost giddy: it was something like the movement of a vessel in a little cross-ripple, or still more like that felt by a person skating over thin ice, which bends under the weight of his body. A bad earthquake at once destroys our oldest associations: the earth, the very emblem of solidity, has moved beneath our feet like a thin crust over a fluid; - one second of time has created in the mind a strange idea of insecurity, which hours of reflection would not have produced. In the forest, as a breeze moved the trees, I felt only the earth tremble, but saw no other effect. Captain Fitz Roy and some officers were at the town during the shock, and there the scene was more striking; for although the houses, from being built of wood, did not fall, they were violently shaken, and the boards creaked and rattled together. The people rushed out of doors in the greatest alarm. It is these accompaniments that create that perfect horror of earthquakes, experienced by all who have thus seen, as well as felt, their effects. Within the forest it was a deeply interesting, but by no means an awe- exciting phenomenon. The tides were very curiously affected. The great shock took place at the time of low water; and an old woman who was on the beach told me that the water flowed very quickly, but not in great waves, to high- water mark, and then as quickly returned to its proper level; this was also evident by the line of wet sand. The same kind of quick but quiet movement in the tide happened a few years since at Chiloe, during a slight earthquake, and created much causeless alarm. In the course of the evening there were many weaker shocks, which seemed to produce in the harbour the most complicated currents, and some of great strength.

Witnessing such a powerful earthquake and its aftermath at first-hand, along with numerous subsequent observations, convinced Darwin that the whole western coast of South America was gradually rising. In this, he went further than Charles Lyell, who, in volume 1 of Principles of Geology—a book which Darwin devoured during the Beagle voyage—had claimed that a section of Chile's coast had undergone recent elevation. On his return to England, Darwin published his findings in The Proceedings of the Geological Society of London, in an 1837 paper entitled Observations of proofs of recent elevation on the coast of Chili, made during the survey of His Majesty's Ship Beagle commanded by Capt. FitzRoy R.N. This paper provided Lyell with considerable ammunition in an ongoing geological dispute he was having with George Bellas Greenough concerning evidence of elevation of the Chilean coast.

Lyell and Darwin were to become fast and close friends. The two men are buried next to each other in Westminster Abbey.

Further reading:

The Uncle of Photography

From Charles Darwin's son Francis's Reminiscences about his father:

In all matters of art he was inclined to laugh at professed critics, and say that their opinions were formed by fashion. Thus in painting, he would say how in his day every one admired masters who are now neglected. His love of pictures as a young man is almost a proof that he must have had an appreciation of a portrait as a work of art, not as a likeness. Yet he often talked laughingly of the small worth of portraits, and said that a photograph was worth any number of pictures, as if he were blind to the artistic quality in a painted portrait. But this was generally said in his attempts to persuade us to give up the idea of having his portrait painted, an operation very irksome to him.

The keen photographer in me rejoices at my hero's preference for photographic portraits over more traditional daubs—even if it seems this was at least partly an excuse to avoid having his own portrait painted.

As with so many other things, I'm with Darwin on this one: there is something undeniably special about a photographic portrait that any number of paintings and drawings simply cannot capture. Echoing Darwin's sentiments, George Bernard Shaw reportedly said that he would exchange every painting of Christ for one snapshot. When you look at a photographic portrait, it feels as if you are looking at the real person; not some artist's impression of them. Photographs seem to give you the genuine article. The camera famously (but not always correctly) does not lie.

I have a hunch that one contributing factor to Darwin's phenomenal popularity as a scientist—apart from his being a total dude, who came up with one of the most important ideas in science—is the fact that the new-fangled photography started coming into its own at around the same time that Darwin returned home from his five-year voyage around the world aboard HMS Beagle.

The ‘birth’ of photography in 1839—just three years after the end of the Beagle voyage—came at just the right time for Darwin to be photographed in his scientific prime. The oldest photograph we have of him is an 1842 portrait with his son William. I would contend that one, albeit minor, reason why we find Darwin so interesting is that we know what he actually looked like:

Daguerrotype of Charles Darwin and his son William

Daguerrotype of Charles Darwin and his son William, 23rd August, 1842.

As historians of science are forever reminding us (although nobody listens to those killjoys), we enter dangerous territory when we start to discuss the ‘first’ person to do X, the ‘lone genius’ who invented Y, or the ‘Father of’ Great Idea Z. The history of science, they insist on pointing out, is a history of collaboration—albeit sometimes highly rivalrous collaboration, in which jealous individuals failed to acknowledge their peers' and predecessors' work. Scientific advance is an iterative process, improving on what went before, sometimes steadily, sometimes in fits and starts. Very much like evolution, in fact.

The history of photography illustrates this point rather nicely, as the following two paragraphs lifted directly from the Wikipedia entry on the subject show:

The history of photography has roots in remote antiquity with the discovery of the principle of the camera obscura and the observation that some substances are visibly altered by exposure to light. As far as is known, nobody thought of bringing these two phenomena together to capture camera images in permanent form until around 1800, when Thomas Wedgwood made the first reliably documented although unsuccessful attempt. In the mid-1820s, Nicéphore Niépce succeeded, but several days of exposure in the camera were required and the earliest results were very crude. Niépce's associate Louis Daguerre went on to develop the daguerreotype process, the first publicly announced photographic process, which required only minutes of exposure in the camera and produced clear, finely detailed results. It was commercially introduced in 1839, a date generally accepted as the birth year of practical photography.

The metal-based daguerreotype process soon had some competition from the paper-based calotype negative and salt print processes invented by Henry Fox Talbot. Subsequent innovations reduced the required camera exposure time from minutes to seconds and eventually to a small fraction of a second; introduced new photographic media which were more economical, sensitive or convenient, including roll films for casual use by amateurs; and made it possible to take pictures in natural color as well as in black-and-white.

Frenchman Daguerre's stunningly beautiful, self-promotingly eponymous daguerreotypes proved to be something of a technological dead end. Amongst other drawbacks, they could not be reproduced. Which is why, if the historians of science will allow me, my totally unbiased vote goes to Englishman Fox Talbot, with his invention of the photographic negative, as the true Father of Photography.

As a sop to the historians, I should point out that Fox Talbot received more than a little help from the astronomer John Herschel, who had previously found that hyposulfite of soda dissolved silver salts. This discovery made it possible for Fox Talbot to ‘fix’ his exposed negatives, thereby preventing them from fading in daylight—an idea subsequently copied, without acknowledgement, by Daguerre. Kudos also goes to Herschel, incidentally, for inventing the word ‘photography’, and re-purposing the mathematical concept of a ‘negative’ into a photographic context.

Thomas Wedgwood (1771–1805)

Thomas Wedgwood (1771–1805)

Ah! But what about poor Thomas Wedgwood? The chap who, as far as we know, first had the frankly brilliant idea of trying to get a camera obscura to produce images automatically on materials coated in light-sensitive chemicals. He even succeeded, to a limited extent. Doesn't he deserve some credit? He might not have been the Father of Photography, but does he not at least deserve to be dubbed its Uncle?

Quite possibly.

He was also, entirely coincidentally, the uncle of none other than Charles Darwin.

The Darwin bicentennial oak, 6 years on

The Darwin Bicentennial Oak

Planted 12-Feb-2009

The Darwin bicentennial oak, 6 years on



Six years ago today, I planted the Darwin Bicentennial Oak in my garden. I am pleased to report that it is doing well, and is now taller than me—not that that's saying much.

This tree-growing malarkey is a long-term commitment.

I have now spent six years gathering material for the longest time-lapse movie ever. Or should that be shortest?

Charles Darwin on the family tree of languages

Today's Guardian has a lovely diagram illustrating the Indo-European and Uralic family trees:

Language family trees

Charles Darwin loved to hypothesise. In chapter 13 of ‘On the Origin of Species’, using the classification of languages as an analogy to the classification of species, he hypothesises that the family tree of languages must closely reflect the family tree of the different races of mankind that speak them:

If we possessed a perfect pedigree of mankind, a genealogical arrangement of the races of man would afford the best classification of the various languages now spoken throughout the world; and if all extinct languages, and all intermediate and slowly changing dialects, had to be included, such an arrangement would, I think, be the only possible one. Yet it might be that some very ancient language had altered little, and had given rise to few new languages, whilst others (owing to the spreading and subsequent isolation and states of civilisation of the several races, descended from a common race) had altered much, and had given rise to many new languages and dialects. The various degrees of difference in the languages from the same stock, would have to be expressed by groups subordinate to groups; but the proper or even only possible arrangement would still be genealogical; and this would be strictly natural, as it would connect together all languages, extinct and modern, by the closest affinities, and would give the filiation and origin of each tongue.

As usual, Darwin is pretty much on the ball. The family tree of languages does indeed closely reflect human history, albeit with one or two anomalies. For example, nobody seems to have a blind clue where the Basque language fits in.

New book review

Over in the Reviews section, there's a new book review of:

A Buzz in the Meadow
by Dave Goulson

Darwin & Fitzroy play, Reading

Darwin & Fitzroy play posterDarwin groupies in or near Reading in Berkshire this coming week might like to check out the new play, Darwin & Fitzroy, by Juliet Aykroyd. As the promotional material explains:

Set during the voyage of the Beagle and in later years, Darwin & FitzRoy plots the friendship and tension between Charles Darwin and the Beagle's captain, Robert Fitzroy. Both men of science and men of faith, Juliet Aykroyd's witty and poignant play charts the relationship between two giants of modern science on their celebrated voyage around the world, and catalogues the demons besetting both.

Uniquely, every performance of this play will be preceded by an event exploring Fitzroy's life, life scientific under sail, the music inspired by the Sea and the use of old ship's logs in modern climate research. Accompanying the play and the events will be an exhibition of weather-inspired art by two Reading artists, Julia Rogers and Roxana Tohaneanu-Shields.

I have it on good authority that beards will be involved. Excellent news! You can never have too many beards. But I guess I'm biased.

PZ Myers in God's Own County

The Friends of Charles Darwin's home town was Pharyngulated last night, when PZ Myers paid a visit to Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire.

PZ Myers talking at the Hebden Bridge Trades Club, 12-Aug-2014.

The godless liberal, internationally renowned science blogger, and author of the Happy Atheist was in town at the invitation of the Friends of Charles Darwin and the Hebden Bridge Literary and Scientific Society to talk at the legendary Hebden Bridge Trades Club on ‘When Science Education Goes Wrong’.

PZ Myers talking at the Hebden Bridge Trades Club, Aug 2014.

PZ gave a typically entertaining talk, explaining how the creationism that plagues the USA and elsewhere today, far from being an ancient phenomenon, is a mid-20th-century American invention. He described creationists' often hopelessly inept attempts to pervert science, but went on to warn the audience of the dangers of letting them get away with it.

The poster.

The talk was followed by an insightful question and answer session, and a beer or two.

PZ Myers, FCD, Maureen Brian, FCD, & Richard Carter, FCD. Hebden Bridge Trades Club, 12-Aug-2014.

Thanks once again to Maureen Brian for seizing the opportunity of PZ's recent talk in Oxford to get him to come and visit more civilised parts.

Earlier in the day, PZ visited a local example of his favourite kind of church.


PZ Myers goes to church

Spotted in Hebden Bridge yesterday…

PZ Myers goes to church

PZ Myers IN A CHURCH, accompanied by Maureen Brian.

No lightning bolts were forthcoming.

New book review

Over in our Reviews section, there is a new book review of:

Darwin's On the Origin of Species: a Modern Rendition
by Daniel Duzdevich