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Geology and Chemistry Emerge as Distinct Disciplines

Geology and Chemistry Emerge as Distinct Disciplines


By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the pursuit of scientific knowledge was becoming a full-time occupation for some. As knowledge in many areas increased, early scientists began to specialize, and natural philosophy began to fragment into various scientific disciplines. Among the first sciences to which this happened were geology and chemistry, two studies with a surprising amount of common ground. This increasing specialization allowed individuals to devote themselves to a particular area of study, thus making more significant progress by focusing their efforts, and has resulted in today's plethora of scientific disciplines.


Science, as such, is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history. In spite of the advances of the ancient Greeks, Sumerians, Maya, and others, the hallmarks of science were largely absent until the Renaissance. Even then, though, science was descriptive, consisting of observations about the world and trying to fit them into some sort of pattern. However, one of the triumphs of what we call science is its ability to explain phenomena based on a set of consistent rules and, also based on these rules, to predict future events. An example of this can be found in predicting lunar eclipses. The Maya are thought to have been able to predict eclipses, and astronomers from the sixteenth century certainly could. However, these predictions were based on observations and not on any understanding of the causes; it was not until Isaac Newton published his laws of motion and gravity that the reason was known. After that point, science could describe both the why and the when of eclipses, giving a much deeper understanding of the events.

A good argument can be made that Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was the world's first true scientist in the modern sense. In physics, mathematics, and chemistry he set about to try to develop simple, consistent rules that explained why the world around him worked in the manner observed. He met with notable success in physics and mathematics, but his explorations in chemistry were less impressive. Nonetheless, his work in all three fields helped to pave the way for other scientists who were to follow.

During the eighteenth century, mining became increasingly important to many nations, including Britain and France. Because of this, there came a breed of men (for early scientists were almost exclusively men) who began to specialize in geology, the study of the Earth. Initially, their chief interests lay in trying to predict where mineral ores, coal, and other important rock and mineral deposits could be found, and this led to attempts to understand the way in which rocks lay beneath the ground and even under water. In addition, as the early geologists studied these rocks, they began to wonder how the rocks they saw could be made to conform to their biblical cosmology.

At the same time, miners were using ever-more sophisticated techniques to determine the relative value of different ore deposits. By treating rocks and minerals with a number of different solutions and observing the effects, they began to describe rocks in terms of a few distinct groups. Further, they could begin to determine rough metal content of various ores, the beginnings of analytical chemistry. These techniques were borrowed by less practical chemists and refined, serving both miners and academics well over time. By the latter part of the century, Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) had developed a theory of chemistry that required accounting for the masses of all reactants, helping to place chemistry in a more mathematically formal setting and making it more of a predictive science.

As the eighteenth century drew to a close, both geology and chemistry had emerged as two legitimate and separate sciences, each worthy of full-time pursuit by an increasing number of practitioners. In following decades and centuries, these were but the first of what is now a bewildering array of specialties and sub-specialties in the ever-growing structure of modern science.


The most immediate impact of this development was, of course, on the scientists themselves and on the science they practiced. In addition, miners benefited from this increase in knowledge specific to their needs, as did the markets served by their efforts. Society itself was impacted, too; as people began to consider science a legitimate profession, their respect its practitioners grew even as their ability to understand their results diminished. Finally, and perhaps most important, the recognition of these two sciences as distinct disciplines was to set the stage for the continuing subdivision of science into a bevy of increasingly focused fields.

As noted above, scientists were among the first to notice the effects of specialization. Until the time of Newton, and even somewhat beyond, a single person could make significant contributions to knowledge in a number of fields. Our knowledge of the world was sufficiently small that a single person could understand almost everything that was known in the world of the seventeenth century. As our level and depth of understanding grew, however, this changed, and it became more and more difficult for a single person to grasp the subtleties across the entirety of science. Of necessity, people began to specialize, concentrating their efforts on one topic or another.

With this concentration came the realization that any one of a number of areas held enough unanswered questions to keep many scientists busy studying them for a lifetime. Understanding this, and making the conscious decision to devote one's professional life to the study of geology, made it possible for a single person to learn an incredible amount about the Earth, albeit at the expense of a broad appreciation of the whole of science. However, those who did specialize quickly found they could make several lifetimes worth of progress by devoting all their efforts in a single direction. In addition, through specialization, there was now room for a larger number of scientists, and the rate of learning increased dramatically. This spread to other specialties with time, resulting in the creation of a large number of scientific fields.

In addition to the general gains made by scientists, there were very specific impacts on miners as well. The more rapid increase in geologic knowledge helped provide greater understanding of the phenomena controlling mineral deposits. This, in turn, made it somewhat easier to predict in advance where minerals might be found, rather than digging fruitless holes or missing rich deposits that did not manifest themselves at the Earth's surface. In conjunction with developments in economic geology, the rapid growth of knowledge in chemistry also began to provide more accurate tests for ore materials. While mining is still far from an exact science, it is now far more exact than it had been, and this increase in precision is allowing the recovery of ores that would previously have been overlooked.

From a societal standpoint, the average "man in the street" was not terribly aware of most scientific advances and, indeed, even today the degree of scientific illiteracy is alarming. However, as the numbers of scientists increased and their discoveries became more common, the number of people aware of their activities increased, too. The growth of the middle and leisure classes in Britain and France also led an increasing number of people to become aware of and interested in the pursuit of science. This led to a relatively large number of "gentlemen scientists" and scientifically literate clergymen, especially in nineteenth-century Britain, many of whom made significant contributions to their chosen science.

Finally, as mentioned briefly above, geology and chemistry were but the first of what is now a bewildering number of scientific specialties. In just the field of geology, for example, there are now specialties in petrology (the study of rocks), economic geology, sedimentology, stratigraphy, hydrogeology, geophysics, geochemistry, isotope geology, paleontology, glacial geology, tectonics, geomorphology, mineralogy, environmental geology, geomagnetism, petroleum geology, marine geology, and more. People spend their entire working lives delving into the intricacies of a single point in space or time, so a person might work for 30 years or more to fully describe and understand the micro-fossils found in a single rock formation. This same degree of specialization can be found in many other fields of study because, as we discover more and more about any single area, we also find that there are an increasing number of questions that remain to be answered. From this perspective, it is apparent that the emergence of geology and chemistry as independent disciplines was just the first step in this process of increasing fragmentation and specialization that continues in science today.

There is a down side to this. Although researchers are making discoveries in their specialties at an ever-increasing pace, science has become fragmented, and it is not uncommon for two scientists in separate academic disciplines to be working on almost identical problems, publishing their results in different journals, and to remain completely unaware of the other's work. It is also common to see a scientist struggling to develop the intellectual or experimental tools to attack a problem, unaware that these techniques already exist in another, related field. For these reasons, there has recently been an increasing interest in promoting interdisciplinary research in which specialists from a number of fields all collaborate to solve interesting or important problems. In this way, by aggregating specialists, we are in a sense on the road back to reassembling the sciences from their current fragmented state.


Further Reading


Gohau, Gabriel. A History of Geology. Rutgers University Press, 1990.

Oldroyd, David. Thinking about the Earth: A History of Ideas in Geology. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Rudwick, Martin. The Great Devonian Controversy. University of Chicago Press, 1985.

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