Grove Karl Gilbert

A Great Engine of Research

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322 pages, 17 photos, 6 drawings, 1 map, 6 x 9 inches
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“The ingenious and unconventional Gilbert impressed and baffled his own time; thanks to Pyne’s capable study, he is still impressive but less enigmatic to ours.”—American Scientist

“Stephen Pyne has chosen to emphasize the unique Gilbert blend of geology and mechanics in his treatment of Gilbert’s scientific life and career. Pyne’s fresh insights into Gilbert’s four great monographs, and his recognition of a unifying method and motivation in Gilbert’s studies, are sufficient to grant this biography a lasting place in the literature of science history. . . . Pyne’s biography will stand for many years as the definitive study of Gilbert’s scientific contributions, and it will serve as an indisputable reference for any student of nineteenth-century geology.”—Annals of Science

“. . . admirably successful in presenting a finely drawn picture of the emerging sciences of geomorphology and geophysics. Pyne has written a book that, like his subject’s work, will endure and edify.”—American Historical Review

“Stephen J. Pyne has filled a gap in the history of American geology by writing the first modern biography of Grove Karl Gilbert. . . . His account places Gilbert’s professional attainments squarely in the context of other developments in the coming of age of American geology.”—Science

“Of all the geologists who roamed the western half of the United States in the twenty years that followed the Civil War, none is more important than G. K. Gilbert (1843–1918). Together with his colleagues, Gilbert laid the scientific foundations for the settlement of the American West. . . . Pyne’s fine account of his life and work deserves the widest possible audience.”—Journal of American History

The life of Grove Karl Gilbert, first chief geologist of the U.S. Geological Survey, spanned the heroic age of American geology during the time that this young earth science was being intellectually and institutionally defined. By the time of Gilbert’s death in 1918 at age seventy-five, geology ranked as one of the outstanding traditions in American science, with a magnificent history of exploration.

As Stephen Pyne reveals in his biography, few other scientists can match Gilbert’s range of talents. A premier explorer of the American West who made major contributions to the cascade of new discoveries about the earth, Gilbert described two novel forms of mountain building, invented the concept of the graded stream, inaugurated modern theories of lunar origin, helped found the science of geomorphology, and added to the canon of conservation literature.

Gilbert knew most of geology’s grand figures—including John Wesley Powell, Clarence Dutton, and Clarence King—and Pyne’s chronicle of the imperturbable, quietly unconventional Gilbert is counterpointed with sketches of these prominent scientists. The man who wrote that “happiness is sitting under a tent with walls uplifted, just after a brief shower,” created answers to the larger questions of the earth in ways that have become classics of his science. Stephen Pyne’s clear explication of these scientific complexities and attention to the idiosyncratic details that make up a life form a compelling biography of America’s greatest geologist.

Table of contents: 

Author's Note to the Paperback Edition
Preface and Acknowledgments
1.In a Nutshell
The Education of a Classicist
A Clerk in the Cosmos
Of Mastodons and Mathematics: The Cohoes Potholes
Cracking the Nutshell

2. "Astride the occidental mule"
A Volunteer Assistant
"Labels written by the Creator": John Strong Newberry
"Hydrographical peculiarities"
West and Wheeler
"A systematice approach": The Geology of a Reconnaissance
The Lieutenant and the Major

3.The Major Years
"The western fever"
By Virtue of Its Ensemble: Powell, Dutton, Gilbert
"Certain allied problems in mechanics": The Henry Mountains
Languages for a New Geology: Mechanics, Mathematics, Literature
The Society of a Geologist

4. A Great Engine of Research
The Division of the Great Basin
The Revolving Chair: Chief Geologist of the U.S. Geological Survey
The Scientist as Aristocrat: George Ferdinand Becker
Lake Bonneville
Time's Ratio: The Meaning of Geologic History
"A little daft on the subject of the moon"
The Great Basin Mess

5. Grade
A "buried star"
The Mean Plain
The Inculcation of Scientific Method
The Text for a University Science: Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin
An Elder Statesman

6. The Inculcation of Grove Karl Gilbert
Geophysics in the Giant Forest
Gilbert the Glaciologist
Gilbert the Geophysicist
Gilbert the Geomorphologist
The Cycle of Erosion: William Morris Davis
A New Life

Biographical Memoirs