Sir Charles Lyell

Sir Charles Lyell

Born in Kinnordy, Angus, in 1797, Sir Charles Lyell, 1st Baronet Kt FRS, is considered the leading geologist of his generation. He is best known as the author of Principles of Geology, which popularised James Hutton's concepts of uniformitarianism — the idea that the earth was shaped by the same processes still in operation today.

Lyell was a close and influential friend of Charles Darwin and Lyell was one of the first scientists to support On the Origin of Species. His wife, Mary Horner, was daughter of Leonard Horner (1785–1864), who founded Heriot-Watt University in 1821.

Lyell's studies of the Roman Macellum or 'Temple of Serapis' in Pozzuoli, near Naples, in 1828 provide a perfect illustration of his understanding of the impact and significance of modern marine and geological processes. Whilst sitting contemplating the site, he observed a line marked by marine Lithophaga bivalve molluscs, high up on three columns. He realised that this represented a former shoreline and correctly deduced from this that the site had been submerged for a long period after Roman times and then uplifted again, such that the former shoreline was now approximately 2.74 m above the present one. In an instant, he saw that whatever the geological cause — which we now know to be underground ballooning and deflation of a magma chamber — it had been on a relatively rapid (2000 years) time scale. The present elevation of the palaeoshoreline on the columns shows that they have risen a further 3.15 m since Lyell's day.

Frontispiece from Lyell's Principles of Geology. The figure crouched contemplating the columns is Lyell himself.

Lyell appreciated that the linkage between marine and earth processes were not always gradual as many, including himself, had previously presumed and came to understand the time scales on which some geological processes could operate.

The deduction caused him to revise his final edition of Principles of Geology, and it is this legacy of being strong and intellectually flexible enough to change his mind when presented with more data and evidence that is aspirational and inspirational to us all. These are the fundamental principles on which the new Lyell Centre shall thrive.

The 'Temple of Serapis'

The site in Pozzuoli as it looks today.