A Hidden Gem: The Mineralogy and Petrology Museum, University of Alberta 

Late last month I found myself in Edmonton, with a free day prior to the Three Societies meeting (22-25 June). Touring the University of Alberta campus, I  wandered into the basement of the Earth Sciences building, to discover the Mineralogy and Petrology Museum (http://www.eas.museums.ualberta.ca/mineralogyandpetrologycollection.aspx). Visitors to the small museum are greeted by a colossal sample of Albertan copper – continue to explore and numerous treasures present themselves. For instance, the Toluca meteorite, discovered in 1776 and at some 4.6 billion years old advertised as the ‘oldest item you will ever touch.’


A moment from the history of science is captured in a display on the work of George Barrow (1853-1932). A geologist and surveyor, Barrow is best known for his work in Scotland from 1884 to 1900. Mapping in Glen Clova (northeastern Scotland), Barrow noticed a pattern of mineral occurrences. Subsidiary minerals – chlorite, biotite, garnet, staurolite, kyanite and sillimanite occurred in six distinct zones (see below). Barrow theorised that these differences indicated different degrees of metamorphism (the intensity of heat and pressure) that had occurred in each region. He had discovered a new tool for mapping metamorphic rocks. Zones of progressive metamorphism have subsequently become known as ‘the Barrovian sequence’ or ‘Barrovian zones’.


Yet according to David Oldroyd’s entry on Barrow in the Dictionary of National Biography (http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/56917), all did not end well. Barrow used his discovery to declare that the main metamorphic regions of Scotland all came from the same source: each had simply been ‘metamorphosed to different degrees.’ Oldroyd tells us that Barrow had a certain ‘tenacity’ regarding this theory, which caused him to fall out with his colleagues. Eventually, it was agreed ‘to move him from Scotland to the less controversial geology of the English midlands.’


The Mineralogy and Petrology Museum is undoubtedly a hidden gem, which holds fascinating specimens and captures intriguing moments from the history of geology. Founded in 1912 by the first Chair of the Geology department, Dr. John A. Allen, the museum now functions as both a teaching space for students and a public attraction (for tourists like me)! If you ever find yourself in the Edmonton area, the museum and the neighboring Paleontology Museum are well worth a visit!


Book Review: The British Arboretum: Trees, Science and Culture in the Nineteenth Century

Today, the arboretum – a green space containing systematically planted trees – may seem a commonplace and enduring aspect of the British landscape. Yet The British Arboretum (2011) demonstrates that, in the nineteenth century, arboretums were sites of scientific innovation, public education and Edenic ideals. Authors Paul A. Elliot, Charles Watkins and Stephen Daniels move from the late-seventeenth century and depleted British woodlands to arboretums as public recreation grounds two centuries later. Standing over this cultural and scientific history is the figure of John Claudius Loudon, author of the Arboretum Britannicum (1838), an influential study of hardy British trees and shrubs.


Plates from John Claudius Loudon’s Arboretum Britannicum (1838).

In addition to shaping scientific and cultural landscapes, arboriculture altered the biotic makeup of the British Isles. From the seventeenth century, growing numbers of exotic trees were imported to adorn and enrich gardens, parks and plantations. Arboretums were established to classify and label growing numbers of new arrivals. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Japanese larch (Larix kaempferi) became so popular that it was imagined the tree would replace its European cousin. The scientific name of the species honoured German physician and naturalist Engelbert Kaempfer, who introduced numerous Japanese plants to Europe in the eighteenth century, including the troublesome Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica). Imported varieties required specialist knowledge, as existing taxonomy was unable to cope. The Linnaean system was of limited use, British botanists subsequently adopting the “natural system,” which combined systematics with plant physiology and anatomy.


Plan of the Nottingham Arboretum: http://exchange.nottingham.ac.uk/blog/the-peoples-green-spaces/

In its second half, The British Arboretum provides readers with a series of case studies of historical arboretums. One of the first purpose-built Victorian public parks was the Derby Arboretum, designed by Loudon on behalf of industrialist Joseph Strutt in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Loudon used popular publications such as the Gardener’s Magazine as a utilitarian, rational form of recreation for all social classes. In reality, tension existed over the use of the new green spaces. At the Nottingham Arboretum in 1857, there was little evidence of botanical education reaching the lower classes. Footballs were kicked, trees damaged, plant labels stolen and worst of all, amorous activities occurred in the foliage. Arboretums persisted, but their own popularity and subsequent clamour for access diminished their original scientific purpose.

The British Arboretum is more than another history of green spaces. The authors reach beyond the boundaries of the arboretum, engaging with key themes in British cultural and scientific history in an informative and accessible manner.

Paul A. Elliot, Charles Watkins, Stephen Daniels, The British Arboretum (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2011) is available at: www.pickeringchatto.com/trees


521_British Arboretums_Front

Environment(s) in Public: Histories of Climate, Landscape & Ecology at UEA

Following my recent visit and presentation at the University of East Anglia for the Environment(s) in Public workshop, I returned pleasantly surprised by the plenary session. Two great talks and a intriguing discussion from Professors Mike Hulme and David Matless certainly got the event going!

Cultures of Climate: From Antiquity to “The Climate System”

Professor Mike Hulme (Professor of Climate and Culture, KCL) began discussions by relating a cultural history of climate – tackling that age-old question of how changes in climate can interact with society. We currently possess a specific, constructed idea of a global climate, but there are other ways we can think (and have thought) about climate and how it interacts with humans. The recent 2014 IPCC Synthesis Report made use of several terms and ideas indicative of our present ideas of climate, including “the climate system,” the fixing of a global objective and the world acting together to restrict warming.


Quantification and the instrumental in “the climate system”. Global temperature, sea level and sea ice changes. From the IPCC Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report, 1st Nov 2014: SYR-83

Four historical views on climate were introduced, beginning with Greek ideas of climates (or “Climatica”) fixing human life and society. Local climates could fix behavior – placed in the European context, this scheme manifested itself in the development of national characteristics, which often associated warm or tropic areas with sloth and idleness. Or in a more sophisticated manner, the Annales school of historical thought incorporated geography and climate into their understanding of historical development. Next up was the early nineteenth century and Alexander von Humboldt (everyone’s favorite biogeographer). Climate was now related to the distribution of species for Humboldt, who saw himself as unifying disparate scientific domains, discovering “definite laws” as part of Europe’s civilising mission.

Moving into the more recent past, the twentieth century brought quantification and enumeration to climate science. Bringing order and predictability to climate was of great important to developing nation-states. During the 1980s, the contents of the recent IPCC terminology and methodology were established. Earth system scientists created an interconnected planetary system, bringing issues of complexity, the need for simulations and mathematical models, but also possibility of prediction. Intriguingly, all of the historical ideas covered are still in circulation in our cultural world (in one form or another).

Geographical Scales & the Scientific Environment

Professor David Matless (Cultural Geography, University of Nottingham), then treated the workshop-attendees with extracts from his (2014) book In the Nature of Landscape: Cultural Geography on the Norfolk Broads, which covers narratives of leisure, natural history, landscape and conservation. This contribution kicked off with a potent observation from Prof. Matless, namely that landscapes such as the Norfolk Broads are haunted by their prospective end (in this case, flooding from rising sea levels).

As a framework for the following talk, the term “Regional cultural landscape” was introduced and the question asked: What follows from the use of this term? To use “regional” with any kind of meaning, the complex and somewhat controversial model of cultural geographies of scale was invoked. Two key points on geographical scales followed: 1) Scales are relational and are intertwining with one another, with concepts of “environments” being produced through this. 2) Scale and its definition is an active cultural force. But how can one define them? What is the cultural context of this definition?

The Norfolk Broads then had their history recounted as a scientific environment, beginning with the 1911 meeting of the International Phytogeographic Excursion (IPE). This body was working on the vegetation of British Isles, attempting to create a common language of ecology, with participants including such notable names as Arthur Tansley. The IPE toured numerous river valleys in the Broads region, but simply refused to work with local naturalists. After all, in 1904 the British Vegetational Committee (forerunner to the IPE) had resolved not to rely on “local workers.” The local naturalist society returned the favour in kind, simply ignoring the work of the IPE in their region.


The Norfolk Broads: http://www.broads-authority.gov.uk/news-and-publications/photo-gallery

Questions for the History of Environmental Sciences

Both these talks raised questions of considerable interest when discussing the relationship between science and the environment. In terms of scientists communicating with the public on environmental crises, Prof. Hulme contrasted responses to two twentieth-century atmospheric dangers, ozone depletion in the 1980s and climate change. For the former, science used models to engage in politics. However, such an approach may not be successful with climate change as there was no cultural history of ozone (as a previously unknown phenomena). A lack of inherited stories and experiences forced reliance on quantitative, scientific modelling. For climate change, scientific accounts presented to us and arguments for political action are saturated with “global imagination,” borne of the 1980s “climate system,” which cannot sit well with all human experience and tradition.

In an engaging discussion, questions on expertise in science were raised. Prof. Matless’s example of the IPE and local naturalist societies demonstrated that questions of authority in science are based on locality. Sometimes a scientist’s authority is improved by field experience, but sometimes not (this being issues of language and translation). Prof. Hulme finished on the intriguing note that in 1938 Guy Stewart Callendar made the connection between rising land temperatures and carbon dioxide, but was received sceptically. This was in part because of his training as a mechanical engineer, which  did not sit well with meteorologists.

Science, whether warning us of climate disasters or cataloguing regional vegetation, is very much dependent on culture and scale when making claims to knowledge.