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Who said: “I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, ... finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell ... whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
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Thumbnail of Leopold von Buch (source)
Leopold von Buch
(26 Apr 1774 - 4 Mar 1853)

German geologist, paleontologist and geographer.

Leopold von Buch

from The Founders of Geology (1897)

Leopold von Buch
Leopold von Buch.
Portrait painted in the 1920s by Abner Lowe. (source)

[p.137] It was one of the most singular episodes in the history of geological science that the first serious check to the triumphal march of Wernerianism through Europe came from two of Werner's  D'Aubuisson and Von Buch, and that their first opposition to their master's teaching was inspired by that very volcanic tract in Central France to which Desmarest had so long before appealed in vain. Let us see how, in this instance, the whirligig of time brought in his revenges. …

[p.141] We turn now to the story of Leopold von Buch (1774-1853), the most illustrious geologist that Germany has produced. He came of a good family, which as far back as the twelfth century held an important position in the district of Altmark. His father, an ambassador in the Prussian service, had a family of six sons and seven daughters. Leopold, the sixth son, born on 25th April 1774, passed through a short course of mineralogical and chemical teaching at Berlin, and then went to Freiberg at the age of sixteen, to place himself under the guidance of Werner. He lived mostly under that great teacher’s roof for three years, having for part of the time as his companion Alexander von Humboldt, with whom he then began a lifelong friendship. From Freiberg, where he drew in the pure Wernerian inspiration, he proceeded to the University of Halle, and later to that of Göttingen. For a brief period he held an appointment in the mining department of Silesia, but he soon abandoned the trammels of official employment, and having a sufficient competence for life, dedicated himself heart and soul to independent geological research. He was by far the most eminent of all the band of active propagandists who, issuing from Freiberg, spread themselves over Europe to illumine the benighted natives with the true light of Wernerianism.

Von Buch’s earlier writings were conceived after the strictest rules of his master’s system. In his first separate work, a mineralogical description of Landeck, he proclaimed, among other orthodox tenets of the Freiberg [p.142] school, his adhesion to the aqueous origin of basalt, collected all the instances he could find of organic remains in that rock, and boldly affirmed that “it cannot be denied that Neptunism opens up to the spirit of observation a far wider field than does the volcanic theory.”1

In the year 1797 Von Buch had his first view of the Alps, and in the following year began his more distant journeys, passing into Austria, and thence into Italy, where he spent a considerable time among the volcanic districts. In 1802 he published the first of two volumes descriptive of these early travels. It was appropriately dedicated to Werner, and expressed his continued adhesion to the Wernerian faith. “Every country and every district,” he remarks, “where basalt is found furnishes evidence directly opposed to all idea that this remarkable rock has been erupted in a molten condition, or still more that each basalt hill marks the site of a volcano.”2 Before the second volume appeared, the writer of that sentence had an opportunity of visiting Auvergne. His conversion there appears to have been as rapid as that of DAubuisson, but his announcement of it was much more sensational. It was in the spring of 1802 that he went to Central France, but owing to various accidents the second volume of his travels did not appear until the year 1809.3 He had made [p.143] no secret, however, of his change of opinion, for in the winter following his French tour, a letter from him was published, recommending a geologist who wanted to see volcanoes to choose Auvergne rather than Vesuvius or Etna.4 His views were thus well known to Haüy and Ramond when they recommended D’Aubuisson to betake himself to the same volcanic region.

When his fuller account of his rambles in Auvergne appeared, its very first sentence betrayed a curious ignorance or forgetfulness of the literature of the subject. “Here we are,” he says, “in a region about which the naturalists of France have talked so much, to which they have persistently referred us, but which they have never yet described to us.” It is difficult to believe that Von Buch had never seen Desmarest’s papers and accompanying maps. Yet throughout the whole account which he gives of his excursions he does not once refer to them, but writes as if he were almost the first geologist who had ever made any detailed and exact observations in the country.5

Nothing could be more explicit than Von Buch’s testimony to the volcanic origin of the basalts of Auvergne. The marvellous cone and crater of the Puy de Pariou excited, as they well might, his astonishment and admiration. [p.144] “Here,” he says,” we find a veritable model of the form and degradation of a volcano, such as cannot be found so clearly either at Etna or Vesuvius. Here at a glance we see how the lava has opened a way for itself at the foot of the volcano, how with its rough surface it has rushed down to the lower grounds, how the cone has been built above it out of loose slags which the volcano has ejected from its large central crater. We infer all this also at Vesuvius, but we do not always see it there as we do at the Puy de Pariou.”6

Perhaps the most interesting passages in Von Buch’s brightly-written letters are to be found at the end. The obviously volcanic origin of the rocks in Auvergne, and their position immediately above a mass of granite through which the craters had been opened, had evidently powerfully impressed his mind. With all these recent vivid experiences he reflects upon his earlier wanderings among the basalt hills of Germany, and, as if taking his readers into his inner confidence, he declares that “it is impossible to believe in a particular or local formation of basalt, or in its flowing out as lava, when we know what the relations of this rock are in Germany, and when we remember how many different kinds of rocks are there associated with basalt as essential accompaniments, how these rocks form with basalt a connected whole which is absolutely inconsistent with any notion of volcanic action—a peculiar coal-formation, entirely distinct from any other, only found with basalt and entirely enclosed among basaltic rocks, often even a peculiar formation of limestone.”7

This was the one side of the picture. He could not yet break entirely the Wernerian bonds that held him to the [p.145] beliefs he had imbibed at Freiberg. He could not bring himself to admit that all that his master had taught him as to the origin of basalt, all that he had himself so carefully noted down from his extended journeys in Germany, was radically wrong. He, no doubt, felt that it was not merely a question of the mode of origin of a single kind of stone. The whole doctrine of the chemical precipitation of the rocks of the earth’s crust was at stake. If he surrendered it at one point, where was he to stop? We cannot wonder, therefore, that he still refused to permit himself to question the truth of the Wernerian faith in so far as the old basalts of Saxony and Silesia were concerned. He comforted himself with the belief that they at least, with all their associated sedimentary strata, must have been deposited by water.

But when he turns round again to the clear evidence displayed in Central France, he asks, “ Is it the fault of the geologist in Auvergne that the arguments which are powerful in Germany have no effect on him here, even though he does not dispute them? May he not be allowed in retort to ask whether the principles which so obviously arise from the phenomena in Central France are not also applicable to the German basalts? At all events, he may contend, we see very little connection between these basalts and ours as regards relations of structure. Would you have us give up our convictions as to the principles which give grandeur, consistency, and simplicity to the explanation of our Auvergne mountains, and adopt views founded on relations which are not to be seen here ?”8

Well might Von Buch conclude by saying that he [p.146] “stands perplexed and embarrassed.” Whatever he may think of the basalts of Anvergne, he will not allow the Vulcanist to wrest his admissions to any general conclusion with regard to the German basalts. “Opinions are in opposition which only new observations can remove.”

Von Buch’s faith in the Wernerian interpretation of volcanoes and basalt-hills had a rude shaking from his excursions in Italy and Central France. His next great journey taught him that Werner’s scheme of geological succession could not be maintained. Before his volume descriptive of the Italian tour was published, he had started for Norway, where he remained hard at work for no less than two years. Among the vast mass of important observations which he made, one that must have greatly impressed him was that in which he satisfied himself that the rocks in the Christiania district could not be arranged according to the Wernerian plan. His master’s scheme of succession completely broke down. Von Buch found a mass of granite lying among fossiliferous limestones which were manifestly metamorphosed, and were pierced by veins of granite, porphyry, and syenite. Such observations did not lead him, any more than those in Central France, to a formal renunciation of Wernerianism. But they enabled him to take a wide and independent view of nature, and gradually to emancipate himself from the narrower views in which he had been trained at Freiberg.9

Von Buch’s memorable investigation of the proofs of the recent uprise of Scandinavia contributed still further [p.147] to expand his geological horizon. When he announced that the whole of the continent of Sweden from Frederikshald to Abo is now slowly rising above the sea, he did as much as any Vulcanist of his day in support of the Huttonian theory.

A further emancipation from the tenets of Freiberg was displayed by a series of papers on the mountain-system of Germany, wherein Von Buch gave the first clear description of the geological structure of Central Europe. He declared that the more elevated mountains had never been covered by the sea, as Werner had taught, but were produced by successive ruptures and uplifts of the terrestrial crust. In 1824 he produced a geological map of the whole of Germany in forty-two sheets, the first large map of its kind to illustrate a great area of the European continent, and a signal monument of its author’s unwearied research and of his geological acumen. For more than sixty years this distinguished man continued to enrich geological literature with memoirs contributed to scientific societies and journals, and with independent works. His earliest writings stamped him as an observer of great sagacity and independence, and his reputation rose higher every year, until he came to be the acknowledged leader of geological science in Germany. Pressing forward into every department of the science, he illuminated it with the light of his penetrating intellect. From the North Cape to the Canary Islands there was hardly a region that he did not personally explore, and not many that he did not describe. With ceaseless industry and exhaustless versatility, he ranged from the structure of the Alps to that of the Cystideans, from the distribution of volcanoes to that of Ammonites, from the details of [p.148] minerals and rocks to the deepest problems in the history of the globe.10

His influence in his time was great. Though he began as a Wernerian, he gradually and almost unconsciously passed into the ranks of the vulcanists. In no respect did he show his independence and love of truth more than in his long and enthusiastic researches among volcanoes. No Vulcanist could have worked out more successfully than he did the structure and history of the Canary Islands.

Among the leaders of geology in the first half of this century there was no figure more familiar all over Europe than that of Von Buch. Living as a bachelor, with no ties of home to restrain him, he would start off from Berlin, make an excursion to perhaps a distant district or foreign country, for the determination of some geological point that interested him, and return, without his friends knowing anything of his movements. He made most of his journeys on foot, and must have been a picturesque object as he trudged along, stick in hand. He wore knee-breeches and shoes, and the huge pockets of his overcoat were usually crammed with note-books, maps, and geological implements. His luggage, even when he came as far as England, consisted only of a small baize bag, which held a clean shirt and silk stockings. Few would have supposed that the odd personage thus accoutred was one of the greatest men of science of his time, an honoured [p.149] and welcome guest in every learned society of Europe. He was not only familiar with the writings of the geologists of his day, but knew the men personally, visited them in their own countries, and with many of them kept up a friendly and lively correspondence. He had an extensive knowledge of the languages of Europe, and had read widely not only in his own subjects, but in allied sciences, in history, and in literature, ancient and modern. Kindly, frank, outspoken, and fearless, he was beloved and honoured by those who deserved his friendship, and dreaded by those who did not. With tender self-sacrifice he would take his blind brother every year to Carlsbad, and with endless benefactions did he brighten the lives of many who survived to mourn his loss. He died on 4th March 1853, in the seventy-ninth year of his age. A fitting monument to his memory was raised by subscriptions from all over Europe. In the picturesque region of Upper Austria, not far from Steyer, a granite boulder 16 feet high that had been borne by a former glacier from the Alps was chosen as his cenotaph. The stone, chiselled into a flat surface, bears inscribed upon it, with the reverence of admirers in Germany, Belgium, France, England, and Italy, the immortal name of Leopold von Buch.11

1 Gesammelte Schriften, vol. i. p. 68.
2 Geognostische Beobachtungen auf Reisen durch Deutschland und Italien, Berlin, i. (1802), p. 126. It is a curious fact that A. von Humboldt also began his geological career among the basalts of Germany, and published in 1790 a little tract of 126 pages, entitled Mineralogische Beobachtungen über einige Basalte am Rhein.
3 The descriptions of Auvergne are contained in an Appendix to vol. ii., consisting of Mineralogische Briefe aus Auvergne an Herrn Geh. Ober-Bergrath Karsten, p. 227 (1809).
4 Journal des Mines, vol. xiii. 1802-1803, p. 249. Boué, in an obituary notice of Von Buch, says picturesquely that “in the year 1798 the learned geognost left Germany a Neptunist and came home in 1800 a Vulcanist.” His conversion, though as complete, was not quite so rapid, for even after his visit to Italy and Central France, though he gave up some parts of the Wernerian system, he still clung tenaciously to others which he afterwards abandoned.
5 He refers indeed several times to Montlosier’s Essai sur les volcams de l’Auvergne, which he calls an excellent work. In one passage he actually credits this author with some of the most important generalizations made by Desmarest. See pp. 279, 280.
6 Op. cit. p. 240.
7 Op. cit. p. 309.
8 Op. cit. p. 310.
9 See his “Reise nach Norwegen und Lappland,” Gesammelte Schriften, vol. ii. p. 109.
10 Von Buch’s collected writings form four large closely-printed octavo volumes. The Royal Society’s Catalogue assigns 153 separate papers to him. For a biographical account of Von Buch see the sketch by W. Haidinger in Jahrb. k. k. geol. Reichsanst. Band iv. (1853), p. 207, and the notices prefixed to his collected works.
11 An account of the movement for the preparation of this monument will be found in Das Buch-Denkmal, a pamphlet by Ritter von Hauer and Dr. Hörnes, published in Vienna in 1858. It gives a portrait of Von Buch, and a view of the monument, with a map showing the position of the site.

Portrait added from another source (not part of original text). Text from Sir Archibald Geikie, The Founders of Geology (1897), 137, 141-149. (source)

See also:

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Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

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