Earth Sciences

Aubrey’s day witnessed the gradual appearance of the modern ‘earth sciences’. Fabulously expensive books like the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher’s 1665 Mundus subterraneus explored in often fanciful detail the subsurface of the globe. In 1669 the science of stratigraphy was founded by the Danish naturalist Nicolaus Steno, who instructed his readers how to read the past of a landscape by analysing its present contours. Steno’s Prodromus was soon translated into English, whereupon Aubrey’s friend Hooke accused Steno of plagiarism; Aubrey duly recorded the claim.

The emerging earth sciences were also concerning with explaining biblical history, and radical interventions were soon proposed by various English virtuosi. The ‘World Makers’, as they were derisively termed, suggested successive models for Creation, Flood, and even Conflagration. Thomas Burnet found the waters necessary for the biblical Flood within the earth’s shell; William Whiston proposed that a cometary collision was to blame. Aubrey and Hooke were more interested in fossils, proposing what was then a highly unpopular theory – that fossils had once been living things, and that some might even represent extinct species.

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