Great Scot! A Primer On James Hutton

Saltire composed of ammonites

It’s St Andrews Day today. Hooray! An excuse to drink whisky and generally be loud and simultaneously insanely proud of my identity and depressingly horrified by it.

There is just one thing stopping me from doing this, and I must sort it before the fun can begin.

David Cameron and Alex Salmond today have published some very spirited and motivational speeches on Scottish culture and achievement. Unfortunately, they both failed to mention geology, and being a geologist I know that a lot of major geological advances (such as the theory of Uniformitarianism, which underpins all geological study today) were achieved by Scottish geologists.

Why so many Scottish geologists? Well, we’re not better at geology than anyone else, we just happen to be surrounded by some of the most interesting and complex rocks in the UK. The Moine Thrust, the Tay Nappe, the Lewisian Complex… there’s an awful lot to keep us busy.

I’m going to focus on Hutton. James Hutton. A very cool bloke. For a start, he was a plutonist, someone who believed that all rocks on the planet originally came from an internal volcanic source. The plutonist is the natural enemy of the neptunist, someone who believed that all rocks originated via crystallisation in the oceans, and they warred for years over who was correct. Now we know that the plutonists had the right idea, although some sedimentary rock can form in a kind of neptunist way (coral reefs).

So this Uniformitarianism stuff. What does it mean?

Well, in 1788 Hutton went to the now-famous Siccar Point, and after studying its curious rocks overlying each other, he decided that an unimaginably long time must have passed between them being deposited, a large span of time in which the original rocks were tilted practically vertical. He threw out the window the concept that the Earth was only 6000 years old. These rocks were the evidence, the starting point for a geological revolution.

He published his Theory of the Earth[1] in 1795, and the reception of this new idea was varied – he was simultaneously applauded and accused of being an atheist (a pretty serious accusation in the 18th Century!).

A century later, Charles Lyell decided to develop his work even further, eventually publishing the famous Principles of Geology. The new viewpoint – that of slow-moving forces over long periods of time – became known as Uniformitarianism, and the old viewpoint of gods causing sudden, violent events became known as Catastrophism.

Some people today still hold to Catastrophism, in spite of the evidence against. And by this I mean they hold to the idea that all change on Earth’s surface comes from short-term, high-impact events. It’s a world apart from what we call Neo-catastrophism today, a more integrated idea which holds that long-term processes are occasionally supplemented by short-term events.

But thanks to this intrepid Scot, whose revelation about the Earth was almost as monumental as Galileo’s, an even greater number of us today are able to use his ideas, build on them, and discover more about this restless, ever-moving planet. Nae limits, eh no?

[1] You may be interested to know that both volumes of Theory of the Earth are available on Project Gutenberg:

Theory of the Earth, Volume 1

Theory of the Earth, Volume 2

Fed up with ads in your Gmail inbox? Solution, thy name is Alternion.

I finally cracked over Google ads earlier this week. It was more the blatant lies than anything. I was looking up pictures of the aurora in a separate Chrome window, after which I returned to my Gmail inbox and proceeded to read a very uninteresting email on car insurance.

A Google ad popped up above my email. ‘See the Aurora now! Only £799!’ The ads had slowly been forcing me towards my tolerance limit over the past few months, and so this time, I decided to click on the ‘Why this ad?’ button next to it. I was taken to a page which firmly stated,

‘You have been shown this ad because it directly relates to the email you were just viewing.’

Oh, I think not. I complained, in full knowledge that one complaint was not going to make the ads stop coming, but nontheless I just wanted to vent my frustration at their lack of transparency.

My tipping point, which led me to choosing another email aggregator entirely, came when I started getting ads enticing me to join the Open University – while I was opening emails informing me of my recent Open University exam results.

I did some research, and am now happy, for I have found… ALTERNION.

Alternion is an alternative email and social network aggregator. God, I love aggregators. I admit I was actually using Gmail as an aggregator for my other email accounts, it’s much handier than logging in to each separate site.

So far I have only used Alternion to collate my email accounts together in one place, so I can’t comment on how it handles the social media side of things. But as for email, it does the job well, the interface is slick, and best of all THERE ARE NO ADVERTS! It’s all kinds of sweet. I’m actually able to concentrate on my emails properly again, without distraction.

Alternion automatically connects your accounts via IMAP, so you don’t lost email data on the original servers. This is based on my experience adding a couple of Gmail and Hotmail accounts though, so double-check it’s IMAP if and when you do it.

My only criticism of Alternion so far is that the website is not responsive – as a huge responsive design advocate, I like to be able to fluidly change the sizes of the browser windows I’m working in, I like to access my accounts on the go, via smartphone or tablet, I like to have maximum accessibility. There’s a very good reason why Alternion cannot do this yet – it is a very young project and is only in beta at the moment. I am very interested in seeing what comes next for it!

In closing, email providers should have more discretion when deciding to advertise. The algorithms should avoid certain triggering things, some obvious ones are cancer, terminal illness, death. Basically, algorithms determining which ads to show should always include a human factor, an emotive factor, otherwise they are doomed to fail, like the Facebook deceased friend recommendations debacle.

Good Things And Not So Good Things About Dundee

I come from Dundee, in a far-removed sort of way; both my parents are from there. My impressions of Dundee are always rather miserable – there’s a reason my parents moved away!  – but I mean miserable in that kind of appealing, affectionate Scots way. So, anyway. It’s a depressing city of grey stone and gloom. So I thought I would make a list of good things and not so good things about Dundee, and weigh it up.

Did you know that the name Dundee comes from the Gaelic dun and , meaning FORT OF FIRE, and the city is in fact surrounded by extinct volcanoes. Sort of. That actually makes it pretty badass.

Good things that have come out of Dundee.

  • Oor Wullie and The Broons.
  • The Dandy and The Beano.
  • That university observatory that made those really cool images of Britain in the 2009 Big Snow.
  • Camperdown Park. CAMPERDOON! It has a pirate ship playpark! Who could forget this place? (It’s probably a lot smaller than I remember it…)
  • The Discovery, the ship that took Scott to the Antarctic.
  • Dundee Cake!

Not so good things that have come out of Dundee.

  • The Strathmore, which sank in 1875 and killed a load of people.
  • The Tay Bridge rail disaster, which also killed a load of people.
  • Which in turn inspired William McGonagall’s godawful poem about it, reportedly the worst in history.
  • The 1906 fire, which reportedly had rivers of burning whisky running through the streets.
  • The grey brick that’s used to make practically every building in the city.
  • The terrible, terrible comic-book font ‘City of Discovery’ sign at the city entrance.

Just noticed, someone has very kindly archived a load of not-so-good things about Dundee on this webpage: http://www.knowhere.co.uk/Dundee/Tayside/Scotland/info/worstthings
I am much obliged to them.

(It’s not that bad really…)