Conversations between Scottish geologist Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin are part of a collection on public display for the first time.

A vast archive of letters, maps and sketches, including heavily annotated editions of Lyell’s landmark book Principles of Geology, ware now accessible to the public.

Visitors will be able to explore the exhibition, Time Traveller: Charles Lyell at Work, at the University of Edinburgh’s Main Library Exhibition Gallery from 27 October until 30 March 2024.

Rescued archives

Included in the exhibition are some 294 notebooks that were saved from export and purchased from the Lyell family through a £1 million fundraising campaign in 2019.

Of particular significance are Lyell’s notes on his intimate conversations with Darwin before publication of the Origin of Species. Lyell is credited with playing a pivotal role in shaping Darwin's scientific thinking on the processes involved in evolution.

The exhibition will provide a unique insight into his developing ideas about the uniformity of nature – including early ideas on climate change, extinction, and biodiversity – which are still influential today.

To add further context to Lyell’s life and career, the exhibition will draw on his collected fossils, specimens and shells alongside a selection of rare books by Isaac Newton and James Hutton, and contemporaries such as anti-slavery activist Frederick Douglass.

The archive also documents Lyell’s disturbing views on slavery following a trip through the slave plantations of the American South and his conversations with enslavers and enslaved women and men. During an era of imperial exploration and exploitation, his notes provide an unsettling insight into how scientific expeditions were intertwined with the deep divides of race, religion, culture, and politics.

Historical figure

Lyell (1797-1875) is a key figure in the history of geology and science in the nineteenth century. He is known for advocating the theory that the processes that are shaping the Earth’s crust today can be used to interpret events in the distant geological past.

In Principles of Geology, Lyell argued that processes such as erosion, sedimentation, and volcanic activity have been taking place gradually over a long period of time. This differed from the common belief at that time that catastrophic events unlike those ever witnessed by humans had shaped Earth's surface.

Lyell’s work is fundamental to environmental and ecological thinking that underlies the development of the science of geology.

Extracted from the University of Edinburgh website, read more here

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