Bolles, Edmund Blair. The Ice Finders: How a Poet, A Professor, and a Politician Discovered

 

Bolles, Edmund Blair. The Ice Finders: How a Poet, A Professor, and a Politician Discovered
The . Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1999.

This little book is an excellent case study in the social process of learning to see and learning to
be a successful scientist. As the subtitle suggests, the substance of this study is the discovery, in
the mid-19th century, of the Ice Age. This is the story of how Elisha Kent Kane (the poet), Louis
Agassiz (the professor) and Charles Lyell (the politician) came to "see" that age. For example,
Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology so important to Darwin in its early edition, 1820s - does
not mention glaciation as a force shaping the land. He does mention lava flows, earthquakes,
geysers, tidal motions, soil erosion, and so on but not ice. For all his knowledge and ingenuity,
Lyell said nothing about the effects of glaciers upon the planet. Lyell, in other words, in the
1820s had no idea of the importance of glaciers and yet, 20 years later, could deftly describe the
process. Moreover, and more difficult, Lyell's geology made this point: "The world we see today
can be explained by the geological actions we see today. He rejected both traditional explanations
for the landscape, like Noah's flood and speculative catastrophes, like the near- instantaneous
rise of a mountain group that some geologists imagined." (p. 8) Gradualism was enormously
important to Lyell and, to some extent, was apparently incompatible with an Ice Age. In other
words, Lyell not only had to learn to see something new, he had to explain that novelty in terms
which were consistent with his assumption of gradualism. Of course the evidence of the Ice Age
was THERE, waiting to be seen and understood but geologists had to learn to see that evidence
and to understand the processes at work. This book describes those years and the acceptance the
Ice Age as a part of the gradual process of shaping the earth. This book is a useful model for
seeing how ideas get into the conventional wisdom of a science. The process is, simply, not
rational but interpersonal and social.

The role of the poet in affecting change in the profession is here emphasized and, to me, that is
important: poets can provide novel models. Thus, Elisha Kent Kane plays a very important and
dramatic part of in book. Bolles makes this point repeatedly: the only model of glaciers the
Europeans of the 1830s had was the Alpine glaciers of the day. "The knowledge of Switzerland
blinded rather than enlightened them." (p. 48) Those small, glacial remnants were useless in
seeing the Earth-covered Ice Age; Ice Age sheets were literally "beyond comprehension" using
the residuals of Switzerland as models. Geologists needed a new vision, and the poet provided
just such a model with his powerful description and illustrations of the Greenland icecap in a
prize-winning and extraordinarily popular book. It took a poet's description of the Greenland
glacier to provide that image.. His poet's voice, the penny press and his book (1857) made
possible a new image of an ice sheet suitable for the Ice Age. As a result of Kane's poetry, "Great
ice became part of the world's stock images." (p. 211) Kane's book became, to use language of
today, a "coffee-table" book it was that popular. Bolles suggests: "...a visitor to a typical
American home could see only two books on display: the Bible and Elisha Kent Kane." (p. 229)

There is something very disconcerting to science watchers in this book: it is yet another
shattering of the comfortable view that science grows with the accumulation of facts and their
logical interpretation. As is made very clear here, the facts of the ice age came to be seen only in
terms of the (essentially irrational) acceptance of the "facts." Lyell, for example, had ample
evidence of the Ice Age surrounding his home: he grew up in the middle of Scottish prototypes of
glacial action but, even so close to his home, he did not see. He too, reluctantly, had to learn to
see and, when he did, he became a convert and an enthusiast.

Lyell's abrupt conversion was more an act of recognition than a feat of reasoning. All of these
early believers in the glacier theory had been changed by this double process of looking and then
seeing... Then, suddenly, like the secret image hidden in a child's puzzle, the truth popped out at
them, and they could recognize what had been before their eyes all along. I once was blind but
now I see. After that change, their perception became as impossible to deny as the roar of the
ocean or the brightness of the sun. Glacier remains became simply one of the givens of the
landscape. (p. 124)

And then there is the paradox of Louis Agassiz: an early and enthusiastic convert to glaciation,
he used his data to confirm his religious beliefs, i.e., his assumptions. The catastrophism of the
ice age meant, to him, that the Creator still had a role in the process: the Creator had to renew
creation after totally destructive catastrophes. The ice age destroyed life, all life, which had to be
reconstructed by His direct intervention. This is an important point: Agassiz saw HIS ice age.
Indeed, they all saw THEIR ice ages. Lyell's book of 1863, for example, was full of the Ice Age.
He had become a convert but 1) he used his conversion against his intellectual opponent
(Agassiz) and 2) "From his first publication to his last, Lyell was defending his great dogma that
the world had always been shaped by the same forces and sizes of forces that change the world
today." (p. 234) Selected facts were fitted into already existing interpretations.

Interestingly, only Lyell remains a precursor to today's geology. Kane, the poet who provided the
images needed to visualize the ice age and Agassiz, the professor, are out. Kane did not survive
because a professional competitor offered evidence of his priority to the "discovery" of the
Greenland icecap and his priority stuck. Professionals thereafter acknowledged (Dr. Henry
Rink's) priority but relied on Kane's imagery and the source of that imagery is today forgotten
and no longer needed. Agassiz is remembered as a negative example a scientist one who refused
to give up his fundamentalism. The only survivor of the trio who did so much to bring on the age
of ice and to show its role in "creation" was Lyell, the politician. He was the one who used his
wits and the scientific evidence to shape today's geology. Lyell had to eat crow over those earlier
editions of his Principles and he did. But rather than being seen as a convert or a turncoat when
he published his Geological Evidences of the Antiquity of Man (1863),

Lyell's admissions seemed an amazing turnaround, and yet somehow it was no turnaround at all.
As he had shown in his revised edition of the Principles, Lyell was a master politician who
conceded everything to his enemies and yet somehow advanced his own purposes while crushing
theirs. Many reviewers at the time complained that Lyell's book had a big, boring digression at
its center the middle 163 pages (a third of the book) devoted to the glacial period. The material
struck many readers then and now as having nothing to do with the title matter of human
antiquity, but Lyell's primary interest was still his lifelong dogma. By itself humanity had little
relevance to Lyell's main interest, but in the context of an Ice Age it was a terrible weapon
against his most bitter enemy ... Louis Agassiz.

Simply, Lyell's Ice Age had not catastrophically wiped out an entire world, forcing a new
creation and it wasn't as much of a catastrophe as Agassiz would like. Pre-Ice Age species in the
north had survived by the simple expedient of moving south. Agassiz had been jujitsued, flipped
on his back. Agassiz's telling arguments for the Ice Age was now used against him. Lyell had
again won by conceding to his opponent and then reinterpreting. Catastrophe did not necessarily
mean catastrophic in the sense of total destruction. It was an effective shift. As Bolles put it: "...
Lyell was the one with the championship grin." (p. 227)

The story of science is certainly, in this case, a very human tale which involves big egos doing
battle with other big egos. Agassiz and Lyell represent various major 19th century positions in
science and the story of their battles is a recounting of the apparent success of materialism in
science. The disappearance of Kane and the negative position of Agassiz leave poets and
professors out of it and Lyell's apparent logic takes the field.. By telling this tale, Bolles has done
science an important service: he suggests the irrationality and political nature of the process of
acquiring the knowledge we think of as science and of making it as a scientist There is, to put it
simply, so much more to science than the simplistic logic of official historians.

One of the implications of this book is that to be a successful scientist, one must be a politician.
The in-fighting, the priority battles, the arguments, the professional posing, the academic
gamesmanship, are all part of making it, as Charles Lyell does here. Lyell, in the early editions of
his Principles... was just plain wrong and should have paid a professional price for his errors. But
he did not. He did some fast footwork and argued his way out of his errors. That's a good lesson
for a fledgling in this field to learn. But it's not something that comes up in substance science
courses and Bolles has done a good job here of reminding us of its importance.