Saluting pioneer John Phillips – the time lord of York

18 Feb 2013 @ 12.17 pm
| News

John Phillips… explored deep time
liam-herringshaw-bylineLiam Herringshaw applauds a self-taught genius who has been largely forgotten by the city he loved

Last week, I weighed into an argument about a powerful historic figure who wanted to be buried in York Minster, but isn’t going to be. This week, I want to tell a much more interesting tale, about a man who was unequivocally both good and important, who is buried in York, and who rarely attracts any publicity. A man who also had his fair share of Minster-based disagreements.

To set the scene, we must first contemplate the age of the Earth.

Just how old is the planet we live on, and how do we figure it out? Since the onset of radiometric dating, it has become relatively straightforward. By measuring the abundance of different elements, and using their known decomposition rates, we can be remarkably exact about the timings of different geological events. But what about before such techniques were possible?

william-smith-geologistOne of the first people to begin building the scientific framework was a canal surveyor named William Smith (pictured right). From digging his way around England, he realised there was a systematic pattern by which fossils appeared in the rocks. They didn’t just occur randomly, but in an order that was repeated right across the country. Smith understood that he could use them to produce a predictive model of how the rocks were stacked.

Having founded the science of stratigraphy, William Smith went on to draw the first geological map of Britain, and revolutionise the stuffy world of 19th century science. This was an extraordinary achievement for the self-taught son of an Oxfordshire blacksmith.

The first nationwide geological map by William Smith, 1815. Photograph: Wikipedia
The first nationwide geological map by William Smith, 1815. Photograph: Wikipedia

Stratigraphy only gives you a relative age, though. It tells you which rock is older or younger than another, but it doesn’t tell you when they formed. Calculating absolute ages is another challenge entirely. Geological aptitude was in the family genes, thankfully, and the task was taken up by Smith’s equally remarkable nephew, John Phillips, the hero of our story.

Like the car park king, Phillips wasn’t born in Yorkshire, nor did he die here, but he did succeed with his request to be interred here. He resides in York Cemetery, though you’d be hard-pushed to find him without expert help. Luckily, I was shown round last week by David Poole, of the York Cemetery Trust. Via a few curiosities, including erroneously dated headstones (at least two people are recorded as having died on April 31), David led me to Phillips’ simple grave.

John Phillips' simple grave in York Cemetery
John Phillips’ simple grave in York Cemetery. Photograph: Liam Herringshaw

Ostentatiousness is not a common feature of the cemetery, but Phillips – who is buried with his sister Anne – has a particularly unassuming memorial. This fits well with contemporary accounts of his personality, but rather less so with his status, for this is the man who helped found the British Science Association, has craters on the Moon and Mars named after him, and who invented geological time.

Being orphaned as a young child can hardly be regarded as fortunate, but the deaths of his parents are probably what inadvertently made Phillips the scientist he became. He and Anne moved in with William Smith, and living with his uncle exposed Phillips to a new world of collecting, describing and classifying rocks and fossils.

This was not a lucrative business for a person of humble means, and in 1819, when Phillips was still a teenager, Smith was thrown into a debtors’ prison. Released shortly afterwards, he fled London with his wife, nephew and niece, to try his luck in Yorkshire and become, as Phillips later wrote, “a wanderer in the North of England.”

By 1824, Smith’s luck had begun to improve, and his wanderings brought him to York, to teach geology to the recently established Yorkshire Philosophical Society. Phillips came with him, and showed such ability that, shortly afterwards, he was appointed the first keeper of the Yorkshire Museum.

The museum had been established primarily to conserve and display the revelatory fossils of Kirkdale Cave, and in 1830, to better show these collections off, it moved to its present location in the abbey gardens. Phillips must have felt a particular affinity with the new building, for it was built from sandstone quarried at the Hackness Estate, near Scarborough, where his uncle now lived.

The Yorkshire Museum. Photograph: Wikipedia
The Yorkshire Museum. Photograph: Wikipedia

York was a hotbed of early–mid 19th Century geological endeavour, and the year after the museum was opened, Philosophical Society stalwart and local minister William Harcourt established the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The inaugural meeting was held in York, and Phillips became the assistant secretary, a post he held for the next three decades.

Pushing the boundaries of accepted wisdom is the only way to advance science, and Phillips, Harcourt and their colleagues certainly did that. Phillips’ 1829 book Illustrations of the Geology of Yorkshire gave the first comprehensive account of the county’s rocks, with an accompanying geological map and description of the fossils. In 1837, he stated that the age of the Earth was “too great to comprehend” and coined the concept of geological time.

Four years later, Phillips argued that there had been three great eras of life on our planet: the Palaeozoic (”old life”), Mesozoic (“middle life”), and Caenozoic (“new life”). The first was the age of fishes, the second of reptiles, and the third of mammals, all of which were proven by the sequential appearance of fossils in the rocks, and described using his uncle’s stratigraphic principles.

Unfortunately, one of the major supporters of the museum and the YPS was Sir William Cockburn (1773-1858), Dean of York, who was a devotedly scriptural* interpreter of time. He disagreed vehemently with the notion of a truly ancient Earth and, according to one 19th Century report, took delight in “insulting geologists from the pulpit of York Minster”.

Phillips was a religious man, but his studies of the rocks of Yorkshire had made him certain that a 6,000 year-old figure for the age of the Earth could not be literally true. Knowing he had support from Harcourt, and many others, Phillips decided the most sensible policy was to simply ignore Sir William.

He did not ignore his research though, and carried on teaching, writing, and exploring Yorkshire’s geology. His success led to a series of prestigious posts, first at King’s College, London, then Trinity College, Dublin, and then the British Geological Survey. Throughout this time, he kept his house in York, only leaving the city in the mid-1850s when Oxford University offered him a job.

Despite having no academic training, by 1860 Phillips had been appointed professor of geology there. That same year, provoked by Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory, with which he disagreed, Phillips finally came up with a number for the age of the Earth, based on how fast he thought sedimentary rocks could have accumulated.

Whether the recent death of Sir William Cockburn had emboldened Phillips is unclear, but he suggested the planet was between 38 and 96 million years old. Helpfully, this was a time range broadly supported by the great physicist, William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin), who calculated similar figures using the rate at which it would have taken a molten Earth to cool to its present temperature.

Many others disagreed, but Phillips was a highly respected figure and few of his colleagues argued with the broad idea that the Earth really had to be millions of years old. When he died in 1874, scores of Phillips’ fellow academics accompanied his hearse to the station, and when it arrived in York, the bells of the Minster rang for an hour and a half to lament his passing.

Time waits for no man, of course. Neither Phillips (nor indeed Lord Kelvin) knew about plate tectonics or radioactivity, the discoveries of which would completely overhaul our understanding of the Earth’s age. It is now known to be between 4.4 and 4.6 billion years old (despite what some latter day Cockburns might like to have you believe).

How a resurrected John Phillips would react to being told the Earth is so staggeringly ancient, I don’t know. I’m sure he’d be proud to see modern geochronology resting on the foundations that he helped build, though. The York museum man who explored deep time may not be as well-known as he should be, but his extraordinary contributions to science certainly are.

*Or perhaps I should say Ussherian, since the Bible didn’t give an exact number, and it was Archbishop James Ussher who calculated that the Earth had been created on October 23rd, 4004 BC.


Further reading