Archive for July, 2011

My colleagues on the social / cultural side of Geography frequently use the word “turn” to describe changes in attitude or emphasis within the discipline. They talk about the “cultural turn” or the “feminist turn” or the “mobility turn” to refer to points in the history of the subject where attention turned towards those themes or issues. I take their use of “turn” to be similar to what I have always referred to in science as a “paradigm shift”: a change in the basic outlook of a discipline based on a fundamental shift in core knowledge or philosophy. That term comes from the work of the philosopher Thomas Kuhn, who wrote a book called “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” in 1962 in which he differentiated between periods of “normal science” when most people are working within a particular paradigm, and periods of revolution or “paradigm shifts” when either gradual progress or a new development within a subject makes traditional approaches untenable and causes people to start working under a new set of assumptions. The history of science is full of these points.

I am currently doing research for a new book that I am writing about glaciers, and just now I’m in a section focusing on the history of the science of glaciers. My book is aimed at a wide audience, but I also want it to be relevant academically within the discipline of Geography, since that discipline has been at the centre of all my professional writing. The early history of glacier science provides an outstanding example of a paradigm shift, and I have been exploring the idea that this particular paradigm shift could be referred to as a “glacial turn” that affected broad areas of science and of wider culture in the middle of the 19th century. I am thinking that it might be interesting to include some discussion of that notion in my book.

In the early part of the nineteenth century it was not widely recognised that glaciers had ever been much more extensive than they are now. It was widely believed that Noah’s flood from the Bible was the last major event to affect our landscape. People did not imagine there had ever been an “ice age”. Then around 1840 a man called Louis Agassiz brought together ideas from a small number of earlier observers and unleashed upon the geological world the astonishing idea that huge areas of the planet had at one time been buried beneath enormous ice sheets, and that the landscapes that we see around us now in places like the UK and North America were created by ice in that glacial age. The “Glacial Theory” was a huge idea, and gave a completely new perspective to our view of how the world works and how landscapes are created. Looking back at that period now, one remarkable thing is how quickly and how deeply this new idea penetrated not only geology but science, and popular culture, more generally. The sudden realisation that glaciers came and went over the face of the planet through time and that the landscapes of the “civilised world” had been created by glaciers of which the scars were still clearly visible, changed our view of many things. When Charles Darwin published his ideas about evolution (another paradigm shift!)  in “The Origin of Species” in 1859, he cited Agassiz’s recent work and used the idea of the “Glacial Period”, and the climate change that it implied, in his own argument.

Our understanding of the physical world changed abruptly at that point when Louis Agassiz demonstrated that glaciers had once been much bigger and had changed the landscape in an enormous, ancient ice age.  Our perspective on our own position in the world also changed. Our recognition of the very fact of glaciers and ice ages, what I refer to as our “noticing” of glaciers, has a massive impact on our view of the world both in a physical, practical sense and in an almost metaphysical sense of grounding our perception of our place in the world. It gives us a new context. A world with glaciers in it gives us a particular way of recognising both scale and fragility in the environment, and that recognition is reflected strongly in our image of ourselves within that environment.  On the one hand glaciers and ice sheets make us feel very small. On the other hand, our impact upon them shows us to be very big in our ability to affect the planet. This evolving view has been reflected in the increasing sophistication of the way glaciers have featured in art and, recently, in international environmental politics. We live, therefore, not only in a physical ice age (an age when there are glaciers present on earth) but also, and only for the last century or so, in a cultural ice age, in other words a period when humanity notices, recognises, and ascribes physical and cultural importance to glaciers. We live in an age where glaciers affect our view of the world, and of ourselves.

Whether from a purely scientific perspective, or from a perspective that includes cultural, psychological or even metaphysical points of view, the paradigm shift represented by Agassiz’s promotion of the Glacial Theory from about 1840 can therefore be considered as what some of my colleagues would call a “turn”. I have recently been reading work by Adriana Craciun that refers to the “Oceanic Turn” in the 18th century. I think in my book I may find myself referring to the “Glacial Turn” of the 19th Century.

Read Full Post »