The Edinburgh Geologist
Issue no 37

A caseful of correspondence

by the Editor, based on contributions Radvan Horny, Peter J Wyllie & Robert H Dott Jr.


With the recent election of Dr. Radvan Horny as a Corresponding Fellow of the Society, I decided that readers might be interested in hearing something about some of the distinguished scientists that have been honoured in this way. So I wrote to around half of the current Corresponding Fellows. The one thing that they would seem to have in common is that they are all very busy men - and yes, they are all men. That's another thing. Three of them have written back to me.

'Dear Mr. Fyfe,' wrote Radvan Horny from Prague, 'I have just found your letter (undated and still wrapped) in a pile of papers concerning our new exhibition devoted to the 150th anniversary of the birth of Professor O. P. Novak, our outstanding palaeontologist. According to the text, it must have been written prior to April (!). I deeply apologise for this embarrassing event, caused by my senile disregard and absentmindedness, enhanced by the preparation for the exhibition...'

Peter J.Wyllie, Emeritus Professor of Geology at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, was similarly apologetic. 'Dear Alan,' he wrote, 'I have just discovered, with a shock of guilt, your letter of 16th March within one of the stacks on my desk. Since I retired 2 years ago (at age 69), those stacks get higher and higher, and I forget more and more...'

And Professor Robert Dott from the University of Wisconsin wrote, 'With some embarrassment I confess that I accidentally lost an e-mail request for some anecdotal material from Corresponding Fellows of the Edinburgh Geological Society. I believe that the request came from you as editor of the Newsletter. Coincidentally, I had mailed a postal letter to you dated 9th January 2001...'

Ah yes, I remember now. It was Robert Dott who wrote to me with the words of the song entitled Jointing, written in 1926 by Gilbert Wilson when he was a MSc student at the University of Wisconsin (see Poet's Corner, Spring 2001). So it was his letter that I had mislaid when the last issue of THE EDINBURGH GEOLOGIST went to press! I thank him for writing to me and letting me know the source of the song, as well as forgiving me my own embarrassing lapse of memory. With all of us in the same boat, I look forward to hearing from the others in due course when my letters are exhumed from their epistolary stratigraphic piles.

Though his time for studies is 'rather limited' as he puts it, Radvan Horny has sent me a proposal for a couple of articles. In 1863, Professor AntonÌn Fric, director of the Geology and Zoology Departments of the Museum in Prague, published a nice and catchy short article about Murchison's visit to Prague, containing some important paragraphs illustrating the political atmosphere in Prague at the time. He has offered to translate it and add a short introduction. He also writes that there are several of Murchison's letters to Jaochim Barrande from the years 1854-1863 in the Archives of the National Museum, and that it may be possible to reprint them together with a preface. I look forward to receiving and publishing these.

Peter Wyllie sent me a load of paperwork, including a biographical summary, which he referred to as 'a first draft of source material for my obituary'. In 1948, he joined the Royal Air Force and there that he pursued the sport of boxing, earning the title of 1949 Royal Air Force (Scotland) heavyweight boxing champion. After serving in the armed forces, he attended the University of St. Andrews, where he earned his BSc in Geology and Physics in 1952.

The frigid climate of the East Neuk must have agreed with him because later that year, he was driving a team of huskies through the frozen, unexplored mountains in Dronning Louise Land, serving as an assistant field geologist with the British North Greenland Expedition. For the next two years, including two long, dark winters without sunlight, expedition members were isolated in the frozen arctic. For his role in the expedition, Wyllie received the Polar Medal from the Queen.

Wyllie returned to the University of St. Andrews, securing his PhD in 1958 and, having lectured there, also taught at Pennsylvania State University in the USA and Leeds University in England. He held the departmental chair at the University of Chicago before joining the California Institute of Technology in 1983. Here he was chair of the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences for four years before returning to teaching and research. In 1994, he was appointed Division Academic Officer and served in this capacity until his retirement in 1999. In 2001 he received the Mineralogical Society of America's Roebling Medal, which is awarded for 'scientific eminence as represented primarily by scientific publication of outstanding original research in mineralogy.'

He has been honoured not only in his adoptive country (he became a naturalised American in 1995), but was also privileged to become a Foreign Member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 1996. His citation from the Academy tells of his accomplishments and describes him in characteristically flowery language as:

an experimental petrologist of world renown, specializing in the effects of volatile components in melting relationships in synthetic and natural rock systems under high temperature and pressure. His research is always directed toward processes in global tectonics, and addresses the problems by combining experimental petrology with geology and geophysics. His main achievements consist in research on magma genesis in relation to plate tectonics and the deep processes of the earth's interior, and the resultant conditions for mineralization. These are highly evaluated by geologists, geophysicists and geochemists all over the world, and have made him a leading figure in the international community.

But we should be proud of the fact that we got in there first, for it was in 1984 that the Edinburgh Geological Society elected him as a Corresponding Fellow!

Bob Dott, or Robert H Dott Jr., as he signs himself, tells me in his letter that he is a great grandson of Fyfe ancestry. Whether he and I are related or not, we have not yet discovered.

He also told me an interesting story relating to the recognition of the value of cross bedding for determining 'way-up' in metamorphic rocks. This method, he writes, was introduced to Britain by two young Wisconsin graduates in the summer of 1924 at Ballachulish in the northwestern Highlands. These lads were accompanying Norwegian Thorolf Vogt and they demonstrated to him why the Ballachulish succession must be upside down. This was contrary to E.B. Bailey's tentative interpretation of some ten years earlier. By coincidence, Robert Dott and a colleague stopped briefly at Ballachulish in 1963 after crossing on the old ferry in order to view briefly and photograph some cross-bedded quartzites. He says that at the time, he did not know the historical importance of those very same quartzites in the diffusion of knowledge of way-up criteria. He notes that these rocks have yet another historical importance in being cited by John Playfair among the evidence that the so-called Primitive rocks of the Highlands could not be truly primitive. His (Playfair's) friend James Hutton had argued that because they contained clastic rocks like these, which are composed of still older materials, then Highland rocks could not be wholly 'primitive'. Playfair also noted that such rocks elsewhere contained fossils, which also made them 'not strictly primitive'.

The recognition of way-up criteria by the two Wisconsin graduates receives some coverage in a recent article by Professor Dott, published in The Geological Society of America Bulletin for August 2001. The paper is entitled Wisconsin Roots of the Modern Revolution in Structural Geology and also includes a discussion of the work of Professor Gilbert Wilson of Wisconsin University and Imperial College.

My thanks are due to the Corresponding Fellows who have lived up to their name and I thank them for writing to me. I sincerely hope that they will forgive my jests at their expense! I also sincerely hope to contribute a second part to this article in the next issue, providing, of course, that my requests are not lost in the interim. If Fellows notice the inclusion of pink fluorescent paper and envelopes as a miscellaneous item in this year's accounts, they will know why!


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