Scientist of the Day - John Playfair
John Playfair, a Scottish natural philosopher, was born Mar. 10, 1748, near Dundee. Playfair started out as a mathematician, but upon entering the Edinburgh intellectual circle that included Joseph Black, the chemist, and James Hutton, the geologist, he gradually switched over to natural history. He is best known for his book, Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth (1802; second image). Hutton had written his own book, The Theory of the Earth (1795), which argued that heat had played a major role in sculpting the earth (plutonism), and that changes in the earth's surface should only be explained by forces that we now see in operation (uniformitarianism). Unfortunately, Hutton's book was lengthy, and obscurely written, and does not seem to have been widely read. Playfair's Illustrations, on the other hand, was clear and direct, and eminently readable, and was primarily responsible for keeping Hutton's approach alive until Charles Lyell firmly cemented it into place in 1830 in his Principles of Geology.
The original edition of Playfair’s Illustrations was, strangely, unillustrated; but in 1815 it was issued in a French translation, which included (from other works) images of Fingal’s Cave (third image) and an igneous rock (fourth image). We have both editions of Playfair’s book in our History of Science Collection.
Playfair sat for the eminent Scottish portrait painter, Sir Henry Raeburn in 1811 (first image). We featured Raeburn in this space as Scientist of the Day just last year.
Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to firstname.lastname@example.org.