"James Hutton: The Genius of Time" by Ray Perman is a remarkable book about a remarkable man. James Hutton was one of the giants of the Scottish Enlightenment. His Theory of the Earth revolutionised the way we think about how our planet was formed and laid the foundation for the science of geology. He was a friend of James Watt and Adam Smith and spread his genius widely, publishing papers on subjects as diverse as agriculture, why it rains and a theory of language. It was for his achievements as "truly the Father of Modern Geology" (as he is described by contributor to the dustjacket of this book) that he will be best remembered.
Yet Hutton was, and remains, an enigma. In presenting ideas that were truly revolutionary, whether in writing or in academic lectures, he tended to obscure them with excursions and verbiage. This did little to help convince doubters and opponents that his central ideas - in particular that the Earth was vastly older than the 6,000 or so years held at the time to be the case by Biblical scholars - could possibly be true. Still worse for modern scholars looking at his life, his papers, library and mineral collection all vanished after his death and only a handful of letters survive, leaving huge gaps in his story.
Even his personal life holds remarkable mysteries. He was a sociable man who had many friends, and all knew him to be a lifelong bachelor who shared a house in Edinburgh with his older sister Isabella. Yet shortly after his death it became clear that he had a son, and grandchildren. That they were truly his was accepted at the time, yet it never became clear who the mother was or in what circumstances Hutton had known - and presumably left - her.
It's hard to imagine anyone better qualified than Ray Perman to tackle what in his introduction he describes as the fifth biography to be written of Hutton, a series starting with one written by Hutton's good friend John Playfair in 1805. Perman is a writer and journalist who has served as chair of the James Hutton Institute and is a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, of which James Hutton was a founder member. His approach to this book is careful and considered and he is very open with his readers about where the hard facts run out and informed conjecture begins; and about the efforts undertaken by scholars to fill the many voids that exist in the written records about Hutton.
Ray Perman's written style is engaging and approachable and this does much to help convey his own enthusiasm for a man who truly comes to life via the pages of this book. There must be some chance that Hutton's missing papers will at some point in the future be discovered in a long-unopened drawer in a library cupboard in a country house somewhere in southern Scotland. But, failing that, it is hard to see how Ray Perman's excellent biography of James Hutton is ever likely to be supplanted as the definitive account of Hutton's life and ideas.