Bursting the Limits of Time The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution
by Martin J. S. Rudwick
University of Chicago Press, 2005
Cloth: 978-0-226-73111-7 | Paper: 978-0-226-73113-1 | Electronic: 978-0-226-73114-8
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226731148.001.0001


In 1650, Archbishop James Ussher of Armagh joined the long-running theological debate on the age of the earth by famously announcing that creation had occurred on October 23, 4004 B.C. Although widely challenged during the Enlightenment, this belief in a six-thousand-year-old planet was only laid to rest during a revolution of discovery in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In this relatively brief period, geologists reconstructed the immensely long history of the earth-and the relatively recent arrival of human life. Highlighting a discovery that radically altered existing perceptions of a human's place in the universe as much as the theories of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud did, Bursting the Limits of Time is a herculean effort by one of the world's foremost experts on the history of geology and paleontology to sketch this historicization of the natural world in the age of revolution.

Addressing this intellectual revolution for the first time, Rudwick examines the ideas and practices of earth scientists throughout the Western world to show how the story of what we now call "deep time" was pieced together. He explores who was responsible for the discovery of the earth's history, refutes the concept of a rift between science and religion in dating the earth, and details how the study of the history of the earth helped define a new branch of science called geology. Rooting his analysis in a detailed study of primary sources, Rudwick emphasizes the lasting importance of field- and museum-based research of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Bursting the Limits of Time, the culmination of more than three decades of research, is the first detailed account of this monumental phase in the history of science.


Martin J. S. Rudwick is research associate in the department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge and professor emeritus of history at the University of California, San Diego. He is the author of The Meaning of Fossils, The Great Devonian Controversy, Scenes from Deep Time, and Georges Cuvier, all published by the University of Chicago Press.


“To describe Rudwick as ‘scholarly’ is rather like describing Mozart as ‘musically talented.' He is omniscient, and it’s greatly to be wished that this book becomes known beyond the ranks of historians of the recondite."
— Richard Fortey, London Review of Books

"Bursting the Limits of Time is a massive work and is quite simply a masterpiece of science history. . . . The book should be obligatory for every geology and history of science library, and is a highly recommended companion for every civilized geologist who can carry an extra 2.4 kg in his rucksack."
— Stephen Moorbath, Nature

“The first detailed account of the monumental phase in the history of science, when 18th- and early 19th-century earth scientists gradually pieced together the ideas of what we now call ‘deep time.’”
— History Today

"A magisterial work...a huge accomplishment—detailed, subtle, refined—and it is difficult to do justice here to the depth and breadth of its argument. It will surely stand as the definitive work on the topic for many years to come."
— Naomi Oreskes, Science

"This is a masterful study by the world's foremost expert in the history of natural history . . . which deserves to be read by anyone interested in understanding the foundations of the modern historical sciences. . . . A short review cannot possibly do justice to the intricate, erudite, meticulously researched and immensely enjoyable history Rudwick weaves. . . . It is difficult to imagine a more impressive survey of genuinely 'big questions' in the origin of a modern scientific field, or a more appropriate statement of a life's work. . . . In every way, this is a truly magnificent book."
— David Sepkoski, Reports of the National Center for Science Education

"Martin Rudwick has written a chef d'oeuvre. . . . Bursting the Limits of Time is a monument of the early history of geology that puts all before it in the shade."
— Charles C. Gillespie, Historical Studies in Natural Sciences

"One of the most respected historians of science today, Rudwick has produced a masterfully written, splendidly researched, richly detailed, and superbly illustrated (no less than 175 plates!) work."
— Keith R. Benson, History & Philosophy of Life Sciences


Coda: retrospect and prospect

List of illustrations


A note on footnotes


Part I - Understanding the Earth

1. Naturalists, philosophers, and others

2. Sciences of the Earth

3. The Theory of the Earth

4. Transposing History into the Earth

5. Problems with Fossils

Part II - Reconstructing Geohistory

6. A New Science of "Geology"?

7. Denizens of the Former World

8. Geognosy Enriched into Geohistory

9. The Gateway to the Deep Past

10. Earth's Last Revolution