Agassiz and the glaciers. His research management and his credits

Jp. Schaer, Agassiz and the glaciers. His research management and his credits, ECLOG GEOL, 93(2), 2000, pp. 231-256
Citations number
Categorie Soggetti
Earth Sciences
Journal title
ISSN journal
0012-9402 → ACNP
Year of publication
231 - 256
SICI code
During Agassiz's stay in Neuchatel (1832-1846) his scientific output reache d its apogee. At that time, his activity was mainly oriented towards biolog y, above all fossil faunas, (fish, sea urchins, molluscs). In 1836 during a prolonged visit to Bex, Jean de Charpentier gave him the derails of the gl acier theory, that his friend Ignace Venetz had defended for a number of pe ars and in which he himself believed. To convince Agassiz of the accuracy o f this new theory, he took him to the field in the Rhone valley and up to C hamonix. These visits of initiation and striated limestones observed later on the Jura slopes transformed Agassiz from a strong sceptic into a vigorou s defender of glaciers as an important agent in the Earth's history. One year later, before he had made any new research on glaciers, he used th e information he had been given to make his famous Neuchatel speech. With t he arguments he had just received, he innovates and shocks his audience by his explanation of the distribution of erratic blocks and his suggestion th at the present fauna are new creations replacing those that had vanished du ring the catastrophic cooling of the glacial age. Al that time a large shee t of ice covered the whole of Europe from the North Pole to the Mediterrane an. The erratics are considered to be large blocks of rock swept away from the rising Alps that slid on the ice sheets up to the Jura Mountains. In 1840 after some brief visits to the glaciers, Agassiz publishes his firs t important volume: Etude sur les glaciers. The good description of glacier morphology and the luxurious lay out of the edition with magnificent litho graphs makes one forget that the text repeats erroneous ideas and even adds some new ones. In publishing so rapidly Agassiz is once a(gain in front of the stage. He shows little interest In the shadow his work might produce o n Charpentier's which was published less than a year after his own. Charpen tier's criticism concerning some of Agassiz's affirmations and illustration s puts an end to their cordial relationship. but this does not disturb in a ny way Agassiz's own enthusiasm to carry out his research on the glaciers. Studer's support of the glacier theory, the identification by Agassiz of th e ancient glaciers in the Northern parts of the British Isles this most out standing scientific discovery on this subject) and also his numerous public ations assure him the position of unopposed leader of glacier research. Fro m 1841-1846 his investigations of the Aar glacier mobilised many collaborat ors and an ever increasing financial support. This adventure was brilliantl y lead and supported by a remarkably well orchestrated propaganda which add s even more glory to his activities. But despite the important means, progr ess was limited especially towards the glacial dynamics. Before his departu re for the USA, he writes at speed the first volume of the Glacier system. Held back by his old visions, he does not manage to incorporate his new res ults in order to establish a coherent theory. Today this partial hold up li ke his other faults in this field are forgotten and Agassiz remains the fla re of the glacier revolution. This recognition is essentially linked to the credibility, from which he had always profited, as well as his entrepreneu rship and his publicity. It is true that, with Schimper's help, he introduc ed the original and fertile idea of the Glacial period but this genial trai t was based on very shallow arguments. One must also be aware that the main scientific discoveries of that time in the glaciology domain were not made by Agassiz but by Perraudin, Venetz, Charpentier, Guyot and even Forbes.