The three-day meeting on the origin of the granites that opens in Edinburgh on September 14 is billed as a symposium celebrating the bicentenary of the work of James Hutton. But who is this James Hutton? Could it possibly be that same James Hutton whose name was invoked at another conference but a decade or so ago, the Hutton often referred to as “the father of geology”? Well, yes and no—or rather, yes, yes and no—and thereby hangs a (tragic?) tale.

The James Hutton of today is certainly the same character as the one of the early 1970s. Born in 1726 to the wife of an Edinburgh merchant, he later studied medicine at Edinburgh University, the Sorbonne and the University of Leiden, obtaining a doctorate from Leiden in 1749. He then became a farmer and industrialist, making enough of a bundle at the latter occupation to enable him to return...

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