By Duncan Steel 19/06/2019


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There are many places, both in New Zealand and elsewhere around the globe, that are named for the nineteenth-century Scottish geologist Sir Roderick Impey Murchison. It seems astonishing how many of these are connected in some way with events of geological significance, or are otherwise of scientific importance. 

One of my predilections is writing blog posts prompted by the occurrence of some sort of anniversary. In recent weeks I have noted the centenary of the total solar eclipse of 1919, which demonstrated the veracity of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity; the 250th anniversary of the observation of the transit of Venus by James Cook and his accompanying scientists from Tahiti; and the annual recurrence of Bloomsday. This week I have, however, missed the 90th anniversary of the Murchison earthquake of 17th June 1929, which killed 17 people.

I am not going to write about that earthquake here. My intent is limited to pointing out the remarkable fact that places named for Sir Roderick Impey Murchison (1792-1871) have a notable propensity for being linked to scientific matters. This is peculiar in that Murchison was himself a geologist.

Roderick Murchison was born in Scotland, and his father died whilst he was young, but the family was wealthy. At only 16 he served in the Peninsular War under Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington), leaving the military when he was 24. A few years later he was urged into science by Sir Humphrey Davy, and developed an interest in geology.

In that discipline he had several notable achievements, including the naming of the Silurian period (444 to 419 million years ago) based on his studies along the border between England and Wales, and the Permian period (299 to 252 million years ago) with a title derived from the Russian city of Perm near the Ural Mountains. (The End-Permian Extinction, otherwise known as the Great Dying, is regarded as the most-severe mass extinction to have occurred across terrestrial history.)

 

 

In the past, whilst in London, I have attended many meetings of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), held in about nine months of the year on a Friday. In the afternoon the RAS events are divided into two sections, one covering astrophysics, the other geophysics and planetary science, before a General Meeting is held later in the day. I would generally attend the geophysics/planetary science section, and these would most often be held in the rooms of the Geological Society of London, which occupies (as does the RAS) part of Burlington House on Piccadilly. At one time Murchison was the President of the Geological Society. The large meeting room we would use has next to it a flight of stairs leading up to a smaller committee room. At the top of the stairs is a landing, and hung on the wall is a painting of Murchison, in all his presidential finery; from memory, I think it may well be the portrait shown above, on the frontispiece of the biography by Archibald Geikie, another prominent Scottish geologist.


I often drive through Murchison, on my way south from Nelson heading for either Christchurch or Alexandra. The evidence of the 1929 quake, and the Inangahua quake of 1968, is quite obvious. Naming a town for a geologist was perhaps asking for trouble. It has fared better than nearby Lyell, however, a gold-mining settlement that is now a ghost town. That was named for yet another Scottish geologist, Charles Lyell, with whom Murchison conducted field work in western Europe. (Lyell’s book Principles of Geology, which first appeared in 1830, was hugely influential in the development of the earth sciences.)

My first familiarity with a town named Murchison, however, derived from a natural event rather rarer than an earthquake in New Zealand. There is a place called Murchison in Victoria, Australia. In 1969 a large meteorite fell (in pieces) there. Now, meteorite falls are not that uncommon, but what was unusual about this one was the type of rock that had fallen from the sky: a carbonaceous chondrite. That term derives from the fact that these contain a large fraction of organic (i.e. carbon-based) chemicals, including amino acids. Such meteorites are the most-primitive materials that we have for study, having formed in the cloud of gas and dust from which the Sun and then the planets condensed. That is, they are older than the Earth.

Having two places bearing his appellation that are, by chance, linked to his profession would seem to be enough for most scientists, but Murchison can do better. The sparsely-populated west coast of Tasmania is collectively covered by the Electoral division of Murchison, itself named for Mount Murchison, with much mining occurring nearby (hence excellent geology…). Sir Roderick similarly has a lake, a river and a highway tagged with his surname in the region.

Head north into New South Wales and you’ll find Murchison County. Back in NZ, our own Murchison County was subsumed into Tasman District after 1989. Further south, in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park we have the Murchison Glacier, and glaciology is inarguably part of the earth/geological sciences. Down in Fiordland are the Murchison Mountains, where the takahe was re-discovered in 1948.

In the north-east of South Africa is a small town named Murchison, though I don’t think he ever went there, despite the claim that he was a prospector in the region. A ways north of there, in Uganda, are the Murchison Falls.

Further afield, in Texas there is a city of Murchison, though it has only a few hundred inhabitants, and it was named for a different person with that surname.

Heading to cooler climes, the Murchison Promontory is the most-northerly point in mainland Canada (and therefore mainland North America), at latitude 72 degrees; that is, there are only islands further north, and none of Alaska comes this close to the North Pole. Other frigid places in Canada, and in Greenland, have also managed to get the Murchison name plastered on them.

Let’s get back to science. There is a 58-km wide impact crater on the Moon called Murchison. I am mystified as to why there is no asteroid bearing his name (yet), and I will endeavour to rectify that.

Finally, in this geographical peregrination, to Western Australia. The Shire of Murchison through which flows the Murchison River (which has tributaries named the Roderick and the Impey) covers a good-sized chunk of this huge state; the Murchison bioregion (usually termed simply ‘The Murchison’) even more so. It is mostly empty, of people.

Because of that, it is the sort of place that astronomers like to term “radio quiet”: few transmitters such as TV stations, mobile phones, or microwave ovens. And that is a major reason why the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (the Australian Square Kilometre Array [SKA] Pathfinder), and the Murchison Widefield Array, were built there.

Above I showed the frontispiece and title page of Murchison’s biography by Archibald Geikie. A far more-modern text is Scientist of Empire: Sir Roderick Murchison, Scientific Exploration and Victorian Imperialism, by Robert A. Stafford of La Trobe University in Melbourne. This includes, as its Figure 1, a map of the British Empire at the time of Murchison’s death in 1871, showing the topographical features (as opposed to towns or administrative regions) that were named for him. This link will take you to that global map.

All in all, it is clear that Sir Roderick Impey Murchison did particularly well in terms of having features of scientific significance named after him, even if the links have been manifested only a century or more after his death. At least three of them – the meteorite, the lunar crater, and the astronomical observatory – give me the excuse to include him in this blog entitled out of space.

Roderick Murchison, from Vanity Fair (1870).