Search This Blog

Friday, 23 September 2011

William Buckland: an early Fortean experimenter

Mysterious falls of frogs or toads from the sky are among the most iconic of all Fortean phenomena. Less well-known, but just as inexplicable, are cases of trapped frogs or toads that are found alive when solid rock or masonry is broken open. At one time such occurrences were a mainstay of popular folklore, as described by Jan Bondeson in Fortean Times a few years ago (Toad in the Hole, FT221:38, April 2007). The heyday of the subject was between the late 17th and early 19th centuries -- just when the idea of testing theories via practical experimentation was coming into vogue. The "entombed toad" theory is ideally suited to testing by experiment, and numerous amateur naturalists rose to the task... though generally in a clumsy and unscientific way.

Amongst all the amateur experimenters, there was one professional on the case -- Dr William Buckland, Professor of Geology at the University of Oxford. Buckland, the son of a parish priest, was born in 1784 in Axminster (the bust on the left is in the museum in nearby Lyme Regis). By all accounts Buckland was an unusual character, possibly due to the odd mixture of a scientific vocation with a religious upbringing. As things turned out, Buckland seems to have been a good deal more open-minded than either the clergy of the time or his fellow scientists!

Buckland's experiments, as described in the Fortean Times article, were pretty rigorous. He used two types of rock, limestone and sandstone, and made twelve cavities in each. A live toad was sealed into each cavity using glass plates and clay. The blocks of stone were then buried for a year, after which they were dug up and examined through the glass plates. The toads that had been sealed in sandstone (which is non-porous) were all dead, whereas at least some of the toads sealed in limestone (which is porous) were still alive. The limestone block was re-buried... but after another year the remaining toads were all dead. Buckland concluded that it was impossible for toads to survive long periods of incarceration, and that therefore the popular accounts must be erroneous. In the Fortean Times article, however, Jan Bondeson suggests that there were flaws in Buckland's experimental method and that his conclusion was more pessimistic than it ought to have been.

Buckland also conducted experiments on a completely different subject, and in these he was more successful. On the Dorset coast, pebbles are occasionally found which when broken open contain a distinctive structure and what appear to be small bones and fish-scales. Buckland speculated that these objects were fossilized excrement, deposited by large marine creatures such as ichthyosaurs -- a theory he proved to his own satisfaction by dissecting a number of fish and injecting their intestines with quick-drying cement! Buckland coined the word "coprolite" to refer to these fecal fossils... and he liked them so much he had a special table made to display his best specimens! The table is now in Lyme Regis Museum in Dorset.

No comments: