Alps as Inspiration

DOI: 10.2138/gselements.17.1.3

John Eiler

Looking down on the Earth from space, the Alps appear to be a small, and possibly unimportant, adornment to the tremendous girdle of “Alpide” orogens that stretch the full width of the southern margin of the Eurasian continent. But seen up close, and with historical perspective, the Alps punch far above their weight. From the deepest prehistory of our hominid ancestors to the modern age, the Alps have been a formidable barrier to trade, communication, migration, and conquest across the small, but storied, “peninsula” of Europe—a fact brought home for me when I recently toured a museum in Bolzano (Italy) dedicated to the life and remains of “Ötzi”, a man who met his end five thousand years ago in the high peaks and ice fields of the Ötztal Alps.

Given the thousands of years that humans have traversed the wonders of the Alpine landscape, it feels fitting that many of the first modern-sounding scientific murmurings about Earth materials and history came from 17th century thinkers, such as René Descartes, Agostino Scilla, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Nicolas Steno, who lived near, travelled through, or who simply explored the Alps. And that first flowering of geology as its own discipline, in the 18th century, was largely driven by scientists at Alps-accessible French and Swiss institutions. Key figures such as Jean-André Deluc and Horace Bénédict de Saussure were dedicated mountaineers who helped shape both the human exploration of Alpine landscapes and the emerging field of the geosciences through a combination of the locals’ love for their landscape, athletic daring, and the then-new spirit of scientific inquiry. Louis Agassiz was arguably the greatest of these figures; though he spent much of his career in the United States, he was born in western Switzerland and launched his professorial career at the University of Neuchâtel (Switzerland). During the decade that he spent living and working in Switzerland, the Alps provided the springboard for two of his greatest scientific contributions: the systematic study of fossil fish from the Mesozoic limestones that were laid down in the Tethys Ocean and were preserved in the nappes of the Helvetic Alps; and the revolutionary theory, inspired by his studies of the moraines of Alpine glaciers, that the Earth had previously been subject to a widespread, and long-lasting, ice age.

Otto Ampferer, c. 1900.

Otto Ampferer (1875–1947)—a figure central to the scientific controversies at the heart of this issue of Elements—was also an important contributor to this tradition (Fig. 1). Born and raised in the Tyrol (the Alpine region at the borders of Italy, Austria, and Switzerland), Ampferer spent the entirety of his career working in the Alps, most of that time as a member of the Austrian geological survey. He was a paragon of field mapping and mountaineering, exploring the challenging Alpine landscape in a way that reached into every nook and cranny and every element of its geology. Ampferer was an early exponent of the nappe theory for the development of large-scale structures in mountain belts; even more importantly, he was the originator of a theory of sub-crustal currents in the interior of the solid earth—something that, to the modern ear, sounds suspiciously like mantle convection (Fig. 2). Ampferer imagined that these interior flows drive deformation by dragging the crust into regions of convergence and divergence, in places leading to a form of subduction and associated orogeny. Ampferer’s idea of subduction differed from what is usually meant by that term today, and might be minimized as just one of several loosely similar ideas that preceded the plate tectonic revolution. But in this issue, we see his thoughts, first developed in reaction to simply walking and observing the Alpine landscape, reflected, tested, and adapted using the most modern geophysical, petrological, and geochemical data. Geology can be seen as a scientific response to the human urge to connect with the beauties and mysteries of the landscapes in which we live. Nowhere do I see this idea more strongly than in the story of Tyrol native Otto Ampferer and the Alpine peaks in which he was able to see some hint of the Earths’ dynamic inner life.

Ampferer’s schematic illustrating the division and movement of crust by ascending and descending undercurrents. From Ampferer (1941)

John Eiler
Principal Editor


Ampferer O (1941) Gedanken uber das Bewegungsbild des Atlantischen Raumes. Sitzungsberichte der Akademie der Wissenschaften Wien 150: 19-35


  1. Helmut Weissert on June, 2021 at 2:04 am

    In your editorial you praise Louis Agassiz as the greatest of the early naturalists and geologists working in the Alps. You see him, as many others still do, as the founder of Ice Age theory. Of course, we all know, that Agassiz turned, later in his career, into a fierce racist. However, many still like to see Agassiz as the man who was “inspired by his studies of the moraines of Alpine glaciers, that the Earth had previously been subject to a widespread, and long-lasting, ice age” . New work on the history of early Ice Age research by Tobias Krüger and others demonstrates, that the discussion on ice ages in earth history was already advanced in Switzerland, when Agassiz learned from his colleague Jean de Charpentier about traces of past glaciers in the landscape and about evidence of widespread glaciations. Yes, Agassiz later became the most important advocate of the ice age theory and he can be described as “intellectual catalyst” (Albert Carozzi) for Ice Age research. But, his ideas root in the fundamental discoveries of past glaciations by Jean-Pierre Perraudin, Ignaz Venetz, Jean de Charpentier and many others and on exchange of thoughts with de Charpentier and Schnieper. To single out Agassiz as the most outstanding figure in early alpine research, therefore, seems not appropriate at all.

    • John M Eiler on June, 2021 at 7:04 am

      Thank you for your comments, which succinctly articulate why I made a point of qualifying Agassiz as ‘arguably the greatest of these figures’ that my essay briefly describes. I stated a common and defensible positive view of his scientific legacy; and you have argued with that view, also for defensible reasons.

      First, I think we can agree that Agassiz contributed to the intellectual infrastructure of western racist thought. In this sense he was in distasteful but common company; it is challenging to list a dozen influential 19th century European intellectuals without including one or more committed and vocal racists. For example, some modern scholars argue that two other famous figures that appear in my essay — Descartes and Leibniz — also contributed to rationalizing colonialism and orientalism, respectively. More importantly, all of them, whatever their personal qualities and motives, helped lead the intelligentsia of floridly racist societies in a period of aggressive global expansion. It is not obvious to me what should be done about these people now, but it will not be easy to simply avoid them when discussing 19th century science.

      Your more developed argument, regarding the originality of Agassiz’ contributions to glacial theory, raises a more nuanced point. It is well established that Agassiz responded to the discoveries and theories of other scientists working on glacial landscapes. But it is also clear that he played an extraordinary and impactful role as a synthesizer and extrapolator of their observations and ideas. Every scientific subject and era wrestles with the paradox that grand synthesis and intellectual theft are close neighbors. Perhaps the best question in Agassiz’ case is, can you imagine explaining the development of theories of global glacial epochs without mentioning him? If, as I suspect, you would struggle to connect the dots from de Charpentier and Schnieper to modern climate science without him, then perhaps his legacy will remain tarnished – arguable – but still standing.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.