Thomas Jefferson’s mammoth problem

Author of the Declaration of Independence, creator of the University of Virginia, a Founding Father and third president of the USA, Thomas Jefferson was a pioneer. Of this, you are undoubtedly aware. And, like most pioneers, Jefferson fostered an interest in virtually every aspect of science. This appetite for knowledge propelled him to organise the Lewis and Clark Expedition into the then-uncharted western area of the continent, brought under American governance by the Louisiana Purchase, which took place during his presidency. Considered an expert in civil engineering, anatomy, architecture, anthropology, physics, mechanics, meteorology, navigation, ethnology, botany and geography, it is not surprising that Jefferson was also a pioneer in our own field – palaeontology.

“Science is my passion,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “politics is my duty”. It could almost be said that he was as much of a pioneer in science as in law and politics – indeed, although we may remember his political pursuits as his most historically-resonant, his scientific achievements were pretty admirable. “Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science,” he wrote, “rendering them my supreme delight.” Christopher Hitchens thought that, were Jefferson born a decade later, he would have been one of the finest palaeontologists in history. However, as it was, Jefferson was still looking at mountains and asking how shells got so high up on the mountaintop.

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