This Day in Jewish History / A Man Who Studied the Being of Rock Is Born

Auguste Michel-Levy climbed mountains and created rock in the lab, furthering our understanding of the planet at the microscopic level.

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Auguste Michel-Lévy. His particular love was volcanic outpourings, also known as igneous rock. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

On this day in 1844, the French geologist Auguste Michel-Lévy, who would revolutionize the study of our planet, was born. He would also be the first person to synthesize igneous rocks in the laboratory to learn more about how they were created. To boot, he pioneered the study of stone at the microscopic level.

Auguste Michel-Lévy was born in Paris on August 7, 1844, to Michel Lévy, the president of the Académie de Médecine and a renowned military hygienist, and Adele Dupont. Nurtured in this intellectual and well-to-do household, Auguste was considered brilliant.

He graduated from the Polytechnic School of Paris at the usual age, 18, and, bedecked with scholarly awards and captivated by geology, he went on to the School of Mines. He graduated at the top of his class in 1867 and went into government service.

Three years later, Michel-Lévy joined France’s geological map service. Within seven years he was its director and remained so until his death. He was also the inspector general of mining in France; all these pursuits enabled him to delve into what fascinated him most – the being of rock. His particular love was volcanic outpourings, also known as igneous rock.

Much of Michel-Lévy’s scientific work was done in collaboration with a fellow Frenchman, Ferdinand Fouqué. Together they developed the science of studying rock at the microscopic level, called microscopic petrography. This involves slicing rock as thin as possible and peering at it through a microscope to examine its mineral content and texture.

To further their understanding, the two broke ground, as it were, by synthesizing igneous rocks in the lab, including feldspar and nepheline. In doing so, they demonstrated impressive creativity given the primitive conditions they were working in. Igneous rocks form from the solidification of magma, as opposed to sedimentary rocks and metamorphic rocks — rocks that changed form after being subjected to heat.

Michel-Lévy’ also trekked the western Alps, meticulously studying the rocks of the Pyrenees and the extinct volcanoes in central France to determine how and when they were formed. The 120-kilometer-long nature park in the Auvergne region, along the Massif Central, has no less than four chains of extinct volcanoes featuring lovely crater lakes.

In this way Michel-Lévy’ and Fouqué became the first to demonstrate the optical properties of rocks, known as their birefringence, which became a method for identification. (Birefringence is behind the phenomenon of double refraction – a ray of light being split by polarization into two rays taking different paths. That’s what happens when you look through a clear crystal and see more than one image of what’s behind it.)

The result is the Michel-Lévy Interference Color Chart. Michel-Lévy also classified igneous rocks based on their mineralogy, as well as their microscopic texture and composition. He was the first to show that different conditions of crystallization could create different igneous rocks from the same chemical building blocks.

Michel-Lévy and Fouqué would also cowrite the seminal two-volume work on microscopic petrology: “Minéralogie micrographique: Roches éruptives françaises,” published in 1879. In 1896, Michel-Lévy was elected for life to the Académie des Sciences, founded in 1666 by Louis XIV. He also served on the council of public hygiene for the department of the Seine.

In 1872 he married Henriette Saint-Paul. They had four children — Albert, Henri, Marguerite and Adele. Auguste Michel-Lévy outlived his wife by one year, dying in Paris in 1911.