Skip to main content

The Earth: An Intimate History – Richard Fortey ****

It’s no surprise that this weighty geological exploration of the Earth carries an endorsement by Bill Bryson on the cover, because at times it seems more like a travel book than a work of popular science – and actually, that’s distinctly refreshing.
Fortey takes us to places where the Earth exposes its workings – such as Hawaii – and to key locations in the discoveries of Earth sciences, such as the Alpine location where the surprise discovery was made of a young layer of rock sitting beneath an older one, proving that dramatic folding had taken place. It often feels very like a book version of one of those TV documentaries that flies you all over the world to fill in a story. But Fortey is at his best when walking around a location and drifting between using “you” and “I” in a pleasantly unscientific fashion.
This is a much better approach than simply going into the mechanisms that make the Earth the way it is, and though occasionally (just as is the case with those TV documentaries) it’s hard not to feel “he only went there for the holiday, really”), such sour grapes are unfair. How better to get an insight into the Earth than by taking a tour of the geologically interesting bits? And in much of the book this works superbly well. There’s also the fascination of a huge detective story. If most rock looks to you like, well… rock, there’s wonder to be found in the cleverness of linking different locations across the world that once sat next to each other by the fossils they contain (Fortey’s speciality) or particular types of crystal embedded in them.
This is a very good book then. Why didn’t it make five stars? Just a few niggles. One is the price – at $21 in the US it’s not bad, but the £25 UK price is hard to justify. Then it’s simply too long. Where length is because there’s a huge amount to pack it’s fine, but here some of it is more down to extreme leisureliness, making it can be easy to lose concentration. For a popular science book it lacks a certain humanity. Key figures in geology are mentioned, but we don’t get any feel for what drove them, why they did what they did. And it tends to presume a little too much. Terms like plate tectonics are bandied around with little explanation for the first couple of hundred pages. But don’t be misled – these are genuinely just niggles.
This is about the best book around if you want to get a feel for how the Earth works. It’s one to be savoured slowly and warmly like a good port. Which can’t be a bad thing.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Dialogues - Clifford Johnson ***

The authors of science books are always trying to find new ways to get the message across to their audiences. In Dialogues, Clifford Johnson combines a very modern technique - the graphic novel or comic strip - with an approach that goes back to Ancient Greece - using a dialogue to add life to what might seem a dry message.

We have seen the comic strip approach trying to put across quite detailed science before in Mysteries of the Quantum Universe. As with that book, Dialogues manages to cover a fair amount of actual physics, but I still feel that the medium just wastes vast acres of page to say very little at all. This is brought home here because quite a lot of the sections of Dialogues start with several pages with no text on at all, just setting up the scenario.

As for using a discussion between two people to put a message across, Johnson makes the point that, for instance, Galileo's very readable masterpiece Two New Sciences is in the form of a dialogue (more accurately a discu…

On the Moor - Richard Carter ****

There's much to enjoy in Richard Carter's pean to the frugal yet visceral delights of being one with England's Pennine moorland. If this were all there were to the book it would have made a good nature read, but Carter cleverly weaves in science at every opportunity, whether it's inspired by direct observations of birds and animals and plants - I confess I was ignorant of the peregrine falcon's 200 mile per hour dive - or spinning off from a trig point onto the geometric methods of surveying through history all the way up to GPS.

Carter is something of an expert on Darwin, and inevitably the great man comes into the story many times - yet his appearance never seems forced. It's hard to spend your time in a natural environment like this and not have Darwin repeatedly brought to mind.

I confess to a distinct love of these moors. Having spent my first 11 years in and around Littleborough, just the other side of Blackstone Edge from Carter's moor, the moorland…

Liam Drew - Four Way Interview

Liam Drew is a writer and former neurobiologist. he has a PhD in sensory biology from University College, London and spent 12 years researching schizophrenia, pain and the birth of new neurons in the adult mammalian brain. His writing has appeared in Nature, New Scientist, Slate and the Guardian. He lives in Kent with his wife and two daughters. His new book is I, Mammal.

Why science?

As hackneyed as it is to say, I think I owe my fascination with science to a great teacher – in my case, Ian West, my A-level biology teacher.  Before sixth form, I had a real passion for the elegance and logic of maths, from which a basic competence at science at school arose.  But I feel like I mainly enjoyed school science in the way a schoolkid enjoys being good at stuff, rather than it being a passion.

Ian was a revelation to me.  He was a stern and divisive character, but I loved the way he taught.  He began every lesson by providing us with a series of observations and fact, then, gradually, between …