Skip to main content

Earth: in 100 groundbreaking discoveries – Douglas Palmer ****

If I am honest my heart fell a little at the sight of this book. Although publishers seem to love ‘100 best whatever’ books and the like – which presumably means they sell – I find them mostly tedious. Ok, they can be handy gift books if you can’t think of anything better to give someone, but I rarely feel the urge to buy one. Usually they are a compendium of little articles with no flow and limited readability. They are okay to dip into, but little more.
Douglas Palmer’s book, then, was a considerable relief – because it can be read from end to end as a real book. It tells the story of the development of the Earth from its creation, through the formation of the continents, plate tectonics and more, to the present day. A surprising amount of the book is also about the development of life, in part through the fossil remains found in the Earth, so it’s a mix of a geology and a biology book. For good measure there is a bit towards the end about energy sources, climate change and natural resources.
Palmer’s writing is approachable, but I have to say that after about a dozen sections, I lost interest a little bit and felt the urge to skip forward to when the living things started to emerge. Fascinating though the basics of the Earth’s structure and formation are, geology is a topic where it’s very difficult to keep the interest rate going, and I did find my attention dropping off. That it was kept at all, was because of the impressive and sometimes stunning photographs that accompany each section.
Although you can read the book end to end, the 100 sections do slightly break up the flow. I tended to ignore the headings each section has (rather portentous stuff along the lines of: Definition/Discovery/Key Breakthrough/Importance) and just stick with the main text.
So the good news – this is probably the best ‘whatever in 100 blah blah’ type book I’ve ever read. (Why it’s ‘groundbreaking discoveries’ I’ve no idea, as many of the sections aren’t anything of the sort.) But it’s not a format I find endearing. I’m sure Douglas Palmer could have made this a better book still if he hadn’t been constrained by the format.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…