Friday, 19 August 2011

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

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