Charles Lyell

Book review – The Pyrocene: How We Created an Age of Fire, and What Happens Next

8-minute read

Fire can be considered one of our oldest tools, long used to shape whole landscapes. But our burning of fossil fuels presents a clear break from what has come before. Riffing on the concept of the Anthropocene, environmental historian Stephen J. Pyne calls ours the Pyrocene: an age of fire. Drawing on a long career writing about and working with fire, The Pyrocene is a short book that overflows with interesting ideas.

The Pyrocene (more…)

Book review – The Greywacke: How a Priest, a Soldier and a Schoolteacher Uncovered 300 Million Years of History

7-minute read

Take a look at the geological time scale*. Thanks to the dinosaurs, we have all heard of the Cretaceous, Jurassic, and Triassic. However, going back in time from the Triassic, the Phanerozoic Eon in which we live today stretches another 289 million years into the past; from the Permian that ended ~252 million years ago, through the Carboniferous, Devonian, Silurian, Ordovician, to the Cambrian that started ~539 million years ago. In The Greywacke, amateur geologist Nick Davidson tells the story of how those geological periods got their names and transports the reader back to the heydays of Victorian geology when three men would make Britain’s rocks the centre of international attention. In so doing, he unlocks for a general audience an episode in the history of geology that was so far consigned to more technical literature.

The Greywacke (more…)

Book review – Notes from Deep Time: A Journey Through Our Past and Future Worlds

6-minute read

Deep time is, to me, one of the most awe-inspiring concepts to come out of the earth sciences. Getting to grips with the incomprehensibly vast stretches of time over which geological processes play out is not easy. We are, in the words of geologist Marcia Bjornerud, naturally chronophobic. In Notes from Deep Time, author Helen Gordon presents a diverse and fascinating collection of essay-length chapters that give 16 different answers to the question: “What do we talk about when we talk about deep time?” This is one of those books whose title is very appropriate.

Notes from Deep Time (more…)

Book review – Paleontology: An Illustrated History

6-minute read

It is no mean feat to try and tell the history of a discipline as enormous as palaeontology through images in a mere 256 pages. Yet this is exactly the challenge that David Bainbridge has taken on with this book. He has curated a striking selection of vintage and modern palaeoart, archival photos of fossils and their discoverers, and scientific diagrams through the ages. The resulting Paleontology: An Illustrated History manages to combine the old and the new with the familiar and the unfamiliar into one neatly crafted package that makes for a very nice gift.

Paleontology (more…)

Book review – Weird Earth: Debunking Strange Ideas about Our Planet

7-minute read

Geologist and palaeontologist Donald R. Prothero is a busy man. Next to writing a steady stream of books on geology, fossils, and evolution, he is a noted sceptic. Previous books have addressed cryptozoology, UFOs and aliens, and science denial more generally. In Weird Earth, Prothero debunks conspiracy theories and pseudoscience relating to our planet, making for an entertaining slaying of geological fringe ideas. However, his aim is not merely to demean, but also to show readers what the actual evidence is and how we gather it. If the idea of a flat earth strikes you as unbelievable, buckle up, because it gets much weirder.

Weird Earth (more…)

Book review – On the Origin of Evolution: Tracing ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’ from Aristotle to DNA

8-minute read

History will forever associate Charles Darwin with the theory of evolution, but the idea was in the air. Had not Darwin published his famous book, someone else would have likely snatched the prize. Husband-and-wife duo John and Mary Gribbin here examine the wider milieu in which Darwin operated and the many thinkers who preceded him. Given their previous collaborations, the first two parts of On the Origin of Evolution read like a well-oiled machine, but the book falters when they turn their eyes to the legacy of Darwin’s ideas.

On the Origin of Evolution slanted (more…)

Book review – Catastrophic Thinking: Extinction and the Value of Diversity from Darwin to the Anthropocene

7-minute read

The idea that extinction is a bad thing and diversity a good thing seems self-evident to us. But, by surveying more than two centuries of scholarship, science historian David Sepkoski shows that this was not always the prevailing belief. Rather than a book discussing mass extinction, Catastrophic Thinking is more meta than that, discussing how we have been discussing mass extinction. So, we have an interesting premise, but also an interesting author because – bonus detail – the work of his father, J. John (Jack) Sepkoski Jr., was instrumental in recognizing the Big Five mass extinctions. I could not wait to get to grips with this book.

Catastrophic Thinking (more…)

Book review – Rates of Evolution: A Quantitative Synthesis

7-minute read

The question of the tempo of evolution cuts right to the heart of evolutionary theory. Emeritus professor in evolutionary biology (and a list of other disciplines) Philip D. Gingerich here takes an empirical stab at quantifying how fast evolution happens, something which has not been done very often. The resulting Rates of Evolution is a technical monograph for an academic audience that contains thought-provoking ideas.

Rates of Evolution (more…)

Book review – Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World

At first blush, you might think this book is part of the ongoing craze of spiritual mindfulness books. But let me refrain from snarky comments. Geologist Marcia Bjornerud does indeed want to instil a sense of mindfulness about deep time, but one that is, pardon the pun, grounded in geology. In her opinion, most of us lack an awareness of durations of important chapters in our planet’s history and of rates of change of many natural processes. As a consequence, we fail to see just how rapidly we are altering our planet. In one of the first paragraphs she eloquently writes:

“Like inexperienced but overconfident drivers, we accelerate into landscapes and ecosystems with no sense of their long-established traffic patterns, and then react with surprise and indignation when we face the penalties for ignoring natural laws”.

And with that, she had me hooked.

Timefulness (more…)