geology

Book review – Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution

7-minute read

In preparation for Andy Secher’s new book Travels with Trilobites I decided to first reach back in time to read Richard Fortey’s 1999 book Trilobite! as a warm-up exercise. Why? For no other reason than that Fortey’s autobiography A Curious Boy impressed me so much that I bought several of his earlier books and I need an excuse to read them. This, then, is the first of a two-part dive into the world of that most enigmatic extinct creature: the trilobite.

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Book review – When the Sahara Was Green: How Our Greatest Desert Came to Be

7-minute read

When seeing the world through a deep-time lens, no landscape feature is permanent. The Sahara, for example, “only” came into existence some 7 million years ago. In that time, it has not always been the parched desert it is now but has been green and verdant numerous times, crisscrossed by rivers and home to hippos, turtles, fish and other animals and plants typical of wetter climes. In this book, retired earth scientist Martin Williams draws on a long lifetime of research and desert expeditions to give a very accessible introduction to the surprisingly complex geography of the Sahara, answering some very basic questions.

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Book review – The Earth: A Biography of Life

6-minute read

I have previously jokingly called the “Earth biography” a rite of passage for science writers; many authors try their hand at it at some point. Fortunately, the Earth is big and time is deep, so there are numerous ways to tell this story. Here, it is palaeontologist Elsa Panciroli’s turn. Next to many unusual examples by which to tell the story of life’s evolution, her writing stands out for correcting common misconceptions and for its inspired language.

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Book review – The Art and Science of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs

8-minute read

The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs are probably one of London’s better-kept secrets. This unlikely collection of life-size outdoor sculptures of some 30 prehistoric creatures—including dinosaurs, marine reptiles, and extinct mammals—has survived in the city’s southeast for almost 170 years. They have been lampooned for being terribly outdated in light of what we know today. But that does them no justice. In this gorgeously illustrated book, palaeontologist and palaeoartist Mark Witton has teamed up with Ellinor Michel, an evolutionary biologist and chair and co-founder of the Friends of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs charity. Together, they chart the full story of the inception, planning, construction, reception, and survival of the sculptures. Foremost, it shows how cutting-edge they were back then, why they still matter today, and why they need our help.

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Book review – The Last Days of the Dinosaurs: An Asteroid, Extinction, and the Beginning of Our World

7-minute read

The day an asteroid slammed into the Yucatán Peninsula some 66 million years ago is a strong contender for “the worst day in history”. The K–Pg extinction ended the long evolutionary success story of the dinosaurs and a host of other creatures, and has lodged itself firmly in our collective imagination. But what happened next? The fact that a primate is tapping away at a keyboard writing this review gives you part of the answer. The rise of mammals was not a given, though, and the details have been hard to get by. Here, science writer Riley Black examines and imagines the aftermath of the extinction at various times post-impact. The Last Days of the Dinosaurs ends up being a fine piece of narrative non-fiction with thoughtful observations on the role of evolution in ecosystem recovery.

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Book review – Tropical Arctic: Lost Plants, Future Climates, and the Discovery of Ancient Greenland

7-minute read

Greenland’s name might be considered one of history’s great ironies, apparently part of a cunning plan to attract Viking settlers. The locals simply called it Kalaallit Nunaat or “land of the Kalaallit”, after their people. However, once upon a time, Greenland was green. Tropical Arctic is the fruit of an 18-year collaboration between two palaeobotanists and an artist to bring to life the plant fossils found in East Greenland. In three paintings, it provides a glimpse of Greenland during a 10-million-year window at the Triassic–Jurassic boundary, some 200 million years ago. Much more than a coffee table book, it details the research that goes into producing scientifically accurate artwork, making it a rare treat for readers interested in botany and palaeontology.

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Book review – The Sloth Lemur’s Song: Madagascar from the Deep Past to the Uncertain Present

7-minute read

Before reading this book, I admit that my knowledge of Madagascar was shamefully rudimentary: I knew its location on the world map, the name of its capital city, and that lemurs are part of its endemic fauna. Fortunately for me, anthropologist Alison Richard, backed by her five decades of research experience, has written a natural history book in the broadest sense of the word, encompassing geology, (palaeo)climatology, botany, zoology, conservation, and much else besides. She skillfully dismantles simplistic dichotomies and is particularly passionate about challenging the dominant conservation narrative that Madagascar was a forested paradise until humans arrived. The Sloth Lemur’s Song is revelatory in more than one way and I came away with a much deeper understanding of this remarkable island.

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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.

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Book review – Super Volcanoes: What They Reveal about Earth and the Worlds Beyond

6-minute read

If volcanoes make you giddy, then this is the book for you. Robin George Andrews is that rare hybrid of the scientist–journalist: a volcanologist who decided to focus on science communication after completing his PhD. Super Volcanoes combines scientific exactitude with engaging writing and is a tour of some exceptional volcanoes on Earth and elsewhere in the Solar System. Andrews starts it with an unabashedly enthusiastic mission statement: “I want you to feel unbridled glee as these stories sink in and an indelible grin flashes across your face as you think: holy crap, that’s crazy!” (p. xxi). For me, he nailed it and I found this an incredibly satisfying read.

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