7-minute read keywords: geology, history of science
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.
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.
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.
Though I could not paint or draw a dinosaur if my life depended on it, I never tire of reading about palaeoart. What a treat, then, that Crowood Press revisits this subject with this book by US palaeoartist Emily Willoughby. Very much a resource for those already familiar with basic art techniques, it counsels the reader on what goes into making believable and memorable palaeoart. Featuring foremost Willoughby’s favourite subject, feathered dinosaurs, the book also doubles up as a beautiful portfolio of her artwork, showcasing her mastery of a wide range of media.
Scottish geologist Charles Lyell quipped that the present is the key to the past. To say that the reverse also holds is more than just circular reasoning. Felisa Smith, a professor in ecology and evolutionary biology, studies extinct mammals and applies this knowledge to the present. This book is a neatly crafted package that gives the reader all the required background knowledge, while its case studies make for fascinating reading. (Spoiler alert: packrat middens are my new favourite discovery.)
Italian plant neurobiologist (yes, this is a thing) Stefano Mancuso previously impressed me with The Revolutionary Genius of Plants. With The Incredible Journey of Plants, he has written a captivating collection of vignettes around the subject of plant migration. We tend not to think of plants as moving creatures because they are rooted to the ground. But this, as Mancuso shows, is where we are mistaken.
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.
Ever since humans appeared on the scene, we have been altering life on Earth. Where once our actions could be considered part of nature’s fabric, our influence has become outsized and our options to exercise it have multiplied. Though the subtitle of Life Changing does not make it explicit, science writer Helen Pilcher focuses on our impact on the genetics and evolution of life around us. A book that stands out for its balanced tone, it managed to surprise me more than once, despite my familiarity with the topics considered.
After three previous books in this format on fossils, rocks, and dinosaurs, geologist and palaeontologist Donald R. Prothero here tackles the story of evolution in 25 notable discoveries. More so than the previous trio, this book tries to be a servant to two masters, resulting in a mixed bag.
Given that we are nothing but mammals, it is perhaps understandable that humans are rather mammal-centric, something that conservation organisations capitalise on. But where palaeontology is concerned, dinosaurs get all the love. And that does early mammals little justice says Scottish palaeontologist and Palaeocast co-host Elsa Panciroli. Far from mere bit players cowering in the shadows of these “terrible lizards”, mammals have a long and rich evolutionary history that predates the dinosaurs but is poorly known outside of specialist circles. Panciroli’s debut changes all that and does so in a most readable and immersive fashion.