Sunday, 25 July 2004

The Earth: An Intimate History – Richard Fortey ****

It’s no surprise that this weighty geological exploration of the Earth carries an endorsement by Bill Bryson on the cover, because at times it seems more like a travel book than a work of popular science – and actually, that’s distinctly refreshing.
Fortey takes us to places where the Earth exposes its workings – such as Hawaii – and to key locations in the discoveries of Earth sciences, such as the Alpine location where the surprise discovery was made of a young layer of rock sitting beneath an older one, proving that dramatic folding had taken place. It often feels very like a book version of one of those TV documentaries that flies you all over the world to fill in a story. But Fortey is at his best when walking around a location and drifting between using “you” and “I” in a pleasantly unscientific fashion.
This is a much better approach than simply going into the mechanisms that make the Earth the way it is, and though occasionally (just as is the case with those TV documentaries) it’s hard not to feel “he only went there for the holiday, really”), such sour grapes are unfair. How better to get an insight into the Earth than by taking a tour of the geologically interesting bits? And in much of the book this works superbly well. There’s also the fascination of a huge detective story. If most rock looks to you like, well… rock, there’s wonder to be found in the cleverness of linking different locations across the world that once sat next to each other by the fossils they contain (Fortey’s speciality) or particular types of crystal embedded in them.
This is a very good book then. Why didn’t it make five stars? Just a few niggles. One is the price – at $21 in the US it’s not bad, but the £25 UK price is hard to justify. Then it’s simply too long. Where length is because there’s a huge amount to pack it’s fine, but here some of it is more down to extreme leisureliness, making it can be easy to lose concentration. For a popular science book it lacks a certain humanity. Key figures in geology are mentioned, but we don’t get any feel for what drove them, why they did what they did. And it tends to presume a little too much. Terms like plate tectonics are bandied around with little explanation for the first couple of hundred pages. But don’t be misled – these are genuinely just niggles.
This is about the best book around if you want to get a feel for how the Earth works. It’s one to be savoured slowly and warmly like a good port. Which can’t be a bad thing.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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