Skip to main content

The Planet in a Pebble – Jan Zalasiewicz ****

This is such a wonderful idea for a book. No, not just wonderful, it’s absolutely brilliant. It may to some extent have been inspired by the early geologist Gideon Mantell’s book Thoughts on a Pebble – but the idea of using an in-depth exploration of single slate pebble, picked from a Welsh beach, to reveal a whole host of aspects of the formation of the universe, the Earth, early biology, chemistry, geology and more is inspired. I couldn’t help think of Blake’s lines from Auguries of Innocence:
To see a world in a grain of sand 
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.
This book really is about seeing the world, if not in a grain of sand, in a pebble.
In terms of format, then, this is a top notch popular science book. What’s more, unlike many of the more academic authors, Jan Zalasiewicz has a lovely approachable writing style (if there’s any criticism, he’s a bit over-zealous in his attempt to be matey). This has all the makings of a classic. Then there are some wonderful revelations in the contents.
I couldn’t get as excited about the universe/Earth forming bits, because they are familiar from many a book on cosmology, but when it came down to all the detail that was in a single pebble, it was awe-inspiring. Apart from what seemed to be a whole chemistry cupboard full of elements, in that one pebble we have quartz crystals and zircons, fool’s gold and (in tiny quantities) the real thing. There are fossils and geologically formed structures. From these many things can be deduced about what was happening around this bit of rock as it formed, although a lot of the deductions seemed to be on the edge of what’s possible.
So with so much to love about the book – and there really is – why doesn’t it get the maximum five stars? The trouble is evident in the way the book was introduced when the author got a brief spot on the Today programme on Radio 4. Although it’s a relatively short part of the contents, the introduction talked mostly about the big bang and the Earth forming. The reality is that a good number of the chapters are about rock formations moving around and sediments, erm, sedimenting. (I know, I know.) Although what’s crammed into the pebble itself is amazing, the geological processes don’t just make paint drying look speedy – they make it rather interesting too. Zalasiewicz has an uphill struggle to make them exciting – and sometimes he fails.
Apart from the nature of this part of the material (hardly the author’s fault) the only real issues I have with book occur early on. In the chapter about the origins of matter in the big bang and stars, Zalasiewicz gets the balance of explanation wrong. There is rather too much on the details of the formation of matter post big bang, but nowhere enough basics right up front. According to a recent survey only 20 percent of Americans know what a molecule is, yet here we are told that a process ‘knocks electrons out of orbits’ without any attempt to clarify what either of these is. Someone also really should have spotted that the author is unaware that ‘enormity’ doesn’t refer to something that is very big.
Overall, a brilliant book – one of the best finds of 2010 – if only you can maintain an interest in the geology part.

Hardback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Peter Spitz

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

How to Drive a Nuclear Reactor - Colin Tucker ****

How To Drive A Nuclear Reactor does exactly what it says on the tin. The book is a general overview of nuclear reactors. From the basic principles that make them work through to what buttons to press in what order (and of course how and why they can go wrong).Nuclear power could be a good step on the path to a greener energy future, but there is a lot of understandable fear. This book can give some idea of what an incredible feat of both science and engineering one of these machines is and, hopefully, make anyone reading it feel far more comfortable about them.The book presents information about everything, almost down to the literal nuts and bolts, giving you a near complete understanding of how a nuclear works. From putting in the fuel to getting out the power and down from the control panel to the construction material. Everything you could ever want to know is here. By the end you'll likely feel ready to walk into a control room and get started (do not try doing this, nuclear …

Meteorite - Tim Gregory ****

There have been many books on astronomy, ranging from exploring individual aspects of the solar system, such as the Sun or Mars, through to studies of the most distant depths of the universe, but there has been relatively little on the only astronomical objects that we're able to touch (other than the Earth itself) - meteorites.

In Meteorite, Tim Gregory fills in many details of the nature of these rocks from outer space, from how they formed in the first place to the range of types and origins that are possible. Most come from the debris of the forming solar system left in the asteroid belt, but some were smashed off the Moon or Mars by an incoming impactor.

Although the main focus is the meteorites themselves (if there's any doubt, we are talking about the solid remains that fall to Earth when a meteor - a shooting star - in part survives the journey through the atmosphere), Gregory also fills us in on the contribution that meteorites have made to the Earth, whether it be brin…

Being Mortal - Atul Gawande ****

I heard recently that the local geriatric ward puts a photograph of the patient in his or her prime by each bed. The aim is to help staff to treat their patients as individuals, but it makes me uneasy. Do these people only matter because of what they were, not what they are? Because once they stood proud and handsome in their uniform, or looked lovely on their wedding day?

Professor Atul Gawande has the problem surgically excised and laid out for inspection in one of his unflinching but compassionate case studies:

‘What bothered Shelley was how little curiosity the staff members seemed to have about what Lou cared about in his life and what he had been forced to forfeit... They might have called the service they provided assisted living, but no-one seemed to think it was their job to actually assist him with living – to figure out how to sustain the connection and joys that most mattered to him.’

Gawande is an eminent surgeon. As a young resident he displayed little overt emotion when hi…