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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.

Review by Peter Spitz


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