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Plate Tectonics (Ladybird Expert) - Iain Stewart ***

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

The good news is that, unlike the other entries in this series I've seen so far (Big Bang and Artificial Intelligence), Iain Stewart (not to be confused with mathematician Ian Stewart) has a topic in plate tectonics where the illustrations can sometimes put across some useful information, as opposed to being mere irritating decoration. This only applies to the theoretical topics - for the historical pages, which is more than half of the book, we're back to the sort of illustrations that make this a very embarrassing book for an adult to read in public.

Given the relatively small amount of space, far too much of it was given over to step-by-step historical development. A page would tell us about one person or set of people's small contribution to the development of the theory. Then we would get another page with a different person's contribution, without any sense of narrative flow: it felt very jerky to read. It didn't help the large number of individuals Stewart felt it necessary to introduce. It became a bit too much of an academic name check, rather than the story of the quite interesting battle to bring the concept of plate tectonics to the fore.

To give Stewart his due, he did manage to make he first few pages quite interesting (though not in the QI sense), but he was unable to overcome the reality that geology is the hardest of the sciences to make anything but dull to a popular audience. At times the progress from page to page as we were told about a gradual change in scientific understanding seemed (appropriately) glacial.

It's possible when focussing on, say, Wegener's story to produce something that has the potential to grip the reader. But overall, this Ladybird simply didn't work for me.



Review by Brian Clegg


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