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Symphony in C - Robert Hazen ***

Robert Hazen clearly loves his subject - his fascination with mineralogy, chemistry and geology shines through in this book. And there's a lot to discover here. But, strangely, that enthusiasm is one of the two reasons I had a bit of a problem with Symphony in C. I am passionate about Tudor and Elizabethan church music - but I am conscious of the fact that most people glaze over after I've raved about it for two minutes. Sadly, earth sciences cover arguably the dullest aspects of science to the general public, and though there were many individual parts of the book that did engage me, only a geologist could love the coverage of what seemed like many (many) minerals in the opening section.

The other issue I had was a lack of coherent structure. This might seem strange, as the book has a very definite themed plan. It's based on a four-movement symphony (in his spare time Hazen is a semi-professional classical musician), with the four movements representing the old pre-scientific elements of earth, air, fire and water. But the trouble is that this musical analogy is strained way beyond breaking point. It's used as a way to break the book up, but it bears no real resemblance to the content, and some of the sub-sections (named with musical-theory-like names, such as 'prelude', 'exposition', 'development' and 'coda') seem to be almost random collections of information.

Perhaps my favourite parts were in the 'air' section - where Hazen writes about both where out atmosphere came from and the origins of natural gas and oil - and in fire section where he brings in, for example, that fascinating substance graphene. But even though there is lots of genuinely interesting material, there was, to use his terminology, far too much adagio and not enough allegro. The writing is drawn out at great length, making it tempting to shout 'Get to the point!' Sometimes Hazen gets onto a really interesting story - for example, describing the debate over whether natural gas primarily originates from biological matter or from earth processes, but the narrative suddenly switches to something else without ever coming to a conclusion.

One last moan - I really wish all the measurements weren't solely in US domestic units - all temperatures, for example, are only given in Fahrenheit - which is very irritating.

I wouldn't want to put anyone off. There's lots, for example, on Hazen's 'Deep Carbon Observatory', which is a fascinating cross-discipline endeavour looking at sub-surface carbon on the Earth. And Hazen successfully shows how and why carbon is so crucial to life and so special among the elements. But I found reading the book far more of a chore than it ought to have been.

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Review by Brian Clegg 


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