Skip to main content

Earth: in 100 groundbreaking discoveries – Douglas Palmer ****

If I am honest my heart fell a little at the sight of this book. Although publishers seem to love ‘100 best whatever’ books and the like – which presumably means they sell – I find them mostly tedious. Ok, they can be handy gift books if you can’t think of anything better to give someone, but I rarely feel the urge to buy one. Usually they are a compendium of little articles with no flow and limited readability. They are okay to dip into, but little more.
Douglas Palmer’s book, then, was a considerable relief – because it can be read from end to end as a real book. It tells the story of the development of the Earth from its creation, through the formation of the continents, plate tectonics and more, to the present day. A surprising amount of the book is also about the development of life, in part through the fossil remains found in the Earth, so it’s a mix of a geology and a biology book. For good measure there is a bit towards the end about energy sources, climate change and natural resources.
Palmer’s writing is approachable, but I have to say that after about a dozen sections, I lost interest a little bit and felt the urge to skip forward to when the living things started to emerge. Fascinating though the basics of the Earth’s structure and formation are, geology is a topic where it’s very difficult to keep the interest rate going, and I did find my attention dropping off. That it was kept at all, was because of the impressive and sometimes stunning photographs that accompany each section.
Although you can read the book end to end, the 100 sections do slightly break up the flow. I tended to ignore the headings each section has (rather portentous stuff along the lines of: Definition/Discovery/Key Breakthrough/Importance) and just stick with the main text.
So the good news – this is probably the best ‘whatever in 100 blah blah’ type book I’ve ever read. (Why it’s ‘groundbreaking discoveries’ I’ve no idea, as many of the sections aren’t anything of the sort.) But it’s not a format I find endearing. I’m sure Douglas Palmer could have made this a better book still if he hadn’t been constrained by the format.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Logic - Eugenia Cheng ***

This is an important book, though I'm not sure Eugenia Cheng would agree with my logic in saying so. 

Going on the marketing, what we have here is a counter to fake news and dodgy argumentation in the form of mathematical logic. The back cover tells us 'Newspaper headlines and social media use emotions to warp the facts. Politicians and companies master rhetoric to mislead us. What one book could help us make sense of it all?' Admittedly they don't answer their rhetorical question, but I assume the answer is intended to be The Art of Logic. (Did the company behind this book realise it was using rhetoric, though presumably not to mislead us?) 

What we actually have is a combination of a lucid and interesting explanation of the basics of logic with the mathematical equivalent of those books such as Algorithms to Live By that were so popular a couple of years ago. They used the logic of algorithms (differently worded, and, to me, easier to understand), the heart of computer…

Quantum Economics - David Orrell ****

David Orrell's earlier title Economyths is one of my favourite popular science books of all time. Or, perhaps, I should say popular non-science, as Orrell shows just how devastatingly traditional economics uses the tools of science without having a scientific basis. I was, therefore, really looking forward to reading Orrell's new book - until I saw the title. As anyone involved with physics can tell you, there's nothing more irritating than the business of sticking the word 'quantum' onto something to give a pseudo-scientific boost to waffle and woo. Was Orrell doing the same thing? Thankfully, his introduction put my fears aside.

Orrell, a mathematician with a physics background quickly makes it clear that the way he is using quantum theory is not just employing magic words, but involves making use of strong parallels between the nature of quantum objects and concepts like money (more on money in a moment). Yes, this is to some extent a metaphorical use of quantum …

The Ashtray - Errol Morris *****

Wow. When someone suggested I read a book called The Ashtray, written by a documentary film-maker, it didn't strike me that it would be a book that gave deep insights into the history and philosophy of science - while also being a remarkable reading experience. In fact, I almost didn't bother with it, but I'm glad that I did.

The titular ashtray was thrown at the author when he was a grad student - thrown by one of the two best known names in the philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn, he of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the concept of paradigm shifts. Kuhn didn't like the young Errol Morris daring to challenge his ideas and reacted with what some would regard as a less than philosophical reply by hurling a heavy glass ashtray at him.

Part of the reason that reading The Ashtray is a remarkable experience is because it's a book that feels in some ways like watching a documentary. I have to confess I've never seen any of Morris's work, but he uses vis…