Rock on Here's a rip-roaring trip through deep time with a fossil whizz. Worth the ride, says Ted Nield
IF I was editor of FHM, GQ or Esquire and needed a palaeontology correspondent, I'd try to get Richard Corfield. In Architects of Eternity, this isotope geochemist with attitude unveils palaeontology--and much more besides--from the viewpoint of the chemist, physicist and biologist. It's this diverse group who practise what Corfield calls the "new" science of fossils, armed with mass spectrometers and other big bits of kit with flashing lights. It's palaeo for robot warriors, a turbocharged survey of how fossils have brought home to us the true meaning of one of humanity's greatest conceptual achievements--deep time, the billions of years our planet has existed, and over which life has evolved. It's analagous to deep space, but refers to the vast stretch of time that embraces the geological past.
Corfield tells his story through its characters--the architects of deep time--and their work. We first meet most of them in short, fictionalised vignettes. Stephen Jay Gould, in the early 1970s, recovers in a Boston hospital from a squash injury to his eye and works through the implications of "Punk Eek" (punctuated equilibrium) behind swathes of bandages. Birmingham University's first geology professor, Charles Lapworth--"the Che Guevara of the Lower Palaeozoic" who defined the Ordovician--nervously anticipates a row at the Geological Society over his graptolites. Corfield calls these "the M- Series BMWs of the Lower Palaeozoic". If you know what an M-series BMW is, but haven't heard of graptolites, this book is just the thing to broaden your outlook.
Deep time is having a good press right now--the cladist systematics approach (Henry Gee's In Search of Deep Time), and geochronology (Cherry Lewis's The Dating Game), for example. As it happens, Corfield's book--his first--stands up well. His canvas is wider, covering no less than the whole incredible diversity of modern geoscience, where the most exciting new developments are often interdisciplinary.
He takes in everything that has energised geoscience for more than a hundred years: mass extinctions, plate tectonics, asteroid impacts, the Cambrian explosion and fossil DNA. With each new revelation has come a new wave of specialists, sweeping into the geo gene pool like waves of migrants arriving at Ellis Island en route to a new land.
This is the way geoscience has always been, but Corfield in his enthusiasm makes it sound like something new. Geoscience has always recruited new techniques and put them to work on the study of Earth. But the notion of deep time is opening it all up in an unprecedented way. Geological perspectives are unfolding in subjects previously only about the here and now. Even the human genome reveals life's multibillion-year history, rather than just the constituents of humans. The revelations of deep time make palaeontologists of us all.
This is a huge range of material for a shortish book to cover, and Corfield's delivery of the data is fast, not to say breathless. This can create problems. His own field, isotope geochemistry, is a difficult subject and getting your head round it at the speed Corfield demands will not be easy for beginners.
There's not much sugar coating on the pill, either. No autobiography à la Richard Fortey, none of the musings about Renaissance architecture that Gould is wont to toss in. His fictionalised snippets of scientists' lives are widely spaced. The rest is solid science, and some may find it a little unremitting.
And there's a serious mismatch between the book's racy content and its grandiloquent title. Don't let it put you off. To bring the "new" and the "old" science of fossils so alive, when this largely means talking about isotopes, amino acids, foraminifera and graptolites instead of dinosaurs, is no mean feat. Academic eyebrows will shoot skywards at the glib, cavalier teleology of his science history. But Corfield will not care much about this, or when others sneer at the Latin names he sometimes gets slightly wrong.
Quite the reverse: he stamps gleefully on the corns of the grey flannel brigade. I could feel myself egging him on.
Ted Nield is a science writer at the Geological Society of London...This review first appeared in the New Scientist.