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Islands (Scientific American Library series) Hardcover – 17 Jul 1986

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
The pelagic world - another excellent Scientific American book rescued from the dumpster in Zero Mississippi 17 July 2014
By Marco Buendia - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This book was the prize catch of this morning's dumpster inspection behind the Zero Public Library.

Scientific American turned out a number of very good books on various subjects of interest to a well-informed, educated citizenry willing to put some effort into their reading. Particularly heartening, as was the magazine itself, back in the days of the Reagan Administration, when a strong anti-intellectual current was sweeping through the funhouse aquarium we live in here in the United States. This particular book was published in 1986.

The long-late author, H.W. Menard, was a marine geologist; Cal Institute of Tech, Harvard, and the Navy. That he was a geologist, not a biologist, shows pretty clearly. The book is almost entirely from the vantage point of geology: plate tectonics, volcanism, and coral. Picking the book up, readers will likely wonder "Islands? In just what sense, islands? Culture? Biology? Flora? Formation?"

In the case of this book, formation is the author's interest. In this aspect, the book may be disappointing to some readers. It's likely that the first chapter, "Finding islands" will be of most interest to the general reader. The author describes the progress of European navigation and exploration of the oceans, but by the end of the chapter, he gets over to the Polynesians as well. He the meantime he works in some general remarks about the superficial (to him) nature of various islands, and mentions Darwin's musings on island biotopes more than once. But he also inserts some stuff about oil exploration, the geologist's bread-and-butter. He uses the stuff about oil exploration, however, to set up a statistical parallel to the likelihood that a given island will be discovered. Readers will discover that the author has a near maniacal lust for numbers and statistics. But he always finds a way to make it useful in his exposition.

The several chapters that make up the majority of the book's text treat nesogenesis (don't remember if he uses this word) in its geological context, and pretty much only that. His first concern is to make clear that he is interested principally in islands that developed independently in the open ocean and are not part of a nearby continent. This means islands formed by volcanos mostly, with coral being a factor sometimes, not others (there is a chapter "Islands with coral", another, "Islands without coral".

Finally, with Chapter Ten, we get to "Island life from a geological viewpoint", about 4/5 of the way through the book. Here we finally get some natural history of the usual type here, not that there's anything wrong with geology, just that I expect the average reader (?) is more interested in animals and human culture than rocks. This chapter was excellent, to my taste, and I would urge readers who aren't not much interested in geology to at least read the first and last chapters. If you have a strong interest in oceanography, you will certainly profit by reading the intervening chapters from which any non-geologist will certainly learn a lot.

Almost all of the book is immediately accessible for the educated general reader who pays close attention, not necessarily just thouse who majored in science or math. There are some formulas in there, though. I would add that the author is a fully competent writer and means to be understood by as many people as possible. Very clear sentence structure, jargon is used as little as possible, etc.

This book isn't for sand dancers, looking for exotic happenings in luxurious, ego-boosting places. The islands discussed aren't those kind of islands. And, that the book didn't do well in Zero Mississippi is, maybe, because it's all Zeroians can do to get to Disneyworld(TM) every couple of years. Or some other reason.
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