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31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Grandest Quadrille
"Did the Earth move for you?", asks the voice beside you. Well, yes. Because that's what it does. All the time. The continent you live on used to be someplace else, and far away from where it is now. Your home ground has even been part of a greater landmass known as a "supercontinent" - and will be again. Hence, the title of this book. Ted Nield provides us with a fine...
Published on 31 Mar 2008 by Stephen A. Haines

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22 of 33 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars no trivial tale left behind
The subject area would be fascinating. After many pages, however, one still does not get to it in any coherent way; the author has managed to bury the science under layers and layers of useless knowledge. This is the kind of frustration a geologist must feel in the field. Do we need to experience it first hand?

Entertaining? I'd rather say: patronizing. The...
Published on 14 April 2009 by Agnostic500


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31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Grandest Quadrille, 31 Mar 2008
By 
Stephen A. Haines (Ottawa, Ontario Canada) - See all my reviews
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"Did the Earth move for you?", asks the voice beside you. Well, yes. Because that's what it does. All the time. The continent you live on used to be someplace else, and far away from where it is now. Your home ground has even been part of a greater landmass known as a "supercontinent" - and will be again. Hence, the title of this book. Ted Nield provides us with a fine account of how we came to learn about these movements. He has brought together the years of research tracking where the rocks have been and where they are likely to go. He likens the movement of continents to a dance of landforms - a "Grand Quadrille". A fine synopsis of the history of geology and its compelling figures - scholars who had to project what was known in their time back into a distant past.

Earth has been a busy place for the past four billion years, and it hasn't stopped to rest. We speak of the "firmness of the Earth", but that phrase is a sham. The key figure in this story is the great supercontinent of Pangaea that began breaking up 250 million years ago. Assembled from previous continents that had once joined and also separated, Pangaea's breakup into places we live on today have been traced in exquisite detail. The matching of rocks in places separated by wide seas provided the clues. In fact, as Nield relates, it was the vast Atlantic that bears the responsibility for Pangaea's fracturing to form the basis for the continents we know today. The author explains how the continents have been engaging in a Grand Quadrille and will continue to do so - for another five billion years, at least.

The progenitor of the idea of "drifting continents" was Alfred Wegener. Using maps to show how western Eurasia and Africa matched the east coasts of the Western Hemisphere, Wegener proposed they had once been joined, but had pulled apart. He couldn't provide a mechanism for the movement, and his idea was rejected - most notably by the geologic "establishment" of the United States. Rejection of the proposal was so strong there that one British geologist described it as "regarding the Declaration of Independence as retroactive to the Palaeozoic". Continents formed separately and remained so through time, it was thought.

However, one US dissident, Reginald Daly of Harvard, had been in South Africa, encountering the work of Alexander du Toit, who noted similarities in rocks of the Great Karoo and South America. That discovery, enhanced by some detailed measurements in Greenland, suggested that movement was occurring. It took a war and the hunt for submarines to reveal what prompted continental movement. An Irish geophysicist, John Joly had already postulated the mechanism, heat from radioactive elements deep in the Earth required escape. That venting pushed the softer areas in the Earth's crust around. Sitting atop that stirring material, the continents track the flow patterns of the heat.

In moving, the continents encounter each other, joining, fusing and establishing mighty landmasses that break up again. Nield skilfully describes the mechanisms and the people who have read the rocks to understand how they work. Beyond Pangaea, for example, the author cites the work of Mark McMenamin, who proposes a yet older supercontinent, Rodinia. Rodinia's importance in the history of the Earth is that it was probably the extant landform around which complex life, after over 3 billion years, finally emerged. Nield's skill in presenting all these complex ideas and their significance never wanes throughout the book. He's achieved a fine summary of the history of modern geology, supported by a collection of portraits and some line drawings. The emphasis on Pangaea is slightly overdone, but his pointer to Chris Scotese's web page of geologic ages more than overcomes that small limitation. An excellent overview. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Did the Earth Move? Yes it did (and it still is...), 30 Dec 2008
By 
Mr. Joel C. A. Cooney "Joel_C" (Glasgow, Scotland, UK) - See all my reviews
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Firstly, apologies for the punning title for this review! Moving on..."Supercontinent: Ten Billion Years in the Life of our Planet", the ambitiously-titled book written by eminent science writer Ted Nield, is a brave attempt to cover the history of what he refers to as "The grandest of all patterns in nature".

The book is written in that conversational style so familiar to readers of Richard Dawkins - "Popular Science" or "Pop-Sci", if you will. The whole book is chock full of the sort of crackling enthusiasm and knowing wit, science writers like Mr. Nield are so good at communicating (it comes as no surprise that he is the chair of the Association of British Science Writers). Suffice to say, it was a pleasure to read.

However, as has been probably indicated by the above score, there are a number of issues I found with the book that prevent it from being THE essential book on the subject:

Tone: people who buy Pop-Sci books generally buy them for two reasons - either they are casual readers with little or no exposure to the subject and are looking for a general introduction, or they are amateur enthusiasts, looking to sate their appetite for the subject but are not quite ready for the academic-grade tomes.

As highly readable and enjoyable "Supercontinent" is, it just doesn't quite hit the right, consistent tone to completely satisfy either potential readership. On the one hand, its not quite basic enough to be an introductory text for absolute beginners: it does implicitly assume some knowledge of fundamental geological concepts (plate tectonics, the layers of the earth, the process of vulcanism, deposition and metamorphism), which could potentially leave the novice a bit at sea. At the same time, it doesn't quite have the detail, depth and focus an informed enthusiast might be looking for.

Pacing: The first chapter reads like an extended advert for the BBC series "The Future is Wild!". The middle sections are effectively a history of the concept of the Supercontinent (in the style of the seminal Pop-Sci book Chaos) and its surprisingly contentious place in the modern canon of science. I have to admit, this is the section I found least interesting. Not to say that it wasn't worthwhile including, I just wish it had been a little de-emphasised.

Perhaps a little tighter editorial control could have reined in some of the more overly-digressive passages, leaving more room for discussion of the different continental configurations. For instance, the section devoted to the origins of Lewis Carol's "Alice In Wonderland", with the rather flimsy pretext of introducing the main discussion of Pangaea, is frankly overly long and almost crosses the line into total irrelevancy.

The book is mainly saved by the last two chapters (excluding the epilogue), which cover the 'original' supercontinent Rodinia (the so-called 'cradle of life'), the "Snowball Earth" hypothesis and Rodinia's successor, Pannotia. They both go into some detail regarding how geophysicists identify the previous configurations of the continents (and the inherent difficulties in mapping it accurately) without completely bamboozling the reader with the chemistry.

Length: At just over 270 pages long, and given the huge scope of the subject, its a bit on the short side, particularly given the cost of the Hardback edition.

Diagrams: it might seem like a small point, but couldn't there have been a few more illustrations throughout? Ted does refer the reader to Chris Scotese's website, where you can find a number of excellent paleo-geographic maps of earth through the ages, however couldn't these or similar examples have been included too; given that some actual inclusions appear a little arbitrary (for instance, do we REALLY need to see the periodic Table of Elements and why on earth was it deemed important to include a photograph of Madame Blavatsky?).

Despite these slight misgivings - which are nothing a good 2nd edition revision couldn't solve - a major problem the whole genre has to deal with is perhaps the advent of Wikipedia and its ilk. It has become so easy to get almost instantaneous access to detailed information on any given subject, its difficult for a book to cover the same subjects as comprehensively. At the same time, we are looking to good science writers such as Dr. Nield to use his authority, experience and knowledge to compile and condense a subject down to the key concepts for ease of digestion by the reader. In general, he succeeds, but I feel that I am still looking for that next 'definitive' book on the subject.

One last word about the epilogue. Post-God Delusion, it seems as if every (secular) science writer feels its their duty to include an attack on religious irrationality. Its as if Ted Nield, so grateful to have opportunity to publish a mainstream book and worried that he might not get the chance again, wanted to shoehorn in a dig in the ribs of the fundamentalists, under the pretext of rebutting the denials of paleogeography by Young Earth Creationist and their loony cohort. Would this sort of thing have been included in this type of book 10-15 years ago? I suspect not.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A lot about supercontinents - among other things, 9 Nov 2013
By 
T. D. Welsh (Basingstoke, Hampshire UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Supercontinent: 10 Billion Years in the Life of Our Planet (Paperback)
This book could have been written as a straight account of what is known about supercontinents, or alternatively as a historical account of how that knowledge was gradually built up. Ted Nield has gone for a more sophisticated approach, which may not please all readers. To put it positively, he drapes the bare and rather limited framework of the known facts with a fascinating variety of digressions - such as nutshell biographies of famous scientists who contributed to the subject and explanations of why continental drift was at first rejected as absurd, then accepted as natural and reasonable. The result is intriguing and perhaps less accessible than might be desired. If you want to learn about plate tectonics and supercontinents in a gradual, incremental, discursive way, this is the book for you. On the other hand, if you just want the facts and nothing else, you may find it tries your patience. Personally, I enjoyed it thoroughly but never found the book hard to put down for a day or two. On the other hand, I learned about a great deal more than supercontinents. And whereas I never could remember the names Pangaea, Laurasia and Gondwanaland all at the same time, I no longer have that problem. I even know about Ur, Rodinia, Pannotia - and the all-important difference between introversion and extroversion when applied to supercontinents rather than human personalities.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Everything you always wanted to know about geophysics, but were afraid to ask, 16 Jan 2013
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This book takes an interesting approach to "popular science-writing" by deliberately enmeshing the serious science it describes with discursive meanders into art, culture, history and other foibles of the one species that we know has lived on the uncaring, drifting continents of this planet and begun to understand them and their role in how we came to be here.

In doing so, I think it delivers an important message; that science is something that people do, and as an endeavour it's about understanding ourselves as well as how the rest of the Universe works. I certainly enjoyed learning more about plate tectonics, and the Earth's geological history over billions of years, as I expected to. But, I was delighted by the unexpected bonus of things like the link between Permian rock formations and Alice in Wonderland, and the explanation for US scientists' prolonged resistance to tectonic theory that Mr Nield offers. I was also impressed by his conjuring something of the vertigo I remember feeling when I first realised what talking about rocks being millions and billions of years old meant. For me, that's good science-writing.

I can understand that some people might prefer their science in a purer form; if you'll excuse my metaphor, this is more like a fancy cocktail, complete with curly straw, fruit, sparklers and an umbrella, than a shot of geology on the rocks.

I've read the Kindle edition, on a Kindle Keyboard 3G, and found it well-formatted... with the usual proviso that on its screen the maps/illustrations are disappointing, compared to print. I recommend it.

(However, I did not pay six quid for it! For every £GB over 2, in price, please deduct one star from my rating).
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4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating account largely aimed at the general reader, 4 Jun 2014
By 
John Hopper (London, UK) - See all my reviews
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This is a fascinating account of the history of our planet and in particular how continental drift has led to the formation and break up of continents over the lifetime of our planet and how this will continue into the future. It also tells of the history of the geological discoveries that have led to the state of the science of geophysics at the present time, with some colourful and interesting 19th and early 20th century characters along the way, working during the time when the modern science was taking shape and the evidence for the Earth's genuine age was becoming ever firmer. Although in places the chemical and biochemical details got somewhat too technical for me as a lay reader, this was a very good read and the names and shadowy nature of Ur, Rodinia and Pangaea will resonate with me in the future.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A moving tale of the history of our planet, 20 Jan 2014
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So it turns out that far from being anchored deep into terra-firma, we in this part if the world are moving relentlessly at a rate of 2cm a year in an easterly direction towards a seductive ending.

And before that, the crust beneath our feet has travelled from south to north across half the planet - no wonder that sandy ochre coloured road cutting in our neighbour hood looks like something you'd see in an Arizona desert canyon!

This books tells the story of how we got where we are, and to where we are probably heading, with interesting diversions along the way as the author explains how inquisitive minds of the past spotted the vital clues to form hypotheses that changed our culturally induced thinking.

It's a thoroughly good read.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A big subject explained excellently, 4 Oct 2013
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If you have an inquiring mind and are interested in the earth and origin of life this book is for you. The level of detail was just right and kept me interested all the way through the book. After completing the book I read it again and explored many of the ares covered in more detail. Its definitely worth reading
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5.0 out of 5 stars Beyond the supercontinents ..., 31 Mar 2013
This book discusses much more than the supercontinents of its title. The nature of science, the ancient myths of the Tamils and the causes and responses to the Boxing Day earthquake are all covered in this interesting, erudite and well-written work.
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22 of 33 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars no trivial tale left behind, 14 April 2009
This review is from: Supercontinent: 10 Billion Years in the Life of Our Planet (Paperback)
The subject area would be fascinating. After many pages, however, one still does not get to it in any coherent way; the author has managed to bury the science under layers and layers of useless knowledge. This is the kind of frustration a geologist must feel in the field. Do we need to experience it first hand?

Entertaining? I'd rather say: patronizing. The author seems to think that the reader cannot be trusted with a straight tale and needs bells and whiskers to stay with the book. This is counterproductive: one skips pages hoping to get to the gist.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well written...but a bit short, 6 July 2011
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This review is from: Supercontinent: 10 Billion Years in the Life of Our Planet (Paperback)
Not being an expert on the subject and more of a casual reader on geology, I found this book easy to read and very pleasant.
The starting chapters and the last two are very interesting. Every scientist tends to sell his field of study but the author convinces the reader of the importance of supercontinents throughout earth's history.
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