HALL OF FAMEon 31 March 2006
In answer to a time-related statement from another, such as "I turn 57 next month", have you ever answered, "Rocks don't live that long"? In EARTH, British paleontologist-author Richard Fortey reminds the reader that the globe is theorized to be 4.5 billion years young, and the oldest rock datable by current technology, a zircon crystal from Australia, registers at 4.4 billion years. Is your mother-in-law that old?
I've always been fascinated, when flying over or driving through the deserts of the western U.S., by the myriad of different rock formations unclothed by vegetation and naked for all to see. I've wished that I had a geologist by my side to explain how they came to be. Fortey may be the next best thing. In EARTH, the theme is "plate tectonics", and it's a tribute to the author's writing talent that he can make so esoteric a subject supremely interesting. The book is, at times, hard to put down.
To illustrate the observable effects of past movements of the Earth's crust - movement that will continue long past the habitation of the Earth by the human species, Fortey has selected several spots on our world as exhibits: Pompei, Hawaii, the Swiss Alps, Newfoundland, Scotland, India, Kenya, California, and the Grand Canyon. The narrative is, of course, about the evolution of tectonic plate theory, but also about proto-continents, lost oceans, volcanoes, mountain ranges, upthrusts, downthrusts, subduction zones, deep ocean trenches, mid-ocean ranges, lava, basalt, granite, gneisses, fossils, fault lines, schists, nappes, magnetic fields, limestone, ice sheets, diamonds, gold, coral reefs, green sand, "hot spots", tin mines, magma, marble, polar wandering, rubies, tors, and a mule named "Buttercup". Fortey's gift is to make the mix wonderfully engaging for the average reader, though strict adherents to Creationism will likely see their beliefs threatened. Did you know, for example, that the Appalachians were once one end of a mountain chain that stretched across an ancient continent, and the remains of which, after continental drift, are now in such widely separated locales as Newfoundland, Ireland, Wales, Scotland and the length of western Scandinavia? Or that mid-European miners have long recognized the panicked streaming of cockroaches, which are extremely sensitive to changes in rock pressure, as the harbinger of impending rockfalls?
The author occasionally waxes philosophic. After noting that a 1.5 billion-year old granite slab serves as the counter of a bar in London's Paddington Station, he muses:
"If you have just missed your train, you can at least lean on a bar that is 1500 million years old and reflect that perhaps half an hour is not that serious a delay."
I did, however, spot one egregious error in the narrative that is otherwise erudite and above reproach. On page 278, while recalling a trip through Nevada, he writes:
"Carson City used to be the state capital. Now it is an endearingly ramshackle collection of wooden houses scattered over the hillside."
Now, 'ang on a minute, guv. Carson City has been - and remains - the Nevada state capital. Moreover, it's situated in a broad valley at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, not spread over hills. Perhaps Fortey was thinking of Virginia City, made famous in the TV series "Bonanza", which is located a few miles away, is ramshackle, and is spread over hillsides. But Virginia City was never the state capital.
Perhaps the most endearing chapter is the one in which Richard describes his ride on the back of a mule from the Grand Canyon's South Rim all the way to the bottom while, of course, gawking at the various strata of rock on the way down. Buttercup comes across as the stolid hero of the adventure.
The EARTH paperback includes four sections of color photographs, plus other B&W snaps, maps, and drawings scattered throughout the text. It's a very user-friendly volume like Fortey's other book that I've read, LIFE. This book is an eminently readable work of popular science that should be required reading in high school geology. And I now have a deeper appreciation for the waivey-grained, black, white and grey boulders of granite - up to three tons in weight - that line our koi pond.