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Customer Review

on 26 October 2009
Snowball Earth is the story of how a theory of a total global freeze in the precambian gained a global scientific consensus. The book starts with the hypothesis' still-birth, but the majority covers the uptake of the idea by a difficult but genius American geologist, Paul Hoffman. Much of the book is a biography and analysis of Hoffman himself, woven around him taking an unfashionable idea and belligerently setting about proving its truth.

There are many things I dislike about this book.

To begin with, Gabrielle Walker is shamelessly partizan. She is like Paul Hoffman's bulldog!! Throughout the book she urges the reader to understand that a genius of Hoffman's stature should be forgiven their bloody-mindedness and frequent inexcuseable rude outbursts. Fine, but couldn't she afford some of his detractors the same courtesy?

Chiming with this is her selection of favourable events for Hoffman. Walker describes a day where Hoffman is defending his hypothesis in the field. She says that other geologists, those determined to prove him wrong, continually asked especially "difficult" questions. Yet she mentions none, nor any of Hoffman's responses, if they were forthcoming. What she does mention however, is the one case where the other geologist is clearly nit-picking, and he conceded that the particluar point was not evidence against the snowball theory anyway.

It becomes increasingly difficult throughout the book to have a disspassionate view of the events recorded when the reader feels like they're hearing them from someone dressed head to toe in Hoffman colours, complete with a set of pom poms.

I also have a problem with her description of the geology profession as a whole. She marks it out as a science completely unwilling to listen to new ideas and keeps it's head in the sand when new evidence contradicts long held beliefs. I began to study geology the year this book was published, and remember a totally different scenario. Maybe I had particularly liberal and open-minded lecturers? Perhaps not. Perhaps it's another wall built by Walker to be heroically knocked down by Hoffman. Who knows?

My final problem with the book is that despite the polemic, it still left me unconvinced of the validity of Hoffman's "snowball earth". Yes, the geological community now accepts a freeze came surprisingly close to the equator; but the book fails to convince this reader of any more than that.

Despite all this, Walker is a superb writer of prose and I barely put the book down! She brings her protagonists to life (despite her team colours), and the final (openly) speculative chapter is superb.

The book also gives an exciting insight into the actual machinations of the science community to the layman. It shows the personal nature of the peer-reviewing process, bringing to light how determined individual scientists can be to prove others wrong. This system, as noted by Walker, is hugely succesful in the search for the truth.

I've often had difficulty explaining this to such people as creationists or the climate change denying lobby. They claim that mainstream science is really just a group of like-minded people unwilling to challenge orthodoxy and happy just to pat each other on the back for recieving more funding. This book, while not being about either evolution or climate change (man-made, at least!!), shows that view to be seriously flawed.

In summary then, this a book I could hardly put down despite disliking most of it's content.

3 stars!
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3.7 out of 5 stars