A planet tells its story

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Reading the Rocks: The Autobiography of the Earth

Basic Books: 2005. 256 pp. $26, £15.50 081334249X | ISBN: 0-813-34249-X

On a recent flight back to Britain from the United States, the person sitting next to me, after discovering that I was a geologist, asked me if it was true that predictions about global warming were just bad science.

I thought of the scientists around the world who had devoted their careers to unravelling the way our planet works and the impact we humans have had on the environment. Are they bad scientists? And then, with a growing feeling of frustration, I realized how effective the smear campaign against environmental science has been, raising doubts in the minds of so many people, lulling them into a false sense of security just at the time when drastic and urgent action has to be taken if humanity is to save itself from the impending disaster.

We certainly need popular science books like Reading the Rocks by Marcia Bjornerud to help science fight back. The book reveals the extraordinary wealth of knowledge that Earth scientists now have about the biosphere and the lithosphere, and the complex interactions between them, that have made this planet the only home for us.

Discovering the past: this Richat structure, 50 kilometres across, provides valuable clues to Earth's history. Credit: LANDSAT/NASA

Bjornerud deals with the nature of rocks and the rock record, and what they can tell us about the origins of the Solar System and the subsequent evolution of the Earth's atmosphere, oceans and continents, as well as its deep interior. Inextricably linked to all this is the story of life itself. This is the context in which we must consider the effects of our actions on the planet.

The book is well written and Bjornerud has a rare talent for explaining scientific ideas clearly with intriguing and helpful analogies, similes and metaphors. One I rather liked was her riposte to Simon Conway Morris's contention that human intelligence is the inevitable endpoint of evolution. This, says Bjornerud, is a bit like declaring that the fork is the ultimate eating utensil without realizing that half the population of the world find chopsticks even better.

Yet despite my enthusiasm for both Bjornerud's aims and subject matter, I was left with a feeling that the book had missed a trick — not because the science was lacking, but because it did not inspire me as much as I felt it should.

I wish Bjornerud had arranged the facts and explanations with more of a sense of an unfolding story about the Earth, the science, and herself and her fellow geologists. When studying the planet's amazing story, the personal quests for understanding, with all the adventures and difficulties along the way, are an overwhelming experience. And these adventures and difficulties create a deeper understanding of the scientific endeavour itself, with its inherent uncertainties.

Nonetheless, Bjornerud tells the fascinating story of how our planet came into being, with its peculiar restless motion of tectonic plates and the extraordinary role of water, not only in this, but in maintaining the delicate environmental balance that allowed life to evolve over geological time. I only hope we don't go and muck it all up in the next blink of our planet's long history. The planet will survive to tell another story, but we might not.

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Lamb, S. A planet tells its story. Nature 436, 462 (2005) doi:10.1038/436462a

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