Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Earth: An Intimate History, by Richard Fortey

One of the MAB Audio Library's most avid borrowers is Godfrey Ooi, who is MAB's Deputy Executive Director and who has been blind since birth.  Lately Godfrey has been requesting a lot of popular science titles -- mostly astrophysics -- so I've been recording Stephen Hawking and Paul Davies.

I spotted this book on a sale table and thought perhaps Godfrey might like to explore underground for a while, having spent so much time lately in outer space.  The book is nearly 500 pages, which amounted to 23 hours of recording. "Wah! So long!" Nicholas exclaimed when I told him the final time count.  That's probably the greatest thing Professor Fortey gave me:  a sense of geological time, in which a century is barely a hiccup.

Richard Fortey studied geology at Cambridge; his research specialty is trilobites.  He's a member of the Royal Society and has written a number of popular books on geology and paleontology, as well as participating in BBC TV productions.  I truly admire scientists who can write about their subjects in a way that's accessible to the non-scientist without being patronising or simplistic.  The late physicist Richard Feynman was often touted for his skill in this area, and Richard Fortey well deserves the several prizes he's won for his popular science writing.  The Earth: An Intimate History is not exactly a pot-boiler (I'll refrain here from making the obvious quips about the volcano sections, torrid though they were), it is a very humanistic view of our planet's inconceivably long history.  Yet while stressing the point that human culture has always been married to the geology on which it's developed, Fortey consistently reminds us that human life is but a fleeting blip on the face of our planet.  It's a very humbling perspective.

In a meditation on the history of geological research, Fortey discusses how some 18th- and 19th-century geologists misinterpreted the rock formations they were examining.  They had, he pointed out, formulated their theory before looking at the rocks.  Thus, they found "evidence" to support their errors.  In one sentence he sums up what is probably the greatest pitfall for scientists and observant humans in general:
Seeing is not believing; rather, it is belief that governs seeing.
In other words, we are overly inclined to see what we expect to see, not what is.  Plate tectonic theory explained many of the phenomena that puzzled the early geologists.  When I took an introductory geology course in college in the early 1980s, the professor discussed plate tectonics with great excitement, and in fact, it was still very new, having been derived in the 1960s.  Fortey reminds us, however, that it never pays for scientists to feel smug about their advances beyond the benighted state of their predecessors -- the next generation of geologists may well overturn today's theories.

As for the feckless folks who think geology is altogether irrelevant, they should pay attention to Fortey's observations about Californians:
The art of being Californian, it seems, is to cultivate a loose-limbed insouciance while secretly working away like a frantic ant.  This curious combination of devil-may-care and industry may be a response to living in the shadow of doom. California is one of the least stable parts of the earth. This is the state with the shakes. All that beavering away in the pursuit of fame and the dollar could be regarded as diverting attention from the tectonic truth... There is only a kind of collective amnesia, produced by keeping your eyes down and your pockets full. Suddenly the ground might start to heave, and the porticoes of the most extravagant villas will come tumbling down, the sprinklers on the lawns will dry up, and the automobiles on the freeway will be tossed about like dry beans on a sieve.
We are truly a self-absorbed species, and we are content to think that the world has always been as it is today, or with only nominal changes.  When discussing continental drift, Fortey describes the meandering path that Scotland has followed to its present location:  It started near the antarctic, and the fossil record tells us that it was loitering near the equator during the Cambrian period.  In fact, today's land masses have most probably joined into supercontinents and broken apart multiple times during the history of the planet.  Most land has been ocean floor at one time or another.  When you dig down through the eons of rock record, who knows where you'll end up?

This is another lesson in how we must unmake the world as we go back in time -- lose all familiar geographical outlines, rearrange everything. The deeper we go, the stranger everything is, the less recognizable.
For the true rock-hound, this book has plenty of detail on everything from shale to gems.  For the disaster buff, it's hard to top the big earthquakes and volcanos.  Fortey burrows down to the atomic level of certain minerals and then zooms up for the satellite views.  

For the sighted reader, there are two sections of wonderful photographs, including a shot of the very dramatic Mount Kinabalu.  I was overjoyed to spot this photo, thinking "Yes! I climbed that!" The Malaysian Government may be less overjoyed to read the illustration's caption, which places the mountain in Indonesia.  Oops.  Well, I suppose, depending upon plate movements, it might be in Indonesia in a few thousands of millions of years, but as Professor Fortey would assure us, there will be no humans around to witness it.  

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.