2 December 2010

Book review: The Planet in a Pebble

Posted by Jessica Ball

One of my favorite ways of thinking about Earth science is to compare it to a crime investigation, particularly along the lines of Sherlock Holmes, where the investigator gathers minute detail into an encompassing explanation. That’s why I was intrigued when Oxford University Press approached me about reviewing a new book that they’re publishing, The Planet in a Pebble.

Author Jan Zalasiewicz, a British geologist & paleontologist, has taken this ‘forensic’ approach to geology and written what is essentially a novel with a pebble of Welsh slate as its protagonist – but it is a story that need not rely on the author’s imaginitive abilities, because science is more than capable of supplying a fascinating plot. In The Planet in a Pebble, we follow a small, innocuous bit of rock from its atoms’ birth in the heart of a star through billions of years of formation, change and destruction. The pebble’s existence is charted through geochronological techniques, revealing as much about its history as photographs and letters might tell about a human protagonist. The approach of the book is one of ‘forensic geology': taking small, observable clues and weaving them into a history that encompasses a far larger scope than a single rock. Zalasiewicz sums it up quite beautifully:

“Field geology is the ultimate forensic science, the art of the possible, where one combines much evidence as one can get hold of, with as much ingenuity in analysing it as one can muster – and also with a keen sense of the limitations of one’s deductions.”

In my opinion, this is really the basis of all Earth sciences; since we are, as it were, approaching the scene of a crime but rarely ever able to see it committed. The quote also acknowledges the flipside of gathering evidence: that there are always missing pieces and limits to the usefulness of what we can observe, and that scientists are not omnipotent.

The language of this book is, simply, poetic. It reminds me (quite favorably) of Edward Abbey‘s writing: graceful, witty, with the rhythms of a storyteller who truly enjoys their subject matter. But Zalasiewicz accomplishes this without giving in to the temptation of scientific jargon – something that can deter the casual reader from picking up a book on geology (or any other science). The author adopts a nicely conversational tone, giving us glimpses of a dry wit in phrases such as “tricksy time” in reference to dating monazite crystals and describing a “feeling of utter…spifflication” when faced with the impossibility of counting the laminae in his pebble. (He also isn’t caustic like Abbey, and that adds to his relatability; his style invokes the feeling of having a pleasant chat with a favorite professor.)

This isn’t a textbook, although Zalasiewicz does a wonderful job of working in explanations of fairly complicated concepts. By following the journey of the pebble, a reader will encounter mineralogy, radionucleide dating, remnant magnetism, index fossils, hydrocarbon formation, structural deformation, and turbidity currents (though not in that order). The book, in fact, covers most of the concepts that should come up in an introductory Earth science course. I particularly like the way that the book doesn’t limit itself to either the micro or macro scale, but ranges between both extremes; Zalasiewicz is just as comfortable talking about atomic nuclei as he is in discussing planetary impacts and plate tectonics. The text is weighted a bit toward a paleontological/biological perspective, which is understandable (given the author’s background as a paleontologist), but it doesn’t focus exclusively on those subjects.

My only real complaint would be that I think the book is a little under-illustrated. As a geologist, I’ve already encountered the subjects that come up over the course of the pebble’s story, and I don’t have a problem visualizing the concepts – perhaps because I’ve seen them illustrated elsewhere. But for the layperson, it might be helpful to illustrate ideas with a few more pictures as well as with the book’s descriptions. I should balance this, though, by acknowledging that illustrations and photos are not cheap in any publication, and that the plates and figures in The Planet in a Pebble are well-chosen and definitely do help underline the author’s ideas. (It may also be that the author was sparing with figures in order to keep from overwhelming the story and turning this into a textbook – also an understandable precaution.)

I definitely like that the “Further Reading” and “Bibliography” sections are tucked in the back, since they help the book avoid the intimidating appearance of a scientific paper but still provide references to support the author’s statements. (At Zalasiewicz’s suggestion, I immediately went and looked up one of the works that inspired this book, Thoughts on a Pebble by Gideon Mantell. Though it was published in 1836, it is definitely still worth a read – and is indeed available on Google Books.)

All in all, this book is an excellent introduction to Earth science, but it’s written in a way that should be appealing to the experienced scientist as well as the layperson. I found it both enjoyable for leisure reading and satisfying to my geological appetites.

Note: I received a copy of this book for review purposes from Oxford University Press.