24 April 2019

Venomous, by Christie Wilcox

Here’s a fascinating book that combines biology and chemistry with human health and ecological consciousness. Venomous: How Earth’s Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry is Christie Wilcox’s masterful account of all things that inject toxins into other creatures. The book covers how those toxins are produced, how evolution has modified them, how they get injected and what happens then. Caterpillars and playpuses, jellyfish and ants and octopuses, sea urchins and shrews and tarsiers all inject venom, as well as spiders and snakes. Different organisms have different goals, and their venoms reflect that. Sometimes venoms appear similar because of descent from a common ancestor, and in some cases they have converged from quite disparate groups. Sometimes they are just one compound, but often (especially among organisms who use their venoms to get their dinners) they are a cocktail of different molecules. Wilcox does a great job writing up the most fascinating of stories, never tarrying too long on any one critter, and moves elegantly through adventure travel, scientific experimentation, pharmacological insights, and the pathological details of bites from these masters of biochemistry. Along the way, she debunks old ideas (like about Komodo dragons having foul spit rather than venom) and excites with tantalizing new notions (like bee venom as a potential cure for Lyme disease). A fascinating book, of just the right length. Thumbs up!

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19 April 2019

Friday fold: Angel Island “III”

It’s Friday, and that means it’s time for us to return to Angel Island, in northern San Francisco Bay, California, for more folded rocks.

Today we clamber down to Perles Beach. The rocks there are varied: serpentinite, blueschist, and meta-chert.

Here are some of the outcrops and boulders exposed there featuring folds:

The coolest thing about Perles Beach was these thoroughly recrystallized meta-cherts, with coarse reaction rims to be seen at the contact between the chert and shale protolith lithologies:

Unfortunately, I can’t speak to the identities of the various minerals involved, but if anyone is interested in querying these rocks more deeply, now you know where to find them!

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17 April 2019

The Dragon Behind the Glass, by Emily Voigt

A whole book about aquarium fish? Yes, it’s possible, when the fish is the Asian arowana. The subtitle of Emily Voigt’s The Dragon Behind the Glass is “A True Story of Power, Obsession, and the World’s Most Coveted Fish.” The arowana is a fish that can be found in the Amazon (sometimes called the ‘water monkey’ there for its habit of jumping out of the water) but another species can be found in southeast Asia. This variety is green in most places, but golden varieties also exist, and it can be red in the heart of Borneo. These red arowana are seen as a status symbol in some Asian cultures, and an individual adult fish can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. The high price has precipitated several impacts. For one, it’s made dealing with the fish a high-stakes operation, with theft and even murder committed to access such a valuable commodity. It’s also depleted wild stocks of the fish, and nurtured a arowana-farming industry, resulting in a situation where the arowana is utterly endangered in the wild, but doing just fine in captivity (though unable to be traded internationally due to CITES regulations). The author, Emily Voigt, learns about the arowana on an endangered species bust in New York, but it leads her down a rabbit hole of learning, conversation, exploration, and obsession. As with The Feather Thief, which I reviewed Monday in this space, the subtitular ‘obsession’ could apply equally to the people Voigt describes, and to Voigt herself as the author. As she learns more, she becomes fixated on seeing an arowana in the wild, and makes multiple trips to Borneo to try and achieve that goal, stymied constantly by logistical matters. Along the way, she befriends a quirky fish-obsessed explorer, and learns of a new variety of arowana (with “batik” patterns on its scales) in an inaccessible jungle river in Myanmar. She tries to get to that one, too, carrying the mantle of scientific inquiry as her goal – seeking a type specimen for an ichthyologist to describe. Finally, she journeys to the Amazon basin, witnessing deforestation and dodging headhunters on her quest for a brief sighting of a wild arowana. I think the parts of the book I found most compelling were Voigt’s descriptions of the expeditions she made, trying tenaciously to access truly wild places, and how they are both simultaneously extraordinarily hard to visit and yet (once there) found to also already carry the heavy mark of humanity’s blighted touch. Combining economics, character studies, a history of the aquarist hobby culture, biology and ecology with a good dose of adventure travel, I found The Dragon Behind the Glass to be an enjoyable read.

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15 April 2019

The Feather Thief, by Kirk Wallace Johnson

The Feather Thief is an interesting read. Subtitled “Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century,” it’s one of those nonfiction books where the narrator starts off as a dispassionate reporter but becomes more and more involved in the story he’s reporting. Kirk Wallace Johnson is a veteran of the Iraq War who starts a nonprofit trying to help Iraqi refugees resettle in America after the war wrecks their lives. It’s stressful. He takes a weekend off to go fly fishing, and his guide mentions how a guy broke into a British nature museum in order to steal bird specimens from which to extract fly-tying feathers. Johnson becomes interested, and looks into the case. It turns out to be quite interesting: the thief is an American music student in London and something of a salmon-fly-tying prodigy.  (Read a Smithsonian account of the heist here.) Some of the bird skins he steals were collected by Alfred Russel Wallace in the Malay Archipelago. He gets caught, but instead of going to prison, a one-day consultation with Simon Baron-Cohen, the celebrated psychologist (and cousin of Borat comedian Sascha Baron-Cohen) yields a diagnosis of autism, which the presiding judge uses to free him, meaning there are almost no consequences for the criminal musician. This is especially galling when you consider that he destroyed a great many of the skins, and removed their identifying labels, making them worthless for scientific study. It’s a crime against knowledge, for the sake of old white men tying fishing lures that are never intended to be actually used to catch fish – a gross perversion of decent behavior. Not only that, but he also never returned all of them: There were more than 100 birds still missing when the case was closed. The book picks up in intensity when Johnson tries to solve the case of the missing birds, and interviews key people, traveling around the world and engaging in fierce conversation with them. I won’t reveal the ending, but I found it to be a good payoff for the investment of reading the book.

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12 April 2019

Friday fold: Angel Island “II”

Happy Friday, all. Here are a few shots of crinkled, thin, multicolored cherts from Kayak Beach on northern Angel Island, California, piggybacking on the folds I showed you last week.

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5 April 2019

Friday fold: Angel Island “I”

As mentioned last week, I’m part of a team updating the beloved “Streetcar to Subduction” field guide to San Francisco geology in time for AGU’s Centennial year and the return of the AGU Fall Meeting to San Francisco. Today I’d like to share another fold we saw in our Bay Area field work last month. This shows metalliferous cherts (perhaps due to nearby deep-sea black smokers?) that have undergone deformation (folding, faulting) and blueschist-facies metamorphism as a result of subduction and accretion to the western edge of the North American continent during the late Mesozoic:

I love the super-high contrast of these layers; it really helps the visiting geologist lock on to the deformational patterns.

A few close-ups:

I hope this gorgeous outcrop gets your Friday off to a great start! Have a terrific weekend!

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3 April 2019

Squid Empire: The Rise and Fall of the Cephalopods, by Danna Staaf

Here’s a cool little book about the paleobiology, ecology, and behavior of cephalopods: Squid Empire. The author, Danna Staaf, has a PhD in marine biology and –more importantly– a lifelong fascination with squid, octopuses, cuttlefish, and nautiloids. This work is a history of the cephalopod clade – going back into deep time, before the Cambrian Explosion, dwelling on ancestral forms and luxuriating in the ammonites (now sadly extinct — or are they?) and arriving at the modern day with its myriad oceanic perturbations. For those with an armchair interest in taxonomy, it’s a perfect treatment of the different major groups of cephalopods, and what distinguishes them. Sometimes this leads to profound realizations, such as how counting arms, and figuring out which of them are modified for which purposes, can reveal degrees of evolutionary relatedness. The “paper nautilus” (or argonaut) of modern oceans is thus revealed to be not a nautilus at all, but an octopus, which has the quirky habit of carrying around its stiff egg case and treating it as a shell. Unlike a true nautilus, it can drop it whenever it sees fit, and make another. The business with shells is full of endless possibilities for exploration, and shells are of course most of what we have to work with in the fossil record. Some interesting ideas about internal vs. external shells are presented, and I won’t give anything away here except to say that I learned a lot. The writing is fresh and vibrant, but doesn’t shirk scientific details. (e.g., readers will see “coleoid” frequently, and have to be okay with it. Likewise, you’ll learn the real names for various relevant anatomical structures and must be prepared to assimilate this vocabulary in order for the book’s further messages to sink in.) Squid Empire makes a nice partner volume to Other Minds, by Peter Godfrey-Smith, which I’ve reviewed here too. Godfrey-Smith’s book is about cephalopod social behavior and psychology, while Staff focuses more on anatomy, physiology, and ecology. Together, the two volumes provide fascinating insights into a group of intelligent organisms with whom we share the planet. They have occupied Earth’s oceans for hundreds of millions of years, and hopefully we will allow them to last into our shared future.

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2 April 2019

Spying on Whales, by Nick Pyenson

The latest book that I listened to was Spying on Whales, by the Smithsonian’s Nick Pyenson. Nick is a paleontologist at the National Museum of Natural History, but he doesn’t limit his professional work to dusty bones. Lucky for him, the object of his fascination, rorqual whales, are not only present in stratified sedimentary rocks, but can also be found swimming in the world ocean today. The book opens in Antarctica, tagging living, breathing modern whales in hopes of learning more about their lives deep below the surface.

But that’s just an opener. The meat of the text begins as he describes the revelation of Cerro Ballena in Chile’s Atacama Desert, and how 3D scanning allowed the capture of critical information from the site as the site’s doom was impending. The stories of field work like this are a real strength of the book – hearing the circumstances under which Pyenson grapples with challenges, priorities, and personalities in order to make science happen. Another strength is the constant presence of Science (with a capital S) as the guiding force for his work – the reader gets frequent reminders of the larger, over-arching philosophical drives that push the actions of scientists on the ground.

Pyenson is also responsible for the discovery of a sensory organ in the “chin” tip of the lower jaw that helps these huge animals coordinate lunge-feeding maneuvers. This is a pretty huge deal – a new organ! – and he made it in a flensing & rendering facility for an Icelandic whaling company, using equipment including “the world’s biggest deli slicer” (ewwwww).

He discusses work in the Smithsonian’s terrific collections, sequestered in the museum or in off-site storage facilities, one of which holds the largest individual bones known: the jaws of a blue whale killed early last century. One of my favorite parts of the book is using these objects as prompts for thinking about whales’ long life spans, and the history that individual whales have seen. His story about a bowhead whale that saw Franklin’s ill-fated Northwest Passage expedition and survives two centuries to be harvested by modern Inupiat people is quite compelling. His exploration of the reasons for whale gigantism are also impressive – this is a modern feature of whales, not an ancient one: it only happened in the last 10% of their collective history as a group. Pyenson presents a case for the Ice Ages being the cause.

Spying on Whales is organized roughly into “past, present, and future,” which is to say his work on paleontology, his work on modern whales (such as the chin organ), and finally a glimpse into the Anthropocene future, which combines both a profound sense of the human-induced changes to the whales’ habitat in the past couple of centuries, as well as insights into whale evolution happening today.

Overall, it’s a fascinating book, well-written and well-felt, and I enjoyed it. Recommended!

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29 March 2019

Friday fold: Plunging Purisima

That photo shows a crack team of geologists at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve near San Mateo, California. Standing on the seaside outcrop from left to right are: Jamie Kirkpatrick (McGill University), Christie Rowe (McGill University), and John Wakabayashi (California State University at Fresno). Together with Kim Blisniuk (San Jose State University) and me, they comprise a team of geologists updating the beloved “Streetcar to Subduction” field guide to San Francisco geology in time for AGU’s Centennial year and the return of the AGU Fall Meeting to San Francisco. This guide, by Clyde Wahrhaftig of U.C. Berkeley, was published (by AGU) in 1984, a good long 35 years ago. Some things have stayed the same, but other things have changed since then, and we’re preparing an exciting new version of the tour for digitally-enabled modern geologists.

A few weeks ago, the five of us did essential field work, travelling around to various sites both in Wahrhaftig’s original field guide and several others besides, checking on outcrop quality and capturing imagery for our update. The Fitzgerald Marine Reserve wasn’t in the original guide, but it has some great geology exposed among the gulls, sea lions, and octopuses:

That’s the trace of bedding, planed off by the waves, showing the outcrop pattern of a particularly coarse conglomerate within the (late Miocene to early Pleistocene) Purisima Formation. The fold in question is a plunging syncline. The Purisima is a pretty young package of sediments to show this kind of deformation, and the interpretation is that the adjacent San Gregorio Fault’s motion is responsible for the deformation.

And finally, we’ll zoom in here to where the axis of the fold crops out:

I look forward to sharing more of my images from this trip with you as the year unspools. San Francisco has awesome geology, distinct and exemplary, worth experiencing and celebrating alongside AGU’s Centennial year. You should attend the 2019 AGU Fall Meeting, and try some of the revised trips out for yourself when you’re next in the San Francisco Bay area.

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27 March 2019

Timefulness, by Marcia Bjornerud

[Note: this book review was scheduled to run in the July 2019 issue of EARTH magazine, but with the announcement two weeks ago that EARTH was being shuttered, I was notified that nothing contributors or freelancers had written scheduled for after April 2019 would be published, and the rights were returned to me. While that’s disappointing, it frees me up to publish it here instead. Enjoy!]


Geology is a flavor of science that carries with it a certain philosophical perspective. It imbues its practitioners with a sense of scale. I mean this in the three-dimensional physical sense of the term (geologists deal with very small things like mineral crystal defects, and very large things, such as lithospheric plates), but also in the temporal sense: Geologists must be comfortable with slow rates (“glacial” being the type example, but seafloor spreading is even slower, and also really fast rates, such as slip on faults, or instantaneous rock vaporization during extraterrestrial bolide impacts. This is a useful trait in a species that is otherwise “intemperate and intemporate,” a new book asserts.

Geologists are awesome because they open this vast four-dimensional thoughtspace to human imaginations. In Timefulness: How thinking like a geologist can help save the world, Marcia Bjornerud makes the case that geological thinking is the perspective that can save our species, and the biosphere, if not “the world.”

Marcia Bjornerud is a professor of geology at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. She writes periodically for the New Yorker’s science blog, ‘Elements,’ and has published one previous book, the superb 2005 Reading the Rocks. The new book is more political than its predecessor, but equally grounded in the serenity of contemplating data through the lens of Deep Time. Whereas “Reading the Rocks” was about the awesome insights of Earth science, Timefulness is about the relevant insights of Earth science to society. If we don’t know our deep history, Bjornerud argues, we live only in the present, divorced simultaneously from our rich natural heritage and devoid of responsibility for the as-yet-unmanifested results of our actions. By anchoring our human perspective to the broad sweep of cosmogenic evolution and terrestrial changes, we gain the proper ‘sense of where we are,’ unblinkered by short-term delusion or greed.

I love Bjornerud’s writing. She writes like the most engaging professor I have ever had, with a sense of the proper proportion of enthusiasm, the right balance of quantitative measurement and mind-blowing elucidation, expressed in terms that make me swoon. Everything she writes about is big and real and essential. Her vocabulary is expansive and rich, her pacing well-honed. Her analogies are evocative and diverse. Here’s an example, wherein she brilliantly compares old and more recent rocks: “Young rocks communicate in plain prose, which makes them easy to read, by they typically only have one thing to talk about. The oldest rocks tend to be more allusive, even cryptic, speaking in metamorphic metaphor. With patience and close listening, however, they can be understood, and they generally have more profound truths to share about endurance and resilience.”

Golly, that’s beautiful. You can tell that Bjornerud is still blown away by how amazing geological insights are, and she expresses that wonder so wonderfully. In another spot, communicating the impermanence of topographic mountain ranges, she writes, “Majestic peaks and magnificent palisades are simply what remains, for now — the provisional results of the latest cuts by a team of obsessive sculptors: water, ice, and wind in artistic collaboration with gravity.” Her vision of Earth science is poetic and lovely.

A distinctive feature of her writing is numerous small sub-sections to a chapter, each with a pithy subtitle. A few examples: ‘Esprit de Cores’ (about the revelations of deep-sea drilling), ‘Apocalypse Now,’ (about the modern biodiversity crisis), and ‘Knocking on Wood’ (about carbon sequestration by planting trees). This clever wordplay delights me.

What are we humans going to do with ourselves? Our species is clever and powerful, and we have altered the natural cycling of matter and energy in many aspects of the planetary system that supports our existence. Some of these alterations are apparently minor and others are so starkly aberrant that they are difficult to comprehend. At the forefront of Bjornerud’s mind is of course the human-induced relocation of carbon atoms from their sedate position in the sedimentary rocks of Earth’s crust into a new venue: bonded with oxygen, aloft in the troposphere. There, some of them block spacebound emissions of infrared radiation (warming the planet’s surface) and others dissolve in the oceans (lowering its pH). This does not bode well, and the rate of the carbon flux is increasing even as scientists warn against its unintended effects. Bjornerud empowers us to “repeal the Anthropocene” by first coming to terms with the physical reality geoscientists have revealed.

In the end, I feel like I learned more from Bjornerud’s earlier book, but agree 100% with this one, which feels essential and timely. It encapsulates the mismatch between the long-term sense of who we are and where we came from with the short-term-thinking that dominates our election cycles and our stock markets. Recommended to all.

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