13 May 2022

Super Volcanoes, by Robin George Andrews

A terrific debut book by Robin George Andrews, who trained as a volcanologist but diverted from primary research into popular science writing. (He has also done a bunch of freelancing for National Geographic, Scientific American, and the like.) The book profiles Kilauea, Yellowstone, Ol Doinyo Lengai, the oceanic ridge system (including Iceland), the Moon, Mars, Venus, and the cryovolcanoes of the outer solar system, plus bookending diversions into Vesuvius and Fuji. I was surprised at how much of the page count was devoted to extraterrestrial volcanism, but that decision certainly leaves plenty of Earthly volcanoes available to be profiled in Super Volcanoes II. The writing style is very excited and skews to the popular side of the jargon-fluff spectrum. The decision to de-emphasize jargon is laudable, but I found that the language can tend to be a bit flowery, especially in the first half of the book. For instance, he refers to the magma chamber below Yellowstone as a “dragon,” a “cupola,”, a “missile,” a “grenade,” and (you can hear the thesaurus pages flipping) a “wyvern.” It erupts “shattered fire.” These metaphors can be doubtless engaging with some audiences, but my taste is for a bit more direct language. It’s a fine line, and I’m not sure whether there’s a clear way to nail “just the right amount of technical detail,” but I think one technique (employed by Andrews) is to weave in brief interviews with working volcanologists, allowing them to use their own words to describe eruptive phenomena, which then gives Andrews the latitude to “translate.” He does a fine job with presenting these people as humans, and somehow makes the reader feel welcomed by the volcanological community. All told, I found Super Volcanoes an enjoyable read, and it will have a place of honor on my geological bookshelf.

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6 May 2022

Book report

Underfoot: A Geologic Guide to the Appalachian Trail, by V. Collins Chew

Published in 1988 by the Appalachian Trail Conference, this volume is a very AT-focused look at east coast geology. It’s also out of date, and a little hand-wringing when it comes to making clear conclusive statements about the arc of geologic history. The summary of geologic events is written for the beginner, not the professional. There’s lots of talk of forces and cracks and fire and ice, but you won’t hear “chlorite,” “greenschist,” or “mylonite” anywhere herein. And it’s not just eliding jargon; there’s revisionism, too. For instance, “Neoproterozoic” has been rebranded as “Z Time” to make things simpler for the novice. Most of the book is a geography based explication of the rocks found along the trail (as if hiking from Georgia to Maine) and a brief synopsis of their formation stories. The book is in black and white, and attempts to show geographic maps, geologic maps, and paleogeographic maps in a common template, which is a noble goal that is unmet. It would be a good thing to publish a second edition of the book in color, with updated science and a graphical design team.

Mapping Mars, by Oliver Morton

Morton’s first book, and the last one for me to read. I wish I had read it when it came out, for it is a bit dated at this point, a point that I’m sure delights Morton as much as it delights me – We have learned so much more about Mars since 2001; we have explored so much more. The map is more detailed, the processes better constrained. Still, this is a very readable account of about a century of scientific thinking on the red planet. We’re lucky that the past two decades have been so productive in our explorations of Mars, but this shows how we got to where we are. Morton’s style in writing is an absolute delight to read, and he employs a very similar format here as with his other books, The Planet Remade and Eating the Sun: he interacts with key workers in the field, attending their conferences and sharing conversations with them. In Mapping Mars, he also explores imagination’s role in our understanding of Mars, both in terms of driving scientific thinking but also in terms of its influence on fiction. In particular, Morton gives a lot of attention to the work of novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, who made Mars his beat for many years.

How to Make an Apple Pie from Scratch: In Search of the Recipe for Our Universe, by Harry Cliff

An exceptional read about the most basic and most elusive of topics: what is the universe made of? Taking inspiration from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos quip about “If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe,” Cliff (a particle physicist) provides a unique and insightful narration for what we now understand matter to be made of, and how we got to understand it. He is a very funny explainer of science, and what I really valued about this book is how well it blends theory and experimental results – I was able (for the first time) to follow the logic of inquiry all the way to the point where it is revealed that particles as such don’t exist, and are instead just vibrations within quantum fields. There’s just the right amount of repetition of key points, and Cliff provides a superb example of the technique of explaining a concept before naming it. Never before have I understood with a gluon does, or why the Higgs boson was such a big deal. All in all, a top-notch piece of popular science writing. Highly recommended.

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

I wouldn’t ordinarily gravitate toward a novel about a Russian count in the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution, but everyone raved about this book, so during the dark days of the pandemic last winter, I read it… and I loved it. This is what a novel should be – a masterfully told story where you are led into caring deeply about fictional characters. The basic set-up is that the highly-cultured, highly-principled protagonist is imprisoned in a hotel for the rest of his life by the anti-nobility sentiments of the new government, and he makes the best of it, in style. The hotel is a source of luxury items (in particular, the count favors good wine and food) as well as exotic guests, several of whom prove pivotal to the Count’s fortunes. It’s also a source of antagonism, as petty apparatchiks act in ways to constrain the Count and imperil his happiness. But in a way, these plot points are really just foundational architecture for the main show, which is Towles’s tremendous abilities as a writer. I can’t wait to read his other novels.

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, by Becky Chambers

The fourth (and apparently final) novel in the superb Wayfarers series examines issues of culture and community when people of four species are brought together by a crisis and have to isolate in place. I’m not sure if Chambers was influenced by the early COVID lockdown to write this tale of disparate personalities placed into close quarters by circumstance, but it’s a real delight that none of the five main characters are human beings. For those who aren’t familiar with the series, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet opens the series with a human protagonist and his alien (to us) spaceship crew. It was followed by A Closed and Common Orbit, which explored what it means to be a person (from the perspective of an AI that inhabits a robot body for the first time). Record of a Spaceborn Few, the third novel, looked at humanity’s future in space, with relatively few appearances by non-human species. To me, the sapient alien species Chambers dreamed up were one of the creative delights of the series, and so it pleased my palate plenty to return to exploring their unique circumstances in this final book. Stars, what a great series!

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas 

A novel that feels all too real, considering the periodically-repeated American tragedy of a white police officer killing an unarmed Black person. The story of the incident is told by a teenage Black girl living in an urban black neighborhood but going to school in the dominantly-white suburbs. Her father is a former gang member and Black Panthers supporter who runs a small grocery store in the neighborhood. She has older and younger brothers, and a supportive mother who works as a nurse. Her friends at school are a mixed race group, and she draws particular support from her white boyfriend. Navigating all this would be complicated enough, but then things go crazy when she witnesses a policeman shoot her childhood best friend, and then the local gangs react, and the media reacts, and politicians react, and the reactions beget more reactions, and the whole situation gets wound up very tightly. Thomas’s writing is extremely effective at drawing the reader into the main characters point of view. She is also a master of dialogue, and I found myself savoring the different diction employed by the various characters, each speaking in a way that evokes their essential circumstances. Top notch, and worth all the praise it has received.

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15 April 2022

Friday fold: Cretaceous Canada

A guest contribution for the Friday fold, from reader Christian Gronau:

Christian reports that this is located on the

North side of Hwy.11, 20 miles east of Saskatchewan River Crossing, Alberta. Eastern foothills of the Canadian Rocky Mountains.

Faulting and folding in Early Cretaceous Luscar Group sediments.  Typical repeating sequence of sandstone, siltstone and coal.

Thanks for pitching in, Christian! Happy Friday to all!

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21 March 2022

Book report

How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, by Clint Smith

A really outstanding book. Clint Smith, a Black poet and academic, visits seven places that have important ties to the history of American slavery. Many of these places are focused on tourism and education, with a goal of spreading understanding about how slavery functioned in this country. One of them is on the mountain next to where I teach: Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home and plantation. Visiting it, Smith talks to other visitors and to the tour guides who lead them through the place, lead them in thinking about race, power dynamics, economics, and the personalities involved. Smith’s writing is superb, and I have rarely read anything so evocative and essential. This would be my top reading recommendation to any American. Slavery is America’s original sin, and the racism is has baked into our society still harms today. But while Smith could have stopped there, he goes deeper into a question that not enough people consider: what is the right way to teach about slavery in America? How do public-facing institutions like Monticello grapple with the presentation of ideas and perspectives to a public which is quite diverse in its interest and acceptance of the reality of American injustice. A fascinating and well-reported read.

A Grown-Up Guide to Planet Earth, by Christopher Jackson

I listen to about half my books as audiobooks, and I stream them via the service called Audible. Unlike those, this 6-episode work is an Audible original, unavailable elsewhere (including in print). In it, the articulate English professor of geology Chris Jackson describes various aspects of our planet, weaving in “on the scene” audio from various places and interviews with other geologists. It’s very approachable, and I found it held my attention despite my already being familiar with most of the concepts being discussed. One strength of the initiative is Chris’s informality, and how inseparable that is from his enthusiasm. He’s chosen a great group of geoscientists to interview as part of the effort, including old friends like Kayla Iacovino as well as new voices I hadn’t previously known of. Each episode is tidily packaged, and you could listen to it on your morning commute or while you’re cooking dinner, blending in-studio narration with dialogue and on-the-scenes reporting. Lots of fun, and recommended for the geological newbies in your life.

Horizon, by Barry Lopez 

Barry Lopez produced so many wonderful books over his career as one of America’s preeminent nature writers. He died late in the first year of the pandemic (of cancer rather than COVID). There are few other writers like Lopez, and I’ve found inspiration in his pages for decades. This volume was no exception – it’s a very strong collection of essays exploring wild places and humanity’s relationship to them, and to each other. Some feel very familiar – some are even places from which Lopez has previously reported, and in Horizon, he circles back and reexamines them from the perspective of being close to the end of his own time on Earth. Others are new and distinctive and in some cases totally shocking. One of Lopez’s great strengths is his interest in exploration, but one criticism I would offer of his writing is that he often dwells too long (for my taste) on historical exploration, on the machinations of white men long dead. Here, too, I feel his indulgences in the vagaries of James Cook’s life and work present a big stale biscuit wedged amid much richer fare derived from Lopez’s own lived experiences. But the strength of those personal essays are profound, and they resonate deeply with me. I’m sad this will be the last new work from Barry Lopez. May he rest in peace as his works endure and reach new audiences through the magic of reading.

Yellow Bird, by Sierra Crane Murdoch

An interesting book, with two narrative centers. One is the fate of a man who disappeared (and was presumed murdered) while working in the oil shale boom in the Dakotas (the fracking frenzy that tapped the Bakken Formation). The second is the woman who obsessively sets out to solve the case, through tenacity and guile. Her name is Lissa Yellow Bird, a native of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, who has a checkered history, a fierce determination, and an instinct toward nurturing those she loves. Yellow Bird ultimately develops a tight friendship with the book’s author, reporter Sierra Crane Murdoch, which makes the book feel more personal and intriguing than it would have if Murdoch kept her own presence out of the narration. What results is a very intimate look at the lingering manifestations of U.S. colonialism on Native peoples, warped by boomtown economics and infused with the stink of petrochemicals. Greed and violence have been the essence with which U.S. policy has treated its indigenous peoples, and this book manages to explore that idea both in the grand sweep of history and the microcosm of this one particular woman, solving a murder in her own idiosyncratic way. A dramatic story, evocatively told.

The Story of the Earth in 25 Rocks: Tales of Important Geological Puzzles and the People Who Solved Them, by Donald R. Prothero

A very clever idea for a book – 25 neat and tidy chapters exploring Earth history and process by looking at specific rock types. Prothero is an old hand at writing, and has churned out a workmanlike book as a result. It could have stood another round of editing, I think, but is still a serviceable volume documenting the importance of rocks like komatiites, lunar anorthosite, blueschist, turbidites, or the outcrop at Siccar Point. I could see assigning some of these chapters (~10 pages or so) to students in Historical Geology as prompts to their thinking about how to solve geological enigmas through collaboration, logic, and multiple datasets. As a professional geologist, I am not sure that any of the rocks detailed in the book were surprises for me, but Prothero has a great strength in really caring about the arc of scientific thinking, and who wrote what, when. So I definitely gained a fuller appreciation of the backstory behind the interpretation of some rocks as a result of “reading*” it. (I actually listened to it on Audible, and I must say that this was one of the worst audiobook renditions I’ve heard, as the narrator consistently mispronounced almost every bit of geoscientific jargon – very grating on the eardrums. Read it on paper instead, would be my advice.)

The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson

A novel about humanity’s future living as a society on a warming planet. The first chapter is among the most harrowing things I’ve read, in fiction or in reality. I won’t reveal any spoilers here for that entry point, but I will encourage you to read it. The short version is that climate change is bad, and people get hurt. From there, different characters take on tasks of healing the world, grappling with the complexity of climate, glacier dynamics, transnational politics, economic incentives, and messiness of interpersonal relationships. I will now spoil the novel’s main point, which is that (at least in this fictional universe), humanity solves climate change and nurtures into existence a world order that is sustainable. Along the way, various insights are achieved and various machinations developed, some of them clearly ethical, others dramatically less so. To read something hopeful about climate change is a nice change of pace, and I found myself engaged throughout the novel, with the possible exception on a deep dive into the economics of a particular approach to decarbonization.

The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal

A novel, the first in a series, that tracks the development of the U.S. space program in an alternate reality wherein a massive meteor strikes the Mid-Atlantic in the aftermath of World War II, wiping out D.C. and triggering unstoppable global warming. The U.S. government relocates to Kansas and kick-starts an aggressive Moon/Mars colonization effort in the 1950s, racing against time to save humanity by getting off the planet. The novel is narrated by a “computer” (in the Hidden Figures sense of the word) and former pilot, Elma York. Elma is married to an engineer, and after an exciting and harrowing first chapter wherein they survive the meteorite strike, the Drs. York move to Kansas and become integral to the space program. Elma ends up leading a diverse group of women pilots and computers to initiate a female astronaut program. It’s sort of interesting to be immersed in 1950s sexism and racism amid the struggles of the space race. Attention is also given to shaming characters for their mental health and use of corrective medication. Real-life figures like Werner von Braun and Mr. Wizard are woven into the narrative that is principally made up of fictional characters. An additional dash of distinctive flavor comes from the Yorks being Jewish, and a fair amount of attention being devoted to their practice. My chief complaint is that the wink-wink, nudge-nudge sex scenes between the Yorks are described in language I can only describe as cringe-inducing. There are many of them, and author Kowal seems to pride herself in masterful innuendo that in fact comes off as pretty childish. My second complaint is that there are really no big plot twists after the discovering of the climate-altering effects of the impact. The narrative just goes forward, documenting the journey of this fictional first woman into space.

Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas, by Jennifer Raff

An important contribution to understanding the peopling of the Americas, blending archaeology and genetic sequencing. This important new line of data is critical for evaluating the various hypotheses of when and from where Native Americans arrived on these continents. The author, Jennifer Raff, currently the President of the American Association of Anthropological Genetics, describes her own work in an “ancient DNA lab,” extracting, amplifying, and evaluating genetic information from human remains recovered from archaeological sites, but also recounts DNA results from living Native Americans. This she attempts to tie together with the vast suite of archaeological insights, with all their attendant details of place, dating techniques, and associated technologies. The result is a complicated tangle of genetic markers, site names, tribal affiliations, and competing hypotheses. I think the book would be most valuable for a reader who has already mastered the nuances of American archaeology, but for me (being new to the details of places like Meadowcroft, tools like Clovis points, and ideas like the Kelp Highway, it was a lot to keep track of, especially once the alphanumerical naming jargon of various genetic markers started being introduced. Still, to have it all in one volume seems to me to be a very valuable manifestation, and I’m grateful Dr. Raff has orchestrated all this information into a single book. The other major thing I think she deserves recognition for is an unceasing and unrelenting emphasis on ethics in anthropology. The book repeatedly details colonial and racist attitudes and actions of anthropologists both past and present, and demonstrates a better way forward, integrating scholarly research with the modern needs and interests of living Native Americans. Conversation and consent must take place prior to any investigation. Raff puts her respect for the indigenous perspective front and center, and doesn’t let the reader forget that the insights she shares were developed through cooperation with the descendants of the people she studies.

Rosewater, by Tade Thompson

A science fiction novel, the first in a series. The basic set-up is that an alien organism has installed itself in a big way in Nigeria, sharing both healing powers and mind-reading ability with the humans with whom it comes into contact. A town grows up surrounding this great dome-like extraterrestrial presence; the doughnut-shaped titular Rosewater. Living in Rosewater is the protagonist of the novel: Kaaro. He is a “sensitive,” one of the mind-reading types. The novel is structured around his evolution across two timelines: “then” and “now,” so you as the reader both get his backstory and the urgent current crisis as he navigates trauma, government bureaucracy, romance, treachery, and just plain weirdness. These “then” and “now” chapters alternate, and so sometimes its confusing (at least to me) which moment I’m immersed in, but ultimately the past informs the present in well-apportioned chunks of narrative arc. It’s very well-written and full of evocative detail. I’ll be reading the sequel next.

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2 February 2022

Abundance, by Karen Lloyd

This collection of essays (each of which could stand alone as an article in a magazine) is subtitled, “Nature in Recovery.” It’s a look at how natural places in Europe are recovering from environmental degradation. It is a soulful series of examinations of rewilding, of endangered species bouncing back, of the people working hard to change the fraught human relationship to the natural world. Most of the essays are framed around a particular animal in a particular place: pelicans in Greece, wolves in the Netherlands, beavers in the U.K., bears in Transylvania, the capercaillie in Scotland, vultures in Spain. It’s a travel book, in a way, describing what author Karen Lloyd sees and thinks and experiences while in these places, and what they portend for the rest of the world. It’s well written, though the style varies a bit from chapter to chapter. There were a few factual errors – 300 mm is not 3 m, for instance (p. 140), and the Millennium Falcon isn’t host to X-wing fighters (p. 24). I’m compulsive about noting such errors when I find them, but in no way does either drag down the central narrative, which is that passionate, well-informed citizens can come to the aid of their wild brethren, creating the conditions where the animals can thrive, ecosystems can better function, and we humans can be inspired by it all. These dozen snippets from conservation and restoration work in Europe can inform humanity’s “cathedral thinking” for years to come. Lloyd lays out tangible evidence that hope isn’t frivolous but vital, a vital urging for our species to consider all the others.

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18 January 2022

The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking), by Katie Mack

Katie Mack is the incoming Hawking Chair in Cosmology and Science Communication at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario. She has written an excellent book about the end of the universe, The End of Everything. In it, she explains with wit and insight, four different ways the universe could die. I read it a year after I took an introductory astronomy course, and found that it both covered similar terrain to the cosmological concepts I learned there, but presented them in different language, with different emphases, and with the guiding question, What happens at the end of the world? She details the evidence for and against various scenarios, including the Big Crunch, the Big Rip, the Heat Death of the universe, and a rules-rewriting process called Vacuum Decay. None of these are worth worrying about (because you can’t do anything about any of them), but they are worth learning about. At least I think so, and so does Dr. Mack. Perhaps it just frees us up to focus on issues we actually can control, or perhaps it enriches our experience as citizens of the universe, or perhaps it provides a learning framework that can reveal the way the universe really works, and that may ultimately provide tangible benefits to humanity (or our descendants). She openly grapples with the philosophical implications, even if they are cold comfort. Regardless, it’s a fascinating journey, and Katie Mack is an excellent guide, writing about the destruction of everything we know and hold dear with a sense of humor, elegant diagrams, and select interviews with other astrophysicists. I think the book is strongest when she is enthusiastically describing that which she knows well, but the addition of two chapters at the end consisting mainly of reflective interviews with peers adds a sense of grounding and validation to the work (but at the cost of diluting Mack’s own distinctive voice). Enjoyable, especially paired with Emma Chapman’s First Light, about the processes that birthed stars at the beginning of the universe. Bookends to the story of the cosmos, you might say.

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14 January 2022

Book report

A collection of book reviews that may be of interest to readers of this blog:

Set in Stone: the Geology and Landscapes of Scotland, by Alan McKirdy

A well-illustrated introduction to the deep time history of Scotland’s landscape, controlled by the chain of myriad ancient happenings that produced and deformed rock of many kinds. Themes repeat, and there are one-off events that punctuate nature’s rhythms. The author has written for an audience of British non-specialists, but it would be a great place for an American professional geoscientist to start, to get an overview of Scotland’s geo-heritage. Having spent a month in Scotland several years ago, paying close attention to its geology, much of the book was review for me, but it did touch on several sites I missed – the Rhynie Chert, for instance. It would have been great for me to read before I went, but it was also a pleasant recap of the journey, complete with photographs of rock outcrops I recognize and think I know well. Scotland has such a deep, varied, and meaningful accumulation of rock types; If you’re not already a fan, this book will make you into one.

Passage, by Connie Willis

This novel, set in the 1990s, in a hospital in Colorado, examines what happens to the dying human brain when it experiences a “near death experience.” It’s an interesting premise, pursued in an interesting way, with multiple strands of plot coming together later in the story. However, it’s way too long. It’s at least 200 pages longer than I felt like it needed to be – 200 pages full of frenetic details which I suppose were offered to obscure and distract from key plot points – a school of red herrings, you might say – but I found it all quite tiresome to wade through. Honestly, I’m surprised I finished. That said, the early-’90s vibe is strong, with Blockbuster (the video store) and pagers (i.e. pre-cell phone remote communication devices) playing key roles: That part was an enjoyable foray into the world of my teenage years, but would doubtless limit the accessibility of the story for the younger generations. Willis paints a picture of the near death experience as a phenomenon that takes place entirely through biophysical means within the human brain, but gives treatment to both the sense that it’s more than that (that it transcends the physical world) is also explored both in terms of the internal qualitative experience but also its external promotion as proof of souls persisting independent of bodies after death.

The Anatomy of Fascism, by Robert O. Paxton

Well, here’s a book that I read not because I wanted to understand the past so much, but because I wanted to get a better grip on the present. A friend recommended it as the most methodical examination of the political/social phenomenon we call fascism; it’s written by a scholar at Columbia. As you might expect, Paxton explores Nazi Germany and the namesake movement in Italy headed by Mussolini, but there’s also a good amount of illumination gained by examining movements that didn’t quite make it to capturing any nation’s political system. Rather than a clear, punchy ideology-based definition of fascism, Paxton talks about aspects of fascist movements: characteristics and arcs of actions that tend to characterize them. Differences and exceptions prove these rules, and gradually a picture emerges of what it means to be fascist. It’s a process, triggered by trauma and stagnation, motivated by perceived emergencies, and aided and abetted by establishment conservative political actors. It nurtures a power structure which partially mimics official government responsibilities, and emphasizes violent punishment of “others.” Some countries go partway down the fascist path, but Germany and Italy are the only two examples that went all the way. A summary of the book’s way of recognizing fascism is (lifted from Wikipedia): “Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victim-hood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.” When I finished it, the question burning in my mind the whole time remained unanswered, so I googled it and yes, sure enough, with January 6th‘s attempted coup being the decisive event, Paxton is indeed convinced that Trump meets the criteria to be declared a fascist.

Below the Edge of Darkness: A Memoir of Exploring Light and Life in the Deep Sea, by Edith Widder

I remember Edie Widder’s talk to the Geological Society of Washington quite clearly: In discussing marine bioluminescence, she motivated interest by having all the lights in the auditorium extinguished, and then she brought out a bottle of seawater. When she gently shook it, dinoflagellates within pulsed boldly with blue-green light. It was magical. Widder has been pursuing various aspects of marine bioluminescence for her entire career, and this book is a very readable summary of her work. It begins with a moment of crisis in a submersible vessel, flashes back to an extreme health crisis in her youth, and then progresses through a career of adventure, scientific inquiry, and and the wonders of the deep dark sea. Widder’s main area of interest is the “midwater,” the largest portion of the ocean by volume, below the photic zone but above the bottom. It’s a place where most of the biology wants to feed at the surface (where phytoplankton capture energy each day), but find it too dangerous to actually be up there during the day, since predators can see them. So they feed at night, which necessitates a daily vertical migration between the nutrient-rich surface and the safe, inky midwater. It turns out that almost all of the critters use light as a defense, as headlights, as camouflage, or as a lure. She explores each of these uses with clever experiments, pushing the edge of what’s known about Earth’s largest biome. Really good: top notch, recommended.

Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir

The author of breakout tour-de-force The Martian returns with his third novel. (The second was pretty weak: the moon thriller Artemis.) This one has a semi-silly initial premise, but after that, I think it’s quite good, pulling out the spirit of problem-solving from The Martian, and infusing the narrator with a similar sense of sarcasm and wry humor, but also mixing in a bit of the truly wondrous and weird. (“Weir(d),” see what I did there?) So, if you don’t want it spoiled, stop reading now. I’m going to reveal a key plot point that is unveiled in the first couple of chapters. [SPOILER ALERT] An astronomer discovers a strange line of light emanating from the sun, rising in an arc through space, and turning down again toward Venus. The sun begins to dim, and so a mission goes out to sample this strange line, discovering it is being emanated by a lifeform, a microbe. If you can suspend disbelief at this microbe going back and forth between the Sun and Venus, the rest of the novel is lots of fun. The protagonist of the novel, a high school science teacher, joins the effort to stop this microbe from eating our Sun and killing Earth. How? A survey of local stars reveals that they are all dimming too – all “infected” by what they soon call “astrophage.” Except one, Tau Ceti. If we can figure out what’s happening at that one, perhaps we can save Earth. So a mission is organized to go to Tau Ceti to suss it out and report back. This is the titular Project Hail Mary. But when the ship arrives, they find an alien race there doing exactly the same thing – trying to save their civilization, orbiting another of the dimming stars, 40 Eridani. First contact happens when two different planets are trying to figure out how to ward off extinction. Rather than a ‘war of the worlds,’ this leads to a fruitful collaboration, pairing scientific acumen from Earth with technological prowess from the aliens. [END SPOILERS] I really enjoyed it; and during some of the darkest days last semester, this book provided a digestible, delightful distraction. Lots of fun!

Disasterology: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Climate Crisis, by Samantha Montano

This is a book everyone should read. Samantha Montano has written a terrific, readable summary of how and why we study disasters, and what it means for human society. It applies geology, oceanography, and in particular climate science to the practical questions of how best to live our lives in a changing world. Significant attention is given to New Orleans and Houston and coastal Maine, but many other locations are detailed too: places that have seen powerful natural events cause destruction that costs lives and dollars. Montano’s own biography helps link these case studies together as she describes her personal growth and key insights via lessons learned in to the disasters of the first two decades of the 21st century. COVID-19 hit right as she was going to press, but I found it particularly depressing to see how the lessons emergency managers (“disasterologists”) have learned from events like Hurricane Katrina once again failed to be applied to the nascent global pandemic. Montano’s perspective is fresh, vital, and clear-minded. Reading it, I found myself wishing she were the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Recommended.

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12 January 2022

Worlds in Shadow, by Patrick Nunn

Subtitled “Submerged Lands in Science, Memory, and Myth,” this well-conceived study examines the location of various lost lands on our planet, and the geological mechanisms of their drowning. Sea level rise, isostatic and sediment compaction induced subsidence, volcanism, tectonic slip, and good old fashioned erosion all have roles to play in taking places that were dry land and dunking them forever beneath the waves. In some of these places, humans lived prior to submergence. What did the people who lived there think of the situation? In some cases, durable oral histories preserved evidence of the submerged lands. Nunn presents a particularly compelling example from place names along the coast of Spencer Gulf, Australia, where the Aboriginal language has retained place names for certain stretches of what is today the coast, based on ancient namesakes that now lie six fathoms under. This is an example of “memory.” The particular strength of this volume lies in what Nunn does with other examples that are not quite so clear – with the keen eye of an anthropologist, he examines the mythology of different cultures, and what their cherished stories have to say about flooding and why it happened. There are no shortage of compelling examples to explore here, as you may be aware. In some cases, whole cities have been lost – though not Atlantis (I know you were wondering), which was conjured by Plato to elucidate a political point. All told, it was an enjoyable read. I was really impressed at the breadth of examples that Nunn describes – more than a hundred, I would guess, from the Philippines to the Arctic to the Mississippi Delta and the Amazon. You really feel like you’ve gotten a proper tour of the relevant sites when you close the back cover for the final time. The one stylistic quibble I would offer is that many paragraphs feature “sentences” that are not really full sentences in their grammatical structure. In other words, it’s written the way people often talk. I can take a bit of that when reading — indeed it often makes the writing powerful and punchy — but too much feels a little sloppy. There were a couple scientific factual errors I noticed: for instance at one point (p. 118), Nunn claims the Mediterranean has a low (rather than high) salinity. Elsewhere (p. 121), he repeats the widespread misunderstanding that continental crust sits atop a layer of oceanic crust, but these are not fatal flaws to the overall structure of the book. I enjoyed reading it, and found real power in its tripartite routes of inquiry into a fascinating subject.

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1 January 2022

Yard list 2021

It hasn’t been a good year for much, but I did get a lot of birding in. Traditionally, on new year’s day, I post my “yard list” from the previous year: a list of all the bird species I’ve personally observed from my yard.

At my new house, I now have a full calendar year of observations. You’ll recall I moved to Albemarle from Shenandoah halfway through the previous year, meaning I only had a half-year’s worth of Albemarle observations to report. Notably absent was the species that passed through during spring migration. Here, that issue is rectified, and I am pleased to present a bumper crop and a new “personal best” number.

In chronological order of species’ first appearance, this year I saw:

  1. Blue jay
  2. American crow
  3. Pileated woodpecker
  4. Northern mockingbird
  5. White-throated sparrow
  6. Carolina wren
  7. Mourning dove
  8. Golden-crowned kinglet
  9. Dark-eyed junco
  10. Carolina chickadee
  11. Pine siskin
  12. Northern cardinal
  13. Yellow-bellied sapsucker
  14. Eastern bluebird
  15. Northern flicker
  16. White-breasted nuthatch
  17. Turkey vulture
  18. Belted kingfisher
  19. Raven
  20. Canada geese
  21. Tufted titmouse
  22. American goldfinch
  23. Red-shouldered hawk
  24. Great blue heron
  25. American robin
  26. Black vulture
  27. Downy woodpecker
  28. Song sparrow
  29. Eastern phoebe
  30. Cedar waxwing
  31. Hermit thrush
  32. Common grackle
  33. Eastern screech owl
  34. Red-tailed hawk
  35. Barred owl
  36. Pine warbler
  37. Fish crow
  38. Red-winged blackbird
  39. Yellow-rumped warbler
  40. Wood duck
  41. Brown thrasher
  42. Brown-headed cowbird
  43. Chipping sparrow
  44. Eastern towhee
  45. Red-breasted nuthatch
  46. Green heron
  47. Field sparrow
  48. Northern harrier
  49. Tree swallow
  50. Ruby-crowned kinglet
  51. Purple finch
  52. Ruby-throated hummingbird
  53. Merlin
  54. Osprey
  55. European starling
  56. Wild turkey
  57. Broad-winged hawk
  58. Barn swallow
  59. Gray catbird
  60. Great crested flycatcher
  61. Blue-headed vireo
  62. Blue-gray gnatcatcher
  63. Worm-eating warbler
  64. Baltimore oriole
  65. Chimney swift
  66. Scarlet tanager
  67. Chestnut-sided warbler
  68. Blackpoll warbler
  69. Louisiana waterthrush
  70. Orchard oriole
  71. Red-eyed vireo
  72. Northern parula
  73. Indigo bunting
  74. Black-throated green warbler
  75. Bald eagle
  76. Eastern wood-pewee
  77. Spotted sandpiper
  78. Common yellowthroat
  79. American redstart
  80. Rose-breasted grosbeak
  81. Blue grosbeak
  82. Wood thrush
  83. Yellow-billed cuckoo
  84. Eastern kingbird
  85. Black-billed cuckoo
  86. Common nighthawk
  87. Golden eagle

A few thoughts about this list:

  1. It’s larger by ~20 species than even my best year at the Fort Valley house.
  2. I benefit here with more diverse habitat: more open country for grassland-preferring species (though I’m shocked I didn’t get a meadowlark or a kestrel) and a lake that draws in some waterfowl like the sandpiper, ducks, and herons. I’m also at lower elevation and on the seaward side of the Blue Ridge, which both facilitate a milder climate.
  3. Hummingbirds are NUTS here; it’s so delightful to watch their sipping and sparring each evening in the summer.
  4. I would not have thought I would ever see a golden eagle here, but I got clued in by watching the daily reports of the Rockfish Gap Hawk Watch during fall migration, where they document a healthy number of them. I only had one, and it flew over for only about 20 seconds, but I had my binoculars and got a solid look at it.
  5. The black-billed cuckoo (my first) was, sadly, a window-kill. This surprised me – we don’t get window-smacking birds nearly as much here as we did with the big plate glass windows at our Fort Valley house.
  6. I’ve been using the eBird app on my phone to keep regular lists; I find it motivates me to take walks: I’m not only getting exercise, I’m also birding and documenting what I see.
  7. I still have so much to learn about birding, and just took the step of joining a local birding club for the first time. Hopefully the skills I learn there will help me identify more species this coming year.

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30 December 2021

Footprints: In search of future fossils, by David Farrier

David Farrier is an English professor at the University of Edinburgh. He can write! He is interested in how humanity’s existence will be recorded in the geologic record – what will be our species’ most enduring traces? Footprints is a record of his explorations of that theme – in Scotland, China, Finland, and Australia, he explores key sites and meets with key people. From the to the nuclear waste repository at Onkalo to the Great Barrier Reef to the strata exposed at low tide near Dunbar, Farrier keenly pokes about and muses about our place in the grand sweep of geologic time. Informed by a systems-fluent environmental ethos, Farrier writes in a tone that is calm and contemplative, but with a bit of whimsey thrown in. We’ve long known that our lives our ephemeral phenomena; Farrier extends this to our species and imagines the post-human world: the aspects of its condition that we have wrought, and those that have occurred despite our efforts. It’s a fascinating mix, adequately explored and well described.

One of the neatest chapters was a thought exercise about the future of a plastic bottle. It reminded me favorably of the chapter in Michael Welland’s Sand wherein he describes the deep-time journey of a grain of sand. It would make a great stand-alone reading assignment for an undergraduate class in environmental geology or oceanography.

There were two small factual errors in the edition I read, but nothing that critically undermines the book’s mission. I’ve emailed the author about them, so hopefully they will be fixed in future editions.

Geologic time is lucky to have enticed Farrier’s attention. He writes well about it, and I hope it’s not too much to hope for more geo-focused volumes from his pen in the years to come.

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