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Timefulness: How thinking like a geologist can help save the world (review; long)

Timefulness: How thinking like a geologist can help save the world, Marcia Bjornerud, Princeton University Press, 2018/2020

There are many excellent overviews for the general reader of how life on Earth has changed over time (see, for a recent example, Neil Shubin’s Some Assembly Required, which I reviewed here recently. The history of the Earth itself has not been so well served, and Timefulness; How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World, by Marcia Bjornerud, Professor of Geology and environmental Sciences at Lawrence University, is a welcome and timely addition to this badly under-represented genre. [1] The book is beautifully written, in plain language, with complex ideas explained with great simplicity and the use of strikingly appropriate verbal imagery. Behind this transparency of language lies a deep love and knowledge of her subject. The book should appeal to anyone looking for an overview of the Earth as the abode of life, or a perspective on our place in time, and how recklessly we are compressing the tempo of natural change.

The author presents her book as an argument for what she calls timefulness, the perception of ourselves as living in and constrained by time, of time itself as having both extension and texture, of the acceptance of our own mortality, and of our own responsibilities. This she sees as severely lacking in our society. We expect people to know something about distances on the map, but Read the rest of this entry

Great books on evolution going cheap

book cover with three leaf beetles

(Cover of 1st Edition)

There is now a second edition of Evolution: Making Sense of Life, by Carl Zimmer and Douglas Emlen, one of the very few textbooks I have come across that can be read for pleasure. Much as I deplore the US textbook publishers’ practice of issuing a new edition every very few years, this means that the first edition, which came out in 2013, is going to be available very cheaply for all of us who aren’t using it for of course credit and can tolerate the occasional underlining. Carl Zimmer (whose formal university education was in English, at Yale) is one of our most engaging current writers on evolution, and if you have not yet subscribed to his blog, The Loom, I urge you to do so. Douglas Emlen’s lab website clearly shows his passion for sharing the excitement of evolution science, and I have already reviewed his award-winning book Animal Weapons.

UnnamedFor much younger readers, the PDF of Jonathan Tweet’s Grandmother Fish, which I have also reviewed, is available as a free download, which qualifies it for a mention here. The physical copy, beautifully produced and printed, is now available in the US from Amazon, and I have advised Jonathan to look for a UK distributor. Answers in Genesis concedes that “the author and illustrator do a good job of simplifying evolution through words and pictures and using terminology that is kid-friendly,” so that “it is exactly those points that make the book so deceptive.” As most readers will realise, “deceptive”, as used by Answers in Genesis, is a technical term meaning “a good argument against Young Earth creationism”. I congratulate Jonathan on having earned this accolade.

At one time, I got interested in the seemingly simple question (to which I might well return one day) of whether zebras are horses that have acquired stripes, or horses are zebras that have lost them. Stephen J Gould, it turned out, had written a perceptive essay on this very topic in Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes. When I went looking for this volume, I found out to my surprise that I could get hold of it, and many others in Gould’s magnificent series of essays, for pennies plus postage. (Here, one good search strategy is to start with Amazon, look for the “From” options, and then, where possible, contact the sellers directly. That way, I help the independents stay independent. For UK readers, I would also recommend searching Abe Books, although I was saddened to learn that they too are part of Amazon; I would be happy to learn of other equivalents).

Finally, most obviously, and still greatly underused even by professionals, the huge reservoir of literature available for free download in a wide variety of formats. This resource could be, and should be, even more valuable, but is limited by outrageous copyright restrictions; for no reason I can tell other than the special interest of Disney Corporation, the copyright on a work now only lapses 70 years after its creator’s death. So JBS Haldane’s seminal 1929 article The origin of life will not be out of copyright until 2034 (though if you can find it online, here for instance, you can get away with downloading a copy for individual study). And for Ernst Mayr’s 1923 paper on birds in Saxony, instrumental to his crucial redefinition of the species concept, you will have to wait until 2075, However, we have all the published works and much of the voluminous correspondence of Charles Darwin, to say nothing of TH Huxley, Charles Lyell (for all his writings, and for other seminal works on geology, many of them also available for free, see the Geological Society’s Lyell Collection), James Hutton, and even William Jennings Bryan. Legal proceedings are also in the public domain, regardless of time. So what shall we say of scholars and commentators earnestly debating Darwin’s own views on religion, in evident ignorance of what he himself tells us on the subject, in his freely available and beautifully written Autobiography?

Look, see , enjoy.

h/t reader Gordon Drumond, for disillusioning me about Abe Books


Scotland’s Verbose Expounditor of Geological Logorrhea

One of the pleasures of blogging is finding like-minded people. Recently, I wrote about a fossil discovery in Calgary, and the piece was picked up by Miksha, who lives there. Now Miksha has provided some extra insights about the greatest of Scots geologists, Hutton, whom I, an adoptive Scot, have discussed before, and I am happy to be able to return the compliment. But I think Hutton would have said “expositor”, and for my money, Lyell is a close competitor for longwindedness.

The Mountain Mystery

Pretty: along with The Flood, beauty was the principle concern of most pre-Hutton. geologistsPretty: Along with The Flood, beauty was the principle concern of most 17th century geologists.

James Hutton (1726-1797), Scotland’s most celebrated geologist, had a way with words. A rather awful way with words. But his scientific brilliance is uncontested. He is credited with moving geology away from the La-Z-Boy recliners of seventeenth century drawing rooms and onto the craggy cliffs where rocks are actually found. Until Hutton, gentleman-geologists were often preachers with parishes and parsonages to tend. They seldom ventured into the hills to study geology. If they collected rocks at all, it was the pretty ones they displayed in their cabinets. Such men philosophized about geology, Creation, and The Flood. They kept their fingernails clean. After Hutton, geology became the stuff of adventurers, travelers, experimenters, and above all, men and women with picks and hammers. Hutton was the founder of modern geology. He spurned divine intervention as the…

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Save Siccar Point: an open letter to Scottish Borders Council


Subject: 12/00929/FUL Objection Comment. Addressees  and Cc. Scottish Natural Heritage:; Scottish Environmental Protection Agency:; Crown Estates:; Dunglass Estate:

Esteemed Councillors,

I write to protest in the strongest possible terms about plans to build a waste pipeline cutting through land immediately adjacent to Siccar Point, which is an integral part of its geological and aesthetic setting.

I had the privilege of visiting Siccar Point this summer. The appearance of the Point itself was familiar to me from illustrations, but the setting, with Old Red Sandstone cliffs exposed to the north, and to the south a beach along which ran the older strata, tilted up on end, was a revelation. Yet it is precisely across this shoreline that there are now plans to build a concrete-encased waste pipe for the disposal of vegetable washings of high organic content.

Siccar Point is the most important single site in the entire history of geology. It is here that James Hutton, prominent member of the Scottish Enlightenment, found the first convincing evidence of deep time, of ongoing cycles of uplift and erosion, the insight central to the newly born science of geology. It features in textbooks the world over. It is a place of pilgrimage not only for professional scientists, but for all who cherish the workings of our planet. It is a unique educational resource, attracting students, scholars, and members of the general public from far and wide, and I must say that for me the experience of visiting it surpassed all expectation.

The entire significance of the location is, that it is the meeting point of the Old Red Sandstone with the much older underlying greywacke, with the latter folded and tilted so dramatically that the originally horizontal strata now lie vertical. These older strata are actually seen to better advantage on the shoreline directly south of the Point, where they present a spectacle of unrivalled majesty and beauty. It is precisely across this shoreline that it is now proposed to build a waste pipeline. I find it incredible that anyone could wish to do such a thing.

There are other, secondary, considerations which in themselves should give pause for thought. How wise is it to run a pipeline of this kind down a steep and unstable cliff? What will the consequences be of erosion and possible exposure, or even fracture, of the pipe? Is it sensible to be discarding such a volume of rotting vegetable matter along this historic coast line, also home to busy holiday resorts, and a playground for young children? Have not serious doubts been expressed about how close the end of the proposed pipeline is to the low water mark? What will the impact be on the marine environment and local fishing of all this added organic matter? Should we, indeed, be disposing of this material as waste, or converting it into a resource by composting? But all of these are, as I said, secondary to the primary concern for the site itself.

My own credentials: I am a former chemistry professor, now honorary senior research associate at Glasgow University. I have been involved in research topics related to geology for over 30 years. My work in this area has been funded by NASA, I have been an associate of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, and I have served on the editorial board of the journal Origins of Life and the Evolution of Biospheres. Hutton’s work features in my most recent book, From Stars to Stalagmites, as it must in any book that describes the relevant period in the history of science, the fundamentals of geology, or (coming closer to home) the achievements of the Scottish Enlightenment.


Paul S. Braterman, MA, DPhil., DSc.


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