Month: February 2019

Book review – The Demon in the Machine: How Hidden Webs of Information Are Finally Solving the Mystery of Life

So, quick question for you. What is life?

Sorry, that’s a trick question, for the answer to this is anything but quick. The mind-boggling complexity that is life, even something as “simple” as a bacterium, somehow arises from atoms and molecules. And yet, physics and chemistry as we currently know it seem incapable of answering how life’s complexity emerges from its constituent parts. With The Demon in the Machine, well-known physicist and cosmologist Paul Davies takes a stab at it, saying we are on the verge of a breakthrough.

The Demon in the Machine (more…)


Book review – Essentials of Geology (13th Edition)

Like so many teenagers, I wanted to become a palaeontologist. However, there was no degree programme in palaeontology in the Netherlands back then (I doubt there is one nowadays), so I was advised that one option to prepare myself was to do a Master’s in biology or geology. I choose the former and never looked back, but remained fascinated with the latter. Now, twenty years later, my job exposes me to many geology textbooks and especially Cambridge University Press has a wonderful output of advanced-level books that I really want to read. But when I reviewed Earth History and Palaeogeography some time ago, I realised I was out of my depth and struggled with the jargon. Is it ever too late to start over and make an entry into a new field? I decided to shell out and invest in a textbook to find out.


Essentials of Geology” written by Frederick K. Lutgens and Edward J. Tarbuck, published by Pearson in January 2017 (paperback, 608 pages)

The task of picking a textbook sounds simpler than it is. Many major academic publishers publish their own undergraduate earth science textbooks. So do you pick Oxford’s Physical Geology Today, Wiley’s Physical Geology: The Science of Earth, or rather Norton’s Essentials of Geology? As I have only read this textbook, this review will unfortunately not help you decide. So, why did I choose Pearson’s Essentials of Geology?

Frederick K. Lutgens and Edward J. Tarbuck are both emeritus professors, so should know the field well, and with the book now in its 13th edition, I figured there has been plenty of opportunity to revise the book in response to feedback from instructors and students. Other reasons were more prosaic: the title sounded just what a geology-newbie like myself would need, and it seemed the book was available in hardback (alas, that was not the case, some databases and retailers are not displaying the right information). Comparing with other textbooks though, it seems that the core material being taught is very similar across these books. If, like me, you are not assigned a textbook by a course instructor, one could legitimately ask whether it even matters which book you pick.

Starting with plate tectonics, which has become the basis on which geology rests nowadays (see also my review of The Tectonic Plates are Moving!), Essentials of Geology takes you through all the important topics and gives you the basics on minerals, the different types of rock, the dynamics of Earth (volcanoes, earthquakes, mountain building, and ocean crust formation), as well as weathering of rocks, desert formation, and landslides (pardon me, mass movement). The hydro- and cryosphere also get attention in a series of chapters dealing with running water, groundwater, glaciers, and shorelines. Finally, there are chapters dealing with geologic time and earth’s evolution, and, required nowadays, global climate change.

“videos accessible via QR codes […] seem like a gimmick, but really are not”

This book is very accessibly written and has all the trappings you have come to expect of an undergraduate textbook: chapters opening with a list of learning goals, questions at the end of each section, and, at chapter’s end, a point-wise summary and a list of assignments. To make sure students remain engaged there are “Did you Know?” sections sprinkled throughout the text, and a huge number of full-colour illustrations and photos. Especially the artwork of Dennis Tasa deserves mention.

Like many modern textbooks, Pearson has an online platform called MasteringGeology that I have not explored yet. It is supposed to give instructors the option to assign interactive media and reading before a class, allow the use of laptops or tablets during classes to assign questions, and hand out assignments after the class. There are also outlines of PowerPoint lectures, test banks, and other teaching resources.

One feature that not all above-mentioned textbooks have is videos accessible via QR codes. If you are a techno-Luddite like myself without a smartphone to scan these, not to worry, each figure also has a shortened URL to access these. This may seem like a gimmick, but having watched them, they really are not. The majority are so-called SmartFigures where contributor Callan Bentley talks you through some of the book’s drawings while annotating them (an example here – don’t you just love how publishers use random capitalisation to spice things up?) His voice is pleasant enough but I felt that these did not always add that much. If you want information explained to you in a different way they will be helpful. Far more impressive and really adding something are the Mobile Field Trips, where contributor Michael Collier takes you into the field in his Cessna aeroplane (an example here), and the use of drones to show you field footage of geological formations (an example here). There are also some proper animations, as well as videos provided by NASA. I admit that I found these clips and animations surprisingly

“[…] despite being a core text, the authors do not present the field as a dogmatic monolith of knowledge”

Something to keep in mind is that the book is quite US-centric, using many examples of geological structures and landscapes found in the USA. Mercifully, the book uses metric units, mentioning imperial units in brackets, though it is not 100% consistent throughout, mentioning imperial units only in “Did you Know?” sidebars and some questions. My biggest gripe, something true of most textbooks, is the floppy paperback format and thin paper used. This book will not stand up on a shelf on its own and is very prone to dog ears and creased pages. I understand that publishers are trying to save weight while producing a book that lies open flat during lectures, but it is hard not to feel they have built in obsolescence by producing books that will last just a semester before being tossed out for the next obligatory edition.

Having worked my way through the book I feel I learned a lot. There were some nice a-ha moments (such as the insight that sedimentary, metamorphic, and igneous rocks are on a continuum determined by temperature and pressure) and it clarified the jargon for me. I also appreciated that, despite being a core text, the authors do not present the field as a dogmatic monolith of knowledge. Where scientists disagree and multiple explanations have their own adherents, this is mentioned (examples include the debate over mantle plumes, see Plates vs Plumes: A Geological Controversy, or the different models to explain the formation of desert pavement). Similarly, the book feels up-to-date by acknowledging how many scientists think that the extinction of the dinosaurs was a one-two knockout of Deccan volcanism and a meteorite impact (see my review of The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions), or that ancient DNA is showing we interbred with Neanderthals.

Essentials of Geology does what it says on the tin and does so very well. I feel far more confident now to tackle more advanced textbooks (a review of CUP’s Structural Geology is in the pipeline, but I am also salivating over Large Igneous Provinces, Mid-Ocean Ridges, and Orogenesis: The Making Of Mountains). Though I can not say how it holds up in comparison to other textbooks, I can at least say that if you want to get started learning more about geology this is a very good starting point that offers a lot of bonus material other than the book.

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Essentials of Geology (13th edition) paperback

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:





Book review – The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How To Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake

If the design of the cover didn’t already give it away, the instruction to NOT PANIC on the dust jacket makes it clear this book is riffing on the famous Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And just as Douglas Adams’s book was intended to be an indispensable guide to navigating the galaxy, so The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe is an indispensable guide to navigating a world gone mad with pseudoscience, alternative medicine, fake news, and conspiracy theories. Don’t let the book’s bulk put you off, this is an incredibly engaging read with a most humble outlook on life.

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Book review – Plight of the Living Dead: What Real-Life Zombies Reveal About Our World – and Ourselves

Being turned into a zombie is not something most of us worry about. Sure, some of us consider humans metaphorical zombies, controlled by mass media / the government / smartphone addiction / my pet hamster / ________ (fill in your own favourite 21st-century angst here). All I can say after reading Matt Simon’s book is that I am glad that I am not an insect. In turns gruesome and hilarious, Plight of the Living Dead is a carnival of the many grotesque ways that parasites can control their hosts. Something we do not have to worry about… or do we?

plight of the living dead (more…)