The idea of an asteroid or comet impacting with planet Earth and causing a catastrophe for mankind has long been given a cold shoulder in scientific circles. But with the notion that the dinosaurs met their fate at the hand of a rather large space rock it does not seem so outlandish anymore. NASA has started monitoring near-earth objects, but is there really something we could do if one was heading our way? Astrophysicist and science writer Andrew May provides a delightful little primer on these questions with Cosmic Impact, injecting this oft-hyped topic with a healthy dose of realism.
If you are interested in dinosaurs, the last two years have seen a slew of great books published, and there is more in the pipeline. The latest I am reviewing here is The Dinosaurs Rediscovered from the well-known British Professor of Vertebrate Palaeontology Michael J. Benton. With a huge number of possible topics you could write about, and an already saturated book market, Benton has set himself a very specific aim: to show how the science of palaeobiology has moved from a descriptive, speculative scientific discipline, to a hard, testable, rigorous one. In other words, given that palaeontologists nowadays regularly make some pretty amazing and precise claims about creatures long extinct, how, exactly, do they know that?
Not so long ago, the idea that giant reptiles once roamed the earth was novel, unbelievable to some, but their reign represents only one part of deep time. Go back further in time, to the Carboniferous (358.9 to 298.9 million years ago), and you will find a world of giants as bizarre and otherworldly as the dinosaurs must have once seemed to us. A world where clubmoss trees grew up to 50 metres tall, with scorpions as large as dogs and flying insects the size of seagulls. With Carboniferous Giants and Mass Extinction, palaeobiologist George McGhee, Jr. presents a scholarly but fascinating overview of the rise and fall of this lost world, and why it still matters to us.
As one of several intellectuals who wrote about evolution before Darwin, time has not been kind to the French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829). Reviled during his lifetime by the influential Cuvier, after his death he became best remembered, and ultimately ridiculed, for the idea that characters acquired during an organism’s lifetime are passed on to its offspring. With the rise of the modern field of epigenetics, some of his ideas are making a comeback, albeit modified and adapted for the 21st Century. Palaeontologist and astrobiologist Peter Ward would even like to go so far as to restore some honour to his name and consider epigenetics a neo-Lamarckian process.
Mammoths and sabertooth cats are but two icons of an assemblage of large animals, or megafauna, that disappeared between roughly 50,000 to 12,000 years ago. As with all mass extinctions, several explanations have been put forward, but one man and his idea take centre stage in these discussions: Paul S. Martin’s overkill hypothesis. In End of the Megafauna, palaeomammalogist Ross D.E. MacPhee carefully scrutinises this idea, weighs up the arguments for and against, and explains its enduring allure. To quote Huxley, is this another example of “the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact”?
When it comes to big volcanic eruptions, names such as Vesuvius, Mount Saint Helens, and Krakatau will ring a bell. But all of these are dwarfed by a far larger eruption that few outside of the science community will have heard of. Noted geologist, palaeontologist and author Donald R. Prothero here tells the story of the eruption of Mount Toba in what is nowadays Sumatra, Indonesia, some 74,000 years ago. An eruption so gargantuan that it almost wiped out the human race.
At first blush, you might think this book is part of the ongoing craze of spiritual mindfulness books. But let me refrain from snarky comments. Geologist Marcia Bjornerud does indeed want to instill a sense of mindfulness about deep time, but one that is, pardon the pun, grounded in geology. In her opinion, most of us lack an awareness of durations of important chapters in our planet’s history and of rates of change of many natural processes. As a consequence, we fail to see just how rapidly we are altering our planet. In one of the first paragraphs she eloquently writes:
“Like inexperienced but overconfident drivers, we accelerate into landscapes and ecosystems with no sense of their long-established traffic patterns, and then react with surprise and indignation when we face the penalties for ignoring natural laws”.
And with that, she had me hooked.
What has plate tectonics ever done for us? Not having studied geology, I have a basic understanding of the movement of earth’s continents, but this book made me appreciate just how much of current geology it underpins. Marine geophysicist Roy Livermore, who retired from the British Antarctic Survey in 2006 after a 20-year career, convincingly shows here that the discovery and acceptance of plate tectonics was a turning point in geology, on par with Darwin’s formulation of evolution by natural selection. To paraphrase evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky: nothing in geology makes sense except in the light of plate tectonics.
I am going to start this review on a tangent. The liner notes of the 1983 album Zeichnungen Des Patienten O.T. of the German industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten contained the slogan “Destruction is not negative, you must destroy to build”. I don’t expect that Ugo Bardi shares my taste in music, but, judging from this book, I’m sure that if we were to sit him down with the band members over a pint, they would have plenty to talk about. Because, according to Bardi, collapse is a feature, not a bug.
This book is an example of what happens when you go down rabbit holes. I have been reading several books on the subject of palaeontology and geology lately, and I know that the face of the earth has shifted over the hundreds of millions of years of deep history covered in these books. But where were all the continents at different times? Many will have seen the iconic maps of the supercontinent Pangaea. But I want to know more. What happened in between? And before? As Nield tells in Supercontinent: 10 Billion Years in the Life of Our Planet, Pangaea was only one of several such supercontinents in Earth’s history. But I want to know more still. Where exactly were the continents located? And how did they move? Several accessible books have provided snapshots of iconic moments, such as the formation of the Himalayas (Mike Searle’s Colliding Continents: A Geological Exploration of the Himalaya, Karakoram, & Tibet) or the disappearance of the Tethys ocean (Dorrik Stow’s Vanished Ocean: How Tethys Reshaped the World). But I want to know more! This technical reference work contains lots of fantastic palaeogeographical maps that answered all my questions.