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Earth: An Intimate History
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69 of 73 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
"This is where things get really interesting." This sentiment, from a chapter on the Alps in _Earth: An Intimate History_ (Knopf) by Richard Fortey, describes how geological layers, normally oldest at the bottom and newest at the top, can get flipped by one mass of rock being thrust upon another. It might just as well apply to hundreds of ideas in these pages. The book is a fascinating summary of where geology stands now, as a relatively new science which has been completely remade on the foundation of plate tectonics, just as biology has only recently been founded on evolution. "It is not faith that moves mountains; it is tectonics," Fortey insists. He does not directly confront those who would misuse science to "prove" an Earth less than 10,000 years old; the real science from real geologists, of course, overwhelmingly indicates an age of billions, not thousands, of years. But he understands the impulse: "Let the time go into the millions, and beyond, and the insignificance of our own sector becomes patent." Somehow, this is an insignificant insignificance. Billions of years of continental plates shoving each other around on our planet did eventually bring forth a creature that could understand that process. The history of how that understanding came about, as told here, is a proud one, full of human errors and pride, but powered by that admirable human trait of curiosity. "Rocks do not lie," Fortey tells us. "They do, however, dissemble as to their true meaning." Demonstrating the meaning, and clearing away the dissembling, is what this book expertly accomplishes.

One of the sacred locales of the science of geology mentioned here is the Temple of Serapis near Naples. It now consists of three huge columns, each composed of one single piece of marble. They are discolored about four meters above their pedestals, and the discoloring comes from the boring of a destructive type of mollusk. This means that the temple (actually a marketplace) was constructed and then was somehow lowered into the sea, whence it arose again. It was Charles Lyell who realized that the columns could be read to understand the movement of the Earth and that rocks reflected changes by fire, water, ice, and animals. Lyell's _Principles of Geology_ changed the way people thought of the age of the Earth and how the lands were formed, and it profoundly influenced the ideas of the young Charles Darwin. Fortey takes us to the temple, up Vesuvius, along the San Andreas Fault, to the Grand Canyon, and more, at each point showing the stones and layers and describing how they got there. He includes fascinating details, like the work of researchers who are, in a minuscule way, reproducing the enormous heat and pressure of the inner Earth to examine the extraordinary physics and chemistry there. He tells of the streets of Kalgoorlie, Australia, which were literally paved with gold; the miners who dug up the shiny yellow metal didn't realize that the waste rock they brought up contained gold compounded with tellurium. When they did realize it, there was a second gold rush. He mentions a bar at Paddington Station, where the counter is made of a slab of granite from the Precambrian times. Always a genial guide, with a humorous, curious, and philosophical outlook on the large mass of material he presents here, Fortey reflects that anyone who has missed a train can at least reflect at the bar "...that is 1,500 million years old and reflect that half an hour is not a serious delay."
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45 of 49 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
Studying geology can be fun. Trips across the world, meeting new people, sharing insights and resolving mysteries of Earth's processes. There is, of course, the downside. Lava flows that shred boots, impossibly complex rock formations and bays that simply disappear during a seven-year interval between visits. If you have a writing gift, as Richard Fortey does, you can impart all these aspects of the science to a wide audience. This book does that admirably - and Fortey's not even a geologist!
Fortey's study of fossil trilobites has led him far afield. Since those bizarre creatures persisted for over three hundred million years, their remains are well distributed in both time and space. In studying them, Fortey has made the entire planet his backyard. That intimacy and his wide vision combine to produce this matchless work. From the opening pages he combines human history and the Earth's antics in an evocative theme. Vesuvius, that town killer, becomes a symbol of the dynamics of the world beneath our feet. Volcanoes also produce rich soils, luring humans up their slopes to plant crops. That juxtaposition typifies how geology has driven human society.
Geology, Fortey reminds us, is a young science, as active as the world it studies. He traces the thoughts of investigators over the past centuries. Through that time, two aspects of the Earth's dynamics eluded them. How fast was the planet cooling and what caused the bizarre formations they studied? It took physics, not geology, to solve the first - radioactive elements kept the interior hot. The second, plate tectonics, resolved most of the second. The notion that the crust "floats" on a sea of magma led to better understanding of deep processes. Plate tectonics, in Fortey's view, is the key to unlock nearly all geology's basic question. It explains "suspect terrain" and anomalous mountain formation. It also demonstrates why some areas are earthquake and volcano prone. Charles Lyell's "uniformitarianism", Fortey stresses, is basically correct. We can't observe directly many of the forces shaping the world.
What shapes the world, Fortey, continues, shapes our lives as well. How much of our history is due to Africa's pushing northward into Europe? What forced the ancient peoples of the Western Hemisphere to create their unique societies? Is the landscape of Southern Asia a foundation for the famous Silk Road? Tilting landscapes give us our rivers and the communities established on their banks. How many times has the Mississippi drowned towns, or abandoned them to isolation? Fortey keeps us aware of how our existence is shaped by the rocks beneath us.
With sets of stunning colour photographs and drawings to enhance the finely crafted text, this book's worthy of your attention. Fortey is always a compelling read, and this book stands among his best. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
In answer to a time-related statement from another, such as "I turn 57 next month", have you ever answered, "Rocks don't live that long"? In EARTH, British paleontologist-author Richard Fortey reminds the reader that the globe is theorized to be 4.5 billion years young, and the oldest rock datable by current technology, a zircon crystal from Australia, registers at 4.4 billion years. Is your mother-in-law that old?

I've always been fascinated, when flying over or driving through the deserts of the western U.S., by the myriad of different rock formations unclothed by vegetation and naked for all to see. I've wished that I had a geologist by my side to explain how they came to be. Fortey may be the next best thing. In EARTH, the theme is "plate tectonics", and it's a tribute to the author's writing talent that he can make so esoteric a subject supremely interesting. The book is, at times, hard to put down.

To illustrate the observable effects of past movements of the Earth's crust - movement that will continue long past the habitation of the Earth by the human species, Fortey has selected several spots on our world as exhibits: Pompei, Hawaii, the Swiss Alps, Newfoundland, Scotland, India, Kenya, California, and the Grand Canyon. The narrative is, of course, about the evolution of tectonic plate theory, but also about proto-continents, lost oceans, volcanoes, mountain ranges, upthrusts, downthrusts, subduction zones, deep ocean trenches, mid-ocean ranges, lava, basalt, granite, gneisses, fossils, fault lines, schists, nappes, magnetic fields, limestone, ice sheets, diamonds, gold, coral reefs, green sand, "hot spots", tin mines, magma, marble, polar wandering, rubies, tors, and a mule named "Buttercup". Fortey's gift is to make the mix wonderfully engaging for the average reader, though strict adherents to Creationism will likely see their beliefs threatened. Did you know, for example, that the Appalachians were once one end of a mountain chain that stretched across an ancient continent, and the remains of which, after continental drift, are now in such widely separated locales as Newfoundland, Ireland, Wales, Scotland and the length of western Scandinavia? Or that mid-European miners have long recognized the panicked streaming of cockroaches, which are extremely sensitive to changes in rock pressure, as the harbinger of impending rockfalls?

The author occasionally waxes philosophic. After noting that a 1.5 billion-year old granite slab serves as the counter of a bar in London's Paddington Station, he muses:

"If you have just missed your train, you can at least lean on a bar that is 1500 million years old and reflect that perhaps half an hour is not that serious a delay."

I did, however, spot one egregious error in the narrative that is otherwise erudite and above reproach. On page 278, while recalling a trip through Nevada, he writes:

"Carson City used to be the state capital. Now it is an endearingly ramshackle collection of wooden houses scattered over the hillside."

Now, 'ang on a minute, guv. Carson City has been - and remains - the Nevada state capital. Moreover, it's situated in a broad valley at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, not spread over hills. Perhaps Fortey was thinking of Virginia City, made famous in the TV series "Bonanza", which is located a few miles away, is ramshackle, and is spread over hillsides. But Virginia City was never the state capital.

Perhaps the most endearing chapter is the one in which Richard describes his ride on the back of a mule from the Grand Canyon's South Rim all the way to the bottom while, of course, gawking at the various strata of rock on the way down. The mule, Buttercup, comes across as the stolid hero of the adventure.

The EARTH paperback includes four sections of color photographs, plus other B&W snaps, maps, and drawings scattered throughout the text. It's a very user-friendly volume like Fortey's other book that I've read, LIFE. This book is an eminently readable work of popular science that should be required reading in high school geology. And I now have a deeper appreciation for the waivey-grained, black, white and grey boulders of granite - up to three tons in weight - that line our koi pond.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on April 24, 2006
Format: Hardcover
In reading Earth: An Intimate History, I gained much respect for the breadth of Richard Fortey's knowledge and his ability to connect disparate ideas together. It would be an enjoyable read for someone with a good understanding of plate tectonics who wanted a few interesting case studies to explore.

However, for the general reader who is seeking a better understanding of the mechanisms and effects of plate tectonics, I advise looking elsewhere. The book meanders, both in its general structure and within each chapter. Returning to it, I wouldn't know which chapter to look at for particular topics. Within each chapter, paragraphs on how plate tectonics actually works are interspersed within a travel narrative that I could have done without and bits of geological curiosity that are not really well connected to the general theme of the book. These problems not only made the book less informative, it made it harder to read -- I never knew what was coming next or whether it would be a valuable contribution to my understanding of plate tectonics.

There are two aids to the reader that would help make this book more informative and readable: More diagrams (in place of marginally helpful photographs), and more focused prose (with consistent use of topic sentences). Absent these, I would recommend a pair of books that are much more successful at combining great prose with tons of information: John McPhee's "Basin and Range" and "Assembling California."
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I got this book expecting that it would be about the development of Geology, or the development of the Earth. I was surprised to find that it is really a travel book about his experiences going places of geological interest. I am sure that this will be of interest to many people. It wasn't to me. I could not read past the first chapter. There were too many wanderings and side issues. It was like reading a fashion column to get the political news. Someone will like all of the extraneous and unrelated details about quaint places they might visit and appreciate. I was looking for something less personal and more informative about a more limited topic.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on September 26, 2007
Format: Paperback
This is an excellent work, and I give it five stars

But I need to address one reviewer who gave it one star and wrote: "For example, a color plate of Marie Curie looking at a test tube - connection please?"

from the book:

"...But the major use of pitchblende had to await detection for nearly half a century, when the mines of Jachymov were crucial to a discovery that has changed the course of history. Working in Paris in 1898, Marie and Pierre Curie processed thousands of pounds of pitchblende from the same glass-factory tailings in order to isolate two radioactive elements that had hitherto been unknown: radium and polonium. Uranium's radioactivity had been recognized for a couple of years prior to this, but this pitchblende was too active to be accounted for by uranium alone. The Curies deduced that another radioactive element had to be present to make up the balance; they reasoned the existence of highly active radium before extracting it. But it was present in the tiniest quantities: a gram in seven tons of ore. The labour involved in refining a tiny visible grain from the unforgiving black ore is difficult to imagine. But they convinced the scientific world with sufficient material evidence of the elusive element to be awarded the Nobel Prize in 1903." (page 212)

Obviously, the reviewer did not read the book. I don't need to rehash what the other five star reviewers wrote; I just wanted to answer the one star, and thought it I put it in as a comment, it'd be missed by other readers.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on July 9, 2010
Format: Paperback
This is a difficult book to review. Although it is a book on the geology of the earth, it also something of the author's personal journey in the profession. As the former, the reader will gain a fair understanding of geology in an almost passive way. As the latter, the reader will enjoy an adventurous trip around the world featuring geological landmarks that illustrate the underlying principles of the science of geology. The level of satisfaction with the book will be dictated a lot by one's own main focus as a reader.

The author's literary style is almost like that of a novel. His vocabulary is impressive, and his descriptions are colorful and evocative. The reader with a good liberal arts background will especially enjoy it, as the author makes copious allusions to art, architecture and literature that may well bring a greater visceral understanding of what he describes for you. If you don't have this type of educational background, the occasional Latin and French words, the literary quotes or their occasional distortions, and the reference to paintings, etc. will probably be lost on you. His more forthright descriptions in the same contexts, however, will probably make his intended illustration fully understandable despite the confusing references. In general it reminds me of James Burke's book Connections and the TV series of the same name Connections 1 (5 - Disc Set).

For those who already have a geology background and who enjoy their science "straight," the book may seem to wander and may wax more poetical than you're used to in a book on this topic. While the author has a theme, a direction, and a general outline to his commentary, in general he is less structured in his format than many science writers are--if I were to point to any central theme that tied the book together it would be mountain building (and deconstruction) and what it has to tell us about geology. Certainly if the reader is expecting to learn textbook style, this is not the book for you.

For those who want to know more about geology and earth science but who don't want to be bothered with a lot of formulae, math and technical jargon and have difficulty with dry, unadorned facts this is also a good book for you. You'll learn a lot about the history of the field, about geological processes, about the age of the earth and about some of the more important sites worldwide. A younger reader wanting to learn about geology, especially as a potential career, will certainly benefit from the knowledge and some of the experiences that the author shares, and I think for this reason the book would make a wonderful addition to a high school library.

The author introduces much of what is taught in a general geology course in his book, but he does it by presenting little stories throughout it that feature underlying concepts. Again, his style reminds me a little of Burke. He develops geologic principles both by presenting various historical developments in the field and by evocative descriptions drawn from personal experience of the type sites that helped shape the thinking that gave rise to what we know. I felt at first that the chapters seemed to jump from topic to topic a little haphazardly--I'm a textbook kind of person--and was a little irritated by that fact, but I felt that I was learning along the way. When I began to predict the author's conclusions from the observations he presented, I was sure I was learning something. By the time his observations in one context began evoking thoughts of my own about puzzling things I'd seen that now made sense, I was definitely sold. He not only taught me something; I was actually able to apply it!
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on February 21, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This is a wonderful book. As Senior Paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London, Professor Richard Fortey has an area of great expertise that overlaps into Geology. He has a talent for teaching in an entertaining and painless manner. As you read this book, you learn a lot of material, often presented to you in the context of an interesting story. Importantly he develops in you an understanding of plate tectonics while telling you about the great controversies in Geology. Plate tectonics answers many questions about the natural phenomena that control the world where we live. In only 405 pages, you get a terrific trip around the world, from the Alps to the rocks in Central Park in New York City, from volcanoes to earthquakes, from England to Japan, India, Africa and North and South America. When you read this book, be aware that under the inside cover in the front of the book is a map of the around-the-world trip that Richard Fortey takes you though as a summary "World View" in the last chapter of his book. Also be aware that under the back cover is a list of the names of the major geological periods of Earth, with the millions of years they cover, and with the major phenomena that mark these periods. Occasional quick reference to this table is very helpful for orientation as you go on this marvelous exploration with Professor Fortey. The descriptions of places are colorful and include important people, past and present. Throughout you feel the love Richard Fortey feels for this science. He has written two related books, of which this one might be considered the third in a trilogy, but this one stands on its own. I do think that I enjoyed this book greatly because I had read previously his books "Life" and "Trilobite!." However, I think that you can get a terrific experience out of reading this book by itself, and can enjoy the other ones more in the future.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on June 6, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Richard Fortey has the ability to make earth sciences come alive. His earlier books on paleontology were interesting, informative and well balanced. He is without doubt one of the best science writers of the day.

His most recent book, "Earth: An Intimate History" is a continuation of his exploration of earth history, this time centered on the physical aspects- earthquakes, volcanoes, continental drift, mountain building, etc. and Fortey's deep knowledge of the subject and unusual ability to explain it to the laymen makes it a pleasure to read. This is a book to digest slowly and savor each bit of fascinating information served up to the reader on the (to us) most important planet of all. Fortey expresses an intimate association with the geological strata and its evolution that is seldom found in books on geology.

I was most struck with his exploration of deep time- the Archaean and the development of the first life on earth. I don't think that I'll ever look at a piece of Precambrian gneiss in the same way ever again! The shear age of such rocks (several billion years) is staggering and certainly worth contemplation. Geology puts our current all-consuming problems into some perspective!

This is a must read for geology buffs, and I think all who have a reason to be interested in the Earth's ancient past history and possible future.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on February 15, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This book is an ode to the imagination, flowing equally into scientific and literary channels. Endlessly instructive regarding the geology of the earth, it is also a pure literary delight. Fortey rivals such other nature writers as Thoreau and Muir in his ability to depict nature in a manner that weds descriptive power with evocative expression.

It could have used for the sake of the geologically unsophisticated reader a few more illustrations. Perhaps in the next edition?
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