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Grand Canyon: Solving Earth's Grandest Puzzle Hardcover – March 25, 2005

ISBN-13: 978-0131479890 ISBN-10: 013147989X Edition: 1ST

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Pi Press; 1ST edition (March 25, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 013147989X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0131479890
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.3 x 9.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,421,721 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From the Back Cover

The centerpiece of scenic grandeur in the American West is the Grand Canyon, one of the great natural wonders of the world. How it came to be has captured the imagination not only of millions of visitors to the canyon, but for over 135 years, the best American geologists as well. They recognized that the Colorado River carved this scenic masterpiece, but exactly when and how it did so eluded them. Only in the last few years has a consensus begun to emerge and now, for the first time, author James Lawrence Powell tells the fascinating story of how the mystery came to be solved.

Not only have geologists discovered the reasons for the majestic width and depth of the Canyon, they have found that at one time the Colorado River ran through it in the opposite direction. At another time, hundreds of feet of gravel buried an ancestor of today's Colorado River. Then erosion removed the gravel and resurrected the river, in what James Lawrence Powell has dubbed the Lazarus Theory.

Readers of this book will discover and rediscover a great American river—one of astonishing energy and power, a majestic rival to the celebrated Mississippi. Beginning in the Colorado Rockies, the river cuts its way first across the Colorado Plateau and then the Basin and Range Province, finally to reach the sea in the Gulf of California. This river of "liquid sandpaper" today sometimes drops 15 feet per mile; by contrast, the gentle Mississippi rolls across the plains to the Gulf of Mexico at a gradient of a few inches per mile. Ultimately, the waters of the Colorado are not only key to understanding the geology of the West, but also to the management of our most precious western resource.

What makes James Lawrence Powell's narrative so compelling, apart from the grandeur of its subject, is the richness of the characters who participated in this detective story. John Wesley Powell, the most famous of the nineteenth-century Canyon expedition leaders, the man for whom Lake Powell is named, discovered key geologic principles that helped to crack the puzzle. His two brilliant assistants, Grove Karl Gilbert and Clarence Dutton, built on Major Powell's findings to make historic scientific advances. Indeed, James Lawrence Powell shows how Dutton's work in the Grand Canyon led directly to our modern understanding of Continental Drift and Plate Tectonics. Twentieth-century geology of the Canyon culminated at a meeting in 2000 on the Canyon rim at which geologists debated the Lazarus Theory and other ideas far into the night. The solution on which they converged resonated around the world.

The 16 pages of photographs Powell collected for this sweeping tale bring to life the people and places of the story. The maps and geological time charts are useful references as to when and where the action took place. James Lawrence Powell has created a work of nonfiction that is an eloquent, educating, and exciting ride down to the bedrock of the American West and its most spectacular sight.

Praise for Grand Canyon

"The Grand Canyon's beauty, grandeur, and striking form have made it one of the greatest tourist attractions in the U.S., and also one of the greatest intellectual challenges to geologists. James Powell's exciting account of the Canyon's development is worthy of the excitement that the canyon itself inspires."

—Jared Diamond, Professor of Geography, UCLA, and Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse

An engaging and lucid account of one of geology's greatest monuments. The story of how the Colorado River cut the Grand Canyon turns out to be a remarkable detective story, complete with red herrings and innocent suspects. The tale of the Grand Canyon encapsulates features of the growth in our knowledge over the whole of the earth sciences."

—Richard Fortey, FRS, Natural History Museum, London, author of Trilobite! and Earth

"Grand Canyon reads like a detective novel as Powell traces the work of the generations of geologists trying to understand our most majestic landscape. In the process, his fascinating book reveals not just how the Grand Canyonhas taken shape, but our planet as a whole."

—Carl Zimmer, author of Soul Made Flesh and Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea

"John Wesley Powell, the pioneer explorer of the Grand Canyon, believed that science could reveal a deeper history of America, one that we should know for our own survival. As this excellent book shows, that prophecy has come true: modern science indeed has revealed just how fragile our civilization is—as vulnerable as the rocks that water has relentlessly washed away in the Canyon. A clear, dramatic, and humbling story of continental discovery."

—Donald Worster, Hall Distinguished Professor of American History, University of Kansas

"As important to the professional scientist as it is to those who simply are bewitched by the Grand Canyon. An expertly woven tale of scientific intrigue."

—Richard A. Young, Dept. of Geological Sciences, SUNY College


© Copyright Pearson Education. All rights reserved.

About the Author

James Lawrence Powell is Executive Director of the National Physical Science Consortium, and former Director and President of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. He taught geology for twenty years at Oberlin College, where he also served as Acting President. The author of Night Comes to the Cretaceous and Mysteries of Terra Firma, he lives in Buellton, California with his wife, five horses, three cats, two dogs, and a burro.


© Copyright Pearson Education. All rights reserved.


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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

22 of 22 people found the following review helpful By David Morrison on July 11, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
James Powell (no relation to John Wesley Powell) is one of the best authors of popular geology writing today. His previous books, "Night Comes to the Cretaceous" and "Mysteries of Terra Firma", provide fascinating accounts of important ideas in modern geology, such as the age of the Earth, plate tectonics, and the extinction of the dinosaurs. In this book, Powell tackles the complex geology of the Grand Canyon within the broader context of the Green-Colorado River systems. The focus is not on a description of the canyon but on understanding how it was formed.

As Jim Powell tells us, the Colorado Plateau has played a major role in the history of American geology. Much of his book follows the lives and work of the great geologists of the nineteenth century, such as Powell, Gilbert, and Dutton. It was they who gradually came to an understanding of how rivers carve canyons, canyons that sometimes cut right through mountain ranges. Before their work, many people thought that the great canyons were rifts created by other forces, through which rivers later flowed. Most of the first half of the book is a fascinating mix of history and science, using the adventures of men like Powell to illustrate the birth of modern geology.

The second half of the book takes on the more challenging task of explaining the complexities of the Grand Canyon story. As twentieth-century scientists looked more closely at the canyon and measured the ages of rocks through which it cuts, they saw that the simple and elegant theories of the nineteenth century broke down. Perhaps the Colorado River of today did not exist when parts of the canyon were cut. Perhaps the river flowed south-east rather than west, exiting the canyon via the Little Colorado and draining into the Rio Grande.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Martian Bachelor on July 11, 2006
Format: Hardcover
I think James Lawrence Powell had pretty big ambitions for this book when he set out to write it: to tell an adventure story or two about the early exploration of the Southwest, to give the history of the development of several important geological concepts, to go into the biographical details of a few of the leading figures in the field, and to bring the interested lay reader with some but not too much technical background up to date on where Grand Canyon science stands at the moment, the basic question being "How did this thing get here?". Yes, we know the Colorado River did it, but exactly how and when?

For the most part he was successful at these somewhat disparate tasks, though I don't think I can give a grade higher than B+/A- for the overall product. Here were my "issues" with the book:

1) At times it went off in one direction a little too far for my tastes (mostly in the adventure/biography parts), and it was a bit of a confusing mish-mash at others if you can't keep the whole panoply of figures fully in mind. The multiple objectives led to a little gear-stripping at times as the topic changed back and forth.

2) I was most disappointed with the maps: they seem to be scattered around somewhat at random (I found myself flipping pages a lot trying to find this or that map), and I swear some important features mentioned in the text can't be found on the one where you'd think you'd find it - i.e., the maps don't seem to have been made for the book but rather pasted in from some other source.

3) Finally, while the "grandest puzzle" is at heart a science puzzle involving river system geology, I thought the author avoided going into too much scientific detail for fear of perhaps alienating the reader.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Atheen on April 23, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a lovely overview of the Grand Canyon, its discovery by Europeans, and its study by scientists from the mid 19th century to the present time. It is sort of a history of a history.

While the author discusses early Spanish visits to or near misses of the Canyon, he spends most of the first several chapters discussing John Wesley Powell's voyage of discovery and his documentation of the Colorado River's course to the Gulf of California. This is almost an adventure story in itself, and serves to capture the imagination in a way that most geological works don't. Although the quotes from Powell's work seemed a little over-the-top, I still felt like getting a copy of his work to read it for myself. Certainly the discussion of his later life produces a much more rounded and engaging portrait of the man than most texts provide.

Succeeding chapters deal with the careers of Powell and his various coworkers and successors and the development of theories regarding the Grand Canyon's origins. In the process, the author also discusses the history of geology and of the theory of earth history, covering among other things, the work of Nicholas Steno, James Hutton, Louis Agassiz, Charles Lyell, and Alfred Wegener. For the geology student these names will already be familiar; for others the brief introduction will offer a quick recitation of the Who's Who of geology without belaboring the point.

Professor Powell's discussion makes it apparent that the science of geology is as much a work in progress as the Grand Canyon itself, since the concept of the canyon building processes have been reshaped as geology itself has matured as a field.
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