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Supercontinent: Ten Billion Years in the Life of Our Planet [Paperback]

by Ted Nield
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)

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Book Description

March 30, 2009 0674032454 978-0674032453

To understand continental drift and plate tectonics, the shifting and collisions that make and unmake continents, requires a long view. The Earth, after all, is 4.6 billion years old. This book extends our vision to take in the greatest geological cycle of all—one so vast that our species will probably be extinct long before the current one ends in about 250 million years. And yet this cycle, the grandest pattern in Nature, may well be the fundamental reason our species—or any complex life at all—exists.

This book explores the Supercontinent Cycle from scientists' earliest inkling of the phenomenon to the geological discoveries of today—and from the most recent fusing of all of Earth's landmasses, Pangaea, on which dinosaurs evolved, to the next. Chronicling a 500-million-year cycle, Ted Nield introduces readers to some of the most exciting science of our time. He describes how, long before plate tectonics were understood, geologists first guessed at these vanishing landmasses and came to appreciate the significance of the fusing and fragmenting of supercontinents.

He also uses the story of the supercontinents to consider how scientific ideas develop, and how they sometimes escape the confines of science. Nield takes the example of the recent Indian Ocean tsunami to explain how the whole endeavor of science is itself a supercontinent, whose usefulness in saving human lives, and life on Earth, depends crucially on a freedom to explore the unknown.

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Editorial Reviews


Ted Nield tells the fascinating story of how the world has been made – and re-made – through billions of years of geological time. Geology underpins everything, yet the history of the continents on which we live has remained almost neglected. Nield has put this right with his imaginative and dynamic account of the movements of plates, and the assembly of the familiar world from an unfamiliar past. (Richard Fortey, author of Earth: An Intimate History)

'The four dimensional complexities of our happy little planet - "earth's immeasurable surprise" - are made elegantly accessible by Ted Nield in this truly exceptional book. At least until the next major discovery it deserves to become the standard work, ideal for students of the subject, and hugely enjoyable to those for whom the world remains an unfathomable enigma. (Simon Winchester)

For centuries, people have dreamed of lost continents. Today, the author of this fascinating book shows, geologists can detect evidence of a continuing cycle of formation, breakup and reformation of one giant landmass--a supercontinent--over billions of years. Nield, editor of Geoscientist magazine, imagines what these supercontinents might have looked like and tells the stories of the scientists who have discovered and studied them...Making highly technical material understandable, Nield explains why "the Earth's Supercontinent Cycle matters to everyone, everywhere." (Publishers Weekly 2007-10-01)

Both informative and entertaining. [Nield] has thought well outside any academic box, touching on a huge diversity of topics...Nield relates many subjects that are currently major foci of research in Earth history to his theme. (Kevin Burke Science 2007-11-30)

One of the best popularizations of geology...Giv[es] us a sense of the ancient yet powerful forces underneath us. (P. D. Smith The Guardian 2007-10-06)

A fascinating and eye-opening book...In a most engaging way, Nield reveals how science has unraveled the complex evolution of our planet's surface, and presents the reader with a tantalizing glimpse of the Earth of the distant future. (BBC Focus)

A book that examines the romance of its subject alongside its hard science... If you don't know much about how the planet's crust works, Nield's book will teach you the basics...He rocks. (Helen Brown Daily Telegraph 2007-12-01)

An accessible account of how the Earth has several times consisted of a single island landmass and will again, in about 250 million years. (Peter Calamai Toronto Star 2007-12-30)

As a geologist turned science journalist, editor and provocative blogger, Ted Nield has a complex view of life and science. His skills as a writer successfully convey in Supercontinent the recent exciting work in grand-scale geoscience to a wide scientific audience...The attempted reconstructions of past and future continents and oceans is a major field of activity in contemporary geoscience. To handle it without oversimplification or getting lost in a maze of detail is no small accomplishment. (David Oldroyd Nature 2007-10-04)

About the Author

Ted Nield is Editor of Geoscientist magazine, and Science and Communications Officer, Geological Society of London.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (March 30, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674032454
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674032453
  • Product Dimensions: 8.8 x 5.7 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #514,005 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Grand Quadrille March 31, 2008
"Did the Earth move for you?", asks the voice beside you. Well, yes. Because that's what it does. All the time. The continent you live on used to be someplace else, and far away from where it is now. Your home ground has even been part of a greater landmass known as a "supercontinent" - and will be again. Hence, the title of this book. Ted Nield provides us with a fine account of how we came to learn about these movements. He has brought together the years of research tracking where the rocks have been and where they are likely to go. He likens the movement of continents to a dance of landforms - a "Grand Quadrille". A fine synopsis of the history of geology and its compelling figures - scholars who had to project what was known in their time back into a distant past.

Earth has been a busy place for the past four billion years, and it hasn't stopped to rest. We speak of the "firmness of the Earth", but that phrase is a sham. The key figure in this story is the great supercontinent of Pangaea that began breaking up 250 million years ago. Assembled from previous continents that had once joined and also separated, Pangaea's breakup into places we live on today have been traced in exquisite detail. The matching of rocks in places separated by wide seas provided the clues. In fact, as Nield relates, it was the vast Atlantic that bears the responsibility for Pangaea's fracturing to form the basis for the continents we know today. The author explains how the continents have been engaging in a Grand Quadrille and will continue to do so - for another five billion years, at least.

The progenitor of the idea of "drifting continents" was Alfred Wegener.
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32 of 35 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, but somewhat unfocused December 20, 2007
Ted Nield's book Supercontinent was very interesting, and I am glad I tackled it. However, it was not entirely what I expected. At least half the book delves back into the history of "lost continents," including Madame Blavatsky with her Lemuria, and James Churchward with his Mu. These were both bogus prehistoric continents put together by erstwhile self-styled prophets. Neither had any scientific underpinning. This seemed out of place in a science book.

Nield also spends several chapters going back to retrace the development of the continental drift theory, and includes a lot of biographical information. I could have dispensed with this.

There are some pluses to the book. For one thing, Nield writes very well. Chapters devoted exclusively to the supercontinent cycle from a scientific perspective are very interesting and worthwhile. Moreover, the book is new, just having been released in 2007. Lastly, the introduction and last chapter are both excellent essays on the benefits and promise of science, and deserve to be read even if nothing else.

My final viewpoint is -- the book is an excellent place to skip around. Read a chapter carefully, skim some material, read another chapter, skip some things, and so on. This is because the topic "supercontinent" is used by Nield as a kind of peg to hang things on. Much of it is scientific, some of it is just "odds and ends." For instance, what Madame Blavatsky and James Churchward have to do with anything scientific is beyond me.

All in all, a mixed bag.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I've never found geology so fun! December 6, 2007
A great resource for the geological history of the planet for the interested amateur. Nield explains in easy to understand terms and analogies the complicated science that allows us today to "travel" back over 4 billion years and witness the development (and redevelopment) of the earth. He also subtly points out the difference between science and myth and why humanity must embrace reality and abandon myths that do not reflect the reality of our situation here on Earth today. He appeals for us to be reasonable and abandon our arrogance and ignorance! Powerful, educational, and ever more important in a world being pushed closer and closer to the brink (for us, the earth will abide...)
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant but Uneven July 21, 2008
By JavaMan
This book tackles the great subject of the geologic history of the Earth from the vantage point of plate tectonics. Along the way, the author writes compellingly of the origins and development of life and the history of our atmosphere. He also gets side-tracked in biographies of some key geologists in the Continental Drift controversy as well as a light-hearted discussion of fictitious 'Lost Continents'. Luckily the book is organized in such a way that these digressions can be skipped if desired. My main objection in this book is the lack of good and relevent illustrations and maps. At the very least, a detailed stratigraphic chart relating geologic periods to continent-building and other events would be helpful. Also, maps detailing the assembly and disassembly of the supercontinents would greatly enhance his narrative of these events.

In many ways this is a wonderful and informative work. Paradoxically, it is not an easy read in the most interesting sections but it is well worth the effort.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Science as a Supercontinent of knowledge October 4, 2009
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Ted Nield does an excellent job of bringing a rather esoteric topic in geology to life. He discusses the geologically slow process of continental breakup and coalescence in the light of major events in the history of life: The end Permian mega extinction when Pangaea existed, for example, and the beginnings of complex life that roughly coincided with with the existence of the prior supercontinent, Rodinia. He highlights the careers of the various scientists who unraveled these geological stories and nicely fleshes out the complexities of how the validity of scientific truths usually overcome short term politics and animosities. He likens science-derived discoveries to a kind of Supercontinent of knowledge that allows human beings to reconstruct both lost and future worlds that we will never see directly. The fruits of this rather abstract knowledge, however, results in real benefits to people today--like earthquake warning networks that alert hundreds of thousands of people to tsunami dangers along the Ring of Fire.

Although I'm pretty well read in paleontology and geology, I found Nield's treatment of this topic accurate and fresh. I also learned more about certain scientists--John Joly, in particular--that will lead me to further reading.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Simplified geology; interesting too
The continents of today's Earth are the wreckage of that supercontinent, Pangaea, which began to break up about 250 million years ago. Read more
Published 22 months ago by Laurence Chalem
3.0 out of 5 stars Few Maps or Illustrations
I won't repeat the many accolades for the book. It was a good adjunct to my understanding of present-day tectonics. Read more
Published on June 25, 2011 by Maximzodal
3.0 out of 5 stars Supercontinent
This geologic history was much more about the characters involved than I expected. There was a good discussion of the actual physicalities that occurred, but the in-depth... Read more
Published on September 22, 2009 by David T. Stewart
5.0 out of 5 stars The Grandest Cycle in Nature
Each of us gets our three score and ten years, more or less, and as good as such a spell might be, it does not prepare us for seeing the longer picture of the past. Read more
Published on December 1, 2008 by R. Hardy
5.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely Fascinating!
In this remarkable book, the author touches upon just about everything regarding long lost continents: how the idea of a supercontinent came about, ancient and not-so-ancient myths... Read more
Published on July 22, 2008 by G. Poirier
4.0 out of 5 stars Good science, bad writing
It's interesting in a sense that if it had been someone other than Neild writing this book, I probably would have given it five stars. Read more
Published on July 21, 2008 by Hawki
3.0 out of 5 stars Merely a historical survey, not particularly informative
Based on the subtitle of this book, I was expecting details on the changes in the earth's crust/continents over the last 10 billion years -- a very interesting survey that would... Read more
Published on March 7, 2008 by mcerner
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but lacking
The book has some high points, including interesting facts and history. While reading, however, I found myself mostly surprised that the author was able to fill an entire book with... Read more
Published on December 31, 2007 by CmR
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