Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Review of Earth: an Intimate History by Richard Fortey

I am the bull godSo I'm trying to explain the book project to Twiffer.* "Something to reflect one of the many aspects of you, dude."

"The many aspects of Twiffer? That's a laugh."

"No, you know, I want to read something that captures your personality in some way, or something that inspires or interests you, or makes me think of you, or works in whatever minor level of free association. Hell, it could be about the life of the water buffalo for all it matters. This isn't meant to be deep psychological science here, just an excuse to read interesting stuff."

"Interesting stuff? That inspires me? All right, you might like this one."

Thank god I didn't make myself read that book about the Red Sox. Twiff and I have traipsed over a lot of the same geology anyway.


Any detailed history of the earth would fill (and has filled) volumes. Earth: an Intimate History is less a catalogue and more a survey of well-chosen interesting bits. Richard Fortey relates the world's geological features like a man telling old family stories by the fireside. You can picture him unwinding them around his pipestem, getting animated at the exploits, chuckling at his occasional and minor wit, and making long sad eyes when the human timeline is inevitably compared against all those great, slow rocks. (Commendably, he resists the urge to lay too thickly on that last bit.) There are a lot of anecdotes at his disposal, and they fit neatly into the arc of history. The reader is carried along with the flow of narrative, finding himself suddenly rubbing his eyes as the storyteller concludes, and stumbles out the door to see a world around him that looks slightly different before, older and bigger.

Science, it's said, changes one funeral at a time. I can see what Twiffer was getting at when he hinted that hypothetical immortality could be the death of science. On the other hand, certain branches seem to be more susceptible to cults of establishment, geology evidently among them. If the 20th century was chemistry's triumph,** then the 19th belonged to geology. But this explosion of earth science was in a way behind the times, as the astronomers of the day had already survived running afoul of the church, and a culture of doubt and falsifiablity was already firming up. Still, along with the contemporaneous evolutionary theories, geological science had a tough go of it when it bumped up against the creation myths--there's more disappointment at stake in dating the age of the earth than in describing whether electrons more resemble particles or waves--and the entrenchment around either side of religious debate surely took some time to break up.

Fortey struck me with the degree to which geology and biology (and biology's footnote, sociology) intersect. The earth is bout four and a half billion years old, and has a fossil record of about 3 billion. Geological time scales coincide neatly with evolutionary ones, and in the same time it took the continental plates to dance and drift from the poles to the tropics, open and close oceans, the earth exploded in shellfish, the dinosaurs came and went, mammals scurried from the trees and along the plains. Climates have always been shaped by plate tectonics. Mountains capture rain, and the local rocks supply minerals with the abandon of a drunken youth or the parsimony of an old miser. The appearance of people clinging on the end of the evolutionary chain is an instant in all of this, but just the same, geology shapes cultures too. It supplies water, arability, building materials, and borders. For all the usual talk about biology as a whole outliving the human race, life itself remains an impermanent and mutable scum on this massive and quivering globe of rock. Mull that on over for a couple thoughtful puffs on the briar.

I'm not a big-time inorganic chemist, but one interesting thing about playing with minerals in the lab, is the general inability of people to reproduce natural materials. We can attain the pressures and temperatures with reasonable ease, but it is impossible to grow crystals at geological slowness. The crystallinity, the phase and compositional distribution, they seem like unimportant things, but they make all the difference in the properties of rocks at the human scale. It seems like the geologist can find nearly as many morphological variations in silicate minerals as the organic chemist recognizes in carbon bonding, and you have to admire the complexity with which molecular tetrahedra can be assembled, and wonder if it ultimately holds the same potential for higher level organization.

Fortey reveals the earth as a stately dynamic body. The continents float on a gently convecting mantle, bumping and separating like toy boats battling in the bath. The mantle is heated (and this was a big surprise to me) radioactively, and the crust sags into it under the weight of oceans and mountains and glaciers, and the whole ball jiggles like torpid gelatin as they bang into one another. It leaks into the ocean floor, and resorbs the rigid plates at subduction zones, a two-dimensional non-Euclidian lava lamp of rocky masses. It feels wrong to even try to spread my mind to such scales of time and length.

Regarding the human race, Fortey's about as sanguine as I am, which is to say that even while not thinking very much of humanity as a species, he still holds a lot of affection for the thoughtful oddballs he sees as part of his own sphere. He's got a soft spot for the unsung gatherers and compilers of information, and a bit of reluctant love for the attention-gathering theorists. He makes a point to forgive the sins of closed-mindedness for scientists who enabled greater advances. He puts people and the earth together in a sort of lonely, awestruck, and intimate worldview, and as something of a recreational misanthrope and eschatologist myself, who nonetheless cherishes his human connections, it's a voice I was able to deeply enjoy.

* You can find the actual exchange somewhere down below,. My memory always tries to make conversations more entertaining in hindsight.

** Fair to say, I think. Spectroscopic analysis, kicking in the 1940s roughly, blew the field out of the water (as did two war efforts). Physics was famously big in the 20th of course, but then physics has been flourishing madly since Newton.

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sydbristow said...


that's a wonderful read, thank you. What you said in your contitental plates paragraph (which I especially liked) about time lines is what I tried to get across my Emerald Lake post. On that same trip we had a fun lesson in stratigraphy, ordering a bunch of random rocks by age and othersuch (and how does it connect? the colours aren't age indicators as much as they are contained minerals indicators as I recall .. anyway, pic idea for later).

I bought my wife Fortey's Life book, but she got to read it second. I love his meanderings and wanderings. Time to pick up another, I guess.

Oh, by the way, we're still scurrying, we just don't know it!

sydbristow said...

aha, found it .. 'column' was the word I couldn't conjure up, as in 'stratigraphy column' .. anyway here (at the bottom) was ours.

(By the way, couldn't link to your individual post, I wonder if it's missing a title?)

Artemesia said...


Richard Fortey is now on my reading list. Your presentation of his work, style of writing is the kind I like. One of my favorites is E.O. Wilson who combines the sciences as he now views our planet, you present Fortey as a scientist who also may have a mind to synthesis, the relationship of time lines to each other..And, the mathematics of minerals is fascinating. Our earth as lying on a mysterious water bed..shades of Jules Verne here. I admire the patience and organization you brought to your essay/review. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

Keifus said...

The cool thing about this is that I can come back Monday morning and fix all my typos and stuff. I didn't have much time this weekend, but I cobbled together a post during a couple half-hours when I promised myself I'd to stuff for work (It's a good sign when the notecard/bookmark is well filled up), and I transcribed rapidly by hand from the laptop to the home PC. Chateau Keifus really needs a tech upgrade.

Fortey took a lot of wanderings along vaious strata. You'll like this one, I think.

Artemesia, I think you'd like this one too. He makes an interesting effort in connecting it all together. (Obviously we know less about teh insides, but in a way I find them more fascinating than the crust. The mantle is really dense and very slow, but it seems to convect in a reasonable-looking pattern. I'm still surprised that radioactive heating is accepted--does the heat balance work out? The fluid dynamics of the core appear to be very weird.)


twiffer said...

hey keif: glad you enjoyed the book. yeah, the uranium in the core theory is pretty new. i've not read much on it, but i'm inclined to think of it as auxiliary heat. we still have all the pressure, etc. to keep things moving as well. the downside of the radioactive heating theory is the spate of doom-n-gloom shouts that the (theoretical) uranium in the core is about to run out, and the earth will cool overnight and the planet will then be dead. i file these folks with the ones who think that recent magentic anomolies mean the core is ceasing to spin, and not that we may be in the midst of a magnetic field reversal. one that, as far as historical trends go, is overdue.

nice review. you made me wait for it, but it was worth it (besides, the book is somewhat thick). the picture is awesome. [grin]

Keifus said...

Yup, you're another victim of original artwork. I hope I don't make that a habit.

I felt a little guilty about making you wait till monday, so I tried man, I tried to get it in over the weekend. (I don't have many coherent blocks that I can steal from my employers today either.)

rundeep said...

The picture is Aweseome. No idea you were so talented Keif. He looks just like that in person, too.

Keifus said...

Liar! Tell me more.

twiffer said...

that's a lie rundeep! i don't actually wear tank-tops.

Archaeopteryx said...

Is Twif smoking two different things in that picture? What, exactly, are you saying?

Keifus said...

Twiffer is a busy man, I mean look at him. I suspect a lot of nervous habits.

The pipe is because he likes 'em. (Unless he's playing a clarinet in that photo.) I thought the cigarette just made him look cool. You might want to ask him what it's rolled with.

twiffer said...

it's a pipe. i mostly smoke pipes, but i do smoke cigarillos when driving (unless it's a long drive). no cigarettes though. nor joints; they're not worth the bother.