Sunday, January 29, 2006

Earth Science Books

I've just finished reading another book. This time it was about earth science, a favorite subject of mine. The book, When Life Nearly Died by Michael J. Benton, was a great trove of information pertaining to paleontology and mass extinctions. In particular the greatest mass extinction of all of time between the Permian and Triassic Ages when approximately 90% of life ceased to exist.

In recent years most people have become familiar with the "death of the dinosaurs" between the Cretaceous and Tertiary Ages or what is known as the KT Line. This has become the most studied and talked about mass extinction, yet it pales in comparison to the Permian extinction at only about a 50% extinction rate. Dinosaurs have captured the minds of young and old alike for a long time now and people have always wondered what caused their demise. It was in the 1980's that theories began to emerge of a catastrophic cause and the evidence began to build that an asteroid was the perpetrator and this is now the current belief.

This book takes a look at the Permian mass extinction and wonders whether catastrophic cause/s explains how 90% of life didn't make it into Triassic times. Little time has really been spent investigating the biggest mass extinction as the dinosaurs seemed to capture the fancy of most paleontologists. The author does well to take the reader though the history of paleontology, how the different rock ages came to be named and sorted to time and how we've accumulated the knowledge to this point.

Benton talks of the different people in history that played a part in exposing that there was such a mass extinction, the different theories involved and the debate in science circles through the years. I was pleased at how he presented all viewpoints and didn't simply take a side to argue. And I was fascinated as Benton wrote the book as one big jigsaw puzzle placing the pieces of information into the readers mind so that by the end of the book it seems as though a nearly complete picture has settled into the readers thought. I say nearly complete as certainly more will be learned of this greatest of all mass extinctions.

I also found that it reminded me of two books that I read last year. Information from those two books flirted within the words of Benton's book. The first book I read was Frozen Earth, The Once and Future Story of Ice Ages by Doug MacDougall and the second one was Earth, An Intimate History by Richard Fortey. Both these books delve into geology in a similar way as When Life Nearly Died providing chronological history to bring the reader up to date. Earth covers much on plate tectonics, earthquakes and volcanos as Fortey jumps around the globe pointing at evidence that's been gleaned from the rock and Frozen Earth tells the tales of the various ice ages.

I think of these three books I've read as a sort of trilogy that in the end makes me think of the earth's future based on what we've been learning about the past. Are we in an extinction phase? Is global warming a precurser to an ice age? And how does volcanism and earth movement play into these questions? These books give plenty of insight into these questions for the future and presents many more questions to ponder about our human role in relationship to the earth.


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