A Wonderful Book for Mary Anning’s Birthday: The Fossil Hunter

The Fossil Hunter by Shelley Emling

Mary Anning deserves far more recognition than she gets. So, on the occasion of her 221st birthday, let me share with you a book that does her justice.

Shelley Emling traces the story of Mary’s life from before her birth to after her death. We are shown just how unlikely it was that a girl born in poverty, who was literally struck by lightning as a toddler(!!), should grow up to become one of the most renowned fossil hunters of her age.

Her story is absolutely amazing, and at several points heartbreaking. She lost her dad when she was a little girl. Only one of her siblings lived to adulthood. Her family was desperately poor. She never got the education she deserved. Because she was female, and science very much a male clubhouse, she often saw others taking credit for her discoveries and insights. She lost her dog to a landslide, and her life at a relatively young age to breast cancer. Shelley shies away from none of the bad stuff.

But the book can be summed up by a joyous “Nevertheless, she persisted.” Continue reading “A Wonderful Book for Mary Anning’s Birthday: The Fossil Hunter”

A Wonderful Book for Mary Anning’s Birthday: The Fossil Hunter
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Four Must-Read Mount St. Helens Books

It seems like entire libraries have been written about the Mount St. Helens eruption. Here are four books well worth reading.

Let me just start by stating the obvious: this is far from a definitive list. It’s just a microcosm of must-reads. These are four books that provided particular insight. Some are out of print, but used copies are fairly easy to find. This is the stack I would personally hand to anyone wanting to learn all they can about that fateful day, who want accuracy, but who don’t want anything too technical or difficult.

You should purchase a box of your preferred tissues to go along with these books. You’ll get to know some of the people we lost up there. And it’s hard. But I feel we owe it to the dead to remember them, how they died, and to try to prevent the same thing from happening to others.

There are incredible stories of survival here. At times, there are frank discussions of terrible injuries. What a volcanic eruption does to a human body is truly grim. So be mindful of that. Take breaks when you need to.

The best part of all of these stories is that science prevented catastrophic loss of life and human suffering. And we learned so many lessons that helped save lives when other volcanoes erupted.

Mount St. Helens is one of the most fascinating volcanoes in existence. These books do her justice.

Continue reading “Four Must-Read Mount St. Helens Books”

Four Must-Read Mount St. Helens Books

Forty Years Ago Today: The Cataclysm

“Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!”

– Last words of USGS volcanologist David Alexander Johnston, 8:32 am, May 18th, 1980

Dave Johnston would be 70 today, if he hadn’t been up at Coldwater II, watching the volcano. He should have been safe: before they’d chosen the site, they’d investigated the ridge and determined Mount St. Helens hadn’t done anything particularly terrible to it for thousands of years.

Dave had thought there was a chance she’d blow laterally, like Bezimiany volcano on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. But volcanoes rarely erupt sideways, and when they do, it’s seldom with such force. Miles away, high on a ridge where lahars couldn’t reach, they thought it would be okay. It’s never safe in the Red Zone. But for science, for public safety, you take the calculated risk.

You can never know for sure. And sometimes, like Dave, you end upon the fatal side of the calculation.

Today, take a moment to honor all of the volcanologists who have sacrificed their lives in the quest to further our understanding of these beautiful, dangerous mountains.

Dave Johnston collecting samples from the crater of Mount St. Helens, April 30th, 1980. Credit: Rick Hoblitt/USGS

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Continue reading “Forty Years Ago Today: The Cataclysm”

Forty Years Ago Today: The Cataclysm

Scotland’s Explosive History: Volcanoes and the Making of Scotland

Book cover shows a knob of volcanic rock looming over the Scottish countryside.
Volcanoes and the Making of Scotland

Let me admit from the start: I have a complicated relationship with Volcanoes and the Making of Scotland.

Continue reading “Scotland’s Explosive History: Volcanoes and the Making of Scotland”

Scotland’s Explosive History: Volcanoes and the Making of Scotland

Digital Book Bargains for Surviving Social Distancing

Heyo. I hope things are well for you, or at least as well as can be expected in pandemic times. Who would have guessed we’d be living 1918 2.0 when we rang in this new year?

It’s been quiet round the blogs, I know. I’m lucky enough to be an essential worker – my day job is doing tech support for a company that has contracts with several hospitals. Yep, hospitals at the center of the first COVID-19 outbreak in the US. And my partner works in a grocery store. Nerves definitely wracked. It’s been hard to brain over the last six weeks. But Washington State has a sensible Democratic governor who listened to experts and took sensible steps early on, so on the whole we’re faring pretty well. We might even get to spend some time in the parks come summer.

Once my brain was able to switch from survival mode, we’d laid in adequate supplies for surviving quarantine if we got sick, and new routines had been established, I got to reading. And I’m even getting round to book reviews! You can expect some good stuff forthcoming.

Since most of us are still social distancing until May, I wanted to let you know about a few (okay, many) books on sale in the Kindle Store this month that might help you while away the time. I’ll be reviewing them in depth later, but get them now while they’re on sale if they strike your fancy.

Continue reading “Digital Book Bargains for Surviving Social Distancing”

Digital Book Bargains for Surviving Social Distancing

Geology of the Pacific Northwest

Cover of Geology of the Pacific Northwest

I’ve had my eye on this one for quite a while, and when my nephew came to visit, I decided to go for it. Cynthia Light Brown’s Geology of the Pacific Northwest is everything I hoped for. It covers a fair chunk of territory: Northern California to Alaska (excluding Canada, alas) and east to the Rockies. I love the scope of it. There is a huge amount of intriguing geology in these areas, and it’s great to have a book kids can take with them on visits to the national parks throughout the region.
She writes with a refreshing enthusiasm. You can tell she loves her subject, and she uses a lot of energetic words to convey the excitement, beauty, and grandeur of her subject.

Kids who are just starting to get interested in how these lovely landscapes form and how we study them will find everything clearly explained. Cynthia starts by defining geology and geography as sciences, then dives into the biggest theory in geology and the most important shaper of the PNW: plate tectonics. She has an absolutely delicious experiment at the end, using a candy bar to demonstrate some of the mechanisms. In fact, every chapter ends with an activity or two, some tastier than others.

From there, she explores mountain ranges, their rainshadows, and glaciers. Some of the differences in the various ranges are explored. Then we get to know volcanoes and earthquakes. (Alas, here is where we learn this book was published just ahead of the solving of the Mima Mounds mystery. She seemed to find earthquakes to be the most plausible cause, but twas gophers all along. It’s still a fun way to get kids to generate and test hypotheses, though!)

We get to explore the Columbia River Basalts in the Basin and Plateaus chapter. I love that she recognizes them as emerging from volcanoes: some authors don’t realize that fissures actually are volcanoes. And then she does a pretty great job explaining the Missoula Floods and Channeled Scablands. My only quibble here was talking about how the ice dam broke without mentioning that Glacial Lake Missoula repeatedly got deep enough to float its ice dam. That’s one of my favorite details about the floods, and I wish it had been included here! But we get a good section on J Harlan Bretz and how he proved his theory to skeptical colleagues, which is a great way of showing kids how science gets done. And there’s an excellent discussion of the Snake River Plain that makes me want to go there very, very badly. Then we get an activity where we’re making “basalt” columns out of a non-Newtonian fluid, which is about the best thing ever and something I need to do next time Nephew is up. Is there much of anything more fun for kids than playing around with non-Newtonian fluids?

The next chapter does an admirable job of explaining climate and weather, including some of our weird winds like the Chinook and the Pineapple Express. That chapter segues nicely into Rivers, which includes a bit on the plans to remove the dams on the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula. Since that’s now been done, a fun extra for kids would be having them investigate how the area has changed now that the river’s flowing freely. The activities for this chapter include making your own river bed, which I also want to do.

We next learn about ecosystems, which has a lot of potential to blow kids’ minds repeatedly, what with the temperate rainforests, the epiphytes, and the 2,224 acre fungi colony.

The chapter on The Coast teaches wonderfully well about ocean currents, food webs, and fractals. It’s a mini-oceanography course and I’m here for it.

Throughout the book, proper scientific terms are presented in hexagonal boxes reminiscent of the tops of basalt columns. Light-Brown often asks kids to ponder the reasons why things might be the way they are, and come up with their own answers. I love the way information is presented and critical thought encouraged.

Really, the only real quibble I have with this book is the drawings: Eric Baker’s illustrations are often so stylized they’re confusing. His diagrams of mountain belts are especially counter-productive. But his sea otters are cute. Yay?

Overall, despite the failings of the illustrations, this is a really solid book. I recommend it for any kid who’s interested in the PNW’s geology and animals. It’s a pretty great introduction. I can’t wait to investigate other books in the series!

Geology of the Pacific Northwest

5 Fantastic Pioneering Women in the Geosciences

It’s International Women’s Day. While we’re appreciating living women worldwide, let’s celebrate some of the pioneering women who made the current state of earth science knowledge possible.

Illustration of two women sitting back to back holding rock hammers.
Credit: Dana Hunter

Pioneering Women in the Geosciences: Introduction

Geology has many fathers, and we know them well. But few of us can name its mothers. Mothers who sacrificed far more than most of the men did – many women could only succeed in the geosciences if they remained unmarried and childless (and some organizations, like the British Geological Survey, made that a formal requirement). They fought discrimination and doubt. They worked hard for a fraction of the recognition their male colleagues got. Despite all the decks stacked against them, they made important contributions to our knowledge of the world. Forgetting the women who left us geoscience legacies is intolerable. We need to remember.

This series seeks to restore these women to our lexicon of famous geologists.

Zonia Baber: “The Public May Be Brought to Understand the Importance of Geography”

Zonia Baber (1862-1955) is one of those people you aspire to be and fear you will never manage to become even half as good as.

And I only chose her as our first Pioneering Woman in Geology because of her name. I had this list of women I knew next to nothing about, and I hovered a finger over it, and said, “There. That’s an interesting name. Let’s start with her.” Then I found out she was a geographer, when I’d hoped to begin with a geologist. She was a teacher, when I’d wanted women who worked in the field. An American, when I’d hoped to start with a different country. Bugger. But Mary Arizona “Zonia” Baber? Still couldn’t resist the name. So I read past the first sentence in the Wikipedia article, and promptly fell in love. She co-founded the Geographic Society of Chicago, which was modeled after the National Geographic society? Awesome! Involved in social issues? Brilliant! Feminist, even so! And then I found out that she’d got her start in geology. Her geography had rock and earth all the way through. Outstanding.

Mary Horner Lyell: “A Monument of Patience”

You never hear of the other Lyell. Sir Charles, you know quite well: he set the infant science of geology firmly on its feet and inspired Charles Darwin. But there’s another Lyell who was a geologist, and without her, Charles Lyell would have found his work far more difficult, if not impossible. When he married Mary Horner, he pledged himself to a lifelong scientific partner.

Why don’t we know her?

Marjorie Sweeting: “The Basis for a World Model of Karst”

One of the best karst geologists in the world was technically a geographer. That’s the thing with physical geography: women were allowed to do it, and some of them made it just as geological as they liked. Dr. Marjorie Sweeting (1920-1994) certainly loved doing geology. Let’s call her what she was: geographer, geomorphologist, and distinguished Cambridge Fellow. The quality of her life’s work, plus my affection for alliteration, leads me to crown her the queen of karst.

I’ve fallen a bit in love with all of the women in geology I’ve researched and written about so far, but Marjorie was the first who got me copiously salivating. You see, I’m a bit of a karst addict. I especially love the karst landscapes of China. So finding out that this remarkable woman led the first set of British geomorphologists to China, and was the first western geologist to study those astounding landscapes, sent me into an agony of ecstasy. And I discovered a woman every bit as remarkable as the landforms she studied.

Inge Lehmann: “A Small Solid Core in the Innermost Part of the Earth”

At the age of 105, Inge Lehmann (1888-1993) looked back on a long, productive life with satisfaction. During her career in seismology, she had made two major discoveries and made other significant contributions. She’d won multiple prestigious awards, become a fellow of the Royal Society, and had honorary doctorates bestowed by Columbia University and the University of Copenhagan.She was an immensely talented seismologist.

She experienced her first earthquake when she was growing up in Østerbro, Denmark. “I may have been 15 or 16 years old when, on a Sunday morning, I was sitting at home together with my mother and sister, and the floor began to move under us,” she later wrote. “The hanging lamp swayed. It was very strange. My father came into the room. “It was an earthquake,” he said. The center had evidently been at a considerable distance, for the movements felt slow and not shaky. In spite of a great deal of effort, an accurate epicenter was never found. This was my only experience with an earthquake until I became a seismologist 20 years later.”

Janet Vida Watson: “A Scientist Who Communicated with the Earth”

Dr. Janet Vida Watson’s geology career is a love story.

She loved her rocks immensely. To her, they weren’t inert, cold stone. They had character. They had emotions. She loved her “happy rocks,” and trusted them more than she trusted the isotopes labs wrested from them (though she never shied away from new technology: on the contrary, she eagerly embraced it). She turned to them throughout her career, and they imparted their life stories to her, sometimes revolutionizing an aspect of earth science in the process.

She loved geology so much she did it on her honeymoon, with her groom, John Sutton. She adored field work, and teaching students to do this good science of rock-breaking. She loved it to the end of her life.

5 Fantastic Pioneering Women in the Geosciences

The Day the World Ended

I’m going to give you the verdict right up front here: don’t waste your money on this book. I got the Kindle edition on sale for $1.99, and I’m ashamed I spent that much. The only reason I didn’t return it was this review.

No, I didn’t finish the book. Yes, I’m reviewing it anyway. I got far enough in to be confident it wasn’t going to improve. There may be a diamond or two in that vat of raw sewage, but why continue to search there when there’s a prolific diamond mine of a book available on the same subject?

Let’s count the numerous issues you’ll encounter in just the first 15% of this book.

The Science: Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts don’t know it. At first, it’s NBD: referring to the steam and ash plumes a waking volcano emits as “smoke” is irritating to those of us who know better, but it’s not an abominable error. Calling the ash “Sulphur ash” when what they mean is it smelled like sulfur is inaccurate and could be confusing, but it’s not that big a deal. But those little errors pile up quickly, making you doubt the authors understand this eruption the way they want to convince you they do.

Then it starts becoming more obvious they don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. When describing the geologic history of the Lesser Antilles, they say the islands are “the result of volcanic eruptions forcing the ocean bed up 10,000 or more feet.” That’s absolutely not how it works! Extrusive volcanic activity that builds islands isn’t shoving the ocean floor up: it’s piling stuff atop it.

It gets worse. In Chapter Two, they begin describing the lava streaming from Peleé’s summit. There’s just one problem with that: Peleé didn’t emit any lava flows during the eruptions in May 1902; not on the 2nd, not on the 8th, not on any day. Most contemporaneous accounts by eyewitnesses and investigators don’t mistake mudflows or pyroclastic flows for lava, either. So even if Jules Sequin, their supposed eye-witness, did report seeing “a long tongue of fresh lava,” it’s incumbent on them to state what the actual material was. They never do. The reader unfamiliar with the 1902 eruption would be left thinking lava flows were totally happening.

At this point, we’re less than 10% of the way through this book, and I’ve had it with their incompetence. But I read on, and get treated to a long passage about lava invading Le Prêcheur, an event which never happened. I have no idea where the authors pulled their “facts” from, but I suspect they emerged brown and stinky.

They of course continue to mangle facts (they think volcanoes happen when the Earth’s crust cools and cracks, apparently), but at this point, the horse I’m beating is definitely deceased. We have abundant proof we can’t trust their geologic descriptions. So let us move on to their other sins.

The history: Writing about historic events where all the eyewitnesses are long dead is difficult. Reconstructing conversations, actions, and thought processes is risky: you want to be engaging and make things feel dynamic rather then dry and academic, but you can’t get too creative unless you’re writing fiction. Most authors proceed with caution. These two proceed with wreckless abandon. They presume to know every thought, mannerism, and movement of their subjects, even the ones who left no detailed accounts behind. You begin to wonder if a) they have a really great medium on retainer or b) they’re just making shit up.

I’m sure they’d say they’re working from reports and documents of the time, but they don’t quote anything directly. They don’t show their work. And I frankly wouldn’t believe they found accounts that described every step, every adjustment of clothing, and every single thought and word of people who died nearly instantly in a city-leveling catastrophe. That level of detail belongs in a novelization, not a book which purports to be a true and faithful record of events as they actually happened. After a certain amount of mind-reading, I just can’t take the writers seriously anymore.

I won’t deny they have an engaging writing style, and the novel-quality description and prose was engaging. I might have kept reading the book while pretending it was billed as based-on-a-true-story and marketed as fiction, which would have allowed me to get my $2 worth.

But then we got to the misogyny and fat shaming, and that’s where I stopped.

The bigotry: The misogyny wasn’t entirely awful, but when they describe a woman as crisp and capable on one page, then have her hysterically screaming for an entire hour a page or two later, I’ve gotta roll my eyes. Even if you do witness your dad and his employees getting eaten by a mudflow, as a crisp and capable woman, you’ll scream for a minute at most before doing something else. Even if the horrific event completely breaks you, the human throat isn’t fucking capable of that much sustained screaming. The authors would know this if they weren’t inclined to think of women in a crisis as hysterical.

But the part that made me close my kindle app in utter disgust is where they spend several pages sneering at Governor Moultet of Martinique as fat and ugly. They lavish details on the situation. They go on at some length about how handsome he used to to be. Disgust fairly drips from their pens as they describe how the man had the sheer audacity to lose his looks due to bouts of dysentary and malaria, and his waistline due to love of good food. By the end, the authors leave you with the feeling they despise Moultet far more for his appearance then for the many errors in judgement he made regarding Peleé.

I read on for several more pages, but I was done. Between the glaring geological errors, the frankly unbelievable writing, their casual sexism, and their villainizing a man not for his actions but his appearance, I’d had enough.

There’s no reason to waste your time with this book. Read Ernest Zebrowski Jr.’s excellent The Last Days of St. Pierre instead. You deserve a better book than these authors are capable of delivering.

The Day the World Ended

Geology (Let’s Explore Science): Now We’re Getting Somewhere

Cover of Geology (Let's Explore Science) by Tim Clifford
Geology (Let’s Explore Science) by Tim Clifford

If you’re looking for a simple, inexpensive book to introduce geology to young readers, Geology (Let’s Explore Science) by Tim Clifford is a quite decent choice. It was like the freshest summer breeze after the two duds I’d read before it, for sure.

It packs a lot of information into its short length! Readers are introduced to geology, the earth’s layers, and soil, which is a subject I haven’t seen covered in other earth science books for kids. Soil scientists will love that! Then the book explores plate tectonics, rock types, how land forms, the rock cycle, fossils, and the age of the earth. (No worries on that last bit: there’s not a young earth creationist in sight.)

The photos are absolutely breathtaking and do a great job showing what the author is describing. There’s an especially good one that shows a selection of sedimentary layers that includes a mouthwatering bed of river cobbles. That photo alone justifies the purchase price! It’s suitable for framing.

Like with any children’s book, topics are simplified, sometimes to the point of inaccuracy (the rock cycle description implies metamorphic rocks melt to become igneous rocks only, rather than sometimes being uplifted and eroded to form sedimentary rock). But overall, the information is accurate and well-presented in a way that won’t leave kids confused.

The most glaring flaw is when the author claims coal is a mineral. This is the only time a mistake was that groan-worthy, though, and it’s less egregious than saying pumice forms in water, so I’ll forgive it.

You’ll want to have some tape handy, as the binding won’t hold up to rough treatment. It’s worth the extra effort, since it’s much better written and more factual than other books in its category. This is one you can feel good about giving to the young proto-geologist in your life.

Geology (Let’s Explore Science): Now We’re Getting Somewhere