I done screwed up.
I was looking for good geology books for my young nephew, who is 8 and currently enjoys investigating rocks. Ya’ll, I was SO EXCITED when I found this book on Amazon. It seemed so perfect. It explored a wonderful variety of geologic topics. It promised to explain how mountains form and fall, the hydrologic cycle, soil formation and erosion, minerals, the rock cycle, and why ocean sediments end up in weird places like the top of mountains. Fantastic!
And the Amazon page said it had been published in 2014, so it would be pretty current. Double fantastic!
Thankfully, I read books before passing them along. It turns out this book is not current at all. It’s over 60 dang years out of date. The bloody thing was published in 1952. And this isn’t a revised or updated version of the original – it is the original.
I hadn’t thought to look closely at the copyright page before I dove in, unfortunately. And since so many kids’ books oversimplify things to the point of inaccuracy, the little hints that something wasn’t quite right didn’t ping my radar at first. The language was a bit too flowery, but again, lots of kids books are like that. The basic information about the hydrogeologic cycle was generally okay. So I read on … and then it got weird.
In their suggested experiments, the authors didn’t seem to have heard of plastic bottles. And they appeared to assume milk still comes in glass bottles, which often freeze. Strange. Still, too many adults come across as woefully antiquated when writing for children, so no big.
Then I reached the end of the “Mountains Unmade” chapter, and got smacked in the face by oblivious racism.
Just think of what that apple may have been before it became part of you! Once it may have been in the autumn leaves that fell and crumbled into the soil near the trunk of the apple tree. Years before it may have been in the shell of a robin’s egg. And once it may have been part of a stalactite in some dark underground cavern. Perhaps for a short while it sailed high over the earth in a butterfly’s wing. Long ago, it may have been in a kernel of corn planted by an Indian.
Look, you really shouldn’t be calling Native Americans “Indians” in anything, much less a childrens book. And what the bloody heck is up with implying they haven’t planted corn for a long time?! The authors make it sound like Native Americans no longer exist! I guaran-dang-tee you First Nations farmers still exist, and still plant corn. My Navajo neighbors, in fact, planted lots of corn, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t stop when I moved away.
I almost gave up on the book right there. I don’t want to give my nephew casually racist stuff. But I decided to give it a chance – if this was the only real, glaring problem, we could always have a discussion about casual racism and colonialism.
The chapter on the ocean nearly ended me. It’s not until literally the last paagraph, after spending the whole chapter talking about how the ocean is filling up with various sediments, that they acknowledge the ocean won’t fill completely up. They never mention new seafloor being created. They don’t talk about subduction. They seem to think the oceans are just passive basins! But it’s okay, I thought. Maybe they’re saving that talk for the next chapter.
As I read on, and they talked about rocks formed in the ocean ending upon mountaintops, a very bizarre thing happened: the authors assumed that if you were in a classroom, you had a real slate blackboard and actual chalk right therein front of you.
Look, I’m old, okay? By a child’s measure, I grew up in the damned Stone Age, back when we had to actually call places for directions and used ditto machines to make our worksheets. We did Mousercise, for crying out loud. And even then, we didn’t have slate blackboards! We had greenboards with yellow “chalk,” which wasn’t even made from chalk (it was probably gypsum). The few blackboards my school had were just wood painted matte black. And by the time I got to high school, those had been replaced by markerboards. Yes, even in Bumfucksville, Arizona. So no kid in the modern Us of A is likely to have a bit of the ocean at the front of their classroom in the form of a slate chalkboard!
Besides, slate is metamorphic, anyway. They talked about it like it’s sedimentary. Harf?
A short while later, they’re talking like the only way a building can be heated is with fossil fuels, and how we don’t know how oil (petroleum) forms. But … wind? Solar? Hydroelectric? Geothermal? And … we kinda do actually know how oil happens …? What the everloving hecknuggets is going on here?!
So that’s where I flipped to the copyright page and discovered that this book was written before the theory of plate tectonics came along and did for geology what the theory of evolution did for biology. That was it. No way I’m giving this book to an eight year-old who doesn’t yet have a solid grounding in modern geology.
But, of course, that means this book is a hoot for anyone who wants to know how we explained seashells on mountaintops in the early 1950s. So I read on.
Warning: you will die.
Their first hypothesis is that the Earth is shrinking as volcanoes erupt, getting all wrinkly like a baked apple. Shrinking. I mean, did we have any actual measurements to back that up? I think not.
Their second hypothesis is slightly more plausible: that since rock under enough pressure is ductile, it will be squeezed up as more sediment is deposited on the ocean floor, like toothpaste being smooshed into the end of its tube. It’s still quite wrong, but not as wrong as a shrinking Earth. After all, we do know that the mantle deforms, and the crust depresses under heavy things like big sediment loads or huge mountains.
In this world, giant mountain ranges like the Rockies aren’t formed by the pressure of great plates colliding, but by magma rising and pushing the overlying sedimentary layers up. Which, yeah, sometimes happens, but doesn’t account for the thrust faults and overturned strata we see in such ranges.
According to the authors, magma moves only because of pressure, not convection, and volcanoes are towers of lava with a hollow tube up the middle. No side vents here, nossir. At least they do acknowledge fissure volcanoes are a thing. And it appears this book was finished while Parícutin was still erupting, so that’s quite fun!
Some of the writing is beautiful. I really love this paragraph:
All the boiling, bubbling, and burning sounds as if volcanoes are altogether destructive things. But magma, when it pours out of the earth, brings important gifts. Many of the good and lovely things of the earth are the work of volcanoes.
Yes, thank you!
Unfortunately, their explanation of how gemstones form is frankly disasterous, even for the 1950s. They believe diamonds form right from lava instead of being carried to the surface by it – I’m pretty sure we knew even then that pure carbon and enormous heat and pressure were required! They don’t seem to know hydrothermal fluids exist, implying gemstones and precious metals are deposited directly from lava as it cools.
Another disaster is their section on earthquakes. All earthquakes are caused by magma. The ground either rises or falls. It doesn’t ever just move horizontally- sorry, San Andreas!
Metamorphic rock is only formed by magma, not the enormous heat and pressure at the roots of great mountain ranges, because of course there’s magma at the center of those mountains. Magma does it all. Do we ever find out where magma comes from, though? Nope.
Despite these limitations and errors, the book ends strong, tying geology into the journey of water, the soil, our buildings and our bodies, including the trees we build with and the teeth we use to chew. I absolutely love the conclusion. It’s marvelous, and would translate well to any geology book written today.
This was quite the time capsule. It’s incredible how much geology changed in the course of just a couple of decades. Our understanding went from rudimentary and fragmental to advanced and unified with breathtaking speed, leaving this poor book wallowing in suddenly outdated ideas. The basic shape and sentiment of it is so good though. If the publishers had bothered to update it, I could have recommended it wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, as it is, I can only recommend it to those who are interested in the history of earth science education.