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Three Reviews

Northern England

P Stone, D Millward, B Young, J W Merritt, S M Clarke, M McCormac and D J D Lawrence
Published by: The British Geological Survey
Publication date: 2010
ISBN: 978-085272652-5
List price: £18.00 (25% academic discount)
304 pp

Northern EnglandThis is the latest edition in the long-running British Regional Geology Series, originally designed to complement the regional displays in the newly opened Museum of Practical Geology in South Kensington, London. These regions have remained largely unchanged since the 1930s, apart from a recent unified memoir for Wales.

This large 255x180mm book covers Northumberland, Tyne and Wear, almost all of Durham and Cumbria and the northern half of Cleveland, plus the Isle of Man (which as a Crown dependency is not part of the United Kingdom). Folded in the back is a 1:625,000 bedrock geology map, which has been revised to show the remapped Jurassic outlier just west of Carlisle. The introduction places this region in tectonic context with palaeogeographical reconstructions, and like the rest of the text is illustrated with some superb photographs and colour diagrams. It includes a 3D model showing the Lower Palaeozoic basement, as these blocks are dissected by a number of major sedimentary basins and troughs.

The detailed chapters start with the early Ordovician outcrops of the Lake District and Isle of Man. Then there is an impressive summary of volcanism and related plutons intruded during Caradoc times to give the Borrowdale Volcanics of the central fells, and the text neatly headlines dated granites by quoting their radiometric ages (including margin of error) below their names. The remaining Lower Palaeozoic sequence is then described, followed by a chapter on Acadian deformation and magmatism during the Devonian mountain building phase associated with continental convergence following the closure of the Iapetus Ocean. The significance of Carboniferous limestones, millstone grit and coal measures to the landscape and historical development of the region is reflected in 46 pages devoted to understanding the cyclical deposition of these intricate sequences, including correlation diagrams showing variations between representative sections.

Variscan mountain building with associated deformation, faulting and magmatism is then described, including the intrusion of the Whin Sill, which for 25km forms a prominent scarp followed by Hadrian’s Wall. Permian and Triassic sediments associated with arid conditions, ending with a marine transition into the Jurassic marked by an isolated outlier of Lias, are then detailed. Later uplift and basin inversion eroded this cover, and igneous dyke swarms were intruded associated with volcanism in Scotland and Ireland. Mineralisation is described in some detail given its historic significance and future potential, assuming commodity prices continue to rise and remain stable.

The Quaternary is at last covered properly given that superficial deposits cover extensive areas, and in view of its wider influence on the landscape and its relevance to understanding global warming driven by anthropogenic carbon emissions. Real rather than radiocarbon time is mainly used in this account of the massive climate fluctuations associated with the end of the last ice age, neatly illustrated by ice core data from Greenland. However, the otherwise good introductory section putting events into the context of orbital cycles omits fluctuations in global sea levels, which are left to the end where the complex patterns of postglacial changes in local sea level are explained. The final “geology and man” chapter provides a useful review of local energy and mineral resources, including (limited) geothermal potential, ground conditions, a wide range of potential hazards and water supply.

Though this publication is most welcome, a clearer font would help the reader as the text is much harder to read than with the 1:50,000 sheet explanations. New editions to this series are expanding to the point where they are becoming unwieldy, and in future it would be wise to consider dividing some regions - unless they can follow the example set by other BGS publications rather than trying to make up for the loss of detailed 1:50,000 sheet memoirs.

David Nowell
New Barnet, Hertfordshire

Atmosphere – exploring climate science

Science Museum, London 
Timing: Permanent
Admission: Free

Exhibition‘Atmosphere’ is an important addition to the Science Museum, not just because climate science is such a hot topic. It demonstrates a science which is still ongoing – instead of engines, computers and space shuttles, products of a science which has been ‘cracked’, visitors get a sense of a field which doesn’t yet have all the answers.

Of course, these benefits are also problems. So much of what climate scientists do is invisible, represented in data sets and models. Without the gadgets and gismos, how do you communicate the subject in a meaningful way? On the whole, ‘Atmosphere’ has risen to the challenge, packing a surprising amount into what at first looks like a fairly small gallery.

The first thing you can’t help but notice is that it’s blue. Very, very blue. In keeping with the rest of the Wellcome Wing, this gives it a soothing, if slightly surreal ambience. What’s particularly impressive is how much information is included, though not overtly. It’s available on touch screens, to dig into as much as you want, but never intimidating.

Despite all the detail, the gallery is very accessible to children, with some brilliantly conceived games demonstrating key concepts, from green house gases to the choices involved in putting up flood defences.

I was pleased to see history included – several visitors were surprised climate was being studied long before it became so publically controversial. And the exhibits never forget to include people in the story – not just scientists, but those affected by changing climates.

The gallery opened a few months ago, and has already fallen victim to that frustrating inevitability of interactive galleries – the mysterious red button that doesn’t do anything. It probably did do something once. But now it sits there, inviting visitors to push it and wonder what that was. Other than that, the technology was impressive – particularly a ‘flip book’ which virtually displayed the reasons why various oft-quoted culprits are not causing warming – volcanoes, the sun, changes in the Earth’s orbit, etc.

I did find some of the interactivity stole the limelight from the ‘real’ exhibits – an ice core was relegated to the corner, while a core sample was credited with ‘telling us’ about the history of the Earth’s climate, without much explanation of how. But this is more than made up for by the wealth of information on display in such a variety of formats, bringing climate science to life in an impressive and, at times, beautiful way.

Sarah Day

Video from the Atmosphere Gallery

Geological Society President Bryan Lovell talks about his favourite rock, the Hertfordshire Puddingstone, and why it gives us important information about the Earth’s climate, in a film recorded for the Science Museum’s ‘Atmosphere’ Gallery (© Board of Trustees of the Science Museum 2010)

Thomas Hardy and the Jurassic Coast

By: Patrick Tolfree and Rebecca Welshman
Published by: The Thomas Hardy Society
ISBN 978-0-9566370-0-0
Price: £5.50
45pp (pbk)

Tolfree & WelshmanDorset has two big ideas: its geology, especially as displayed along the Jurassic coast, which is mostly within the County – and its literature. And for all the greatness of Austen, Fowles or Betjeman, it is local boy Thomas Hardy who takes justifiable pride of place. This charming guide neatly packages a cross-disciplinary approach, taking the reader into Hardy’s mind-world, his fabled Wessex, and exploring the localities that feature in his poems, novels and short stories.

I spent most of my childhood summers trailing after my father’s twin enthusiasms of geology and Hardy, one day hacking a Brasilia bradfordensis out of the Inferior Oolite at Horn Park Quarry, another locating the cliffs over which Gabriel Oak’s sheep were driven on that fateful night in Far from the Madding Crowd. So I greatly enjoyed this brief but illuminating survey of Hardy’s connections with, and references to, the locations I so well recall from “backward days”.

Hardy’s work is filled with his strong sense of the impermanence of things, and he often contrasts the transience of life and love with the stubborn persistence of material objects and natural processes. The little rill that outlives civilisations, and the drinking glass that he and Emma Gifford lost in its tiny depths, in Under the Waterfall; the wrecked parasol in The Sunshade, and (in perhaps the original “cliff-hanger”) in A Pair of Blue Eyes, when the hero finds himself staring at a trilobite (this is clearly not Dorset!) as he hangs in peril from a feeble tuft of sea-pink. This sense is not unakin to, and indeed probably derives from, the new ideas of deep time that science contributed to the Victorian imaginative landscape.

The booklet is into two parts. The first is an essay on Hardy and his relationship to place, while the second is a gazetteer of coastal localities featured in his work. Delightfully illustrated by archive photographs and watercolours by David Brackston, the booklet would have benefited from consistent spelling of “palaeontology”, correct spelling of “focused” and even of certain place-names (St Aldhelm’s Head, for example). But such lapses hardly condemn it - a pleasant companion for those holidaymakers who like to notice such things.

Ted Nield

Read Rebecca Welshman's essay on Hardy and landscape