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Books and Arts


Victor the Volcano

Many children’s’ books convert inanimate objects into characters.  Thomas the Tank Engine springs to my mind first, along with Bob and his mechanical mates from the building site.  But Dougal Jerram is breaking new ground, in this household at least, by casting a volcano as the star of his new book.

The story follows Victor, a frustrated inactive cone from the Italian island of Vulcano (where else?) as he follows his Uncle Etna’s advice to consult other volcanoes round the world about how he too can become properly explosive.  He heads off to Mexico first, to speak with Pedro Popocatepetl, followed by a tour that takes in Kimmy Kilimanjaro, Emily Erebus in the South Pole, Freddy Fuji, and finally Iceland Izzy on the mid-Atlantic ridge. 

The volcanoes all speak in rhyming verse and the jolly, childlike paint-and-pastel sketches add to a building picture of worldwide volcanicity.  However a couple of the visits are to summits that, although well-known, are hardly currently qualified to advise Victor about the joy of magma.  Jerram does acknowledge that Kilimanjaro is currently so iced up that her lava flows might struggle to escape, but the scientific saddo in me did wonder – why didn’t he just choose another currently active volcano? (I had to check: the highest peak of Kilimanjaro is Kibo, which last erupted 200 years ago). 

As the audience for which this book is intended is a lot younger (and less cynical) than I am, I passed it to my son Finn.  At 10, increasingly self-aware and having just finished reading the latest Rick Riordan novel and The Hunger Games, he was keen that I should stress that this book wouldn’t be his normal choice of reading.  But he likes a bit of geology, and was happy to offer his opinions.  Here is what he said.

“I like this as it’s a story with facts in, so will help children to learn.  The personification (his word, honest) is a clever way to bring geology alive for children.  I’d say that this book is going to be good for age 4-7.  Younger children will like listening to it, and older ones will enjoy learning about volcanoes as they read it themselves.”

And then, to remind me of just how old I am, he came out with this clincher: “I really like the expression on Victor’s face when he’s about to blow up at the end.  He’s been made to look constipated!” 

Reviewed by Judi and Finn Barrett.

VICTOR THE VOLCANO by DOUGAL JERRAM, Illustrated by David Erdos.  Rudling House Publishing Ltd 2015.  18pp, sbk.  ISBN 978-0-9928689-3-2 W:; Retail Price: £6.99.


kljhThe hunt for the golden mole

In this neat little book Richard Girling delivers a slice of popular science writing with the ability to transport the reader from sitting room to savannah and back again, considering the study of environment and biodiversity from desk to field.  Part memoir, part natural history lecture, part cautionary tale, The Hunt for the Golden Mole presents a multifaceted and personal voyage of discovery into evolution, life and extinction. 

In essence the voyage is sparked by a single question: ‘Where does one start in the hunt for a creature that may or may not exist?’ The Somali Golden Mole was first described in the mid-1960s, based solely on the evidence of a jawbone fragment found in an owl pellet.  It has never been seen in the wild.  Stirred by this story, Girling sets off on a bout of ‘undisciplined research’, to delve deeper in to our human knack for collecting, cataloguing and controlling the natural world, while also conducting a genuine hunt for further evidence of the existence of this tiny creature. 

Though best read as a whole, this book is a compendium of pieces focusing on discrete topics including the history of scientific naming, hunting and species collecting at the turn of the century, taxonomy and cladistics and contemporary challenges for wildlife management and preservation. 

It is a tale of adventure; but the physical travels are sometimes an understated surprise, sitting at adjectival odds with the intellectual journey.  The staccato narrative can make the author’s thought-process difficult to follow, though this is part of the charm of the piece - written in a stream-of-consciousness style, studded with literary references and copious asides that make for compelling reading. 

Having a great story to tell is one thing, but having the ability to tell one is quite another, and Girling has both.  Flashes of literary flourish surface where intellectual or emotional passions break through.  It is easy to become engrossed in the tales, travelling alongside the author on his small-yet-large voyage of personal and universal discovery.

From the excitement of his mental and physical journey and wonder of his human and animal encounters, it becomes clear that every creature has a story to tell; that no matter how small and obscure (or even, potentially, non-existent!) each plays a key role in its host ecosystem.  The book also acts as a platform to raise a personal and collective alarm: work on biodiversity conservation is far from over, and the interests and actions of the individual are significant in ensuring the continued existence of ecosystems as we know them. 

Reviewed by Carla-Leanne Washbourne

THE HUNT FOR THE GOLDEN MOLE: ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL, AND WHY THEY MATTER by RICHARD GIRLING, Published by Chatto & Windus 2014 ISBN-13: 978-0701187156 320 pages hbk.  List price: £16.99 W:


jklhGeoethics - the role and responsibility of geoscientists defines geoethics as dealing 'with the ethical, social and cultural implications of Earth Sciences education, research and practice, and with the social role and responsibility of geoscientists in conducting their activities'.  The 21 papers in this book address the interaction between geologic processes, geoscientists, the general public, and decision makers. 

Most papers present geohazard examples but groundwater, oil and gas development, geotourism, geoheritage siting, and geoeducation issues are also included.  Communication, (or, more commonly, lack of effective communication) between geoscientists, the general public, and decision makers is an appropriately common theme in the book, with particular focus on effectively communicating the risk that a geologic event will occur within a specified time frame. 

While geoethics may address the intersection of geoscience, sociology, politics, and human welfare, geoscientists are not experts in all these areas.  Item nine of GSL’s Code of Conduct states: “Fellows must not presume to be experts in fields other than their own, or accept professional obligations that they are not competent to discharge.”  Albarello’s paper on communicating uncertainty makes an important ethical point.  As geoscientists, we should effectively communicate the probabilities of an event occurring.  Thus we are effectively the bookmakers.  But we are not the policy makers deciding what the public should do.  We should not place the bets.  Doing so, or being viewed as having done so, leads to the legal troubles of the seismologist defendants in the L’Aquila trial - the subject of another paper in the book.

One of the major failings of papers in this book is the lack of discussion of basic geoscientific ethical principles that would provide an ethical foundation for the topics covered.  GSL was a participant in the development of (and is a signatory to) the 2015 AGI Guidelines for Ethical Professional Conduct.  Sadly, neither these nor any other guidelines are cited as an ethical foundation.  We must remember that ethics are not necessarily the equivalent of whatever concept someone views as good.  Nor is ethical analysis always able to arrive at a unique answer.  Instead we must agree to disagree and respect that the other side has a sound ethical basis for its opposing position. 

Despite this lack of ethical foundation, this book provides important case histories and guidance for geoscientists operating at the intersection of geoscience, the public, and decision makers. 

Reviewed by David M Abbott Jr

GEOETHICS: THE ROLE AND RESPONSIBILITY OF GEOSCIENTISTS by S Peppoloni (Editor), G Di Capua (Editor), Published by: the Geological Society of London, Special Publication 419, August 2015.  Hardback, ISBN 978-1-86239-726-2. List price: £85.00 (Fellows £42.50) W:


kljhWorld Mineral Production 2008

The British Geological Survey maintains one of the world’s largest databases on the production and trade in minerals.  This book is an annual summary of world mineral production statistics over a rolling five-year period.  ‘Centenary Edition’ refers to the fact that the database underpinning it is continuous from 1913.  The data provides necessary intelligence for assessing security of mineral supply, economic analyses, and issues of regulation, policy and planning.

As budget cuts continue in the UK, BGS is undertaking a review of how and why they continue to produce mineral statistics.  Their website includes a short survey to inform the decision making process.  It is opportune that a review of this publication is available to the geoscience community and especially those working in the minerals sector. 

Initially, the prospect of reviewing this book was a little worrying.  After all, tabulated data are monotonous and those that engage with statistical publications can be unusual (‘they may not be normal but they are transformable’).  It was a relief then, to find that this edition, atypically, includes coloured infographic pages and a historical overview. 

BGS’s mineral data covers a period of major historical change and the drivers behind its compilation have also evolved from a UK (and Empire) focus to a global web-based resource now covering 177 countries.  The overview includes changes to patterns of mineral supply and demand and how these were reflected in global production.  After the Cold War, for example, the main consuming nations became increasingly dependent on cheap mineral supplies from developing countries. 

Today, concern continues over the supply of so called ‘critical’ raw materials used in the manufacture of new technologies and clean energy.  China produces over 90% of rare earth elements and unease came to a head in 2000-2010.  Both the USA and Australia subsequently recommenced REE mining after many years without production.

World mineral production data are available from other organisations.  The database under consideration is more historically complete than these (e.g.  USGS production figures commence in 1931) and has a greater international focus, especially during the 20th Century.  This extensive, continuous database and BGS’s expertise in its management have allowed them a recent key role in a number of EU mineral projects.

The World Mineral Production volume could readily become a five-year publication, with a statistical summary for interim years available online only.  Infographic pages for all commodities should be presented on the website and included in each five-year publication.

Reviewed by Peter Wormald

WORLD MINERAL PRODUCTION 2008-2012 CENTENARY EDITION by T J BROWN, N E IDOINE, E R RAYCRAFT, R A SHAW, E A DEADY, J RIPPINGALE, T BIDE, C E WRIGHTON & J RODLEY, 2014.  Published by: British Geological Survey 115pp (pbk) ISBN: 9780852727669 List Price: £30.00.