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Reviews - December 2007

An Ocean of Air – A natural history of the atmosphere

Walker Ocean of Air

Gabrielle Walker
Published by: Bloomsbury
Publication date: April 2007
ISBN: 9780747581901 (hbk)
List price: £15.99
321 pp

Much is written about Earth’s atmosphere. As a science journalist working in print and radio, Gabrielle Walker has written her fair share of it - her first book (Snowball Earth, 2003), also describing a theory that has much to do with atmosphere dynamics.

However not many books on atmospheric science could be described as chirpy reading. At last, someone has written one. From a dramatic prologue describing Joseph Kittinger’s record freefall from the edge of space in 1960, Walker provides an amazingly readable survey of the history of human understanding of the air. Taking in Galileo, Torricelli, Lavoisier, Priestley, Hooke, Wren, Tyndall, Huxley, Hadley, Marconi, Farman and Lovelock, this is a “tell it through the people” book, with the advantage of not having a cast of a thousand identikit contemporary US scientists in beards and Tevas.

Along the way we also meet a number of less well-known people. I particularly enjoyed learning more about West Virginian cornpone savant William Ferrel, teaching himself Euclid using a pitchfork on the barn door as a pair of compasses, and who turned out to be one of the most brilliant minds of 19th Century America. Or poor, cursed Thomas Midgley, all of whose inventions seem to have come back to bite either him or us in the backside.

Late in life, Midgley was struck down by polio. But this indefatigable hero of American industry, who brought refrigeration to millions and revolutionised the petrol engine, turned his fertile mind to devising a sling and pulley arrangement to get himself out of bed and into his wheelchair. It was brilliant, but unfortunately one day it all went horribly wrong and ended up throttling him. Was he the quintessential “…enginer/Hoist with his own petar”? Not really, because well-meaning Midgley managed to get us, too. His really dangerous inventions turned out to be lead in petrol and CFCs. He has been described as having had “more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth history”.

The atmosphere may be oppressive, and may occasionally get stifling, but not in this book. Walker’s style is the product of much concealed art; but there are also extensive notes and reading suggestions for each chapter for those wanting to go further. If anything, I found the little tugging superscripts a bit of a distraction, and I am sorry there are few pictures beyond occasional diagrammatic atmosphere phantasmograms.

I found this book hugely entertaining and informative. How else would I know that the air in the Albert Hall weighs around 30 tonnes? Anyone can read this book for pleasure and profit, and everyone should.

Ted Nield

Fluid Flow and Solute Movement in Sandstones: The Onshore UK Permo-Triassic Red Bed Sequence 

Geological Society Special Publication 263

R D Barker and J H Tellam (eds)
Published by: The Geological Society of London
Publication date: 2006
ISBN: 10 1-86239-204-8
List price: £85.00
352 pp

This book contains 18 papers on aspects of the hydrogeology of the Permo-Triassic sandstones in various parts of the country, with a delightful (from my point of view) focus on North West England. Most of the papers were presented at a joint meeting of the Environmental and Industrial Geophysics and the Hydrogeological groups of the Geological Society, held at Burlington House in 2003.

The Permo-Triassic sandstones that comprise fractured fluvial and aeolian red beds form the second most important aquifer in the UK. In contrast to the Chalk there have been few books dedicated to the hydrogeology of this aquifer and the present volume is very welcome. The papers concentrate on the theme of aquifer properties and groundwater migration in shallow terrestrial settings, with an emphasis on pollution movement. They are grouped into three headings: ‘Flow’ (eight papers); ‘Unsaturated Flow’ (one paper); and ‘Pollution Movement’ (seven papers). The editors have also provided an Introduction that actually constitutes a further detailed paper on saturated zone pollutant movement. All 19 papers are excellent and each makes a useful contribution to the understanding of aspects of this aquifer’s behaviour.

Groundwater movement in these sediments in influenced by geological features on every scale, from the size of pores and the type of mineral growths they contain, to the effects of faulting in dividing the aquifer into separate blocks with variable degrees of interconnection. These aspects are touched upon in several papers, including the relationship between permeability and lithofacies; structural influences on groundwater movement in the Cheshire and Lancashire areas; and a study on the cause of high nitrate concentrations at depth that show a significant influence of fracture flow in the immediate vicinity of a well. An investigation into arsenic concentrations in groundwater demonstrates that the causes are complex, thought to originate from desorption from rock-forming minerals within the aquifer.

The book is well presented. Each paper is illustrated with clear diagrams; there are numerous tables and all the papers have comprehensive lists of references. There is a good index that will facilitate use of the text as a reference work.

Fractured sandstones are a commonly found aquifer worldwide and the studies contained in this publication will appeal to an international readership. I thoroughly recommend the book to all those with an interest in sandstone aquifers in general, and the Permo-Trias in particular.

Rick Brassington

The Vendian (Ediacaran) in the Geological Record: Enigmas in geology’s prelude to the Cambrian explosion

G J H McCall
Published by: Elsevier Earth-Science Reviews 77
Publication date: 2006
ISSN: 0012-8252
229 pp

Available from:

Every so often a review paper comes along that makes me sit up and marvel at the time, effort and energy expended in the pursuit of a simple question. In this case the author looked in vain for a “global review” of the occurrences of the soft-bodied Ediacaran fossils; instead he found only brief summaries that failed to satisfy his curiosity. The only solution was to research the subject and write his own review, a task the author has accomplished magnificently, displaying in the process a vast breadth of literature research and scholarship.

The Ediacaran soft–bodied fauna invaded the extensive shallow shelf seas formed after the break up of Rodinia. This was a cosmopolitan fauna of global extent, but showed significant differences within each of the eight major provinces described - ranging from those representing shallow shelf sea deposits to the deeper water turbidite assemblages found in S Australia, Newfoundland and NW Canada. McCall describes not only the faunal elements in each province, but also the history behind their discovery.

Within each section the author tries to avoid a mere listing of historical developments, stratigraphic sections and biota descriptions (although he acknowledges that part of the value of a review work such as this, is its ability to function as a database as well as an historical document and pointer to other research directions). Instead he attempts to provide a balanced review of opinions past and present concerning the nature of the Ediacaran fauna from a traditional perspective, in which they are thought to be the precursors of organisms present in the Phanerozoic rocks, as well as the more innovative “Vendobiontan school” of thought. In this school these enigmatic soft-bodied organisms are considered to be a blind alley, although some elements of the fauna contain antecedents of later more familiar organisms such as sponges.

A short section of the work concerns the Varanger/ Laplandian/ Marinoan glaciation which may have been the most intense in the Earth’s history and is a subject of the Snowball/Slushball Earth models. The author is careful to weigh up the opinions of those whose views support the model, those against, as well as those who favour a more neutral stance.

In a lengthy review text it is difficult to remain neutral and not allow one’s own opinions to colour the facts and arguments presented. In this respect the author has limited his own thoughts to the final summary section.

This is a masterly and well-illustrated survey of the Vendian (Ediacaran), only marred by a few typological errors and the occasional repeated word sprinkled through the text. This work is very highly recommended and should serve as the starting point for all those that want to delve further into the mysteries of the Vendian faunas. In particular it would be of value in “signposting” future areas of fieldwork in regions of the world where extensive investigations have yet to be conducted, or in ‘cutting edge’ science that can help to unravel the enigmas concerning much of the Vendian biota.

Alan J Bowden
National Museums Liverpool