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Reviews - July 2008

Dry Store Room No. 1 – The secret life of the Natural History Museum


Richard Fortey
Published by: Harper Press
Publication date: 2008
ISBN: 978-0-00-720988-0
List price: £20.00
338 pp

Geologists maturing in years, shall we say, often exhibit an alarming tendency to disappear into a shed and write their memoirs. This is not so surprising, perhaps – many geologists’ lives are filled with wild adventures in disagreeable places that are the stuff of anecdote. On the face of it then, Richard Fortey might seem to lack for material, for at a relatively tender age he slipped neatly into his perfect ecological niche in South Kensington, and never left.

Yet as anyone who has spent time working in a museum will attest, these institutions sit at a point where the wide world narrows to a focus – only to burst out on the other side in an equal and opposite world, full of complexity, like some anti-matter Mandelbrot reflection of the nature its staff study.

But you can trust Richard Fortey to take some hackneyed form, like professional memoirs, and turn it into high art. His purpose here is to conduct a taxonomy of taxonomists – to introduce the reader to the essential job of classifying the world around us through the work of his professional home for his entire career, and those colleagues past and present who are its legends. From the man who dissected whales in a malodorous dry dock, himself permanently pickled, to the taxonomist who left a card catalogue detailing his every sexual conquest (complete with a small sample of pubic hair), Fortey charts a life in science; the life of an institution buffeted by ever-changing - but always stupid - political whims; and the science of taxonomy itself - the vital need to define life’s basic terms if we are ever to hope to understand it before it all dies around us.

This warm hearted, affectionate, indulgent book, full of gentle love and wry asides, springs from the author’s boyish wonder at life and its endless diversity. At its heart lies mysterious Dry Store Room No 1 - the museum’s half-forgotten “miscellanea” drawer; the navel of this world, at once small and huge, where all the fluff collects. It stands as a microcosm within a microcosm; now laid bare for all to know and cherish.

Ted Nield


Earth: The power of the planet


Iain Stewart and John Lynch
Published by: BBC books
Publication date: November, 2007
ISBN: 980-0-563-53914-8
List price: £20.00 (hbk)
240 pp

This book accompanied the television series of the same name and is littered with beautiful and intriguing pictures. It benefits from a well-written text that succeeds in building a picture of a whole planet that is much greater than the sum of its constituent parts. The book is capable of engaging the general reader, and is essential reading for anyone aspiring to be a geologist or environmental scientist.

The book starts with a review of global warming, a subject that then features in many subsequent chapters. It then goes on to consider the main processes operating in the Earth; the impact of asteroids and comets; the effects of the molten core and volcanoes; the atmosphere; the oceans and ice.

The authors do not avoid the more debatable aspects of key topics, and in many cases go to great lengths to highlight and discuss contrasting viewpoints; e.g. the origin of life – did it come from space via meteorites or did it form in the oceans? Developing out of this the book demonstrates the vital part the Earth played in the development of life and the vital part that life has played in the development of Earth.

Other topics that the book considers are mass extinctions and whether we are heading for another one. It concludes that the sequence of events that has happened on Earth must be quite rare, so the Earth itself is quite rare.

The authors also consider Gaia, but I guess it depends on whether you like the theory or not, as to whether you like this part of the book or not. Whatever your feelings the authors succeed in presenting a good and fair treatment of the subject. The good news is that they conclude that the Earth is quite robust and will last a long time. However, they also conclude that the human species may not.

Steve Rowlatt, Bishop’s Stortford