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Two New Books

Sand: A journey through science and the imagination

sandThis enchanting and entertaining book has a rather poetic style, but is let down by poor figures and plates and an irritating habit of mixing metric and imperial units. It does, however, boast excellent quality printing and binding, and is suitable for all those interested in geology, from amateur to professor.

It introduces the reader to the world of the arenophile (people who love and even collect sand), and covers everything from single grains to granular materials in bulk. It does not deal much with hard science but requires some knowledge of American geography, history and literature to make the most of some sections.

The book features some regulars: the Permian mass extinction, the Chicxulub meteorite impact, the break-up of Pangaea, the formation of the moon and uniformitarianism. These are enlivened by the beautiful style of their presentation. Beyond this the text touches on the simple mathematics of dealing with and understanding sediment data and with the theory of very small and very large numbers. This leads on to a discussion of how long is geological time. There is a brief diversion into geomorphology (e.g. meandering and river evolution), before a more detailed account of the formation of sandstone. There is also an interesting discussion on how quicksand works and a section on forensic geology.

The book is distinctive in exploring various aspects of religion and culture and the role that sand has played in them. It also looks at modern artists and their interaction with sand before reviewing, more conventionally, uses of sand in the modern world - from glass to pharmaceuticals and paper manufacture. Interesting, sand-related anecdotes litter the text. I particularly liked the tale of the Oogaroo (a vampire) in the Caribbean that can, apparently, be distracted by putting a pile of sand outside your front door. The Oogaroo is an obsessive counter and has to count the grains of sand. Moreover, you should mix in some talons of the Ground Owl (Athene cunicularia Molina 1782), because on finding them the vampire will be so distressed that it will lose count and start again. This will all take so long, that the Oogaroo will no longer pose a threat.

All in all this is an outstanding book that makes, as its title suggests, for a leisurely yet stimulating read.

Reviewed by: Steve Rowlatt, Bishop’s Stortford

MICHAEL WELLAND Published by: Oxford University Press 2009
ISBN: 978-0-19-958818-3 (pbk)
List price: £9.99 333pp

Introducing Palaeontology: A guide to ancient life

wyse-jThis attractive, well-presented, nicely illustrated paperback is written in clear, accessible English, is sturdy and printed on good quality paper. It is a useful introduction to fossil study with the first part devoted to principles and the remainder to a taxonomic account of the fossil groups arranged in logical manner. The author has done well to cover all the major groups of fossils (plants, microfossils, invertebrates, vertebrates and trace fossils) in such a short, reasonably balanced account. Technical terms requiring explanation are highlighted and found in the glossary at the back, which doubles as an index. The technical content of the book is enlivened and enriched throughout by a series of historical cameos and explanations. Colour illustrations on most pages are generally photographs of museum specimens, but the general lack of at least a relative scale for the illustrated specimens is a significant omission – size is an essential feature of fossil morphology.

It is always a problem to decide how much to put into or leave out of a text like this. For instance a novice reading this account would have no clear idea of what diatoms, dinoflagellates or coccolithophores are, other than that they are some kind of unicellular alga. There are some potentially minor confusing stratigraphic usages. For instance ‘Pleistocene’ occurs in the text but ‘Quaternary’ appears in the stratigraphic chart. There are a number of existing introductory texts for palaeontology, some of which are listed under additional reading. Although they all fulfill a role, they are often rather heavy on content and technical detail. Additionally, they generally portray only part of the fossil spectrum. This book, by presenting a brief overview of the broad story of fossils, is far more accessible.

Any introduction should have some pointers for more advanced study and other information, which here is provided at the start of the book. A possible addition to these suggestions for further reading would be a selection of websites. Introductory courses in fossil study will probably use this as a recommended book, but anybody wanting an introduction to fossils would find this a good start. It is the kind of book that I would like to have had as a key background read for my students on general introductory courses in palaeontology. Keenly priced, it deserves success.

Reviewed by: George F Forsey, Northampton

PATRICK WYSE JACKSON Published by: Dunedin Academic Press 2010
ISBN: 13: 9781906716158 (pbk)
List price: £9.99 152pp