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Strata and Time: Probing the Gaps in Our Understanding

atuw7iI often think of the sedimentary record as a quasi-reliable record of past events, although as someone who works ancient glacial successions I am always mindful of how much time is really preserved in the rocks, and how much is missing. Can this missing amount be quantified?  

Emerging from the 2012 William Smith flagship meeting, this book is an excellent resumé of the problems associated with incompleteness in the sedimentary record, how much time is missing (e.g. in shale: paper by Tabucho-Alexandre, and in karst landscapes: Plotnick et al.). The publication year - 2015- was an auspicious one, falling 200 years exactly after the publication of 'Strata Smith’s' map.

The tome is sensibly organised into sets of papers dealing with (i) continuity, completeness and the Geological Time Scel, (ii) gaps, fractals and scaling, (iii) stratal hierarchies and cycles and (iv) strata and time in the field and subsurface. The volume thus generally evolves from the theoretical and modelling based realm to realworld examples. Rocks themselves only appear in 15 photos in the first 240 pages, with the latter part of the book becoming much more enriched with photographic material. That’s not to say that the earlier part of the book does not contain excellent visuals: it does, with graphs and maps more common.

Many of the chapters are highly provocative either in title or in content: the first major paper by Miall, for example, asks whether uniformitarianism requires updating or whether it is, instead, a series of “frozen accidents”. The book also contains one of the most entertaining yet potent abstracts I have ever seen, reproduced herein in full: “Ths wht th fn-grnd mrine sdmtry rcrd rlly lks like”.

The book also has chapters which help the non-specialist to understand how the science of stratigraphy is really done. Take the Alan Smith et al. paper, which reads as a grand introduction to how global boundary stratotype section and point (GSSPs) are established, with lots of useful guiding principles in the process. To my mind, the book is an essential remedial stratigraphic read for any geologist, capturing the state of the art and best practice in the same volume. It may make for slightly uncomfortable reading in places for fans of uniformitarianism or who subscribe to the idea of near-continous sedimentation in deep water environments. Two hundred and one years after the publication of his seminal map, what would William Smith have thought about it?

Reviewed by Daniel LeHeron

STRATA & TIME: PROBING THE GAPS IN OUR UNDERSTANDING, Edited by D G SMITH, R J BAILEY, P M BURGESS AND A J FRASER.  Geological Society Special Publication #404 2015. ISBN 978-1-86239-655-5.  325pp.  List Price: £120.00.  Fellows Price: £60.00.  W: https://www.geolsoc.org.uk/SP404