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Geoscientist Online

The Tectonic Plates are Moving!

Livermore Tectonic PlatesIn 1963, Vine & Matthews published a short paper that brought together magnetic reversals and continental drift, thus signifying the birth of plate tectonic theory. Sometimes described as the grand unifying theory of the Earth, its development is a colourful one involving letters on magnetism from the 11th Century, polar exploration, space exploration, one of the biggest oceanic research initiatives ever to exist, endlessly entertaining acronyms, a famous brewery, personal conflict, international conflict and countless colourful characters. Not to mention that striking similarity between the coastlines of Africa and South America.

Livermore is careful to give credit to all of those involved in the discoveries and research associated with tectonics and it is refreshing to see lesser-known scientists given mention. The diversity and sometimes happy-go-lucky nature of these men and women should inspire us all. The first name basis used for some of the key figures gets a little confusing at times, but gives a lighter feel to the text.

Competing hypotheses are discussed in detail, giving insight into the scientific and human processes involved in the development of a major theory, akin to the more widely known story behind evolutionary theory in the 19th Century, but for Earth science. There is certainly a feeling here that the interpretive nature of Earth science gave rise to high drama among competing academics throughout the past 200 years, with careers made and ruined by single key figures.

The sheer amount of research behind tectonics conducted over the past century or so is staggering. This is reflected in the book’s length: almost 450 pages. However, when the scale of the problem is considered it is quite incredible that we have discovered what we have. The surface of our planet moves in a plate-like fashion over timescales of hundreds of millions of years. We cannot see this directly, so we must rely on the evidence of physicists, geochemists, and geologists. Livermore selects some great photos and figures to illustrate this evidence, reproducing them clearly and in excellent resolution with meaningful captions—not always the case in books of this nature.

Far from being a dense, jargon-laden history book, Livermore brings an accessible writing style and brilliant humour to the story, which certainly had me chuckling. If you know anyone (including yourself!) who is keen to find out more about our planet, give them this book.

Reviewed by Jonathan Scafidi


THE TECTONIC PLATES ARE MOVING by Roy Livermore, 2018. Published by: Oxford University Press 490pp (hbk.) ISBN: 9780198717867 List Price: £25.00 W: https://global.oup.com