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Geoscientist Online

Burning Planet: The Story of Fire Through Time

Burning planet scottThis is an excellent and interesting book.  Aimed at lay readers, it hits the target spot-on while including some fascinating scientific insights.  The history of fire is written in the geological record in charcoal.  That fire figures so much in the record, and that its residues provide such extensive and useful information, has little recognition within the geological profession, let alone elsewhere.  Scott’s book will help fill that blank.

A useful introduction clarifies many basic issues. The author then discusses why charcoal is so important to the story—how it formed, and what the various types and forms show.  One thinks of charcoal as wood residue, but that is by no means the whole truth.  Any and every part of a plant can be preserved beautifully in charcoal.  There are astonishing pictures of pollen grains, parts of leaves, individual wood cells, minute flowers and even parts of insects.  The pictures are very good, the explanations add even more to them—Scott is a good communicator.

The figures give rise to one minor gripe.  The plates—colour (14) and monochrome (11)—are well produced and provide important information.  The 61 monochrome figures also clarify and enhance what is said, but are printed with the text on a matt surface.  The graphs and time-lines amongst them are fine, even if some might be clearer in colour.  As charcoal tends to be black, however, pictures of burnt forests and heaths, and both recent and fossil plants, can be hard to see clearly on the matt finish.

Fire, natural or otherwise, needs both kindling and enough atmospheric oxygen (about 15%) to take hold.  Evidence of fire is first found in Devonian strata, around 400 million years ago.  When humans first “used” it is not known.  One of the issues addressed in this context is that, nowadays, it is almost always seen as a threat.  In fact, some ecosystems depend on fire for their continuance and this, too, needs to be recognised.

This book is recommended for all.  It should be bought not just read, as readers will want to return to it to confirm items and learn more.  I have one suggestion for the author.  Now that this excellent book is “out of the way”, please write a substantial two-volume tract containing a lot more technical detail.  Perhaps that should be a demand, not a suggestion.

Reviewed by Jeremy Joseph

BURNING PLANET: THE STORY OF FIRE THROUGH TIME, by Andrew C. Scott, 2018.  Published by: Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.  ISBN: 978-0-19-873484-0. 231 pp.  hbk. List Price £20.00.