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Notes from Deep Time

By Helen Gordon

10 May 2021

Is there room for another book written by a non-specialist, looking at the key developments in geological history? When it is as well put together as this one is, yes! The blurb suggests that the author’s primary aim is to ‘… turns a novelist’s eye on the extraordinary scientists who are piecing together this planetary drama.’ This Gordon definitely achieves. Reminding us several times that she is not a geologist, Gordon has put together an impressive compendium of essays that show how she has developed a deeper understanding of the planet.

After an introduction, the book is broken down into three clearly defined sections. The first looks at the world and work of geologists, followed by a section looking at the work of palaeobotanists and palaeontologists. This is neatly rounded off with a section looking at the influence that humans have had on Earth. We are introduced to some of the key characters in the history of geology, with a fine supporting cast of modern-day exponents of the subject. Viewing the development of the science from the perspective of a non-geologist brings some interesting takes.

As with any book of this type, each reader will have their own favourite parts. For me, the section on the Phlegrean Fields is especially interesting – with the development of her own understanding, Gordon manages to create a fascinating narrative. And that is what is intriguing about this book – the author has an excellent way of incorporating the science into an interesting collection of short stories. In this way, the book perhaps reflects our own development of the understanding of the science of our planet and of key moments in the history of geology. Reading this certainly made me reflect on how I have developed mine.

Written in an engaging manner, this book will interest both laypeople and geologists. Coming from “outside” of the profession, Gordon helps to clarify some of the key events that have broadened our understanding of the science, and she poses several important philosophical arguments, such as our understanding of the Anthropocene and how we may dispose of our nuclear waste legacy.

An intriguing and useful addition to the genre, I recommend this book wholeheartedly. It has allowed me to revisit my own thinking and helped me question several conventionally held beliefs.

BY: Helen Gordon (2021). Profile Books Limited, 336 pp. (hbk)
ISBN: 9781788161633 PRICE: £30.00

Reviewed by Gordon Neighbour