Leicester lecturer's new book extrapolates the universe from a pebble

Posted by mjs76 at Sep 22, 2010 03:35 PM |
It’s a geological Recherche du Temps Perdu! -- Jan Zalasiewicz from our Department of Geology has been hailed as “a gifted new popular science writer” in a laudatory review of his new book in New Scientist.

The Planet in a Pebble: A Journey into Earth's Deep History is actually Jan’s second popular science book after his acclaimed debut two years ago with The Earth after Us: What legacy will humans leave in the rocks?

In his new book, Jan extrapolates the entire geological history of the planet Earth from a single pebble on a beach, almost in a manner reminiscent of Marcel Proust extrapolating an entire semi-autobiographical novel from one bite of madeleine cake. The hypothetical pebble is one which reflects Jan’s principal geological interest:

It would be a pebble of grey slate from a Welsh beach – perhaps from somewhere like Aberystwyth, or Clarach, or Borth on the west Wales coast – or it might be from inland, from the gravel-lined banks of rivers like the Ystwyth or the Rheidol or the Claerwen. I’ve spent more than half my lifetime amid the rocks of the Welsh crags and cliffs and hillsides, trying to interpret some of the distant histories that they contain. These beach and river gravels are mostly made up of the rocks eroded from those cliffs and crags. They are often disc-shaped, and will fit nicely into the palm of your hand – or, thrown flat across the waves, will bounce and skim over the water’s surface.”

Across 13 chapters, Jan uses this simple pebble to explain about many different aspects of science, starting with a look at the atomic make-up of the rock. He uses the Avogadro constant – familiar to anyone who studied chemistry at school, clearly explained here for those who didn’t – to show that even an ultra-ultra-rare element such as iridium is represented by about a million billion atoms in this one anonymous lump of slate.

The book goes on to touch upon the origin of the universe, the formation of the Solar System, the changing face of the planet Earth and the effect this has had on the animals and plants on its surface. Geology, minerology, palaeontology, vulcanology, cosmology and a whole bunch of other -ologies - all extrapolated from one small pebble.

Reviewing the book, New Scientist said:

Zalasiewicz has a clear style, with some nice lyrical touches. His story is a celebration of the astonishing ways geologists have found of sampling stone's secrets. Geology has a gifted new popular science writer.”

The Planet in a Pebble: A Journey into Earth's Deep History is published in hardback by Oxford University Press with a cover price of £16.99.

Public talk on The Planet in a Pebble

On Saturday 30 October 2010 Jan will give a talk on the themes explored in his book at Blackwell Bookshop, Oxford Road, Manchester as part of the Manchester Science Festival. The event is free and kicks off at 11.30am.