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Book reviews

kljhCollecting the World - the life and curiosity of Hans Sloane

As a research student, whenever I found myself too revolted by the turgid illiteracies of modern scientific literature to continue reading (which was often) I would steal into an attic room of the university library and seek out the first volumes of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, freely shelved for anyone to browse.  There I discovered Hans Sloane - founder of the British Museum, Secretary and subsequently President of the Royal, avid collector, whose statue stands in Chelsea Physic Garden (which he endowed) and who sat like a spider at the centre of a worldwide web of correspondents. 

Like many early giants on the cusp of the Scientific Revolution (and quite a few after) Sloane is now a shadowy figure of whom people may have heard, but about whom almost nobody knows anything.  After reading James Delbourgo’s excellent and detailed biography, I know much more about his life - his origins in Ulster, his sojourn in Jamaica, his subsequent career in London as successful Society physician and self-made man of fortune.  I know more about his times – the buccaneering, slaving, plantation-owning, social-climbing, grovelling world of the late 17th and early 18th Centuries. 

As for his contacts and collaborators, my head reels with them: the illustrious, like Newton, the neglected, like Hooke, and the utterly forgotten, like (I kid you not) Everhardus Kickius.  I know more about his writing - beyond those weird papers in the Phil Trans about ‘A curious bezoar stone from a Kalahari warthog’ and whatnot.  But the man himself remains an enigma; less spider in a web than a black hole into which worlds were sucked.

Delbourgo admits Sloane was a ‘cautious, sober, doggedly unimaginative Protestant empiricist’; a list-maker who, like William Camden in the century before, espoused those vanished literary forms of catalogue and litany, to the greater glory of The Creator.  I thought too of other biographies of unsympathetic characters, like Charles Doolittle Walcott (so industrious, but so dull), or Richard Owen, whose young enemies came to write history but who, even in the hands of an apologist, proved every bit as hateful as Darwin and Huxley said.  Such people are hard to bring to life.

Delbourgo saves the bourgeois gentilhomme from his own dullness by an exemplary evocation of his time.  Often distasteful to modern sensibilities, the portrait of early colonial life, its brutality, oppression, exploitation and subjugation, convinces utterly - reminding you that the past is indeed another country.  Be grateful we cannot actually go there, while doing the next best thing. 

And if you find it tough, comfort yourself that almost a third of the book is index, references and notes.

Reviewed by Ted Nield

COLLECTING THE WORLD – THE LIFE & CURIOSITY OF HANS SLOANE by JAMES DELBOURGO Allen Lane, 2017 List Price: £27.00.  ISBN 9781846146572 504pp (hbk)


kljhCollecting Evolution – the Galapagos Expedition that vindicated Darwin

In 1905-6, in 17 months, eight scientists massacred the wildlife population of the Galapagos, collecting 78,000 specimens. Among these were 6000 birds, of which some 3800 were finches. Stark statistics that stick in the craw. To make matters worse, the text of this small-print book is spattered with photographs of dead animals with indigenous male giant tortoises taking pride of place. The scarce, less bulky and tastier, females had already been decimated by the crews of visiting ships.

However, even after this galling introduction, I am compelled to recommend the book. It is an unsentimental, meticulously assembled record of the self-justified type of scientific expedition launched at the time - and a reminder of why the word ‘mankind’ can be a misnomer.

Their thought-process reads like this: the site is unique (600 miles off the Ecuadorian coast); the existing fauna/fauna is being rapidly destroyed by external forces: many species are headed for extinction; we are duty-bound to collect as complete a record as we can now, while it is not too late. This is alien logic to most of us now, as we reassess our environmental impact on a fragile Earth.

This aged imperative was hardly helped by the fact that the trip was dreamed up for pragmatic, not philanthropic, reasons. The Director of the Californian Academy of Sciences planned to build a prestigious collection that would enhance the Academy’s chance of long-term financial survival. In case you miss the point: this was faunal death for scientific gain - and institutional prestige.

Indeed, the author emphasises the collections’ worth by discussing the many research projects based upon it, or aligned with specific content. This leads him to conclude that the collections’ influence extends to ratifying Darwin’s postulate. I am not sure whether this is true, but I do know it would be foolhardy not to garner as much scientific evidence as possible from any collection, regardless of its motivation.

This book is important because it is allows comparison between ‘how we did things then’ and ‘how we do things now’. Thankfully, scientific thinking has changed dramatically in just one short century. The text lacks the critical bite a seasoned journalist might add, but the author’s depth of knowledge of the subject matter and his disciplined writing offset this disadvantage to some extent. The title, ‘Collecting Evolution’ belies the book’s more sinister overtones. Best not leave it around for the kids to see.

Reviewed by David Edwards

COLLECTING EVOLUTION – THE GALAPAGOS EXPEDITION THAT VINDICATED DARWIN by MATTHEW J JAMES.  Oxford University Press 2017 ISBN: 9780199354597.  304pp (hbk) List Price: £22.99.  W:


lkjhAtlas of Submarine Glacial Landforms: Modern, Quaternary and Ancient

Twenty years ago, an international group of geoscientists collaborated on Glaciated Continental Margins; An Atlas of Acoustic Images, an impressive volume which presented examples of a variety of glacial landforms in marine geophysical data. In the intervening years, advances in geophysical techniques have resulted in improved imaging of both the seabed and the shallow geological sequence. Additionally, the continual exploration of hydrocarbon prospects across the continental shelves has led to greatly increased data coverage.

Therefore, the Atlas of Submarine Glacial Landforms, published by the Geological Society, arrives as a timely successor to the 1997 publication.  A hardback, full-colour book running to 618 pages, the Atlas entirely succeeds in its task of presenting a comprehensive, detailed description of the variety and distribution of glacial landforms throughout the marine record.

The Atlas is logically constructed, naturally flowing from an introduction chapter explaining the fundamentals of geophysical techniques, through the descriptions and examples of landforms which comprise the main content of the book, onto the closing sections which investigate complete fjord-shelf-slope landsystems.

The approximately 180 fully-referenced contributions to the Atlas ensure a comprehensive treatment of every type of glacial landform, ranging from eskers, ice-sculpted bedrock, mega-scale glacial lineations and drumlinised bedforms of the fjord environment, to outwash fans and mass-movements located on the continental shelf and slope.

Geographically, the Atlas is most closely focused upon the Barents Sea, Norwegian Shelf and North Sea. However, it also more widely explores the high latitudes of both hemispheres, with a significant number of contributions from Antarctica and Greenland. Although the majority of landforms are contemporary-to-Quaternary in age, a small number of examples from the lower latitudes of North Africa relate evidence for widespread glaciation of this region during the Late Ordovician.

Every landform description is presented across a two-page spread, typically containing a condensed summary of a research paper. In comparison, more detailed landsystems occupy eight pages. Excellent quality data examples are provided throughout, utilising data from a range of marine geophysical sources (bathymetry and sidescan sonar coverage of the seafloor; shallow profiler and multichannel seismic of the sub-seabed geology). There does appear to be a relative lack of geotechnical sampling to 'ground-truth' the geophysics. However, this is more a reflection on the availability of geotechnical data rather than an oversight of the book.

This Atlas is a considerable achievement. It comes highly recommended to all working with marine seismic data from the high latitudes, and will serve those in both industry and academia equally well.

Reviewed by David Vaughan

ATLAS OF SUBMARINE GLACIAL LANDFORMS: MODERN, QUATERNARY AND ANCIENT Edited by DOWDESWELL, J A, CANALS, M, JAKOBSSON, M, TODD, B J, DOWDESWELL, E K & HOGAN, K A, 2016. Published by: Geological Society. 618pp (hbk) ISBN: 978-1-78620-0 List price: £140.00.  Fellows’ Price £70.00 W:


kljhThe Andaman-Nicobar Accretionary Ridge: Geology, Tectonics and Hazards

The Andaman-Nicobar Ridge, which links the forearc islands west of Sumatra to the Rakhine (Arakan) ranges of western Myanmar, is almost certainly the most poorly documented element of the Sunda-Banda subduction system. In part the lack of information can be traced back to the vagaries of imperial expansion.

The two archipelagos, both now part of India, were Danish and then British colonies and the adjacent mainland is part of Thailand. It is only with the publication of this volume, complementing recent Geological Society Memoirs on Sumatra and Myanmar, that it has become relatively easy to view the Sunda system as a whole. Inevitably, most of the papers are written from an Indian perspective, but there are important contributions from Thailand.

It is a most peculiar margin. East of the India-Asia collision the relative motion of the Asian and Indo-Australian plates is accommodated by Sunda-Banda subduction but in the vicinity of the Nicobar Islands the convergence vector, normally at a high angle to the subduction trace, makes an angle of less than 45° with it. Further north, the vector is almost parallel to the Andaman Ridge but, despite this, there are two subduction-related volcanoes (one active and one dormant) in the marine basin between the ridge and the mainland. 

This volume makes a major contribution to our understanding of this basin, presenting evidence for the dominance within it of hyper-extended continental rather than oceanic crust. Other papers focus on the geology of the islands themselves, and here the resemblances to the islands west of Sumatra are very striking. Many of the abundant and excellent photographs could equally well have been taken on one of those.

It is not just the photographs, but the maps and diagrams that are of high quality, and despite its multiple authorship the volume hangs together as a coherent whole. For me there was just one disappointment, and it is a rather personal one. The gravity field is discussed only very briefly and in the context of a regional map that is, inevitable, dominated by satellite-derived marine values.

Ophiolites, however, are important in the onshore geology, and in the Sumatra forearc we found that gravity measurements provided important insights into the distribution of these rocks in three-dimensions. They would surely have done the same for both the Andaman and Nicobar groups had they been presented. It is an omission that one hopes will be remedied in the near future, perhaps in the pages of the Journal of the Geological Society.

Reviewed by John Milsom

THE ANDAMAN-NICOBAR ACCRETIONARY RIDGE: GEOLOGY, TECTONICS AND HAZARDS by P C BANDOPADHYAY & A CARTER (Eds.) Geological Society Memoir 47 Published by the Geological Society of London: February 2017 ISBN 978-1-521-78620-281-9   237pp. List Price £100.00 Fellows’ Price: £50.00 W:


kljh52 Things You Should Know About Rock Physics

This little gem is a lifetime’s worth of industry experience and know-how distilled into 136 pages of accessible advice, covering all aspects of rock physics from physical to theoretical.

Everyone knows the old adage that ‘all models are wrong, but some are useful’. But how wrong?  And how useful? And most importantly: why? These major questions (among many others) are addressed by a multitude of authors at various stages in their careers, across different areas of expertise.

Designed to be picked up when you have a spare minute, each essay is just two pages long with the table of contents arranged both alphabetically and by theme, which is extremely useful if you are seeking advice on a single topic such as uncertainty, or workflows.

Some of the essays are devoted entirely to equations and their uses, such as the Hiltermann approximation, Gassmann equations, and other mathematical descriptions of rocks and their properties.  These can be a little maths-heavy if you’re not used to working with them, but are enlightening nonetheless. Other essays look at the history of the people behind the physics. Others still consider what data to use, how to check the quality, and when to use it: practical and sound advice to help quantify any uncertainties in the final results.

Then there are essays covering the basics, which are always good to reflect on lest you find yourself buried so deep in complexity that you lose sight of why you are there in the first place. There is even an essay on one geophysicist’s journey from childhood rock collector to career geoscientist and the beauty within the science. It is worth noting that there is a wide range of writing styles, some of which are easier to read than others.

This book’s copyright falls under an international creative commons licence and can be shared, and the contents used, in any way you see fit - making it a useful teaching resource.  Each contributing author has a biography in the back and every essay comes with a couple of handy references too in case you’d like to delve a little deeper. The advice contained within is equally useful to students and seasoned professionals.

A great addition to the home library of anyone who has any involvement, no matter how small, with the complex and fascinating world of rock physics.

Reviewed by Jonathan Scafidi

52 THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT ROCK PHYSICS edited by MATT HALL & EVAN BIANCO, 2016. Published by: Agile Libre 136pp (pbk) ISBN: 098795945X List Price: £12.00. W:


jklhWomen in Science - 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World

Life stories of the accomplished tell how they overcame adversities to achieve their success and what inspired them, perhaps something in their childhood, an animal, a fossil or a hero. Women in Science by Rachel Ignotofsky, highlights the contributions of fifty notable women to the fields of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) covering a wide variety of nationalities, ethnic backgrounds and social class.

It’s not just a selection of the usual, such as Marie Curie and Dorothy Hodgkin, but pioneering and brilliant women including most of those who have won science Nobel prizes. We meet among others geologists, astronomers, mathematicians, palaeontologists, physicists, ophthalmologists, and cosmonauts.

Each hero has two pages with a brief biographical ~400-word essay, which outlines their achievement, highlighting their esteem and how they got there, often overcoming nasty bullying by the establishment. Also dotted around the pages are quotes, illustrations and interesting facts of their work, plus a cartoon (but the internet needs to be visited to get a real image).

There are further two-pages of mini-bios of 14 more women, a timeline and statistics in STEM, which shows that the under-represention of women is being overcome. Finally, there is a glossary of relevant scientific terms, a list of sources and useful websites and index.

In the introduction Ignotofsky gives reasons why she wrote the  book, particularly a reminder of how womens' contributions to STEM have been ignored or denigrated over the centuries, and in truth, despite a host of laws and initiatives to counter it, possibly still are. Attitudes to women in STEM are gradually changing to equality but there have been some terrible discriminations, such as restrictions on woman's education, no research space (Marie Curie used a stuffy shed), no funding, not being paid, not allowed to publish because she was a woman, women not being awarded degrees, taking classes behind a screen so she wouldn’t distract her male colleagues or even not being allowed to enter the university building and more.

Our heroes have each overcome such discrimination by determination, probably with the cry 'Try and stop me'! the biographies hint at these, but emphasise our pioneers' contribution to STEM.

Women in Science is a colourful A5-sized hardback on quality paper, nicely illustrated and written, and fun - aimed at the children's book market. It could inspire a young reader to follow up, perhaps online. It would make a lovely birthday/Christmas present for a child from around 8 to 13 (although an eight year-old might find the text a little daunting), also for schools and libraries.

Reviewed by Richard Dawe

WOMEN IN SCIENCE - 50 FEARLESS PIONEERS WHO CHANGED THE WORLD by RACHEL IGNOTOFSKY, 2016. Published by: Wren & Rook 127pp, (hbk) ISBN: 978-1-5263-6051-9  List Price:£12.99