Dec. 23rd, 2008 02:27 pm
deliabarry: (creationist)
Gorgon: The Monsters That Ruled the Planet Before Dinosaurs and How They Died in the Greatest Catastrophe in Earth's History
by Peter D. Ward

For more than a decade Peter Ward, his colleagues, and his students tried to determine the cause of the mass extinction marking the end of the Permian by studying the fossils in the Karoo Desert of South Africa. This book is the record of that work.

This book was not at all what I expected when I bought it. From the title and the descriptive blurb on the back, I thought I was buying the popular science version of a paper on gorgonopsians, the lizard-like predator of the upper Permian. Instead, what I got was a memoir covering the ten years of Ward's life he spent working in the Karoo trying to unravel the mystery of the Permian Extinction.

It doesn't matter. This book was a real page turner – I couldn't put it down, and stayed up much later that I should have several nights in a row to read it. The ins and outs of doing field work under such difficult conditions, both natural and political – the Karoo is located largely in South Africa – was fascinating. During the decade of work, friendships began, matured and ended, babies were born and grew, governments rose and fell. Cape Town and Johannesburg became dangerous places to be a white man, and then went back to being no more dangerous than any other major city.

Ward is quite candid about the missteps and dead ends that litter any scientific investigation and which are particularly common in paleontology. The Permian extinction, in which 90-95% of the then-existing life forms perished, is particularly difficult to interpret, due in no small part to the fact that it happened nearly 250 million years ago. His excitement when he writes about finding a well-preserved complete gorgon skeleton is palpable … and contagious.

It isn't until the last chapter that Ward discusses his hypothesis about the end of the Permian, and by that time I was as anxious to hear his hypothesis as I would have been to find out who committed the murder in a novel. Ward's hypothesis is that the Permian extinction was not a single event resulting from a single cause, but from a combination of things: a world-wide drop in sea level, a precipitous drop in the oxygen content of the atmosphere as a result of the oxidation of organic sediments exposed when sea level dropped, increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the inevitable temperature increase. In other words, the Gorgon and most other creatures of the late Permian asphyxiated in the heat. Not a pretty picture.

This book is written in a very accessible manner, with little or no jargon, and the human story is just as compelling as the scientific mystery. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in science, even if they are not professionals in the field.
deliabarry: (Grissom)
The Creation
E. O. Wilson

Wilson is a well-known biologist and Pulitzer Prize winner. This book, which is one long argument for the preservation of biodiversity, is written in the form of letters to a Baptist minister in which he argues for science and religion to work together to achieve this goal.

I started reading this to see if it would work as supplemental reading for one of my undergraduate classes, but I quickly got involved in the book on its own merits. Biology is far and away my weakest of the sciences, so I was pleased to learn a lot. I found Wilson's arguments compelling, but that's not much of a surprise; I've long been of the opinion that the Christian scriptures, if properly read, require environmentalism.

However Wilson, like most biologists, has a rather shrill tone of panic in his voice when he talks about extinction. As a geologist, I take a somewhat longer view. Life has come very close to being wiped out several times in Earth's history and has always come back. When (not if) a major extinction happens again, life will find a way to return in one form or another. Personally, my money is on the insects. And the rocks will still be there.
deliabarry: (rose-colored bifocals)
Corrupted Science
by John Grant

The subtitle of this book is "Fraud, ideology, and politics in science," which pretty much sums it up. It's a compilation of the worst in my field.

This is possibly the most depressing book I've read in several years. Like most of my colleagues, I tend to be fairly idealistic about the scientific community. From my earliest days, I was taught that scientists were seekers of the facts, that all they wanted to do was understand how the world around us works. I've always wanted that to be true, and I still think it is for most of us. But there are many for whom science is just another path to self-aggrandizement or the promotion of their cherished ideas, whether the data support them or not. Grim reading, indeed. I'm going to keep it on my bookshelf. If nothing else, it will serve as a reminder that we are merely human and subject to the same frailties as everyone else.
deliabarry: (Grissom)
The Blind Watchmaker
by Richard Dawkins

I've made three attempts at reading this book now, and I've never managed to get past the second chapter. I've finally given up on it, so this is going to be less of a review and more of a rant about Dawkins. Consider yourselves warned.

A bit of a rant )


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