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Earth Science Week: Geological Literature

October 15, 2013

Yesterday was Earth Science Literacy Day. You can connect with some of the Big Ideas of modern Earth Science at the Earth Science Week website.  I’m going to spin that a bit into an Earth Science Literature Day, one day late.

During my last stay at the beach I made a cup of coffee with (barely drinkable) tap water.  It reminded me of one of Mark Twain’s companions, a man who loved big words for their own sake. They had made undrinkable coffee from the alkali waters of Mono Lake. Noone could drink a cup, because “It’s too technical for me.”  So at the top of the list is Mark Twain’s “Roughing It”.  It has accounts of the Nevada Silver Rush, the Great San Francisco Earthquake, Kilauea, and the joys of working a stamp mill at a gold mine. Everyone needs to know the story of the time the tarantulas got out.

Any book by John McPhee is worth reading, but my favorites are “Assembling California” and “Control of Nature”.  If you use a mirror to switch everything from west to east, North Carolina was assembled by the same processes that assembled California. Our second floor exhibit on the geology of North Carolina is called Assembling North Carolina. “Control of Nature” is a book of essays. I read Los Angeles Against the Mountains when I lived in Sierra Madre, one of the towns mentioned. The essay is about mud flows, and debris flows, the wet muddy landslides that come out of the mountains during periods of high rain. When I checked the sediments below the Eaton Canyon Dam, I recognized that the dams weren’t there to capture water. Other essays are on the volcanic eruption that threatened Heimaey, in Iceland, and the efforts to control the Mississippi River.

Simon Winchester is a favorite author of mine. “The Map That Changed the World” is the story of William Smith and the making of the world’s first geologic map.  Smith laid the foundations for modern stratigraphy, fossil dating (relative dating) and geologic mapping.  It’s amazing to me that he did so much all by himself, and combined so much insight into one graphic. In no other science has one man laid the foundations so well, and essentially did it right the first time. Even better is the book “Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883”.  It captures the world of 1883 in its entirety, plus giving vivid accounts of the eruption and its aftermath.

Closer to home is the story of North Carolina’s gold rushes. I like two books:  “Gold Mining in North Carolina: A Bicentennial History” by Richard Knapp and Brent Glass, and  “Gold in History, Geology and Culture: Collected Essays”, by  Richard  Knapp and Robert Topkins.  All of the place names are familiar, and this jaunt through the gold fields gives you a critical piece of history, essential to understanding modern North Carolina. They are easiest to find at the Museum of History.

Robert Hazen is a geologist at the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institute of Washington, once the home of Norman L. Bowen.  He may be best known for his insights into mineral evolution, the way minerals increase in diversity during the history of the solar system and planet Earth. His book “The Diamond Makers” is a fascinating look into the world of diamonds.  In between is hidden a history of experimental petrology, the science of cooking rocks and minerals at geologically reasonable conditions.  It’s a history of my branch of the science.

Last but not least, a book that I had a small part in, as a reviewer: “Exploring the Geology of the Carolinas: A Field Guide to Favorite Places from Chimney Rock to Charleston” by Kevin Stewart and Mary-Russell Roberson. Kevin is a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, a structural geologist. Many state parks are included here, so you can learn about the geology as you hike. This is also the most up-to-date book on North Carolina geology that is available.

So as the weather turns colder, I hope you have the chance to curl up someplace warm with one of these books.  I think it’s better if you have a dog on your feet, too.  Let me know if I’ve forgotten any other great geology books.  Happy Earth Science Week!

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