Planet earth: A beginner's guide, by John Gribbin, with Mary Gribbin. Oneworld Publications, Oxford, 2012. No. of pages: vii + 175. Price: UK£ 9-99. ISBN 978-1-85168-828-9 (paperback).


‘Beginners Guides’ have made the slightly risqué decision to have their volume on Planet Earth written by astrophysicist John Gribbin. Indeed, the decision is also schizophrenic, with John Gribbin (sing.) named as author on the front and back covers, but ‘John Gribbin with Mary Gribbin’ on the title page. I only noted the presence of a second author when the royal ‘we’ appeared overused in the text.

Planet Earth is well written, but repetitious in places, such as ‘the life zone’ of the Earth being 20 km thick (pp. 29, 78). Planet Earth lacks illustrations, a barely creditable omission for such a visual subject. The nearest thing to an illustration is a table of geological time (Appendix 2) that is poorly organised. The list of further reading is too brief and somewhat idiosyncratic. Minor quibbles include the inconsistent use of units: India moved towards Eurasia at ‘ten centimetres… per year’ (p. 57); the Red Sea is widening at ‘eighty millimetres… per year’ (p. 63). Hot spots and sea floor spreading are confused at the bottom of page 71.

The text, while readable, hasn't been edited by a specialist geologist who would have recognised errors and eccentricities. For example, although Gribbin is quick to name worthy scientists for their contributions, he avoids mentioning that, in 1664, Archbishop Ussher was author of the famous calculation, refined by John Lightfoot, that the Earth was created at 9.00 a.m. on October 26th, 4004 B.C. Instead, this date is referred to as the work of nameless ‘Biblical scholars’ (pp. 4, 5). This fails to give Ussher due credit for the first numerical determination of the age of the Earth. We now recognize the methodology's flaws, but Ussher deserves recognition for his scholarship as much as named worthies such as Steensen, Buffon and Kelvin.

But this book isn't just the ‘popular science/geology’ of the back cover. The Gribbins have a view of the Earth from the outside and give a more astronomical introduction to the planet than would most geologists. This I applaud and enjoyed. My ignorance of this area means that I have little to say about it. It is some of the geology that is less easy to swallow.

The funniest line in Planet Earth is where it is said that Alfred Wegner ‘wasn't a geologist’ (p. 33). How can these astronomers, writing a book on geology, claim that one of the greatest of geologists was ‘just’ a meteorologist? There is just a whiff of arrogance there. I suggest that the authors consult Oreskes (1999) to see what drivel about land bridges some renowned so-called geologists were publishing to ‘disprove’ Wegner.

‘But how, exactly, do volcanoes form?’ (p. 50). The Gribbins then give a good account of their genesis at convergent plate margins. Yet other situations, such as hotspots (pp. 55, 71) and constructive plate margins (p. 37), are mentioned separately; the reasons for this division are not explained. Continuing the theme of volcanoes, Chapter 7 highlights some of the major historical eruptions such as Vesuvius A.D. 79, Krakatau 1883 and Mont Pelée 1902. Yet these same eruptions are covered in a similar manner by the volume on volcanoes in the same series (Lopes, 2010); such duplication seems unnecessary.

I was surprised, and not a little delighted, to find an exposition of the ideas of Hugh Owen regarding an expanding Earth (pp. 121–123). Yet, despite the interest of Hugh's ideas, they are over 30 years old (see, for example, Owen, 1983) and have received little support in the intervening period. Their resurrection in such a semi-popular account seems just a little eccentric.

The last chapter, ‘Life on Earth’, seems the weakest to me, perhaps because palaeontology is my business. Coral reefs in the Cambrian (p. 141)? No. Why is the first appearance of the trilobites emphasised above so many other groups (p. 141)? That the Carboniferous is ‘sometimes’ (p. 142) separated into Mississippian and Pennsylvanian fails to keep step with modern stratigraphic practice. Dinosaurs did not include aquatic taxa (p. 144). I don't think anyone spells ‘Caenozoic’ (p. 146) that way these days. And so on.

In short, I thought Planet Earth a curate's egg. It is certainly good in parts. Some things I learnt, other needed correction. But Planet Earth lacks that final editorial polish that would have disposed of the quirky, the contradicting and the just plain wrong.