Book Review Gems & Gemology, Spring 2019, Vol. 55, No. 1

Book Review: Geology: A Very Short Introduction


Geology: A Very Short Introduction
By Jan Zalasiewicz, paperback, 168 pp., illus., publ. by Oxford Academic Press, Oxford, England, 2018, US$11.95.

Geology–it’s a fairly large subject to take on in a pocket-sized book. The entire 4.54-billion-year history of the earth—the ceaseless shifting of tectonic plates, the rise of multicellular organisms, the shaping of the planet that would one day be called home by us homo sapiens—all captured in a mere 168 pages. As a geologist, I approached Geology: A Very Short Introduction cautiously, hoping the topic could be faithfully represented in a book whose size doesn’t embody the enormous complexity of the subject. I was pleasantly surprised as the author wove his way through not only the history of the earth, but also the history of the study of the history of the earth, deftly moving from one geological development to the next, finding the common theme in all these stories to bring it together into a coherent narrative. The book is an approachable introduction to the earth and humankind’s endeavors to better understand its rocky abode through scientific examination. Yet the content is engaging and thorough enough that professional geologists might find themselves transported back to the airy university lecture halls of their youth where their passion for geology was once uncovered.

After a brief introductory chapter, Zalasiewicz delves into the historical underpinnings of modern geology in chapters 2 and 3. This engrossing history is neatly summarized. From the study of fossils to the development of the first geological maps, readers are given a view into the minds of the first serious thinkers who pursued the study of the earth and formed the foundation of geology as we know it. Zalasiewicz tends to favor the study of fossils and stratigraphy in his coverage, although this might be fair given the early importance of those fields in forming our understanding of earth processes.

The rest of the book focuses on more specific topics within the field of geology, from the deep earth (chapter 4) to the surface (chapter 5), from man’s search for natural resources (chapter 7) to the environmental repercussions that sometimes result (chapter 8). Zalasiewicz keeps readers’ interest by emphasizing human connection in the advancement of the study of Earth. The pages abound with stories of the scientific luminaries who uncovered many of the earth’s mysteries. Understanding the motivations and passions of these geological pioneers helps make their great scientific achievements more approachable and puts the historic progression of geological thought into perspective.

The book is a quick but interesting read, and its small size makes it a convenient travel partner. Zalasiewicz’s writing is familiar and engaging, never too technical but also never shying away from taking on important yet uncomfortable topics such as humankind’s sometimes negative impacts on the environment. The book is graced by 40 illustrations, maps, and photographs. These are generally of very high quality and complement the text even though they are printed in black and white. While Zalasiewicz’s coverage in this (very) introductory text is only skin-deep, he provides excellent suggestions for further reading for the reader who needs to dig in deeper. Ultimately, Geology: A Very Short Introduction should serve as a superb read for a wide spectrum of readers, from the most erudite professional geologists to those with almost no prior interest in geology.

Aaron C. Palke is a senior research scientist at GIA in Carlsbad, California.