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Snowball Earth (Gabrielle Walker, 2003)

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ISBN 0-7475-6433-7

Further Reading

By the Same Author

  • None; Snowball Earth is Walker’s first book.

Similar Writing

When I first picked up Snowball Earth, I thought I’d somehow gotten hold of a large print copy or something: the text is huge and widely spaced. Although this format makes it particularly easy for somebody in their dotage, like me, to read the thing, it also spins the book out to a somewhat misleading 269 pages. There simply isn’t that much content in here.

Sadly, that was only the first of several disappointments awaiting me between the covers. Perhaps most irritating, the book is constructed like a work of fiction. Points of interest are introduced only with the greatest circumspection. Of this there is no better example than the Preface: Six pages of gassing with nothing - nothing - relevant to the topic. Paul Hoffman used to be a marathon runner. Ok, fine; now let’s get on with it. Then on to chapter one and another four-and-a-half pages of waffle between “Shark Bay” and the first occurence of the word “stromatolite.”

Worse is to follow: Almost as soon as this first point of interest finally is made, the chapter ends and we’re off talking about something else! The entire narrative flip-flops back and forth between ideas, apparently deliberately, as if attempting to build suspense. It made me think of Tolkein’s The Two Towers, in which the author employs the same technique, though rather more proficiently, and with the happy advantage of doing so for a reason. No sooner are we actually given some morsel of information to think about, than we are whisked off to elsewhere and elsewhen. Frankly, it’s all completely tedious and, worse than that, it makes the book impossible to use as a reference. Because there is no logical structure to it, you can’t find anything unless there is an (obvious) index entry to exactly what you are looking for.

As for the science itself, this book is extremely superficial. Not only that, but the instant we’re off the main topic, the science becomes pretty suspect, also. Some statements, such as “there were no worms in the Precambrian” (p. 116), or that the bizarre progeny of the ‘Cambrian Explosion’ date “from the beginning of the Cambrian period, around 545 million years ago” (p. 203), are simply incorrect. But more often Walker’s pronouncements are not exactly wrong, factually; they’re just distinctly misleading. For example, p. 159 claims that paleomagnetic polarity reversals occur “roughly once every few hundred thousand years” which is only true for some periods of the planet’s history and conspicuously ignores the Cretaceous “quiet periods” when the polarity appears to have remained constant for millions of years. An even better example is the non sequiteur “By finding [paleomagnetic] reversals in the Flinders ice rocks, Linda confirmed Joe’s discovery that ice had been present near the equator” (p. 160). Oh, yes; we’re all on first name terms here. The final few nails in the coffin are the several references - at least one rather florid - to the dinosaurs being wiped out by an asteroid. (Yes, a bolide of some sort almost certainly did strike the Earth at the end of the Cretaceous. Did it wipe out the dinosaurs? Sorry to ruin a good story, but nobody knows to what extent it may have contributed to their demise. Taking a broader view of mass extinction events throughout the Phanerozoic, volcanism alone shows a good correlation with observed extinctions - read more.)

The unfortunate conclusion is that Walker simply doesn’t know her stuff.

To judge from the descriptions of interviews and excursions, a great number of eminent and busy scientists gave a great deal of their time to the author and authoring of this ... novel. It is hard to imagine they’d be willing to do it again, even for a more accomplished practitioner, which is perhaps the saddest indictment of this effort. Even weighted up against some undoubted public-educational benefit, it seems to me this effort will have done more harm than good, in the long term.

Recommendation: Barely recommended; strictly for a light read, and only if you’re feeling particularly indulgent. Otherwise I’d have to say it’s crap.

Look and Feel: My edition is the usual matt-finish paperback. There are no photographs, though some would have been beneficial. There are good index and references sections.

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