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 Published by the American Geological Institute
February 2001
Newsmagazine of the Earth Sciences


The Geotimes Web site now offers each month's book reviews, list of new books,  book ordering information and recommended Web sites.  Look for new maps in the print edition. This site is in development. Please send any suggestions to

Book reviews:

  • Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water
  • Exploring the Highest Sierra



    On the shelf
    Where to order
    On the Web

    Book reviews
    Life's Matrix: A Biography of Water, by Philip Ball. Farrar Straus & Giroux. (2000). ISBN 0374186286. 400 p. Cloth, $25.

    Stuart Rojstaczer

    Life's Matrix is a treatise on the intellectual and societal importance of water. The author, Philip Ball, states that the book is a biography, the assumption being that our historical and contemporary scientific understanding of water can constitute a life story. It's an outrageous idea to write a book about what is at face value such a prosaic substance. But Ball seems to pull it off.

    Let there be no doubt, Philip Ball is a talented science writer. Not only can he write clear and elegant prose, but he also has a redoubtable background, possessing degrees in both chemistry (undergraduate) and physics (doctorate). Ten years as an editor for the journal Nature gave him a broad perspective of the state of cutting-edge science, and as his latest book demonstrates, he is extremely well read. He possesses a belief in the value of eclecticism (a belief that I wholeheartedly share) and an the agility to quote the Bible, Leonardo da Vinci and Kurt Vonnegut with equal ease.

    Ball's biography of water is broad and well researched, full of juicy scientific details. His style is light and breezy. While ostensibly a popular science book, it really is written for insiders. The ideal reader for Life's Matrix is someone educated in the sciences who reads journals like Nature and Science and can get excited about articles outside their own field of study.

    Life's Matrix examines water from the scale of oceans to that of molecules. Along this intellectual journey we find well-researched explanations of the hydrologic cycle and the chemistry of water, and of water's role in society, plant growth and cellular function. Given Ball's background, it isn't surprising that he excels at examining water's physical and chemical properties. It is here that he is most detailed, and where his prose is most fluid (oh yes, please pardon that pun).

    As a result, those who have a background and interest in chemistry and physics will likely find this book more engaging than will natural historians.

    Ball's book isn't so much a biography as it is an intellectual history of water. If it suffers from a flaw, it is that the history is sketchy and peripatetic. Life's Matrix travels from subject to subject somewhat like a flying insect.

    It never rests on a topic long enough to fully engage the reader's interest. While reading a section on a topic like the scientific travails of the concept of polywater, I would think, "Now this would make a good book all on its own." I longed for some thoroughness and depth, some intellectual theme that would carry this book to a logical conclusion. But this criticism likely reflects the individual taste of this reader, rather than a serious defect in the book.

    If you are interested in intellectual history, have an appreciation and love of excellent science writing and above all have a passion for understanding the state of water in the universe, then Life's Matrix will be a valuable read. It's an ambitious book written for scientists who have broad intellectual interests.

    Rojstaczer is a professor of hydrology at Duke University, Durham, NC 27708. He is also author of Gone for Good: Tales of University Life After the Golden Age and is working on a book about disaster prediction.

    Exploring the Highest Sierra by James G. Moore. Stanford University Press (2000). 427 p. ISBN 0-8047-3647-2 (Cloth), 0-8047-3703-7 (Paperback). Illus. Cloth, $49.50.

    Craig H. Jones

    Geology guides usually stand aloof from their historical counterparts by presenting natural history as a fixed and known quantity with, perhaps, a hint of the unknown at some arcane edge. Occasionally, an author tries to make the story more human by bringing in the literary equivalent of talking heads, but the result is an unhappy state of affairs. Often the prose ends up so dry and far removed from the dynamic of the science that readers should be forgiven for thinking that the scientists are as dead as the fossils they study.

    James Moore takes a different tack in his book, Exploring the Highest Sierra, as he welds the story of the exploration of California's Sierra Nevada Mountains to the region's geologic history. Moore's final product is not entirely without fault, but his attempt is worthy of applause.

    The western United States is well suited for such a marriage of geographic exploration and geologic exposition because geologists were among those who revealed the West to the world at a time when the field was young and growing in popularity. Moore's stories cast familiar Sierran names like J.D. Whitney, John Muir, Clarence King and Joseph LeConte. Other tales include those of G.K. Gilbert in his first western foray and a host of lesser known explorers now remembered by landmarks bearing their names. Moore's focus on the high peaks and deep canyons of the southern Sierra is a refreshing change from heavily trodden Yosemite tales.

    Unlike many texts that only share the personal impressions of early workers, Moore's book tells us what these people were doing and how they did it. For example, Moore notes the presence of barometers in many old photos and includes tales of how they worked. Just when we fear that the text might lead us back into well-worn ruts and we gird for Victorian effusions such as those of Muir, Moore makes it short and sweet, and sends us off to map and name the range.

    Later in the book, the personality-rich history of exploration and mapping violently shifts gears to the point of transmission failure as the text becomes a detailed geologic history of the range with an emphasis on the Mesozoic batholith. Discussions of geochemistry, including isotope ratios, silica contents and paleobarometry, will probably shock any casual reader expecting flowery prose in praise of mountains. The personalities who filled the pages of the first half of the book have no counterparts in the latter half. No doubt the sheer number of later workers motivated part of this harsh transition. Had Moore carried forward the style of the first half of the book perhaps telling of his own personal exploration of the range's geology as ideas of batholith genesis evolved with the emergence of plate tectonics this book might have been truly exceptional. As heralded author John McPhee has shown, the growth of science is far more gripping than the state of the science.

    These criticisms should not belittle the accomplishments Moore makes in the second half of the text, which is an impressive and detailed overview of the southern Sierra's geology written by the geologist who has probably seen more of it than any other. For the professional geologist, this is a very rich overview with some fine field guides (including the high trails in the range). Many nonspecialists will be grateful for explanations of eye-catching field phenomena ignored in simpler texts. The text contains enough background for use in upper division undergraduate or graduate classes on the batholith.

    For such a handsome book aspiring well beyond a typical "Geology of " guide, it has room for some improvements worth making.  Several of the illustrations of older maps are muddy and could be improved by color reproduction. Scientific citations are distracting, especially in nonscientific text. Gaffes are few but a couple are worth noting: the Garlock is inaccurately described as a right-lateral fault (in italics, no less) and the  trans-Sierra Sherman Pass road north of Walker Pass is omitted. And as Global Positioning System (GPS) data become ubiquitous, Moore's trail guides could be improved by adding GPS waypoints to trail distances.

    As the final product stands, there is no more authoritative volume on this part of the Sierra to be found and Sierra-philes will want it in their libraries. Geologists and writers attempting to tackle the art of the geology guide would be well advised to read this volume and take its lessons to heart: There is no need for a geologic text to ignore the stories of the people who study geology.

    Jones teaches in the Department of Geological Science at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

    On the shelf

    Emissions Scenarios, a special report of Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press (2000). 599 p. ISBN 0-521-80493-0. Illus. Paperback, $44.95.

    Energies: An Illustrated Guide to the Biosphere and Civilization by Vaclav Smil.  MIT Press (2000). 210 p. ISBN 0-262-69235-X. Illus. Paperback, $15.95.

    Environmental Change in Mountains and Uplands by Martin Beniston. Oxford University Press (2000). 172 p. ISBN 0-340-70636-8. Illus. Paperback, $29.95.

    Environmental Evolution: Effects of the Origin and Evolution of Life on Planet Earth, edited by Lynn Margulis, Clifford Matthews and Aaron Haselton. MIT Press (2000). 338 p. ISBN 0-262-63197-0. Illus. Paperback, $27.95.

    Eocene and Oligocene of Central Oregon, edited by Gregory J. Retallack, Erick A. Bestland and Theodore J. Fremd. Geological Society of America (2000). Geological Society Special Paper No. 344. 196 p. ISBN 0-8137-2344-2. Illus. Paperback, $58.

    Fine-Grained Turbidite Systems, edited by Arnold H. Bouma and Charles G. Stone. AAPG Memoir 72 and SEPM Special Publication #68 (2000). 342 p. ISBN 0-89181-353-5. Illus. Cloth, $103.

    Fractals and Dynamic Systems in Geoscience, edited by T. Blenkinsop, J. Kruhl, and M. Kupková. Birkhäuser (2000). 677 p. ISBN 3-7643-6309-6. Illus. Paperback, $49.95.

    Land Use, Land-Use Change, and Forestry, edited by Robert T. Watson, Ian R. Noble, Bert Bolin, N.H. Ravindranath, David J. Verardo, and David J. Dokken. Cambridge University Press (2000). 377 p. ISBN 0-521-80495-7. Illus. Paperback, $29.95.

    Where to order

    Also visit AGI's Earth Science World Bookstore to search

    Cambridge University Press, 110 Midland Ave., Port Chester, N.Y. 10573-4390. Phone: (800)872-7423. Fax: (914)937-4712. WWW:

    Geological Society of America, P.O. Box 9140, Boulder, Colo. 80301-9140. Phone: (800)472-1988. Fax: (303)447-1133. WWW:

    Oxford University Press, Business Office, 2001 Evans Rd., Cary, N.C. 27513. Phone: (800)451-7556. Fax: (919)677-1303.

    Society for Sedimentary Geology, P.O. Box 4756, Tulsa, Okla. 74159-0756. Phone: (918)493-3361. Fax: (918)493-2093.

    Springer-Verlag, 333 Meadowlands Parkway, Secaucus, N.J. 07094. Phone: (800)777-4643 ext. 599.

    On the Web

    This Web site about the man heralded as paleontology's founding father, Joseph Leidy, has so much information on advances in all areas of science during his lifetime that, whether or not you're interested in paleontology, you'll lose track of time visiting this site. Leidy, born in 1820, made major scientific advances in the fields of paleontology, parisitology, anatomy and natural history before he died in 1891. And somehow, this site manages to include just about all you might want to know in a way that is, surprisingly, not overwhelming. One of its highlights is a short page on Leidy's correspondence with Charles Darwin around the time Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Excerpts from their letters just after the release of Darwin's famous text provide an interesting glimpse into the spread of evolutionary theory through the world of science. Each page is full of annotations  and additional links to even more outside sources of information than anyone could ever visit in one sitting. This site, authored by the Academy of Natural Science of Philadelphia, gets a standing ovation show it to your students, kids, spouses and friends (provided that they're as geeky as you).

    The 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake set off a wave of earthquake hazard mitigation efforts across the United States, and this Web site illustrates why. It offers viewers a virtual tour of the Santa Cruz and San Francisco regions just after the quake. The site is one of several virtual tours that can be linked to through the University of California at Santa Cruz's Department of Earth Sciences Web site. The overview provides a brief introduction to the region and to the devastation caused by the earthquake and offers links to information and photographs on regional tectonics, building damage, sediment liquefaction, surface cracks and landslides. This site would be great for an intro-geology (undergraduate or high school) student beginning an investigation into the Loma Prieta quake, or any earthquake for that matter. It presents diverse information in a simple and easy-to-digest manner. But its lack of links to outside sources of information and references makes it only a jumping-off point.

    Laura Wright

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