Book Reviews Supercontinent Ten Billion Years in the Life of our Planet by Ted

How much popular interest can be generated by the presentation of the supercontinent cycle? Certainly enough for a magazine article, a chapter in a bigger volume on natural sciences or a TV documentary, but a whole book?

My doubts were completely dispelled by Ted Nield’s book. “Supercontinent” rarely falls short of fascinating, and, apart form Nield’s fluent and lively prose, the interest is skilfully maintained throughout.

To start with, Nield shows how the idea of “vanished worlds” and “sunken continents” has functioned in different cultures. It’s by no means a complete account (the best known vanished world of Western tradition, Atlantis, gets only a passing mention) but still covers a variety of myths and crackpot theories about imaginary vanished lands, including Mu of the Theosophy and Kumarikkandam from the mythical perhistory of Southern India’s Tamils. This cultural account fills much of the first part of “Supercontinent” and is an excellent way to excite readers’ curiosity about the real vanished worlds.

Vignettes of the geologists and geophysicists who ventured into the abyss of Earth’s distant past are used to bring life to the computer models. It’s a fairly common approach to popular science, and applied successfully if over-enthusiastically in Bill Bryson’s best-selling “A Short History of Nearly Everything”, but here it works very well by presenting not just the ideas, but the people who came up with the ideas, and the spirit of time that influenced them.

We meet the great Victorians (clearly made from sterner stuff than we are); learn about the political roots of the conflict between the continental European and American schools of Earth science; and chart the development of the astonishing idea that claimed that continents actually move horizontally. Thus, we learn not only about the current understanding, but about the way the Earth sciences are done – and were done in the past; and by extension, about how science is done in general.

In fact, “Supercontinent” is as much a pean to scientific understanding of our world in general as a presentation of the current state of knowledge. Ted Nield writes as much about the supercontinent of science as about the supercontinents of Earth’s crust. He’s also not afraid of widening his scope considerably to describe whatever might be of relevance (for example the current global climate system gets a decent summary because it’s needed to understand how other climate systems could have worked in the past, with continental masses distributed differently).

“Supercontinent” is also full of rather entertaining narrative and visualisation games (time travel, space travel and similar), used both to defamiliarise the known and to bring closer the alien and immensely distant.

Altogether, the vision presented in Nield’s book is truly awe-inspiring. I have had only a very, very sketchy understanding of the Earth’s ancient history and current geophysics; and I have learned a lot form Ted Nield’s book, not just in the “being reminded of something that you kind of knew before” manner, but in getting genuinely new insights.

From the Iceball Earth to the origins of life in the ocean depths, from the fact that continental crust is actually qualitatively different from the ocean floor (I always thought they were just higher and lower…) to the first supercontinent called Rodinia to the methods used to determine what and when could have happened, “Supercontinent” (and particularly its second part) provides an excellent account of the most up-to-date understanding of our planet’s ancient history and cyclical mechanics working on a grand scale of billions of years.

Occasionally, the lack of linear narrative feels a bit haphazard – the aspects of the “Supercontinent” that make it engaging, lively and stimulating sometimes mean a bit of confusion, but than it’s not a textbook and should not be treated as one.

Inclusion of more pictures (there are a few), and bigger (fold out plates that can be consulted while reading, perhaps?), is probably the single biggest improvement that I would like to see in the book, and the second one would be even a basic glossary, either at the end or in footnotes.

Besides all that, the sheer broad sweep, the energy and the way in which insights into science in general and the human condition are linked to the main subject matter of the ancient history of Earth is impressive. “Supercontinent”, although a fairly demanding read, comes recommended for anybody interested in the natural sciences, the Earth and the place of humans on the planet and in the world in general.

Some feel depressed by these scales: not only our individual lives are utterly insignificant but the whole species is just a tiny speck in the space and time of the Universe.

I always found it rather comforting: the world is not made for us, but we are a part of it, however much the philosophies of the jaded and scared cry alienation and trembling. Truly, being conscious of mortality seems a price worth paying for having evolved a mind capable of comprehending and encompassing the vastness and continuous wonder of the world.

Granta Books 1 Oct 2007 hardback, 352 pages.

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