Surf with a sense of triumph

26th September 2003 at 01:00
Tom Wilkie lauds an ambitious attempt to encapsulate and explain the planet we are perched upon so precariously

Earth. Editor-in-chief: James F Luhr. Dorling Kindersley pound;30

This is a sensuous book. Some books appeal only to the intellect, but this one is a delight for the senses as well. Every page pleases the eye, not just by the display of dramatic photographs and illustrations to illuminate the words, but also in the way the words and photographs have been arranged together. It is a triumph of graphic art. Even the fingertips are stimulated by the feel of the book, as one turns pages of high-quality paper whose glossy coating, while intended to enhance the reproduction of the photographs, is an invitation to touch as much as to read.

If the production of Earth is an ambitious and successful enterprise, then it is matched by the breathtaking scope of the contents. A collaboration between the publishers, several science writers, and the staff of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington has delivered all of what we might call "earth science", and a bit more too. Land, sea, and air all get substantial sections to themselves, in addition to the conventional geology of rocks, minerals and tectonic plates. There is even a chapter putting the Earth into context as one planet within the solar system and the wider universe.

With more than 500 pages, each 25 per cent larger than A4 in size, this is both an encyclopaedia and a coffee-table book. It is not a book where one starts at the beginning and then reads consecutively all the way through.

The information is set out correspondingly in short, self-contained sections on each page. Thus one page on rocks has a main entry on amphibolite, together with two smaller sections on mylonite, and jadeite (all illustrated by photographs). The page also carries a small panel on jade artefacts, explaining the military and decorative uses to which, over more than three millennia, people have put jadeite.

It is a delight for the casual surfer. Those who take the family on a seaside holiday and wonder why some beaches are sandy but others stony will find that the answer depends on the energy of the waves washing upon the shore. It is somehow satisfying to learn that groynes - those ugly structures built out from a beach in an attempt to trap the sand - often prove ineffective.

Perhaps because of my own interests, the section on the atmosphere appealed particularly. It was good to see Vilhelm Bjerknes given the acknowledgement that is his due. This Norwegian meteorologist's name is scarcely known, other than to specialists, in the English-speaking world, but he was one of the pioneers of scientific weather forecasting. It was he who first applied the term "front" - taken from the terminology of the First World War - to describe the boundary between two different masses of air that presages changes in the weather.

One gets the sense that the internet has influenced the concept of the book. It offers short, snappy pieces of factual knowledge that one can browse on a whim - hence the reference to "surfing" a printed book. But this is not just a book for dipping into occasionally. Its editors have taken care to provide it with a well-structured index, running to 16 pages, together with a six-page glossary. This is also a book for the serious seeker of knowledge. It will be ideal for schoolchildren who need access to a good, interestingly written source of facts for school essays and projects.

Is there anything to criticise? Sometimes the fact panels are too short.

For example, one tells us, in only two sentences, of "growing evidence" that military sonar for submarine detection can disorientate and kill whales and dolphins. This cries out for more detail. When was this first noticed? Where is the evidence published and why is it "growing": because more animals are dying or more research is being done? What steps are being taken to stop this? Where can the reader go for more information? However, perhaps it is a tribute to a book stuffed with information that it can whet the reader's appetite to discover yet more.

A more serious concern arises from the editors' - unquestionably correct - decision that they could not publish a book about the Earth without describing humanity's effect on the planet. However, pollution (and other forms of environmental impact) is an economic phenomenon and economics is about human choices, not about the blind, inexorable workings of nature.

But this book persists in treating human action in the same way as the action of a glacier, say, or a hurricane. For example, a stunning - and heartbreaking - photograph of a rusting and derelict cargo ship lying aground on some rocks illustrates the theme of coastal pollution. But the vessel has been left there because that is its owners' cheapest option. Sea birds, seals and shrimps do not sue in the courts so, too often, pollution is seen as "cost-free" economically, if not environmentally.

To raise such considerations might suggest that our economic choices are wrong, that neither Soviet-style communism nor globalisation of the free market are sustainable ways of life. Suddenly, we are into politics, which is where, one suspects, the editors' nerve failed. It simply would not do for staff members of the Smithsonian Institution to put their names to a book that questioned the American Way. And thus a chance for increased understanding has been lost.

However, this is only a slight disappointment when set against how much else there is to enjoy in this book. Dorling Kindersley is renowned for its high production values, and this book is a classic. Adult and child, teacher and pupil, will all find this a source of endless delight.

Dr Tom Wilkie is editor-in-chief at Europa Science, a Cambridge-based science publishing company

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