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In Suspect Terrain by John McPhee

In Suspect Terrain (1983)

by John McPhee

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Ugh. I can't put my finger on it, but this felt patronising and completely over the top. The plate tectonics scepticism doesn't help, but nor does the overawed style. I need to come to terms with the fact that I just don't like this guy. ( )
  seabear | Jan 7, 2013 |
Interesting but - scattered. I learned quite a bit about glacial terrain and the history of that theory...but the book was written in 1983 and is mostly in the voice of a geologist who did not believe in the theory of plate tectonics (or at least did not believe it was the answer to as many geological questions as its supporters claim); my immediate question, since I was taught plate tectonics as a given, was whether she was as crackpot conservative as Agassiz about evolution, or whether there is still serious question about plate tectonics. It's an interesting question, and I'm going to have to hunt for an answer. But that means that while I learned some interesting facts, the central focus of the book was an unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable, question - which makes it a somewhat unsatisfying read. There are also the usual McPhee diversions from the subject at hand to the personal life of the informing character (all of his books are written as someone telling him things - that someone I'm calling the informing character). I don't really need to know that Anita Epstein divorced one geologist husband and became Anita Harris when she married another - it's not particularly pertinent to the geology or to understanding what Anita is talking about as she discusses geology. If I were reading for people I'd be bored out of my wits by all the geology; as I'm reading for geology I'm annoyed at the diversions into personalities. It's OK, and I'm glad I read it, but I doubt I'll reread - actually, it makes me want to read my old textbook on the discovery of fossils and glaciers, Prehistoric America. It covers some of the same ground and is more enjoyable to read. I checked with a friend who's just finishing a graduate course in geology; yes, Anita was crackpot conservative. Plate tectonics is piling up the evidence. ( )
  jjmcgaffey | Jun 19, 2011 |
Classic John McPhee geology, disappointing only in that the geologist he travels with is less interesting than his typical guide. But if you're looking for an easy refresher on Appalachian tectonic history, this is a lovely choice. ( )
  jmccamant | Jun 15, 2011 |
My feelings about this essay pretty much match my earlier feelings regarding Basin and Range: interesting, but too "literary" and journalistic, with not enough science.

The interesting things I took home from it are:

* That ice ages are rare (every 300 million years or so), but that, like rivers but even faster, they change landscapes substantially on a pace far more rapid than the slowness of orogeny and tectonics; and that a lot of the landscape of the Northern US, Europe and Asia are the visible remnants of the last round of glaciation ending only ten or twenty thousand years ago.

* That one gets a not misleading map of geological time onto human historical time by treating a million years as one year.

* That diamonds (and kimberlite pipes) are remarkable phenomena, in that for a diamond to get to the earth's surface from the pressure/heat zone where it is created without decomposing requires some sort of explosive release of the earth, a squirting out of the material at supersonic speeds; and that kimberlite pipes are interesting because they contain other material from the same pressure/heat zone that, with luck, has also not decomposed.

* That while coal is easy to form, oil is a lot more tricky because it has to be created, and then maintained for its entire lifetime, within a fairly narrow temperature band; excursions to higher temperatures will decompose the material to natural gas.

* The dust jacket tries to make a big deal of the fact that the central geologist of this volume, Anita Harris, "does not believe in plate tectonics".
The reality is substantially more nuanced. She seems quite happy to accept some aspects of tectonics, doesn't like some of the wilder applications of the theory (the same sort of wild applications of theory we've also seen in fields like evolutionary psychology, nothing new there), and mostly seems to be something of an old fogey complaining about how "in my day geologists had it tough and really walked around on the rocks". ( )
  name99 | Nov 13, 2006 |
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The paragraph that follows is an encapsulated history of the eastern United States, according to plate-tectonic theory and glacial geology.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0374517940, Paperback)

The Delaware Water Gap, where the Delaware River cuts through the Appalachian Mountains, is a bucolic and peaceful landscape perhaps best known as the setting of Edward Hicks's famous painting, The Peaceable Kingdom. However, the calm landscape conceals the tortuous geological history of this region and the equally complex debates concerning the geological past of the eastern United States.

In Basin and Range, McPhee traveled across the United States with a strong proponent of plate tectonics. In this volume, he travels over some of the same terrain with Anita G. Harris, a geologist who questions the ability of plate tectonics to completely explain the geology of this part of the world. As always, McPhee conveys the brilliant enthusiasms of those he profiles and the engaging complexity of the disciplines within which they work.

This is the second of four books on North American geology by McPhee, collectively entitled Annals of the Former World. The other volumes are Basin and Range, Rising from the Plains, and Assembling California.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:38 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

The Delaware Water Gap, where the Delaware River cuts through the Appalachian Mountains, is a bucolic and peaceful landscape. However, the calm landscape conceals the tortuous geological history of this region and the equally complex debates concerning the geological past of the eastern United States.… (more)

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