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Review - Catastrophes and Lesser Calamities - Tony Hallam 

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Popularising science is a difficult business, and never more so than when looking back into the speculative past. It's all too easy, as Tony Hallam points out, to oversimplify and just go with the most likely or even the easiest option without making it clear how much is being left out. A classic example is the TV show Walking with Dinosaurs - beautifully produced but rarely bothering to point out that around 90% of the content is inspired fiction rather than scientific reality.

Hallam brings up this concern with respect to the mass extinctions - most famously that of the dinosaurs - which may have occurred at several points in prehistory. The theory that one or even all of these catastrophes was caused by asteroid impact having a drastic effect on the Earth is well known, and many may even think this is the only option. Hallam shows us just how many other possibilities - including some as mundane as changes in sea level - could have contributed to extinctions that could have been over a short period or in some cases millions of years.

The honest with which Hallam presents the different options is refreshing - but it also highlights why much popular science oversimplifies - going it to the detail tends to be dull. Sadly, also, despite his avowed intent in the preface to make this an easy popular read, it's all too technical and the detail is overwhelming.

After a while, a certain numbness spreads through the reader's brain. UK observers familiar with the Shipping Forecast on the radio will be aware of a similar effect. Before long the words merge into a soothing but meaningless mantra. Anyone who has attended less-than-stimulating university lectures after a good night out will be familiar with a similar effect. Eyelids soon need propping open. Here's an example from the text to give an idea of what I mean:

Globally synchronous sea-level changes in the Ordovician-Silurian boundary clearly imply a eustatic signature, and the presence of contemporaneous glacial in the high palaeolatitudes of the southern continent Gondwana provides a likely cause. The basic Hirnantian regression is thus probably a response to ice-cap growth over Gondwana, and the basic Silurian transgression presumably records its rapid melting.

And why not? Anyone remember the sequence in Alice in Wonderland where she is supposed to get dry by listening to the driest piece of prose available? What's hilarious is the quote from Geoscientist on the back of our copy - "A beautifully written, jargon-free account." I'm sorry, Geoscientist, but are we in the same reality? This "jargon-free" book can manage a single sentence containing (for instance) "basal Hirnantian crisis", "low altitude benthos", "late Hirnantian event", "brachiopod fauna" and ""deep-shelf taxa". Not to mention occurrences of the likes of anoxic horizons, nektobenthic species and eutrophication. I've rarely seen an alleged popular science book more riddled with jargon.

The aim of the book is great, and the content is all there - it just doesn't work as anything other than a textbook because it's such hard work. There's much too much unnecessary information that makes reading this book sadly unfulfilling.

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Reviewed by Brian Clegg

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Last update 05 June 2007