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Good Reads  Insects & other Invertebrates  Molluscs  Molluscs: General

Spirals in Time The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells

Nature Writing
By: Helen Scales(Author)
312 pages, 8 plates with colour photos; b/w photos, b/w illustrations
Spirals in Time
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  • Spirals in Time ISBN: 9781472911384 Paperback mass-market paperback Apr 2016 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 5 days
  • Spirals in Time ISBN: 9781472916709 Paperback trade paperback May 2015 Out of Print #219030
  • Spirals in Time ISBN: 9781472911360 Hardback May 2015 Out of Print #219029
Selected version: £11.99
About this book Contents Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

Stories of seashells stretch from the deep past into the present day. They are touchstones leading into fascinating realms of the natural world and cutting-edge science. Shell-makers (members of the phylum Mollusca) are among the most ancient and successful animals on the planet. They live extraordinary lives in many strange places; they create vital food and homes for other animals, and across the ages, people have used shells not only as trinkets but also as powerful symbols of sex and death, prestige and war.

Spirals in Time tells the story of the seashell. Two major themes weave through the narrative: the science and natural history of shells and their (original) owners, and the cultural importance and ways they have been used by humans over the millennia. The author, Helen Scales, shows how these simple objects have been sculpted by fundamental rules of mathematics and evolution, how they gave us colour, gems, food and money, and how they are prompting new medicines and teaching scientists how our brains work. Seashells are also symbols of the impacts humans have on the environment.

After surviving multiple mass extinctions millions of years ago, seashells have gone on to face an onslaught of anthopogenic challenges including the most recent crisis – climate change and corrosive oceans. But rather than dwelling on all that is lost, Spirals in Time emphasises that seashells offer an accessible way to reconnect people with nature, helping to heal the rift between ourselves and the living world. Aside from a fascinating slice of marine biology and cultural history, Spirals in Time shows why nature matters, and reveals the amazing story of these undersea wonders of calcium carbonate.

Please note: the difference between the £12.99 and £9.99 paperback version is that the former is a trade paperback, whereas the latter is a mass-market paperback (also see this entry on Wikipedia for the difference between the two).


1. Why so many shells? - the science of shell diversity
2. Sex, death the gems - the uses of shells in ancient cultures
3. How to make a shell - the maths of shell architecture
4. Shell food - eating and over-eating shellfish
5. A place to live - the ecology of shells
6. Colour and cloth - two shells used to make prestigious cloths since classical times
7. Long gone shells - the science of ancient molluscs
8. Shell collections - how one man created the world's biggest shell collection
9. Think like a snail - shells that inspire scientists in medicine, neurobiology, and other sciences
10. Fading away - shells and climate change

Customer Reviews


Helen Scales is a marine biologist based in Cambridge. Her doctorate involved exploring the reproductive biology of the humphead wrasse, and since then she has tagged sharks in California, catalogued marine life surrounding a hundred islands in the Andaman Sea, and most recently studied the diverse fish that live on coral reefs in the South Pacific. Helen is now a freelance researcher and broadcaster. A major outlet for Helen's explorations is BBC Radio where she is a reporter and presenter on science and natural history programmes, especially on Radio 4 and the World Service. Her credits include regular appearances on Inside Science and Home Planet, numerous one-off documentaries, and a coveted spot on The Museum of Curiosity. Helen is also a long-standing member of the award-winning science communication collective, The Naked Scientists, based at the University of Cambridge. Helen's first book was Poseidon's Steed; The Story of Seahorses from Myth to Reality, (2010, Penguin).

Nature Writing
By: Helen Scales(Author)
312 pages, 8 plates with colour photos; b/w photos, b/w illustrations
Media reviews

"This book is a little like Doctor Who's Tardis: the relatively small size belies the vast amount of information within. [...] I thoroughly recommend this immensely enjoyable and informative book. Whatever your level of molluscan expertise, you will likely discover something new in it."
– Martin J. Willing, British Wildlife 26(6), August 2015

"[...] Cornish childhood holidays introduced Scales to rock pools and the sea's denizens. Now a marine biologist based in Cambridge, she has done an elegant, excellent job of explaining her passion. Taking her place in a long line of fans, she is a most able modern champion of molluscs."
– Adrian Barnett, New Scientist 3026, 20 June 2015

"A rewarding glimpse of another world, filled with strange and reclusive creatures [...] There is rich detail in all directions. One does not know what will come next. Often the descriptions made me see shafts of sunlight underwater, irradiating extraordinary places and creatures. That is just what the book does itself."
– Richard Kerridge, The Guardian

" [...] punctures assumptions with the power of a cone snail dart."
– Rose George, The Spectator

"Splendid [...] Scales clearly loves snails – she has done an elegant, excellent job of explaining her passion [...] she is a most able modern champion of molluscs."
– Adrian Barnett, New Scientist

"Scales is a charming raconteur with boundless enthusiasm and an eye for detail that make her subject glow with life. Combining biology, history and ecology, this is nature writing at its most engaging."
Sunday Express

"The stories in Spirals in Time – which range from slaves being bought for bags of shells in west Africa in the 1770s to ground-breaking medical uses of cone-snail venom – are gripping and unimaginable."
The Telegraph

"Helen Scales [...] takes us on a fascinating journey into the strange and captivating world of mollusks. Carefully researched and entertaining throughout [...] Scales's book is relentlessly interesting."

" [...] an informed introduction to this fascinating group. The author's enthusiasm shines through the prose [...] This is an ideal book for a summer holiday, and beach finds will take on a new dimension because of it."
Times Literary Supplement

"Scales demonstrates her encyclopedic knowledge [...] an enchanting, accessible tour of the seashell and its place and purpose within the natural world."
Kirkus Reviews

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