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Good Reads  Earth System Sciences  Geosphere  Earth & Planetary Sciences: General

The Story of the Earth in 25 Rocks Tales of Important Geological Puzzles and the People Who Solved Them

Popular Science
By: Donald R Prothero(Author)
354 pages, 155 b/w photos and b/w illustrations
A geological smörgåsbord of 25 courses, celebrating some of the most remarkable intellectual achievements in the earth sciences.
The Story of the Earth in 25 Rocks
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  • The Story of the Earth in 25 Rocks ISBN: 9780231182614 Paperback Jun 2020 In stock
  • The Story of the Earth in 25 Rocks ISBN: 9780231182607 Hardback Jan 2018 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
Selected version: £19.99
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About this book

Every rock is a tangible trace of the earth's past. In The Story of the Earth in 25 Rocks, Donald R. Prothero tells the fascinating stories behind the discoveries that shook the foundations of geology. In twenty-five chapters – each about a particular rock, outcrop, or geologic phenomenon – Prothero recounts the scientific detective work that took us from the unearthing of exemplary specimens to tectonic shifts in how we view our planet and history.

Prothero follows in the footsteps of the scientists who asked – and answered – geology's biggest questions: How do we know how old the earth is? What happened to the supercontinent Pangea? How did ocean rocks end up at the top of Mount Everest? What can we learn about our planet from meteorites and moon rocks? The Story of the Earth in 25 Rocks answers these questions through expertly chosen case studies, such as Pliny the Elder's firsthand account of the eruption of Vesuvius; the granite outcrops that led a Scottish scientist to theorize that the landscapes he witnessed were far older than Noah's Flood; the gypsum deposits under the Mediterranean Sea that indicate that it was once a desert; and how trying to date the age of meteorites revealed the dangers of lead poisoning. Each of these breakthroughs filled in a piece of the puzzle that is the earth, with scientific discoveries dovetailing with each other to offer increasingly solid evidence of the geologic past. Summarizing a wealth of information in an entertaining, approachable style, The Story of the Earth in 25 Rocks is essential reading for the armchair geologist, the rock hound, and all who are curious about the earth beneath their feet.



1. Volcanic Tuff: Vulcan’s Wrath: The Eruption of Vesuvius
2. Native Copper: The Iceman and the Island of Copper
3. Cassiterite: The “Isles of Tin” and the Bronze Age
4. Angular Unconformity: “No Vestige of a Beginning”: The Immensity of Geologic Time
5. Igneous Dikes: The “Earth’s Great Heat Engine”: The Origin of Magmas
6. Coal: The Rock That Burns Fires the Industrial Revolution
7. Jurassic World: The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Rocks of Britain
8. Radioactive Uranium: Clocks in Rocks: Arthur Holmes and the Age of the Earth
9. Chondritic Meteorites: Messengers From Space: The Origin of the Solar System
10. Iron-Nickel Meteorites: The Cores of Other Planets
11. Moon Rocks: Green Cheese or Anorthosite: The Origin of the Moon
12. Zircons: Early Oceans and Life? Evidence in a Grain of Sand
13. Stromatolites: Microbial Condos: Cyanobacteria and the Oldest Life
14. Banded Iron Formation: Mountains of Iron: The Earth’s Early Atmosphere
15. Turbidites: Archean Sediments and Submarine Landslides
16. Diamictites: Tropical Glaciers and the Snowball Earth
17. Exotic Terranes: Paradox in Rocks: Wandering Fossils and Traveling Landmasses
18. Jigsaw-Puzzle Bedrock: Alfred Wegener and Continental Drift
19. Chalk: The Cretaceous Seaway and Greenhouse Planet
20. The Iridium Layer: The Death of the Dinosaurs
21. Lodestones: How Paleomagic Launched Plate Tectonics
22. Blueschists: The Puzzle of Subduction Zones
23. Transform Faults: Earthquake! The San Andreas Fault
24. Messinian Evaporites: The Mediterranean Was a Desert
25. Glacial Erraticts: A Poet, a Professor, a Politician, a Janitor, and the Discovery of the Ice Ages


Customer Reviews (1)

  • A geological smörgåsbord
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 31 May 2019 Written for Hardback

    Judging by the title of this book, you might expect it to talk of 25 remarkable kinds of rocks and minerals. But in the preface, geologist and palaeontologist Donald R. Prothero makes clear that his book looks as much at famous outcrops and geological phenomena. Bringing together 25 readable and short chapters, he gives a wide-ranging tour through the history of geology, celebrating the many researchers who contributed to this discipline.

    The range of topics covered by Prothero is diverse, and seemingly not organised in any fashion. But start reading through the book, and connections are made across chapters. Some of his chapters tie in with Dartnell’s book Origins: How The Earth Made Us that I just reviewed, chronicling the discovery of economically important deposits of coal, tin or iron and how these were formed. Others will take the readers off the planet as he tackles meteorites and moon rocks. Interestingly, Prothero thinks Earth’s water has been present since the beginning, discounting the mechanism of delivery-by-comet, something which Starkey deemed a much more likely possibility (see my review of Catching Stardust).

    Throughout, Prothero highlights the role of chance discoveries, such as the finding of cyanobacterial colonies in Australia that leave behind domed rocky structures called stromatolites, some of the oldest trace fossils in the fossil record, or the famed iridium layer that birthed the idea of a cosmic impact ending the reign of the dinosaurs (see T. rex and the Crater of Doom – Prothero gives a very informative overview of how the tide of opinion and evidence on how impactful that impact was sways back and forth to this day). Another famous story is how Clair Patterson’s research on dating of meteorites produced exquisitely sensitive methods to measure lead levels, resulting in the discovery of widespread lead pollution, a discovery for which he was attacked by powerful industry lobbies throughout his lifetime.

    Another theme that returns time and again is how external forces and priorities provided funding and resources for important discoveries. It was the search for coal in Victorian Britain that led William Smith to produce the first map of geological strata in England in 1815, which pretty much launched the discipline of stratigraphy (see The Map that Changed the World for more). Other authors have already highlighted how the military has been instrumental in the developing discipline of oceanography, providing the material and thirst for knowledge to map the globe’s deep sea.

    Prothero rightfully lavishes most attention on the cornerstones of geology; concepts such as deep time (see e.g. Earth's Deep History or Nature's Clocks) and plate tectonics. Other than the now-famous insights of Alfred Wegener (much ridiculed during his lifetime and afterwards, see my review of Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences), he discusses all the evidence in favour, and the vindication that came with findings from amongst other palaeomagnetism (see my review of The Tectonic Plates are Moving! and The Spinning Magnet). But he also highlights subsequent insights, such as subduction zones and transform faults (e.g. the infamous San Andreas Fault).

    The Story of Earth in 25 Rocks celebrates the many scientists whose names and contributions have been downplayed, such as Marie Tharp’s contribution to creating a map of the entire ocean floor (see Soundings). Or the people who are rarely mentioned, such as Scotsman James Croll’s work on variation in Earth’s orbital motion patterns well before Milutin Milankovitch. Prothero rightfully speaks of the Croll-Milankovitch cycles. Similarly, his chapter on turbidites (the product of large underwater landslides) highlighted fascinating research and characters that were all new to me.

    Each chapter comes with a short recommended reading list, highlighting a selection of excellent popular science books and more academic works. A great selection of period photographs is included and many diagrams and graphs have been redrawn or slightly modified to ensure their legibility and usefulness – some photos of rock formations, on the other hand, would have been better off being reproduced in colour. There are some minor mistakes, such as submarine Alvin supposedly diving almost 4,800 kilometres beneath the waves (p. 19), which made me question the statement on page 146 that the Hull-Rust-Mahoning iron mine has produced over 650 million metric tonnes of ore, and more than 450 metric tonnes of waste (should that latter also be million metric tonnes, or is this mine particularly rich in iron ore?) Prothero furthermore reports dimensions and masses in both metric and imperial units in some chapters, but is not consistent in doing so throughout the book.

    The above are but minor quibbles that take nothing away from the sheer joy and enthusiasm with which Prothero serves up these 25 chapters. Incredibly well written and insightful, there is something here for everyone with an interest in geology. Prothero distinguishes himself as an excellent science communicator and I cannot wait to get my hands on his other two books, The Story of Life in 25 Fossils, which preceded this book, and The Story of the Dinosaurs in 25 Discoveries, which is due later this year.
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Donald R. Prothero has taught paleontology and geology for almost four decades. He is adjunct professor of geological sciences at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, adjunct professor of astronomy and earth sciences at Mt. San Antonio College, and research associate in vertebrate paleontology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. His Columbia University Press books include Bringing Fossils to Life: An Introduction to Paleobiology (third edition, 2013); The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution (2015); and Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters (second edition, 2017).

Popular Science
By: Donald R Prothero(Author)
354 pages, 155 b/w photos and b/w illustrations
A geological smörgåsbord of 25 courses, celebrating some of the most remarkable intellectual achievements in the earth sciences.
Media reviews

"A natural follow-up to the author's The Story of Life in 25 Fossils [...] [A] useful introduction to geology."
– Kirkus Reviews

"The Story of the Earth in 25 Rocks provides twenty-five well-lit doorways into the sometimes dark and imposing edifice of the geologic past. Colorful characters welcome the reader in, revealing the very human nature of scientific inquiry and our long and complicated relationship with rocks."
– Marcia Bjornerud, author of Reading the Rocks: The Autobiography of Earth

"In 25 short and enjoyable chapters, [Prothero] explores issues that have been at the center of geology since long before geology was a science [...] Prothero provides thought-provoking historical context for each subject and presents information about the individuals responsible for advancing geological knowledge – including James Hutton, Charles Lyell, and Alfred Wegener – while explaining the underlying science in an accessible manner."
Publishers Weekly

"Geologist Donald Prothero has crafted a rock-solid premise for this delightful book."
– Barbara Kiser, Nature

"I learned something and gained a deeper appreciation for the history of Earth science from reading The Story of the Earth in 25 Rocks. I recommend it to anyone interested in tales of scientific discovery and natural marvels."
Physics Today

"Skillfully presents a vast array of facts that should appeal to readers newly acquainted with Earth science who are interested in learning a bit more."

"The Story of the Earth in 25 Rocks provides twenty-five well-lit doorways into the sometimes dark and imposing edifice of the geologic past. Colorful characters welcome the reader in, revealing the very human nature of scientific inquiry and our long and complicated relationship with rocks."
– Marcia Bjornerud, author of Reading the Rocks: The Autobiography of Earth

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