Tomes 2011: All Science All the Time Edition

Oh, dear. I think I just heard the sound of bookshelves screaming in anticipation. Poor overloaded darlings. They’ll just have to toughen up and take it, or rely on e-readers to lighten their load. We’ve got some excellent books on tap this edition.


The Stuff of Thought

There are two things Steven Pinker always combines that I adore: the science of the mind, and language. This book delivers both in copious amounts. A few myths are dispelled, quite a few more insights given, and there’s an entire chapter on metaphor that should have any self-respecting writer screaming for joy.

The chapter on names shall greatly interest those following the Nymwars Saga.

And it’s all delivered in the gorgeous, clear, playful prose Steven’s known for. There’s absolutely nothing not to love in this book that I could find.

It’s meant to be third in a trilogy: the first two were The Language Instinct and Words and Rules. But if you haven’t read the other two, no worries. This one stands comfortably alone. That’s not to say you shouldn’t read all three, especially The Language Instinct, which is fantastic.


Crater Lake: Gem of the Cascades

This is a reasonably comprehensive and utterly enthralling book on Crater Lake. I’ve read a lot about Mount Mazama and the eruption that created Crater Lake, but this book contained a lot of things those other sources didn’t. It covers everything from its discovery to its future. The color illustrations are delicious, the geologic information clearly presented and easy to understand without being melodramatic or simplified beyond toleration, and the little info boxes and explanatory diagrams add to rather than distract from the whole. I dipped into it during our Oregon trip, meaning to skim a bit. I finished it before we’d left for home. It’s that easy to read, but I didn’t finish it feeling like I’d been spoon-fed: my brain felt pleasantly full of completely intriguing information. And it certainly made visiting Crater Lake more interesting.

I really can’t recommend this one highly enough. And, bonus, the 3rd edition is practically up-to-the-minute.

Source is moi.

Where Terranes Collide

Okay, so I had to snap a photo of it to get a cover image, and it’s rather hard to find, but if you have any interest whatsoever in the North American Cordillera, then the effort to acquire this book shall be rewarded. It was written by C.J. Yorath, who worked for the Geological Survey of Canada for a great many years. The man knows his stuff. He knows it so damned well that even if you are a grammar guru, you will be able to forgive the occasional typos.

There were a lot of ups and downs in this book – up one set of mountains and down another, from the Rockies to the coast. He takes you on a field trip through the chaos of a subduction zone, and it’s one hell of a ride. Then, he introduces you to the people behind the data. I love the paeans to the geologists he’s known and worked with. And I love the inside look at the way geology happens – arguments over data, banging on rocks, the rough stuff that the public doesn’t get to see before beautifully polished results are printed. This felt like being an insider. And now I’m going to have to go hunt down his other books…



I dearly love Oliver Sacks. I dearly love music. I dearly loved Oliver Sacks talking about music. This book is a total treat. If you’ve ever read any of Oliver’s work before, you know his prose is like really good chocolate and that the subjects he explores are fascinating. This exploration of music and the brain caused me some difficulties, because I had things I was supposed to do and didn’t do them. Went to lie abed and read.

There are so many incredible stories in here: of how music affects people who are so damaged it seems nothing can reach them, of how music affects us, the weird things and the wonderful things music can do. I have to admit that it scared the crap out of me at times: when you’re reading Oliver Sacks, you realize just how many things can go drastically wrong with a human brain. But it also delighted me right down to my toes. If you have any love of neuroscience, music, or stories about human beings doing remarkable things, you’ll delight in this book, too.


Road Guide to Mount St. Helens

I’m not actually going to say much of anything about this book. It’s not because it’s bad – far from it. It’s a wonderful, handy little guide suitable for slipping into a pocket or purse as you explore Mount St. Helens. Pick up a copy at the visitor’s center at Silver Lake on your way up.

But I won’t tell you all about it, because you can go read it for yourself, right now. Just click the link above. The authors were kind enough to put in online, for free.

So go on, then. Go have a read. Just this once, your wallet and your bookshelves will both be sighing with relief, and you’ll still get to enjoy a good book.

Prelude to a Catastrophe: Silver Lake

Let’s have a road trip, shall we? Yes, I do know we were in the middle of Oregon, getting ready to shove our noses against some particularly delicious road cuts, but this is a virtual car – we can skip states in the blink of an eye.

So hop in. We’re on our way to Mount St. Helens today. The skies are very nearly clear – by Washington state standards, anyway. Warm sun mingles with a cool breeze that snickers about autumn’s imminent arrival. You’ve got your nose plastered to the car window as we drive up Spirit Lake Memorial Highway from Castle Rock. All you’re seeing at this point are low hills and a flat bit of valley, plastered with green stuff. Biology is a perennial problem for geologists round here. You can barely see the hills for the trees. And you can’t even tell we’re driving along the shore of a lake. But here it is: visible in satellite views, anyway.

View Larger Map

We turn off at the Mount St. Helens Visitor’s Center. Lovely building, quite a lot of nice displays, and a nice nature trail along Silver Lake.

And you’re just burning for your first glimpse of Mount St. Helens her own self, but the clouds aren’t cooperating. That’s quite all right, because I want you to focus on the lake for a bit. Maybe it’ll help if I tell you Mount St. Helens created it.

[Read more…]

Epic Excitement: Reading Quad Map Documentation

I’m not being facetious. I spent a good portion of Sunday reading the pamphlet for the Geologic Map of the Silver Lake Quadrangle, Cowlitz County, Washington (pdf). And I was enthralled.

There’s high excitement in that data. There’s a whole history contained in it, over forty million years of oceans, deltas, volcanic eruptions, flood basalts, floods, lahars – enough stuff to keep a disaster buff busy for days. Yes, at a glance, it’s couched in dry scientific language. There are words in there I had to look up: I had no idea what they meant, my Greek and Latin are still too poor to puzzle out meanings from roots, and even several years of intensive reading in geology hasn’t exposed me to all of the terms. I discovered paludal. I love paludal. Now I know it comes from the Latin word palus, which means “marsh,” and so means “sediments that accumulated in a marsh environment.” I still think lacustrine and fluvial are prettier words, just as lakes and streams are often prettier than marshes, but who cares if it isn’t the kind of word that sparkles as it rolls off the tongue? Think of the Scrabble games you could win!

And I came across an old friend: hyaloclastite. Check this out:

The massive to well-bedded, poorly sorted, mafic tuffs typically consist of angular, commonly scoriaceous basalt clasts cemented by abundant zeolites and yellowish clays. Most of the tuffs are thought to be hyaloclastites generated by phreatomagmatic eruptions.

And I squeed, because I remembered: I’ve even seen a hyaloclastite. Saw it with Lockwood on Mary’s Peak, didn’t I? Even got the picture, complete with zeolite, to show ye:

Those white bits are zeolites. The whole mass is probably quite similar to what you’d find in the Silver Lake quadrangle. Hyaloclastites form when lava hits water. Yes, I know, you normally think pillows, and those are what happen when the lava doesn’t esplode. But let me refer you to another mouthful of a word: phreatomagmatic. In this case, instead of forming nice pillows, the lava hit the water and basically shattered due to sudden cooling. They’re talking about tuffs, as well. Tuff is a rock formed from volcanic ash. So, if I’ve understood me geology correctly, I don’t even have to read on to the next paragraph to understand what happened: lava encountered a shallow-water environment, either due to an underwater eruption or a lava flow into the water source, and that sudden quenching caused it to shatter rather spectacularly.

And now we consult the experts:

In some localities the clastic beds appear to grade upward into massive basaltic andesite flows, suggesting that the phreatomagmatic eruptions were triggered when subaerially erupted lavas flowed over water-saturated sands, probably near or at the late Eocene shoreline.

Now we’re cooking with geology! (Incidentally, you can cook with geology: you will need a chicken, banana leaves, a shovel and gloves, some seasonings, and 2000° F fresh Lava.)

The whole pamphlet is filled with such things (sans recipes). We learn about ancient shorelines, meet up with our old friends the Columbia River Basalts, witness the birth of Mount St. Helens, and discover that this is a horrible quadrangle to site your house in if you don’t want it bulldozed by a lahar. Reading this pamphlet was like parking the TARDIS and watching 40 million years of subduction zone antics unfold: when you began, you had a nice oceanfront view. Then came the eruptions, and the marshes, and continents colliding, and flood basalts, and the incredible violence of the Cascades’ birth. I got so wrapped up in it that when it came time to stop and call my best friend, I became upset.

Who would have known reading the documentation for a geologic map could be so damned fun?

But that’s geology. It’s a very accessible science. Learn a little of the lingo, get a general understanding of how things work by reading excellent pop sci books and palling around with geologists, combine that with Google searches for unfamiliar terms, and you can enjoy the source material. You don’t need years of college education. You don’t need calculus. You’ll run the risk of coming away with a burning desire to go traipse around the countryside and take a petrology class, yes, but you can understand this stuff. You’re not reading a science paper so much as a story, one that begins in the middle of things and is still going on right at this moment. And did I mention, explosions!

If you can’t get excited by all that, I have very little hope for you.

Bonus delight, here’s what I saw when I Googled “hyaloclastite”:

That’s our Lockwood, that is! I’m not sure when Google started doing this, or how it works, but that’s actually pretty awesome.