We previous generations often find our knowledge falling behind. Especially in science, where new ideas and information reach students every day. They have a new understanding of how the world works.

My science, however, is well past its use-by date. So I sought advice from the distinguished scientists in the Mineral and Gem Museum‘s basement. Al Falster recommended two books available in the museum’s shop. Andrew H Knoll is Fisher Professor of Natural History at Harvard, but he’s written A Brief History of Earth: Four Billion Years in Eight Chapters, for the general public. It covers the immense ground of the title.

He begins with the beginning of our universe 13.8 billion years ago, but soon reaches recent (?) times. Four billion years ago, biological time joins geological time, though most of us wouldn’t recognize the uni-celled, then multi-celled, organisms.

One-and-a-half billion years later, geo-chemical processes begin to oxygenate the oceans and atmosphere; life more-or-less as we know it could begin to evolve. Four or five hundred million years ago, life begins to move out of the sea; plants and animals evolve. Meanwhile, continents and oceans, tectonic plates, core, and crust interact and change.

This brings us to the great extinctions that shape and re-shape evolution, and thus to Peter Brannen’s The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions. Brannen talks and works with scientists around the world, in the field and in the lab. (We learn how they explore and think and write and argue… He pulls no punches: “…the crowd of goateed, mildly autistic, middle-aged, Midwestern American males that haunt stateside geology conferences.”)

We easily imagine the death of dinosaurs, perhaps the result of a meteor strike. But Brannen is equally good on four earlier mass extinctions, making them all exciting and important.

The scientists are afraid; very afraid. Humans are a new species, unlikely to produce a truly mass extinction in record time. But they’re affecting the environment in unprecedented ways: burning the carbon stored over thousands of millennia, for example.

Meanwhile, Brannen reminds us, “creation museums” continue to ignore or horribly misuse the evidence of earth’s and life’s antiquity; politicians dither; too many people shrug their shoulders.

Full disclosure: David R Jones volunteers at MMGM; his wife works there.

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