Books: How seaside rock shaped the world

The Floating Egg: Episodes in the Making of Geology by Roger Osborne, Cape pounds 15.99

Where should we start? In remotest Argentina, where a lump of shiny stone lay in the middle of the Field of Heaven? Or with St Hilda, who wasn't quite what she seemed? Perhaps with Henry VIII, who probably married Anne of Cleves for her alum works? Or down in the Southern Ocean with Captain Cook? Or maybe with William Buckland in a hyena's lair, full of the bones of bear, weasel, wolf, elephant, mastodon...

No, let's begin with the title. It is possible to tell that you have reached the end of the alum-making process, when the solution has reached precisely the right specific gravity, because a hen's egg will float on the surface. The Floating Egg is the alum-maker's secret. This arcanum is scarcely in the same league as the philosopher's stone: alum, while useful as a dye-fixative, is considerably less valuable than gold. Yet for centuries it brought wealth and industry to the North Yorkshire coast, near Whitby, after the discovery was made that the local cliff-shales contained the requisite raw materials to make several alum fortunes. Previously, the nearest place you could find such geology was in Flanders, not far from Cleves.

In the course of mining these cliffs during the eighteenth century, several enormous prehistoric fossils were found. Little ammonites, such as appear on the coat of arms of Whitby Abbey were already familiar. They were known as snakestones on account of the legend that the Abbess, the great St Hilda, had turned all the local snakes into stone. Now, however, vast 20 feet long icthyosaurs and plesiosaurs began to emerge from the rock, happily just when science was advanced enough to appreciate and preserve them. One can be seen in Houston, Texas, though unfortunately its head is missing. There is a more complete model in Whitby museum.

And so it goes on. The stories come tumbling out, each more unlikely and fascinating than the last, and all of them closely connected with this one little strip of coast. If you have never read a book about geology before, and didn't even think you were interested, Roger Osborne could change your life. He permits not a moment of tedium and his style is as varied as the composition of the earth. Sometimes it is briefly, sternly academic, providing formulae and definitions - of fluvial aggradation, catena, ganister and splay sandstone. Sometimes it is a racey narrative, as in the account of the discovery and identification of a cave (in Yorkshire, of course) in which ice-age hyenas had crunched up the bones of a bewildering variety of other animals. Dr Buckland, the scientist who analysed these remains, took a group of interested people to a travelling circus to watch a hyena at supper and prove his theory.

Osborne enjoys legend, including the story that the devil built Filey Brigg - or maybe it was constructed by witches, flying in egg-shells - and he can be dreamily romantic: after a storm "... the sea lay like an innocent reveller, sighing in its drunken sleep, while all around was strewn the devastation of its night of mischief ...". He quotes Claudius, Homer and Ptolemy as readily as he uses the findings of nineteenth-century geologists, or the diaries of his hero Captain Cook, who grew up in Staithes and whose vessel, Endeavour, was a flat-bottomed boat designed to carry coal along inshore waterways.

One particularly marvellous section concerns meteorites. Spanish conquistadores in South America discovered a lump of metallic stone in the wide plain they called Campo del Cielo, near Santiago del Estero: local legend said that it had fallen from the sky. Hoping it contained silver, they sent out exploratory parties to bring back samples for analysis: 17 chisels were worn out in the process of removing lumps, though alas no silver was found.

Osborne is intensely excited by geology and succeeds magnificently in communicating his enthusiasm. Yet, despite its light touch, despite dinosaur skeletons wandering across the pages, despite frivolous asides and flights of fancy, this is a serious book, provided with thorough notes and appendices bulging with further recondite information. Endearingly, Osborne loves aphorisms and sprinkles them liberally through his text, often to justify his catholic approach. Science, he says, "may not always be concerned with the dissolution of myth: it can live alongside some other kinds of understanding". Or, as Giorgio de Santillana put it: "Wisdom does not lie in turning away from appearances, but in mastering them".

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee