Books: How seaside rock shaped the world
The Floating Egg: Episodes in the Making of Geology by Roger Osborne, Cape pounds 15.99
Sunday 23 August 1998
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".
TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
The best underrated Christmas movies from Love, Actually to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre
Sony hack: Angelina Jolie branded 'seriously out of her mind' in further embarrassing leaked email saga
Panic Saturday: 13 million Britons spend £1.2bn – while 13 million others across the country live in poverty unable to afford food