Books: Shale of the century

Yorkshire's rock stars began the revolution in geology. John Gribbin discovers our learned friends in the north

The Floating Egg: episodes in the making of geology

by Roger Osborne

Cape, pounds 15.99

I have to declare an interest in this book - or rather, a disinterest. It is not what I would call a "real" book, but a book of bits, or a bit of a book. Roger Osborne has strung together a range of items: straightforward historical accounts, scientific description, lengthy quotations from other sources, and slightly cringe-inducing attempts at fictionalising true stories in the vein of those historical bodice-rippers about Mary Queen of Scots, told from the viewpoint of a lady in waiting. It is just the sort of book I would usually fling down with disgust. And yet, I don't.

The redeeming feature of The Floating Egg is the material that is mistreated in this way. Osborne tells a genuinely multi-faceted story, built around the geology of the north-east of England, starting with alchemy and proceeding historically to end (if we ignore the last and weakest of his attempts at faction) with real science.

This works because the region really was of key importance in the development of the science of geology. There are long stretches of cliff along the Yorkshire coastline, for example, where strata are exposed to view and provide a laboratory for testing ideas about the evolution of the Earth.

We meet William Smith, the canal builder who invented the study of this kind of stratigraphy at the end of the 18th century; we uncover strange fossils of what are now known to be dinosaurs; we follow, in one of the best sections, the saga of stones that fall from the sky, and we even journey with Captain James Cook around the world (which is a bit of a cheat, even though he did hail from Whitby).

The episodic structure of the book, and much of its style, would make it an excellent basis for a radio series, but the whole thing has a disjointed feel. Of course, it may just be that I am being unperceptive and that the ragged edges are intentional, like the careless windswept look on an actress that takes hours to achieve in make-up. The author tries to encourage such a belief by stating in his Preface that "in the next few hundred pages all is not quite as it seems". But I have been unable to uncover any hidden depths, so if they are there they must be buried very deep.

Where do floating eggs come into the story? Right at the beginning, with the alchemists involved in extracting alum (invaluable in the cloth and leather industries) from the shales of the Yorkshire cliffs in the 17th century. The key to their success in producing alum on an industrial scale was to boil a solution of several salts until evaporation had raised its density to a critical value. Then, when the broth cooled, alum, and alum alone, would crystallise out of the stew, leaving unwanted contaminants in solution. The whole process depended on some unknown genius who realised that if a hen's egg were placed in the boiling vat, it would float to the surface at the precise moment that the density of the liquid had reached the optimum level.

Where Osborne's storytelling technique works well, as in this example, he is as good as James Burke at his best. Where it doesn't work, he falls flat on his face. But the structure of the book in 25 self-contained chunks means that you can skip the ones that don't appeal.

Resisting heroically any temptation to mention curates and their breakfast fare, I am more than a little surprised to find myself recommending The Floating Egg as, on balance, a Good Thing. It does make science accessible, it does provide entertainment, and it does portray the scientists involved in the geological revolution as human beings. It's a pity it doesn't often manage to do all three tricks at once, but I've a suspicion that I will like the package more next time I read it.

Suggested Topics
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEpic YouTube video features boundary-pushing staging of a playground gun massacre
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
Morrissey pictured in 2013
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Robyn Lawley
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmThe film is surprisingly witty, but could do with taking itself more seriously, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    M&E Construction Planning Manager: Surrey

    £60000 - £90000 per annum + Car, Pension, Healthcare: Progressive Recruitment:...

    M&E Construction Planner Solihull

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Car, Healthcare, Pensions: Progressive Recruitment...

    PHP Developer - MySQL, RDBMS, Application Development

    competitive: Progressive Recruitment: PHP Developer - MySQL, RDBMS, Applicatio...

    SAP Business Analyst - Data Migration, £75,000, Manchester

    £60000 - £75000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Senior SAP B...

    Day In a Page

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star