Book Review: Snowball Earth by Gabrielle Walker

Snowball Earth, June science read, geologists, ice, rocks, bookstagram, book review, Paul Hoffman, planet, Earth

Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature was always going to be a hard act to follow and I’m afraid my June science read, Gabrielle Walker’s Snowball Earth, just didn’t hit the same high. Still, Snowball Earth is an interesting read that propounds the theory that centuries ago, Earth experienced a massive global freeze, the titular Snowball Earth, which is believed to have led to the Cambrian explosion and the evolution of complex, multi-celled life.

Walker does a great job of explaining the science behind Snowball Earth and the slow evolvement of the theory, beginning with the initial discoveries pertaining to ice rocks and magnetic fields made by Brian Harland and Joe Kirschvink. She also lends a look at the combative (very combative!) scientific personalities that both defend and criticize the Snowball Earth theory. Chief amongst these personalities is Paul Hoffman, the geologist who is credited with piecing together and heavily promoting the various theories and evidence behind Snowball Earth.

To be honest, I think I might have enjoyed Snowball Earth a lot more if it weren’t for all those bellicose personalities, especially that of Hoffman’s. All engagingly smart minds, but all (or at least most) seemingly in need of being sent to charm school boot camp. Perhaps a reality show in the vein of Ladettes to Ladies – possible title: Scientists to Swans? In particular, Walker makes Hoffman out to be a brilliant but highly abrasive character, seemingly charismatic yet possessing few friends, almost a Steve Jobs of the geology field. He comes out as such an unlikeable character, you could almost understand people turning hostile towards his ideas, no matter how brilliant they were, just because of his personality alone.

But putting aside the personalities, Walker’s description of ice rocks, cap carbonates, crystal fans and the myriad other pieces of evidence that lend credit to the Snowball Earth theory is fascinating, as is the arguments for and against the idea. Walker is a science journalist and editor for publications such as Nature and New Scientist, and her magazine-journalism style of writing is evident, the book peppered with anecdotes of her encounters with the scientists behind the Snowball Earth theory. Her descriptions of various locales around the world, ranging from the deserts of Namibia and South Australia to the Canadian Arctic and windswept Mistaken Point in Newfoundland are worth a read for the travel bug in us and provide fodder for the imagination. (And also one early reference in the book to Shark Bay in Western Australia – hip, hip hurray for a local mention!) (Side note: as I make further headway into my 2016 monthly science reads, I grow increasingly aware of the number of references made to Australian scientists and the significant discoveries and works of Australian science research, and this makes it clearer to me than ever how important it is that we keep up the incentive for such studies, especially more so now as Australia is currently mired in vote-counting for the federal election this week. Sadly, science research is one of the issues that has rapidly slipped off the political radar over the past few years. In the last cople of years in particular, one of the main science stories to hit the news was about the ever-drying up stream of government funding and incentives for scientific research and in particular for the CSIRO, the national science agency, the very same agency which gave the world that useful Internet technology that we call Wi-fi.)

Snowball Earth is still a fairly new theory, in the stages of continual development and re-adjustment, which makes it an exciting time to learn of and follow the theory. At the same time, like the theory itself, the book feels vaguely incomplete. I confess I find myself waiting for more – more what? Maybe more information, more explanations behind how Snowball Earth could have led to the explosion of complex life in the beginning of the Cambrian period. And perhaps it’s partly because of Walker’s style of magazine writing, but I can’t help but wonder if this theory is far too new, too unfinished to devote an entire book to the hypothesis – that perhaps it could work better as a series of in-depth magazine articles, complete with pictures. Because that was another one of my questions – where are the pictures??? I wanted to see quality colour pictures of these ice rocks, these rose-coloured crystal fans, the Ediacarans and other fossils, and thought a set of pictures would have made a nice addition to the book.

So is Snowball Earth credible? After reading Walker’s book, I’m still not so sure myself. The jury is still out on this one – it could be very well  be true and it is certainly a most a fascinating and divisive theory. One thing’s for sure, I’ll be looking forward to hearing more about the theory as it evolves and develops – and to see whether it will continue to hold up against new arguments and objections put forth by its many detractors and critics as time goes by.


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