In Suspect Terrain by John McPhee

cradlow's review against another edition

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informative slow-paced


mjfmjfmjf's review against another edition

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Reading this series is difficult. I don't know enough Geology and the author mostly doesn't help me a long. I do know somewhat of the history of science especially on well-known subjects. So when the author talks about the rise of glaciation and plate tectonics I follow more. Most of this book is both a physical and mental ramble. It's a travelogue of an author and a geologist, a self-declared devil's advocate on the subject of plate tectonics. It's often beautiful, but also often opaque. I read an e-book version, which is great because it's easy to look words up as in did the author make this word up or misuse English. Sometimes it's geology but other times its just unknown. It makes me want to start over with learning Geology but I don't have that much interest in field work. But I expect to continue with this series anyway. 2.5 of 5.

bobbo49's review against another edition

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challenging informative medium-paced


I have read three of the four books in the series now, and will soon read the fourth.  Like the others, this one is of course very well written, and the depth of the scientific geology presented is over my head.  I thought that Basin and Range, and Assembling California, were slightly better because the science was woven into the history in a manner that made the books more accessible to non-scientists.  Nonetheless, the critique of plate tectonics - a theory that has dominated the modern discussion of the creation of the earth's structure, both within and outside of the world of science - is excellent and accessible, and when McPhee entwines it with human stories, it is scientific writing at its best.

booccmaster's review against another edition

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adventurous informative lighthearted relaxing medium-paced


barnaclethereal's review against another edition

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informative reflective medium-paced


At the start, immediately after finishing Basin and Range, I didn’t love it, but it grew on me and I thought it was really excellent.

alexwont's review against another edition

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This was "HARD" science, much like a geology textbook, with some intermittent narrative. Because much of the science, and the acompanying vernacular, was above my head, I have abstained from a 1-5 star rating. I could very easily pan it with a 1, or conversely it could have earned a 5. For me, it might have been complemented with maps, although perhaps McPhee abstained from using them for a reason.

It was interesting, nonetheless, and I'm glad I took the time to read it. My favorite parts were the bits detailing the history of science.

rileylasda's review

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challenging informative slow-paced


samuelpedro1992's review against another edition

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In Suspect Terrain is book two in John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World. He continues his drive along I-80 to explore the geological forces that shaped America.

This time he is accompanied by a geologist named Anita Harris. She pioneered using conodonts, which are toothlike fossils to help determine the age of rocks, and are very useful to the petroleum industry. A large portion of the book is dedicated to her life and work. She also doesn’t believe all the hype about the new (at the time) seafloor spreading theory and shares her concerns with McPhee.

Like Basin and Range, we get explanations of how America’s geology came to be. We learn why the tallest skyscrapers in New York City are clustered in certain areas of Manhattan. There is also a fascinating summary of how diamonds are created.

Another major topic of the book is glaciers. The part of the country McPhee is exploring (New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana) was largely shaped by the effects of glaciation.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. It’s not as good as Basin and Range, but it’s still good. I read both Basin and Range and In Suspect Terrain in a week, which was a lot of geology to digest. I will be taking a few weeks off before I read the third book in the series.

Do I recommend it?

Like Basin and Range, you don’t have to be a geologist to appreciate this book. But it still might be an acquired taste. You should know McPhee is exceptional at writing about geology. His writing is interesting and engaging, and never dull, which can be hard to do with a work of science.

This was originally posted on my website here

majesticbirdy's review

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adventurous informative reflective slow-paced


left_coast_justin's review against another edition

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Think about diamonds for a minute. So far as we know, there are only two places these occur in nature. One is in very widely-scattered sites on Earth, and the others are little microdiamonds that are sometimes found on meteors.

I think we all realize that enormous heat and pressure are required to form a diamond. So the inside of a volcano might be a good place, right? Uhhh, no. Not nearly enough pressure. Volcanoes are essentially weak points in the Earth's crust where lava can bubble out. No, to form a diamond, you need to go towards the middle of a tectonic plate, the most stable places on Earth, and go down. Way down. Sixty or seventy miles down. The center of the tectonic plates are the only places where the crust is this thick. Any carbon that finds its way down there will be converted to diamond.

Then the problem becomes getting it to the surface. How do diamonds move sixty miles upwards through solid, stable rock? And that's not all: If the diamonds were to migrate upwards at slow to moderate speeds into regions of lower pressure and lower temperature before reaching the surface, they would quickly revert to graphite, which is the most stable form of pure carbon. (Diamonds are emphatically not forever.) So they have to emerge from down there at high speed. In fact, they have to be blown out of the ground at twice the speed of sound in order to survive the trip, where they 'freeze' in their distinctive crystal structure. For reasons that nobody quite understands, every so often a 'diamond pipe' explodes out of the surface of the most stable regions of the earth. This has never happened in human history, but, as McPhee notes, one could pop up under Kansas City next week.

I strongly recommend reading this book. It's just full of stuff like this. So many fun things to learn!

(Nov. 17, 2020)

If geologic time could somehow be seen in the perspective of human time, on the other hand, sea level would be rising and falling hundreds of feet, ice would come pouring over continents and as quickly go way. Yucatans and Floridas would be under the sun one moment and underwater the next, oceans would swing open like doors, mountains would grow like clouds and come down like melting sherbet, continents would crawl like amoebae, rivers would arrive and disappear like rainstreaks on an umbrella, lakes would go away like puddles after a rain, and volcanoes would light the earth as if it were a garden full of fireflies. At the end of the program, man shows up -- his ticket in his hand. Almost at once, he conceives of private property, dimension stone, and life insurance. When a Mt. St. Helens assaults his sensibilities with an ash cloud eleven miles high, he writes a letter to the New York Times recommending that the mountain be bombed.

I'm so happy to be re-reading these books! One wonderful page after another.