The Mountain Mystery (Book Review)

Many months ago, Ron Miksha was kind enough to send a copy of his book, The Mountain Mystery, to GG (Ron writes a blog under the book’s name).  Although the book was mostly read long ago, other things kept getting in the way of condensing GG’s scattered thoughts. The quickest summary of this book might be to compare it to visiting caverns.  While most visits are on nice paths that lead you in a very direct way to the highlights, often avoiding the original historical paths into the caves, Miksha’s book is more like a discovery tour, poking into every side chamber and crevice, sometimes revealing rarely visited gems and sometimes just getting all dirty for little payoff.

Most histories of plate tectonics tend to start with Wegener or even later, but The Mountain Mystery starts far earlier, invoking the ghosts of such lesser known men as Anaximander, Immanuel Velikovsky and Thomas Burnet (and, among the others, a couple of women overlooked over the ages). Much of the first half of the book describes geological thinking on topics ranging from magnetism to the Great Flood. Virtually every person mentioned is the subject of a mini-biography; tidbits that emerge include reminders that Mohorovicic moved from meteorology to seismology and Clarence Dutton plumbed the depths of Crater Lake. For GG’s taste, the book’s structure in the first half is rather grating: every new notion is immediately sidetracked by a scientist’s childhood or forays into materials not related to earth science, and so GG felt yanked back and forth from biography to science. Geological insights are forgotten and then rediscovered, or new insights lack connection to older ones. Readers like yours truly might find all this frustrating, but here you will find pieces of the intellectual history regarding the earth that are omitted from most other histories. It will be the rare reader who recognizes all the players in this book.

The text hits a surer stride near its midpoint. Once we find Wegener, the number of scientific players drops to a more tractable number and so the biographies are more complete and less jarring. The scientific work too is building on other material discussed, so a sense of forward motion develops. The main focus for much of the second half of the book is the marine geophysics that led to the recognition of seafloor spreading. This carries us almost to the complete theory of plate tectonics. Unfortunately the book pretty much stops at that point, failing to carry the reader on into theory that helps to convert plate tectonics into some understanding of the origin of mountains. Perhaps the author thought this self-evident, but the growth of the geologic literature reinterpreting observations in the light of plate tectonics would have been a worthy complement to the information presented. (There is a hint of what would have been an interesting example, namely Tanya Atwater’s 1970 paper exploring the geologic history of California in the context of plate tectonics; the roots of this paper are briefly mentioned but not pursued).

There are a number of limitations of this book that are a bit baffling (some of these might reflect Ron’s hope that this is the prelude to a more thorough volume). The single most unfortunate drawback is the absence of an index. For a book that actually covers far more of geologic thought than most, a good index would have made this book invaluable as a reference. There are odd choices in topic material. Why not discuss the emergence of continental paleomagnetism, which arguably had shown in the 1950s that continents had to move? The last chapter, which somehow elevated Michael Manga above the rest of the community, seems a mistake as the focus of the book suddenly sharpened from too wide to exceptionally narrow. Some worthy parts of the plate tectonic story are left untouched (for instance, the curious inference and then dismissal of deep thrusts by Caltech seismologist Hugo Benioff, and the detective story that led George Plafker to recognize that the 1964 Alaskan earthquake was in fact proof of subduction). And not too surprisingly for a book covering such a huge amount of ground, there are some factual errors, but probably inconsequential ones given the scope of the book.

On the whole, this is a good book if you want to see the deep historical roots for geological thought and some of the more unusual blind alleys some scientists have taken. Miksha explores some of the more wild-eyed ideas more thoroughly than more traditional histories of the subject (you don’t often see Velikovsky mentioned at all in histories of plate tectonics). A good subtitle for this book might have been “A geological biography.” This is not a replacement for Oreskes’s histories of continental drift and plate tectonics, nor is it a text explaining our modern understanding of the earth. It is a rather unique entry into the discussion about the evolution of earth science.

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3 responses to “The Mountain Mystery (Book Review)”

  1. Miksha says :

    Thanks, GG, for your review of my book. I agree with nearly all of your comments and will use many of your suggestions when I update The Mountain Mystery. The book is not intended as a scientific treatise, but a story that might appeal to a lay audience – hence the numerous (and admittedly distracting) side-stories and mini-biographies.
    As a geophysicist, I became intrigued with the idea that our knowledge of the origin of mountains (i.e., ‘the mystery’) is exceedingly recent. So, I attempted to write a story for ordinary readers that would relay the discovery of how our Earth works.
    Thanks for taking the time to read this book, to offer valuable feedback, and to even post your review on your blog. It’s very much appreciated. Your suggestions and comments will make the revision a much better book!
    – Ron


  2. Miksha says :

    Reblogged this on The Mountain Mystery and commented:
    Many thanks to GG at The Grumpy Geophysicist blog for this review of The Mountain Mystery book!


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