New Bjornerud book explains history of Earth, life

JingLin Huang

“Appleton is so flat!”
While driving in Appleton, one often notices the lack of topographic variation in the surrounding landscape. Appleton is indubitably a flat town, but did you know that it sits on sediment piled on top of the bed of a glacial lake? This is where geology – the study of the life and history of the Earth, especially as recorded in rocks – comes in.
For the busy college students out there, Lawrence geology professor Marcia Bjornerud’s “Reading the Rocks: The Autobiography of the Earth,” will certainly be required reading this summer. The handy book tells the fascinating story of four and half billion years of geologic history in an engaging manner, and it contains a detailed time-scale and glossary for all the tricky words that geologists use.
According to geology professor Andrew Knudsen, “[Bjornerud] is able to share her love of the planet and its complex systems in a way that you don’t need to be a geologist to appreciate.”
One of the most attractive features of the book is its clear organization of geologic history into concise chapters focusing mainly on major geological events, such as a steep rise in the oxygen content of the atmosphere, the various ice ages, and the mass extinctions of the Paleozoic Era, which altered the course of evolution.
Moreover, geologic events are not described in the conventional chronological format, but in terms of themes. Each chapter is organized around a pair of contrasting geological forces, which the Earth as a system keeps in dynamic equilibrium and has done so for much of its past. Some of these features include: mixing vs. sorting, innovation vs. conservation, and the paradoxical power-sharing between the very large and the very small. In the chapter “Mixing and Sorting,” one learns about the surface and subsurface processes and how they interact.
One major concern of “Reading the Rocks” is the impact of human activity on the Earth. The study of the rock record reveals that though the Earth system has its own balancing mechanisms for maintaining stability, it can also become wildly unstable under certain circumstances. Humans play a role in exacerbating the rate of change, and could be affecting the current rates of extinction and climate change. One function of geologic research is to use the historical record of the past to understand current geological changes.
The book grew out of Bjornerud’s “History of Earth and Life” course and various off-campus seminars.
Bjornerud is currently the chair of the geology department. She obtained her Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and has taught for over ten years. Her areas of interest include structural geology, tectonics, rock mechanics, and earth history. She has carried out field studies in areas of the Norwegian and Canadian high Arctic, as well as Ontario and northern Wisconsin.
Her colleague Professor Jeffrey Clark said of her, “Not only is she an internationally recognized scholar – a fellow of the Geological Society of America and a former Fulbright scholar – but also she is a truly gifted writer.”
Bjornerud will be signing copies of her book at Conkey’s this Saturday afternoon from 1 to 3.