by Nigel Calder ‧ RELEASE DATE: Nov. 1, 1983
An uncharacteristic, unbecoming flippancy and causticness color English science-writer Calder's daunting sweep through time. The volume's first part, Overview, relentlessly recounts what the book is not about--i.e., historians or theories of civilization's decline and fall. It is about how we know what the world was/is like through physics: through radiometric dating and plate tectonics, biomolecular analyses, gene mapping, and other miracles of time and space splicing. (The marvels of reductionism writ large.) Part II, Narrative, unrolls the time scale from the beginning of time (put here at 13,500 million years ago) to the present. Some samples: ""The earth's magnetism had gone flip crazy"" (circa 70 million years ago); and, a few paragraphs later: ""The flowering plants invented grasses that virtually asked to be grazed."" This facile condensation also leaves minimal room for explanation--of the initial Big Bang and creation of elements, the earth's early atmosphere or the nature of mitochondria. Part III is an extensive reference index--alphabetically listing, with dates and cross-references, such entries as angiosperms and galaxies, sea level stratigraphy and Yuan (Mongol) Empire. (E.g., ""Work, est. 9000 yr. Surviving hunter-gatherers of recent times, driven into the least bountiful margins of the world, were able to obtain plenty of food for everyone from about four hours' work-like activity a day."" There follow capsule sentences on agriculture and taxation, slavery, business cycles, and unemployment--complete with a summary time-table.) In the last 40 pages or so, on the emergence of man, data on big and little ice ages and melts, other climatological catastrophes or cosmic happenings, intermingle with the evolution of hominids, Neanderthalers, Homo erectus and sapiens, followed rapidly by fire, pottery, pale-skinned milk-drinkers who rode horses. . . finally reaching Einstein and outer space. Here the theme of braininess vies with warcraft, good manners and cooperation with kings and conquest, climaxing in the narrative's final line: ""The outcome of the great gamble of reasonableness versus dangerous knowledge remained entirely in doubt."" It's doubtful, too, whether an armchair reader can maintain patience and equanimity through such a mÃ‰lange--even with a plethora of illustrations and time charts.
Pub Date: Nov. 1, 1983
Page Count: -
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1983
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