An elucidation of the fieldwork and thought that determined the nature of the great Permian extinction.
For a decade, ace scientific storyteller Ward (The Life and Death of Planet Earth, Jan. 2003, etc.) lent his geopaleontological skills to the study of the Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction, which was revealed to be the work of a giant asteroid. Then the even greater extinction that ended the Permian period caught his imagination. What was the cause? Could it be detected through an examination of the Permian-Triassic boundary? Was there a continuous sedimentary record to pursue this line of inquiry? With a group of colleagues, Ward (Geological Sciences/Univ. of Washington, Seattle) set about trying to decipher the fossil record as exposed in South Africa’s Karoo Desert, a formidable and taxing landscape as difficult to contend with as South African society, which was in the midst of its own evolutionary debacle, to which the author pays close attention while artfully choreographing his scientific life. Drawing together an impressive number of narrative threads, Ward presents the findings of his team’s fieldwork like so many wares at a flea market: changes in floodplain morphology, isotopic analysis, biostratigraphy, the evidence of carbon dioxide in vast quantities. Measuring their findings against those of other researchers, he confronts the possibility of another asteroid event and the reality of a world shaped by calamities, a troubled and dangerous world that is reflected in the unease besetting South Africa. Ward revels in the moments of “ka-ching—or whatever brains do when connections are made,” but the extraordinary joys of discovery and insight are countered by the unrelenting beastliness of the environment and the moments of qualm when, upon leaving his family for months at a time, he wonders, “what the hell was the use of finding out what had caused some long-ago extinction anyway?”
Highly entertaining, and particularly evocative of those times when the “ka-ching” sounds, opening entirely new pathways to hare down.