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Walter Alvarez. The Mountains of Saint Francis Walter Alvarez.
The mountains of Saint Francis: Discovering the geologic events that shaped our Earth.
New York: W.W. Norton, 2009.
cloth, 304 p., ISBN 978 0 39306 185 7, $US25.95.
W.W. Norton & Company:



Last summer, I made my first visit to Gubbio, Italy, to visit an outcrop on the outskirts of town, one of the most famous outcrops on the planet. In the Bottaccione gorge, I saw the distinct exposed evidence of one of the great mass extinctions marking the end of the Cretaceous some 65 million years ago. But what was the story about the surrounding landscape? As I made my way back to a former monastery near Cupramontana, Italy for a meeting, I deeply regretted not having geologic maps to help me understand the stunning scenery. If only I had this book!

Alvarez tackles the geological history of the Appenines and Italy in wonderful personal detail in this exciting book. I learned much about Italian geology and geologists in this account, based on decades of fieldwork by Alvarez, his wife, and colleagues. But much more impressively, Alvarez knitted Italian geology into a global context, making this book all the more useful as a snapshot of the state of geological research just at this moment. And what a wonderful time to be studying the Earth!

This book is four parts, historically describing Alvarez’s own work in Italy as he unravelled a rich variety of geological problems starting in Rome. In the course of solving these problems, Alvarez provides the reader with the geological and intellectual tools to understand the more difficult and fantastic problems in the last two sections of the book.

Even as a life–long student of geology, I found Alvarez’s entertaining text most revealing, thanks indeed to plenty of illustrations that help clarify even the most surprising notions. For example, who could have imagined the Mediterranean completely disappearing a little over five million years ago? Chapter 13 — “Salt Crisis” — succinctly describes this nearly unimaginable event, as well as Ken Hsü’s The Mediterranean was a desert (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983).

Personal details make this book a real page–turner. For example, Carlo Migliorini (in the field) and Philip Kuenen (in the lab) discovered independently the meaning of turbidites — graded beds deposited by underwater movements of sediment. Alvarez describes what next happened:

“Carlo Migliorini and Philip Kuenen happened to meet at a scientific conference shortly after World War II ... . They fell into conversation and discovered that they had independently reached the same solution to the graded–bed mystery. In such a situation a common reaction is for each scientist to rush to publish first. But Kuenen and Migliorini chose a more civilized path — they decided to work together, and together they published a paper that immediately became a classic, triggering a revolution in sedimentary geology. The title makes it clear: “Turbidity currents as a cause of graded bedding.” Their paper, published in the Journal of Geology in March of 1950, begins with a nice statement of how the paper came about .... .” (pp. 177–178)

Of course, I rushed to my office to dig out that issue of the Journal of Geology to re–read that paper long forgotten. This book has that kind of effect (I only wish that I could access much of the Italian geological literature referenced in this book).

The mountains of Saint Francis is one of best works of its kind, a description in lovely detail of decades of effort to uncover the truly ancient history of Italy and Europe. I look forward to returning to Gubbio with this book in one hand and a trusty rock hammer in the other. — Edward J. Valauskas. End of article

Copyright © 2009, First Monday.

Book review of Walter Alvarez’s The mountains of Saint Francis: Discovering the geologic events that shaped our Earth
by Edward J. Valauskas.
First Monday, Volume 14, Number 1 - 5 January 2009

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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