The best books on deep time

Alexandra Witze Author Of Island on Fire: The extraordinary story of Laki, the volcano that turned eighteenth-century Europe dark
By Alexandra Witze

The Books I Picked & Why

Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World

By Marcia Bjornerud

Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World

Why this book?

Bjornerud, a geologist, goes far beyond a basic history of Earth in this philosophical little volume. She introduces the concept of timefulness, or how the world is shaped by time. By exploring topics such as the rise of mountains and the shifting of continents, she sets the stage for a deeper understanding of the changes occurring on our planet today — and how we might be better stewards of our brief moment upon the stage.


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Deep Time: A journey through 4.5 billion years of our planet

By Riley Black

Deep Time: A journey through 4.5 billion years of our planet

Why this book?

This gorgeously illustrated coffee-table volume draws on Black’s expertise in science writing and paleontology. She begins with the Big Bang that created the universe 13.8 billion years ago, then moves in short chapters through milestones of the rise of life on Earth. Prehistoric plants harden into coal in the Carboniferous Period, 359 million years ago; dinosaurs roam the Morrison Formation of the western US, 156 million years ago; and small blobs of molten glass from Laos reveal a powerful meteorite impact 790,000 years ago. You’ll never see the timeline of life the same way again. 


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The Fifth Season: The Broken Earth, Book 1

By N.K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season: The Broken Earth, Book 1

Why this book?

The first installment in Jemisin’s Broken Earth sci-fi/fantasy trilogy, The Fifth Season introduces the continent known as the Stillness, which unlike its name shudders frequently and violently in earthquakes. It turns out that people with special powers, known as orogenes, are intertwined with the violence of the geology here. Jemisin layers narrative upon narrative as she builds the world of the Stillness, touching on themes of power, exclusion, and control. It is the deepest of deep-time looks at a fictional world, in which traumas of the past resonate through the present and the future — in the actions of both humans and the planet they live on.


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Notes from Deep Time: A Journey Through Our Past and Future Worlds

By Helen Gordon

Notes from Deep Time: A Journey Through Our Past and Future Worlds

Why this book?

This is an exemplar of modern science writing, weaving together a travelogue of visits to locations of scientific importance with musings on the significance of Earth history. Gordon has just the right touch of wonder as she peers at frozen records of past climates in an ice-core collection in Copenhagen, and as she scrambles along the Scottish cliffs where 18th-century geologist James Hutton began to recognize the many billions of years of Earth history. She pauses, observes, and brings her reader into a deeper awareness of the landscapes around them. 


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Theory of the Earth Volume I

By James Hutton

Theory of the Earth Volume I

Why this book?

This is the classic book on the deep history of the Earth. Hutton is known as the father of modern geology, because he understood that today’s rocks represent the accumulation of changes over incredibly long geologic epochs. In publishing his ideas he went against the then-popular notion of catastrophism, which held that sudden, violent events such as floods had shaped most of the Earth’s surface. Hutton instead argued for slow changes over time — a concept known as uniformitarianism — and, crucially, recognized that two rock types at Siccar Point, Scotland, had formed at different times separated by many millions of years. “The mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time,” one of Hutton’s companions said. That realization set the stage for future scientists to explore the ramifications of a deep geologic past.


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