November 16, 2017


Life on Surtsey, Iceland’s Upstart Island. By Loree Griffin Burns. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.

Impact! Asteroids and the Science of Saving the World. By Elizabeth Rauch. Photos by Karin Anderson. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $18.99.

     One of the most amazing things about the excellent “Scientists in the Field” series is the way it shows some scientists focusing on tiny things and others on the very big picture – and in all cases doing so with meticulous attention to detail and absolute commitment to their projects, small or large. Life on Surtsey looks at the very small but very important things happening on a volcanic island that was formed in 1963 by an eruption 15 miles off the coast of Iceland. For 50-plus years, scientists have studied the very small elements that turn barren rock into a place teeming with life, both plant and animal. Loree Griffin Burns focuses on Erling Ólafsson, who has spent nearly half a century studying some very small things on Surtsey: insects. They are among the first colonizers of the island, but not the very first. As Life on Surtsey explains, it was only two weeks after Surtsey formed that something alive was there: a seagull, one of the many that live and breed on other rocky outcrops in the area. And birds do not simply visit on their own: they bring nesting materials that may contain plants or seeds, their feathers harbor mites and other insects, and as the seagulls catch and eat fish and other foods, leftovers from the meals rot and provide potential nutrients for various plants. Nor did the colonizing of Surtsey happen only because of birds: the sea itself washed plant matter onto the island, and some of it took root. Bit by bit, life took hold. The photos showing Surtsey at different stages are fascinating: the close-up views of plants, eggs, insects and birds show how quickly life attaches to and thrives on the new land, and the discussion of the care the scientists take to avoid impinging on the island’s natural development is especially intriguing and indicative of just what it means to be a scientist in the field. For example, there is the matter of bathrooms. To avoid having human waste become a factor in Surtsey’s development, urinals for men and women consist of small holes in the sand in specific places. Any toilet paper used must be disposed of in the trash can inside the simple hut where the scientists stay – none may be left outdoors. As for “anything more than pee,” Burns explains that the scientists must walk to a specific, rocky part of the island, lift a rock, make use of the hole beneath it, and replace the rock – choosing a location “close enough to the ocean that the waves can come up and carry away your deposit at high tide, but not so close that the waves come while you’re squatting there and carry you away.” Juxtaposing these conditions with the remarkable photos and carefully explained experiments of the scientists makes Life on Surtsey a truly amazing experience, one that will give young readers a firm understanding of the fascination, if not exactly glamor, of the lives of the scientists who study this still-developing island.

     Life on Surtsey is all about the very small, but the scientific focus is on enormous matters in Impact! The book opens with a scene that could come from a fictional end-of-the-world thriller: explosions, shattered glass spraying everywhere, buildings shaking, earthquake-like jolts, the immediate fear that a nuclear bomb has detonated nearby. It turns out that all the effects were the result of an asteroid strike by a comparatively small space rock, one the size of a six-story building that had exploded in the sky and rained pieces of itself to the ground over many miles. Yes, a six-story asteroid, including the one that came down near Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013, and was heavier than the Eiffel Tower, is rather small – there are much, much bigger ones out there. The question of what to do if one of those appears on a collision course with Earth lies at the heart of Impact! Science fiction aside, we do not yet have a way to prevent a potential planetwide catastrophe. The scientists profiled in Elizabeth Rauch’s book are working toward that goal. The research may be complicated, but the way the scientists go about it comes across in Rauch’s writing as easy to understand, as in a search for meteorites near Creston, California: “It’s a game of ‘One of These Things Is Not Like the Other.’ What looks different from all the other rocks around? What doesn’t fit in? What might have come from outer space?” An excellent page of Karin Anderson’s photos shows “Meteor-Wrongs” on top and meteorites on the bottom, visually explaining to readers what scientists must sort through when trying to find space rocks and use them to study the potential effects of future collisions with Earth. Anderson’s photos are an excellent complement to Rauch’s clear text: the pictures show everything from a large meteor crater to a thinly sliced section of a meteorite about to be examined under a microscope. Inevitably, the book discusses the origin of the solar system and the extinction of the dinosaurs – caused, in large part, by an asteroid six miles wide colliding with Earth and forming what is today called the Chicxulub crater, half in Mexico and half under the Gulf of Mexico. Some of this material may be familiar to readers, but other information will not be, such as the fact that 183 asteroid impact craters have been discovered on Earth – the map showing all their locations is fascinating. How often do major asteroid strikes occur? About once every 300 years, Rauch writes in the caption beneath a photo showing some of the destruction that one impact caused in Tunguska, Siberia, in 1908, when 80 million trees were destroyed. And what about risks in the future? The book’s second half focuses on the search for PHAs (potentially hazardous asteroids) and the importance of getting some warning, even a small amount, before any of them hits – hopefully enough time to evacuate the impact area and protect what structures can be protected. The scientists’ enthusiasm as they search for PHAs is tempered by the reality that they may one day discover something that could be a major threat to our planet. Possible ways of dealing with an imminent threat – none of them currently practical – make up the last part of Impact! An asteroid-breaking bomb, a crash-landing by a spacecraft, solar sails to collect energy that would redirect the asteroid, and other ideas (including one based on paintball) are discussed and shown in intriguing diagrams. None of them is practical yet; most will never be developed; but some are well along in research stages and will hopefully be ready for deployment before a scientist, perhaps one of those profiled in this book, discovers an Earth-bound asteroid whose path is likely to intersect our planet’s, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

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