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RIDDLES IN STONE (article first published : 2007-11-4)

Geology, the study of the physical structure of the earth, may seem a rather forbidding subject for the layman, but Riddles In Stone by Hugh Eales is ample evidence to the contrary, approaching the subject in a normal, down-to-earth (pardon the pun) and non-pedagogic way.

Hugh Eales is a professor of geology at Rhodes University and his book is the result of a lifetime of experience as an academic and as a practical worker in the field (he has explored for gold, diamonds and base metals). Here he discusses various fascinating theories about Southern Africa and elsewhere, ancient and modern - for example, the question: How old is the earth? (Over the years the expert guesses range from 6,000 years to 4,400 million years).

Equally intriguing is the chapter headed: Is the end nigh? How much time do we have left? Here, and in a separate chapter on global warming, it is reassuring to note that Professor Eales takes a calm, rather pragmatic view, one laced with dry humour.

Other subjects discussed include the theories about continental drift; whether the earth is expanding or shrinking; E.H.L. Schwarz’s plan to turn the Kalahari desert into a garden; the legend of Noah’s Flood; the impact, or possible impact, of comets; the geological history of South Africa’s mineral wealth and the more recent history of the diamond mines and the gold fields; gemstones; asbestos; platinum.

Professor Eales’s knowledge is encyclopaedic, he has a keen eye for the interesting oddity, and he has a delightfully laid-back style of writing, far removed from the ponderous pontifications of so many others.

One brief quotation gives something of the flavour of this book: “An old diamond digger’s test for a diamond was to weigh it carefully, clamp it in a vice or pliers, and file it vigorously with a whisky bottle for several minutes before weighing it again. If it was found not to have lost weight it was pronounced a diamond”.

Perhaps an appropriate test for the giant diamond, or so-called diamond, found recently in South Africa? - Michael Green

Riddles In Stone by Hugh Eales is published by Wits University Press ISBN 9 781868 144471




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