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Riddles In Stone

by Hugh V. Eales

Professor Emeritus of Geology, Rhodes University. Published by Wits University Press, 361p.

It is no small feat for a scholar to produce a popular work. Popular science is more often, the preserve of journalists who distil the matter of scholarly discourse into articles of general appeal, often ignoring accuracy or proper attribution of ideas in the process. In his book, “Riddles in Stone”, Hugh Eales, Emeritus Professor of Geology, Rhodes University, has produced a work of popular appeal and great academic integrity, in which he displays an uncanny ability to disentangle even the most convoluted debates on a variety of topics.

As pointed out in the preface, the book was originally intended to be a catalogue of “bad calls” made by both academics and laymen in the unfolding of the geological sciences. Not surprisingly, Eales does not pull his punches in exposing the muddled ideas and vanities of many influential thinkers, both past and present. The role of formalised religion and its lamentable efforts through the years to suppress both the truth and indeed, the very contemplation of it, is exposed to sober and disciplined reason. But Eales does not confine himself to wry comments on the effects of religious bigotry. Great scientists are as likely as other mortals to deny the logic of others, more especially so if they are facing the repudiation of the very hypotheses on which their fame has been founded. The elitism which saw the ground-breaking ideas of the self-taught William Smith go largely unrecognised for several decades is only one such example in a litany of neglect. Of course, the “bad calls” on which the book is based, concern a variety of controversial topics, ranging from the age of the Earth to the concept of a world-wide “Biblical” flood

and the origin of the Witwatersrand gold deposits, all of which may occasionally invite emotional rather than carefully thought-out responses.

“Riddles in Stone” is not, however, simply a record of bad and/or stupid ideas. Eales pays tribute where it is due. It was particularly pleasing to see Alex du Toit, arguably the greatest of South African geologists, given a proper accolade for his efforts to promote the concept of continental drift in the face of a (then) unbelieving world. I must confess to having been greatly disappointed on reading Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” to discover that although Bryson had covered, in some detail, the topic of continental drift, there was no mention of du Toit at all. Hugh Eales has put the record straight.

South African geology and a number of related geo-dilemmas are the topics covered in the latter part of “Riddles in Stone”. Ranging from the horrors of asbestosis to the more enticing subject of untold riches from the fecund Earth, the author investigates a variety of enigmatic issues. Here is an outline of the misguided plans put forward by E.H.L Schwarz to change the climate of Southern Africa by diverting the flow of the Cunene, Okavango and Chobe rivers, thus flooding the Etosha and Makarikari depressions; laypersons guides to the probable origins of diamondiferous kimberlite pipes and the platinum-bearing rocks of the Bushveld Complex, and a fascinating account of ancient mining and the legendary gold deposits of Ophir.

Despite its intended public target, “Riddles in Stone” is a very well-documented and scholarly work. All the sources are properly and meticulously referenced, and there is a comprehensive index. It is a great tribute to the skills of the author that he has made complicated and controversial ideas so clear to the ordinary reader. It is not really surprising that he has done so: a few extracts of his personal diary included in the text reveal an early capacity for constructing passages of rare eloquence.

Russell W. Shone

Port Elizabeth


Last Modified: Fri, 31 Mar 2017 12:23:07 SAST