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Book Review: Planet Rock Doc: Nuggets from Explorations of the Natural World by Dr. Elsa Kirsten Peters

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In her expressed role as an “escort to the public” at the ready to remark upon our natural desire to understand the world, Dr. Elsa Kirsten Peters, geologist, former Washington State University professor, author or co-author of numerous journal articles as well as several textbooks, and syndicated newspaper columnist at over 200 newspapers, already has a lot of food for thought on her plate. The immensely informative and enjoyable Planet Rock Doc: Nuggets from Explorations of the Natural World World finds the “Rock Doc” putting a spotlight on some of her favorite columns without blinding us with weird science.

Spread over the course of nine sections that comprise such topics as geology, energy, agriculture, climate, human health, biology, physics, chemistry, and science history, the book is a veritable variety platter of accessible scientific fact couched in a conversational exposition and, at times, revelation and the occasional aha! moment. Indeed, Dr. Peters packs a wallop of substance into a stylistic economy of words, punctuating her essays with immediacy and rewarding craftsmanship.

Moreover, the Rock Doc is adept at taking big-picture issues and framing them on smaller canvasses, often bringing in personal and applicable details or infusing her explanations and expertise with humanity and humor. “We make a lot of progress,” notes Peters in the chapter “Keeping It Simple,” “with the task [to understand the world around us] in some areas—like basic chemistry. But we don’t make progress in others—like the chemistry that springs up between two human hearts.” Peters is going to give it the college try, though, and then some.

Such earnestness and an unassuming approach—often conveyed with a self-deprecating manner–is complemented by an insistence and inquisitive nature that has the author conceding (in a concept I gravitated to as readily as I did to the chapter holding out for the existence of “Too Much Exercise”) that “Knowing Nothing Can Be Good,” even if it means that her resolve is a burden: it’s “probably not so easy to be my doctor,” Peters admits, then a few paragraphs on she has occasion to declares that “It’s probably not so easy to be my friend.”

Ever disarming and enthralling, the Roc Doc dissembles. “Everyone can grasp the basics of science,” she says, “and—most importantly—the quick and simple methods that scientists have used to learn more about the natural world.” It’s a straightforward application and makes for a structuring and methodological guideline that helps elucidate observations and opinion as covered throughout the breadth of the book in such diversionary, bet-you-can’t-read-just-one chapters as “Ancient Poop Yields Clues,” “Twins, DNA, and Mental Illness,” “Norsemen and the Great Crack in the Atlantic,” “When the Sahara Was Green,” “Mr. Jefferson and the Ice Age Zoo,” and “Harvesting Liquid Fuels From Trees,” to mention a fraction of the ways and means by which we can understand life.

And death, too, for that matter. In the most fascinating of the essays, Peters trains upon the dark chapters of life some dark chapters of another stripe, though “Defeating Death,” about the news that “the gene for death has been isolated–and reversed,” may not be all it’s cracked up to be. But “Dancing with Death Over the Centuries” is the real deal. Within this particular page-and-a-half, the Black Death of Medieval times–the plague that killed a third of London’s population–is especially explored with an eye to the “most intellectually interesting turns” coming recently.

And if I want my death, so to speak, a little closer to home, I need only get up to speed with staph infections in “New Twist on Natural MRSA.” From here it segues not only into a consideration of the “microscopic arms race” launchable from the most drug-resistant sort of staph able to cause life-threatening infections, but also into a disclosure showing that MRSA thrives in the natural environment; because it is contained in grains of sand, they “live at the beach, up and down the Pacific coast.”

For the most part, when it comes to interpretations based upon her own research and evaluations, Dr. Peters is not an alarmist, being notably balanced and even-handed, objectively weighing the pros and cons, the ifs-ands-or-buts of a matter, to form her own conclusions. In the chapter “Breaking Rock to Get at Oil and Gas,” Peters visits western North Dakota, citing the abundant shale oil and natural gas being tapped (making enough of a difference to allow the state to have the lowest unemployment rate in the U.S., hovering around the 3% mark), with details about the promise it holds for our present and future energy needs.

Without jumping fully into the fray between environmentalists and economic concerns over the issue of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, by which water is pumped down a well with sand and chemicals to crack rock and release oil, Peters calls for cooler heads to prevail, and reasons that we must “collectively consider what we want to do about a technology that could be of real use to us in some places and give us an increasing measure of energy independence.”

Similarly, Dr. Peters stakes out a middle ground in the issue of climate change. While reiterating–in the intriguingly titled “Playing with Jello and Deducing Climate Change”–for the established fact that “major and minor climate change is woven into the fabric of the Earth itself,” the Doc does not fall headfirst into the argument entrenched in wholesale man-caused global warming or climate change. As she does cite our role in contributing to the hazards of coal-based sulfate in the air, Peters offers up the assertion that in the effort to “become smarter about a simple matter that would make our cities and suburbs—and actually cool the planet as well,” she recommends some sensible and practical approaches.

Overall, however, Dr. Peters applies a more transcending depth to the breadth of her analysis, and it is from this spiritual springboard, this personal backdrop of faith and church, that many of her inquires and investigations arise, and from which her appeal for a needed reconciliation emerges. “From my point of view,” she maintains, “the misunderstandings between science and religion have seldom posed as great a cost on society as they do today.” That’s why, she elsewhere adds, “some of my outreach work is meant to reassure my fellow church members that biology and geology don’t constitute a threat to our ways of living.”

Indeed, as the Roc Doc places a primacy on inextricably-linked, across-the-board realizations and “the rush of learning,” she strives to extend to others some of the same “joy I garner from scientific studies.” In a reference, then, that may also serve as an apt summation, Dr. Peters expresses her ongoing desire that her “efforts at public outreach will add to the sum total of happiness in the world.” It’s already enriched it with knowledge.

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