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.