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July-August 2010

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Media Reviews: July/August 2010

Minéraux Remarquables de la Collection UPMC—La Sorbonne (Remarkable Minerals from the Collection of the University Pierre and Marie Curie)—The Sorbonne by Jean-Claude Boulliard with photographs by Orso Martinelli. Editions Le Pommier, Paris. 252 pages; 2009; €69 (hardbound). In French and English.

This is a book that I really, really wanted to be able to strongly endorse. At first look it is impressive, not just for its size (13 × 12 inches, 252 pages, and weighing just over 5.5 pounds), but also because it is very elegantly packaged. It comes in a matte-black dust cover of exceptionally heavy paper. Upon opening it one is impressed with the elegance of its design. The pages are heavy stock of the very best quality. On one of the first pages there is a brief quote that is dramatically printed in white type on a wonderful matte gold paper. The title page and the few pages of text that follow are printed in gold on white nonreflective paper. There are 30 more pages at the end of the book with text in gold on white paper. Between these white pages there are 203 black, nonreflective pages with color photos of minerals from the collection of the Université Pierre et Marie Curie de Paris.

The treatment of the photos is quite unusual. All of the minerals are printed actual size, usually just one to a page, but there are a number of large ones that spread across two pages, and there are pages with several photos on each. Each photo is cropped such that it is completely surrounded by a coal-black color, just as with the cover. This means that in a book of this size there is an extraordinary amount of black space without any photos in it. The effect is very dramatic, leading one to feel that one has entered a very dark art gallery with the individual objects spotlighted. This is, I am sure, the intent of the book's designer. Each photo has a detailed caption in both French and English, printed in gold on black. These captions provide information about the localities from which the minerals came or details about the history of the acquisition of the pieces (when they were acquired and by whom).

There are some seven pages of text, half in French and half in English, that serve as an introduction. I strongly recommend that everyone take the time to read this text, it is beautifully written and it effectively sets the stage for what comes next. It explains, for example, that the order of presentation of the minerals follows that of the exhibit at the Sorbonne itself—based on chemistry. This arrangement requires limiting the inclusion of photos of many spectacular specimens in the exhibit because of the need to present a certain number of images from each chemical grouping, thus including minerals that might otherwise not be shown if one were to select only the most photogenic. The silicates are grouped by “subfamilies,” presumably in order to justify the inclusion of far more of the most beautiful specimens. There is introductory text before each chemical group explaining its special distinction.

After 203 pages of mineral photos, one encounters more text, as mentioned above, again half in French and half in English. The first pages contain an essay by the photographer, Orso Martinelli, titled “Photographing Mineral Art,” which I found unforgivingly pretentious and pseudo-intellectual to the point that most of it was unintelligible to me, given my intellectual inadequacies, I suppose. One part of that essay, however, that I did find particularly poignant was the following: “What was once an object of ritual, scientific investigation or simple curiosity is elevated, thanks to commerce, to the social status of work of art. A certain number of museums like the one shown in this book have, in the process, embarked upon a kind of transition from the conservation of objects to the collection of works of art.”

This is followed by a quite interesting three-page history of the mineral collection and its relocation from the Sorbonne to the Université Pierre et Marie Curie. This, in turn, is followed by an equally interesting discussion of the history of mineral collecting from its earliest recorded history to the present. Then comes a lengthy and fascinating analysis of mineral collecting itself: how its nature has changed over time, how these changes have been influenced by events not related to collecting, shifts in the focus of museums with respect to how they regard their collections, and a myriad of other topics such as private/public collections, exhibition specimens, appraisals, aesthetics, pedigree, the market, and so on. The author of these last pages is not identified, and we are left to assume that they were written by Boulliard.

The main purpose of the book, of course, is to present a selection of photos of some of the outstanding specimens in the museum's collection, and the bulk of the book is devoted to just that. There is a certain fascination about turning page after page and seeing only black with, for the most part, a striking image of a mineral or two sitting like an island on that flat black surface. Because the images are all “life-sized,” there is a radical difference between pages in terms of the amount of black one sees versus the space occupied by a mineral photo. Unfortunately, this doesn't always work to the advantage of the mineral or its photograph. Nearly all of the black minerals and the metallic minerals do not look either black or particularly metallic, and I am guessing that this is because of that sharp contrast. Also, presumably because of the flat black, most of the images do not look especially crisp or sharp. With some, in particular the intense red and orange minerals such as vanadinite and wulfenite, the colors do not appear even close to what they should be.

As mentioned, with each photo there is a paragraph providing a bit of the history of the acquisition of the piece or information about the locality. These are all interesting and help one to better understand the appeal of each mineral, but the decision to print this text in small type in gold on black was a mistake. It is difficult to read, perhaps even more difficult to read than the pages of text printed in small type in gold on white paper.

It seems obvious to me that the selection of specimens to include in this book was somewhat dictated by the desire to show that the collection has continued to grow since the departure of its former curator, Pierre Bariand. In two different places in the book we are told that “approximately 60% of the specimens exhibited at Jussieu have been acquired in the last forty years.” Bariand retired in 1998, so it is probable that he had little to do with the acquisition of the eight specimens from China, the four from Dalnegorsk, Russia, four from Pakistan, and most of the twenty-two from India. One can quibble over the quality of many of the specimens chosen. I found the sphalerite from Dalnegorsk, the siderite from Brazil, the celestine from Madagascar, the two pyromorphites from France, the mimetite from Mexico, the grossular from Canada, the spessartine from China, and the cavansite from India all disappointing. There are others that I expected to see in better specimens as well.

Electing to show the minerals actual-size also introduced problems. Some of the pieces, in particular the mimetite from Tsumeb and the phosphophyllite from Bolivia, lacked definition because they are so small. I noted some misspellings, such as Svakopmund (for Swakopmund) and Illfeld (for Ilfeld). The description of how cumengite grew epitactically on boleite somehow got garbled (perhaps in translation?) and reads, “When the surrounding silver loses much of its silver.…”

Of course, there are many minerals that are superb. It is quite possible that everyone's favorite would be the cumengites epitactic on boleite on page 53. This assembly of eleven superb examples must be the envy of every mineral curator in the world. The largest is 3.5 cm! Other favorites include the sulfur from Italy, the orpiment from China, a Brazilian rutile, the Elmwood, Tennessee, calcite that also appears on the cover, a large cerussite from Tsumeb, an apatite (CaF) from Portugal, a Japan-law twinned quartz from Brazil (unfortunately referred to as a Japanese twin in the book), a Denny Mountain, Washington, amethyst and the Brazilian amethyst on the facing page, and the cuprosklodowskite from the Democratic Republic of Congo (which is very appropriate because the mineral was named for Marie Curie, her maiden name having been Sklodowska). This is just a short list of some of the ones that I found most striking; other readers will no doubt have different favorites.

In conclusion, I would have to say that this book is an interesting, even daring, experiment and a radical departure from the usual. Some of the innovations work well; some do not. For those who find coffee-table books desirable, this probably will be a “must buy.” It is unquestionably just that: a coffee-table book. Nonetheless, I urge everyone to read the text. As user-unfriendly as it is because of the small and gold type, most of it is quite interesting.

John S. White
Stewartstown, Pennsylvania

The Legacy of Arthur Lakes by Katherine K. Honda and Beth Simmons. Friends of Dinosaur Ridge, Morrison, Colo.; 194 pages with one CD; 2009; $45 (softbound).

This interesting book is a fitting tribute to the many contributions of Arthur Lakes (1844–1917) to the geology of Colorado and the western states in general during the latter decades of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. Clearly his discoveries were numerous and his publications many. His geologic art has been preserved in many monographs that range in scope from vertebrate paleontology to economic geology. Among his accomplishments are the early surveys of the Gunnison and Durango coal fields and the Aspen and the Cripple Creek districts; the description of the now-famous Atlantosaurus site between Golden and Morrison, Colorado; and participation in the great Alaskan gold rush. The Colorado School of Mines honored Professor Lakes in 1959 by naming its then-new library after him.

The book begins with an introduction titled A Geologist's Geologist, written by Dr. Vince Matthews, director of the Colorado Geological Survey and the first recipient of the Arthur Lakes Award. Next follow thirteen chapters, each written by separate contributors who were chosen as the most appropriate persons to describe that particular facet of Lakes' unusual life. The first two chapters describe Lakes as a family man and a reverend, appropriately authored by John R. Lakes and Michael Lakes, respectively. These are followed by chapters describing his work as a naturalist, written by Sally White, and his role as a professor, authored by well-known Colorado School of Mines professor Dr. Robert Weimer. Rocks & Minerals' Executive Editor Dr. Peter Modreski authored the next chapter, describing Lakes' phenomenal work as an author and editor. Lakes was likely addicted to the collection of geologic specimens including not only rocks and minerals, but also bones, trackways, fossil plants and more. Each collection type is described by individual authors in the next chapter. His accomplishments as an artist are summarized in Chapter 7, written by Judy Peterson, and his versatility in the area of mining and milling is described in Chapter 8 by Ed Raines. Lakes was an expert in both coal and petroleum geology, and a chapter devoted to each area, authored by Khris Carroll and Kermit Shields, respectively, follow as Chapters 9 and 10. In addition to his penchant for writing, art, and collecting, Lakes was also a traveling man, as described in Chapter 11, authored by Dr. Robert Reynolds. Sections devoted to his trips to Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, Utah, Washington, Wyoming, Mexico, and England are included. An entire chapter devoted to his work in British Columbia, authored by Larry Jacobsen, follows. The book closes with a discussion of the Arthur Lakes legacy written by Michael Kohl. There is a single page of references, not those authored by Lakes, but interesting and significant works that contain one or more important outgrowths of, or contributions from, his original research. Almost a separate volume in itself and perhaps the most valuable part of the book is the accompanying CD, compiled and created by John M. Ghist. It contains more than eight hundred papers, articles, and books authored by Lakes and interesting articles by his sons, Arthur John (Jr.) and Harold.

An important aspect of this book is the selection of appropriate illustrations, one or more of which grace virtually every page. Most are Lakes' sketches and related artwork. One gets the feeling that he did not have the luxury of carrying a staff photographer with him on his many jaunts but did benefit from a high level of artistic talent and a willingness to use it. Particularly interesting are his panoramas and accompanying geologic cross sections, his quaint pictures of mining camps and mines, and his wonderful technical illustrations of fossils. Do you need this book? If you have an ounce of interest in the history of those places that have produced many of our best mineral and fossil specimens, described by the fellow who was there when most were active, then yes, and yes again. The book is highly recommended.

Robert B. Cook
Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama

Amber: The Natural Time Capsule by Andrew Ross. Firefly Books, Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada; 112 pages; 2010; $29.95 (hardbound).

Andrew Ross is the principal curator of paleobiology at the National Museum of Scotland. Formerly, he was the collections manager of invertebrates and plants curation team at the Natural History Museum in London. One might wonder why a biologist would be concerned with what is seen commonly as a gemstone, but the subtitle here says it all: in his Natural Time Capsule are flies, bugs, moths, and a host of other animals and plant products, all waiting to open a window on the past.

The book has five parts: a preface, followed by four chapters. In the preface, Dr. Ross mentions his own difficulties experienced when first dealing with biological inclusions in amber, then gives his aim for the book: “This book will help you to identify the creatures you are most likely to see.…”

Chapter 1, “What is amber?”, gives an explanation of amber as the fossilized resin of trees. Once exuded, it loses its volatile contents over time and polymerizes into a solid (a glass). First, it becomes copal. Eventually, after millions of years, it fossilizes into true amber. The process of becoming amber appears to rely also on the conditions of burial. Ross gives an example of material from sandstone that is inert amber, whereas material from clay of the same age is still copal. There are, of course, fake ambers and real ambers with fake inclusions, and the chapter continues into identification techniques as an aid to recognizing those.

Chapter 2, “Where is amber found?”, gives amber localities from every continent except Antarctica and from many countries. The word amber usually evokes thought responses such as “Baltic” or “Dominican,” but there is English amber, French amber, Burmese amber, Alaskan amber, Chinese amber, Canadian amber, and even Tanzanian, Australian, Japanese, and New Zealand ambers, among others. They range in age from the Early Cretaceous to the Miocene, differing widely in color, clarity, and biological content. Ross had the large collection of the Natural History Museum to refer to, so he is able to go into detail and illustrate his points with representative specimens.

Chapter 3, “Amber Inclusions,” illustrates the types of inclusion that may occur in amber, from the tiny hairs of oak tree flowers to much larger animals such as lizards or frogs. He emphasizes, however, that there is a size limit. Animals above that limit are large enough to free themselves from the resin. Just seeing a biological inclusion in amber tells us a lot, but there is often more to be learned. One may see insects caught in the act of mating, or predatory insects with prey, or creatures from a specific habitat. All such things tell us about behavior, feeding, environment, and so on.

Chapter 4, “Arthropods,” introduces those animals with jointed legs and exoskeletons, from crustaceans on through spiders, scorpions, and millipedes, to insects. As the preface states, the book is a guide to identification. Ross goes about this with an algorithm. He lists 95 steps, beginning with “Does it have wings?” If the answer is “Yes,” one jumps to step 28. A “No” answer takes one to step 2. Each subsequent step offers similar choices, refining the definition of the inclusion. Decision points refer the reader to a photograph of the proposed solution. Theoretically, one can identify just about any insect by following the prescribed steps to a logical conclusion. In practice, it can be difficult because a “fuzzy” antenna might actually be a crack in the amber, or a wing may be hidden by something. I tried it with my own little insect in amber and came to the conclusion that it was probably a fungus gnat. Unfortunately, although the algorithm led to “fungus gnat” (which I believe it is), it also referred me to figures 136 and 137. Figure 136 is an assassin bug, and figure 137 is a leafhopper. This presents a discrepancy. The fungus gnat photographs are actually figures 152 and 153. Apparently, there has been a mixup in the numbering of the figures with respect to the text.

Despite that, I found this a worthwhile book. The photographs are excellent, the text informative, and the algorithm a logical progression in identification. It is a book that will suit the shelves of the fossil collector as well as the gemologist.

Quintin Wight
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

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