Book of the week
Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28)
“This is a book that will make you think about how you’re living, and how you want to be remembered,” said Alexander McNamara in ScienceFocus.com. Even if our species cleans up its act starting today, the changes we’ve already made to the planet will outlive us for eons. In Footprints, Scottish writer David Farrier circles the globe seeking out examples of the lasting traces our Anthropocene epoch will leave long after we’re gone. What would an archaeologist of the far future make of our road cuts and single-use plastics and the plutonium-239 produced by our atomic bombs? We might be due for a scolding, but Footprints isn’t that kind of book, said the New Scientist. Instead it’s “an oddly hopeful exploration of deep time and a world doing fine without us.”
Farrier is an inquisitive sort, and “his journey takes in marvels,” said The Economist. He finds a Canadian poet who is working to encode verse into the DNA of Deinococcus radiodurans, a nearly unkillable bacterium. He lets us hear the tomb-like hush of an underground ice lab in Australia and the eerie moaning of the melting Ross Ice Shelf. He is at ease writing about science as well, despite being a university lecturer on literature and despite occasionally mentioning distances or time spans too large for readers to grasp. “When Farrier indulges his bookishness,” however, “the result is exhilarating; his central idea, that language and storytelling might be the most enduring of human traces, is beautifully expressed,” and the way he reads the fables of Jorge Luis Borges and J.G. Ballard and the poetry of Alice Oswald make you believe he might be right.
But that plutonium-239 can’t be forgotten, said Steven Poole in The Telegraph (U.K.). During “the explosive orgy of nuclear weapons testing” that followed World War II, huge quantities of the carcinogenic isotope were unleashed, and its 24,100-year-long half-life ensures that its desultory health effects won’t fade away anytime soon. Then there is spent nuclear fuel and the problems it presents, which Farrier mulls while visiting two storage sites, one in the U.S. and one in Finland. His book is, in fact, “rather extinction-haunted—to an extent that comes to seem not purely rational.” Our species is too innovative to resign itself now to extinction when the next ice age or any other catastrophe befalls the planet we have depended on. “We could even end up in space, able to re-green our home planet to lush Edenic innocence.” ■