The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions by Peter Brannen

I wasn’t one of those kids that was enamored with dinosaurs, and we didn’t really explain that birds were dinosaurs until I was well outside the age where my clothing shopping took place in the kid’s section. I became interested in dinosaurs and their extinction because I was one of those kids who was fascinated by plate tectonics and geology, and the plate tectonics and geology kept bouncing against the paleontology and, well,  eventually one takes a hint.

Thus I’ve found myself becoming interested in dinosaurs somewhat unexpectedly. I watch PBS Eons and read things about how chickens are actually dinosaurs.

And on the other side of the science debates, I numbly agree that yeah, humans are causing climate change, but do we know what could actually happen? Do we have any models?

Turns out we do. Not the models we would have chosen, but definitely actual research-driven mind-adjusting models. They’re called the mass extinctions.

The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions by Peter Brannen scratches the geology itch, the plate tectonics itch, the biology itch, the paleontology itch, even a touch of anthropology near the end when the humans show up. It skips all those long “boring” stretches when everyone’s living just fine between the ends of their worlds. It puts significant attention on those times when multiple things, like a perfect storm, go horribly wrong. We don’t just learn about the mass extinctions. We learn about the places on our own roadsides where we can see the evidence of those extinctions – juts of ground that were the bottom of seabeds, cliffs that were volcanos, rocks that were animals.

This is the most in-depth look at what rises and falls in CO2 levels actually do to the Earth – its oceans, its land masses, and its atmospheres – that I’ve found anywhere I’ve looked. It’s the first time I’ve gotten an explanation of how the planet does its best to self-regulate its temperature (and it turns out to have a lot to do with dissolving the mountains) and the first time I’ve gotten a good idea of the time frames involved (really really *really* really long).

So will there be another mass extinction? Eventually, and it will probably involve CO2 levels. Whether that’s soon enough for our society to remember it, or far enough out that we’ve moved off-planet remains to be determined by our own behavior over the next 100 years.

In the meantime, this very readable, very relatable book will help you see far in the past and possibly imagine far in the future.

Swearing is Good for You by Emma Byrne

Okay so first you need to know that I read anything I can get my hands on about how swearing works in the brain. So even though I didn’t know about Swearing Is Good For You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language before I got it for Christmas it was a perfect fit for me.

Second, I learned a lot of things in this book that other reading on the topic hadn’t taught me. For example, there’s an entire chapter on Tourette’s, how it works, and why it really doesn’t fit with the rest of the content of this book because cursing as part of a tic doesn’t behave like any other kind of cursing. Going into this book I had no knowledge of how Tourette’s works. Coming out, I am still a novice, but at least one with hopefully more insight and patience for my fellow humans.

I also learned a ton about how fluency in secondary languages doesn’t necessarily translate to emotional impact — unless you were learning some other aspect of emotional impact (such as the angst of being an adolescent) at the same time you were immersed in your second language. This directly impacts how and in what language you swear.

The book is barely 200 pages and covered neuroscience, pain management, Tourette’s, workplace swearing, chimpanzee swearing, gender and swearing, and swearing in other languages. It does not cover any particular case or topic in depth but rather serves as a well-written and intriguing survey of modern knowledge about the field. Considering that in most cultures the taboos around swearing extend to studying the taboos around swearing, the very presence of the book indicates both shifting cultural norms and the fact that we still have a lot to learn.

I fucking loved this book and recommend it to anyone with interests in linguistics or neuroscience or both.