By the spring of 2008 Rutgers University was overflowing with undergraduates. In an attempt to lessen the sting of the budget crisis Rutgers admitted more students than it had room for even though everyone knew this was not a permanent solution. Hotels acted as makeshift dorms, and the few buses that shuttled students between campuses brought the individual members of the student body a bit too close for comfort.
Given that I lived in New Brunswick, though, I could afford to walk. Walking between the Cook and College Avenue campuses took about as long as it did to take the bus, and on same days the walk could be quite pleasant. One late-spring evening I was passing by the “Old Queens” campus when the setting sun caught the reddish-brown sandstone of the venerable buildings just right. It looked as if the stone structures were glowing. Even if I had a camera with me I doubt I could have captured how beautiful the scene was.
The sunlight did not have the same effect on the brick, wood, glass, and concrete of the surrounding city. There was something special about the stone, especially because it had its own history stretching back millions and millions of years. This sort of appreciation for urban geology permeates David Williams’ new book Stories in Stone, a geology book perfect for people who think the discipline is about as interesting as a pile of rocks.
With its intertwined themes of geology, paleontology, architecture, art, and history, Stories in Stone could have easily become bogged down in a tangle of competing story lines. Fortunately, though, Williams acts as a knowledgeable tour guide, using his personal experience to tie disparate narrative threads together. From New York brownstones to a gas station made of petrified wood in Colorado, Stories in Stone uses structures both strange and familiar to draw out more general lessons about geology.
In a way, though, almost all “urban geology” is unusual. In a time when cookie-cutter developments and McMansions are erected at an alarming rate the use of stone in construction and architecture seems to be a thing of the past (unless clients are rich and want a particularly distinguished look for their building). Even slate chalkboards, the familiar slabs of stone many of us came in contact with during our youth, are being replaced by dry-erase boards.
The relative rarity of stone in urban and suburban architecture makes Williams’ book all the more interesting. The structures stand out on their own, but Williams digs into both the origins of the rock itself and the historical reasons why it was selected for building. In chapter 8, for example, Williams intertwines an discussion of the geology of Carrara Marble with the problems this particular stone has caused when used in architecture. Just because it was Michelangelo’s favorite stone does not mean it is an appropriate stone to use for construction!
Stories in Stone will no doubt appeal to both experienced geologists and to those whose only familiarity with geology is kicking a pebble down the street. It does not shy away from science but neither does it bury the reader under layers of incomprehensible jargon. Indeed, Stories in Stone is a breezy, fun travelogue in which Williams points out the science behind structures we regularly pass by. For those who know where to look, there are many fascinating stories urban stone can tell.
For more “stories in stone”, see David Williams’ blog.