Histories of citrus and time
Writing for this month’s edition of Natural History magazine Laurence A. Marschall reviews two recent books in the history of science: Pierre Laszlo’s exploration of the cultural and culinary phenomenon of citrus fruit in Citrus: A History, and Pascal Richet’s historical account of the various ways humans have attempted to record the age of the earth in A Natural History of Time.
Marschall writes of Citrus:
Can one describe a work of nonfiction as being happy? Well, this one is. Pierre Laszlo, a retired chemistry professor turned science writer, has approached the lore of citrus fruit with the élan of a master chef (the man is French, after all), mixing history, economics, biology, and chemistry to produce a book that will bring a smile to readers of every taste. Until reading Citrus, in fact, I had not realized just how many tastes the title implied: lemon, lime, orange, and grapefruit, of course, but also citron, tangerine, kumquat, calamondin, and the self-descriptive Ugli, not to mention such variants as bergamot, mandarin, Valencia, ortanique, and Honey Murcott. Laszlo’s literary method is to present them as characters in an unfolding story. He begins with the domestication of the citron in Persia and the early history of citrus horticulture, then moves to the establishment and growth of the citrus industry in Florida, California, and Brazil, and finally, after many diversions and digressions, arrives at a final section that explores the place of citrus in literature, art, religion, and the culture of cuisine.
And the praise continues for Richet’s A Natural History of Time:
Looking at the sandy New England pond outside our summer house, I can readily imagine the glacial remnant that lay there some 12,000 years ago, melting in the warming rays of the Holocene sun. I know, too, that a few hundred million years ago, before continental drift split us apart, Europe and this bit of North American real estate were joined. And I’m well aware that 5 billion years ago, this sand and this water, indeed the Earth itself and everything on it, were part of an interstellar cloud that was condensing into our solar system. Deep time is just one of those things I take for granted.
But as geophysicist Pascal Richet demonstrates in this readable popular history of chronology, the geologic calendar implicit in today’s view of nature was not shared by earlier generations. Written accounts from ancient civilizations depict prehistory as a foggy dreamtime. Most authors made little attempt to assign dates or durations other than “in the beginning.…”
Only the fine details of the Earth’s timeline are matters of contention any more.… Yet precisely because the current well-grounded chronology seems so natural to most scientifically literate people, Richet’s authoritative review of Earth’s history is particularly welcome. Rather than fret about polls that show how many citizens still hold to the chronology of the Holy Book, he invites us to marvel at the efforts of science to read the book of nature itself.