Devil in the Mountain:
A Search for the Origin of the Andes

Simon Lamb

Princeton University Press 2004
A book review by Danny Yee © 2007
Devil in the Mountain begins with an account of Lamb's first visits to Bolivia and the problems he faced setting up a new geological program there. After this it turns to the science, introducing some of the methods and ideas of geology and using them to answer questions about the structure and origins of the Andes.

The direction of fossilised river bed dunes can be used to work out the direction of ancient river flows. Dating can be done through stratigraphy and analysis of zircon fission tracks. Seismic sensing allows probing of the crust. Direct measurement of the amount of folding tells us whether compression alone can explain the uplift of the Andes.

The height of ancient mountains can be estimated using plant fossils and dateable volcanic ash. One influence on the height of the Andes has been the Guyana and Brazilian shields, areas of old hard rock which act as stiffening "shanks" in the crust. The tectonics of subduction zones and paleomagnetic measurements offer clues to the curved shape of the Andes.

Mountains can be modelled as fluids, in which rocks flow under pressure; super-accurate GPS measurements reveal their current movements. Helium isotope ratios offer one way of demonstrating the origin of rocks in the mantle; their differing silica contents are a result of crystallization at different temperatures after melting induced by subducted water.

One final dramatic chain of ideas links the Andes and the Himalayas. The Himalayas are responsible for global cooling over the last few tens of millions of years, which has produced cold currents and deserts along the coast of Chile and Peru, which have reduced the deposition of "lubricating" sediment into the offshore trench and the subduction zone, which has led to greater friction between the plates and uplift of the high central Andes.

Most of the broader science will be familiar to anyone with even a basic geology background, but the Andes-specific material is likely to be new. Devil in the Mountain also includes a selection of halftones, a glossary and some further reading suggestions broken down by chapter. Lamb's occasional travel stories are not self-aggrandising, don't take over the book, and provide a human context for the geology.

Devil in the Mountain is excellent popular science: good fun and easy to read, with clear presentation of both broad theory and local detail.

September 2007

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%T Devil in the Mountain
%S A Search for the Origin of the Andes
%A Lamb, Simon
%I Princeton University Press
%D 2004
%O glossary, index
%G ISBN 0691115966
%P 336pp