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The Goldilocks Planet – Jan Zalasiewicz & Mark Williams ***

I don’t know why it is, but for me (and possibly for many general readers), books on earth science tend to be most dull read in all of popular science. I suppose biology is interesting because it’s how we work, and physics and cosmology are interesting because it’s how the universe works… but earth science is saddled with impenetrable names for different periods of time, plenty of climate variations (yawn) and a lot of mud and bits of stone. As someone once said to me, ‘When you’ve seen one stone, you’ve seen them all.’ Of course a geologist would wince at this and start telling us about all the different rock formations, but after five minutes we’d all be asleep, so it wouldn’t really help. Similarly, it’s very difficult to get excited about the history of the climate – it has similar snooze-making capabilities.
This makes writing an accessible book on earth science an uphill struggle, but I think, on the whole Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams have achieved it. The book is subtitled ‘the four billion year story of earth’s climate’ and traces through the different eras and eons and goodness knows what how and why the climate has changed, whether it is to form a snowball (or slushball) or to get excessively hot in modern terms. Despite all these variations, once life got going it seems to have clung on, hence the ‘Goldilocks’ bit. Once the Earth got over its initial formation, it seems to have stuck quite closely to a climate range that made life possible.
After being indoctrinated by the Royal Society of Chemistry, who assure me that the only way to write sulfur is with an ‘f’ these days, I was slightly surprised that the equally erudite OUP went for the ‘sulphur’ spelling, but that apart I certainly couldn’t complain about the science. But the nice surprise was the way the authors managed some engaging storytelling that made the book enjoyable to read. I would be going too far to say that this was a page turner I could put down, but it was much more readable than I thought it would be.
Even so, I can only give it three stars, because in the end the bogeyman of earth science and historical climatology wins over. It does all get a little samey and lacking in interest. The authors do everything they can to keep us with them, but the subject matter still gives them a hard time. Perhaps the best bit is appreciating just how speculative some of the assertions are, based on very indirect assumptions – in this respect it gives cosmology a run for its money.
If you want or need to read about the way the Earth’s climate has changed in history, this is a brilliant book – but if you only have a casual interest, it could be more of a struggle to stay with it.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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