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How to Build a Habitable Planet – Charles H. Langmuir and Wally Broecker ***

I have expressed before my horror at being faced with huge, megaheavy fat books purporting to be popular science – this has to be one of the chunkiest, weighing in at 1.4 wrist-crippling kilograms and with 668 pages before you get onto the glossary and index (thankfully, no notes). To be worth being this unwieldy, a book ought to do something pretty remarkable. And that’s just what How to Build, an updated version of a 1980s title, does, as you can tell from its subtitle, The Story of Earth from the Big Bang to Humankind. Now that’s what you call a large canvas.
The result is a rather strange mix, starting with the cosmology of the big bang, working through the formation of elements and then planets and solar systems, then leading us through the geological life of the Earth, which collectively takes up just over half of the book, leaving plenty of room for detail of the development of life, the impact of life on the planet, natural climate change, the evolution of humans and how we have impacted our world. It’s a challenging range of topics to cover, and although I am sure it is fine in terms of technical content, I have two problems with it.
The first is that this didn’t read to me like a popular science book, but rather like an introductory textbook. There are lots (unimaginably many) of facts in there, but very little storytelling. There is no real attempt to get the reader engaged. The result is a book that feels like you would read it because you needed to (for a course, say), but not because you wanted to.
The other, relatively minor problem, which I’ve mentioned with other titles, and is nobody’s fault, is that geology, which inevitably plays a major role here, is the dullest of the sciences and takes huge skill to make interesting to the general reader.
So I would hesitate more than once before buying this book for holiday reading or as educative entertainment – but if it’s recommended reading for your course it’s certainly an amazing feat and will do the job well.
Review by Brian Clegg


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