Skip to main content

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.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Dialogues - Clifford Johnson ***

The authors of science books are always trying to find new ways to get the message across to their audiences. In Dialogues, Clifford Johnson combines a very modern technique - the graphic novel or comic strip - with an approach that goes back to Ancient Greece - using a dialogue to add life to what might seem a dry message.

We have seen the comic strip approach trying to put across quite detailed science before in Mysteries of the Quantum Universe. As with that book, Dialogues manages to cover a fair amount of actual physics, but I still feel that the medium just wastes vast acres of page to say very little at all. This is brought home here because quite a lot of the sections of Dialogues start with several pages with no text on at all, just setting up the scenario.

As for using a discussion between two people to put a message across, Johnson makes the point that, for instance, Galileo's very readable masterpiece Two New Sciences is in the form of a dialogue (more accurately a discu…

Liam Drew - Four Way Interview

Liam Drew is a writer and former neurobiologist. he has a PhD in sensory biology from University College, London and spent 12 years researching schizophrenia, pain and the birth of new neurons in the adult mammalian brain. His writing has appeared in Nature, New Scientist, Slate and the Guardian. He lives in Kent with his wife and two daughters. His new book is I, Mammal.

Why science?

As hackneyed as it is to say, I think I owe my fascination with science to a great teacher – in my case, Ian West, my A-level biology teacher.  Before sixth form, I had a real passion for the elegance and logic of maths, from which a basic competence at science at school arose.  But I feel like I mainly enjoyed school science in the way a schoolkid enjoys being good at stuff, rather than it being a passion.

Ian was a revelation to me.  He was a stern and divisive character, but I loved the way he taught.  He began every lesson by providing us with a series of observations and fact, then, gradually, between …

A Galaxy of Her Own - Libby Jackson ****

This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.

Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.

Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worrying…