Skip to main content

The Story of Earth - Robert M. Hazen ****

Among popular science books, those that deal primarily with geology are sometimes approached with trepidation. It’s not uncommon to feel a touch of anxiety in trying to remember from past school lessons the different classes of rock and how they are formed, not to mention the chemistry involved.

Robert M. Hazen, Clarence Robinson Professor of Earth Science at George Mason University and a senior scientist at the Carnegie Institution’s Geophysical Laboratory and author of several books, makes the subject very approachable and fascinating in The Story of Earth. Published in 2012, it presents the physical and geological history of the Earth over the past 4.5 billion years. The book is remarkable for its brevity, the main text coming in at 283 pages, without giving the reader the impression that he has merely skimmed over the history of our planet. For example, Hazen manages to explain in-depth the complex attraction between elements that allowed the fine particles that surrounded the Sun as it ignited, explaining the physics and chemistry that caused small clumps of dust to gather and grow in size, eventually forming Earth. 

At times, these in-depth explanations of fundamental geological chemistry can be a bit too extensive for the reader that has forgotten much of the basics of chemistry from school. Hazen does an excellent job at keeping the story moving forward, however, and the parts of the book that have deeper explanations that cause the reader to lose focus are relatively short. It is also an inherent danger with explaining any complex area of science to general readers to lose them in the thicket of complex terminology. This isn’t a major problem, though I did find myself flipping back to the opening chapters in the book to remind myself of certain key terms of rock formations when they appeared later on as certain basic terms were too similar to remember. This, of course, could be more of a failing on my part than Hazen’s, but a gentle reminder of what terms mean would have been helpful. 

Certain areas of the book stand out as exceptionally interesting and well-written. One is the discussion of the formation of the Moon and the history of the various theories surrounding the creation of our natural satellite. Of particular interest is the dominant theory of our past twin planetoid Theia and its collision with Earth that, it is thought, created the Moon and explains the various geological differences between the Earth and the Moon. Another fascinating area is the contributions of rock and mineral to the foundations of organic life.

Hazen does an excellent job of giving the reader a great insight into how much personality and collective thinking govern the science community, like other communities in human affairs. It is also to Hazen’s credit that he removes some of the romanticism around scientific discovery and depicts the evolution of science in a more realistic light. Hazen is also to be commended for presenting numerous examples of research and geological discoveries by women. This is not to say that he gives the impression of favouritism or preferential treatment by including them for political or sociological reasons, but it is refreshing to see so many examples of excellent and important work done by female scientists highlighted. 

In the final part of the book, Hazen speculates on the future of the Earth and discusses anthropomorphic climate change. Here he makes the case that the Earth is constantly changing and will continue to survive regardless of what happens to humans. The Earth will go on, but will humans be a part of that continuing story until the death of the planet when the Sun finally exhausts itself in another five billion years? Hazen explains in-depth the threat of human actions on the climate, precisely because it is known that the Earth will react, but it is unknown how and the feedback loops that have occurred in the past and that could be triggered by ignorant human activity could have disastrous consequences for human life on the planet. His arguments and reasoning in this part of the book should be required reading for everyone, regardless of their views on climate change, as he is one of the few writers, and scientists, that I have read who puts the problem in its proper historical and Earth science context. 

In short, The Story of Earth is a highly interesting read and a great introduction to modern geological thought on the formation of our planet, both where we came from and where we might be going.

Paperback:  
Hardback:  
Review by Ian Bald

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

The Bastard Legion (SF) - Gavin Smith *****

Science fiction has a long tradition of 'military in space' themes - and usually these books are uninspiring at best and verging on fascist at worst. From a serious SF viewpoint, it seemed that Joe Haldeman's magnificent The Forever War made the likes of Starship Troopers a mocked thing of the past, but sadly Hollywood seems to have rebooted the concept and we now see a lot of military SF on the shelves.

The bad news is that The Bastard Legion could not be classified as anything else - but the good news is that, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer subverted the vampire genre, The Bastard Legion has so many twists on a straightforward 'marines in space' title that it does a brilliant job of subversion too.

The basic scenario is instantly different. Miska is heading up a mercenary legion, except they're all hardened criminals on a stolen prison ship, taking part because she has stolen the ship and fitted them all with explosive collars. Oh, and helping her train her &…

Euler's Pioneering Equation - Robin Wilson ***

The concept of a 'beautiful equation' is a mystery to many, but it seems to combine a piece of mathematics that expresses something sophisticated in relatively few terms and something that looks satisfying. The equation that has proved standout amongst mathematicians, as by far the most beautiful (and is only placed second to Maxwell's equation amongst physicists) is Euler's remarkable eiπ+1 = 0. What seems remarkable to me about this is that it just seems bizarre that this combination of things produces such a neat result. (Incidentally, as far as I can see, the only reason for the 'pioneering' in the title was to enable the fancy graphic on the cover of the book.)

Getting popular maths books right is incredibly difficult. When I started reading this book, I really thought that Robin Wilson had cracked it. After an introduction, he gives us a chapter on each of the elements of the equation (except the plus and equals signs), from the more basic aspects like 1 a…