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.
Review by Ian Bald