Skip to main content

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.
Hardback:  
also on Kindle  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I, Mammal - Liam Drew *****

It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals. 

More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.

It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the histor…

Foolproof - Brian Hayes *****

The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings. 

Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.

If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…

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…