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Lucky Planet: Why Earth is Exceptional - and What that Means for Life in the Universe [Hardcover]

David Waltham
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
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Book Description

1 May 2014
Science tells us that life elsewhere in the Universe is increasingly likely to be discovered. But in fact the Earth may be a very unusual planet - perhaps the only one like it in the entire visible Universe. In Lucky Planet David Waltham asks why, and comes up with some surprising and unconventional answers. Recent geological, biological, and astronomical discoveries are bringing us closer to understanding whether we might be alone in the Universe, and this book uses these to question the conventional wisdom and suggest, instead, that the Earth may have had 'four billion years of good weather' purely by chance. If Earth-like worlds don't have natural stabilising mechanisms, then intelligent observers such as ourselves will only ever look out onto those rare planets where, like the Earth, all the bad things that could have happened to the climate have fortunately cancelled each other out. So before you prepare to meet the aliens, consider that we are probably alone ...

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Icon Books Ltd (1 May 2014)
  • Language: Unknown
  • ISBN-10: 1848316569
  • ISBN-13: 978-1848316560
  • Product Dimensions: 13.5 x 21.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 142,398 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

'Very readable' -- Matt Ridley The Times '[Waltham's] arguments are compelling and the book is a delight to read.' Independent 'A lively and well argued antidote to a widespread view that advanced life could arise frequently and in many places in the known Universe.' -- Richard Fortey 'David Waltham takes us on a delightful tour of the various factors that influence planetary habitability and the evolution of advanced life. That he thinks the prospects for it are unlikely is all the more reason for us to go up to space and take a good look!' -- James Kasting Penn State University, author of How to Find a Habitable Planet

About the Author

David Waltham obtained a first-class degree and a PhD in Physics before moving into the oil industry in the early 1980s. This industrial experience led to his appointment, in 1986, as a lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London, where he became Head of Earth Sciences from 2008-2012.

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Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
4.6 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Where Is Everybody 6 May 2014
By Dr Barry Clayton TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Kindle Edition
David Waltham has a first class degree and a PhD in physics. He used to work in the oll industry but is now an academic working at Royal Holloway, London University. He has written a delightful book about our planet based on his knowledge of geology. It is a lively antidote to the view that there must be advanced complex life elsewhere in the visible Universe.

Arguments have long raged over whether we are unique as a planet, alone because we are special in a universe estimated to contain a thousand billion billion objects of similar size orbiting hot suns like ours. Common questions to those who argue there must be others llke ours is 'Where are they then?' Why no communication?

The author of this very readable book believes we may be unique because we are lucky. He argues there are many coincidences responsible for our existence. For example, the pressure of anti gravity is very small, nuclear and electrical forces are the right strength and molecular bonds crucial for life are the right strength.

Waltham explains how, unlike Venus, our planet's climate has been very, very benign. The sun's strength is another lucky thing. It has not produced a ten degree rise in average temperature because it has been balanced by a decline in our greenhouse effect as carbon dioxide became scarcer.

The author says there are three possible reasons for our luck. He calls them: God, Gaia and Goldilocks. He favours the last one. It is our Moon that we have to thank for stabilising our spinning and giving us the right length of day and regular seasons to prevent the growth of ice.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Great idea, disappointingly executed 30 Jun 2014
By JPMT
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The book does a very good job of explaining to lay readers the feedback mechanisms that have kept the earth at a liveable temperature for most of its existence, in spite of its sun growing significantly brighter. But it gives a false impression of certainty in its use of evolutionary theory and cosmology to project how many other worlds might hold life.

I think that’s because the book uses the wrong model of the scientific process. It starts with an endorsement of the ‘consensus’ model of catastrophic anthropogenic global warning (CAGW), which involves labelling scientists with differing views ‘sceptics’. That’s not totally unreasonable since the CAGW consensus approach predicts enormous future costs that must be mitigated right now, and so less alarmist scientists must be suppressed. Perhaps pursuing that line, the book also argues that the church burned Giordano Bruno to death not because of his beautiful (but sceptical) insight that the stars are distant suns (and so undermined the church’s claim to omnipotence) but because he was argumentative, tactless and, allegedly a spy!

That gives lay readers the misleading impression that science progresses through tactful committee men & women evolving consensuses, rather than argumentative geniuses slugging it out (e.g. Franklin hiding her breakthrough data from Watson and Crick, and the latter pinching it).

It also turns off those who know that outside of climate science (and maybe geology) science is based on continuous criticism: researchers must publish their data so others can try to replicate it; criticism is welcomed, not suppressed; publishing false data is harshly punished (see CP Snow’s The Search); theories have to be falsifiable; and if they fail are unceremoniously dumped.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A plausible solution to the Fermi paradox 7 May 2014
By Nigel Seel VINE VOICE
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
It’s been fashionable and perhaps even comforting to believe in the essential unity, benevolence and even environmental-competence of life on Earth. The Gaia hypothesis makes us feel good, but hard-nosed evolutionary biologists and planetary scientists crunch the numbers and just can’t get it to work. Forget the galaxy of a billion friendly alien civilizations, perhaps there’s just one: ourselves. Perhaps we’re just very, very fortunate. Here’s a much abbreviated summary of what David Waltham has to say in this lively and intelligent book.

Our very existence shows that the Earth has experienced life-friendly climatic conditions for billions of years. During this time the output of the sun has increased by 30% while early high levels of greenhouse gases such as methane, water vapour and carbon dioxide have been almost scrubbed from the atmosphere. These changes ought to have produced enormous and lethal climatic variation yet somehow, by some magic, the effects have largely cancelled out.

For some people, this shows that powerful negative feedback mechanisms are at work, stabilising the climate for life. Strange then, that such benign processes are so hard to pin down. The alternative view is that for most planets like the Earth, the climate did indeed transition to fire or ice, with the consequent destruction of any biosphere; the Earth is special and very, very lucky.

Of course, the fact that we’re here at all to make such an observation indicates that for the Earth it could hardly have been otherwise. This is called the principle of Anthropic Selection - to be contrasted with the Principle of Mediocrity, that the Earth is not that special in the universe.

David Waltham systematically takes us through the unique features of the Earth.
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