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The Emerald Planet: How plants changed Earth's history [Paperback]

David Beerling
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
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Book Description

25 Sep 2008
Now a major three-part BBC2 Television Series "How to Grow a Planet" presented by Professor Iain Stewart.

Plants have profoundly moulded the Earth's climate and the evolutionary trajectory of life. Far from being 'silent witnesses to the passage of time', plants are dynamic components of our world, shaping the environment throughout history as much as that environment has shaped them. In The Emerald Planet, David Beerling puts plants centre stage, revealing the crucial role they have played in driving global changes in the environment, in recording hidden facets of Earth's history, and in helping us to predict its future. His account draws together evidence from fossil plants, from experiments with their living counterparts, and from computer models of the 'Earth System', to illuminate the history of our planet and its biodiversity. This new approach reveals how plummeting carbon dioxide levels removed a barrier to the evolution of the leaf; how plants played a starring role in pushing oxygen levels upwards, allowing spectacular giant insects to thrive in the Carboniferous; and it strengthens fascinating and contentious fossil evidence for an ancient hole in the ozone layer. Along the way, Beerling introduces a lively cast of pioneering scientists from Victorian times onwards whose discoveries provided the crucial background to these and the other puzzles. This new understanding of our planet's past sheds a sobering light on our own climate-changing activities, and offers clues to what our climatic and ecological futures might look like. There could be no more important time to take a close look at plants, and to understand the history of the world through the stories they tell.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 312 pages
  • Publisher: OUP Oxford (25 Sep 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199548145
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199548149
  • Product Dimensions: 2.5 x 13.1 x 19.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 101,318 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

More About the Authors

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Product Description


'A beautifully detailed account...a gorgeous book.' -- The Guardian (Review), April 7, 2007 - This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

"My favourite non-fiction book this year...[a] highly readable history of the last half-billion years on earth" - Oliver Sacks, Observer Books of the Year

About the Author

David Beerling is Professor of Palaeoclimatology at the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences University of Sheffield. Before this he held a Royal Society University Research Fellowship, where his work on the evolution of life and the physical environment was recognized by the award of a prestigious Philip Leverhulme Prize in earth sciences (2001). He has published over 100 papers in international scientific journals and is co-author of Vegetation and the Global Carbon Cycle: Modelling the first 400 million years (CUP, 2001).

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
44 of 44 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A really exciting read 28 May 2007
There are not many science books that can be described as exciting, but this one certainly is. With a superbly clean writing style, Beerling reveals the extraordinary story of plant evolution and plants' subsequent enormous impact on life on our planet.

It's something I had never given much thought to; most of my books about the ancient earth focus on dinosaurs. But my entire perception of the Earth and its history has been changed, along with my understanding of plants.

Beerling combines botany, geo-chemistry and a host of other potentially daunting subjects in easily-digested prose. The book is made even better thanks to the equally extraordinary stories of the discoveries behind the science. We are introduced to a pantheon of remarkable people (though they were not always appreciated as such at the time) through neat little insights and unexpected anecdotes.

You will never see plants in the same light again and you don't need to be a scientist to grasp the vast majority of the concepts. It's thoroughly engrossing and if you want to know more, the book is superbly referenced, too. Very highly recommended.
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27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Arranging carts and horses 30 July 2007
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME
For many years, as fossil plants emerged from the rocks, it was believed that these records reflected changes in climate. Plants, it was assumed, had to adapt to variations in weather and other conditions. According to Beerling, plant life was instead the major prompter of climate change. The balance of atmospheric gases was determined by the micro-organisms floating in the seas. The ability to absorb carbon dioxide, coupled with the use of sunlight to convert that into nutrients gives plants the power to shift gas quantities. During the early days, plants exhaled oxygen. It was poison to most organisms, but those capable of using it began the drive leading to today's life. In this useful survey of all the forces forming today's world, Beerling traces how plants "changed Earth's history". Following his thesis requires the reader's close attention, since the organisation of the material is necessarily loose - not fixed chronology nor subject. The many topics to cover cannot be neatly niched.

To the author, the biggest mystery lies in the long delay between plants colonising the land and the formation of the first leaves. Leaf structure reflects how the plant is using energy. That, in turn, becomes a signal of how the atmosphere is composed at any given time. This knowledge was assembled over many years through the work of many researchers. Beerling traces the building of data resources and how the information was interpreted. Images of leaves and stems, analysis of the rock chemistry, field observations and laboratory experiments all contributed to the picture of plant evolution. Numerous surprises emerged, sometimes leading scholars to doubt the data and even their methodology. Looking at the life of plants down the ages is, as he puts it, looking "Through a glass darkly".
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How the other half live 18 May 2009
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is a superb and very up to date look at the history of plants and the role plants have played in the history of life. The writing style is engaging and easy to read, although the potted histories of scientific ideas at the start of most chapters were perhaps a little too long and sometimes not entirely to the point. This is a minor criticism, though; as the rest of the content is a unique description of some of the major changes in life on Earth since the start of the Palaeozoic.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Jewel of a Book 16 April 2009
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
A wonderful book, and a real insight into the way plants have a greater effect than we could imagine. Just because they do not move and cannot talk, we assume they can have no influence upon the world we live in. How wrong can we be. Well worth reading.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Informative, stimulating, fascinating! 22 April 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I opted to purchase this book as a consequence of seeing the recent "How to grow a Planet" series on TV, as the latter only (so far) comes as a DVD,rather than the usual BBC book. Having initially been disappointed by the lack of glossy photographs of plants,I have to say that what this book lacks in illustration, it more than makes up for in content, and has reshaped my view of Geography in general as a discipline of enormous importance for our own Planet. The logical layout and wealth of information in the book, as well as its excellent references to other sources of information on the many subjects it manages to cover make it a very good source of information and stimulation to read further. Allow me to recommend it, not just as a guide to anyone wanting to find out even more on the subject of plants and their influence on Earth's history and evolution, but as a source of information and interest to any general reader on the subject.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a surprisingly board and interesting book 8 Dec 2012
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This is a book about plants, or more accurately a book about the planet Earth (and plants). It describes, somewhat scientifically, how plants have influenced both the climate and evolution for the last 2 billion years or so. A quite remarkable journey from beginning to end. Maybe a little overly scientific (but then, I suppose it is a science book) for some, but if you persist it generally explains things fully if not necessarily simply. What I like most about it, is that explained not only the theories but also how the theories were reached. It also, like any good scientific book, gave space to all of the competing arguments over the various theories around the evolution of plant life. very good indeed.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Not so much about plants as about climate change
I had expected this book to be more like "How to grow a planet" only with more details and more palaeobotany. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Hans Olav Nymand
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant book
This is the book on which the BBC series 'How to grow a planet' was based. The book is brilliant, there are very few book available for the lay person on the history of plants from... Read more
Published 7 months ago by Midge
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating science
This book is a fascinating study of the role of plants in the history of life on earth. It is not a comprehensive account of plant evolution nor will it really appeal to beginners,... Read more
Published 8 months ago by Reviewer
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating
A very interesting take on the role of plants in the evolution of our climate, geology and life on earth. It is well written and reasonably accessible to the lay reader.
Published 12 months ago by kelvin253
3.0 out of 5 stars The Emerald Planet
Not quite fair of me to review this book as I'm only half way through reading it.
So far I'd describe it as a "climatology whodunnit". Read more
Published 15 months ago by R. Rowland
5.0 out of 5 stars A first class read and a refreshing look at the Earth's history
Any book about earth history has to be taken with an open mind. This book is a worthy read because it takes a refreshing view of the controlling influence that plants have had... Read more
Published 16 months ago by Steve Law
2.0 out of 5 stars No plates
I could not access the illustration plates on ipad. Figures are fine, but plates do not appear. So I wish that I had bought the book!
Published 23 months ago by Peter Herring
4.0 out of 5 stars The Emerald Planet
I was fascinated by this book and staggered by the amount of knowledge scientists have gleaned about our world over a billion years ago. Read more
Published on 22 Feb 2012 by Valerie David
4.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating discovery
With many insights on new knowledges about paleobotany, it was a very enrichment reading with lot of surprises (for someone outside of these matters) and a large sprectrum for new... Read more
Published on 3 Dec 2011 by Carlos Silva
3.0 out of 5 stars History Of Plants.
Tho not for the faint hearted reader due to it being slightly dry this book is very knowledgeable and does regularly come into use on my course (zoology and conservation)
Published on 7 Jan 2011 by Sebastian Leaver
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