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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Where Is Everybody
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...
Published 10 months ago by Dr Barry Clayton

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4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great idea, disappointingly executed
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...
Published 8 months ago by JPMT


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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Where Is Everybody, 6 May 2014
By 
Dr Barry Clayton (United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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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. He points out that had our day been a few minutes longer, or the Moon's diameter a few miles bigger, then the earth's spin would have been unstable and life would have been wiped out by chaotic climate change. If our day had been shorter or the Moon smaller, our ice ages would have been longer and longer. Hence, he believes we are 'perhaps the luckiest planet in the visible universe'.

In 14 chapters he discusses for example, the Big Bang, Air Conditioning and Snowballs and Greenhouses. It is a remarkable work. He argues very convincingly that the Earth is a precious jewel possessinga rare combination of qualities that make it perfect for life. He believes it is unlikely we will find a similar complex life elsewhere in the Universe. His key argument, by no means accepted by all, is based on geological evidence. In a fascinating passage he explains 'observational bias'. In brief, it means our view of what is really there has been misled by the accident of what we're able to see. This is of enormous importance in many other fields. He gives the example of stars pointing out they are unrepresentative of the hundreds of thousands in our small corner of the galaxy. We cannot see faint stars or buried rocks.

Do read this engaging and thought provoking book. Apart from anything else it is a powerful argument for interplanetary exploration.
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10 of 12 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 (Wells, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Lucky Planet: Why Earth is Exceptional - and What that Means for Life in the Universe (Hardcover)
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. Our star, the sun, is unusually large and bright – most long-lived stars are smaller and redder than ours. However, they are prone to stellar flares which are extremely harmful to the biosphere. The Earth has an astonishingly strong magnetic field which deflects the solar wind, which otherwise could split water vapour into hydrogen and oxygen allowing the former to escape into space – this is how a planet loses all its water.

Despite the early sun emitting only 70% of today’s output, the Earth remained suitable for life due to the immense greenhouse effect of the early atmosphere. As the sun heated up, the greenhouse effect reduced in tandem: carbon dioxide was washed out of the atmosphere by rain and locked up in sedimentary rocks, while methane was oxidised away as soon as early photosynthesis evolved.

The Earth did not experience a smooth, stabilised, homeostatic climate – there were episodes of great heat interspersed with at least four ‘snowball earth’ episodes where the entire planet became icebound. Thanks, however, to plate tectonics and volcanism, carbon dioxide was released back into the atmosphere to unfreeze the Earth and to allow early life to reboot.

Some people believe that this is an example of the Gaia principle – life stabilising its own environment. The author sees instead systems of climate dynamics that could so easily have sheared off into uncontrolled positive feedback or blundered into wild oscillations. In his opinion, this is exactly what happens to most planets like ours ‘out there’ - but as a consequence, they have no observers to later theorise about it.

Parenthetically, the author’s concerns about current anthropogenic global warming are consistent with his view of underlying instabilities. It’s not so much that increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere directly warm the climate; it’s more that they catalyse changes in more potent greenhouse gases (water vapour, methane) and it’s not at all clear that there are negative feedback mechanisms which could dampen their effects. The climate models are very complex and who knows if they’re either comprehensive or correctly tracking all the mechanisms?

Another climate-changing influence is the Earth’s axial inclination (currently around 23 degrees) and its orbit around the sun. Under the impact of the other planets in the solar system, the shape and tilt of the Earth’s orbit is continually changing on long-period cycles (69,000 years for orbital tilt and tilt-direction, 400,000 years for orbital eccentricity with other influences clustering around 100,000 years). These affect solar heating and drive the ice ages. The Earth also precesses on its axis every 26,000 years. We’re very lucky that these numbers are rather different because if they converged we would experience orbital resonances, and the inclination of the Earth’s axis would become unstable and chaotic (of the order of a few million years). This would trash the climate, leading to the extinction of all complex forms of life. How did we come by that luck?

It’s somewhat well-known that our large moon ‘spin stabilises’ the inclination of the Earth’s axis. What is less well-known is that as the moon continues to spiral away, the precession rate will slowly decay and in 1.5 billion years time resonance will occur with the orbital periods discussed above. At that point, the Earth will have an unstable spin axis. This is of academic interest only, as for reasons concerned with the sun’s increasing output, the earth will become uninhabitable for multi-cellular life within the next 500 million years. But, if the moon’s radius had been just 10 km larger and the early Earth’s day just ten minutes longer, the Earth would have an unstable spin axis today. What are the chances?

So why does it pay to have a large moon? The author suggests that a moon almost large enough to eventually generate axial instability also stabilises the spin prior to that, and in doing so allows the planet to have relatively mild and infrequent ice ages - another case of fine-tuning for intelligent life.

The author concludes that the chances of all these things coming together to guarantee a four billion year life-benign climate are so remote that the Earth is possibly the only planet with intelligent life in the entire visible universe: we are quite alone. This solution to the Fermi Paradox might be considered depressing, but it should increase our caution – “We may just find out the hard way that planets with nasty climates are quite easy to produce.”

The reader may be left with another thought: although few planets may experience multi-billion year climate stability, this is hardly a pre-requisite for interstellar colonisation, and there’s a lot of unoccupied real estate out there.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Thought Provoking and Clearly Reasoned View of Why the Earth may be a very Rare Jewel, 25 Jan. 2015
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This review is from: Lucky Planet: Why Earth is Exceptional - and What that Means for Life in the Universe (Hardcover)
The main thesis of this book is that Earth is a `Lucky Planet' to have ended up in its present situation of supporting an abundance and variety of life; including intelligent life; rather than being a lifeless planet.

The author, David Waltham comes to the topic with a background of a first class degree in Physics, which led to a spell in the oil industry and a subsequent successful academic career in Earth Sciences for nearly 30 years. That being said, the author steps outside the confines of his own core field of expertise to incorporate ideas and concepts from biology and astronomy. Hence the book covers a pretty wide territory to examine and explain the basis of Earth being a `Lucky Planet.' This breadth of survey is both beneficial and necessary to provide the reader with an appreciation of the complex range of factors which have resulted in Earth's pattern of evolution and development.

Whilst other books have considered the scientific reasons which might explain why there is intelligent life on Earth, Waltham's key focus is upon the very long term climatic conditions on the planet. In particular, Waltham takes the view that it is precisely because of relatively stable long-term climatic conditions that life has been able to evolve in the first place.

To support this argument, Waltham draws upon ideas and theories which will be familiar to anyone who has either studied or read about the question of how life first came to be on Earth from a variety of perspectives. Essentially, these include a dependency upon cosmological factors such as the size of our local sun and its associated life cycle; planet formation and associated satellites; the importance of size for a planet and the role of its moon(s). Here Waltham provides some interesting views about the role of our moon and explores some alternative circumstances which would have had a catastrophic impact upon Earth's climate. A similarly fascinating cursory explanation is also provided to explain the impact that planetary resonance can have upon the kind of climate it might experience. Remaining in the cosmological realm, Waltham also provides a brief review of the literature and speculative ideas about the Big Bang, the size of our Universe, whether it is finite or infinite and the ever popular idea of a multiverse. However, these latter topics are provided more as ancillary items in terms of depth of treatment and the reader unfamiliar with these topics would need to go elsewhere to learn about them in more depth. However, such issues do provide an important context for discussing the potential size and scale of the universe or even the existence of multiverses, which has relevance to Waltham's overall conclusions.

Naturally, given the core character in this story is life itself, Waltham also visits relevant areas of biology, ranging from evolutionary theory through to the Gaia hypothesis of James Lovelock and a variety of other relevant topics, including a quick overview of the biochemistry involved with extremophiles (i.e. animals and plants that can survive in extreme environments). Whilst clearly respectful of the contribution made by the Gaia hypothesis, Waltham comes down on the side of a large dose of good luck (the Goldilocks hypothesis) explaining the presence and sustaining of life on Earth, rather than voting for the automatic feedback mechanisms of the Gaia hypothesis providing an explanatory model. Waltham was however, not dismissing the Gaia hypothesis out of hand. Rather he makes a good argument to suggest that in reality a large number of interconnected complex systems have provided an outcome that is essentially an emergent property of their interrelations and processes; that what some see as the Gaia hypothesis at work is essentially these emergent properties.

In his home territory of Earth Sciences, Waltham provides a sound and interesting overview of the rock cycle and the changing pattern of continental plates and topography over deep time. After the initial successful establishment of single cell organisms, the author traces the familiar pattern of development and evolution of life through its various mass extinctions and recoveries to its present day diversity. Along the way, the reader is reminded of the critical interplay between the biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere and geosphere with processes such as the carbon cycle, nitrogen cycle and water cycles woven together in such a manner as to provide insights into the wonderful and delicate balance that has evolved to shape the nature of this planet.

In terms of writing style, Waltham has provided a clear and easily understandable prose; even when dealing with some quite scientifically sophisticated ideas. This makes the book all the more enjoyable to read. Waltham provides a section of Further Reading on the topic towards the end of the book. The focus is very much upon books on the same topic, but the author is to be credited with providing titles from authors whose opinions are diametrically opposed to his own, as well as some which support him. The author asks the reader to check them out and make up his or her own mind; this avoidance of dogma is to be applauded. Some might criticise the book for its absence of a detailed bibliography, but given the book appears to be aimed at a more general reader, rather than the specialist, this is a minor shortcoming in my opinion. Also, some of the recommended books do provide more detailed bibliographies and as usual, the internet provides volumes of scientific articles/pieces covering much of the material for the reader wanting to find out more on the subject; or more precisely, numerous subjects dealt with in this book.

Ultimately, if one accepts Waltham's hypothesis, then Earth is presented as a rare jewel in the universe. However, Waltham emphasises that this is not to suggest Earth is the only planet to develop life and more specifically intelligent life in the universe. It's just that he regards it as a rare event and given the vast distances involved stretching billions of light years, he sees the prospects of making contact with other intelligent beings `out there' as somewhat improbable. Certainly, his thesis provides a reasonable explanation of the Fermi paradox which postulates that if there are so many intelligent civilisations scattered across the universe, then why is it that we haven't heard from any of them. Of course, whether one supports the `many worlds' view or the `rare Earth' view, for now both represent mere speculation.

In conclusion, this book provides an interesting and broad overview of the arguments as to why the Earth may prove to be exceptional in developing the kind of life we see on this planet, which should if anything make us appreciate and value it all the more.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting read, 6 Mar. 2015
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Thought provoking view on life on not just our planet but our universe and just how fortunate we may be to observe and enjoy its wonders.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Are we alone in the universe?, 14 Jun. 2014
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This review is from: Lucky Planet: Why Earth is Exceptional - and What that Means for Life in the Universe (Hardcover)
This is a remarkably readable but densely argued exploration of the many issues involved in evaluating whether complex life can exist elsewhere in the universe. Despite the discovery of Kepler 186f, this study shows that merely existing in the habitable zone where liquid water might pool enough to encourage life, offers only the tiniest of hopes. An enormous range of other favourable factors is required. The book sets out to explore what these are and how they have been utilised in creating earth's complex life systems. The book focuses on the extraordinary stability of the climatic conditions enjoyed by the earth over several billion years and in doing so incorporates many of the recent fascinating discoveries in the whole range of pertinent sciences. This makes the book essential reading for anyone like myself, scientifically uneducated but fascinated by the issues involved. The writer comes down on the side of those like myself who feel intuitively that we are alone, but he argues that the opposite position is scientifically possible, and he suggests an interesting range of alternative readings. A wonderful purchase.
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4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great idea, disappointingly executed, 30 Jun. 2014
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This review is from: Lucky Planet: Why Earth is Exceptional - and What that Means for Life in the Universe (Hardcover)
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. Karl Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery gives the rationale.

Evolutionary theory uses this ‘proper’ science – of course there’s consensus on Darwinism, but none on how self-organizing entities first developed, and little on how evolution works in detail. However recent advances in DNA analysis are allowing great strides forward. The field will continue to change rapidly because now we can mine evolutionary history from every living species (and a few extinct ones). Cosmology is moving just as fast, driven by ever faster & cheaper computer image processing. So neither area uses the consensus/sceptic model, everybody is chasing the data, many of the people coming up with good ideas have really annoying personalities, and the book’s assumed consensus does not exist.

Finally, perhaps because of a wish to tiptoe around the climate debate, the book doesn't consider the geological roots of human technological civilization. This is arguably a highly unlikely consequence of the current 10,000 year interglacial warming causing us to thrive and the earlier Carboniferous laying down the fossil fuels that fed our industrial revolution and lifted us towards the stars.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Introduction to the subject, 15 Aug. 2014
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A well written account of why there is life on earth and whether there is likely to be life elsewhere in the universe. I liked the fact that it was a far reaching discussion covering cosmology, physics, chemistry and geology. Definitely a thought provoking introduction to the subject.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Grounded case for the Rare Earth Hypothesis, 24 Dec. 2014
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David Waltham presents his case for the "unique" qualities of Earth that have led to intelligent life and consequently that similar life in the universe is much rarer than we might expect given current research into exoplanets and biology.
Accepting the anthropic principle (we happen to live on a world perfectly suited to life becasue if it wasn't, we wouldn't be here to make that observation) doesn't itself tell us anything about the ubiquity of life, Waltham looks at what we do know about Earth and in particular climate and geology to propose that only through billions of years of having things "just so" has supported the development of intelligent life.
With so many variables which could have swung the climate one way or the other, the chances of gettign it right add another couple of variables into the Drake equation that might just tip the balance towards the "rare Earth" end of the scale, to the point where we might consider a "Unique Earth" hypothesis.
In taking an Earth centred approach to the discussion Waltham focuses attention on us rather than everyone else potentially out there and reinforces the obvious conclusion of such an argument: if we are so rare then maybe we should start appreciating the fact.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Wonderful Book that will fill you with awe and wonder, A Great Read., 30 Aug. 2014
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J. markey "johnleto" (dublin ireland) - See all my reviews
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Coming to the end of this rather short book, and now I feel in a sort of awe as I am convinced by his argument that higher multicellular complex lifeforms are going to be rare in this universe, and a complex lifeform capable of forming a complex culture such as our human ones is going to be rarer again. This is a lucky planet. We are also lucky having our lives enriched by the pondering and exploring these questions, This book is excellent for that.
I a layman and not that bright found this book easy going to spite the complex material, David Waltham is a great teacher and he can somehow get across a multitude of complex subjects that makes up his argument and make them all fascinating and easy to grasp. I found myself reading this as if it was a page turner of a novel. I always believed the universe been so vast must be teeming with life, it may well be, just not complex life.
Which may make some uncomfortable to believe the Earth is special, as that seems a stupid religious argument. But now I believe it maybe and I find that strangely uplifting and it gives me a feeling that we all must know this so we respect it more and realise as Carl Sagan said "its the only home we have" and are likely to have.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars How fortunate we are - standing alone in the universe., 27 July 2014
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We could be alone in the universe. Out there in space there could be no other signs of life. The book is a reminder of how lucky we are with the conditions for life.
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