Lucky Planet: Why Earth is Exceptional – and What that Means for Life in the Universe Hardcover – 1 May 2014
- Choose from over 13,000 locations across the UK
- Prime members get unlimited deliveries at no additional cost
- Find your preferred location and add it to your address book
- Dispatch to this address when you check out
Customers who viewed this item also viewed
Customers who bought this item also bought
Enter your mobile number or email address below and we'll send you a link to download the free Kindle App. Then you can start reading Kindle books on your smartphone, tablet, or computer - no Kindle device required.
To get the free app, enter your mobile phone number.
'Very readable' Author: Matt Ridley Source: The Times
'[Waltham's] arguments are compelling and the book is a delight to read.' Source: 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.' Author: 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!’ Author: James Kasting Source: Penn State University, author of How to Find a Habitable Planet
From 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.See all Product description
Showing 1-7 of 20 reviews
There was a problem filtering reviews right now. Please try again later.
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.
David, however, does deserve praise for his clear and sober explanations which are not designed to kill all hope and belief but supplement our emotions with clear facts that require clear and sober counterpoints to thwart.
He is also a good storyteller and kept my interest even when some of the science got a bit murky.
I appreciate this work and hope others will read it as intended.
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.
Would you like to see more reviews about this item?