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Lucky Planet: Why Earth is Exceptional – and What that Means for Life in the Universe Hardcover – 1 May 2014
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'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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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.
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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