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Snowball Earth: The Story of the Great Global Catastrophe That Spawned Life as We Know It Hardcover – 1 Mar 2003

5.0 out of 5 stars 1 customer review

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Crown Publishers; 1 edition (Mar. 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0609609734
  • ISBN-13: 978-0609609736
  • Product Dimensions: 16.4 x 2.6 x 24.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 2,511,892 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
One would need no previous knowledge of geology to enjoy this book. It is as much about the scientific community as it is about the science. The proposal that perhaps more than once life came to a total standstill on earth seems far fetched. But the evidence is there and it will be for future geologists to find other explanations for the evidence if they can. I learnt from this narrative that this is how "truth" is established in all sciences.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 4.1 out of 5 stars 38 reviews
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Snowball in Hell 28 April 2005
By ealovitt - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Who among us is not interested in the history of our own blue-white planet and the origin of life, even if it is only through creation myths?

Author, Gabrielle Walker earned her Ph.D. in chemistry at Cambridge University and spent seven years as a features editor at "New Scientist." The latter experience definitely had a hand in molding her breezy, yet clear and conscientious style. She follows her intrepid geologists to the ends of the Earth like an eager cub reporter in some 1930s B-movie, peppering them with questions, almost getting trampled by an African elephant in the Namibian bush, beset by freezing fog in the Kalahari Desert, clambering down the windswept, godforsaken rocks of Mistaken Point in Newfoundland.

This book is a combination travel guide to some of the least habitable places on earth, biographical sketches of the scientists who developed and tested the 'Snowball Earth' theory, and an introduction to the painstaking science behind the newest, most audacious 'deep time' history of our planet.

Before we get to 'Snowball Earth,' let me give you a flavor of Walker's running travelogue. Here she is speaking of Mistaken Point: "Nobody could love these barren lands, not even their mother. They are dreary and damp, their plants the color of overcooked spinach and rusty nails; when the wind is not buffeting them or rain beating them down, they are shrouded in fog. The pale, thin caribou wander over them like lost souls."

Now, on to the theory as expounded by this book. Several times in the history of Earth, most recently 700 million years ago, our planet froze completely over, possibly because all of the continents had migrated close to the Equator. This deep-freeze may have ended the multi-billion-year reign of single-cell slime and given a kick-start to the Cambrian explosion of complex life. Snowball Earth was finally melted by a build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, courtesy of volcanic eruptions which turned our planet into a hellish, hurricane-ripped green-house. Eventually the excess carbon dioxide was absorbed back into the oceans and the planetary crust. Multi-cellular life reveled in the first decent climate it had ever experienced, not realizing that meteor strikes and volcanic eruptions would occasionally wipe out up to 90% of its evolved species.

Could we get a repeat of Snowball Earth? Sure. As a matter of fact, the continents seem to be sliding toward the Equator again, which will allow ice to build up at the Poles and advance toward Earth's bulging midline. Will this happen during our lifetime? Nah. As Gabrielle Walker so vividly expresses it, the continental plates move at roughly the same speed our fingernails grow.

The geologists, paleontologists, and their science form the core of this marvelously written book. Walker does a meticulous job of relating both the scientific and the human side of the 'Snowball Earth' controversy. Her incisive portraits of the scientific movers and shakers, most especially the fiercely competitive Paul Hoffman, will stick in your mind long after you forget about drop stones, tidal rhythmites, and magnetic reversals in the Flinders ice rocks.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Argumentative Champion for a Revolutionary Theory 30 July 2003
By Rob Hardy - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Geologists since the eighteenth century have advocated "uniformitarianism," the concept that what is going on to the Earth now is essentially the same as what has gone on before. It is a good rule of thumb, but like most rules of thumb, it requires intelligent neglect or violation, and working geologists do so to form an accurate picture of Earth history. There has sometimes been resistance to violation of the rule; the wipeout of the dinosaurs by an asteroid hit 65 million years ago is now generally accepted, but was not when it was proposed. But even without extraordinary outside forces, our globe used to be a very different place. Between 750 and 590 million years ago, there were sudden lurches in climate that froze even lands at the equator. Or so goes the Snowball Earth Theory. _Snowball Earth: The Story of the Great Global Catastrophe that Spawned Life as We Know It_ (Crown Publishers) by Gabrielle Walker describes the theory and its importance, but the current importance may not be merely its scientific significance. What makes the theory particularly interesting right now is that it is being championed by a colorful Harvard geologist who is attempting to make it accepted geological thought. Walker's surprisingly exciting book is thus not just a summary of ancient geology, but also an entertaining examination of personalities involved.
The snowball Earth theory is not entirely new, but the book is largely the story of Paul Hoffman, a brilliant, driven geologist who was eager to make some sort of difference in his field. Argumentative, energetic, and brilliant, he has a strong reputation as a geologist and as a difficult character. Disputes by him are not objective quibbles published in obscure journals, but stand-up, screaming fights. Partially because Hoffman has taken up a sort of gladiatorial grandstanding for the theory (he has made his own contributions and confirmations), there are equally adamant anti-snowballers. The combative nature of science is on display here; Walker writes, "Science works at its best when somebody puts forward a theory and everyone else tries to pull it down." She is good at describing the pains of field work (something at which Hoffman is adept), but academic battles are the emphasis in her book. Of course Hoffman hopes his ideas share the same fate as those of Alfred Wegener, whose ideas about Plate Tectonics were originally ridiculed; so far, they have survived the challenges about which Walker reports.
Particularly valuable in the theory is the light it might throw on the bloom of life into complex multicellular creatures. Of course a deep freeze would have been disastrous for all the simple slimes that were found all over the Earth when the freeze came. There might have escaped, however, pockets of cells that, according to the theory, were the precursors for the famous Cambrian explosion in the trilobite times. Perhaps the snowball produced the complexity, although this is far from clear. It is one of the many details that is going to have to be argued over. Walker winds up with a description of the Earth's future; if we are still around in a few hundred million years, we might well have to deal with a return of the snowball. It is too hard to think about time lengths of such spans, but geologists routinely do so, although the spans are back in the past. Walker's book is a good introduction to serious thought about such times, and to the very human way such science is done.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent writing but .... no pictures 7 April 2003
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This book is about the theory that, over 600 million years ago, the earth underwent periods when it was completely covered with ice, hence, Snowball Earth. Although many scientists have contributed to this theory over the past few decades, the book focuses mainly on the efforts of Dr. Paul Hoffman, the main scientist responsible for developing and promoting the theory, thus raising its status to level that it has today. This is a very well-written book. It vividly describes the way in which science works, as well as the fact that scientists are all too human. It also contains well-written discussions on the science involved. Such a book should contain diagrams, figures, charts, photos, maps, etc., to better illustrate the locations, ideas and facts presented in the text. Unfortunately, the book contains none of the above - no picture whatsoever; if it did, I would have easily given it 5 stars. Despite this shortcoming, the book is definitely worth the read.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A great overview of a current controversy 8 Jun. 2003
By Robert J. Stern - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This is an excellent read, for scientists and non-scientists alike. How often do we get snapshots of scientific controversies as they evolve? I can't think of any. And it is an accessible and fascinating controversy for the literate public. Ms. Walker has bent over backwards to keep the geojargon out, and I applaud this. She has done a great job of presenting the scientific problem and the psychological drama implicit in resolving this within the scientific community. Her vignettes of the personalities are great and she pulls no punches. All are presented as humans, with incisive assessments of strengths and weaknesses. She does a great job presenting how they interact, and this for me was the best part of the book. The footnotes are unusually useful and entertaining; would that all footnotes were as readable. I like the way that she uses footnotes to steer the interested reader to other papers and books. The decision not to have photos or maps is strange, this was a mistake that I hope she does not repeat in her future efforts. We may be witnessing the beginnings of a great career in writing science here.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Splendid Look At A New Controversial Theory of Geology 21 Jun. 2003
By John Kwok - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Gabrielle Walker's "Snowball Earth" reads like a gripping detective tale and spellbinding memoir. Her relatively terse epic primarily tells the tale of arrogant, maverick Canadian geologist Paul Hoffman, and how his study of Precambrian geological formations in Namibia, Africa lead inexorably to a new, controversial theory in the geological sciences; "Snowball Earth". Possessed by a zeal equalled only by a religious fanatic, Hoffman, a professor of geology at Harvard University, gradually builds up an impressive theory explaining how the Earth was encased in ice, not once, but probably at least four times, over the course of two hundred million years (He believes it began around eight hundred million years ago.). Furthermore Hoffman has suggested that this was the event which triggered the evolution of metazoan life and the subsequent Cambrian explosion of metazoan phyla. Walker also introduces us to Caltech geologist Joe Kirschvink whose work in magnetostratigraphy supplied important clues that aided Hoffman in shaping his theory. But to her credit, she also spends considerable time discussing important critics such as Columbia University's Nicholas Christie-Blick and University of California, Riverside's Martin Kennedy and noting their substantial objections without sounding dismissive. Told in engaging lyrical prose, Walker's book will interest anyone fascinated with research done by field as well as laboratory geologists. Her book is a splendid little ode to exciting state-of-the-art geology and some of its most fascinating scholars, most notably Hoffman, himself. Without question, this is among the finest popular books on geology that I've come across.
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