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on 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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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". Pervading his presentation is what the implications are for what is occurring in today's atmosphere - on which our life and those of our children, depends.

Beerling deems investigations into ancient atmospheres a form of "breathalyser", such as the police apply to suspected impaired drivers. In this case, however, it's not alcohol fumes that are measured, but carbon dioxide. Other gases are also sought, but they don't often leave sufficient clues. The information must be derived indirectly. Again, it's the plant's leaves that are used as the pointers to how ancient atmospheres fluctuated. Underlying the variations is the mighty force of plate tectonics. The shifting of land masses and changes in surface configuration leads plants to shift their survival strategies. Acting far more rapidly than creeping continents, the ability of plants to accelerate or impair rock weathering shifts the presence of gas quantities. Carbon dioxide quantities have varied markedly, leading to most of the world's history being warm times. Only recently - in geologic terms - has the planet experienced a cool era, which led to the "ice age" that scoured the Northern Hemisphere with massive glaciers.

As with so much in science, the revelation that plants drive climate instead of passively responding to it has produced at least as many questions as answers. There are anomalous circumstances that must be unravelled. The knowledge gained has led to the formation of "Earth system analysis" techniques using various forms of computer modelling. Many details, however, remain to be worked out. Atmostpheric studies are particularly impaired by lack of knowledge of cloud formation and distribution. Carbon itself, both as a greenhouse gas and as a component of plant growth, remains enigmatic. Beerling traces the selectivity of plants in choosing which carbon isotope will be utilised. That choice has impact on which plants will become dominant in a given area, which also has implications for the animal life living from them. There are no simple nor ready answers to what plants have meant in tracing life's development. Yet, as he emphasises frequently, these are questions that must be addressed further, and that, soon. Understanding our atmosphere is essential to our future. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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on 16 June 2014
I had expected this book to be more like "How to grow a planet" only with more details and more palaeobotany. Well maybe I didn't read the description properly, but the book is mostly about the atmosphere, greenhouse gasses and climate change...
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on 16 April 2009
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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on 18 June 2016
After having read the review and Dawkin's mention of it in his latest book I had high hopes for this but I can't read it through, it's just not what I expected and I can't agree that it is well written either, I have rarely read a less well structured book. The problem is two fold, firstly the author rambles, the book is constantly going off on tangents with lots of irrelevant anecdotes about scientists. I think desite the author saying at the start it's about time someone championed plants because they don't get enough coverage in popular science (on in nature documentaries) he seems to have ended up feeling he had to pad it out to make it exciting. This is a pity, what I wanted and expected was a book on the fascinating story of the evolution of plants, but plants barely get a mention in several chapters, just their effects on the atmosphere mainly. Not interested in that, I wanted something on the history of plants from an evolutionary perspective.
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on 18 May 2009
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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on 22 April 2012
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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on 4 September 2012
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!
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on 8 December 2012
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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on 10 April 2013
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 over time. I was attracted to the book by an article many years ago in a geological magazine which looked at the role of plants in the Devonian period and their potential influence on extinctions at the end of that period and the changes that plants brought about in the earth's atmosphere and biosphere.
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