Non-Fiction Reviews

The Emerald Planet
How Plants Changed Earth's History

( 2017 ) , Oxford University Press, 10.99 / US$18.95, pbk, xxi v+ 381pp, ISBN 978-0-198-79832


This provides a fascinating insight into the way life especially plants evolved on our planet, but it was not just life evolving, it was life evolving and interacting with the very planet's crust and atmosphere, changing them both. These changes also fed back to life itself.

Many, thinking of life's evolution, may consider it rising from some primordial soup and into simple microorganisms and then to more complex plants and animals. We also tend to think of the Earth as being a more-or-less static and benign environment the after effects of asteroid strikes and supervolcanic eruptions aside. But is not and there have been many changes. David Beerling in particular looks at the rise in oxygen well above present-day levels some 300 million years ago in the Carboniferous and how this in turn led to giant insects.

Furthermore, there are many processes going on affecting carbon-based life. For example, the Amazon alone transports some 70 million tonnes of carbon to the ocean each year. This is due to the Amazon cutting through one of the largest rain forests. But such life-planet processes occur in most places on the Earth as some 75% of the land's surface is covered by leaves that capture solar energy and process carbon.

David Beerling also looks at some of the mass-extinction events that have taken place, as well as an episode of natural, greenhouse-gas-induced global warming that took place 55 million years ago that could have lessons for us today.

He also looks to the future. He not only looks both at global warming, but also how to feed the World's growing population, and muses that genetically enhancing our main crops with a super-powers kind of photosynthesis found in some kinds of tropical plants may be one solution. Some of these tropical grasses even affected the evolution of grazing animals. Along the way we make a number of fascinating pit-stops, including the lost, flourishing forests of Antarctica as well as the globally warmed world of dinosaurs.

All too often science is taught as if its disciplines are in self-contained buckets: biology, chemistry and physics. Conversely, David Beerling's book teases out an amazing story of planetary life on the borders and overlap of these disciplines as well as other disciplines such as geology. Truly fascinating.

The book is written at the proverbial New Scientist level and so readers will not need a degree in science to engage with this remarkable work; though perhaps a science A-Level (a British school qualification leading to university typically taken between 18 and 19 years of age) would help. Here I would recommend this book, and indeed some others in this Oxford University Press series, to those taking O-level science (a British mid-school qualification usually taken when 16 or 17 years old) with a view to doing a couple or more science subjects at A-level. Books such as this help explain the relationship between, and the synergies that can be found with, different science disciplines: this may help such youngsters decide what to do at university.

This book is part of Oxford University Press' 'Oxford Landmark Series' of science texts. This one in particular is likely to appeal to this website's key target visitors scientists into science fiction.  Yes, the multi- and interdisciplinary approach will appeal to scientists (it is always interesting having a look over the fence at the neighbours), but as its subject concerns the way living planets work and, as planets rife with alien life is one of science fiction's most commonly used tropes, it will appeal to many thinking SF aficionados in addition to the usual popular science book readership.

Jonathan Cowie

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