Non-Fiction Reviews

The Cosmic Oasis

The remarkable story of earth's (sic) biosphere

(2022) Mark Williams and Jan Zalasiewicz, Oxford University Press, 20 / US$27.95, hrdbk, vii + 280pp, ISBN 978-0-988-4587-4


This is a captivating and informative meander around the subject of biosphere science, or Earth Systems Science, as it has come to be known in academic circles. Clearly, we humanity rely on the biosphere to sustain us. The authors are both palaeobiologists from the University of Leicester; as it happens, a not too distant a hop, skip and a jump from the Cowie principal domicile. Their study of palaeobiology ('old' or 'ancient' biology) through the geological record explains this book's take on the biosphere as a cosmic oasis.

It begins with the Apollo 8 view of Earth, as the spacecraft emerged from the far side of the Moon, revealing our planet as an oasis in the emptiness of space, before swiftly moving on to the first human species and the rise of cognition that gave us art, culture and technology. This is followed up with an interesting review of how the concept of the biosphere developed through to Lovelock's Gaia with the biosphere as an integrated feedback mechanism. The authors note that without life, the Earth would likely have become another Venus.

The next chapter takes us through the evolution of life from the Last Universal Common Ancestor, from prokaryotes to eukaryotes, multicellular life and the colonisation of land.

The rest of the book focuses on a little over the past half billion years with an Earth rich in multicellular species both in the oceans and on land. We get a chapter on biology shaped by plate tectonics and how we humans are undermining this distinctiveness, transporting species from one continent to another or to islands, sometimes with devastating results.

There is a chapter on how humans through the ages have wiped out species especially large animals (or mega fauna) and how this compare with the major mass extinctions of the past half billion years.

There is a chapter on how sunlight is used to create biomass, the need for nitrogen and other elements, and how we today through understanding these processes are able to feed our growing global population.

This leads us in to a chapter on how our feeding ourselves today is impacting the planet at an almost global scale and how this compares with what our species did thousands of years ago. All of which brings us neatly to a chapter on the rise of technology from prehistoric times to the present and our exhausting the biosphere.

The book concludes with a more detailed look at our species' adverse effects on ecosystems and what we might do about it.

As I said at the beginning, The Cosmic Oasis is a captivating and informative meander: I would say 'entertaining', because the writing is absorbing, but the subject at hand our trashing our planet should not really be the subject of entertainment. However, make no mistake, this is an easy read and the authors carry you along with their enthusiasm and knowledge of their subject. I particularly liked, as will other Science Fact & Science Fiction Concateneers, the genre references such as: Blade Runner, Doctor Who, Plant of the Apes and Terry Pratchett. Lovely.

This book can easily be read by any non-scientist who has an interest in science but I feel it has a bigger potential readership than the popular science market as there are useful references (listed at the end) which those studying relevant modules in geoscience and environmental science courses will want to look up. (I personally found a few of interest and indeed in the course of writing this review found another which I will certainly Google Scholar.)

Niggles, well a few, but none that sufficiently undermine this book to put me off thoroughly recommending it to you: they are all some might consider minor. For example, for a book whose message is a warning for us to change the ways we relate to the biosphere and our planet, then having the 'Earth' (proper noun) demoted to the common noun, 'earth' ('soil') on the cover was a bit of a design faux pas.

Then there is my all too often bugbear. If a publishing house's style (not just OUP's) dictates that the academic references be severed from the chapter end and put them at the back of the book, then for goodness' sake please keep the chapter titles (not just the chapter number) at the head of each batch of citations. Chapter titles occur at the top of every page of the respective chapter but the chapter number does not, and if you are dipping in to a book, and want to follow up on a reference, it is a right pain to have to flip back and forth: from where the reader is to the beginning of the chapter to identify its number, and then to the end to the references; much better to look to the top of the page the reader is on to ascertain the chapter title and then straight to the back of the book to the references. This is something that OUP and other publishers who thoughtlessly follow this style do need to address, not at commissioning editor level but by senior editorial management! This is a zero-cost issue and publishers would be plain daft not to address it.

With specific regard to this book, there were full-page artworks at the end of each chapter. I really am not sure what these added to the book: clearly they appear to be black-and-white renditions of what were originally full-colour works, but they did nothing for me. I would have much rather the space had been used to provide graphics such as a star diagram of the domains of life, or Benton's evolution of groups of species across deep time graph, or a graph of global human population the past 10,000 years. But, there you go.

Finally, perhaps a little thought could have been given to this book's title. From the title, and the book's back-cover blurb, I had expected more as to the cosmic context in which we find our biosphere: that most stars are red dwarves whose habitable zones are too close to the variables engendering tidal lock and that other stars, more massive than our Sun are too short-lived to see an oxygenated world, or the size of planets needing to be just right so as to allow hydrogen escape, etc, etc. The likelihood, or degree of rarity, of other life-bearing worlds and even those with more complex life. In fact, while the book has a most worthy focus that deserves attention, I am not sure it is one that clearly relates to the title and its back-cover. Breaking Biosphere: How a species of monkeys are trashing a world might better relate to the book's actual subject matter. (I invent wildly, on the hoof, but you get the idea.)

As said, I do recommend this book and I hope it finds its readership as the subject most certainly warrants it.

Jonathan Cowie


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