Non-Fiction Reviews

The Goldilocks Planet

(2012) Jan Zalasiewicz & Mark Williams, Oxford University Press, pbk, 16.99 / US$29.95, xix +309pp, ISBN 978-0-199-59357-6


Our Earth is neither too hot nor too cold for life. It is a Goldilocks world whose temperature is just right for life. Imagine tracing the Earth's history and climate, over its almost 5 billion year history, then in a book 90,000 words long that is about 50,000 years for every word! Writing the narrative of this history with this word constraint would be an impressive feat, but this is just what geologists Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams have done, and indeed they have given us a remarkably impressive book.

It takes us from the formation of the planet, through the late heavy bombardment, two Snowball Earths, an episode of a high oxygen Earth, through hot house blips (geologically speaking) of the Toarcian and Eocene ice ages and glacial-interglacial cycles, before ending up with current global warming. It is quite a ride.

This book is written at the proverbial New Scientist magazine level and so is understandable to the lay scientist (or even scientists reading across disciplines). It will not only be of special value to school leavers thinking about doing a course in geology, by SF readers into related science as to what Earth-like planets experience in their lifetime (and the Earth is truly and Earth-like planet).

Given the enormity of their task it would be churlish to pick holes. As it happens Jan Zalasiewicz & Mark Williams have truly done a commendable job. The only real gripes I had were that a couple of the graphs show regional (tropical) or hemispheric temperatures across times (not global temperatures), and that Cenozoic (past 60 million years) graph might have better had it been the one the IPCC (2007) used in their palaeoclimate chapter as it is likely that the mid-Eocene was warmer than the authors depicted. Having said that, you need to know your palaeoclimatology to pick up on such details and these do not unduly detract from the thrust of Jan and Mark's odyssey.   However I was mildly irritated by OUP not insisting that the geological table was right at the very start of the book rather than a few pages into the first chapter (after the contents, acknowledgements and prologue) as this just made it that little bit harder to find when needing to make a quick reference: it is a key table to which readers unfamiliar with geological time will regularly refer in the course of reading the book.   But what was more annoying was that the chapter notes assembled into a single section at the book's end only referred to chapter number and not chapter title (which is given at the top of each page so readers always know the chapter title they are currently on but not necessarily its number). So checking notes was a bit of an unnecessary pain and OUP really should know better. I mention these quibbles as this book really does deserve another edition in a few years time and so it would be well worth making these minor changes that would greatly improve the reading experience.

Fortunately Jan Zalasiewicz & Mark Williams narrative more than makes up for design flaws and some of the science writing is decidedly brilliant: the description of the Earth's cooling through the latter half of the Cenzoic, starting loosely around the Miocene that began 23 million years ago and into the Quaternary (past couple of million years), is simply one of the best I have encountered given everything that was going on at the time.

What we end up with is a simply marvellous whistle-stop tour of the Earth through time, an insight into some of geosciences' (or "biogeosciences'" speaking as a life scientist into Earth systems') magic, a great introduction to biosphere science (currently called Earth systems science), and something that should grab hard SF readers who are also into real science. And if it spurs further reading then what more could the authors want. It will also be of interest to those seriously into science and the way Earthlike planets work are hugely recommended another recent OUP title at a more advanced level: Revolutions that made the Earth.

Given that Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williamshave been so concise using words sparingly to cover many thousands of years at a go, it behoves me to be brief rounding off this review. The task the authors set themselves was challenging. Lesser writers would have floundered, failed to pick out the essences of our Earth's history, or conversely have been verbose or even too concise so missing out truly key elements. But the authors have created a remarkable work. In short The Goldilocks Planet is pitched just right.

Jonathan Cowie

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