Earth in 100 Groundbreaking Discoveries
22nd September, 2011
Packing 4.5 billion years of history into 416 pages is a truly Herculean task, but it's one, says Hannah Corr, that Douglas Palmer has managed to do in style
Earth in 100 Groundbreaking Discoveries is the fascinating account of how a century of key findings have helped us to gain a real understanding of why Earth is the only planet in our solar system that can support life. Palmer's tome is a biological and geological tour of evolution that takes in 4.5 billion years of natural history, without ever getting stuck to deeply into dull minutiae and written with a genuine sparkle.
The story starts 4.5 billion years ago when gases formed to create the sun. It was soon followed by the first four 'protoplanets' (Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars), shaped by the merging and melding of space debris, icy gas and dust clouds generated by the Sun's movements. This much we know. The next 500 million years, however, are shrouded in darkness and mystery. The early years were so erratic and turbulent that the Earth’s crust was ‘recycled’ many times over leaving scientists scratching their heads about how it went from a superheated ball of liquid rock to a solid atmospheric crust with seas.
Fast forward half a billion years and the story resumes with the formation of the first rocks, glaciers and deserts. The creation of land was followed 500 million years later by our first ancestor; a microscopic bacterial organism. And so the book develops, each chapter languidly charting the development of each of the key building blocks of life. An inordinate amount of information is covered by Palmer but he doesn’t rush it and you really get a sense of the monumental amount of time it has taken for life to evolve.
It's thanks largely to the sophisticated technologies developed in the 1950s that we have been able to accurately map the planet’s history. Before then, it was largely based on early science, unsubstantiated theories and theology. As well as providing solid data about the Earth and verifying theories about evolution, these technologies have also thrown up a few surprises; most strikingly that hippos used to bathe in the River Cam in Cambridge 120,000 years ago and that humans share the same common ancestor as a sea sponge.
Technological advances are also challenging once widespread assumptions; among them the recent discovery that Neanderthals were capable of speech and that their voices would have been higher than ours - finally dispelling the myth that they were dim-witted grunting thugs. Palmer sees a sad irony in the fact that humans are the first creatures to study the earth but also the first to radically alter it. Chapter by chapter he lists our irresponsibilities - the melting of the Arctic permafrost; ocean hypoxia [starving the oceans of oxygen]; contamination of over half of the world’s fresh water; atmospheric pollution; excessive mining of fossil fuels...and so it goes on.
However, he also reminds us that our climate crimes are no match for what the planet can unleash on us. According to Palmer ‘we are living in an interglacial warm phase blessed with an unusually stable climate that developed around 11,500 years ago. However, this stability has given us a false sense of climate security – and there is mounting evidence this stable phase has now come to an end. It is no longer a matter of whether climate change will happen, but when it will happen and how drastic it will be.'
Not that these natural changes excuse our own environmental inertia. He suggests that now is the time for positive action through the use of the data we’ve been gathering. He argues that the key to our survival may be to use this information to live in harmony with the Earth’s natural fluctuations and shifts. In this way, living in accordance with nature and not building nuclear power stations on well known major fault lines, for example, we could avert another Fukushima.
Palmer's day job is as a lecturer in Earth Sciences at Cambridge University and you sense his genuine love and fascination with the planet on each page, while the photographs, illustrations and computer generated images help you envisage the Earth’s gargantuan journey. It’s as if time slows down as you read it and you realise that while humans are bustling about on the surface, a greater story is enfolding beneath us. Palmer leaves us on a slightly depressing note, pointing out that one day, long after humans have ceased to exist, the light will finally go out on our solar system. Along with reminding us of our insignificance in the greater scheme of things, it is also a pointed prompt that we ensure our part in history of the universe be a positive one.
Earth in 100 Groundbreaking Discoveries by Douglas Palmer (£15, Quercus Publishing Plc) is available from Amazon
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