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Lucky Planet: Why Earth is Exceptional—and What That Means for Life in the Universe Hardcover – April 8, 2014

ISBN-13: 978-0465039999 ISBN-10: 0465039995

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Lucky Planet: Why Earth is Exceptional—and What That Means for Life in the Universe + Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe
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Editorial Reviews

Review

“A bold, unwavering argument that pushes back against the too-quick acceptance of Earth as exceptional—and encourages its intelligent life forms to appreciate our supreme luck.”
Kirkus Reviews

“A lively and well-argued antidote to a widespread view that advanced life could arise frequently and in many places in the known Universe. Waltham explains why the Earth is a much more peculiar planet than you might think, and he shows that its friendliness to life does not just apply to the here-and-now, but must equally have pertained through a history of more than 3.5 billion years: life’s survival and prospering to the point where intelligent life could emerge was a product of extraordinary and exceptional luck. A skeptical response to ideas of inevitable evolution of intelligent beings among the stars, Waltham suggests that we may, after all, be lonelier than we could have thought.”
Richard Fortey, author of Survivors and The Hidden Landscape

“David Waltham takes us on a delightful tour of the various factors that influence planetary habitability and the evolution of advanced life. That he thinks the prospects for it are unlikely is all the more reason for us to go up to space and take a good look!”
James Kasting, Professor of Geosciences, Penn State University, and author of How to Find a Habitable Planet

“Waltham has an engaging, pleasantly meandering, style of writing, making his book accessible to the non-specialist. He shows a knack for clearly explaining complex concepts – for example, geologic time scales and exoplanet detection techniques.”
Quest: The History of Spaceflight Quarterly

About the Author

David Waltham is an astrobiologist, geophysicist and head of the department of Earth Sciences at Royal Holloway College, the University of London.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (April 8, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465039995
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465039999
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #391,854 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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3.9 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

24 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Tom Holzel on April 15, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Although he was enormously popular and a really great guy, Carl Sagan's profession included a dark side--an outrageous public relations campaign plumping for aliens of every stripe. It was he who suggested that, because there are hundreds of millions of stars in our galaxy alone, there must be at least a million sentient beings within. Let's go and find them. (He even sent them directions!!)

Along comes the Great Wet Blanket, "Rare Earth: why complex life is rare uncommon in the universe." Here was a book written not by astronomers with their ridiculously simplistic " Goldilocks" religion--is the planet at a distance from its sun to have liquid water?--Ergo sentient life--but by biologists, experts in the subject of life.

Of course the faithful rose up as one to savage the work, but the die of doubt was cast. Are we really alone?
Now comes Lucky Earth by British climatologist David Waltham. Whereas Rare Earth painted the big picture using the same celestial mechanics so dear to astronomers, but to a far greater micro-detail--detail that included the crucial event of a rogue Mars-sized planet crashing into Earth and knocking off enough planetary mass to result in the creation of our Moon (how often does that happen?). This huge moon (relative to Earth) resulted in huge mile-high tides that washed seawater over continents to leach out chemicals that eventually resulted--somehow--in the creation of life itself.

Lucky Planet covers the same ground using climate mechanics. Its main theme is describing the extraordinarily stabile climate of Earth for 4 billion years that permitted life to arise and evolve to ever more complex variations.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful By James W. Fonseca on May 11, 2014
Format: Hardcover
God, Gaia or Goldilocks? The author is an astrobiologist and a geophysicist at the University of London, so he looks at the last two and leans toward Goldilocks: the earth, like the porridge, just happens to be right for life, not too hot, not too cold. It may just be coincidence that explains earth’s 4 billion years of good weather, that is, climate favorable to life, and that’s how we’ve avoided frying or freezing as would have happened to us on other planets. In the book we learn odds and ends: mini-biographies, such as Giordano Bruno, forerunner of Copernicus; a sketch of, plate tectonics; a brief history of space exploration and the search for exoplanets.

But the key question is, and most of the book’s focus is on, biological and geological regulation of temperature with assistance from players such as the moon, that helps stabilize an otherwise dangerous wobble in the earth’s orbit. Many folks, including many scientists, assume that a Gaia-type process (biological self-regulation on a planetary scale – aka Daisyworld) moderates the climate but Waltham is skeptical: such biological feedback systems are as likely to provide positive feedback and thus upset the applecart. He creates a “Moldy Pineworld” model as an illustration.

We learn how sparse life is in most of the oceans due to a deficiency of iron; Azolla, a fern that created floating mats that filled up the Arctic Ocean during warmer, less saline times; that 95% of suns in the universe are smaller than ours, and why that is good and bad; and that statistically speaking, intelligent life has to arise near the end of the habitable period on a planet (only 500 million years to go!). And we learn that once self-replicating molecules developed, multi-cellular organisms independently evolved at least three and maybe as many as ten times in earth’s history.

A good read; thought-provoking and written at about the level of an intro college science course.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Nigel Seel on May 7, 2014
Format: Hardcover
It’s been fashionable and perhaps even comforting to believe in the essential unity, benevolence and even environmental-competence of life on Earth. The Gaia hypothesis makes us feel good, but hard-nosed evolutionary biologists and planetary scientists crunch the numbers and just can’t get it to work. Forget the galaxy of a billion friendly alien civilizations, perhaps there’s just one: ourselves. Perhaps we’re just very, very fortunate. Here’s a much abbreviated summary of what David Waltham has to say in this lively and intelligent book.

Our very existence shows that the Earth has experienced life-friendly climatic conditions for billions of years. During this time the output of the sun has increased by 30% while early high levels of greenhouse gases such as methane, water vapour and carbon dioxide have been almost scrubbed from the atmosphere. These changes ought to have produced enormous and lethal climatic variation yet somehow, by some magic, the effects have largely cancelled out.

For some people, this shows that powerful negative feedback mechanisms are at work, stabilising the climate for life. Strange then, that such benign processes are so hard to pin down. The alternative view is that for most planets like the Earth, the climate did indeed transition to fire or ice, with the consequent destruction of any biosphere; the Earth is special and very, very lucky.

Of course, the fact that we’re here at all to make such an observation indicates that for the Earth it could hardly have been otherwise. This is called the principle of Anthropic Selection - to be contrasted with the Principle of Mediocrity, that the Earth is not that special in the universe.

David Waltham systematically takes us through the unique features of the Earth.
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