on February 7, 2003
The Life and Death of Planet Earth
This book by Ward and Brownlee is the follow up to their previous work, Rare Earth. In that book, the authors argued persuasively that Earth is indeed far different than the great majority of planets: complex life arose and flourished. They contend that simple life, bacteria, is fairly common and developed early in the life of this planet. Complex life, plants and animals, is exceedingly rare. It came about four billion years after the planet formed. In the sequel, the Life and Death of Planet Earth, Ward and Brownlee argue that complex life is now in the long process of dying out. They describe how the various complex processes that drive the ecology of Earth will die out leaving progressively simpler organisms behind. The authors describe how evolutionary progress from hardy bacteria to humankind will recapitulate itself to last days when the last fragment of life ends with the red giant phase of the Sun.
There are three major climatic events in the future history of the earth: the continuing ice age that we are in. The present warm phase is now being temporarily put on hold by the rapid increase in carbon dioxide due to human activity. This will end with then next round of glaciations will end human civilization. This glacial phase will end around five million years from now. It will end permanently when the plate tectonics will push the northern continents away from the poles. The next event will be the recombination of the continents to form the super-continent once again. The recreation of Pangaea will cause the greatest extinction in the planets history due to the disastrous effect it will have on climate. This will end the reign of complex life. The last great event will be the continuous brightening of the Sun as it reaches it end in life. The oceans will disappear. Finally in the most remote parts of the polar areas the last flicker of simple, bacterial life will die. The Sun, now in its red giant phase, will finally consume the remains of earth in its distended atmosphere. Not only will complex life be ended on earth, it may be ended in a vast section of the galaxy if not the universe.
In a surprise, Ward and Brownlee contend that it will be the lack of carbon dioxide not its surplus will be the culprit in the destruction of complex life. It is being inexorably being locked up in limestone and other carbonates. Already plant life has attempted to adapt to the slow drop in carbon dioxide levels by adapting to new form of photosynthesis called C-4 (used by grasses, cacti, and palm trees). The older form of photosynthesis C-3 used by conifers, flowers, and vines will asphyxiate first leaving a bizarre new world. However, adaptation will end and plants will die out completely cutting off the oxygen supply for animals. At the same time, the diversity of life has been declining for the last two hundred million years. It will continue to decline as the world continues to become more hostile.
The book is exceptionally well written. Ward uses the death of his mother from old age to describe how, while not "living", the Earth is the machine of many complex processes and as death comes each process gives out finally failing altogether. The authors don't describe anything radical, just the obvious conclusions from the evidence found by them and other scientists. Against this background, as the authors made the case in Rare Earth, there will be no salvation from the stars. We'll die alone in this solar system. My criticism is they offer no fixes to this. All alternatives are radically too expensive and difficult for humanity to do. Travel to and terraforming of another planet is and always be out of the question. They even assume that somehow humankind manages to hang on for the billion or so years final processes take place. They do advocate trying to leave a legacy to other civilizations. But really are there any other civilizations in the Universe to read our tombstone?
It might be that professors Ward and Brownlee are working on a new genre: non-fiction science fiction. Instead of speculations embedded in story form they speculate about the future in a narrative without plot or characterization or other elements of the story form. Of course they are not the only writers doing this, but they are among the best in a growing industry.
Well, what about it? I gave up reading most science fiction years ago because either the story elements were wooden or the science was ridiculous (or both). It is not easy to be simultaneously a master story teller and a polymath of science. We know that (e.g.) Asimov, Clarke and Sagan were exceptions and were able to combine both tale and cutting edge knowledge very well, and in some cases spectacularly well. But their world is gone. Today's science is much more complex. To write convincingly about the future it is not enough to be a world expert in one's chosen field. The future is influenced by science of all kinds; consequently it is requisite that one be an expert in a number of scientific disciplines just to avoid naive projections.
So it is natural that Peter Ward, who is a geologist and zoologist, (and, by the way, a sometimes poetic prose stylist, witness his expositions in Future Evolution ), and Brownlee, who is an astronomer and NASA scientist, might join forces to augment their individual expertise; and that they might eschew the story form in writing about the future.
At any rate, this is an excellent book of speculation about the future of our planet aimed at a general readership. It is a fine follow-up to their Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe (2000). As in that book their conclusions are pessimistic. They concluded in Rare Earth that we are probably alone in the galaxy; here they conclude that we will go extinct without getting beyond our solar system. This bleak prognosis should not unduly trouble us however since our demise by their calculation is at least millions of years in the future, possibly hundreds of millions of years. In fact their scenario reverses the biological experience of the planet: things will get hotter and drier until life necessarily retreats back into the ocean, and then as the oceans evaporate, life forms regress from the complex to the simple until the only life left on the planet is single-celled, as it was three billion years ago. And then of course the sun expands into a red giant and the earth is burned to a crisp.
Is there any escape? Not according to Ward and Brownlee who argue effectively that it is unlikely that we will acquire the ability and the will to even terra form Mars or other places in the Solar System. The idea that we might become interstellar travelers is also quashed as being impractical in the extreme. They conclude "Interstellar travel will likely never happen, meaning we are stranded in this solar system forever." (p. 207)
While I tend to agree with Ward and Brownlee for the most part, as I did with their conclusions in Rare Earth, I think we should realize that their argument in part is a bit beside the point since in millions of years (at most)--not tens of millions, not hundreds of millions and certainly not billions of years--we will no longer be human anyway. The average life span of a species is something like a million years. Because of the incredibly rapid pace of cultural evolution it is highly unlikely that humans as presently constituted will be around in even a thousand years. Some people think we will be part software and part machine before this century is out. Also as science fiction writers have pointed out, the constraints on our species as presently constituted (in terms of our ability to travel in space and to influence cosmic processes) may not apply to the creatures we are becoming.
Ward and Brownlee do not consider this point of view, most likely because it would be extraneous to the scope of their book. So some of their ideas should be considered as stimulative and consciousness-raising, not definitive. As they acknowledge in the epilogue, "Prophecy is a risky business..." (p. 210) Furthermore, most of their material is on the purely physical changes that will take place on planet earth as it evolves toward its ultimate fate, and I have no doubt that the picture that Ward and Brownlee present is as accurate as present knowledge allows.
I was especially intrigued by their discussion of the return of the once and future supercontinent, Gondwanaland, and how its reconfiguration will affect earth's climate. Their exposition on the carbon dioxide cycle and the end of plant life when the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere falls below 10 ppm was also fascinating. The chapter asking the question, "What Trace Will We Leave?" really gives the lie to human vanity, reminding me of the sentiments in Shelley's poem "Ozymandias." If anything, Ward and Brownlee are even more pessimistic than the poet, pointing out that our proud "messages in a bottle" sent into interstellar space are not likely to impact "a planet within a trillion years," by which time there won't be any planets. (p. 186)
While most of the book is very well written and edited, some of the sentences in the later chapters are less carefully constructed. There are even some gaffs. For example on page 192 they repeat an error from their previous book, stating that there are "between 200 million and 300 million" stars in our galaxy, when the number is more like 100 billion plus. Also on page 194 they give the Drake Equation enhanced with new terms they think appropriate, but in fact the equation is without explanation shorter than Drake's Equation given on page 192.
--Dennis Littrell, author of "The World Is Not as We Think It Is"
It takes a certain amount of fortitude to confront your own doom. Ward and Brownlee, having acutely described life's beginnings in "Rare Earth", here portray the mechanisms of its end. With the course of life's evolution revealed in the work of many researchers, depicting the finale has rarely been attempted. Recent studies of the past have given the authors the tools for forecasting the future. They use the history of the planet to suggest the "tape of life" will be rerun - backwards. Changing conditions will reduce the options life has to continue surviving. As a swelling sun and dehydrating Earth limit choices, life will revert to simpler, hardier forms. At some point, although far in the future, life's opportunities will end. A bleak barren world will likely be consumed by Sol's energetic transformation into a red giant star. A lifeless planet will either skirt the circumference of that swollen star or be consumed in its fires.
Although a fiery conclusion is the ultimate finale, there are many intermediate steps along the path. Ice, which has covered our planet many times in the past, is shown here as one of the major signs of the impending finish. Seas withdraw from coastlines and habitat zones shrink dramatically. Weather patterns undergo massive changes from what we experience. The authors use "time transport" techniques to enable you to envision the impact of these drastic variations. You visit future scenarios where plant life's extinction has taken herbivores with it. Grasses exist for a bit, but it's too desolate for complex grazers to enjoy them. Harsh winds scream across those savannahs, dehydrating the soil until the grasses, too, finally expire. These conditions, Ward and Brownlee contend, have likely already begun. The peak of plant diversity may already be behind us. Animal extinctions, accelerated by our presence, must surely follow.
What of humanity, then? Raised with the ideal that we are evolution's "purpose", we believe we can overcome nature's greatest challenges. It's clear that even our esteemed technology must fall short of coping with an overheating Sun. The authors, who have dealt with extinctions in the past, deal ambiguously with the logic of human continuation to a distant future. While most species survive for a few million years, they suggest we will still be present when vast changes begin. They weigh the issues of our possible escape from the doomed planet in terms of will, available resources, advanced technologies and likely havens. All come up somehow short. A bleak prospect indeed.
The authors' expressive style captures your attention throughout. Not an academic study, yet still a serious assessment, this book will keep your attention throughout. With the new science of astrobiology as their foundation, little of their narrative is idle speculation. They write with authority, yet present their theme as a drama. Actors come and go, struggle to maintain their roles, but succumb in tragic circumstances. Referring to this book as compelling reading is almost damning with faint praise. While the scenarios are projected billions of years in the future, we can initiate many of the processes through carelessness.
Incorporating many ideas and research information in a mere 200 pages is a major accomplishment. Ward and Brownlee, with their wide knowledge and almost florid style have produced a fine work. As a summary of geology, astrophysics, evolutionary biology and atmospheric sciences, this is a unique and admirable synthesis. If there is anything to fault, it is the strong reliance on the resources used in their previous collaboration - a minor flaw in such a comprehensive study. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
on February 7, 2003
I tend to judge non-fiction by what I learn. "The Life and Death of Planet Earth" tells the story about the un-glamorous end of our planet by analyzing the past. The book did this magnificently. In short, I learned a lot.
In some respects, the book is depressing. I wanted to imagine that we are part of the beginning. The book illustrates that perhaps we are closer to the end. I put myself in the next ice age, which could arrive any time, according to the authors, and in the inferno of the distant future. Of course, I won't be there, but the descriptions of these future times made them easy to visualize. By piecing together accepted scientific principles and knowledge, the story of the future of planet Earth is convincing. The only question is what impact we, humans, will have; probably small.
I have recommended this to all my friends. I find myself pulling little tidbits from the book and beginning conversations with "Did you know that....?" "The Life and Death of Planet Earth" is just packed with interesting science. For those that have not read "Rare Earth", this book stands by itself, so it is not necessary to read the predecessor first.
on January 18, 2003
This astrobiological look at the life cycle (past, present, and future) of Earth is well written but also darkly fascinating nonfiction. The authors claim that one-day earth will be just like Mars, a barren wasteland. Future ice ages will insure a migration to the equator or perhaps space as earth begins creeping into its geriatric period. Topics like global warming are evaluated in a different light by analyzing the super-long millenniums haul not the short time several decade approach normally discussed. This leads to conclusions that global warming, for instance, might delay the aging process, but the planet is ultimately doomed
Peter Ward and Dan Brownlee have written a terrific look that hooks the reader from the start and keeps their attention throughout. The key is that the writers do not scornfully look down at their audience, but assumes the reader can think and comprehend the inevitability of their scientifically based messages of gloom and doom. THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PLANET EARTH is a winner even if the planet follows their model and goes full circle leaving behind the empire of the bacteria to rule a frozen orb out of Spielberg's AI.
on January 15, 2003
For such a weighty topic, the authors created a very accessible "science lite" book for lay people. I found it interesting, and philosophically quite provocative. A very good 4-star book, plus a bonus star from me for being exactly what it said it would be: a speculative ride through "the life and death of planet earth."
I do not know how well regarded the authors' basic premises will be among their scientific peers. To me, their hypotheses and ideas made sense. And they came up with very engaging scenes to bring the topics to life: for example, comparing and contrasting the dying of an elderly woman in a hospital with the dying of a planet/solar system. Or describing the likely experience of a catastrophic meteor hitting the earth, from the viewpoint of mammals on the ground hundreds of miles away.
I read the book very quickly in the past few days, and will now enjoy reading it again more thoughtfully.
on January 23, 2004
I have read a number of books by Ward, either as single author or as co-author, and I have never been disappointed. This book is certainly no exception. Using up-to-date information, the authors discuss the evolution of life on earth as a function of evolving environmental, geological and astrophysical conditions. Then, they project the further evolution of these conditions into the distant future - from climate changes and future ice ages to the sun's transformation into a white dwarf - and discuss the anticipated effects on all forms of life on earth and on the earth itself. The book's only possible shortcoming that I can think of is that, in these forecasts, not enough credit has been given to the human element. Humans are well known to have the ability to modify their environment to their satisfaction. Based on the tremendous advances in science and technology over the past few centuries, one would expect a (possibly exponential) continuation of these advances well into the next few centuries, if not millennia - assuming, of course, there are no major setbacks. Consequently, humans may be able to delay, or prevent, at least some of the anticipated catastrophes. As is usual in Ward's books, the writing is clear, authoritative, friendly and engaging. An excellent read! The ultimate fate of humanity, as painted by the authors, does indeed look rather grim; but time will tell how well humanity makes out. Fortunately, we, as individuals, will not be here to find out.
on June 10, 2005
While this book does have a few errors that should have been picked up before printing and distributing, the overall content of the book is fascinating and keeps the reader entertained throughout the entire reading experience. I used to read books to fall asleep, but I couldn't put this one down. Not only did they do a good job of helping you imagine what they are discussing, but they also made it understandable to the average Joe. I thought this book's concept of the whole subject, along with the manner in which it was presented was a compelling mixture. I would suggest this book to anyone who has the slightest curiosity about the future of our Earth.
Even though they end with a bleak and ravaged earth, there are many steps along the way that show how interesting the planet's demise will be, from a strictly observational view. The planet covered in ice, which has happened a few times in the past, is shown here as one of the greater signs of an "Apocalypse". Water levels recede from the shores and areas that can support life wither away and die completely. The monumentous changes in the weather across the globe affecting the biosphere in major ways. The authors do a spectacular job of bringing you to the scene and helping you imagine it for yourself. The future's lack of plants kills the animals that eat them. Some plants exist for a short while but are not a decent source of nutrients for the other living beings. Heavy winds tear across the plains, devastating the soil until those plants finally expire. The authors try to show how these things have already been set in to motion and could be starting to show as we speak. The number of plant species has begun its decline, heralding the beginning of animal extinctions, which we are not helping to avoid with the way we live on this earth.
Through their use of the language, along with their knowledge of Astrology, Biology, Chemistry, and Geology, they float you through time. From the beginning of the earth as a giant molten rock, they slowly show us how they believe the earth has come to be in its present form. We see life as we know it slowly fade as the authors take us into their vision of the abysmal future that awaits our gentle planet and all its inhabitants. With the past, present and future looking so grim, one is entranced by the words of these men.
The authors discuss the evolution of life on earth throughout the evolving environmental, geological and astrophysical conditions. Then project further in time, using these theoretical conditions, into the distant future. From climate changes and ice ages all the way up to the sun's eventual growth into what is known as a "White Dwarf." They discuss the theoretical effects on all forms of life in the earth's biosphere and on the earth itself. They do not really get into humanity's involvement. Humans have the ability to modify their environment for the better or for the worse. Based on the advances in science and technology over the past few hundred years, one could expect these advances to continue to grow well into the next few centuries. Humans may be able to prevent, if not delay, at least some of the abysmal consequences. The ultimate fate of humanity, as portrayed by the authors, does indeed look rather bleak; but time will tell how well we humans make out in the end.
I enjoyed being put in the moment that Ward and Brownlee were describing. I also enjoyed their take no heckling attitude, especially because I believe much more in scientific evidence than faith in something more powerful. The Authors' sense of perspective and their cynicism towards those who don't fully believe in the scientific evidence provide in their book allowed me a genuinely entertaining reading experience.
on September 22, 2004
Wow, talk about depressing, although I don't know why it should be. Anyone who studies earth history with anything like a rational scientific interest knows that the planet will eventually cease to exist. Most of us don't plan on being here when it does. In fact, those of us with a background in paleontology might be willing to lay odds on whether the human race will survive to anything like a time "close" to the final days.
Basically the authors-and probably mostly Peter Ward-have given the last hours of planet earth the aura of a human death. In fact, Ward compares it graphically to the death of his own elderly mother, a gradual failure of all systems. While I found this very depressing, I found the concept of reverse evolution-if one can say that there is a "progress" to evolution-back to its beginnings an intriguing one; much like the "big bounce" concept in cosmology. In looking at the probable decline of our sun and of the living conditions of the planet because of it, one should find it unsurprising that life will evolve to simpler forms as a matter of entrenchment. With respect to the other possible ends to life on the planet, the death by fire in the form of asteroid impact has been done to death by the media over the past decade, while recently death by ice in the form of renewed glaciation is now gaining its fair share of film time.
In many respects the book is a continuation of Ward and Brownlee's earlier collaboration for Rare Earth, and repeats the assessment of what conditions favor life in general and intelligent life in particular. In both books the Drake equation is studied in detail with less of a rose tinted perspective. Basically The Life and Death of Planet Earth, like Rare Earth, points out the possibility that life at its most basic might be common enough in the cosmos but that what we see around us now on planet earth might not be. In short, once gone the magnificent experiement might truely be over.
Interesting follow up to Rare Earth.
on May 14, 2003
Truth be told, I'm quite familiar with the scenario of the Earth's future obliteration due to the inexorable process of entropy, on the planet and in the Sun itself. Nevertheless, the book greatly expanded on this knowledge, highlighting the latest discoveries and theory, and all the while presenting them in a wonderfully readable, engaging style.
There are a few forgettable typos and inaccuracies, at least in the text I read, but they are not at all distracting from the overall theme of the book: that the Earth, and particularly its biosphere is doomed to regress to primitivism before its final annihilation, in a sort of reverse parody of life's advancement thus far. If there is one detail that prevents it from getting five stars, it's the chapter on asteroid impacts and gamma ray bursts. Though interesting, asteroid impacts have been covered thoroughly by numerous other works, while the possible role of GRBs in mass extinctions is too hypothetical to be very useful, IMO. In short, I felt this chapter interrupted the flow of the book and distracted it from the theme; that's just my opinion though, and I could be wrong.
All in all though, this is a great book that I highly recommend, especially to neophytes to the topic.
P.S.--Though I haven't read Rare Earth yet, from what I know of it I definitely agree with the authors: This book is really a companion to Rare Earth, and both should probably be read together as a set.