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Snowball Earth: The Story of a Maverick Scientist and His Theory of the Global Catastrophe That Spawned Life As We Know It Paperback – February 24, 2004

4.1 out of 5 stars 38 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Part biography and part scientific detective story, this debut by British science journalist Walker (a features editor for New Scientist) tells the story of Paul Hoffman, the brilliant, cantankerous Harvard geology professor most responsible for promoting the concept of "Snowball Earth." This controversial hypothesis asserts that about 600 million years ago, the entire planet was encased in ice that was thicker and lasted millennia longer than in any previously recognized ice age. Instantaneously in geologic time, the hypothesis continues, the planet moved from temperatures averaging minus 40 degrees centigrade to sweltering heat unlike anything seen since. These extreme climatic fluctuations may have been responsible for the origination of multicellular life at the beginning of the Cambrian Era and thus, ultimately, for most life on Earth today. Walker does a superb job of relating both the scientific and the human side of the controversy. Her prose, like her story, is likely to engage both scientists and general readers equally. All will be able to appreciate the importance of the issues while gaining greater insight into the process of scientific advances. Walker has written an important, provocative book that is a joy to read.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

The Cambrian explosion, which occurred about 600 million years ago when organisms graduated from single-celled monotony to multicelled exuberance, has defied causal explanation. But its coincidence with the ending of an ice age harbors a possible clue. This Precambrian ice era, which froze the entire surface of the earth for 200 million years or more, has, over the past 15 years, become an accepted if startling fact in geological circles, and like many upstart theories in science, its adoption contains stories of research and rivalry. Walker chronicles them through the principals in the debate, focusing mainly on one Paul Hoffman. Walker characterizes him in an unflattering light but presents a positive picture of Hoffman's relentless advocacy of the frozen-earth theory. She also dramatizes with fairness the opponents' alternative interpretations of the main geologic evidence, creating narrative tension that shows science in action. Including vignettes about fieldwork, Walker registers the feel of doing the actual work of geology, especially the thrilling hunt for traces of a frigid apocalypse. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway Books (February 24, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400051258
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400051250
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,280,918 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By ealovitt HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on April 28, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Who among us is not interested in the history of our own blue-white planet and the origin of life, even if it is only through creation myths?

Author, Gabrielle Walker earned her Ph.D. in chemistry at Cambridge University and spent seven years as a features editor at "New Scientist." The latter experience definitely had a hand in molding her breezy, yet clear and conscientious style. She follows her intrepid geologists to the ends of the Earth like an eager cub reporter in some 1930s B-movie, peppering them with questions, almost getting trampled by an African elephant in the Namibian bush, beset by freezing fog in the Kalahari Desert, clambering down the windswept, godforsaken rocks of Mistaken Point in Newfoundland.

This book is a combination travel guide to some of the least habitable places on earth, biographical sketches of the scientists who developed and tested the 'Snowball Earth' theory, and an introduction to the painstaking science behind the newest, most audacious 'deep time' history of our planet.

Before we get to 'Snowball Earth,' let me give you a flavor of Walker's running travelogue. Here she is speaking of Mistaken Point: "Nobody could love these barren lands, not even their mother. They are dreary and damp, their plants the color of overcooked spinach and rusty nails; when the wind is not buffeting them or rain beating them down, they are shrouded in fog. The pale, thin caribou wander over them like lost souls."

Now, on to the theory as expounded by this book. Several times in the history of Earth, most recently 700 million years ago, our planet froze completely over, possibly because all of the continents had migrated close to the Equator.
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Format: Hardcover
Geologists since the eighteenth century have advocated "uniformitarianism," the concept that what is going on to the Earth now is essentially the same as what has gone on before. It is a good rule of thumb, but like most rules of thumb, it requires intelligent neglect or violation, and working geologists do so to form an accurate picture of Earth history. There has sometimes been resistance to violation of the rule; the wipeout of the dinosaurs by an asteroid hit 65 million years ago is now generally accepted, but was not when it was proposed. But even without extraordinary outside forces, our globe used to be a very different place. Between 750 and 590 million years ago, there were sudden lurches in climate that froze even lands at the equator. Or so goes the Snowball Earth Theory. _Snowball Earth: The Story of the Great Global Catastrophe that Spawned Life as We Know It_ (Crown Publishers) by Gabrielle Walker describes the theory and its importance, but the current importance may not be merely its scientific significance. What makes the theory particularly interesting right now is that it is being championed by a colorful Harvard geologist who is attempting to make it accepted geological thought. Walker's surprisingly exciting book is thus not just a summary of ancient geology, but also an entertaining examination of personalities involved.
The snowball Earth theory is not entirely new, but the book is largely the story of Paul Hoffman, a brilliant, driven geologist who was eager to make some sort of difference in his field. Argumentative, energetic, and brilliant, he has a strong reputation as a geologist and as a difficult character. Disputes by him are not objective quibbles published in obscure journals, but stand-up, screaming fights.
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Format: Hardcover
This book is about the theory that, over 600 million years ago, the earth underwent periods when it was completely covered with ice, hence, Snowball Earth. Although many scientists have contributed to this theory over the past few decades, the book focuses mainly on the efforts of Dr. Paul Hoffman, the main scientist responsible for developing and promoting the theory, thus raising its status to level that it has today. This is a very well-written book. It vividly describes the way in which science works, as well as the fact that scientists are all too human. It also contains well-written discussions on the science involved. Such a book should contain diagrams, figures, charts, photos, maps, etc., to better illustrate the locations, ideas and facts presented in the text. Unfortunately, the book contains none of the above - no picture whatsoever; if it did, I would have easily given it 5 stars. Despite this shortcoming, the book is definitely worth the read.
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Format: Hardcover
This is an excellent read, for scientists and non-scientists alike. How often do we get snapshots of scientific controversies as they evolve? I can't think of any. And it is an accessible and fascinating controversy for the literate public. Ms. Walker has bent over backwards to keep the geojargon out, and I applaud this. She has done a great job of presenting the scientific problem and the psychological drama implicit in resolving this within the scientific community. Her vignettes of the personalities are great and she pulls no punches. All are presented as humans, with incisive assessments of strengths and weaknesses. She does a great job presenting how they interact, and this for me was the best part of the book. The footnotes are unusually useful and entertaining; would that all footnotes were as readable. I like the way that she uses footnotes to steer the interested reader to other papers and books. The decision not to have photos or maps is strange, this was a mistake that I hope she does not repeat in her future efforts. We may be witnessing the beginnings of a great career in writing science here.
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