Books · Science

Book review: Earth – The Power of the Planet

I am bad at watching TV. I’ve never seen an episode of Game of Thrones. I gave up halfway through season three of Breaking Bad. I’ve watched the first four episodes of The West Wing about five times and have never yet made it to the fifth episode. Binge watching makes me feel ill and more than one episode in a row makes me twitchy. So to make it through a series I have to really want to do it. I have to plan, I have to tidy the house, I have to have dinner sorted and a load of laundry on the go and all my jobs done for tomorrow morning and a good glass of wine within arm’s reach and… well, you get the idea.

The conclusion of all this is that even though I would probably have really enjoyed the BBC documentary series, Earth: The Power of the Planet, I’ve never watched it and I probably never will. However, when I spotted a copy of the accompanying book a few years back I did pick it up and now I’ve finally got around to reading it, so I think I still deserve some credit.

Earth – The Power of the Planet by Iain Stewart and John Lynch

One should never judge a book by its cover, right? Well, no, not necessarily. This is a gorgeous cover and if you made the assumption, based on this cover, that the book would be filled with beautiful photography and other pretty graphics then you would be quite right. It is. The text that accompanies the pictures can be a bit hit and miss, but the pictures themselves are a solid 10.

The book (and I assume the TV series) is about Planet Earth. The focus is the geology and geophysics and there are chapters about Impact (Earth’s early formation and asteroid strikes), Heat (volcanic activity), Atmosphere (including weather and climate), Ocean (what it says on the tin), Ice (as in, the ice caps) and Rare Earth (a summing up reflection about how the conditions had to be just right for Earth to exist at all).

So a good, comprehensive selection of topics, right? There’s a lot in here that’s absolutely fascinating and some things I had never even heard of. For example, had you heard of Erta Ale in Ethiopia? It’s this enormous volcano in the centre of the Afar Depression. To get to it you need a military escort by helicopter and it basically only exists because plate tectonics are slowly splitting Africa into pieces, pulling Ethiopia in two. How cool is that? I mean, terrifying, obviously, but also amazing. Go google for photographs, I’ll wait.

Certainly, there’s lots of great stuff here. There are also some topics that are handled less well. Like, in the introduction there’s a profile on Svante Arrhenius, the scientist who in 1986 started off our understanding of carbon dioxide as a “greenhouse gas.” The fourth word in the profile describes him as “portly,” the second sentence starts with “Weighing almost 100 kg (200 pounds) Arrhenius was a huge man with a huge idea.” So we’ve called the dude fat three times but I’ve still learned nothing about the Arrhenius equation or how he figured out the link between CO2 and climate change? Why? This is nonsense.

Then there’s the slightly wishy-washy assessment of global warming in the later chapters. The authors don’t go so far as to say it’s not real, or that humans haven’t caused it, they present the evidence well enough, but they leave room for doubt with acknowledgements that not everyone believes the evidence. As if that’s remotely relevant. There are people who believe all kinds of bogus things but that doesn’t mean we need their views in a scientific text.

On the whole, it’s not awful, and there’s plenty here worth reading, but there are enough disappointments that stuck with me that I don’t think I could actively recommend the book. Except, perhaps, for those wonderful pictures.

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