Lucky Planet: Why Earth is Exceptional – and What That Means for Life in the Universe

David Waltham, Icon Books, 2014, 198 pages

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David Waltham is an astrobiologist and geophysicist in the Department of Earth sciences at Royal Holloway College, University in London. He has written two other books to date: Mathematicspublished in 1994 and Mathematics: A Simple Tool for Geologists in 2009. He has also written several articles on his own blog at http://davidwaltham.com/ that range from climate change to space oddities. Based on the information stated above I would say that Dr. Waltham is very qualified to write this book; his information is backed-up and can be trusted.

Waltham’s main thesis in the book is that, contrary to many scientists, he believes life is fairly uncommon throughout the universe. Intelligent life beyond Earth is probably so rare, that we may never find any evidence of it. This book sets out the criteria for a planet to have life, explains why Earth is especially suitable, and then assesses the prospects for other planets to have life. The book is organized by first introducing a topic and then having a chapter about the topic. At the end of the chapter, there is a new topic put into play that ties into the next chapter. The book is set at a very fast pace that takes the reader through the Earth’s amazing 4.5 billion year history. Despite the book’s fast pace, Waltham’s tone is both informative and very relaxed. He is very well-versed in the topic but at the same time gets excited by new information that he addresses.

For the most part, I enjoyed the writing style of the book. Waltham is very informative and educated on the subject yet shows his enthusiasm by using exclamatory statements in several places. If he were to write another book on a topic that interested me, I would read it. He also doesn’t give excess information that might slow or distract from the main narrative. If someone was writing a report on astrobiology, they could use this book as a source and receive very useful information. I was especially impressed with his view on Earth’s climate. He proposes that Earth’s remarkably stable climate is a main factor in explaining why our home planet has been so hospitable to life. Given the recent controversies over man-made climate change and the current U.S President’s stance on it, this idea of essential climate stability makes it very hard for one to dismiss the central role of climate in our own survival. Waltham says, “The fact that political and technical problems are massively more complex than anything in climatology is not a reason to stick our heads in the sand. Widespread agreement that man-made global warming is highly likely would be progress.”

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Earth’s climate has been remarkably stable over its 4.5 billion-year lifetime. A notable exception was the period of extreme fluctuation in temperature that appears to have occurred 717 – 630 million years ago. This exceptional period has been dubbed “Snowball Earth.” (Credit: National Science Foundation)

I must admit that it took me a few chapters of reading to get really engrossed in the book. That is one thing that bothered me. Being interested in astrobiology, I was excited to read this book, but I was disappointed that I couldn’t get into it as quickly as I had hoped. After those first few chapters, however, I could not put the book down.

After having read the book, I felt enlightened and so would suggest this book to anyone who is interested in the topic of Life on Earth and beyond. I would also recommend this book to anyone who wonders if we, as an intelligent technologically communicative species, are alone in the universe. The book talks about how other life forms could be possible based on conditions on Earth. If I were teaching an Earth science course I would suggest that this book be incorporated into the lessons somehow. It is very important for children and young adults to grow up knowing why there is life on Earth, and if there could be other life elsewhere in the universe.

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Molly Twombly is a student at Rockport High School in the seaside town of Rockport, Massachusetts. She has served as an intern in support of the Workshops in Space Exploration (WiSE) that occur each summer on the Rockport Public School campus or at Tufts University in Medford, MA (see http://sites.google.com/site/sciencegazette/workshops). She aspires to become an astronaut and travel to Mars (see her other article in The Galactic Inquirer at http://galacticinquirer.net/article/mission-to-mars-3/)