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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]

Gabrielle Walker
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Feb. 24 2004 1400051258 978-1400051250 Reprint
Did the Earth once undergo a super ice age, one that froze the entire planet from the poles to the equator? In Snowball Earth, gifted writer Gabrielle Walker has crafted an intriguing global adventure story, following maverick scientist Paul Hoffman’s quest to prove a theory so audacious and profound that it is shaking the world of earth sciences to its core.

In lyrical prose that brings each remote and alluring locale vividly to life, Walker takes us on a thrilling natural history expedition to witness firsthand the supporting evidence Hoffman has pieced together. That evidence, he argues, shows that 700 million years ago the Earth did indeed freeze over completely, becoming a giant “snowball,” in the worst climatic catastrophe in history. Even more startling is his assertion that, instead of ending life on Earth, this global deep freeze was the trigger for the Cambrian Explosion, the hitherto unexplained moment in geological time when a glorious profusion of complex life forms first emerged from the primordial ooze.

In a story full of intellectual intrigue, we follow the irascible but brilliant Hoffman and a supporting cast of intrepid geologists as they scour the planet, uncovering clue after surprising clue. We travel to a primeval lagoon at Shark Bay in western Australia, where dolphins cavort with swimmers every morning at seven and “living rocks” sprout out of the water like broccoli heads; to the desolate and forbidding ice fields of a tiny Arctic archipelago seven hundred miles north of Norway; to the surprising fossil beds that decorate Newfoundland’s foggy and windswept coastline; and on to the superheated salt pans of California’s Death Valley.

Through the contours of these rich and varied landscapes Walker teaches us to read the traces of geological time with expert eyes, and we marvel at the stunning feats of resilience and renewal our remarkable planet is capable of. Snowball Earth is science writing at its most gripping and enlightening.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Product Description

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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Customer Reviews

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5.0 out of 5 stars As gripping as a murder mystery Jan. 15 2012
Of all the books I have read about climate change, "Snowball Earth", by Gabrielle Walker, is definitely one of the best ' and it's not even about the current climate change.

Part of what makes it so good is the style of writing. As the Los Angeles Times said about her later book, An Ocean of Air, 'Walker has a Ph.D. in chemistry, but she writes like a poet.' And, indeed, after an education at Cambridge, Walker has spent most of her career as a science journalist. It's sort of sad that this doesn't happen more often. Usually, those who understand a subject best are not the ones who communicate it. Walker is the exception to this rule.

Take, for example, this passage about the history of life on Earth: "Stretch your arms out wide to encompass all the time on Earth. Let's say that time runs from left to right, so Earth was born at the tip of the middle finger on your left hand. Slime arose just before your left elbow and ruled for the remaining length of your left arm, across to the right, past your right shoulder, your right elbow, on down your forearm, and eventually ceded somewhere around your right wrist. For sheer Earth-gripping longevity, nothing else comes close. The dinosaurs reigned for barely a finger's length. And a judicious swipe of a nail file on the middle finger of your right hand would wipe out the whole of human history."

Another impressive aspect of Walker's writing is her characterization. Wacky, stubborn, and exuberant scientists are brought to life. Instead of just hearing about their work and accomplishments, you feel like you're getting to know them as people. She writes about arguing scientists particularly well. Arguing scientists are so much fun to read about ' that's one reason I loved The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle.
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I will start with a brief synopsis of the science. In the last six years, many scientists have come to think that an ice age of incredible severity gripped the Earth for a few million years, ending about 590 million years ago. The ocean surface apparently froze all the way to the equator, although the ice may have been thin and patchy near the equator. The Earth's average temperature was about -40 degrees Fahrenheit. Volcanoes belched out greenhouse gases for a few million years, and the atmospheric CO2 levels rose to many times what we have today. The ice receded from the tropics, and the greenhouse effect accelerated, driving the average planetary temperature above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (compared to about 60 today) within a few thousand years or less. This super ice age was the last of 4 to 6 such ice ages, with the first one occurring about 2.4 billion years ago, and the others between 750 and 590 million years ago. These ice ages may have occurred when all of the continents were strung around the equator. (The book presents a theory on why this might be so.) Finally, complex multi-cellular life forms first appeared in the Ediacaran period, shortly after the last super ice age. The book suggests that the last super ice age somehow spurred the appearance of complex life, but does not provide a good explanation of why this might be. (Maybe there is an assumption that "right after X" must mean "because of X.") Finally, the book asserts that such a calamity may occur again about 250 million years in the future.
The book is oddly written: part biography and part detective story, with some science scattered throughout. At no point does the book lay out a comprehensive exposition on the snowball hypothesis.
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This book offers a fascinating look at a possible explanation of how life went from single cell organisms to multicellular organisms. Also shows how different scientists can view and interpret the same data in different ways to support their different views. I have a lot of respect for Ms. Walker. Not only does she interview the main scientists that are involved in this debate, she has gone to some pretty remote areas of the world to see the very rocks that these scientists are basing their views on. That is alot more than most people would expect from someone just relating a story.
If you are interested in early life on Earth, you should read this book. If you are interested in how science tries to determine what has gone before, you should read this book. In short, if you are curious about life/science/the earth , "read this book."
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4.0 out of 5 stars Snowballs and egos on the loose April 29 2004
Great writing for the layperson interested in pre-quaternary climate change theory, but some of the geoscientists researching the 'snowball earth' appear to have personalities verging on the psychotic. Would make an excellent case study for psychiatrists studying the obsessions of the geoscientific research community. Some of these geologists should've had their egotistical butts coldly rocked when they were being raised. I feel sorry for their students.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Up close and personal. Theories and Controversy. April 21 2004
This book provides wonderful insight into both an interesting and controversial theory, and the personal and professional struggles of those who debate it. The author pulls no punches in describing the egos, strenghts and foibles of the various protagonists. They are sometimes seen as heroic, other times as petulant.
The author comes down a little too strongly in favor of the Snowball Earth theory, but so well exposes the controversy that her particular opinions are not given undue weight. The reader is left juggling many of the same balls that the scientific community is currently dealing with.
A quick but delightful read. Certainly worth the investment.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Easy read about scientific facts and speculations.
In this easy-to-read and sometimes entertaining book, Gabrielle Walker tells the story of the discovery of the massive glaciations of pre-Cambrian Earth that have come to be known... Read more
Published on Nov. 10 2003 by Filippo Neri
4.0 out of 5 stars Snowfights
It is always exciting to learn about new ideas on the cutting edge of any science. The idea of a Snowball Earth has sparked many debates and arguments. Read more
Published on Oct. 13 2003
3.0 out of 5 stars A Snow job or a revelation?
Gabrielle Walker's first book portrays the struggle of a renegade scientist to establish a theory of evolution's progress. Read more
Published on Sept. 9 2003 by Stephen A. Haines
5.0 out of 5 stars An Argumentative Champion for a Revolutionary Theory
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... Read more
Published on July 30 2003 by R. Hardy
3.0 out of 5 stars Icy personalities clash over Big Chill while frostily-SLAP!!
Sorry, couldn't help it!
This is a fun, fascinating layman's account of the controversial theory of cryptozoic global glaciation, how it may have been the trigger behind the... Read more
Published on July 6 2003 by The Sanity Inspector
5.0 out of 5 stars Great look at an exciting theory!
I first heard about the Snowball Earth theory when I saw a documentary about it on the Discovery Channel. I'm usually more of an astronomy fan, but that documentary fascinated me. Read more
Published on June 30 2003 by John Thomas
5.0 out of 5 stars Splendid Look At A New Controversial Theory of Geology
Gabrielle Walker's "Snowball Earth" reads like a gripping detective tale and spellbinding memoir. Read more
Published on June 21 2003 by John Kwok
4.0 out of 5 stars A great overview of a current controversy
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. Read more
Published on June 8 2003 by Robert J. Stern
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