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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

Most helpful customer reviews
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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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 as "Snowball Earth". The fact that "Snowball Earth" really happened is not controversial, despite what some reviewers have suggested. The basic reason is the well-known fact that the Sun is slowly getting hotter and was significantly less bright a billion years ago. Also not very controversial anymore are other assertions like the fact that the dinosaur extinction was indeed caused by the collision with Earth of one (or more) comets or asteroids. Walker is not uncritical about these facts, just well informed. There are some small misstatements in the book, like the assertion that magnetic pole inversion have happened regularly through geologic time, while, in fact, there was no inversion for an extended period (tens of millions of years) in the Mesozoic. More controversial, is the idea that "Snowball Earth" somehow "caused" the Cambrian animal radiation. This is the subject of just chapter 9. In many ways this is, for me, the most interesting chapter of the book, and also the most problematical. I assume that most of the experts don't doubt a relationship between the end of "Snowball Earth" and the "Big Bang" of animal life. But most would just assume that the big glaciations prevented the radiation of animals, that otherwise were ready to go, with Hox genes and all. Still chapter 9 is very interesting. Many of the discoveries discussed in it, like the finds of trace fossils of known Ediacaran "animals" have not been published in refereed journals. If it were true, Fedonkin's find of slug-like trails left by Kimberellas, would be extremely important. Read more ›
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4.0 out of 5 stars Snowfights Oct. 13 2003
By A Customer
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. Snowball Earth, by Gabrielle Walker does more than defend the theory in face of academic scrutiny. She manages to introduce the reader to the man behind the theory, and in effect, write a story that resembles, the relationship between the man and his theoretical construct. This is what makes Snowball Earth, such a fascinating work. We are allowed to witness the man at his best, and at his worst. We are given an honest and open-minded view of the individual and his sometimes-sour relationships with others (generally those who do not follow his ideas). His arrogant and egotistical nature is not excused in any way, more fittingly it is used as a reason for his genius. The capacity to strongly trust what he believes in, makes Dr Paul Hoffman such a champion of his Snowball Earth Crusade, and more of the protagonist in the tale, than the theory itself.
The book opens with a chapter that accurately describes the manner in which Dr Hoffman approaches both life and his work. When still a young Postgraduate student with a passion for distance running, and on his very first attempt at the Boston Marathon, managed to come in a very respectable 9th place. His conviction to the cause, and self-will were the fuels which drove him on in the race, and remain to this day the fuels which drive his ambitions to prove to the world that the world has been through periods of massive freezing, the entire globe has been entirely frozen over, including the equatorial regions.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars As gripping as a murder mystery
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. Read more
Published on Jan. 15 2012 by climatesight
5.0 out of 5 stars Earth's History and How Science Is Trying to Read It
This book offers a fascinating look at a possible explanation of how life went from single cell organisms to multicellular organisms. Read more
Published on May 8 2004 by Andrew Wyllie
4.0 out of 5 stars Snowballs and egos on the loose
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... Read more
Published on April 29 2004 by James Safranek
4.0 out of 5 stars Up close and personal. Theories and Controversy.
This book provides wonderful insight into both an interesting and controversial theory, and the personal and professional struggles of those who debate it. Read more
Published on April 21 2004 by Robert C. Martin
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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