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The Life and Death of Planet Earth: How the New Science of Astrobiology Charts the Ultimate Fate of Our World [Paperback]

Peter D. Ward , Donald Brownlee
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Jan. 1 2004
“They deftly bring together findings from many disparate areas of science in a book that science buffs will find hard to put down.” —Publishers Weekly

Science has worked hard to piece together the story of the evolution of our world up to this point, but only recently have we developed the understanding and the tools to describe the entire life cycle of our planet. Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee, a geologist and an astronomer respectively, are in the vanguard of the new field of astrobiology. Combining their knowledge of how the critical sustaining systems of our planet evolve through time with their understanding of how stars and solar systems grow and change throughout their own life cycles, the authors tell the story of the second half of Earth’s life. In this masterful melding of groundbreaking research and captivating, eloquent science writing, Ward and Brownlee provide a comprehensive portrait of Earth’s life cycle that allows us to understand and appreciate how the planet sustains itself today, and offers us a glimpse of our place in the cosmic order.

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From Publishers Weekly

According to the authors-who argued in their previous book, Rare Earth, that the complex life found on earth is probably unique in the vast expanses of the universe-our planet has a pretty bleak future ahead of it, one that is a mirror image of its past. Ward and Brownlee, a geologist and an astronomer respectively, claim that human civilization has flowered during an 11,000-year warm interlude in a recurring cycle of ice ages. In their view, "global warming," while possibly harmful in the short term, may help postpone the return of the ice. But not too many thousand years from now, skyscraper-high glaciers will again grind across North America as far south as New York City, and civilization will be driven toward the equator to survive, if not into space. Further into the future, the authors argue, the complex give and take between carbon trapped in rocks, water and oxygen in the sea, and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere-the latter playing the most important role in climatic change-will eventually turn earth into a barren sibling of Mars. While the authors don't make an airtight case for their claims about how our planet's climate and geology will begin to rewind, they do deftly bring together findings from many disparate areas of science in a book that science buffs will find hard to put down. 15 b&w illus.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

The science of astrobiology attempts to answer some of the big questions that have long engaged the imagination of the human race. In this fascinating follow-up to Rare Earth, geologist/zoologist Ward and astronomer Brownlee, both of the University of Washington, draw an analogy between the planet's development and the human cycles of birth, growth, maturity, and death. They explain the Earth's natural aging process over eons by looking at changes in land formations, oceans, climates, plant and animal life, and the stars. Although the authors are adamant that human recklessness is hastening Earth's demise, it is just as apparent that this ultimate fate is inevitable. Given that the time frame is millions, if not billions, of years, it is difficult for the reader to feel a real impending sense of doom. Still, the authors effectively communicate their knowledge and sense of wonder while making the scientific evidence clear to readers of even limited science backgrounds. Thought-provoking and philosophical questions throughout ensure that this work never reads like a textbook. Readers interested in the environment and "the big picture" will enjoy. Recommended for public libraries of all sizes.
Denise Hamilton, Franklin Pierce Coll. Lib., Rindge, NH
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bleak but fascinating May 31 2003
It might be that professors Ward and Brownlee are working on a new genre: non-fiction science fiction. Instead of speculations embedded in story form they speculate about the future in a narrative without plot or characterization or other elements of the story form. Of course they are not the only writers doing this, but they are among the best in a growing industry.
Well, what about it? I gave up reading most science fiction years ago because either the story elements were wooden or the science was ridiculous (or both). It is not easy to be simultaneously a master story teller and a polymath of science. We know that (e.g.) Asimov, Clarke and Sagan were exceptions and were able to combine both tale and cutting edge knowledge very well, and in some cases spectacularly well. But their world is gone. Today's science is much more complex. To write convincingly about the future it is not enough to be a world expert in one's chosen field. The future is influenced by science of all kinds; consequently it is requisite that one be an expert in a number of scientific disciplines just to avoid naive projections.
So it is natural that Peter Ward, who is a geologist and zoologist, (and, by the way, a sometimes poetic prose stylist, witness his expositions in Future Evolution [2001]), and Brownlee, who is an astronomer and NASA scientist, might join forces to augment their individual expertise; and that they might eschew the story form in writing about the future.
At any rate, this is an excellent book of speculation about the future of our planet aimed at a general readership. It is a fine follow-up to their Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe (2000). As in that book their conclusions are pessimistic.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Whatever happened to good science editors? July 27 2003
I have very mixed emotions about this book. Peter Ward, professor of geological science at the University of Washington, and Donald Brownlee, professor of astronomy, also at the University of Washington, here present a gripping and disturbing scenario of the Earth's natural history, and its future as a mirror-image of its past. All other things being equal, this should have been an enthralling work, one I'd have been more than happy to acquire for my personal library in spite of a very restricted book-buying budget.
Two things kept me from doing so: a number of scientific errors which neither of the authors had any right to make in the first place; and much more numerous problems with syntatctical errors, from grammatical errors and dropped-stitch omissions of prepositions and so forth to stylistic errors and clumsy sentence constructions.
As an example of the first -- there are several such, but this one was even more egregious, given that Donald Brownless is an astronomer and should know better -- on p. 133, it is asserted that the frequency of Mars oppositions, times when Earth is on a line determined by Mars and the Sun, when Mars is closer to us than at any other times in its biennial revolution around the Sun, is 18 months. In fact, Mars oppositions occur at intervals of some 26 months -- two years and two months. Greatest elongations of Venus, on the other hand, when Venus is at her farthest point east in the sky from the Sun, occur at intervals of about 18 months. In essence, the authors have here switched the orbit of the God of War with that of the God of Love -- a boner that no astronomer should have made.
Then there are the syntactical problems. Again, I will give just one example. Occuring on p.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Readable, enjoyable, made me think Jan. 30 2004
Maybe enjoyable is a strange word to use when the book's subject is the end of all life and of our pretty blue planet but the book was easy to read as it charted its way to the hypothetical end. The author mixed information with description and I was drawn in as a spectator through the narrative as the earth was formed and became habitable.
Chapter by chapter the earth came to resemble the planet I know, then continued to change until I saw the final bleak lifeless landscape waiting to be vaporized by the Sun's final burnout.

The subject, coined astrobiology, is the study of a planet's life cycle, from birth to death, the conditions each stage offers and the kind of life it is likely to support. The duration of the phase of planetary life supportive of human-type life is a relatively short part of the whole, and may be already on the decline. But that is geologic time, our great grandchildren are unlikely to be affected.
The author's freely offer that this is a baby science and the theories are likely to be challenged and overturned as it becomes recognized. I found it a fast read that drew me into the story like a detective novel, I couldn't wait to find out what happened next.

Maybe not a great book but a good one I feel was worth the time.
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By A Customer
I have read a number of books by Ward, either as single author or as co-author, and I have never been disappointed. This book is certainly no exception. Using up-to-date information, the authors discuss the evolution of life on earth as a function of evolving environmental, geological and astrophysical conditions. Then, they project the further evolution of these conditions into the distant future - from climate changes and future ice ages to the sun's transformation into a white dwarf - and discuss the anticipated effects on all forms of life on earth and on the earth itself. The book's only possible shortcoming that I can think of is that, in these forecasts, not enough credit has been given to the human element. Humans are well known to have the ability to modify their environment to their satisfaction. Based on the tremendous advances in science and technology over the past few centuries, one would expect a (possibly exponential) continuation of these advances well into the next few centuries, if not millennia - assuming, of course, there are no major setbacks. Consequently, humans may be able to delay, or prevent, at least some of the anticipated catastrophes. As is usual in Ward's books, the writing is clear, authoritative, friendly and engaging. An excellent read! The ultimate fate of humanity, as painted by the authors, does indeed look rather grim; but time will tell how well humanity makes out. Fortunately, we, as individuals, will not be here to find out.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Well Written
Perhaps the most well written book I have ever read in any genre. The sentences in this book flow seamlessly and provide the reader with a clear understanding of the material. Read more
Published on Feb. 21 2010 by S. haapala
1.0 out of 5 stars Oversimplified to appeal to a Peg Bundy.
I was disappointed. They sometimes oversimplify to the point of being wrong. They butcher the C02 cycle to explain why plants will go extinct...I couldn't finish it. Read more
Published on May 10 2004 by Dean Morales
3.0 out of 5 stars Don't we deserve a better fate than this?
Ever look through a kaleidoscope?
A kaleidoscope offers an ever-changing pattern of bright colors. Some patterns are weird, some beautiful. Read more
Published on Aug. 18 2003 by Theodore A. Rushton
4.0 out of 5 stars Superb
Truth be told, I'm quite familiar with the scenario of the Earth's future obliteration due to the inexorable process of entropy, on the planet and in the Sun itself. Read more
Published on May 14 2003
5.0 out of 5 stars The Life and Death of Planet Earth
In their book ï¿ The Life and Death of Planet Earthï¿, Peter Ward, a Paleontologist, and Donald Brownlee, an astronomer, both well-respected professors at the... Read more
Published on March 11 2003 by Noah K.
1.0 out of 5 stars Zero Stars
This is another tiresome cavalcade of misinterpretations and phony data. There's no global warming going on, other than the results of our sole source of heat -- the Sun with its... Read more
Published on March 7 2003 by Holy Olio
5.0 out of 5 stars The Eschatology of Earth
The Life and Death of Planet Earth
This book by Ward and Brownlee is the follow up to their previous work, Rare Earth. Read more
Published on Feb. 7 2003 by Technofreak
5.0 out of 5 stars Very Interesting!
I tend to judge non-fiction by what I learn. "The Life and Death of Planet Earth" tells the story about the un-glamorous end of our planet by analyzing the past. Read more
Published on Feb. 7 2003
5.0 out of 5 stars awesome astrobiological look at the distant future
This astrobiological look at the life cycle (past, present, and future) of Earth is well written but also darkly fascinating nonfiction. Read more
Published on Jan. 18 2003 by Harriet Klausner
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