A Most Improbable Journey: A Big History of Our Planet and Ourselves ペーパーバック – 2017/12/5
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Big History, the field that integrates traditional historical scholarship with scientific insights to study the full sweep of our universe, has so far been the domain of historians. Famed geologist Walter Alvarezbest known for the Impact Theory explaining dinosaur extinctionhas instead championed a science-first approach to Big History. Here he wields his unique expertise to give us a new appreciation for the incredible occurrencesfrom the Big Bang to the formation of supercontinents, the dawn of the Bronze Age, and beyondthat have led to our improbable place in the universe.
A wonderful account of Big History by a geologist. And not just any geologist, but the geologist who showed that the dinosaurs were done in by an unlucky asteroid strike! Alvarez writes with precision and great charm. And he reminds us how absurdly improbable is the role we play in this colossal story, and how many things had to go right for you and me to exist.--David Christian, founder of the field of Big History and author of Maps of Time
[Alvarez] revels in the unlikely reality of life on Earth...enabling readers to experience the power of Big History.
“A Most Improbable Journey” is an awe-inspiring and accessible history of our planet and ourselves that combines the cosmos, earth, life and humanity. Famed geologist and professor at the University of California, Berkely, Walter Alvarez takes the reader on a stimulating ride through our planet’s history and the incredible occurrences that have led us to where we are today. This inspiring 256-page book includes the following ten chapters: 1. Big History, the Earth, and the Human Situation, 2. From the Big Bang to Planet Earth, 3. Gifts from the Earth, 4. A Planet with Continents and Oceans, 5. A Tale of Two Mountain Ranges, 6. Remembering Ancient Rivers, 7. Your Personal Record of Life History, 8. The Great Journey, 9. Being Human, and 10. What Was the Chance of All This Happening?
1. Great science writing. Informative, interesting, accessible and fun to read.
2. A fascinating topic, the panoramic viewpoint of history, “Big History” that combines history and science about our universe.
3. A very good format and overall good flow. Each chapter covers an interesting aspect of Big History. Professor Alvarez has a great command of the topics and the innate ability to convey concepts clearly and with a sense of awe.
4. Good use of photos, maps and illustrations that complement the accessible narrative.
5. Provides a quick account of how cosmic history produced the planet and our solar system. “In an expanding universe, if you were to go backward in time, the galaxies would get closer and closer together, until all the galaxies and all the space between them would be confined to a tiny ball, and this was the Big Bang, almost 14 billion years ago. The Big Bang is usually described as an explosion, although not like ones familiar to us. It was not an explosion within space, like a firecracker or a quarry blast, but an explosion of space and of matter and even of time itself, none of which existed until the explosion took place.”
6. Find out the three wonderful tricks that Nature used to make our world possible.
7. Explains how Earth makes resources useful. “Of those four dominant elements, let’s focus on silicon because it is the basis of most of the minerals and rocks that make up our planet.”
8. Defines key terms and concepts throughout the book. ““Tectonics” is the study of the large-scale geological features of Earth—continents, ocean basins, and mountain ranges—and the word comes from the same root as “architecture”—in this case, the architecture of our planet.”
9. The revolutionary discovery that continents move. “In 1912 the German meteorologist Alfred Wegener presented a detailed theory of continental drift, starting from the coastline fit.”
10. Instead of going into deep depth on each topic and thus dissuading the layperson, Alvarez provides key examples that succeeds in enlightening the reader. “In keeping with the Big History approach, let us look at our two mountain ranges first from the viewpoint of historians, then of travelers and artists and, finally, of geologists.”
11. Mountain history. “The fundamental discovery of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century geologists was that Earth history has not been brief—not just a few thousand years, but enormously long, going back to an origin that has now been dated as about 4,500 million years ago.”
12. Describes how external processes like rivers, glaciers and the wind create the geological changes the produce the landscapes that we live in. “Getting the agreement to build the Erie Canal was difficult, and digging the ditch and building the locks in an age of hand labor was herculean, but once the canal was finished in 1825, it changed everything. The agricultural products of the west and the manufactures of the east floated easily along the placid waters of the canal, linking the coastal states and the new interior lands into a dynamic, growing nation.”
13. The keys to life history. “Fossils and DNA give complementary records of life history, each supplying information the other cannot. Fossils tell us what an organism looked like, while DNA tells how two organisms are related.”
14. Interesting tidbits throughout. “Eating with your jaw is a much more ancient activity than using it to tell stories!”
15. Explores how humans tie into the deeper history of our planet. The grand theory of evolution and the human journey. “Finally, about 200,000 years ago, came Homo sapiens, who developed sophisticated culture and a wide range of advanced tools made from stone and other materials.”
16. Describes how human ancestry is revealed. “So we have two tracers of our human ancestry—mitochondrial DNA for the female side and Y-chromosome DNA for the male line.”
17. Describes how the achievements that make us human and how the Earth history has set the stage for these achievements. “The use of fire is not often on the list of critical human attributes, but when we look at what makes us human, controlled fire use might even be the most defining characteristic of our species.”
18. Describes history through the key concepts of continuity and contingency. “On the one hand, I see continuities, made up of trends and cycles, combined in various ways at various time scales. On the other hand, there are contingencies—rare events that make significant changes in history that could not have been predicted very far in advance.”
19. Find out the satisfying conclusion of this book.
20. Notes and further sources provided.
1. It was so much fun to read, I was sad when it was over.
2. Not so much a negative but a disclaimer to readers looking for depth, this book is intended for laypersons.
3. Good use of photos and illustrations but I would have added more timelines.
In summary, this is what good popular science writing is all about; a fascinating story grounded in good science and fun to read. Professor Alvarez succeeds in providing the public with an awe-inspiring book on the history of the universe through the four regimes of cosmos, earth, life and humanity. A great gift for the Holidays. A highly recommended read, get this!
Further recommendations: “The Big Picture” by Sean Carroll, “Improbable Planet” by Hugh Ross, “Big History” by Cynthia Stokes Brown, “The Serengeti Rules” by Sean B. Carroll, “Welcome to the Universe” by Neil deGrasse Tyson, “How it Began” by Chris Impey, “Extinction: How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago” by Douglas Erwin, “Wonders of the Universe” and “Wonders of Life” by Brian Cox, “The Great Extinctions” by Norman MacLeod, “Written in Stone” by Brian Switek, “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari.
I wasn't able to finish the book. Possibly my expectations were too high. Possibly I am too well informed about both science and history. So I'm giving it two stars instead of my normal one for an unreadable book.
I don't recommend this for anyone who has any real interest in this topic or they would already know everything in it.
Alvarez is a devotee of “Big History” which he describes as the “attempt to understand, in a unified and interdisciplinary way, the history of the Cosmos, Earth, Life and Humanity”, which is what the current book tries to do. And it does so in a quite fascinating and very readable way. Of course, any work covering ground from the big bang, the formation of the universe, the sun and the earth, plate tectonics, the development of life, homo sapiens’ utilization of tools, fire, and metals, all the way to his long migrations and evolvement of written language is bound to be spotty and haphazard in places.
Nor I believe does “Big History” necessarily suggest that works examining small and distinct issues in great detail are necessarily of lesser value. Back in the 1950’s C.P. Snow famously wrote that the sciences and humanities represented two separate cultures that didn’t properly understand each other. Since then new avenues of scientific research have come upon a variety of evidence leading historians and other scholars in the humanities to alter long held beliefs. The split Snow wrote about has thus less lessened and interdisciplinary approaches such as Alvarez’s “Big History” have become more viable and useful.
The essence of Alvarez’s approach is that geologic events which happened in the remote past shaped the conditions for much later episodes. “Without the particular history earth has had”, he writes, “human history would have indeed been so very different”. By weaving together the formation of the solar system, the birth of life, and the evolution of man, “A Most Improbable Journey” provides a unitary perspective which underscores how countless random events gave us the civilization we live in now.
But even as scientists such as Alvarez tell us how multiple ancient events contributed to the formation of the present, they eschew any effort to inform us as to why they did so. As scientists, they say, that is not their province. Questions of “why” things happened at all are left to philosophers and theologians. Thus as revealing and important as the insights provided by “Big History” are, the deepest questions remain stuck in some unfathomable black hole in very remote place.
As an admirer of Darwin, Rachel Carlson, Joseph Campbell,archeologists, anthropologist, Shellby Spong and other contemporary thinkers as well as those of our brief past in human history, I was enthralled.