The Origin of Our Planet and Life


 Those who see geology as the dullest of sciences overlook the likes of McSween, who shows his style in this sprightly treatment of the origin of Earth. McSween (Geological Sciences/Univ. of Tennessee; Stardust to Planets, 1993) begins with a collection of creation stories from many cultures, to illustrate thinking on the subject before the Greeks began to look at the world in a new way. He then zeroes in on the foundations of modern geology in Victorian times, when the dimensions of the problem of Earth's origins became clear. Geologists and biologists needed huge stretches of time for rocks to be laid down and life to evolve; but physicists knew of no sufficiently long-lived energy source to power the sun--a problem that was only solved with the discovery of radioactivity. This leads to a discussion of the creation of the chemical elements, first in the Big Bang, then in successive generations of stars, until enough heavy elements have collected to allow the formation of planets. Astronomy reveals the sources of the different ingredients of Earth, from the nickel-iron core to air and water, in the primordial nebulae that collapsed to form the Sun and planets. The structure of Earth, with its molten center and thin skin of eternally drifting continents and liquid water, is unique in the solar system. Whether this uniqueness accounts for the presence of life is anyone's guess; McSween points out that many of the chemicals that life utilizes exist in interplanetary space. Finally, we get a quick but elegant summary of evolution. McSween effectively incorporates the history of scientific ideas into his narrative, adding quotes from poets and philosophers as well as scientists to illustrate his points. While nothing in science is ever the last word, this finely argued and well-written volume can be expected to stand as an excellent summary of what science knows about the Earth on the threshold of the 21st century.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-312-14601-9
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 1997


NonfictionTHE STORY OF EARTH by Robert M. Hazen
by Robert M. Hazen