A Most Improbable Journey: A Big History of Our Planet and Ourselvesby Walter Alvarez
Famed geologist Walter Alvarez expands our view of human history by revealing the cosmic, geologic, and evolutionary forces that have shaped us.One in a million doesn’t even come close.Not when we’re talking about the odds that you would happen to be alive today, on this particular planet, hurtling through space. Almost fourteen billion years of cosmic
Famed geologist Walter Alvarez expands our view of human history by revealing the cosmic, geologic, and evolutionary forces that have shaped us.One in a million doesn’t even come close.Not when we’re talking about the odds that you would happen to be alive today, on this particular planet, hurtling through space. Almost fourteen billion years of cosmic history, over four billion years of Earth history, a couple million years of human history, the rise and fall of nations, the unbroken string of generations necessary to lead to youit’s staggering to consider. Yet behind everything in our world, from the phone in your pocket to even the force of gravity itself, lies a similarly grand procession of highly improbable events.This panoramic viewpoint has captured the imagination of historians and scientists alike, and together they’ve created a new fieldBig Historythat integrates traditional historical scholarship with scientific insights to study the full sweep of our universe and its past. Famed geologist Walter Alvarezbest known for the impact theory explaining dinosaur extinctionhas championed a science-first approach to Big History, and A Most Improbable Journey is one of the first Big History books to be written by a scientist rather than a historian. Alvarez brings his unique expertise and infectious curiosity 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.
If you're familiar with the "Impact Theory," which blames dinosaur extinction on a crash-landed asteroid, then you're familiar with Berkeley geologist Alvarez; he originated the idea. Here he argues that Big History, which studies all past history to contextualize human existence, should begin with science.
Count yourself lucky that you live on a planet with gravityand silicon.Well-known in paleontological circles for his description of the Chicxulub impact crater, which he explored in the bestselling T. rex and the Crater of Doom (1997), Alvarez (Geology/Univ. of California; The Mountains of Saint Francis: Discovering the Geologic Events that Shaped Our Earth, 2009, etc.) is at ease writing about geology, never an easy subject to treat with much grace. Here he adds a wrinkle: a garden variety geologist, he writes, will be interested in a particular mountain range, while a geologist guided by Big History might want to understand the whole sweep of continental motions throughout all of Earth history that has given rise to all the mountain ranges. The inclusion of environmental history in human history at a very deep scale of time has proven fruitful and has yielded good books by, among others, Richard Fortey and Colin Tudge. However, theres a bit of a buzzword quality to the whole Big History enterprise, and at times it seems as if Alvarez has adopted it as a slogan in this glancing survey: We usually take our wonderful Earth for granted[b]ut a Big History sense of its distant past can only leave us amazed and grateful that such a violent and chancy history has given us this perfect place to live. Granted, the human presence on the Earth is the tiniest fraction of a fraction of planetary time, and the fact that grains of sand are oriented in a certain direction in the Rockies has only a peripheralthough interestingbearing on how engineers blasted a railroad path through the mountains 150 years ago. A little of the gee-whiz stuff goes a long way, as when Alvarez notes that contingency is everywhere in human historymeaning, in other words, that you couldnt have planned it if you tried. The science is impeccable, the history a tad simplistic. An Ascent of Manlike approach to the subject of Big History would be most welcome, but this isnt quite it.
- Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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Meet the Author
Walter Alvarez a professor of geology at the University of California, Berkeley, is one of the founding members of the International Big History Association. He was awarded the 2002 Penrose Medal, the top honor in geology, and is the author of The Mountains of St. Francis and the best-selling T. rex and the Crater of Doom.
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