Lucky Planet: Why Earth is Exceptional...And What That Means For Life In The Universe

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Overview


Humankind has long fantasized about life elsewhere in the universe. And as we discover countless exoplanets orbiting other stars—among them, rocky super-Earths and gaseous Hot Jupiters—we become ever more hopeful that we may come across extraterrestrial life. Yet even as we become aware of the vast numbers of planets outside our solar system, it has also become clear that Earth is exceptional. The question is: why?

In Lucky Planet, astrobiologist David Waltham argues that ...

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Lucky Planet: Why Earth is Exceptional--and What That Means for Life in the Universe

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Overview


Humankind has long fantasized about life elsewhere in the universe. And as we discover countless exoplanets orbiting other stars—among them, rocky super-Earths and gaseous Hot Jupiters—we become ever more hopeful that we may come across extraterrestrial life. Yet even as we become aware of the vast numbers of planets outside our solar system, it has also become clear that Earth is exceptional. The question is: why?

In Lucky Planet, astrobiologist David Waltham argues that Earth’s climate stability is one of the primary factors that makes it able to support life, and that nothing short of luck made such conditions possible. The four-billion-year stretch of good weather that our planet has experienced is statistically so unlikely, he shows, that chances are slim that we will ever encounter intelligent extraterrestrial others.

Describing the three factors that typically control a planet’s average temperature—the heat received from its star, how much heat the planet absorbs, and the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere—Waltham paints a complex picture of how special Earth’s climate really is. He untangles the mystery of why, although these factors have shifted by such massive measures over the history of life on Earth, surface temperatures have never fluctuated so much as to make conditions hostile to life. Citing factors such as the size of our Moon and the effect of an ever-warming Sun, Waltham challenges the prevailing scientific consensus that other Earth-like planets have natural stabilizing mechanisms that allow life to flourish.

A lively exploration of the stars above and the ground beneath our feet, Lucky Planet seamlessly weaves the story of Earth and the worlds orbiting other stars to give us a new perspective of the surprising role chance plays in our place in the universe.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
01/27/2014
Waltham, astrobiologist and geophysicist at the University of London, addresses the pressing question: How common is intelligent life in the universe? He examines the conditions necessary for life to begin and evolve into more complex forms, along the way exploring cosmological matters, such as star and planet formation, geological and meteorological concerns, as well as the nature of life itself. His basic, unsurprising premise is that vast amounts of time are required to produce intelligent life, but he goes further to explain that maintaining a relatively stable planetary climate for the bulk of that time is both essential and rare. “If this book has a theme, it is that climate is destiny.” Earth, as he shows, has a multiplicity of factors that have yielded a stable climate and, he argues, it is unlikely that a similar combination of conditions will appear very often. There are an enormous number of planets in the universe, but only a small percentage will have the requisite conditions. Waltham’s somewhat depressing conclusion is that “advanced civilizations elsewhere are inevitable, but they will also be so far away that we will never be able to communicate with them or even observe influences they may have on their galactic neighborhoods.” (Apr.)
From the Publisher

“A bold, unwavering argument that pushes back against the too-quick acceptance of Earth as exceptional—and encourages its intelligent life forms to appreciate our supreme luck.”
Kirkus Reviews

“A lively and well-argued antidote to a widespread view that advanced life could arise frequently and in many places in the known Universe. Waltham explains why the Earth is a much more peculiar planet than you might think, and he shows that its friendliness to life does not just apply to the here-and-now, but must equally have pertained through a history of more than 3.5 billion years: life’s survival and prospering to the point where intelligent life could emerge was a product of extraordinary and exceptional luck. A skeptical response to ideas of inevitable evolution of intelligent beings among the stars, Waltham suggests that we may, after all, be lonelier than we could have thought.”
Richard Fortey, author of Survivors and The Hidden Landscape

“David Waltham takes us on a delightful tour of the various factors that influence planetary habitability and the evolution of advanced life. That he thinks the prospects for it are unlikely is all the more reason for us to go up to space and take a good look!”
James Kasting, Professor of Geosciences, Penn State University, and author of How to Find a Habitable Planet

“Waltham has an engaging, pleasantly meandering, style of writing, making his book accessible to the non-specialist. He shows a knack for clearly explaining complex concepts – for example, geologic time scales and exoplanet detection techniques.”
Quest: The History of Spaceflight Quarterly

Library Journal
03/15/2014
Waltham (earth sciences, Royal Holloway Coll., Univ. of London) favors a variant of the "anthropic principle": there are an infinite variety of planets in the universe, and—purely by chance—ours is one of the few whose climate was just right for fostering the development of life. Furthermore, Earth has maintained a relatively stable climate long enough to permit the development of intelligent beings, a feat unlikely to be duplicated elsewhere in the universe, at least in a way we will ever know about or be able to comprehend. Unfortunately, the globe's own good luck will run out, and most of its life forms will disappear as a brightening sun overheats our home planet. VERDICT Despite the author's droll humor, his digressions and lengthy discussions of counterfactual astronomy make for dense reading. Readers may find Paul Davies's Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life more comprehensible, as Waltham's book is best suited to those already familiar with other popular science literature on exoplanets, the anthropic principle, and/or extraterrestrial life.—Nancy Curtis, Univ. of Maine Lib., Orono
Kirkus Reviews
2014-02-24
Despite the popularity of contemporary theories that suggest our world—and even our universe—may not be singular or exceptional, astrobiologist and geophysicist Waltham (Earth Sciences/Royal Holloway Coll., Univ. of London; Mathematics: A Simple Tool for Geologists, 1994) argues that this skepticism of exclusivity is the result of "the most severe case of observational bias in the history of science." In other words, the extraordinary sequence of events that took place in order for life to evolve on Earth could not have occurred in any other sequence and still produce life forms capable of reflecting on said events. The Earth's biosphere is so beautifully and uniquely suited to foster sentient beings, it may be the only planet in the visible universe capable of hosting such complex life forms. The root idea that Earth is nothing special, the author argues, needs to be deconstructed and challenged before being taken at face value. Drawing on properties of geology, astronomy, climatology and biology, he examines how exactly Earth has managed to remain climatically stable enough to sustain life. The fact that 4 billion years have passed without a catastrophic, life-ending change in atmospheric temperature is, he argues, more than just a byproduct of the planet's atmosphere; it's a statistical wonder that is unlikely to be repeated, even within the vastness of the visible universe. To support his theory that incredible luck plays a defining role in our existence, Waltham surveys historical factors in the makeup of stars and planets, as well as looking deeper into the Earth's astonishing good fortune as a habitat for multicellular life—and whether it can be sustained. A bold, unwavering argument that pushes back against the too-quick acceptance of Earth as exceptional—and encourages its intelligent life forms to appreciate our supreme luck.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465039999
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 4/8/2014
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 286,231
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author


David Waltham is an astrobiologist, geophysicist and head of the department of Earth Sciences at Royal Holloway College, the University of London.
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 26, 2014

    Interw Esting Interesting, thought provoking but light reading

    There were many topics brought up which more or less confirms my own inclination that inteligent life requires an extensive confluence of low probability events.

    I learned some details of Earth's climate history that i was not aware of. This might serve as a launching point for further investigation.

    My downgrade is due to what i percieved as rambling writing.

    I guess i should excuse an experiment with such a small "n", since there is only one confirmed planet with life. There are not enough data points to estimate exactly how rare life is.

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