Oxygen: A Four Billion Year History

Oxygen: A Four Billion Year History

by Donald E. Canfield
     
 

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"With humor and humanity, Oxygen captures the excitement of scientific discovery and describes the amazing natural history of how Earth's oxygenated atmosphere came to be."—Ed DeLong, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

"A fascinating, accessible tour through the history of atmospheric oxygen, written by one of the world's top geobiologists.

Overview

"With humor and humanity, Oxygen captures the excitement of scientific discovery and describes the amazing natural history of how Earth's oxygenated atmosphere came to be."—Ed DeLong, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

"A fascinating, accessible tour through the history of atmospheric oxygen, written by one of the world's top geobiologists. Canfield takes the reader from the anaerobic early Archean Earth up through the modern highly oxygenated environment, providing pointers to the relevant scientific literature along the way. Even experts in this field will learn things from his book."—James Kasting, author of How to Find a Habitable Planet

"In Oxygen, Don Canfield recounts two epics in one—the evolution of breathable air over the entirety of Earth history, and the equally engaging account of how scientists have reconstructed this history from chemical details in ancient rocks. Even those who know the story well, or think they do, will find much food for thought."—Andrew Knoll, Harvard University, author of Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth

"Canfield takes us on a journey through the discovery of what produces oxygen, how oxygen evolved on the planet, and how that evolution influenced other aspects of planetary evolution. An enjoyable book."—Lee Kump, coauthor of The Earth System

"This is a wonderful introduction to the most important event in Earth history—the rise of oxygen in the atmosphere. Canfield shares his broad and deep grasp of the field, his research leadership, his respect and admiration for the work of others, and his excitement and healthy skepticism about what we know—and still need to know."—Timothy W. Lyons, University of California, Riverside

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
10/14/2013
As ecologist Canfield explains it, “Oxygen is a signature feature of Earth; the high levels in our atmosphere define the outlines of our existence, as they also generally define the nature of animal life on Earth.” But this has not always been the case. Canfield’s work explores the atmospheric composition of the planet in past and seeks to understand the processes that led to the changes that have occurred. He blends heavy doses of biology with geology and geochemistry to present current hypotheses about how the Earth’s “great oxidation” took place “between 2.3 and 2.4 billion years ago,” resulting from the rise of cyanobacteria coupled with a reduction in the Earth’s tectonic activity as the planet’s core cooled. Much of the work Canfield discusses was conducted by him and his direct collaborators and mentors. Beyond the actual science—which is often presented in a way that is complex enough to deter a general readership—his excellent descriptions of the scientific process show how competing hypotheses, and the scientists who present them, vie for supremacy. Canfield also offers a philosophical perspective: scientific understanding provides true insight into the structure of the natural world and reveals that “science will converge on these ideas, if not now by one scientist, then later by another.” (Jan.)
Library Journal
05/01/2014
Canfield (ecology, Univ. of Southern Denmark; director, Nordic Ctr. for Earth Evolution) attempts to describe the "big picture" of interrelated systems and self-regulating mechanisms that have controlled the presence of oxygen in Earth's air, oceans, and rocks throughout its history. Because of the constant cycling of elements among and within these systems, major changes in oxygen levels must often be deduced through proxy measures—for example, slight differences in isotopic ratios of other elements such as molybdenum and sulfur. Rather than presenting the book's contents as settled fact, Canfield weaves together the evidence gathered by his colleagues, mentors, and dissenting scientists in the field of geochemistry to put forth competing explanations in a logical order. An epilog recapitulates the arguments into a "best guess" time line. VERDICT Though written as an accessible introduction, with anecdotes sprinkled throughout, bringing the scientists' personalities to life, this work requires the reader's close attention and a bit of background knowledge in chemistry and biology in order to appreciate it fully. It would make a solid overview for any university biology or geology student.—Wade M. Lee, Univ. of Toledo Lib.
Kirkus Reviews
2013-11-04
Nordic Center for Earth Evolution director Canfield (Ecology/Univ. of Southern Denmark; co-editor: Fundamentals of Geobiology, 2012 etc.) delivers "the history of atmospheric oxygen on Earth." The author's project is directly relevant to efforts to discover life elsewhere in the universe. He explains that geobiologists are currently attempting to correlate the evolution of life on Earth to transformations in the levels of atmospheric oxygen that began somewhere around 580 million years ago. He sets the stage by looking back to the earlier history of life, beginning with the first organic molecules. The evolution of oxygen-producing cyanobacteria, which released oxygen into the atmosphere through photosynthesis, was a major step along the way. Around 2.3 billion years ago, the rate of oxygen production exceeded the flux of hydrogen. Canfield, however, believes that this is only part of the story. The question remaining to be answered is, "when and how did oxygen become more than a whiff and a permanent feature of Earth's atmosphere?" The author claims that a crucial element in our current understanding of the abundance of oxygen in our atmosphere is the process through which it was concentrated in the oceans. He explains that scientists believe this process began with "the evolution of tiny animal plankton, so-called zooplankton, [which] completely changed the carbon cycle and the distribution of oxygen in the oceans." They produced "fast-sinking fecal pellets" that slowly dissolved as they sank to the bottoms of the oceans. In the author's opinion, it was animal activity that created a major "redistribution of oxygen in the oceans…rather than an increase in the levels of atmospheric oxygen"--and that created a tipping point. Canfield's text will be illuminating for scientific-minded readers but difficult for those not already somewhat familiar with the concepts. A mixed-success attempt at a popular treatment of the complexities of a fascinating subject.
From the Publisher
Winner of the 2014 ASLI Choice Award, Atmospheric Science Librarians International

One of Nature.com's Top 20 Reads for 2014

One of Science Friday's Best Science Books of 2014

"His excellent descriptions of the scientific process show how competing hypotheses, and the scientists who present them, vie for supremacy. Canfield also offers a philosophical perspective: scientific understanding provides true insight into the structure of the natural world."Publishers Weekly

"Engaging and authoritative."Nature

"An ecologist's ambitious, engrossing primer on the key atmospheric element, ranging from the 'great oxidation event' to photosynthesis."—Barbara Kiser,Nature

"Concise and easily read, Oxygen provides an ideal starting block for those interested in learning about Earth's O2 history and, more broadly, the function and history of biogeochemical cycles. . . . The endnotes provide valuable entries for readers who wish to explore particular points in greater depth and, in other cases, enable brief digressions for interesting personal notes without disrupting the logical thread of a given concept. And the detailed bibliography captures a vast swath of the relevant primary literature. I highly recommend Canfield's book for anyone with even a remote interest in Earth history, as O2 singularly encompasses much of what makes our planet special."—Woodward W. Fischer, Science

"Oxygen takes readers on a remarkable journey through the history of the oxygenation of our planet."—Devorah Bennu, GrrlScientist at The Guardian

"This is the sort of science writing we would all do well to read more of. . . . Engage[s] with the ambiguity of a world where evidence is imperfect, knowledge evolves, and mistakes can be made in interpreting the data."—Ian Scheffler, Los Angeles Review of Books

"Oxygen: A Four Billion Year History will be an entertaining and informative read, however, for anyone with a serious interest in the long-term history of the Earth: students contemplating working in the area and specialists in related disciplines as well as engaged general readers."—Danny Yee, Danny Reviews

"Written as an accessible introduction, with anecdotes sprinkled throughout, bringing the scientists' personalities to life. . . . It would make a solid overview for any university biology or geology student."—Wade M. Lee, Library Journal

"Scientific understanding of the role of oxygen in the ancient oceans and atmosphere has taken major steps forward only recently; this book . . . is written by a man who made significant contributions to this new understanding. Canfield wrote a seminal paper on ancient ocean chemistry and has spent his career studying the geochemistry of lakes and oceans. . . . To make the discussion more accessible to nonscientists, the technical portions of the discussion are provided as notes at the end of the book."Choice

"Given the complexity and breath of the material, the narrative has a light touch and is scattered with anecdotes about the scientists and adventures involved in the story, giving a real sense of the human endeavor. As well as the fascinating subject matter itself, the overriding impression is one of exhilaration and sheer enjoyment in pursuing this most fundamental, yet challenging, of scientific quests. Highly recommended."Chemistry World

"Canfield shows us how his science is done, and weaves together molecular biology, geology, geochemistry to tell this history of the air we breathe."—David L. Kirchman, Key Reporter

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780691145020
Publisher:
Princeton University Press
Publication date:
01/19/2014
Series:
Science Essentials Series
Pages:
224
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.90(d)

Meet the Author

Donald E. Canfield is professor of ecology at the University of Southern Denmark.

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