Book Review: The Story of Earth, by Robert Hazen

The Story of Earth, by Robert M. Hazen. Viking Press. Hardback. $28

I’m writing this review early. I think it is important I do so. I learned something almost immediately, within the Introduction, in fact. Not even did I reach the first chapter before I realized how ignorant I have allowed myself to become. And, I pride myself on being “observant,” almost to the point of being condescending to others. Then, I open this book, begin reading, and realize, Wow, I’ve been so blind. And, then my ego takes over and I think, If I’ve been this obtuse about science, then the vast majority of people – I don’t mean Americans, I mean all people, everywhere – are ignorant, too. Probably many scientists, too, are just as ignorant. The only people immune to this pigeonholing are those in chemistry, or certain areas of biology, or certain areas of physics or geology.

People often have this general notion all scientists have perfect knowledge of “science.” I know I generalize but we see evidence of this in the news. Climate change science is one area where we see this. How often have we heard, “I know this guy. He is very smart, an engineer. He says climate change is bunk.” Guess what? He isn’t a climate scientist, and depending on the type of engineer, his “opinion” is only marginally better than a person selected at random off the street. Simply because someone has a degree in a field does not necessarily make them an expert in that discipline automatically, even if they hold a Ph.D in that discipline. People specialize the deeper they delve into research. An archaeologist may need to seek out the help of chemists, physicists, geologists, microbiologists, etc. to help them develop a context for a particular dig or site.

I have witnessed the same nonsense when state school boards debate the hot topic of Evolution versus Creationism or Intelligent Design. From Louisiana and Texas to Kansas and Kentucky, numerous people and groups strenuously strive to embed religious doctrine into science curricula. If you (or know someone) fall into this category, you won’t like The Story of Earth. Hazen provides indisputable evidence and details which lay bare the falsehood of the 10,000 year-old, or the 6,000 year-old Earth. Still, if you do fall into this category you should read this book so you will understand why those fantastical notions simply hold no water. The universe does not subscribe to the “Surprise Party Theory of Everything,” whereby a Prime Mover decorated our apartment in advance of our arrival only to flip on the lights to have everything look just like it does. There is zero evidence of such “design” and this certainly cannot be construed as science. Philosophy, yes. Science, no.

Look, science is not trying to debunk the concept of a Prime Mover, an Omniscient Intellect. In reality, science does not care whether or not a Prime Mover exists. Science is simply the pursuit of discovering “why things are the way they are.” Creationists and Intelligent Design enthusiasts, on the other hand, feel threatened science is trying to diminish the power of their Almighty Deity. I’m not saying some scientists would like to disprove the need for a Prime Mover; that is the personal goal of an individual, and not a reflection of Science, in total.

What does this diatribe have to do with how Hazen’s book illuminated more of my own ignorance? Good question!

I’ve been interesting in geology only so much as I think rocks are pretty, earthquakes are cool, volcanoes are neat, and my uncle has a degree in geology, a degree in geochemistry, and a degree in geophysics. As a child, I revered him. He was the smartest person I knew for all of my childhood. But, that is about it with regards to my interests in rocks.

I’ve taught Earth Science labs, and have been invited to teach an introductory Earth Science course. I turned down the invitation. 50% of the course would have covered geology, and at the time of the invite, I didn’t feel I could teach the course in good conscious since I while I may have the knowledge, I lacked the enthusiasm, drive, and now what I see as the fundamental understanding of why the material should be important, beyond the obvious incorporation of rocks and minerals in the materials of our daily lives. I felt geology was sort of boring, compared to cosmology and astronomy. Or economics. Or physics. Since my perspective on the course was rather bland, that I didn’t see how I could bring any particular insight or revelations or any enthusiasm into the course, I declined. In fact, I put off reading this book for months as my own bias shelved the book in favor of others detailing black holes, wormholes, and quantum mechanics.

Perhaps I simply wasn’t mature enough to accept my own bias was preventing me from learning. I was sniffing my own vapors; I was believing my own hubris. My ego told me, I already know this. Why should I read what I already know and understand?

Yep; I’m a dummy. I admit I made a mistake.

At the root of my mistake is the story of a few elements, notably hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, iron, and silicon. Hazen’s book could have a subtitle, “How Hydrogen, Oxygen, and other Elements Crush Young Earth Creationism.” We take these elements for granted. Their presence around us is unavoidable, thankfully. Hazen has divided the Earth’s history into a timeline represented by the color the Earth may have looked to someone observing from a spaceship, with the exception of the Earth’s infancy, the coalescence of our planet from chondrites. Then, our moon is formed as a result of a collision, called the Big Thwack. Next, our planet evolves over time, from Black, to a water Blue, becoming more dark, basaltic Grey, which results in a rusty Red Earth. Our Earth then transitions to snowy White before becoming lush Green. Each of these colors is related to a portion of the Earth’s geologic history. Our author is simply using taking some liberty with changes in the Earth’s chemical composition, associating a peculiar color with each stage in the Earth’s evolution.

When geologists, geochemists, and geophysicists map distributions of isotopes of common elements found in the rock layers of Earth, like carbon and oxygen, patterns emerge. These patterns indicate not only age, but chemical processes, along with location. The presence of certain isotopes, like those of carbon, can indicate the presence of fossil cells. Methylhopaniod molecules lead scientists to ponder the presence of oxygen, since these molecules are tied to cyanobacteria, which produce oxygen by photosynthesis.  Traveling to western Australia and sampling the black shales of the Mt McRae provides evidence that 2.5 billion years ago, photosynthesis was occurring. Manitoba, Canada, and the countries of Namibia and South Africa are a few other locations where samples of ancient rocks reveal details of Earth in its early years. Cratons, the building blocks of continents, are among a few of the remaining places which have not been caught up in the constantly churning and recycling of the Earth’s crust, and provide clues about our Earth’s history.

Oxygen is a scavenger which is why it has gained popularity among cleaning agents, and why we constantly have to fight rust on our cars, trucks, and other mechanical equipment. Oxygen, in spite of our need for it in our body, is quite a nasty substance, and too much oxygen is not a good thing. If I were to ask you, “Where is most of the oxygen on Earth found?” What would your answer be?

Would you reply, “In our atmosphere?” or would you reply, “I’m walking on it. It is under my feet, bound in the rocks in minerals in the Earth’s crust and mantle.” Most people would probably say, “In our air,” I would guess. But, no, 99.999% of all oxygen is under us. Hydrogen, too. In fact, most of the water on Earth is found in our mantle. According to the author, the mantle contains the equivalent of 80x’s the amount of water found in our oceans. Not liquid water, mind you, but hydrogen atoms and oxygen atoms bound in the molecules of rocks and minerals, minerals like olivine, pyroxene, and garnet. Quartz is another example, silica dioxide, one atom of silicon and two atoms of oxygen. When you hike a mountain, or walk a beach, you are walking on oxygen, silicon, and other elements and compounds.

The Story of Earth is also the Story of Life. At a fundamental level, we are all composed of cosmic elements, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, magnesium, and a host of others. These elements coalesced from the remnants of supernovae, and over billions of years gave rise to the amino acids and sugars upon with life is based. Our DNA is composed of the same elements as our sun, our moon, and our Earth. We don’t yet understand how the chemical chains of our DNA became organized. Yet. Eventually, we will understand what ignited, what catalyzed those first amino acids and provided them the ability to self-replicate.

The study of geology is almost the study of ourselves. The author proposes the study of the Earth and the study of life on Earth cannot follow two different paths; they are the same path. Organic compounds need minerals to evolve, and minerals need organic compounds in order to form. Not that minerals are sentient and need to know this, but organic compounds given enough heat and pressure, form other important substances. Remember, only carbon atoms are needed for organic chemistry.

The Story of Earth challenges us, OK, me, not to think about a rock as a rock, or even a collection of minerals. No, The Story of Earth challenges us to contemplate the structure of our universe first, to think about how our universe cooled, allowing hydrogen, helium, and lithium to form, first. Later, upon more cooling, the other elements would form, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, silicon (I left out Beryllium and Boron, or did I?). Then, we are asked to think about how these elements combine, how their atomic masses and number of electrons are important. Then, we are asked to think about, what happens when some elements combine under heat and pressure? What happens when some molecules enjoy a particular bias versus other molecules? Can molecules be susceptible to adaptation, that is, are some molecules more likely to be able to survive while others become less likely to survive?

When we get right down to it, we are a collection of minerals, sugars, and amino acids which have the special capability of reproducing. Sugars and amino acids are collections of molecules, and these molecules are collections of atoms, the atoms representing the variety of elements forming after the first 500,000 years of our universe’s existence. How these atoms combined to form sugars and amino acids of of great interest, and why they formed as they did, with right-handed sugars and left-handed amino acids?

Page upon page, Hazen discusses and reveals some answers to the above questions. He also states scientists do not have all the answers right now. Some questions may go unanswered for a long time, maybe until we can travel to another solar system to obtain first hand evidence of what planet-forming really looks like. That some questions must remain unanswered, though, does not mean the questions lack answers, or provide evidence that some problems are insoluble, opening the door for a Prime Mover.

We have to bear in mind we have really yet to scratch the surface of what we know. We have only recently reached a level of technology to really begin exploring our environment. Our computers are better – the fact that we have them at all is a good start! Our sensors are more sensitive, our math is better, our access to good equipment is better. We have only yet to begin our true scientific quests, in my humble opinion. We are eons from knowing all there is to know.

The Story of Earth requires little background in science to read and understand. If you can accept SiO2 has one silicon atom and two oxygen atoms, then you have the prerequisite knowledge to understand the material. However, if you cannot accept the concept of radioactive decay, that uranium will eventually become lead, then you’ll have trouble understanding science, in general, and specifically the concepts outlined in this book. But, lets say you fall into the first group. A high school student with a couple semesters of science could read this book. And should, really.

I needed to read this book, and I’m glad I’ve gotten into it. I needed someone to figuratively slap my face and say, “Hey, you realize some stuff, and that is good, but you are missing some obvious details.”

Very good, though-provoking book. Available from Amazon

There are few nitpicky details that bothered me initially. I like my numbers to add up. The author tends to play fast and loose with numbers. For example, the author invites us to take a Mental Walk in hopes doing so will help illustrate the age of the Earth. Walk one mile (5,280ft) and you’ve traveled back in time 175,000 years. Twenty miles are then 3 million years (actually 3.5 million). Walk 20 days at 20 miles per day and you’ve gone back 70 million years. My math says you’ve covered 60 million years (20 days x 3 million years equals 60 million years. If you use 3.5 the math works out). But, like I say, this is nitpicking. The author also states “there is no outside to our Universe.” From what I’ve read by Alan Muth and Lawrence Krauss, this may not be true, and could be testable in the future, based on observations of the Cosmic Background Radiation and improved sensor systems, and whether one believes our universe is the only universe and not one of countless “bubble” universes.

If you like science and perhaps need a wake-up call as to the importance of geology, outside of the current focus on petrology with emphasis on fossil fuels, then you should, by all means, read this book. Hazen does a great job of explaining in very simple and down to Earth terms why studying geology parallels the study of life on Earth.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Story of Earth, by Robert Hazen

  1. Pingback: My Cosmology Bookshelf | Constant Geography

  2. Pingback: The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet | Science Book a Day

  3. As it turns out, there’s a name for the study of ignorance (what we don’t know) and its cultural production…”agnotology.” (Coined by Robert Proctor and Iain Boal in 2008). “Epistomology” being the study of what we DO know.

    In my undergrad Physical Geography class we read an article about agnotology, agnogenisis (how climate change agnotology begins), and ways to combat agnotology in terms of climate change. Then, we read some newspaper articles and students pick them apart looking for the components of what they just learned about agnotology.

    Here’s the article they read:

    Bedford, D. (2010). Agnotology as a teaching tool: Learning climate science by studying misinformation. Journal of Geography, 109, 159-165.

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