Saturday, October 8, 2011

Review of Snowball Earth by Gabrielle Walker

This isn't a book about parenting or even necessarily for parents. It is a book written by a professional science writer, for the layman, about a recently developed and controversial hypothesis: that the earth can become, and has at least once frozen over completely, and that one such "snowball" likely played a role in the development of complex life on earth.

I see this book (and books like it) as relevant to humanist parenting in that this is the sort of book that has the potential to intensely pique the interest of how science works for any teenager or child old enough to read it, as well as, of course, adults. Unlike textbooks, in addition to giving all the relevant and hard scientific details, it tells a story, complete with dramatic build up and fully fleshed-out characters. As I read, I often found myself laughing out loud, tearing up, felt my muscles tighten with suspense, or experienced that sinking feeling we all have during times of despair.

Gabrielle Walker did extensive interviews with all the living players in this true-to-life drama, and in some cases seems to have developed a deep personal relationship with them. She refers to them by their first names, "Paul", "Brian", "Joe" etc.  Each is introduced to the reader through physical descriptions and anecdotes from their lives that give us a sense of their overall personalities. Geologist Paul Hoffman, an "obsessive man espousing an extreme theory" is the obvious hero of the story. The book begins with a novelesque telling of his running the Boston Marathon as a young man, a tale which - at least the way Walker tells it - reveals all his basic characteristics which would later become necessary to his development and championing of the Snowball Earth hypothesis.

The scientists in the story are real people with varying amounts of ego and ambition, unique senses of humor, specific sensitivities, and lenses through which they view the world. We see how these men's biases shape their initial conclusions or responses to the ideas of others in their field. For example, in the 1830's, Swiss researcher Louis Agassiz became the first to champion the idea of widespread ice, though he has a religious reason for doing so: he believed the ice was God's chosen mechanism for clearing the stage for humanity's occupation of earth. Sometimes the craziest ideas pan out, or the most passionate critics end up providing additional evidence for the very idea they intended to refute. What moves the process along, what ultimately brings everyone together, the universality, the objectivity of the scientific method. As Walker puts it:

"What distinguishes science from pseudoscience is not whether your theory originated with some particular conviction about how the world works, or whether you feel an emotional attachment to it. What matters is the evidence you find to support it, and whether you are ultimately prepared to accept that it could be wrong." 

And so, among scientists, there should be no shame in feeling great passion or excitement for particular ideas, and imagination and rebelliousness can be great assets. So long as at the end of the day, they follow the science.

Walker also paints an incredibly vivid picture of the remote geological locations where these hardy geologists find and study the rocks and fossils to develop and then support their ideas. This is partially because she has traveled to most of these places herself, from Africa to the South Pole, just so she, and by extension her readers, can get a real feel for the heat or chills, the light, biting insects, or hazardous snakes and elephants that are part of a typical day in the field.

Too often scientists are stereotyped as dispassionate oddballs hiding away in labs and offices. In this book, the reader is brought to realize the most heroic unique personal characteristics necessary to become a geologist in the first place, and which inevitably shape the culture, and at time the politics, of their profession.  These realizations hopefully establish an admiration for geology that is based in more than a general respect for all hard sciences, but also extends to geologists' passion, perseverance, and intimate connection to the earth, especially the particular areas of land they as individuals examine and excavate.

In summary, books like this make the work of science riveting, and perhaps that is the best approach for spreading its popularity among our children, ourselves, and in the mainstream population.

1 comment:

  1. I propose that the “snow ball Earth” was brought to a close by the dust from a huge meteorite (the largest known on Earth) impacting Australia (see ) settling onto the ice and melting it by a bare soil warming affect (see ) and thus initiating the Cambrian. The dust fertilizing the ocean probably contributed considerably to the explosion of life then. That initiation was probably considerably assisted by the subsequent release of methane gas from methane ice under the ocean floor and by dust from volcanic eruptions from the Bahamas Islands, which are located at the antipode (opposite side of a sphere) of the above impact. The close correlation of volcanoes on Mars with meteorite impacts at their antipodes gives supporting evidence for such a phenomenon.
    (see ) for Mars.
    Sincerely, Charles Weber