Cover image for The life and death of planet Earth : how the new science of astrobiology charts the ultimate fate of our world
The life and death of planet Earth : how the new science of astrobiology charts the ultimate fate of our world
Ward, Peter D. (Peter Douglas), 1949-
Publication Information:
New York : Times Books, 2003.

Physical Description:
240 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
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Publisher description
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QB638.8 .W37 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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In a landmark work of science two distinguished scientists offer a vivid narrative describing the second half of the life of our planet Planet Earth is middle-aged. Science has worked hard to piece together the story of the evolution of our world up to this point, but only recently have we developed the understanding and the tools to describe the entire life cycle of a planet-of our planet.Peter Ward and Don Brownlee, a geologist and an astronomer respectively, are in the vanguard of the new field of astrobiology. Combining their knowledge of how the critical sustaining systems of our planet evolve through time with their understanding of how stars and solar systems grow and change throughout their own life cycles, the authors tell the story of the second half of Earth's life. The process of planetary evolution will essentially reverse itself; life as we know it will subside until only the simplest forms remain. Eventually, they too will disappear. The oceans will evaporate, the atmosphere will degrade, and, as the sun slowly expands, Earth itself will eventually meet a fiery end.In this masterful melding of groundbreaking research and captivating, eloquent science writing, Ward and Brownlee provide a comprehensive portrait of Earth's life cycle that allows us to understand and appreciate how the planet sustains itself today, and offers us a glimpse of our place in the cosmic order.

Author Notes

He is a freelance cameraman and television trainer working with International Training and Television Consultancy. He is ex-Chairman of the Guild of Television Cameramen and former Head of Cameras at Television South West.


Reviews 3

Booklist Review

The strange attraction we have to apocalyptic stories, whether told by seers or scientists, stokes this compellingly grim scenario of terra firma's fate. After a new ice age destroys human civilization in the geological near term, a reassembly of the continents, combined with a brightening sun, inexorably extinguishes plant and animal life in about 250 million years. A few billion years on, the sterilized planet vaporizes as it spirals into a red giant. How science can confidently prophesy doomsday emerges in the authors' explanation of what makes Earth a habitable cosmic oasis in the first place. Brownlee, a geologist, and Ward, an astronomer, zero in on the processes, biological and geological, that cycle the elements carbon and oxygen through the atmosphere. Elaborating on the evidence that carbon dioxide peaked about 200 million years ago and will decline toward zero, they imagine how life will look as it evolves to escape the hostilities of a radiation-blasted desert world. Creative but scientifically grounded, the authors' prognostication of the ultimate environmental disaster is morbidly enthralling. --Gilbert Taylor

Publisher's Weekly Review

According to the authors-who argued in their previous book, Rare Earth, that the complex life found on earth is probably unique in the vast expanses of the universe-our planet has a pretty bleak future ahead of it, one that is a mirror image of its past. Ward and Brownlee, a geologist and an astronomer respectively, claim that human civilization has flowered during an 11,000-year warm interlude in a recurring cycle of ice ages. In their view, "global warming," while possibly harmful in the short term, may help postpone the return of the ice. But not too many thousand years from now, skyscraper-high glaciers will again grind across North America as far south as New York City, and civilization will be driven toward the equator to survive, if not into space. Further into the future, the authors argue, the complex give and take between carbon trapped in rocks, water and oxygen in the sea, and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere-the latter playing the most important role in climatic change-will eventually turn earth into a barren sibling of Mars. While the authors don't make an airtight case for their claims about how our planet's climate and geology will begin to rewind, they do deftly bring together findings from many disparate areas of science in a book that science buffs will find hard to put down. 15 b&w illus. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The science of astrobiology attempts to answer some of the big questions that have long engaged the imagination of the human race. In this fascinating follow-up to Rare Earth, geologist/zoologist Ward and astronomer Brownlee, both of the University of Washington, draw an analogy between the planet's development and the human cycles of birth, growth, maturity, and death. They explain the Earth's natural aging process over eons by looking at changes in land formations, oceans, climates, plant and animal life, and the stars. Although the authors are adamant that human recklessness is hastening Earth's demise, it is just as apparent that this ultimate fate is inevitable. Given that the time frame is millions, if not billions, of years, it is difficult for the reader to feel a real impending sense of doom. Still, the authors effectively communicate their knowledge and sense of wonder while making the scientific evidence clear to readers of even limited science backgrounds. Thought-provoking and philosophical questions throughout ensure that this work never reads like a textbook. Readers interested in the environment and "the big picture" will enjoy. Recommended for public libraries of all sizes.-Denise Hamilton, Franklin Pierce Coll. Lib., Rindge, NH (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



From The Life and Death of Planet Earth : There's a difference between a human's life and the life of our planet. Ruth Ward, born in 1916, aged gracefully but never resembled her youth again. Hers was a one-way trip. Planets have a different trajectory--the Earth, for instance, appears to be on a round trip of sorts. If you fire a cannon straight up, the projectile climbs to a certain height, slows, stops, and then falls back to the ground. Our planet's trajectory is similar. It started as a very hot, oxygen-free world. Water, air, plants, solar energy, and plate tectonics created the conditions for natural evolution, and many people assume that the cannonball of biological complexity is still arcing upward. We believe that the cannonball has already begun to drop, and that the Earth has already started a return to a hot world where life becomes less diverse, less complicated, and less abundant through time. The last life on Earth may look much like the first life--a single-celled bacterium, survivor and descendant of all that came before. Excerpted from The Life and Death of Planet Earth: How the New Science of Astrobiology Charts the Ultimate Fate of Our World by Peter Douglas Ward, Donald Brownlee All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.