Book: Lucky planet

Lucky Planet: Why Earth is Exceptional
David Waltham
Icon Books (2014)
RRP $29.99

What if no one is out there? What if, no matter how many exoplanets NASA’s scientists examine, all they find are either fiery hell-holes or frigid, barren lumps of rock?

Contrarian David Waltham, a University of London geologist with his feet planted firmly on the rocks he clearly adores, thinks that is all but a sure thing. His central proposition in Lucky Planet is that the Earth is an oddball world. The stars which aligned, so to speak, to create the right balance of temperature, water and minerals for life to flourish are so against the odds that it’s a miracle it even happened once.

That we imagine a rich abundance of planets like ours he attributes to observational bias: because life appeared so quickly on Earth after its formation, we believe it is an easy thing and must have occurred countless times in such a vast universe.

“Our view of what is really there has been misled by the accident of what we’re able to see.”

As we have discovered just how vast the Universe really is we have “demoted” Earth. “The conclusion then, following centuries of scientific work, is that the Earth is nothing special and its location very ordinary.”
Central to Earth’s uniqueness, he argues, is stability of climate that, despite periodic disasters, repeatedly returns to a happy medium.

There can be only three explanations: God, Gaia or Goldilocks. Either a benevolent Creator put us here, the Gaian theorists are right and life itself regulates our climate or, his preferred theory, we are just fortunate to live on a geologically, hydrologically perfect third rock from the Sun – not too hot and not too cold – a supreme stroke of luck.

Despite his thesis, Waltham is not curmudgeonly and the book works well both as a survey of the history of cosmic discovery and as a guide to the systems that make our planet thrive. They are, he says, an extraordinary miracle.

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