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Book Review:
The Life and Death of Planet Earth
How the New Science of Astrobiology Charts the Ultimate Fate of Our World
by Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee
Published by Times Books
January 2003; $25.00 US / $36.95 CAN; 0-8050-6781-7

A landmark work of science that illuminates the second half of the life of our planet.

Imagine our planet far into the future, Carl Sagan's "pale blue dot" reduced to a reddish-brown husk, a mere shell of its former self. It seems like the stuff of science fiction novels, but it is really of science today. We are at a unique moment in our history -- Earth's midlife -- a point at which science has given us the capability to examine the birth of our planet as well as the forces that will bring about its eventual death. Scientists are finally beginning to understand the cycles that make Earth work and to write, for the first time, a biography of our planet. This revolution in thinking, which finds its voice in this book, is as dramatic, in its own way, as the discovery of Earth revolving around the sun.

Two brilliant scientists -- Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee, a paleontologist and an astronomer respectively -- are helping to bring this groundbreaking work to a popular audience. Vanguards of a new field called astrobiology -- the science of how planets and organisms live and die -- Ward and Brownlee combine the discoveries of astronomers, Earth scientists, and those in other specific disciplines. Astronomers are well-poised to study the ends of other worlds, while paleontologists can tell us about "worlds" that have already ended on our planet, such as the death of dinosaurs and other signposts in the rock and fossil record.

Ward and Brownlee present a comprehensive portrait of Earth's ultimate fate, allowing us to understand and appreciate how our planet sustains itself, and offer a glimpse at our place in the cosmic order. As they depict the process of planetary evolution, they peer deep into the future destiny of Earth, showing us that we are living near or shortly after Earth's biological peak. Eventually, the process of planetary evolution will reverse itself; life as we know it will subside until only the simplest forms remain. In time they, too, will disappear. The oceans will evaporate, the atmosphere will degrade, and as the sun slowly expands, Earth will eventually meet a fiery end.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is crucial to understand Earth's tumultuous history and probable future. Combining groundbreaking research with lucid, eloquent writing, this landmark book offers fresh and realistic insight into the true nature of our world and how we should best steward our planet for the long-term benefit of our species.


Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee are the coauthors of the acclaimed and bestselling Rare Earth. Don Brownlee is a professor of astronomy at the University of Washington and has been involved in many space experiments; currently he is leading NASA's Stardust mission to collect samples of a comet and return them to Earth. Peter Ward is a professor of geological science and zoology at the University of Washington and the author of nine other books, including Future Evolution, In Search of Nautilus, The Call of Distant Mammoths, and The End of Evolution, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.


"This is the first real biography of the Earth -- not only a brilliant portrait of the emergence and evolution of life on this planet but a vivid and frightening look at Earth's remote future. Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee combine storytelling power with extreme scientific care, and their narrative is as transfixing as any H.G. Well's fantasies, but more enthralling, for Ward and Brownlee have real power to prognosticate. This is a book that makes one shiver, but also inspires one to wonder how humanity (if we survive in the short term) will fare in the more distant future."
--Oliver Sacks

"I have written three biographies and read many others, but who would have thought of a biography of planet Earth and its lifeforms? Ward and Brownlee have introduced the emerging science of astrobiology as a field that is important, exciting, and fun. The different scenarios for the end of life on Earth are provocative; while we cannot prevent some possibilities, the good news is that we can prevent others."
--David H. Levy, discoverer of Twenty-One Comets, Including Shoemaker-Levy 9

"This is beautifully written, provocative book, exploring the long-term future of planet Earth in ways that have never been probed before."
--David Morrison, NASA Ames Research Center

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