Review - A Most Improbable Journey

Review - A Most Improbable Journey

Review - A Most Improbable Journey

 

Geologist Walter Alvarez explores the cosmic, geologic, and evolutionary forces that have shaped us in his new book. PhD Candidate Elise Bohan reviews "A Most Improbable Journey: A Big History of Our Planet and Ourselves."

Think for a moment about the human situation we live in - the solar system and our planet; the continents, oceans, and landscapes; the animals and plants; the nations, governments, and businesses; all the languages, cultures, and beliefs; our particular city or town; our family and all the people we know. How did all this come to be?

A big question to begin a Big History! By way of answer, Walter Alvarez takes us on a sweeping big historical journey, spanning a monumental 13.8 billion years. Together, the author and reader explore a series of surprising events as they traverse the terrain of four interconnected evolutionary 'regimes': the Cosmos, Earth, Life and Humanity.

In just under 200 pages, our Big History tour guide shows us how everything in the universe, from solar systems, to forests, to modern industrial cities, has a shared beginning and a related history. Throughout this brief but entertaining book, Alvarez dips into a series of fascinating contingent moments in cosmic evolutionary history, and opens our eyes to how staggeringly improbable most things really are: from the formation of a life sustaining planet like Earth, to the fact that you are alive and reading these words right now.

This is the ideal book for anyone looking for a page-turning introductory read about the unexpected twists and turns of Big History. There are no graphs in this book and no equations - nothing for the non-specialist to balk at. By design, the text is accessible and entertaining. It is simple in the best sense of the word.

Of course no book (even a Big History book!) can do everything at once, and this tale is very scant on detail. While the background knowledge informing our geologist-author's tale is rigorous, very little of the relevant science actually makes it onto the page. This will be a boon for those readers looking to keep things simple, but it may be a bummer to those looking for a meatier overview of cosmology, evolutionary principles, and the major turning points in human history.

A Most Improbable Journey also eschews the comfortingly linear structure of a big history textbook, which takes you by the hand and guides you chronologically from evolutionary threshold to threshold. Such a framework goes a long way to helping the Big History novice wrap their head around how ostensibly unrelated events and processes fit together: from the big bang, to stellar evolution, to plate tectonics, evolutionary biology, and human history.

But as a geologist (one jointly responsible for proving the game-changing theory that the dinosaurs were wiped out by an asteroid striking the Earth approximately 66 million years ago) Alvarez is much keener than an astrophysicist, or a historian, to show you how important rocks and their chemical compositions are in the history of the universe.

A Most Improbable Journey is an overtly geologically oriented take on Big History. This book does not explore many of the pivotal concepts of the Big History story in its fullest sense - but nor does it mean to. Books that take the unified narrative approach to Big History, like David Christian's Maps of Time, already exist. In the multidisciplinary spirit of the field, Alvarez fruitfully covers a different angle here. Notably, he canvasses some fascinating and under sung examples of historical contingency, which may prompt you to reconsider how you think about historical causality.

Most people know that humans are carbon-based life forms and that we are reliant on atmospheric oxygen for survival. But do you know how crucial silicon has been as a driver of human history? The short answer: very! Read the book to find out why. No doubt you will enjoy this enlightening, entertaining, and thoroughly 'rocky' story of the big contingencies that have shaped the big history of our universe. If nothing else, it will help to remind you that without everything that came before us, our species would not be currently cavorting about on the face of this little blue world.

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