Five Must-Read Books About Earth | Science| Smithsonian Magazine


Good reads about our home planet. Aurelie and Morgan David de Lossy/cultura/Corbis

Earth is a big topic, and getting a handle on our planet’s complexity and variability can seem daunting. So we asked geologist Robert M. Hazen to select five great books that he thinks offer compelling insights into the brilliant “blue marble” we call home. Here’s what he recommends:

the epic history of our planet has power, poetry and many important details, so my five books span genres. Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology and John Grotzinger and Tom Jordan’s Understanding the Earth are elegant and accessible textbooks written nearly two centuries apart. Andy Knoll’s Life on a Young Planet and David Beerling’s The Emerald Planet celebrate the 4 billion year co-evolution of Earth and life from the perspective of paleontology. Finally, John McPhee’s rhapsodic annals of the world before provide a poetic tribute to our dynamic home and the geologists who dedicate their lives to its study.

You are reading: Best books on geology

principles of geology, by charles lyell (1830-1833)

although published more than 180 years ago, lyell’s principles are a masterful argument for the truth of deep time. Drawing on his skills as a lawyer as well as his scientific insights, Lyell makes the case for the power of gradual processes operating over vast stretches of time to change the face of our planet. His lucid and convincing argument that “the present is the key to the past” greatly influenced many subsequent discoveries, including Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

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understanding the earth, by john grotzinger and tom jordan (2010)

At their best, textbooks synthesize knowledge in new and informative ways. Understanding the Earth is a classic that covers the basics of geology, geophysics, and environmental science with elegant prose, elegant illustrations, and the insights of two great science educators (previous editions were championed by Frank Press and Ray Siever, who started the franchise). ). is a dizzying tour of modern science, from the microscopic view of rocks and minerals to the global sweep of plate tectonics.

Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth, by Andrew H. mound (2003)

Harvard geobiologist Knoll vividly captures the dynamic field of Precambrian paleontology in this unique and spirited read. personalities, both the fossils and the people who study them, come to life as the hills run through the eons. With episodes ranging from the enigmatic origins of life, through controversial black spots that may or may not be the remains of cells, to some of the most exquisite and revealing microfossils on earth, Life on a Young Planet takes its readers into a unique trip.

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emerald planet: how plants changed earth’s history, by david beerling (2007)

We all have a vision of what it means to be a vibrant, blue and green “earth-like planet”. but our home has fit that familiar description for only the last 400 million years or so, a mere 8 percent of its changing history. Beerling’s revealing Emerald Planet tells the amazing story of the emergence of the terrestrial biosphere, as plants gradually established their foothold on dry land and became a major geological force. who would have thought that roots and leaves contain so much drama, but our existence and survival are intimately linked to these transformative innovations.

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annals of the former world, by john mcphee (1998)

new york writer mcphee captures the romance and drama of geology like no other. His annals, written over two decades while traveling across North America in the company of passionate and eloquent geologists, are unique in the scientific literature. ok i admit this is a bit misleading as annals collects four of mcphee’s previous books from 1981 to 1993 into one massive tome. but what a skill! savor each page.

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robert m. Hazen is a Senior Scientist at the Geophysical Laboratory at Carnegie Institution of Washington and the Clarence Robinson Professor of Earth Sciences at George Mason University. he received his b.s. and SM in geology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his Ph.D. in earth sciences at harvard university. His most recent book is The History of the Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years from Stardust to Living Planet (Viking-Penguin, 2012), which explores the intricate co-evolution of the geosphere and biosphere.

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