A Most Improbable Journey: A Big History of Our Planet and Ourselves

A Most Improbable Journey: A Big History of Our Planet and Ourselves

Big History, the field that integrates traditional historical scholarship with scientific insights to study the full sweep of our universe, has so far been the domain of historians. Famed geologist Walter Alvarez—best known for the “Impact Theory” explaining dinosaur extinction—has instead championed a science-first approach to Big History. Here he wields his unique expert...

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Title:A Most Improbable Journey: A Big History of Our Planet and Ourselves
Author:Walter Álvarez
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A Most Improbable Journey: A Big History of Our Planet and Ourselves Reviews

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    A Most Improbable Journey: A Big History of Our Planet and Ourselves by Walter Alvarez

    “A Most Improbable Journey” is an awe-inspiring and accessible history of our planet and ourselves that combines the cosmos, earth, life and humanity. Famed geologist and professor at the University of California, Berkely, Walter Alvarez takes the reader on a stimulating ride through our planet’s history and the incredible occurrences that have led us to where we are today. This inspiring 256-page b

    A Most Improbable Journey: A Big History of Our Planet and Ourselves by Walter Alvarez

    “A Most Improbable Journey” is an awe-inspiring and accessible history of our planet and ourselves that combines the cosmos, earth, life and humanity. Famed geologist and professor at the University of California, Berkely, Walter Alvarez takes the reader on a stimulating ride through our planet’s history and the incredible occurrences that have led us to where we are today. This inspiring 256-page book includes the following ten chapters: 1. Big History, the Earth, and the Human Situation, 2. From the Big Bang to Planet Earth, 3. Gifts from the Earth, 4. A Planet with Continents and Oceans, 5. A Tale of Two Mountain Ranges, 6. Remembering Ancient Rivers, 7. Your Personal Record of Life History, 8. The Great Journey, 9. Being Human, and 10. What Was the Chance of All This Happening?

    Positives:

    1. Great science writing. Informative, interesting, accessible and fun to read.

    2. A fascinating topic, the panoramic viewpoint of history, “Big History” that combines history and science about our universe.

    3. A very good format and overall good flow. Each chapter covers an interesting aspect of Big History. Professor Alvarez has a great command of the topics and the innate ability to convey concepts clearly and with a sense of awe.

    4. Good use of photos, maps and illustrations that complement the accessible narrative.

    5. Provides a quick account of how cosmic history produced the planet and our solar system. “In an expanding universe, if you were to go backward in time, the galaxies would get closer and closer together, until all the galaxies and all the space between them would be confined to a tiny ball, and this was the Big Bang, almost 14 billion years ago. The Big Bang is usually described as an explosion, although not like ones familiar to us. It was not an explosion within space, like a firecracker or a quarry blast, but an explosion of space and of matter and even of time itself, none of which existed until the explosion took place.”

    6. Find out the three wonderful tricks that Nature used to make our world possible.

    7. Explains how Earth makes resources useful. “Of those four dominant elements, let’s focus on silicon because it is the basis of most of the minerals and rocks that make up our planet.”

    8. Defines key terms and concepts throughout the book. ““Tectonics” is the study of the large-scale geological features of Earth—continents, ocean basins, and mountain ranges—and the word comes from the same root as “architecture”—in this case, the architecture of our planet.”

    9. The revolutionary discovery that continents move. “In 1912 the German meteorologist Alfred Wegener presented a detailed theory of continental drift, starting from the coastline fit.”

    10. Instead of going into deep depth on each topic and thus dissuading the layperson, Alvarez provides key examples that succeeds in enlightening the reader. “In keeping with the Big History approach, let us look at our two mountain ranges first from the viewpoint of historians, then of travelers and artists and, finally, of geologists.”

    11. Mountain history. “The fundamental discovery of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century geologists was that Earth history has not been brief—not just a few thousand years, but enormously long, going back to an origin that has now been dated as about 4,500 million years ago.”

    12. Describes how external processes like rivers, glaciers and the wind create the geological changes the produce the landscapes that we live in. “Getting the agreement to build the Erie Canal was difficult, and digging the ditch and building the locks in an age of hand labor was herculean, but once the canal was finished in 1825, it changed everything. The agricultural products of the west and the manufactures of the east floated easily along the placid waters of the canal, linking the coastal states and the new interior lands into a dynamic, growing nation.”

    13. The keys to life history. “Fossils and DNA give complementary records of life history, each supplying information the other cannot. Fossils tell us what an organism looked like, while DNA tells how two organisms are related.”

    14. Interesting tidbits throughout. “Eating with your jaw is a much more ancient activity than using it to tell stories!”

    15. Explores how humans tie into the deeper history of our planet. The grand theory of evolution and the human journey. “Finally, about 200,000 years ago, came Homo sapiens, who developed sophisticated culture and a wide range of advanced tools made from stone and other materials.”

    16. Describes how human ancestry is revealed. “So we have two tracers of our human ancestry—mitochondrial DNA for the female side and Y-chromosome DNA for the male line.”

    17. Describes how the achievements that make us human and how the Earth history has set the stage for these achievements. “The use of fire is not often on the list of critical human attributes, but when we look at what makes us human, controlled fire use might even be the most defining characteristic of our species.”

    18. Describes history through the key concepts of continuity and contingency. “On the one hand, I see continuities, made up of trends and cycles, combined in various ways at various time scales. On the other hand, there are contingencies—rare events that make significant changes in history that could not have been predicted very far in advance.”

    19. Find out the satisfying conclusion of this book.

    20. Notes and further sources provided.

    Negatives:

    1. It was so much fun to read, I was sad when it was over.

    2. Not so much a negative but a disclaimer to readers looking for depth, this book is intended for laypersons.

    3. Good use of photos and illustrations but I would have added more timelines.

    In summary, this is what good popular science writing is all about; a fascinating story grounded in good science and fun to read. Professor Alvarez succeeds in providing the public with an awe-inspiring book on the history of the universe through the four regimes of cosmos, earth, life and humanity. A great gift for the Holidays. A highly recommended read, get this!

    Further recommendations: “The Big Picture” by Sean Carroll, “Improbable Planet” by Hugh Ross, “Big History” by Cynthia Stokes Brown, “The Serengeti Rules” by Sean B. Carroll, “Welcome to the Universe” by Neil deGrasse Tyson, “How it Began” by Chris Impey, “Extinction: How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago” by Douglas Erwin, “Wonders of the Universe” and “Wonders of Life” by Brian Cox, “The Great Extinctions” by Norman MacLeod, “Written in Stone” by Brian Switek, “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari.

  • Allison

    I LOVED this book on so many levels.

    I loved that it reminded me of how fleeting, and how severely insignificant we are.

    I loved that lulled me into perspective.

    I loved that it could successfully equate the macro-universe with the micro-elements of our planet, and make that all make perfect sense.

    I loved how it concluded that nothing is predictable, that even the physics of numeracy is actually weirdly unpredictable, at least for our brains at this point in time.

    I absolutely loved the introdu

    I LOVED this book on so many levels.

    I loved that it reminded me of how fleeting, and how severely insignificant we are.

    I loved that lulled me into perspective.

    I loved that it could successfully equate the macro-universe with the micro-elements of our planet, and make that all make perfect sense.

    I loved how it concluded that nothing is predictable, that even the physics of numeracy is actually weirdly unpredictable, at least for our brains at this point in time.

    I absolutely loved the introduction of a new, exciting and growing genre of study -- Big History -- and how the author made me wish fervently that I had followed his career path (ah, regret...).

    And I loved how it made me feel LUCKY in every way. And like a winner -- we won! we're here, you guys! -- and how we're important to our offspring and to all of Earth's future, but not important at all, really, on an individual level.

    Highly, highly recommend this book. I consider it one of my best this year!

  • Steve Van Slyke

    I thoroughly enjoyed his

    and thus was eager to read this as soon as it came out. I think I would have given it 5 stars if I hadn't already read as much as I have about the various subjects he covers. I think it's greatest appeal may be to those who haven't read a great deal about geology and science and want to know more about the history of Earth and how it relates to the evolution of life from bacteria to homo sapiens.

  • Jim

    This was quite an interesting journey. I wasn't always on board with the way he broke things up, but I liked the broad overview of so many segments of time in various ways. He gives basic overviews of different events like the Big Bang to the formation of Earth, how plate tectonics shaped human history, & a variety of interesting journeys of our evolution through time. Check out

    which has timelines of historical events, including some deep time.

    I wasn't thrilled with his proba

    This was quite an interesting journey. I wasn't always on board with the way he broke things up, but I liked the broad overview of so many segments of time in various ways. He gives basic overviews of different events like the Big Bang to the formation of Earth, how plate tectonics shaped human history, & a variety of interesting journeys of our evolution through time. Check out

    which has timelines of historical events, including some deep time.

    I wasn't thrilled with his probability analysis at the end. Yes, a lot of improbable events came down to creating me, including huge numbers of sperm throughout time, but that's more the realm of philosophy or a fun theme of multiple universes in SF. I'm more interested in the practicality of how it all came together.

    Still, it was well narrated & very interesting all the way through. Definitely recommended.

  • Ed Bernard

    More like 4.5 stars.

    Somehow I became interested in so-called “big” history, which, near as I can figure, combines vast timelines and interdisciplinary science to give a broader view of … something. I chose this book, because the author is the guy who first provided proof of the meteor (or comet) which struck the earth 66 million years ago and killed off the dinosaurs. A geologist by trade, he withstood the slings and arrows of outrageous (and outraged) scientists to see his idea accepted a

    More like 4.5 stars.

    Somehow I became interested in so-called “big” history, which, near as I can figure, combines vast timelines and interdisciplinary science to give a broader view of … something. I chose this book, because the author is the guy who first provided proof of the meteor (or comet) which struck the earth 66 million years ago and killed off the dinosaurs. A geologist by trade, he withstood the slings and arrows of outrageous (and outraged) scientists to see his idea accepted as part of the scientific canon. So … props to him, and his book is an entertaining and interesting look at human history from the perspective of several sciences … but mostly geology. He argues that much of human history is an accident of geology – for example, Americans pushed west because the 13 colonies would be trapped by the Atlantic Ocean on the east and the Appalachian mountains to the west. True enough, but plenty of other countries are locked by the geology and don’t manage to do anything about it. Alvarez also kept reminding us about the glories of big history, which got pretty annoying and even distracted from his story – hey, Walter, in the science of persuasive writing, there is an axiom called “show, don’t tell” – big history is cool enough without needing to constantly remind us how cool it is, especially when it’s not extreme well defined or delineated. But my overwhelming response to this book is that it was a fascinating listen, both well-written and well-read in audiobook form.

    Grade: A-

  • Jamie

    Having already read about the topics covered in this book from schooling, I felt this book was a kind of just a "refresher" of information for me. However, it is still a fascinating book on cosmology, biology, and geology. (great section on how Nebulas are created)

    This information is easily understandable, so I would recommend this to anyone who would like to discover how our Earth works, how it was created, and the last four billion years of its history (that we know of so far).

  • Holly

    Walter Alvarez – known as the geologist who theorized the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs (the Chicxulub event) – is now a scholar of “big history.” This book is an exercise in big history and was my introduction to the field (or is it? see last paragraph), though I know a historian named David Christian has an $85 college textbook on it. Is big history the same as “global history” of Lynn Hunt and Jo Guldi and David Armitage's

    ? I haven't read those (yet), but Alvarez does m

    Walter Alvarez – known as the geologist who theorized the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs (the Chicxulub event) – is now a scholar of “big history.” This book is an exercise in big history and was my introduction to the field (or is it? see last paragraph), though I know a historian named David Christian has an $85 college textbook on it. Is big history the same as “global history” of Lynn Hunt and Jo Guldi and David Armitage's

    ? I haven't read those (yet), but Alvarez does mention Fernand Braudel and the

    , so I'll assume they overlap or are similar.

    Suffice it to say I was not terrifically impressed by the “big history” approach displayed here, but that is my response to Alvarez’s book, perhaps not the entire field. His approach was simply so broad that it was practically useless to me – in 200 pages of text he glosses over so many things with such a broad brush - from creation of the planet to first life, to geological features (mountains, rivers), to human evolution, to the bronze age and forward, to a brief epilogue on what he calls “contingencies” (coincidences and twists of fate that make up life as we know it). I was already familiar with most of what the book surveyed, and yes, it could be fun to read if one wanted to see short summaries of all the disparate ideas in the same presentation, in the same book. But it’s not as if I hadn’t made some of the connections before or been led there by brilliant writers – I’m not so narrow-minded not to have seen links between the big events and the little details. And for that matter, Alvarez isn’t that skilled at linking tectonic plates and the human microbiome (for example) – he mostly presents everything in separate linear discussions anyway. So I don’t quite understand the novelty.

    I do grasp why there might be a scholarly reaction against the “micro-histories” that have become so popular, and I know the academic disciplines are too compartmentalized. But haven’t plenty of historians and scientists and big-picture intellectuals gone this way before, by gathering and synthesizing the discoveries and the research from various fields? What about Eric Kandel – a man who constantly amazes me by the breadth and depth of his knowledge? Or Timothy Ferris who writes on cosmology and history and combines the two? What about playwright-novelist Michael Frayn’s big nonfiction book on humans and the creation of the universe? Daniel Dennett? Steven Pinker? Stephen Jay Gould? Jared Diamond? Anyway, I'll need to read one of those other new books on global/big history at some point. Or I could just keep reading widely, which has worked pretty well so far.

  • Noah Goats

    “Big History” is a technique of considering history by going all the way back to the cosmological, geological, and evolutionary forces that have shaped human events. For example, if you want to understand The Battle of Gettysburg you have to go back and look at how the Big Bang formed all the hydrogen in the universe, and then how more elements were created by fusion in the cores of stars, how these elements were then diffused across the galaxy by supernovas, and how this interstellar clouds and

    “Big History” is a technique of considering history by going all the way back to the cosmological, geological, and evolutionary forces that have shaped human events. For example, if you want to understand The Battle of Gettysburg you have to go back and look at how the Big Bang formed all the hydrogen in the universe, and then how more elements were created by fusion in the cores of stars, how these elements were then diffused across the galaxy by supernovas, and how this interstellar clouds and dust gradually became compressed by gravity... blah, blah, blah, and the Lee ordered Pickett’s charge and lost the Civil War for the South. Frankly, I’m not convinced that Big History is very useful.

    Walter Alvarez is an engaging writer, and there were parts of this book that I enjoyed. The story of how bronze age culture was able to arise in the Mediterranean at the time it did because millions of years before undersea vents had spewed out massive amounts of copper before being pushed up above ground by tectonic pressures and forming the island of Cyprus, was interesting and showed the usefulness of Big History, but much of this book seemed superficial.

  • Gary  Beauregard Bottomley

    I just love Alvarez. He did more to change my world view than almost any other living person. He opened my eyes (and countless other peoples') by providing for an explanation that transcended my ability to initially accept. Before his explanation for his comet, creationist roamed the earth, now they are rarer but unfortunately not extinct (sure in America they are about 45% creationist but they hide that fact from rational thinking beings. It used to be they were in your face, but seldom anymore

    I just love Alvarez. He did more to change my world view than almost any other living person. He opened my eyes (and countless other peoples') by providing for an explanation that transcended my ability to initially accept. Before his explanation for his comet, creationist roamed the earth, now they are rarer but unfortunately not extinct (sure in America they are about 45% creationist but they hide that fact from rational thinking beings. It used to be they were in your face, but seldom anymore). The understanding of the earth and human's place on it was remade because of that comet 66 million years ago for which he offered proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The pieces of the puzzle were put in place and the narrative was provided principally by Alvarez (and a few of his colleagues), and he knows way more about Geology and minerals than I'm capable of ever understanding. BTW, I give him a great compliment by providing the world as he saw it has a solution like a puzzle. It's possible the world has no structure (see Wittgenstein's Tractacus, e.g.).

    But my gratitude does not make a great book. To make a great book tell me things I don't already know. I read all books and Great Course lectures with "Big History" in the title. I can't get enough on the topic. I'm always more interested in the universal rather than the particular. There's a story to be told about the universe as a whole and how there is this incredibly contingent and chaotic component that gets created from a recursive (a function that calls itself) algorithm (logos as John the Apostle would say).

    There's hints of a great narrative within this book, but it never gets flushed out. The pieces that are needed in order to bake an apple pie from scratch (from Gods perspective) or end up creating you or me can not be easily created. The comet that destroyed the dinosaurs, the creation of the moon, the Alps as a barrier, the placement of the Ohio river, the 3 billion year journey from single cell to multi-cell, the acquisition of the mitochondria at some unknown time by an eukaryotic cell, everything has to be just right and all, as everything (within our universe), has to be because something caused it to be that way and the sensitivities due to initial conditions (chaos) made the prediction impossible. Laplace and his mechanistic universe with an all seeing and all knowing machine (God) would never really be able to predict it since it can never predict its own effect caused by its observing. All of those items are within this book, but only loosely cohesively.

    The author mostly has just threads that could be tied together. Sometimes he sneaks into 'pernicious teleological' thinking by assuming the existence of something had a purpose in it of itself ("the hand is made for grabbing because it does it so well", not his example, of course, but he does seem to give too much credence to fine tuning). The contingent universe and the contingent making of an apple pie (illusion of "apple pie" is borrowed from Sagan) may not never be. I think the author clearly leans towards a contingent universe. His example of the failure of the Spanish Armada leads me to think that.

    I was reluctant to read this book because I expected there would be little new in the book for me, and I was right. For all authors, assume your readers are interested in learning about the topic so much that they have already read books that cover the same kind of topics. Give me things I don't already know, or give me a narrative that ties the pieces together in such way that I've never had thought about it before. The author is infinitely smarter and wiser than me, but wow me with a narrative.

  • Charlene

    I was really disappointed in this book. The title alone should have clued me into the way Alvarez views the world. I, like Alvarez, am in love with the rocks and what they tell us. I too am wooed by the story of Earth-- how it came to be, how we came to be, and how everything upon it came to be. It's magical. Alvarez and I can agree on that. However, when it comes to how likely it was that Earth and humans came to exist at all, Alvarez would have a much nicer time talking to Dawkins and the rest

    I was really disappointed in this book. The title alone should have clued me into the way Alvarez views the world. I, like Alvarez, am in love with the rocks and what they tell us. I too am wooed by the story of Earth-- how it came to be, how we came to be, and how everything upon it came to be. It's magical. Alvarez and I can agree on that. However, when it comes to how likely it was that Earth and humans came to exist at all, Alvarez would have a much nicer time talking to Dawkins and the rest of the "lucky accident crowd" than he would talking to me. This book was written in 2016. It's time to stop the happy accident story telling. It's outdated. Let's instead look for the patterns that resulted in our very likely existence - *even considering differences in initial conditions that make outcomes hard to predict*. Chaos theory doesn't mean we will *never* understand how we came to exist. Every time we thought humans were special or that our planet was special, we turned out to be wrong.

    In the end, we are human beings who have spent centuries gathering myriad scientific tools for the sole purpose of gaining a better understanding of how we came to exist. It stands to reason that we will continue to gather more tools and continue to refine our understanding of how the universe, world, and life came to be. There is no need for such a focus on improbable miracles. All things that appear to be miracles are, in the end, scientific phenomena waiting for our human brains to finally understand well enough to explain.

    This book might have served well as a very basic intro to geology. However, because of its happy accident focus, that is identical to Dawkins "happy accident" focus in the Selfish Gene, this book cannot even serve as an appropriate intro to geology book.

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