Saturday, September 22, 2018

Book Review: 'Earth in Human Hands' by David Grinspoon

Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here
Review by Stephen Andrew
Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future
By David Grinspoon, Grand Central Publishing
Earth in Human Hands is a page-turning masterpiece of speculative nonfiction that will keep new and veteran science aficionados spellbound for hours at a time. It is quite simply the kind of book that can change a young reader’s life, or inspire parents and teachers to do the same.
When I first saw my advance copy, there was more than a little anxiety. Such a thick tome! I’m happy to report that is not a problem thanks to the brilliant writing and impressive organization found within. Grinspoon ties together a dozen disparate themes pulled from a host of sub-fields seamlessly, making the book a delightful, flowing feast of science and commentary.
The book is downright Sagan-esque—which is closer to home than you might expect, as the late Dr. Carl Sagan was a personal friend of the author and his family for years.
Come below to learn more about what kind of a read is in store for you, or what a great gift it would make for any budding or experienced science lover in your life.
Given Earth in the title, one might expect the book to revolve solely around our planet, the immediate concerns of humanity, or the growing anxiety voiced by environmentalists and a few scientists over our growing impact on this world. Grinspoon delivers all that with seeming ease. But he takes an epic, cosmic course to do so, one successfully charted by only a handful of visionaries before him. It’s a journey that ranges from the planets Venus and Mars, where he deftly reviews the critical contributions NASA and other agencies have added to our understanding of our home by studying these alien worlds, to the farthest reaches of space and time revealed by modern astronomy.
The book delivers 100 percent on its thesis, i.e., that for the first time, the fate of our biosphere, our planet, and probably the solar system and beyond, quite literally rests in the hands of an intelligent species. It’s one equipped by nature and increasingly nurtured through science, and explores the role we have played and could play, for better or for worse, in creating a paradise—or a hell on Earth—for those who follow in our footsteps. Whereas cyano-bacteria and space rocks could plead ignorance regarding their role in past global holocausts, we are the only species around, and the only one we know of in all the universe that has the ability to choose to be creators or destroyers.
Evolution, sociology, capitalism, income inequality, population booms and busts, micro-biology and oceanography, climate change or alternative energy, A.I. and large-scale autonomy, the Gaia hypothesis, mass extinctions, and SETI and Fermi are just some of the sights and sounds readers will witness as the author expertly implants the book’s theme, in parts or in whole, from divergent, highly-informed angles. And yet, somehow, each of those iterations still feels uniquely fresh on every new pass.  
At each and every stop through that fascinating journey, Grinspoon takes time to convey some history and personal anecdotes about the life and passion of almost every scientist behind each topic. They are quick, insightful, and entertaining segues that always circle back to the subject at hand while adding a warm, human depth to the overall thesis.
One of the most telling signs of a gifted science writer with a broad command of many disciplines is when an author makes a lasting impression and leaves behind an important lesson, page after page, and still somehow manages to make it look so damn easy! I was able to read through all 400-plus pages of the book in just two nights. The only disappointment was when the last page was turned, and I found myself wishing there was more.
If Carl Sagan were alive today, and had available to him all the science done since he left us, this is the book he would write. It does not preach, but it does not spare. It will instill respect for our past, concern for humanity’s present and presence, and leave behind both critical and optimistic views of our many possible futures.
Earth in Human Hands is Cosmos for the 21st century, retooled for a new wave of readers, and hopped up on the best science modern research has to offer. In my opinion, it won’t stand quietly in a reader’s personal library in pristine, published condition after being skimmed through once or twice. I advise you to order the hardback and use care handling it: your copy of this masterpiece is destined to become a familiar friend, proudly dog-eared and creased with age, after being read and reread time after time, and year after year. 

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