Some scientific types are so brilliantly knowledgeable and productive, they make the rest of us non-scientific stock look, well, downright lazy. Case in point: It took mineralogist Robert M. Hazen only one year to write his latest ambitious book, The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years from Stardust to Living Planet, released last month from Viking. You read that correctly, he told the story of billions of years in 12 months. But don’t start beating yourself up thinking it will take you a year to read. The straightforward book is designed to facilitate accessible scientific learning in brightish regular people. And if it’s any consolation, Hazen, a research scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Geophysical Laboratory and Clarence Robinson Professor of Earth Science at George Mason University, promised me the book took “more than 40 years to become ready to write.” He’s modest, too. (By the way, maybe you read his poet daughter Elizabeth Hazen’s creative nonfiction essay, “The Science of Searching,” published here in February.)
I talked to Mr. Hazen about his process and his mission. I also asked him to list fun, little-known earth-scientific facts from the pages, diamonds with which our readers could dazzle people at cocktail parties. My favorite: With every breath you take, you breathe atoms that were breathed by Bach, Newton, and Jesus. Read on to learn more. Memorize to look scientific-er.
You dedicated The Story of Earth to your Baltimore-based five-year-old grandson. What is the dedication?
“To Gregory: Change will come; may you have the wisdom and courage to adapt.”
How did you achieve a writing voice and style that would be easily accessible to a wide audience?
I like to imagine that I’m talking one-on-one with a smart, engaged non-scientist. I love telling stories about science.
Why did you write this book?
I wrote the book because the story of Earth, our home, is utterly amazing and almost never told in a way that might reach a wide audience. It’s a story of repeated dramatic change, sometimes violent but often gradual — over and over again, from black, to blue, to gray, to red, to white, to green — at least 10 times Earth has been transformed. And it’s changing still in ways that might profoundly affect humankind — ways that are still only dimly understood. I love the stories of our home’s rich history, and the lessons they provide for our own time.
What are 20 surprising things about Earth?
1. The first mineral in the cosmos was diamond, which formed in exploding stars.
2. Earth was assembled from countless microscopic particles of stardust.
3. The Moon formed when a Mars-sized planet collided with Earth.
4. Shortly after the Moon’s formation, Earth was encircled by a magma ocean and subjected to an incandescent rain of molten rock.
5. Shortly after its formation, the Moon was only 15,000 miles from Earth; it blocked 250 times more sky than today’s Moon, and orbited Earth once every three-and-a-half days.
6. Early in Earth’s history, a global blue ocean far saltier than today’s covered almost every square mile of the surface.
7. Life has suffered at least five major mass extinctions, and perhaps 20 smaller ones.
8. The oceans have risen and fallen by hundreds of feet many times in the past million years.
9. Shortly after its formation, Earth rotated much faster on its axis; each year had almost 2,000 five-hour days.
10. Two-thirds of Earth’s 4,500 known mineral species are a consequence of life.
11. Earth’s deep interior holds as much as 80 times all the water in the oceans.
12. Sometime in the next 50 million years an asteroid will collide with Earth, killing a significant fraction of life.
13. Earth has only been an “Earth-like planet” for eight percent of its dynamic history.
14. Earth, a planet of almost perpetual change, experienced a billion-year interval when nothing much happened.
15. With every breath you take, you breathe atoms that were breathed by Bach, Newton, and Jesus.
16. About 300 million years ago a rise in atmospheric oxygen led to giant insects, including two-foot long dragonflies.
17. Five times in Earth’s history all the continents have assembled together into one supercontinent and then split apart; another supercontinent will form in about 250 million years.
18. Eight-hundred million years ago Earth was encased in ice from poles to Equator.
19. Five billion years in the future Earth will become a blasted cinder, as the Sun expands into a violent red giant star.
20. Today’s climate may be changing faster than at any time in the past four billion years.
Do you believe that people are generally more or less informed about science these days of internet-obsessed learning/answer-skimming?
People know a lot about a few things in science that are always in the news, but even geologists are generally ignorant of “The Story of Earth.” It’s a big story that just isn’t taught in this way.
Could/should this book be a movie?
This would make such a cool time travel disaster film. Earth’s history is just one calamity after another!