Book review: Earth in Human Hands by David Grinspoon

Posted by David Eicher
on Thursday, January 12, 2017

The cover of the provocative new book “Earth in Human Hands” by David Grinspoon.

Rarely is a science book profoundly informative, highly entertaining, and surprisingly filled with interesting tidbits as a memoir. Such is the case, however, from the new book Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future, by planetary scientist David Grinspoon. 

The new work (522 pp., hardcover, Grand Central Publishing, New York, 2016, $28, ISBN 978–1–4555–8912–8) is one of the best recent reads for astronomy and science enthusiasts. 

“We find ourselves running a planet, without knowing how it should be done,” writes the author, who is an astrobiologist, senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, adjunct professor at the University of Colorado, and the inaugural Chair of Astrobiology at the Library of Congress. He describes the human struggle for organization, the quest for operating a planet, for searching for a workable system of operating the world and taking care of it in our relatively young civilization. Can we wisely manage Earth? The question has no easy answer, clearly, as humans struggle with understanding and valuing science, and with confronting such alarming challenges as managing global warming and understanding the “cosmic tapestry” that surrounds us in the solar system, the galaxy, and the universe at large. 

Rarely does a science work deliver such interesting career tidbits from the past, as with Grinspoon’s close association with Carl Sagan as he grew up, the Sagan and Grinspoon families being close friends. Many of the best books on a wide range of subjects approximate sitting down with the author for a long evening dinner, exchanging stories and listening to enlightened viewpoints. And that is exactly what we get from Grinspoon’s enthusiastic and energetic prose — highlights from an interesting career spent searching for truth. And of course some natural angst and even furor over the fact that many of the people on planet Earth are not in the business of seeking truth, but even in obscuring it. 

“If we hope to be an enduring entity on this planet,” writes the author, “then we need to start thinking like one.” He delivers a tapestry of science and anecdotes relating to Lynn Margulis (Sagan’s first wife) and her Gaia hypothesis, pollution, CFCs, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and many other topics that remind of us our often negligent role as planetary caretakers. He perfectly reflects on global warming, ice ages, and Milankovic cycles. He waltzes through planetary defense and the responsibility we still have to track and defend against potentially dangerous asteroids and comets. He writes eloquently about a favorite topic of Sagan’s, terraforming, and about Earth’s changing biosphere. Throughout, he reminds us of the role of Earthlings: “We are apprentice planetary engineers.”

Grinspoon then casts his scientific analysis outward, to the far future, the “Bright Old Sun Problem,” when increasing solar radiation will make life on Earth untenable. He also queries what life on Earth will be like in one galactic year (~225 million years from now). He explores prospects for intelligent worlds in the cosmos, SETI, the Fermi Paradox, and searching for human intelligence right here on Earth. 

Grinspoon finishes with thoughts on the power of negative thinking, an attribute that unfortunately seems to be growing in modern society. He reminds us, in entertaining prose, that we are the eyes of a world. We can choose our own future — “a creative, cooperative, imaginative, storytelling, engineering, problem solving existence.” 

All we have to do is try. 

This is a book that any thinking person will have been glad to read. One could hardly ask for more from a well executed book on science. 

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