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How to Build a Habitable Planet: The Story of Earth from the Big Bang to Humankind

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A classic introduction to the story of Earth's origin and evolution--revised and expanded for the twenty-first century

Since its first publication more than twenty-five years ago, How to Build a Habitable Planet has established a legendary reputation as an accessible yet scientifically impeccable introduction to the origin and evolution of Earth, from the Big Bang through the rise of human civilization. This classic account of how our habitable planet was assembled from the stuff of stars introduced readers to planetary, Earth, and climate science by way of a fascinating narrative. Now this great book has been made even better. Harvard geochemist Charles Langmuir has worked closely with the original author, Wally Broecker, one of the world's leading Earth scientists, to revise and expand the book for a new generation of readers for whom active planetary stewardship is becoming imperative.

Interweaving physics, astronomy, chemistry, geology, and biology, this sweeping account tells Earth's complete story, from the synthesis of chemical elements in stars, to the formation of the Solar System, to the evolution of a habitable climate on Earth, to the origin of life and humankind. The book also addresses the search for other habitable worlds in the Milky Way and contemplates whether Earth will remain habitable as our influence on global climate grows. It concludes by considering the ways in which humankind can sustain Earth's habitability and perhaps even participate in further planetary evolution.

Like no other book, How to Build a Habitable Planet provides an understanding of Earth in its broadest context, as well as a greater appreciation of its possibly rare ability to sustain life over geologic time.

Leading schools that have ordered, recommended for reading, or adopted this book for course use:
Arizona State University

Brooklyn College CUNY

Columbia University

Cornell University

ETH Zurich

Georgia Institute of Technology

Harvard University

Johns Hopkins University

Luther College

Northwestern University

Ohio State University

Oxford Brookes University

Pan American University

Rutgers University

State University of New York at Binghamton

Texas A&M University

Trinity College Dublin

University of Bristol

University of California-Los Angeles

University of Cambridge

University Of Chicago

University of Colorado at Boulder

University of Glasgow

University of Leicester

University of Maine, Farmington

University of Michigan

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

University of North Georgia

University of Nottingham

University of Oregon

University of Oxford

University of Portsmouth

University of Southampton

University of Ulster

University of Victoria

University of Wyoming

Western Kentucky University

Yale University

736 pages, Hardcover

First published April 18, 1995

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About the author

Wallace S. Broecker

15 books4 followers
Wallace Smith Broecker (born November 29, 1931 in Chicago is the Newberry Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University, a scientist at Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and a sustainability fellow at Arizona State University. He developed the idea of a global "conveyor belt" linking the circulation of the global ocean and made major contributions to the science of the carbon cycle and the use of chemical tracers and isotope dating in oceanography. Broecker has received the Crafoord Prize and the Vetlesen Prize.

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5 stars
82 (59%)
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36 (26%)
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14 (10%)
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Displaying 1 - 18 of 18 reviews
Profile Image for Brian Clegg.
Author 203 books2,568 followers
August 12, 2012
I have expressed before my horror at being faced with huge, megaheavy fat books purporting to be popular science – this has to be one of the chunkiest, weighing in at 1.4 wrist-crippling kilograms and with 668 pages before you get onto the glossary and index (thankfully, no notes). To be worth being this unwieldy, a book ought to do something pretty remarkable. And that’s just what How to Build, an updated version of a 1980s title, does, as you can tell from its subtitle, The Story of Earth from the Big Bang to Humankind. Now that’s what you call a large canvas.

The result is a rather strange mix, starting with the cosmology of the big bang, working through the formation of elements and then planets and solar systems, then leading us through the geological life of the Earth, which collectively takes up just over half of the book, leaving plenty of room for detail of the development of life, the impact of life on the planet, natural climate change, the evolution of humans and how we have impacted our world. It’s a challenging range of topics to cover, and although I am sure it is fine in terms of technical content, I have two problems with it.

The first is that this didn’t read to me like a popular science book, but rather like an introductory textbook. There are lots (unimaginably many) of facts in there, but very little storytelling. There is no real attempt to get the reader engaged. The result is a book that feels like you would read it because you needed to (for a course, say), but not because you wanted to.

The other, relatively minor problem, which I’ve mentioned with other titles, and is nobody’s fault, is that geology, which inevitably plays a major role here, is the dullest of the sciences and takes huge skill to make interesting to the general reader.

So I would hesitate more than once before buying this book for holiday reading or as educative entertainment – but if it’s recommended reading for your course it’s certainly an amazing feat and will do the job well.

Review first published on www.popularscience.co.uk and reproduced with permission
Profile Image for Steve Walker.
284 reviews114 followers
September 8, 2012
For some folks geology is a dull subject, seen one rock..... This book removes that mindset. The last 60 years witnessed a radical change and revolution in the subject. In fact a better term to describe the subject would be planetary science. "How to Build..." is the second edition of a 25 year old classic. If you want a good over view of the subject with a good bibliography this is the book for you. As I mentioned earlier, the topic has changed and now draws from subject areas that were in their infancy 50+ years ago. When talking about planet morphology you also need to look at the other planets in the solar system. Ditto with any topic regarding the atmosphere, climate, etc. This is a good overview book for anyone interested in the topic, whether you are high school student or a rising freshman thinking about a degree program.
Profile Image for Stephanie Froebel.
321 reviews22 followers
January 11, 2023
What an exceptional textbook. I genuinely found myself so intrigued while reading—rarely bored, and heavily captivated by the data visualizations and models. The majority of the content is quite well written and understandable (so long as one takes some to read decently carefully). Some chapters definitely could be more concise and better articulated to ensure that the concepts are actually transmitted to the reader. Some moments definitely swept right over my head.

Overall, I definitely recommend checking this out if you are interested in how the solar system formed, how Earth formed, how plate tectonics work, how the Great oxidation event occurred, and how life occurred. Most importantly, this textbook emphasizes the EVIDENCE supporting each of these concepts.
Profile Image for Little Myr.
17 reviews
September 15, 2018
I would seriously recommend this book for anyone who is somewhat curious about the origins of the universe, the earth, or life. Gives a broad and accessible account of how these things are thought to have occurred as well as the timeline. Also gives the REASONS why we have come to these conclusions in an easy to understand way, I felt like as I read this book questions would arise in my mind but then be almost immediately answered in the next paragraph or page. This book was assigned as a textbook for one of my classes, and I was so pleasantly surprised and glad to have discovered it. I will definitely be re-reading it in the future.
Profile Image for Damien Atman.
6 reviews
January 3, 2022
One of the best textbooks in existence, it deals with everything from astronomy and physics with the nuclear synthesis of elements in stars and supernova to the complex and interrelated systems necessary for the emergency and complexity of life.. The work introduces the student to chemistry, geology, meteorology, ecology, biology and more, and does so in a way a first-year non-science major can understand, while remaining a valuable reference for Phd's.
Profile Image for Jannik Faierson.
112 reviews9 followers
December 23, 2020
A textbook in a course I have taken in my first semester at college. Very informative, clearly written, and summarizes the main scientific methods and theories while also offering an intriguing outlook beyond. Chapter summaries are very useful!
Profile Image for Emily.
254 reviews4 followers
September 18, 2018
Very interesting read. Some chapters are more content-heavy than others, but this is a very friendly read for people without lots of background knowledge in science.
Profile Image for Jake Leech.
163 reviews1 follower
July 4, 2019
Comprehensive, and mostly readable despite a lot of discussion of isotope ratios. Unfortunately, my 1985 (?) edition is pretty dated.
4 reviews1 follower
January 8, 2021
Lots of interesting information on how the earth came to be what it is known as today
Profile Image for Damian.
5 reviews
February 11, 2023
Doing what the title states, it's a step by step guide to planet building via buiding blocks. It's absolutely awesome. If you love taking things apart to see how they work and then put'em back together, this book would be the manual for the planet.
Profile Image for -uht!.
127 reviews10 followers
June 8, 2007
This book has changed my perspective about everything I see, think, and do. It concisely and logically presents the theory (as of 1985) of how our atoms were formed and bonded from the time of the big bang until the present. It talks about why our terrestrial planet with its chemical makeup, atmosphere, and available elements were derived from our position in the galaxy, distance from the sun, etc. It also rates each of its own theories as to their likelihoods on scaled of 1-10. A little hard to follow at points and the diagrams are basically useless, but the material is amazing.
Profile Image for inkedblues.
70 reviews33 followers
January 6, 2019
Had this textbook for an interdisciplinary course combining physics, geology, chemistry and biology to explain the beginnings of the universe and our planet. According to my biology professor, it's pretty weak on the biology side, but it's hard not to be amazed on how much information can be put in such an accessible way. I had no background in natural sciences prior to this course but found the chapters written in a very comprehensible manner.
Profile Image for Pia Bröker.
192 reviews7 followers
April 25, 2022
I was amazed from beginning to end. This book sometimes goes into detail and sometimes is very broad without a clear pattern on what they put the focus on.
A good introduction, tho.

Had to read this for a class.
Profile Image for Yi.
53 reviews1 follower
June 22, 2017
This is a recommended reading of Geochemistry taught by Youxue Zhang at U of Michigan.
Displaying 1 - 18 of 18 reviews

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