James Lovelock has spent decades thinking about the apocalypse. (When youre the highly influential scientist who helped detect the hole in the earths ozone layer, thats part of your job.) At some point, Lovelock realized that, in the event of a mass catastrophe, survivors might benefit from a manual of sorts—a text that explains how the world once worked. “What we need is a primer on science, clearly written and unambiguous in its meaning,” Lovelock wrote in a 1998 essay for Sciencetitled “A Book for All Seasons.”It would be, in Lovelock’s words, “the scientific equivalent of the Bible”—a prepper’s guide to a scorched Earth.
The Earth and I ($30)is not that book. But it does explain in digestible terms how the earth came to be, how it behaves, and how we humans impact it. Lovelock edited it with Marlene Taschen, of Taschen Books, and invited 12 scientists and writers to contribute chapters. The list of guest authors is staggering. It includes Lisa Randall, a Harvard theoretical particle physicist and best-selling author, who wrote a chapter on the scale of the universe, from atoms to objects in outer space.Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel penned a section on neuroscience and how animals (including us humans) make decisions. Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and naturalist Edward O. Wilson wrote aboutthe biosphere and the gradual extinction of certain species.The writing is informational, but clear.
The Earth and Iprobably won’t helpyou and your family survive the post-apocalypse, but it is a beautiful, handy explainer on the evolution of the planet. Think of it asa picture book-textbook hybrid. The data-rich chapters come with bright, cheerful looking data-visualizations and illustrations. “A hell of a lot of them, says Jack Hudson, who spent three years illustrating the book. Hudsons style skews humorous, and echoes the colorful optimism of mid-century art, where characters look like they should always be at a dinner party, sitting in an Eames Lounge Chair, holding a martini.
But the art in The Earth and I is rigorous. Hudson worked with most of the contributing authors to make sure even the illustrative analogies—comparing an ant on a football field to the size of an atom’s nucleus, for example—meet textbook-level standards of accuracy. That wasn’t always easy. Ive been in touch with a few of the scientists via email,” Hudson says. “Some of the responses you get back are like, this is wrong, this is wrong.
Others, however, offered up their own metaphors for better explaining heady scientific topics. These assist Lovelocks goal for The Earth and I, which is to synthesize, not complicate, the facts. Lovelocks target audience isnt the scientific community, but ratherthe every-person whos lost touch with nature. If you live in a big city, you dont get feelings about the world, because you dont see the stars at night,” he says. “Theres too much light pollution. You dont hear the birds often. It puts you pretty out of touch with the ordinary world, he says.
Put that way, city life is philosophically discordant with Lovelocks Gaia hypothesis, which describes the earth as a self-regulating system. It states thatcreatures dont just inhabit the earth—they are symbiotic with it. Since Lovelock developed the theory in the early 1960s, at NASAs Jet Propulsion Laboratory, more people have moved to urban, built environments. That means less contact with stars and birds. Luckily, you can read about both, in The Earth and I chapters Pale Blue Dot, and Ants to Elephants. Thats no substitution for going outside and looking around, but it might make you more aware of what to look, when you do.