A Most Improbable Journey: A Big History of Our Planet and Ourselves

A Most Improbable Journey: A Big History of Our Planet and Ourselves - Walter Alvarez I just love Alvarez. He did more to change my world view than almost any other living person. He opened my eyes (and countless other peoples') by providing for an explanation that transcended my ability to initially accept. Before his explanation for his comet, creationist roamed the earth, now they are rarer but unfortunately not extinct (sure in America they are about 45% creationist but they hide that fact from rational thinking beings. It used to be they were in your face, but seldom anymore). The understanding of the earth and human's place on it was remade because of that comet 66 million years ago for which he offered proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The pieces of the puzzle were put in place and the narrative was provided principally by Alvarez (and a few of his colleagues), and he knows way more about Geology and minerals than I'm capable of ever understanding. BTW, I give him a great compliment by providing the world as he saw it has a solution like a puzzle. It's possible the world has no structure (see Wittgenstein's Tractacus, e.g.).

But my gratitude does not make a great book. To make a great book tell me things I don't already know. I read all books and Great Course lectures with "Big History" in the title. I can't get enough on the topic. I'm always more interested in the universal rather than the particular. There's a story to be told about the universe as a whole and how there is this incredibly contingent and chaotic component that gets created from a recursive (a function that calls itself) algorithm (logos as John the Apostle would say).

There's hints of a great narrative within this book, but it never gets flushed out. The pieces that are needed in order to bake an apple pie from scratch (from Gods perspective) or end up creating you or me can not be easily created. The comet that destroyed the dinosaurs, the creation of the moon, the Alps as a barrier, the placement of the Ohio river, the 3 billion year journey from single cell to multi-cell, the acquisition of the mitochondria at some unknown time by an eukaryotic cell, everything has to be just right and all, as everything (within our universe), has to be because something caused it to be that way and the sensitivities due to initial conditions (chaos) made the prediction impossible. Laplace and his mechanistic universe with an all seeing and all knowing machine (God) would never really be able to predict it since it can never predict its own effect caused by its observing. All of those items are within this book, but only loosely cohesively.

The author mostly has just threads that could be tied together. Sometimes he sneaks into 'pernicious teleological' thinking by assuming the existence of something had a purpose in it of itself ("the hand is made for grabbing because it does it so well", not his example, of course, but he does seem to give too much credence to fine tuning). The contingent universe and the contingent making of an apple pie (illusion of "apple pie" is borrowed from Sagan) may not never be. I think the author clearly leans towards a contingent universe. His example of the failure of the Spanish Armada leads me to think that.

I was reluctant to read this book because I expected there would be little new in the book for me, and I was right. For all authors, assume your readers are interested in learning about the topic so much that they have already read books that cover the same kind of topics. Give me things I don't already know, or give me a narrative that ties the pieces together in such way that I've never had thought about it before. The author is infinitely smarter and wiser than me, but wow me with a narrative.