The best books on planet Earth

Robert M. Hazen Author Of The Story of Earth: The First 4.5 Billion Years, from Stardust to Living Planet
By Robert M. Hazen

The Books I Picked & Why

Principles of Geology

By Sir Charles Lyell

Principles of Geology

Why this book?

Lyell’s Principles, though published almost 190 years ago, is a masterful argument for the veracity of deep time. Drawing on his skills as a lawyer as much as his scientific perceptions, Lyell lays out the case for the power of gradual processes operating over vast expanses of time to change the face of our planet. His lucid, compelling case that “the present is key to the past” greatly influenced many subsequent discoveries, including Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. And, happily, various editions are freely available in facsimile on the web.


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Understanding Earth

By John Grotzinger, Tom Jordan, Frank Press, Raymond Siever

Understanding Earth

Why this book?

At their very best, textbooks synthesize knowledge in new, informative ways. Understanding Earth is a classic, covering the basics of geology, geophysics, and environmental science with stylish prose, classy illustrations, and the insights of two great scientist educators (earlier editions were championed by Frank Press and Ray Siever, who began the franchise). It’s a whirlwind tour of modern science, from the microscopic view of rocks and minerals to the global sweep of plate tectonics.


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Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth

By Andrew H. Knoll

Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth

Why this book?

Harvard geobiologist Andy Knoll vividly captures the dynamic field of Precambrian paleontology in this unique, zippy read. Personalities—both fossils and the people who study them—come alive as Knoll races across the eons. With episodes from life’s enigmatic origins, to scrappy contentious black smudges that might or might not be the remains of cells, to some of the most exquisite and revealing microfossils on Earth, Life on a Young Planet takes its readers on a unique journey.


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The Emerald Planet: How Plants Changed Earth's History

By David Beerling

The Emerald Planet: How Plants Changed Earth's History

Why this book?

All of us have a vision of what it means to be a vibrant, blue, and green “Earth-like planet,” but our home has fit that familiar description for only the past 400 million years or so—a mere 8 percent of its changeable history. Beerling’s revealing Emerald Planet tells the surprising tale of the rise of the terrestrial biosphere, as plants ever so gradually established their foothold on dry land and became a major geological force. Who would have thought that roots and leaves hold such drama, but our existence and survival are intimately tied to those transformative innovations.


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Annals of the Former World

By John McPhee

Annals of the Former World

Why this book?

New Yorker writer John McPhee captures the romance and drama of geology like no other writer. His Annals, written over two decades as he traveled the breadth of North America in the company of articulate, passionate geologists, is unique in the literature of science. OK, I admit that this is a bit of a cheat, as Annals collates 4 of McPhee’s earlier books, titles from 1981 to 1993, into a single massive tome. But what mastery! Savor every page.


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