June 22, 2014

Review: Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction

Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction
Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction by Annalee Newitz

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of the coolest science books I have ever read.

It's partly because the author readily admits she's an End of the World geek, like me. (She even mentions that great, cheesy Roddy Piper movie, Hell Comes to Frogtown! I didn't know anyone else knew it existed.) I love that stuff--it's one reason I've been getting more into YA lately, as there seems to be an almost unlimited supply of post-apocalyptic/dystopian young adult books. (That's not to say all of them are good, mind you, and in my reviews I've dinged quite a few that aren't.) In this book, Ms. Newitz gets to write at length about the five (and possibly six--current theory is that the sixth mass extinction is human-caused and ongoing) greatest End of the World stories ever told--the actual mass extinctions that have impacted our planet Earth.

These are fascinating tales indeed. In the first section, she devotes one entire chapter to the Great Dying, the worst of the five mass extinctions; about 250 million years ago, 95 percent of species were wiped out. Possible causes for the extinctions range from megavolcanism to gamma ray bursts to invasive species to meteor strikes (such as the K-T extinction, 65 million years ago, that wiped out the dinosaurs). Part II discusses how humans were able to survive, despite a pernicious African genetic bottleneck, plagues such as the Black Death, and famines. In the third section, the "Stories of Survival" chapter discusses science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler (!) at some length. The fourth section, "Death-Proof City," is a virtual treasure trove of ideas, including underground cities, disaster engineering, eco-architecture, and cities as genetically engineered biological entities. The final section, "The Million-Year View," includes, among other things, how to geo-engineer to combat climate change, and a greatly detailed and fascinating discussion of how to build a space elevator rising 35,000 kilometers above the Earth's surface. (A simple black-and-white drawing of this concept is enough to make an acrophobic run screaming.) Newitz ends the book with a simple statement of faith: "Things are going to get weird. There may be horrific disasters, and many lives will be lost. But don't worry. As long as we keep exploring, humanity is going to survive."

Even though she tackles complex subjects, the writing is quite accessible to a layperson, and the first section about mass extinctions reads like a novel. Newitz has clearly done her research; her notes are extensive and detailed, and the scientists she interviewed for the various chapters are well-drawn and fascinating people.

It's too bad I have to return this book to the library. I think I could read it many times over and gain fresh insights with each reading. I'm definitely buying it.

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