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Knowing our planet
By Sushant Sharma

Christopher Lloyd has compiled the life history of earth in an interesting format making his book 'What on earth happened' an enjoyable read.

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As the name suggests, this book is about the life history of earth. Starting from the big bang and the formation of the earth, to the appearance of life in the microbial form, rise and finally the extinction of dinosaurs, rise (and rise) of humans, their history, cultures, civilizations and continuing till the present day, author Christopher Lloyd has made a sincere attempt to cover everything related to the earth.

Now, this 400-page voluminous "earth history" had all the ingredients of being a boring read for the light readers because of its basic concepts and subject, but its juicy and interesting presentation makes it an enjoyable read for one and all.

Lloyd has classified the book into four basic chapters which are further subdivided into chapters. Each such chapter is color-coded across the edge of the pages (for easier reference). Interestingly at the edge of the pages an analog clock ticks down as one reads the book. The author has condensed the earth's 13.7 billion year timeline into 24 hours with the big bang at 00:00 hrs and the modern day ending at 24:00hrs. This timeline immensely helps in appreciating just how old our earth is!

It is amusing to note that according to the condensed timeline, life first appeared on earth at about 5 in the morning. Even more interesting is the fact that dinosaurs were here at 10 pm (22:00 hrs)!! Further according to the timeline the first upright man came at 23:58 hrs, leaving just 2 seconds (last 3/4th of the book) for the rest of the human history to play!!       If the big bang occurred at 00:00 hours and earth's age till date is 24 hours, according to Lloyd the sign of life first appeared on earth at about 5 am. Even more interesting is the fact that dinosaurs were here till 10 pm (22:00 hrs)!! Further, the first upright man came at 23:58 hrs, leaving just 2 seconds for the rest of the human history to play!!

In the first chapter, the author discusses the physical and astronomical concepts and accepted scientific hypothesis related to the creation of earth and conditions after its formation. He also discusses at length about evolution: how the primitive single celled life forms living in oceans gradually evolved to form complex and gigantic dinosaurs and mammals and finally humans. The second chapter which starts at 11pm talks about the start of mankind. From foragers to hunters to cultivators, this chapter highlights humanity in its most primitive form. The ancient civilizations of the Mediterranean (Rome, Greece, Egypt), Asia (China, India) and Americas (Incas, Aztecs, and Mayans) cover the third chapter. The civilizations, their people and their customs have been discussed about fairly. It was during this time only that mankind had its first brush with spirituality and in belief of a greater power.

The concluding chapter spans the rest of the modern history from expansion of colonial countries, discovery of New World, suppression of older civilizations which led to formation of bigger and powerful super powers and also to the two World Wars and the new world order created thereafter. The author ends the book with an epilogue and yet another set of interactive time tables containing the top 10 'who' and 'what' that helped shape the destiny and life on earth.

The book makes for a good reference. The topic in itself is very appealing. Books written on the subject are appreciated by geologists, biologists and historians alike. With quirky and interesting notes, Lloyd maintains the interest of the readers. For instance the mention of Carolus Linnaeus, father of modern taxonomy who made it his life project to develop a proper system of classification. In early days physical appearance was the only method that helped Linnaeus classify living things. His classification of human beings would rather sound racist and biased today. He classified Homo Americanus as reddish, stubborn, short tempered; Homo Africanus as black, relaxed and negligent; Homo Asiaticus- sallow, avaricious and easily distracted while he described homo Europeanus as white, gentle and inventive! (Notably, Sweden was his homeland).

But even when Lloyd has supplemented the book with such interesting notes, photos and maps both in color and black, he cannot compensate for the lack of substance (as discovered in the later chapters). Undertaking such an awe inspiring project requires greater resourcefulness, patience and hard work. And it looks like Lloyd could not do justice to his ambition. He seems to have rushed up on writing the earth's 'bible'. Consequently he has missed out on several important key facts while undertaking such an endearing project. Such as the book doesn't mention in detail about the great inventors and discoverers who have vastly helped shape the present world.       This book supplemented with even more detailed information can become a handy textbook for students who want an overview of the earth's history. But to rely on this book alone for an understanding of world history could be academically risky.

But as the readers flip through the last few pages, realization slowly comes that this book isn't much about the history of the universe or the progress of man. It's essentially Lloyd's rant against the modern world and how humanity's scale has tipped nature's ecological balance into chaotic disarray. While he makes some valid points and presents a great deal of interesting information, he also includes a fair number of statements that simply hold no basis.

On the whole, this book is suitable for light reading. With no age bar, the youngsters would find this book informative while the older would find it entertaining. This book supplemented with even more detailed information can become a handy textbook for students who want an overview of the earth's history. But to rely on this book alone for an understanding of world history could be academically risky.

It is one of those 'could have been' books because it has the potential and is loaded with gems. But the author fell short of buffing up those gems carefully. Maybe the book's concept was too ambitious for one person to meet. Yet I would still recommend this book due to the sheer genius of the author's concept and his work, making it the first of all-in-one kind of book and setting a standard for the future would-be Earth's bible.

What on Earth happened?
by Christopher Lloyd
Bloomsbury, £ 25

Sushant Sharma  |  sushant91@gmail.com

Sushant Sharma is a college fresher and an avid reader.

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