#UnSharkWeek Sharks Don’t Fly, but Squid Do!

Squid move by pumping water in and out of their bodies. Propulsion comes from using the water itself, sucked into the mantle and squeezed out through a smaller tube called a siphon in a series of strong pulses. By finely manipulating their siphons, squid maintain precise control the water stream: volume, intensity, and direction. All cephalopods carry siphons, even the lumbering octopus, but squid get the most mileage from them.

Water is heavy, so you’d expect slow acceleration from a squid. Not so: powerful rings of muscle surround the mantle, squeezing a huge amount of water through the siphon and creating large accelerations. They’ve also got a secret weapon for emergencies: a lightning-fast escape mechanism.

Read the rest of the story here.

The Extreme Life of the Sea by Stephen & Anthony Palumbi (#ExtremeLifeOTC)

This book officially publishes in March 2014 and will be available in three formats: Print, standard eBook, and enhanced eBook (featuring a dozen exclusive videos that are beautifully produced and informative).

For more about the book, please visit our web site: http://press.princeton.edu/titles/10178.html

“The oceans are our most precious treasure, full of creatures and stories more fantastic than any science fiction. The Extreme Life of the Sea is a fascinating exploration of this vast mysterious universe. Wonderfully written, it will grab you from page one and carry you all the way through. A must-read for everyone.”–Philippe Cousteau

“This book brims with fascinating tales of life in the sea, told with freshness, wit, and verve. Simply wonderful.”–Callum Roberts, author of The Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea

New Earth Science Catalog!

Be among the first to browse and download our new earth science catalog!

Of particular interest is Stephen R. Palumbi and Anthony R. Palumbi’s The Extreme Life of the Sea. The ocean teems with life that thrives under difficult situations in unusual environments. The Extreme Life of the Sea takes readers to the absolute limits of the aquatic world—the fastest and deepest, the hottest and oldest creatures of the oceans. It dives into the icy Arctic and boiling hydrothermal vents—and exposes the eternal darkness of the deepest undersea trenches—to show how marine life thrives against the odds. This thrilling book brings to life the sea’s most extreme species, and reveals how they succeed across the wide expanse of the world’s global ocean.

Also be sure to note Donald E. Canfield’s Oxygen: A Four Billion Year History. The air we breathe is twenty-one percent oxygen, an amount higher than on any other known world. While we may take our air for granted, Earth was not always an oxygenated planet. How did it become this way? Oxygen is the most current account of the history of atmospheric oxygen on Earth. Donald Canfield—one of the world’s leading authorities on geochemistry, earth history, and the early oceans—covers this vast history, emphasizing its relationship to the evolution of life and the evolving chemistry of the Earth. With an accessible and colorful first-person narrative, he draws from a variety of fields, including geology, paleontology, geochemistry, biochemistry, animal physiology, and microbiology, to explain why our oxygenated Earth became the ideal place for life.

And don’t miss out on Gillen D’Arcy Wood’s Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World. When Indonesia’s Mount Tambora erupted in 1815, it unleashed the most destructive wave of extreme weather the world has witnessed in thousands of years. The volcano’s massive sulfate dust cloud enveloped the Earth, cooling temperatures and disrupting major weather systems for more than three years. Amid devastating storms, drought, and floods, communities worldwide endured famine, disease, and civil unrest on a catastrophic scale. On the eve of the bicentenary of the great eruption, Tambora tells the extraordinary story of the weather chaos it wrought, weaving the latest climate science with the social history of this frightening period to offer a cautionary tale about the potential tragic impacts of drastic climate change in our own century.

Even more foremost titles in earth science can be found in the catalog. You may also sign up with ease to be notified of forthcoming titles at http://press.princeton.edu/subscribe/. Your e-mail address will remain confidential!

If you’re heading to the annual American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco, CA December 9th-13th, come visit us at booth 632, and follow #AGU13 and @PrincetonUPress on Twitter for updates and information on our new and forthcoming titles throughout the meeting. See you there!

Hurricane Sandy and Global Warnings, an original article by Ian Roulstone and John Norbury

Hurricane Sandy and Global Warnings

Ian Roulstone and John Norbury

There are many heroes in the story of Hurricane Sandy, but we arguably owe the greatest debt of gratitude to mathematicians who wrangle massive amounts of data to improve the accuracy of our weather predictions. Two devastating storms, decades apart, provide a fantastic snapshot of how weather prediction has improved thanks to the introduction of computational mathematics over the last century.

Just over 75 years ago, on September 9th 1938 above the warm tropical waters near the Cape Verde islands, a storm gathered. As the weather system intensified, it was ushered westward by the prevailing larger-scale ridge of high pressure over the Atlantic. By the 16th the storm had become a hurricane, and the captain of a Brazilian freighter caught sight of the tempest northeast of Puerto Rico. He radioed the U.S. Weather Bureau to warn them of the impending danger – no satellites or sophisticated computer models to help the forecasters in those days.

A deep trough of low pressure over Appalachia forced the storm northward, avoiding the Bahamas and Florida, and towards the north-eastern seaboard of the United States. The forecasters were relying on real-time reports of the storm’s progress, but it advanced at an incredible pace, moving northward at nearly 70mph. By the time the Weather Bureau realised it was on a collision course with Long Island it was too late. The death toll from the Great New England Hurricane approached 600, with over 700 injured, and the damage was estimated at $308 million – or around $4.8 billion at today’s prices.

History very nearly repeated itself on October 29 and 30th last year, when Hurricane Sandy slammed into New Jersey. Meteorologists referred to Superstorm Sandy as a “multi-hazard event”, with major damage resulting from wind gusts, from high seas, from a tidal surge, from heavy rain, and even from driving snow. The number of fatalities in the U.S., attributed either directly or indirectly to Hurricane Sandy, were around 160: a tragedy, but mercifully fewer than the number killed by the Great Hurricane of 1938.

It is almost certain that timely warnings averted greater catastrophe last year. Unlike the storm of 1938, which caught forecasters by surprise, one of the most remarkable features of the forecast of Hurricane Sandy from the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) was the prediction made on October 21st, 36 hours before Sandy even formed, of a one-in-four chance of a severe storm, centred on New York, on October 30th.

ECMWF routinely produce two types of forecast for 10 days ahead. As they state in a recent newsletter “The ECMWF global medium-range forecast comprises a high-resolution forecast (HRES) and an ensemble of lower-resolution forecasts (ENS)”, and it was the ENS that helped forewarn of Sandy.

To calculate a forecast we use supercomputers to solve seven equations for the seven basic variables that describe weather: wind speed and direction (3 variables), pressure, temperature, air density, and humidity. The equations governing weather are highly nonlinear. This means that the ‘cause and effect’ relationships between the basic variables can become ferociously complex. To deal with the potential loss of predictability, forecasters study not one, but many forecasts, called an ensemble. Each member of the ensemble is started from a slightly different initial state. These different initial states reflect our ignorance of exactly how weather systems form. If the forecasts predict similar outcomes, we can be reasonably confident, but if they produce very different scenarios, then the situation is more problematic.

In the figure below the ensemble of forecasts for Sandy, starting at midday on October 23rd indicates the high probability of the ‘left turn’ and the most probable landfall – information that helped save lives. The inset at top right shows the strike probability chart that highlights the region around New York within which there is 25% chance of a severe storm by midnight on October 30th. This forecast was computed from an earlier ensemble starting at midday on October 21st and gave forecasters the vital “heads-up” of severe weather striking a highly populated area.

Forecasting Superstorm Sandy: The ensemble of forecasts covering the 10 days from the formation of the cyclone on October 23; the dotted black line is the actual track of the storm. Top right inset shows the storm strike probability from midday October 21. Bottom right inset shows the ensemble predictions of Sandy’s central pressure. © ECMWF

Forecasting Superstorm Sandy: The ensemble of forecasts covering the 10 days from the formation of the cyclone on October 23; the dotted black line is the actual track of the storm. Top right inset shows the storm strike probability from midday October 21. Bottom right inset shows the ensemble predictions of Sandy’s central pressure. © ECMWF

The science of weather and climate prediction was utterly transformed in the second half of the 20th Century by high-performance computing. But in order to fully exploit the computational power, and the information gathered by weather satellites and weather radar, we need mathematics.  As we explained in our article in Scientific American [hyperlink] math quantified the choreography of Hurricane Sandy. And to account for the ever-present uncertainties in the science of weather forecasting, math delivers the tools to analyse the predictions and to highlight the dangers.

Lives were saved because of the quality of our weather forecasts, which are made possible by an international group of mathematicians and weather prediction centers. The math that helps us quantify uncertainty in weather forecasting is being used to quantify uncertainty in climate prediction. It is easy to underestimate the value of this research, but investing in this science is vital if we are to stave off future billions in damages.


For further insights into the math behind weather and climate prediction, see Roulstone and Norbury’s new book Invisible in the Storm: The Role of Mathematics in Understanding Weather.


Bird Behavior Round-Up

In case you’ve been feeling a bit peckish for some great bird books to read (after devouring The Warbler Guide, The Crossley ID Guide, and How to Be a Better Birder), we’ve put together another round-up of bird books just for you. While the other round-up focused on raptors (which can be found here), this one will be focusing on bird behavior and history. Enjoy!

Birdscapes: Birds in Our Imagination and Experience

By: Jeremy Mynott

Birdscapes is a unique meditation on the variety of human responses to birds, from antiquity to today, and from casual observers to the globe-trotting “twitchers” who sometimes risk life, limb, and marriages simply to add new species to their “life lists.” Conversational, playful, and witty, Birdscapes gently leads us to reflect on large questions about our relation to birds and the natural world. It encourages birders to see their pursuits in a broader human context–and it shows nonbirders what they may be missing.

Life of Birds
The Life of Birds

By: David Attenborough

The Life of Birds is David Attenborough at his characteristic best: presenting the drama, beauty, and eccentricities of the natural world with unusual flair and intelligence. The renowned writer and filmmaker treks through rain forests and deserts, through city streets and isolated wilderness, to bring us an illuminating panorama of every aspect of birds’ lives–from their songs to their search for food, from their eggs and nests to their mastery of the air. Beautifully illustrated with more than a hundred color photographs, the book will delight and inform both bird lovers and any general reader with an interest in nature.

A Passion for Birds
A Passion for Birds: American Ornithology after Audubon

By: Mark V. Barrow Jr.

In exploring how ornithologists struggled to forge a discipline and profession amidst an explosion of popular interest in natural history, A Passion for Birds provides the first book-length history of American ornithology from the death of John James Audubon to the Second World War. Recounting a colorful story based on the interactions among a wide variety of bird-lovers, this book will interest historians of science, environmental historians, ornithologists, birdwatchers, and anyone curious about the historical roots of today’s birding boom.

Physiological Adaptations for Breeding
Physiological Adaptations for Breeding in Birds

By:Tony D. Williams

Physiological Adaptations for Breeding in Birds is the most current and comprehensive account of research on avian reproduction. It develops two unique themes: the consideration of female avian reproductive physiology and ecology, and an emphasis on individual variation in life-history traits. Tony Williams investigates the physiological, metabolic, energetic, and hormonal mechanisms that underpin individual variation in the key female-specific reproductive traits and the trade-offs between these traits that determine variation in fitness.

All About Birds
All about Birds: A Short Illustrated History of Ornithology

By: Valérie Chansigaud

Colorful, musical, graceful, easily observed–birds have always fascinated amateur and professional naturalists alike. This richly illustrated book tells the fascinating story of ornithology from ancient times to the present. Filled throughout with paintings, drawings, photographs, and diagrams, many of them in brilliant color, All about Birds is a fast-paced chronological account of the personalities and milestones that have shaped this most popular of sciences. These key figures and events are also documented in a unique twenty-page illustrated color timeline at the end of the book.

The Atlas of Birds
The Atlas of Birds: Diversity, Behavior, and Conservation

By: Mike Unwin

The Atlas of Birds captures the breathtaking diversity of birds, and illuminates their conservation status around the world. Full-color maps show where birds are found, both by country and terrain, and reveal how an astounding variety of behavioral adaptations–from flight and feeding to nest building and song–have enabled them to thrive in virtually every habitat on Earth. Maps of individual journeys and global flyways chart the amazing phenomenon of bird migration, while bird classification is explained using maps for each order and many key families.

Avian Architecture
Avian Architecture: How Birds Design, Engineer, and Build

By: Peter Goodfellow

Birds are the most consistently inventive builders, and their nests set the bar for functional design in nature. Avian Architecture describes how birds design, engineer, and build their nests, deconstructing all types of nests found around the world using architectural blueprints and detailed descriptions of the construction processes and engineering techniques birds use. This spectacularly illustrated book features 300 full-color images and more than 35 case studies that profile key species worldwide.

Don’t forget to check out the free downloads we’re currently offering. Click on the links below:
Crossley ID Guide Raptors : A sampler raptor guide in PDF format
Quick Finders from The Warbler Guide : A ‘quick finder’ designed to help you identify over 50 warblers faster with targeted color photos.

Climate Change: a Movie and the Math by Ian Roulstone and John Norbury

Climate Change: a Movie and the Math

By Ian Roulstone and John Norbury

Next week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will release the first of three reports that constitute their Fifth Assessment Report on climate change. This first report, The Physical Science Basis, will cover a huge range of topics from the carbon cycle to extreme weather. But climate prediction also relies heavily on mathematics, which is used to quantify uncertainties and improve the models.

The role of math is illustrated by a remarkable video of our ever-changing weather. Last month the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) decommissioned Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite 12 (GOES-12), which monitored our weather for the past 10 years from its isolated vantage point 36,000 kilometers above America and the Atlantic Ocean.

GOES-12 had seen it all – from wildfires, volcanic ash, and landscape parched by drought, to Hurricanes Ike, Katrina and Sandy, and the blizzards that gripped the central United States in the winter of 2009-10. NOAA created a video – 187 seconds and 3641 images – one snapshot from each day of its operational life, which amounts to 10 years’ weather flashing before our eyes in just over 3 minutes. It’s dramatic and amazing:

In Scientific American, Evelyn Lamb commented on how this video highlights “a tension between the unpredictability of the weather and its repetitiveness”. Even after a few seconds it becomes clear that the patterns revealed by clouds differ from one part of the globe to another. Great towering cumulonimbus bubble up and unleash thunderstorms in tropical regions every day, while in more temperate mid-latitudes, the ubiquitous low pressure systems whirl across the Atlantic carrying their warm and cold fronts to Europe. The occasional hurricane, spawned in the tropics, careers towards the United States (Hurricane Sandy can be seen at about 2’50’’). But the mayhem is orchestrated: the cyclones almost seem like a train of ripples or waves, following preferred tracks, and the towering storms are confined largely to the tropics.

CaptureThis image of water vapour in the atmosphere (taken by GOES-13) reveals the swirling cyclones and the tropical storms. While the detail varies from hour to hour and from day to day, there are recurring patterns. Image courtesy of NEODAAS/University of Dundee.

In fact, this movie is affording us a glimpse of a remarkable world – it is a roller-coaster ride on the ‘weather attractor’.

An ‘attractor’ is a mathematician’s way of representing recurring behavior in complex systems, such as our atmosphere. A familiar illustration of an attractor can be seen in the figure below, and it is named after one of the fathers of chaos, Edward Lorenz.

The Lorenz attractor: every point within the space delineated by the coordinate axes represents a possible state of a circulating fluid, such as the ascent of warm air and the temperature difference of the warmer rising air to the cooler descending air. The points on the ‘butterfly wings’ are the attractor: they represent the set of states through (or around) which such a system will evolve. Even if the system begins from a state that does not lie on the attractor, it tends towards the states that do. The transition from one wing of the attractor to the other (which might represent a change in the ‘weather’) can be difficult to predict, due to inherent chaos in the system. But the overall pattern captures the repetitiveness.

It is impossible to illustrate the weather attractor for the atmosphere in terms of a simple three-dimensional image: Lorenz’s very simple model of a circulating cell had only three variables. Our modern computer models used in climate prediction have around 100 million variables, so the attractor resides in a space we cannot even begin to visualise. And this is why the movie created by NOAA is so valuable: it gives us a vivid impression of the repetitiveness emerging from otherwise complex, chaotic behaviour.

Weather forecasters try to predict how our atmosphere evolves and how it moves around the attractor – a hugely difficult task that requires us to explore many possible outcomes (called an ensemble of forecasts) when trying to estimate the weather several days ahead. But climate scientists are faced with a very different problem: instead of trying to figure out which point on the 100 million-dimensional attractor represents the weather 100 years from now, they are trying to figure out whether the shape of the attractor is changing. In other words, are the butterfly wings ‘folding’ as the average weather changes? This is a mathematician’s way of quantifying climate change.

If 100 years from now, when a distant successor of GOES-12 is retired, our descendants create a movie of this future weather, will they see the same patterns of recurring behaviour, or will there be more hurricanes? Will the waves of cyclones follow different tracks? And will tropical storms be more intense? Math enables us to “capture the pattern” even though chaos stops us from saying exactly what will happen, and to calculate answers to these questions we have to calculate how the weather attractor is changing.


This article is cross-posted with the Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ian-roulstone/climate-prediction-mathematics_b_3961853.html

For further insights into the math behind weather and climate prediction, see Roulstone and Norbury’s new book Invisible in the Storm: The Role of Mathematics in Understanding Weather.

The 2013 Bird Migration Series

The Warbler GuideAs the first day of fall fast approaches (September 22nd to be exact), bird migrations are already starting. To note this annual phenomenon, we are celebrating during the months of September and October with giveaways, free downloads, online quizzes, gorgeous pictures, and countless blog posts from some of the best bird writers we know.

To kick off this winged adventure, we’re taking to the skies with a Rafflecopter giveaway event!

Our prize package includes a copy of The Warbler GuideThe Crossley ID Guide: Raptors, and How to Be a Better Birder, a pair of Zeiss TERRA binoculars, and the audio companion for The Warbler Guide.

The Crossley ID GuideHow to win? Visit this post for details, but there are numerous ways to win, including liking any of the three books Facebook pages, emailing us at blog@press.princeton.edu, signing up for our email alerts for Bird and Natural History Titles at http://press.princeton.edu/subscribe/,or tweeting at @PrincetonNature or at any of the author’s Twitter pages (@IDCrossleyGuide or @The WarblerGuide). The winner will be selected at the beginning of October.

Plus weHow To Be A Better Birder have two free downloads that are available at our blog site:

Crossley ID Guide Raptors : A sampler raptor guide in PDF format
Quick Finders from The Warbler Guide : A ‘quick finder’ designed to help you identify over 50 warblers faster with targeted color photos.

Most of all, stay tuned as we continue to post everything you ever wanted to know about bird migrations throughout the fall season.

How to Build a Habitable Planet

How to Build a Habitable Planet by Charles H. Langmuir & Wally Broecker “To be worth being this unwieldy, a book ought to do something pretty remarkable. And that’s just what How to Build . . . does, as you can tell from its subtitle, The Story of Earth from the Big Bang to Humankind. Now that’s what you call a large canvas.”–Brian Clegg, Popular Science

How to Build a Habitable Planet:
The Story of Earth from the Big Bang to Humankind
by Charles H. Langmuir & Wally Broecker

Since its first publication more than twenty-five years ago, How to Build a Habitable Planet has established a legendary reputation as an accessible yet scientifically impeccable introduction to the origin and evolution of Earth, from the Big Bang through the rise of human civilization. This classic account of how our habitable planet was assembled from the stuff of stars introduced readers to planetary, Earth, and climate science by way of a fascinating narrative. Now this great book has been made even better. Harvard geochemist Charles Langmuir has worked closely with the original author, Wally Broecker, one of the world’s leading Earth scientists, to revise and expand the book for a new generation of readers for whom active planetary stewardship is becoming imperative.

Interweaving physics, astronomy, chemistry, geology, and biology, this sweeping account tells Earth’s complete story, from the synthesis of chemical elements in stars, to the formation of the Solar System, to the evolution of a habitable climate on Earth, to the origin of life and humankind. The book also addresses the search for other habitable worlds in the Milky Way and contemplates whether Earth will remain habitable as our influence on global climate grows. It concludes by considering the ways in which humankind can sustain Earth’s habitability and perhaps even participate in further planetary evolution.

Like no other book, How to Build a Habitable Planet provides an understanding of Earth in its broadest context, as well as a greater appreciation of its possibly rare ability to sustain life over geologic time.


Watch Wally Broecker deliver a public lecture addressing the global CO2 crisis at Columbia University

Table of Contents

Sample this book:

Preface [PDF]

Chapter 1 [PDF]

Request an examination copy.



Bender_Paleoclimate “Michael Bender, a giant in the field, fits the excitement, rigor, and deep insights of paleoclimatology into a succinct text suitable for a semester-long course introducing this indispensable branch of environmental science.”–Richard B. Alley, Pennsylvania State University

Michael L. Bender

In this book, Michael Bender, an internationally recognized authority on paleoclimate, provides a concise, comprehensive, and sophisticated introduction to the subject. After briefly describing the major periods in Earth history to provide geologic context, he discusses controls on climate and how the record of past climate is determined. The heart of the book then proceeds chronologically, introducing the history of climate changes over millions of years–its patterns and major transitions, and why average global temperature has varied so much. The book ends with a discussion of the Holocene (the past 10,000 years) and by putting manmade climate change in the context of paleoclimate.

The most up-to-date overview on the subject, Paleoclimate provides an ideal introduction to undergraduates, nonspecialist scientists, and general readers with a scientific background.


Watch Michael Bender discuss Paleoclimate at the Fundamentals of Climate Science Symposium at Princeton University

Request an examination copy.


Toby Tyrrell, author of On Gaia, explains how he came to question the Gaia Hypothesis

We interviewed Toby Tyrrell about his new book “On Gaia” last week. This week, we’re proud to link to this article in which he details some of the research that led him to view the Gaia Hypothesis with a critical eye:

Nitrogen is exceptionally abundant in the environment, it makes up 78 per cent of air, as dinitrogen (N2). N2 is also much more plentiful in seawater than other dissolved forms of nitrogen. The problem is that only organisms possessing the enzyme nitrogenase (organisms known as nitrogen-fixers) can actually use N2, and there aren’t very many of them. This is obviously a less than ideal arrangement for most living things. It is also unnecessary. Nitrogen starvation wouldn’t happen if just a small fraction of the nitrogen locked up in N2 was available in other forms that can be used by all organisms; yet biological processes taking place in the sea keep nearly all that nitrogen as N2. If you think about what is best for life on Earth and what that life can theoretically accomplish, nitrogen starvation is wholly preventable.

This realisation led me to wonder what other aspects of the Earth environment might be less than perfect for life. What about temperature? We know that ice forming inside cells causes them to burst and that icy landscapes, although exquisite to the eye, are relatively devoid of life. We can also see that ice ages – the predominant climate state of the last few million years – are rather unfortunate for life as a whole. Much more land was covered by ice sheets, permafrost and tundra, all biologically impoverished habitats, during the ice ages, while the area of productive shelf seas was only about a quarter of what it is today. Global surveys of fossil pollen, leaves and other plant remains clearly show that vegetation and soil carbon more than doubled when the last ice age came to an end, primarily due to a great increase in the area covered by forests.

Although the cycle of ice ages and interglacials is beyond life’s control, the average temperature of our planet – and hence the coldness of the ice ages – is primarily determined by the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. As this is potentially under biological control it looks like another example of a less than perfect outcome of the interactions between life on Earth and its environment.

Look further and you find still more examples. The scarcity of light at ground level in rainforests inhibits growth of all but the most shade-tolerant plants. There’s only really enough light for most plants at canopy height, often 20 to 40 metres up, or below temporary gaps in the canopy. The intensity of direct sunlight does not increase the higher you go, so having the bulk of photosynthesis taking place at such heights brings no great advantage to the forest as a whole. Rather the contrary, trees are forced to invest large amounts of resources in building tall enough trunks to have the chance of a place in the sun. This arrangement is hard to understand if you expect the environment to be arranged for biological convenience, but is easily understood as an outcome of plants competing for resources.

Source: “Not Quite Perfect”, Planet Earth Online: http://planetearth.nerc.ac.uk/features/story.aspx?id=1492&cookieConsent=A


Read a sample chapter from On Gaia: A Critical Investigation of the Relationship between Life and Earth [PDF].

Q&A with Toby Tyrrell, author of “On Gaia”


tyrell_toby_au photo

Toby Tyrrell is professor of Earth system science at the National Oceanography Centre Southampton (University of Southampton). His new book On Gaia: A Critical Investigation of the Relationship between Life and Earth publishes at the end of July.

He kindly answered some questions from our UK Director of Publicity Caroline Priday.

Q: Why did you write this book

A: My aim was to determine whether the Gaia hypothesis is a credible explanation of how life and environment interact on Earth.


Q: What is the Gaia hypothesis?

A: James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, first put forward in the 1970’s, proposes that life has played a critical role in shaping the planetary environment and climate over ~3 bil­lion years, in order to keep it habitable or even optimal for life down through the geological ages. Life has not been merely a passive pas­senger on a fortuitously habitable Earth, it is claimed, but rather has shaped the environment and helped to keep it comfortable.


Q: Why has there been so much interest in the Gaia hypothesis?

A: In part because it suggests answers to some fundamental questions of widespread interest, such as how it is that Earth remained continuously habitable for so long, how did our planet and the life upon it end up the way they are, and how does the Earth system work?


Q: Lots of scientists have considered Gaia before – what is different about this book?

A: Previous books have been mostly reviews of the scientific debates over Gaia, collections of scientific papers, or congratulatory restatements of Gaia by supporters. This book is the first to submit the Gaia hypothesis to detailed sceptical scrutiny, subjecting each of three main arguments put forward in support of Gaia to close analysis, and comparing them to modern evidence collected in the more than 30 years since the Gaia hypothesis was first proposed. It is the first book containing a hard-nosed and thorough examination of the Gaia hypothesis.


Q: What are the three main arguments that have been advanced in support of Gaia?

A: Firstly, that the Earth is very comfortable for life. Secondly, that the presence of life on Earth has profoundly altered the nature of the planetary environment. And thirdly, that the environment has remained fairly stable over geological time.


Q: What is the main conclusion of the book?

A: That the Gaia hypothesis does not “hold up in court”: it is not consistent with modern scientific evidence and understanding and should therefore be rejected.


Q: What are the reasons given for rejecting the Gaia hypothesis?

A: Firstly because there are no facts or phenomena that can be explained only by Gaia (no ‘smoking gun’). Secondly because there is no proven mechanism for Gaia (no accepted reason for why it should emerge out of natural selection). And thirdly because the key lines of argument that Lovelock and others advanced in support of Gaia either give equally strong support to alternative hypotheses or else are mistaken. For instance the planet is not excessively favourable for life: it has been colder than optimal during the ice ages that have occupied the majority of the last few million years, and unnecessary nitrogen starvation is ubiquitous. Its environmental history has not been all that stable: we now have abundant evidence of past environmental instability, from ice age cycles to seawater Mg/Ca variation to Snowball/Slushball Earths.


Q: If life and its environment do not interact in the way suggested by Gaia (life moulding the environment towards its own convenience) then how do they interact?

A: Through ‘coevolution’. Stephen Schneider and Randi Londer put forward the idea of a coevolution between life and its environment: biological processes such as oxygen production by photosynthesis shape the environment, and, clearly, the environment also strongly influences life through evolution of organisms to fit their environments. Coevolution recognises that both affect the other. Unlike Gaia, however, coevolution does not claim any emergent property out of the two-way interaction between life and environment. It is neutral with regards to predictions about the resulting effect on the environment. It does not suggest that the interaction tends to improve living conditions on Earth.


Q: If the Gaia hypothesis is not the reason, then why did the Earth remain habitable for such an enormously long interval of time?

A: This may relate partly to the weak Anthropic Principle, whereby we logically cannot observe any facts that preclude our own existence. So however infrequent it may be in the universe for a planet to remain continuously habitable over billions of years, we happen to be on just such a planet. According to this way of thinking, Earth may just have been lucky, with no sentient observers having evolved on other planets which were not so lucky, i.e. where conditions became sterile at some point. Another possible explanation for extended habitability in the absence of Gaia is a predominantly inorganic thermostat, such as has been suggested for silicate weathering.


Q: Why would people be interested in this book?

A: It considers some of the great questions about the nature of our planet, its history, and how it came to give rise to us. Many fascinating topics are covered, often from little-known corners of the natural world. Examples include: hummingbirds in the High Andes and the similarity of their beaks to the flowers they extract nectar from, the wonderfully-named Walsby’s square archaeon in the Dead Sea, the ever-lasting durability of the waste that coral reefs generate (not everything in nature is recycled), changes in the nature of the saltiness of seawater over geological time, and differences in the way Australian snakes bear young depending on climate (they don’t always lay eggs).


Q: Are there any implications for the current era of global change?

A: Yes, it is suggested that belief in the Gaia hypothesis can lead to excessive complacency about the robustness and resilience of the natural system. Gaia emphasizes stabilising feedbacks and protective mechanisms that keep the environment in check. If Gaia is rejected, however, we are left with a less comforting view of the natural system. Without Gaia it is easier to appreciate that the natural system contains lines of weakness and other susceptibilities. One such line of weakness that has already been demonstrated is the ozone layer depletion by CFC’s. I have argued in the book that there is no over-riding Gaia to protect our planet’s life support system. Maintaining the Earth’s environment is up to us.


Read a sample chapter from On Gaia: A Critical Investigation of the Relationship between Life and Earth [PDF].

[THURSDAY, July 4th] Life and environment: An evaluation of the Gaia Hypothesis by Professor Toby Tyrrell

Life and environment: An evaluation of the Gaia Hypothesis

by Professor Toby Tyrrell

Toby will be signing copies of his book at 6:30pm.

Categories: Lectures & Discussions, Book Signing
Co-sponsor: Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
Date: Thursday, July 4th, 2013
Time: 6:30pm – 8:30pm. Toby will be signing copies of his book at 6:30pm. The Marine Life Talks are held at 7:30pm. Please arrive no later than 7:15pm.
Venue: The National Oceanography Centre
Address: National Oceanography Centre
University of Southampton Waterfront Campus
European Way
Southampton SO14 3ZH
United Kingdom
Location: Reached via Dock Gate 4 (between Southampton’s Town Quay and Ocean Village).
Cost: Free admission – these talks are open to the public

View this event on the National Oceanography Center website: http://noc.ac.uk/news/4-july-2013-%E2%80%93-marine-life-talk-book-signing

In 1972 James Lovelock made an interesting proposal. Life is not solely a pas­senger on a fortuitously habitable Earth, he suggested. Instead, life has been at the controls of the planetary environment, helping to ensure continued habitability over ~3 bil­lion years. In the thirty years or so since he first proposed it, the Gaia hypothesis has intrigued a whole generation of those interested in natural history and planet Earth. Today it is widely but by no means universally credited by scientists. It remains controversial.

Gaia is a fascinating idea, but is it correct? In this talk Toby Tyrrell will attempt to an answer this overall large question by first exploring some smaller questions that relate to the larger one. First Toby will look at cooperative regulation of a shared living space: under what circumstances is this observed to occur in nature? Second he will consider whether the biota has altered the environment on a global scale. Finally Toby will discuss whether the changes to environmental conditions following evolutionary innovations have or have not been broadly favorable for life. He will combine the answers to each of these questions into a wider evaluation of whether the Gaia hypothesis is plausible and consistent with modern evidence and will conclude that it is not. Instead a competing hypothesis, co-evolution of life and environment, will be suggested to be compatible with our modern understanding in a way that Gaia is not.

Toby Tyrrell has long been interested in the dynamics and interactions of life and environment on Earth. Encompassed within that rather large topic, his narrower research interests have included enthusiasms on coccolithophores, the ocean carbon and nutrient cycles and ocean acidification. After an undergraduate degree in Civil Engineering at the University of Southampton he gained an MSc in Artificial Intelligence at the University of Edinburgh and then a PhD from the same institution. He spent two years working on ecological modelling at Plymouth Marine Laboratory. Since then he has been a researcher then lecturer and now professor of Earth system science in the University of Southampton, NOCS.

This talk is linked with publication of a book on the same topic:


Recordings of previous Marine Life Talks can be found on: http://www.youtube.com/user/NOCSnews

The Marine Life Talks are held on the first Thursday of the month at 7.30pm. Please arrive no later than 7:15pm.

Arrangements for wheelchairs must be made in advance. Unless it is possible to descend via the stairs in an emergency, access to upper floors cannot be permitted as lifts are automatically immobilized when the fire alarm is activated.

The National Oceanography Centre is reached via Dock Gate 4 (between Southampton’s Town Quay and Ocean Village).

About Toby Tyrell:

Toby Tyrrell, author of On Gaia: A Critical Investigation of the Relationship between Life and EarthResearch Interests

Specialism: Ocean acidification

How organisms interact with their environments. Ecology of phytoplankton, coccolithophores in particular. Ocean acidification. Ocean biogeochemistry, including during extreme events in Earth’s ancient past such as the E/O and K/T boundaries. Ocean carbon cycle and its effect on future atmospheric CO2 levels. Marine cycles of N, P, C, Si. The control of biogenic element concentrations in the sea as a function of ecological competition between different functional groups of phytoplankton.

PhD Supervision

Zongpei Jiang, Dave Mackay, Claudia Fry, Tingting Shi, Christopher Daniels, Matthew Humphreys.

Primary research group: Ocean Biogeochemistry and Ecosystems

Affiliate research group: Palaeoceanography and Palaeoclimate

Research projects

  • Leader of NOCS Beacon Theme on Ocean Acidification
  • Coordinator of the sea-surface consortium, a major component (>£3m, 10 partner institutions) of the United Kingdom Ocean Acidification Research Programme.


Source Credit For About Toby Tyrrell: University of Southampton

On Gaia:
A Critical Investigation of the Relationship between Life and Earth
Toby Tyrrell

On Gaia: A Critical Investigation of the Relationship between Life and Earth by Toby Tyrrell“A handful of scientists have become crusaders for the Gaia hypothesis, while the rest have dismissed it without a second thought. Toby Tyrrell, on the other hand, is one of the very few scientists to have considered the evidence at length and in detail. In summarizing nearly forty years of arguments for and against the Gaia hypothesis, he has done a great service for anyone who is curious about Gaia, or about this fascinating planet that we all call home.”–James Kirchner, University of California, Berkeley

“Toby Tyrrell unravels the various formulations of Gaia and explains how recent scientific developments bring the hypothesis into question. His criticisms are insightful, profound, and convincing, but fair. On Gaia is wonderfully informative and a pleasure to read.”–Francisco J. Ayala, author of Am I a Monkey?: Six Big Questions about Evolution

“At last, a beautifully written and clear-eyed analysis of the interplay of life and the Earth system. On Gaia provides the understanding for moving forward in the quest for sustainability, and is essential reading if our planet is to remain habitable for humanity.”–Thomas E. Lovejoy, George Mason University

On Gaia makes a wonderful addition to the literature. It is scholarly, well-written, and well-reasoned.”–Simon A. Levin, Princeton University