Book Review: A Brief History of Earth: Four Billion Years in Eight Chapters

A Brief History of Earth: Four Billion Years in Eight Chapters by Andrew H. Knoll

Andrew Knoll’s A Brief History of Earth is the second book I’ve read so far this year that deserves to be called “popular science writing done well”.

Often after I’ve read a book that covers a very large topic - for example the entire history of planet earth from a geological perspective - I’ll be disappointed. Sometimes for the straightforward reason that the book lacks depth. Many times because it skips major events or ideas that I’m interested in, or is disjointed.  

Amazingly, for a short book (230 pages of main text including illustrations)  that covers four billion years of Earth’s history, I don’t feel that way at all after reading Knoll’s book. It packs just the right amount of information into eight distinct and easily digestible chapters. It’s a book you can read all in one sitting (like I did), or a chapter a day. 

Earth Science is a pretty complicated topic because it takes ideas from chemistry, physics and biology, and blends in things like seismology, oceanography and evolution, along with ideas from other sciences. What Knoll does in this book is break that complicated topic into pieces.  Each of the eight chapters focuses on a specific topic, from Chemical Earth through Physical Earth and Biological Earth and so on, up to Human Earth.

Knoll arranges the topics and chapters so that he can also use them to explain the history of our planet. The way he’s organized this book provides a natural flow. Knoll plays the part of a knowledgeable tour guide as we glide through the science and history of Earth. It's a cleverly constructed tour that packs a lot of information into an enjoyable ride. 

Unfortunately, this biography is not without some drama. That comes in the latter part of the book as we near the chapter on Human Earth, where the focus is the impact of humanity on the planet. 

That impact includes climate change, but also other things like a 30 percent decline in North American bird populations since 1970, as well as the massive coral mortality of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Human impact through fertilizer runoff has contributed to the growth of “dead zones” in the Caribbean, which have skyrocketed from 15 square miles of seabed in 1988 to over 8700 square miles by 2017.

At the end of the book Knoll offers several ideas for further reading, organized by chapter. So if any of the topics of the eight chapters particularly strikes  your interest you can learn more. Helpfully, each chapter’s further readings are broken into “accessible readings” and “more technical references”.

The flyleaf overview of the book describes it as “a rigorous-yet-accessible biography of Earth”, and that’s exactly right. If that strikes you as something of interest I recommend it. It’s a Five Star ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ read for me.

Steve's Book Stuff participates in affiliate programs for the booksellers asterisked below.  Purchases you make through an affiliate link will return a small commission to me, at no additional cost to you. Thanks for your support, it helps me buy books to read and review!

Borrow or Purchase A Brief History of Earth here:

📙  Borrow this book: Find out if your library has the ebook or audiobook available through OverDrive or Libby.

📘 Buy this book: Amazon* | Barnes & Noble | Books-A-Million* | AbeBooks* | Powell’s | ThriftBooks 

📗 Support Indie Bookstores: Buy this book directly from* or find an Independent Bookstore near you*

📚 Visit my shop to see all my reviewed books.

Title:A Brief History of Earth: Four Billion Years in Eight Chapters
Author: Andrew H. Knoll
Publisher: Custom House (HarperCollins)
Publish Date: April 27, 2021
ISBN-13: 9780062853912
Publisher’s List Price: $24.00 (Hardcover as of 03/2022)

Related Books

If you're a fan of popular science writing and think you might like A Brief History of Earth, let me recommend a few other books. Below some of the popular science books I’ve read recently. Click on the titles to see my full reviews -

Four Stars ⭐⭐

The first book I read this year that I called “popular science writing done well”. The book has crisp, clear explanations of science and medicine, a broad overview of the history of drug discovery and development, and very little jargon. The book's ten chapters take on ten different classes of drugs / treatments, and walk us through their development and impacts. Includes a discussion of "Big Pharma" and the rationale behind their drive for new products. Very well told.

Four Stars ⭐

Humanity's negative impact on the environment is easy to see. Climate change is probably our largest unintended environmental impact - one that is already giving evidence to how detrimental it can be to humanity itself. In this book the author poses the question - Can we live within nature's laws, using them to our benefit, rather than facing the growing and adverse consequences of trying to "tame" nature?

Three Stars ⭐⭐⭐

Both history and science, this is the kind of book I  gravitate to. In general I found the book enjoyable, but I'm not too proud to admit that most of the chapter on Quantum Clocks was way over my head. My personal preference in a history of science book like this one is that the author go heavy on the history and keep the science to the "explain it to me like I'm a fifth grader" level. In this book the science throughout was a bit "heavier" than I would have liked.

Five Stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Who knew that the life of an astronomer was so much fun? In her 2020 book Emily Levesque relates amusing and amazing stories of professional stargazers. It's not a book about deep concepts of astrophysics, it's a book about how astronomy is actually done and a peek into the lives of astronomers.