The Science of Story: David Grinspoon on ‘Earth in Human Hands’ (Q&A w/ event details)

David Grinspoon will present his new book, Earth in Human Hands, at the Yale Bookstore in New Haven on Saturday, January 28, at 2:00 p.m. This event is free and open to the public. Copies of the book will be available for purchase / signing. Location: 77 Broadway @ York Square.


Today, I am delighted to be in the virtual company of David Grinspoon.

David is the prize-winning author of the recent non-fiction title, Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future (Grand Central Publishing). He previously wrote Lonely Planets and Venus Revealed. David is also an astrobiologist, award-winning science communicator; in 2013 he was appointed the inaugural Chair of Astrobiology at the Library of Congress. He is a frequent advisor to NASA on space exploration strategy, and is on the team for the Curiosity Mars Rover. David’s writing has appeared in the New York TimesSlateScientific AmericanSeedBoston Globe, and the Los Angeles Times.

Author David Grinspoon.

Praise for Earth in Human Hands:

“In his wonderful writing style, Dr. Grinspoon spells it out: A single species is inducing more profound changes to our planet than any other organism in geologic history. It’s us. If you have family and friends here on Earth, read this book. The Earth is in our hands.”—Bill Nye “The Science Guy”, New York Times bestselling author of Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World

“Rarely is a science book profoundly informative, highly entertaining, and surprisingly filled with interesting tidbits as a memoir. Such is the case, however, from the new book Earth in Human Hands…This is a book that any thinking person will have been glad to read. One could hardly ask for more.”—Astronomy Magazine

“An optimistic and informative take on the future of Earth and humankind.”—Publishers Weekly

From the publisher:

For the first time in Earth’s history, our planet is experiencing a confluence of rapidly accelerating changes prompted by one species: humans. Climate change is only the most visible of the modifications we’ve made–up until this point, inadvertently–to the planet. And our current behavior threatens not only our own future but that of countless other creatures. By comparing Earth’s story to those of other planets, astrobiologist David Grinspoon shows what a strange and novel development it is for a species to evolve to build machines, and ultimately, global societies with world-shaping influence.

Without minimizing the challenges of the next century, Grinspoon suggests that our present moment is not only one of peril, but also great potential, especially when viewed from a 10,000-year perspective. Our species has surmounted the threat of extinction before, thanks to our innate ingenuity and ability to adapt, and there’s every reason to believe we can do so again.

Our challenge now is to awaken to our role as a force of planetary change, and to grow into this task. We must become graceful planetary engineers, conscious shapers of our environment and caretakers of Earth’s biosphere. This is a perspective that begs us to ask not just what future do we want to avoid, but what do we seek to build? What kind of world do we want? Are humans the worst thing or the best thing to ever happen to our planet? Today we stand at a pivotal juncture, and the answer will depend on the choices we make.

‘Earth in Human Hands’

Now, David communicates the art of science with readers …

John Valeri: What inspired you to write Earth in Human Hands – and how did you endeavor to take such a dynamic topic and encapsulate it for a general reading audience?

David Grinspoon: I’m a space scientist who studies the evolution of other planets and in comparison to Earth, their ability to support life, and in particular the catastrophic changes that happen to planets over their lifetimes.  I realized that this gives me a different perspective on what is happening right now to Earth, our role in that transformation, and how we might look at ourselves differently when we see ourselves from this “deep time” and “deep space” perspective. I find that looking at the story of our planet, and of our species, from this wider perspective gives me a more hopeful outlook on our current struggles, and I wanted to share that.

I have always enjoyed communicating about science with “regular people” who aren’t necessarily immersed in the science world but are interested in learning about how science can inform our experience of the world and our approach to the future. I like to tell stories that help to bring these topics alive.

JV: Humanity is a unique factor to planet Earth when considering the solar system at large. What are the ramifications of this – and how do people compare to other organisms that have shaped the world?

DG: Many species have changed the world radically and in ways that are harmful or fatal for other organisms. We are not the first to threaten a mass extinction.  The difference, of course, is that we are having this conversation. We have some awareness of what we are doing.  This makes us uniquely responsible for our actions, but also gives us the potential to wake up, to see what we are doing and to change course.  There are some good examples that prove our ability to do this. For example, consider the “ozone hole” that we started causing in the 1970s through our use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) for refrigeration.  These caused a dangerous, unintended side-effect, they started to erode the protective ozone layer in the upper atmosphere, without which we would be cancer-ridden toast.  But we saw what was happening, had arguments and discussions and debates over what to do about it, made global agreements and changed our behavior. The solution is working. We are fixing the ozone. This shows we are capable of a different mode of behavior.

JV: You make the argument that we are not only at a point of peril but of potential. How does perspective shape action – and what examples in our evolutionary history illustrate the idea that great obstacles can result in equally great growth?

DG: I mentioned the ozone problem and solution above as a recent example. Going farther back in our history as a species, several times we have faced existential threats, almost gone extinct, and survived by reinventing ourselves, by finding new ways to cooperate and new technologies that got us out of the messes we were in. For example about 190,000 years ago there was a “genetic bottleneck” where the human race was very nearly wiped out. We were down to perhaps only 1,000 people left. This happened because of climate change – an ice age in Africa that wiped out the game we were hunting. We could no longer be hunter/gatherers in the way we were used to.  Some people at a place in South Africa, on the coast, a place called Pinnacle Point, invented new complex technologies that required sophisticated language to teach between generations.  This allowed them to survive by making better spears and learning to feed themselves from the ocean. This may have been the origin of modern humanity.  We have been through the crucible of dangerous climate change and survived by enlarging our social and communicative networks and reinventing ourselves, finding new ways to interact with our wider environment.  Now we need to do so again in order to meet the global challenges we have inadvertently created for ourselves.

JV: We often fall into the trap of thinking that one person can’t alone make a difference. Can you give us an example of how this logic is faulty (and therefore detrimental to the idea of sustainability)?

DG: Our collective behavior is made up of the accumulation of our individual behavior, so each of us contributes to that. There is danger in thinking that you can’t make a difference, and of course it is not true.  It can seem that way sometimes but remember that social norms and standards of behavior change greatly over time. Remember in the 1960s it was normal to litter along the roads in the United States. Then there was a big public education campaign “Keep America Beautiful”.  It worked. People don’t litter anymore. Of course some people do, but the norm has changed.  How do you think that happens? It happens through public education, but also by ideas and information and opinions spreading throughout the populace, and so each of us contributes to these changes.

JV: Your narrative is a unique blend of style and substance. How has your background influenced your storytelling abilities – and what did you find to be the key(s) to balancing education with entertainment in your presentation?

DG: I grew up enthralled by good storytellers who combined science with narrative: Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Rachel Carson, Lewis Thomas and many others. I always wanted to try to do what they did. I spent many years teaching undergraduates who were not necessarily taking intro to astronomy because they loved the subject but sometimes because they needed to take a science to fulfill a requirement.  I loved that situation because I took it as a challenge: “You don’t THINK you are interested in this, but I will prove you wrong.”  I would ham it up in class, do stunts to get their attention, and also just share my genuine love of nature and science and the Earth and the rest of the universe.  All that teaching really helped me learn to connect.  Also, I am a musician. I’ve always played in bands and travelled around with bands and through that I’ve learned to interact with many kinds of people and connect in different ways with a diverse range of human beings.  I think that helps with my science communication as well.

JV: In your opinion, what is the role of the bookstore within its community – and how can attending author events enhance the reader/writer/bookseller relationship?

DG: Books are a perfect technology that will never become obsolete. We can see that now because even though e-books are very popular, physical books are clearly maintaining their market share. Books are too good to give up. Bookstores are magical places.  When we are surrounded by books we are immersed within a world of all these voices, all these stories, all this knowledge. There is something so comforting, exciting and joyous about being embedded in story like that. And seeing an author in a bookstore is different from any other kind of event because that is when a book comes alive, when you can hear the author in their own voice, and then take the book home and read it at your leisure with a deeper feeling of connection between reader and writer.  And of course from the writer’s perspective it is wonderful to interact with readers in that way. Writing is a solitary experience and when you do a reading and have a chance to discuss your book with readers, it socializes the experience and gives you a chance to experience the book as a two way conduit for ideas and information. It’s a wonderful experience for a writer to do that.


With thanks to David Grinspoon for his generosity of time and thought and to Linda Duggins, Senior Director of Publicity at Grand Central Publishing, for facilitating this interview.

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