The Ends of the World

Peter Brannen

The Ends of the World



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Although the disappearance of the dinosaurs, such as the formidable T-Rex, does tend to get the most attention among all our many dramatic palaeontological discoveries, the mass extinction that wiped these giant lizards off the face of the Earth is only one of five that our planet has gone through, and it was not even the most catastrophic. Life on Earth has all but died out five times over the course of around 600 million years. The interglacial era we are living in today is just one of many that have existed, and in this case, it has allowed our species to flourish. The climate changes we are causing, however, are pushing planet earth’s geological and biological equilibrium to its limits. We do not know what will happen if we carry on in this way, and not even studying the most unfathomable and mysterious depths of the past can help us to predict the future. Five mass extinctions have failed to wipe out life on our planet, but this modern and curious primate we call “human”, has taken it upon itself to dig up and burn all the planet’s reserves of fossil fuels and gases, and this latest process of extinction could well be the one to deal the final blow.

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Analysis and key concepts


Before setting off on this journey into the past, we need to have a basic understanding of the carbon cycle and of how the Earth regulates its temperature


The Cambrian and Ordovician periods mark the beginning of complex life on Earth, especially in the water, and the first real mass extinction in the history of the planet


The second mass extinction occurred at the end of the Devonian period, 375 million years ago


The end of the Permian Period, 250 million years ago, was the worst apocalypse the planet had ever seen


In geological terms, the catastrophic demise of the Permian Period was over in the blink of an eye, and then gradually gave way to a new world of reptiles


The dinosaurs roamed the planet during the Cretaceous period, which ended with the most remarkable and rapid mega-extinction of them all


The Pleistocene is the most recent global extinction, which began about 50,000 years ago, and ended with a glaciation that is still underway




Take-home message

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Many useful tips to:

  • Realise how young the human species really is, compared to the history of the Earth. 
  • Learn to appreciate the beauty of the natural balances that govern our planet. 
  • Let your imagination take you on a journey of discovery into the Earth’s most distant and mysterious past.

Peter Brannen is an American science journalist, who has earned a reputation for his ability to explain the history of the Earth, and the life that inhabits it, in an engaging and accessible manner. He is a graduate of Boston College, and began his career writing for The Boston Globe and The Guardian, before becoming a full-time science populariser in magazines such as The New York Times, Wired, The Atlantic, and National Geographic. His first book, The Ends of the World, was a New York Times bestseller, and won the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award.

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