The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert – a review

The sixth extinction: an unnatural historyFrom Wired’s Top Ten best books of 2014, #LeedsReadsRecommends The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

Over the last half a billion years, there have been five mass extinctions of life on Earth. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. Elizabeth Kolbert combines brilliant field reporting, the history of ideas and the work of geologists, botanists and marine biologists to tell the gripping stories of a dozen species – including the Panamanian golden frog and the Sumatran rhino – some already gone, others at the point of vanishing.

An example is the great auk -the original “penguin” which once thrived in great flocks in Iceland and Newfoundland. Flightless birds, like the dodo, they provided meat and feathers. An English sailor said “You do not give yourself the trouble of killing them but lay hold of one and pluck the best… You then turn the poor penguin adrift, with his skin half naked and torn off, to perish at his leisure.” They became extinct in 1844, victims of Icelandic hunters.

Extinction is a relatively new concept. In the 1790s French naturalist Georges Cuvier compared living animals to fossils and found that 23 species had once but no longer existed . In the 1970s Luis Alvarez presented the theory an asteroid had killed the dinosaurs – “The worst day ever on planet Earth” also ‘gave us our evolutionary chance’. “The reason this book is being written by a hairy biped, rather than a scaly one, has more to do with dinosaurian misfortune than with any particular mammalian virtue.”

Kolbert’s book is full of humour and she visits the Great Barrier Reef, the Peruvian jungle, and more, but her most urgent warning is about the condition of the oceans. A third of reef corals, freshwater molluscs, sharks & rays, a fifth of all reptiles, a quarter of mammals and a sixth of birds may become extinct this century. Carbon dioxide absorbed by the sea has increased by 30 per cent since the Industrial Revolution. This prevents ‘structures’ forming , with disastrous effects for the marine food chain. Increasingly ‘acid’ oceans mean that all coral reefs – which support up to nine million other species – will have dissolved within 50 years.

Kolbert concludes with a quote from the ecologist Paul Ehrlich: “In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches.”

Books you might like if you’ve seen ‘The Theory of Everything’

Travelling to infinity: my life with StephenMy brief historyIf you have seen the film ‘The Theory of Everything’ you might be aware that it was based on Jane Hawking’s book  ‘Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen’ which we have in stock if you’d like to read it. It describes their marriage, life together and subsequent divorce.

There’s also a new biography called Stephen Hawking by Sonia Newland and Hawking’s own autobiography My Brief History which was published in 2013. It takes the reader from his post-war childhood in London through his undergraduate years at Oxford. He says he was smart but (according to him) undistinguished. A great lover of jokes and bets, he made an art of doing as little work as possible.

A brief history of time: from the big bang to black holesAll that changed, however, when Hawking received a diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS, at the age of 21, and began his transformation into the (still fun-loving) explorer and explainer of the universe that we know today. Written with wit, humility, and warmth, ‘My Brief History’ gives us a candid examination of a life well-lived, including insight into his marriages and family life as well as a portrait of his intellectual evolution


We also have copies of The Brief History of Time or grab 3-minute Stephen Hawking: digesting his life, theories and influence in 3-minute morsels by Paul Parsons

Eddie Redmayne just won a Golden Globe award for his amazing portrayal of Stephen Hawking in the film.



New Popular Science books

Human universe

Scarcity: the true cost of not having enough

Gulp: adventures on the alimentary canal

 Human Universe by Brian Cox 

Human life is a staggeringly strange thing. This TV tie in book asks questions about our origins, our destiny, and our place in the universe.

Gulp by Mary Roach

A book that  takes a look at eating- the most pleasurable, gross and necessary process we humans undertake.

Yet few of us realise what strange miracles of science operate inside us after every meal. Mary Roach breaks bread with spit connoisseurs, competitive hot dog eaters and stomach slugs, as she investigates the beginning and end of our food

Scarcity: the true cost of not having enough by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar  Shafir

  • Why can we never seem to keep on top of our workload, social diary or chores?
  • Why does poverty persist around the world?
  • Why do successful people do things at the last minute in a sudden rush of energy?

Mullainathan,  ‘the most interesting young economist in the world’ & Shafir, the ‘most brilliant psychologist’ of his generation, explain why all these problems are about the science of  Scarcity and they explain why obesity is rampant; why people find it difficult to sleep when most sleep deprived; and why the lonely find it so hard to make friends.