The Cheerful Oncologist

Looking for something to read that’s a little more thought-provoking than the usual beach book detritus pushed on the unwary consumer this summer?

Fly, don’t waddle, to the nearest bookstore and take a gander at The World Without Us, a fascinating “thought experiment,” as one reviewer called it, that ponders what would happen to our planet if all humans suddenly disappeared.

Before speculating on what changes, both nurturing and poisoning, would be loosed upon Earth by our absence, the author, Alan Weisman, first chronicles with precise and first-hand knowledge what humans have done to our planet over the past century. He traveled around the world to meet with experts on pollutants such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls, banned for thirty years in this country) or radiation, and visited several unique areas, such as the DMZ of the two Koreas, where humans have vacated. His compelling writing is almost mournful at times as he describes how we have taken a stranglehold on the biosystems of Earth as if the Gods of Olympus themselves were battering nature into obeisance.

Then, we disappear. Why and how is not the author’s point – it is what happens after we’re gone. The best sections of the book delineate both the horrific wounds humans would carve into Mother Earth if they were gone, such as the 441 unmanned nuclear reactors around the world, now all headed toward meltdown, and the almost heavenly beauty of flora and fauna repopulating farms now seeded with trees, and cities now slowly crumbling into dust.

If an alien race landed here several million years after we are gone, what would survive from our time on Earth to give them a clue as to who we were? Weisman’s account of what humans have created that will last until our sun expands to broil the planet into oblivion is indelible, but I’m not going to give these secrets away. You’ll have to borrow my copy of the book to find out the rest.

The World Without Us is some real beach reading, for those who have ever sat on a beach, looked all around and wondered…and wondered…


  1. #1 Ex-drone
    July 29, 2007

    Are these the Intelligent Designers, who finally returned to check on their experiment? If so, they might find a world in which global warming caused a fever that consumed its human virus and renewed its natural cycles and populations. The alien scientists would have to check their notes to confirm that they had actually seeded the planet for intelligent life, marks us down as a failed outcome and move along to the next petri dish.

  2. #2 decrepitoldfool
    July 29, 2007

    Scientific American highlighted the thought experiment, as did New Scientist. It got me thinking about the objects I’ve handled that would outlast our civilization.

    Glass objects are very long-lived, but do etch and disintegrate. Polymers eventually become brittle, but maybe they need sunlight to do that. Lots of other stuff will just crumble away.

    But one curious object, of which archaeologists are likely to find millions, is early Intel 386 and 486 computer chips. They are framed in a slab of some superhard material like aluminum oxide. I actually have one I keep on my workbench to straighten up the face of my grinding wheel when it becomes rounded with use. The grinding wheel can easily abrade chrome-vanadium tool steel but only makes the computer chip a little shiny on the edges; the chip abrades the grinding wheel into a nice straight surface.

    The wiring embedded in the slab is all gold-plated. The actual 486 computing circuit is etched in nanoscale onto a bit of doped silicon, behind a gold-plated stainless-steel panel that should provide ample protection in most cases, but which can be removed with a little active determination.

    I’ve often thought of some alien scientist pondering one of those things, while his or her partner says; “Come to bed, dear. It’ll still be there in the morning.”

  3. #3 Martin R
    July 29, 2007

    I’m half-way through the book and enjoying it immensely!

  4. #4 natural cynic
    July 29, 2007

    For a similar description from about 60 years ago, read Earth Abides by George Stewart. The dismantling of human creations is observed by an ecologist who is one of abvout .01% of the human population that survives a plague.

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