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Life in the Universe: A Beginner's Guide, Astrobiology [Paperback]

Lewis Dartnell
4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
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Review

"A much-needed overview of a discipline extending across life, the universe, and everything." (BBC Sky at Night)

"Dartnell’s guide is much-needed overview of a discipline extending across life, the Universe and everything. Demanding read, but definitely rewarding" (BBC Sky at Night)

"Explores the latest theories for how life came to evolve on Earth, and adds fascinating speculations on the prospects for finding it elsewhere." (The Times)

"Dartnell explores the latest theories for how life came to evolve on Earth, and adds fascinating speculations on the prospects for finding it elsewhere." (The Times)

"If one were to read a single book on astrobiology, this would be an excellent choice." (Choice)

"Few books are more wide-ranging and thought-provoking than Life in the Universe, an excellent introduction to the emerging science of astrobiology." (Oxford Today)

"If one were to read a single book on astrobiology, this would be an excellent choice… The book is a must for the newcomer to astrobiology and an excellent resource for anyone wishing to expand their understanding of the subject." (Choice)

"Dartnell's style is direct, easy to follow and the subject matter comprehensive." (The Biologist)

"Quite simply, this is a fantastic book… I recommend it for anyone with an interest in astrobiology in particular, biology in general, life, the universe and everything." (Microbiology Today)

Review

"An excellent introduction into the newly emerging and exciting field of astrobiology." (Gerda Horneck - author of /Looking for Life, Searching the Solar System/ and former Head of the Radi)

From the Inside Flap

"An excellent introduction into the newly emerging and exciting field of astrobiology." Gerda Horneck - author of Looking for Life, Searching the Solar System and former Head of the Radiation Biology Section, at the German Aerospace Centre DLR in Cologne, Germany

From the Back Cover

"An excellent book. Comprehensive and authoritative."
David Morrison – recent winner of the Carl Sagan Medal of the American Astronomical Society for contributions to the public understanding of science.

"Well written and easy to read; it will become a bedside book for any inquiring mind."
Andre Brack – president of the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life and chairman of the Exobiology Science Team at the European Space Agency

"An essential insight into life in its cosmic context."
Charles S. Cockell – author of Impossible Extinction and Professor of Microbiology, Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute, Open University.

"An outstanding introduction into the newly emerging and exciting field of astrobiology."
Gerda Horneck – author of Looking for Life, Searching the Solar System


The study of life and its existence in the universe, known as Astrobiology, is one of the hottest areas of scientific research today. Dartnell discusses the latest theories on what 'life' is, and where in the universe it might be found, and introduces some of the most extreme lifeforms on Earth - those thriving in boiling acid or huddled around deep-sea volcanoes. Taking us on a sweeping tour of the solar system and beyond, he reveals our profound connection to the cosmos, and considers one of the most pressing questions facing scientists today: "is there anything out there?"

Lewis Dartnell is currently researching at CoMPLEX (the Centre for Mathematics & Physics in the Life Sciences and Experimental Biology), at University College London. He has won three national prizes for science writing, and his articles have appeared in publications including The Daily Telegraph and New Scientist.

About the Author

Lewis Dartnell is currently researching at CoMPLEX (the Centre for Mathematics & Physics in the Life Sciences and Experimental Biology), at University College London. He has won three national science writing prizes, including second place in the prestigious Daily Telegraph / BASF Young Science Writer Award.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

As I write this, I occasionally look up and gaze on the world
resting on my desk. I don't mean a satellite photo stuck to the wall or a
globe balanced on a bookshelf.This world is a complete living, breathing,
swarming, thriving system, the condensed essence of Earth, encapsulated in
a hollow glass globe no more than six inches across; an entire ecosystem on
a Lilliputian scale, sealed from the outside world, self-contained,
self-regulated and with a potentially infinite lifespan. The idea behind my
'EcoSphere' is elegantly simple. The four main components of the Earth:
lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and biosphere (rock,water, air and
life), are reproduced in miniature within the glass orb. Land is provided
by a handful of pebbles on the bottom of the ball, a few inches of water
recreate the ocean and a bubble of atmosphere is trapped above. On a warm
day water evaporates from the surface of the pool and condenses, like a
cloud, on the underside of the glass. Drops form and rain back into the
ocean, completing the water cycle.Animal, plant and bacterial life forms
are contained within the microcosm, represented by a small group of shrimp,
green algae and a horde of invisible microbes clinging to the surface of
the pebbles or free-floating through the ocean. Nothing can enter or
leave;all the materials necessary for life must cycle endlessly within the
system. The miniature world's inhabitants depend on each other for survival
but the algae are the keystone.The bubble of life depends on them, as they
use sunlight to produce the nutritious sugars and oxygen the shrimp and ome
bacteria need to survive. The whole system is driven by light; energy
released by nuclear fusion reactions ninety-three million miles away in the
Sun's broiling core. As well as being wonderfully distracting, this fragile
little orb perfectly demonstrates many concepts that are crucial to life on
Earth and therefore what we can deduce about the possibility of organisms
on other worlds. This set of questions about our own origins, what
processes occurred during the development of life, what conditions or raw
materials are necessary and where else these prerequisites might be
satisfied is shaping itself into a new field of science. Astrobiology, the
study of life among the stars, is one of the hottest areas of
multi-disciplinary research, fusing knowledge from biology, chemistry,
astrophysics and geology.This multi-disciplinary study of the 'origin,
evolution, distribution and future of life in the Universe' is sometimes
called exobiology, xenobiology or bioastronomy. This book, a beginner's
guide to astrobiology, will take us on a tour through the most exciting
lines of thought in this new science, the latest findings and what still
remains to be understood.By way of introducing some of the most important
ideas, for the moment I'll turn back towards my toy bubble world, my
EcoSphere. Within the EcoSphere, some things are very obviously alive. The
shrimp actively swim around, feed off the algae, grow, and occasionally
reproduce to create another individual in their own likeness. If one were
to be captured and sucked into an analysis tube, it could be seen to be
reducing the levels of oxygen in the water, while simultaneously releasing
carbon dioxide.If the shrimp is denied oxygen or nutrients for long enough,
it will cease to display this activity and will be said to be dead.On the
other hand, the pebbles resting on the bottom of the EcoSphere are clearly
nonliving.
They do not move, respond to their environment, grow or divide and are
completely inert as far as the levels of chemicals in the water are
concerned. Drawing, from our observations, the conclusion that shrimps are
alive while pebbles are dead, is simple enough in this example.But what
about observations made by one of our robotic probes sent to an alien
world to search for life? How would we know what signs to look for? What
chemical processes might betray its activity? How can we be so sure that
life, completely independent of our own, which has followed its own
evolutionary course for billions of years, would be anything like us? Would
we recognise alien life if we landed right on top of it? What makes us
think it would be carbon-based and living in water and not built from
completely different molecules and employing an exotic biochemistry? For
that matter, what actually is 'life'? The EcoSphere also demonstrates the
distinction between two fundamentally different walks of life. Some
organisms are selfsufficient and can support growth by extracting raw
materials and energy from their environment; others consume other
organisms. The algae are photosynthetic; using the energy from sunlight to
make complex biomolecules to feed and re-create themselves (photosynthetic
literally means 'building with light').The algae are self-sufficient but
the shrimp and bacteria are entirely reliant on the nutrition they provide.
One of the greatest unknowns regarding the origin of life on Earth is
whether the first cells fed on preformed organic molecules or were
completely self-sufficient. Other than photosynthesis, what other sources
of energy might alien life capitalise on? Could photosynthesis be a common
trick for life, soaking up the light of suns throughout the galaxy? Oxygen
released by photosynthesis has built up to a high level in the Earth's
atmosphere and such a feature may also indicate the existence of similar
life on distant planets, a signature we could detect light years away.The
evolution of oxygen-releasing photosynthesis also produced one of the most
profound changes in the history of the Earth.
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