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The Living Cosmos: Our Search for Life in the Universe [Paperback]

Chris Impey
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

2 Jun 2011
Considering the development of life on Earth, the existence of life in extreme environments and the potential for life elsewhere in the Universe, this book gives a fascinating insight into our place in the Universe. Chris Impey leads the reader through the history, from the Copernican revolution to the emergence of the field of astrobiology – the study of life in the cosmos. He examines how life on Earth began, exploring its incredible variety and the extreme environments in which it can survive. Finally, Impey turns his attention to our Solar System and the planets beyond, discussing whether there may be life elsewhere in the Universe. Written in non-technical language, this book is ideal for anyone wanting to know more about astrobiology and how it is changing our views of life and the Universe. An accompanying website available at www.cambridge.org/9780521173841 features podcasts, articles and news stories on astrobiology.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 412 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press; Updated edition edition (2 Jun 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805858571
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521847803
  • ASIN: 0521173841
  • Product Dimensions: 2 x 15.4 x 22.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 837,407 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Review

'Lively, clear and up-to-date overview of astronomy, cosmology, biology and evolution, specifically as related to the search for extraterrestrial life … [Impey] does an impressive job explaining an avalanche of information, including such recent major discoveries as the first planets found orbiting distant stars. A skilful account of the universe, the nature of life and where in the universe life might occur.' Kirkus Reviews

'There has been a recent flood of books about astrobiology - the study of life in the universe - but this latest effort by astronomer Chris Impey is one of the best. It provides a solid overview of the diverse research involved … beautifully written.' The New Scientist

'Impey has written a wonderfully readable book about the chances of life existing elsewhere in the universe … But The Living Cosmos is not about just that. It is an overview of everything you need to know about the fundamentals, including how we got here and where we're probably going. More important, the science - a word that often causes eyes to glaze over - is laid out with uncommon clarity and panache.' Sara Lippincott, Los Angeles Times

'Chris Impey, one of the world's most distinguished astronomers, takes an exhaustive and illuminating look at astrobiology … Consistently engrossing and provocative, and frequently absolutely mind-blowing in its implications, The Living Cosmos is filled with scientific details but it remains accessible to readers without a background in astronomy and science. This book is most highly recommended.' Book Loons Reviews

'Impey has clearly done his research thoroughly, and interviewed a great number of the key scientists whilst writing the book … The Living Cosmos is not only comprehensive in its treatment of the great breadth of astrobiology research, but is also beautifully written. Each chapter opens with an engaging account, full of imagery, of the upcoming topic. On the whole, this is a sterling attempt at making astrobiology accessible to a general audience and I enjoyed reading it immensely.' Lewis Dartnell, Astrobiology Society of Great Britain

'Chris Impey provides a broad, accessible context for his thoughtful, engaging and up-to-date take on the quest for extra terrestrial life.' Bruce Jakosky, Nature

'Chris Impey surveys the state of the art in this exciting multidisciplinary field. Impey frames his book around three questions: How many habitable worlds are there? Is biology unique to the Earth? And are there other intelligent civilizations? Complete with a companion website featuring podcasts, video clips, interviews, news stories and original artwork, The Living Cosmos provides an eloquent summary of humankind's quest for life elsewhere.' Scientific American Book Club

'This is a book about a science that is changing our view of the universe and about what life really means and where it might exist. Impey provides us with a road map to the future of astrobiology, a map that is meant to lead us into a deeper understanding of life and man's station in the universe.' National Space Society

'5/5 stars: a constantly fascinating read in non-technical language … a superb account of where we currently stand in our quest to find alien life.' Sky at Night

'A true popular science book, if its pages don't fire your imagination, nothing will.' Astronomy Now

'… a highly entertaining read.' Spaceflight

Book Description

Considering the development of life on Earth and the potential for life elsewhere in the Universe, this book is a fascinating insight into our place in the Universe. Accompanied by a website featuring articles on astrobiology, it is ideal for anyone wanting to know more about life and the Universe.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding introduction to astrobiology 30 July 2008
By Dennis Littrell TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
I have read a number of books on the prospects for extraterrestrial life over the years, and this is one of the best. Here are four other good ones published in recent years:

Darling, David. Life Everywhere: The Maverick Science of Astrobiology (2001
Grinspoon, David. Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life (2003)
Michaud, Michael A.G. Contact with Alien Civilizations (2007)
Webb, Stephen. Where Is Everybody?: Fifty Solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life (2002)

(See my reviews at Amazon.)

Notwithstanding all this ink, astrobiology is still looking for the first object of its contemplation. But Prof. Impey is not deterred. In this outstanding work he attempts to lay the foundation for this seemingly nescient science by exploring all aspects of life on earth and comparing what he has found to environments in space. What is extraordinary about this book is the sheer breadth of knowledge that Impey displays. More than that though is the enthusiasm he brings to the subject and the readability of his prose.

The Living Cosmos is first a book about life on earth, how it might have begun and how it has evolved, and second on how that knowledge might apply to the larger cosmos. To understand this epic story and what it might imply about life in the universe as a whole it is necessary to have some understanding of many allied sciences including chemistry, geology, physics, ecology, genetics, and many others. In extrapolating what we know about life on earth to the heavens, knowledge of astronomy, cosmology, and mathematics is necessary. It is amazing that Impey is so well vested in all these subjects. Frankly I am dazzled and reminded again of how little I know.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A tour de force 27 Sep 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Chris Impey has written a book of tremendous depth, covering the origins of the Universe, the start of life on eath and the possibilities, nay probability of life elsewhere in the Universe, in neighbouring planets, in nearby galaxies, in the outer Universe, and in parallel universes. His style is clear and entertaining, and his narrative draws the reader on. Veritably a tour de force!
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Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  13 reviews
24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another View of Life in the Universe 23 Dec 2007
By David B Richman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
As a professional biologist (for what that is worth) I am reasonably certain that earth is not the only abode of life. Earth is, however, the only example we have at present. Unfortunately, a number of writers, both scientific and non-scientific, have waxed enthusiastic about not only life on other planets, but technologically advanced life (the stuff of science fiction), which is much more problematic. Still, although I am highly skeptical about advanced technological civilizations within hailing distance (Ward and Brownlee in their book "Rare Earth" added to that skepticism), the thought of alien biological systems has certainly intrigued me.

Now Chris Impey has written a bit more optimistic tome in "Living Cosmos" and, while he has not totally convinced me (I am now somewhere in between Ward and Brownlee and Impey on this issue), the book is certainly fascinating. Impey also has a good sense of humor and does not take himself as seriously as some writers on the subject.

Based on the two books (and a few others) that I have read on the subject I think that the main problem is that civilizations may not be as long-lived as we would like. Thus we have not only a spatial problem (the nearest star is over 4 light years away and it is not a good candidate for a planet with life on it, as is true of most of the stars within several hundred light years), but a temporal one as well. First the technological civilization has to arise and then it has to stay in existence long enough for us to pick up its electromagnetic output and at a point when we can do so. Messages beamed at us that arrived in 1066 (or even in 1946)would not be readable by us. Also if such civilizations were a dime a dozen (something Impey does not imply) we would have heard from them by now.

Still there must be earth-like planets with multi-cellular carbon-based life, or even non earth-like planets with life that we might not even recognize. These would be fascinating for a biologist to study. Life on earth is weird enough and it would be very interesting to find out how it had evolved on other planets! Impey has elegantly presented the history of and evidence for and against the idea of extra-terrestrial life, including all the blind alleys like Lowell's illusions about Mars and the "face" on Mars, as well as the "cells" in a Martian meteorite. He has done this I think without getting too attached to his own ideas. I think that I can agree with most, if not all, of his conclusions. I especially like his statement in the last chapter that science cannot give us meaning for existence. I wish more writers on science (as well as religion) were as open about this humbling fact - we don't know everything and it is unlikely that we ever will! Literal religions that adhere to such nonsense generally turn into oppression, but corrupted science may well do the same. The problem is not religion or science (they both have their functions) but the fact that most humans can become corrupted if given unlimited power and faith in the rightness of their world view.

A great book for anyone interested in the subject of life away from this ball of dirt on which we live!
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fascinating Journey Through Astrobiology 5 Feb 2008
By G. Poirier - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book encompasses an absolute wealth of wide-ranging information, all centering on life in the universe. Starting with an overview of ancient Greek thought on the nature of the cosmos, the author presents a brief historical overview of astronomy and cosmology. Next, the evolution of the universe, including our galaxy, our solar system and our planet, is discussed leading to how life began and evolved on Earth. Since it is important to comprehend the nature and evolution of life on this planet to better understand life elsewhere, more than half of the book is devoted to the above issues. Past, present and possible future attempts to discover evidence of life in our solar system, the search for earthlike planets in other solar systems, the likelihood of intelligent life elsewhere in our galaxy and efforts to seek it out comprise just a subset of the vast number of exciting (astrobiology-related) topics covered in this fabulous book. The writing style is clear, authoritative, friendly and quite engaging. Although the material in this book is accessible to anyone, it may appeal the most to science buffs. One thing is certain: anyone reading this book is in for a treat!
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fine Introduction to Astrobiology 4 Mar 2008
By R. Hardy - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
It used to be that we were pretty smug about how special we humans were - we were at the center of the universe with everything else circling us, and we were also lords of creation, far removed from all the animal kingdom. We are still special, no doubt, but just how special is harder to assess. That doesn't keep astrobiologists from trying. Astrobiology is the study of life in space, and has been criticized for being all about stuff we don't even know exists. Life seems to crowd into just about every niche in our own world, but elsewhere, it's just too hard to say right now, but it is not too early to ask good questions and think about how to get answers. In _The Living Cosmos: Our Search for Life in the Universe_ (Random House), Chris Impey, a professor of astronomy, has laid out the history of our understanding of cosmology, and has summarized the intelligent speculation that scientists have brought on a peculiar realm of inquiry. His book is clearly written, covering even difficult cosmology in jocular, vivid analogies.

Guesswork about extraterrestrial life has continued for centuries, but we do now have evidence from different fields that the existence of extraterrestrial life may not simply be speculation. For one thing, we know that there are indeed planets orbiting other suns. Impey spends a chapter describing just how astronomers have spotted these planets. There is looking outside the solar system, and then there is looking at our own planet with a view to seeing what life on it is really like. We take for granted the plants that get energy from the sun, and the animals like ourselves that get energy from those plants, but only recently has it become clear that even on Earth, things don't always have to be that way. "Extremophiles" is the term we use for microbes that can live in extreme environments, though as Impey points out, that's an anthropocentric term, because these "extreme" environments are normal for those microbes, and our own environment would be extreme to them; and anyway, given the original microbes that started life billions of years ago, we ourselves are descendants of microbes that thrived in inferno-type heat. Extreme living situations we know from our own Earth can be just the place for certain microbes to live, but can it be (as in our case) that on other worlds they can be a foundation for evolution to build more complicated animals? And if those more complicated animals have evolved intelligence, Where Are They? This is the great question posed by Enrico Fermi. If there are plenty of other worlds which have evolved intelligence, and plenty of time during which the intelligent beings could have visited us or sent us a message, what does it mean that this has yet to happen? Impey proceeds from considering the Fermi paradox to an overview of the famous Drake Equation, which calculates the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere, and would give an accurate percentage chance, if we just knew all the variables. We are learning some of them, but there are still too many mysteries. No one knows.

Nonetheless, we cannot help thinking about life out there, and hunting for it, especially via the SETI project looking for radio signals from extraterrestrial broadcasters. Buckminster Fuller wrote, "Sometimes I think we're alone. Sometimes I think we're not. In either case, the thought is staggering." The ancient Greeks speculated about life in other parts of the universe, and so do we, only we are doing it though our culture's scientific lenses. "Is there a God?" used to be the great philosophical question, to which almost everyone has an answer and no one can prove that the answer is correct. "Is there life elsewhere?" has become in some ways more pertinent to our times, because at least to that profound question there might someday be a scientific answer. In the continuing silence, however, we have only our questions, questions which, as Impey reminds us, tell us more about ourselves than about any other life forms out there.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "If [other worlds] be inhabited, what a scope for misery and folly. If they not be inhabited, what a waste of space." 12 Nov 2008
By Stephen Pletko - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
XXXXX

"[Our planet`s] biology is like a pleasant valley that supports a rich biota. We can see how life developed in this valley from the simpler and hardier organisms that live on the high plateaus and rocky peaks. But how do we know it is the best or the only valley? There may be places beyond the horizon that [have an] even more [rich biota] or `lost worlds' with unfamiliar creatures. Similarly, our biology may be one of many possible `solutions' to the evolution of complexity [refers generally to sophistication of genes, metabolic pathways, brain architecture, or functions of an organism]. In different physical settings...other solutions may be preferred. Given the limitations of lab biochemistry [the chemistry of life], the answer will come only from astrobiology [the study of life in the universe]. Countless realizations of life may already exist in deep space."

The above quotation is called the "biological landscape" which expresses the idea that terrestrial biology is one example of a wide array of potential biologies and not necessarily an optimal solution. It is found in this fascinating, easy-to-read, and sometimes humorous book authored by Chris Impey, a distinguished professor at the University of Arizona and deputy head of one of the largest astronomy departments in the United States.

Note that this book is designed for a reader with little or no background in astronomy.

The book itself is divided into seven parts:

Part 1: HISTORY. That is, the history of how we've come to know our place in the universe.
Parts 2, 3, and 4: LIFE. What we know about the evolution of life on Earth and what we can learn from the diversity and robustness of terrestrial fauna.
Part 5: LIFE in our SOLAR SYSTEM. Discussion of the potential prospects for life in our Solar System.
Part 6: OTHER WORLDS. Considers the exciting new research on planets not of our Solar System.
Part 7: INTELLIGENT LIFE. Examines the potential for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

Recognize that since our knowledge is very modest regarding this topic, then some of the material is speculative. But it is reasoned speculation, not science fiction or fantasy.

To aid in understanding, there are illustrations peppered throughout. When I say illustrations, I mean black and white pictures, artist's impressions, charts, graphs, etc. I found these very beneficial.

Throughout the main narrative you'll find words and terms like these: ALH84001, Allen Array, biobricks, biomarker, cryptobiosis, Dyson sphere, extremophile, habitable zone, Phylogenetic tree, quorum sensing, SETI, TPF, and zoo hypothesis. All these terms and many more are listed and defined in a handy glossary. I used this glossary to define some of the terms in the quotation above. (Note that the title of this review is a quotation by Thomas Carlyle, 1795 to 1881.)

Finally, I did find a few (very few!!) errors in this book such as names being spelled wrong, etc. But these were minor when compared to the vast amount of information and new information presented.

In conclusion, this is truly an astounding book that revolves around three questions:

(1) Is the Earth special?
(2) Is life special?
(3) Are we alone?

(first published 2007; preface; 7 parts or 51 sections; main narrative 310 pages; notes; glossary; reading list; media resources; illustration credits; index)

<<Stephen Pletko, London, Ontario, Canada>>

XXXXX
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding introduction to astrobiology 30 July 2008
By Dennis Littrell - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I have read a number of books on the prospects for extraterrestrial life over the years, and this is one of the best. Here are four other good ones published in recent years:

Darling, David. Life Everywhere: The Maverick Science of Astrobiology (2001
Grinspoon, David. Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life (2003)
Michaud, Michael A.G. Contact with Alien Civilizations (2007)
Webb, Stephen. Where Is Everybody?: Fifty Solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life (2002)

(See my reviews at Amazon.)

Notwithstanding all this ink, astrobiology is still looking for the first object of its contemplation. But Prof. Impey is not deterred. In this outstanding work he attempts to lay the foundation for this seemingly nescient science by exploring all aspects of life on earth and comparing what he has found to environments in space. What is extraordinary about this book is the sheer breadth of knowledge that Impey displays. More than that though is the enthusiasm he brings to the subject and the readability of his prose.

The Living Cosmos is first a book about life on earth, how it might have begun and how it has evolved, and second on how that knowledge might apply to the larger cosmos. To understand this epic story and what it might imply about life in the universe as a whole it is necessary to have some understanding of many allied sciences including chemistry, geology, physics, ecology, genetics, and many others. In extrapolating what we know about life on earth to the heavens, knowledge of astronomy, cosmology, and mathematics is necessary. It is amazing that Impey is so well vested in all these subjects. Frankly I am dazzled and reminded again of how little I know.

Impey begins with an examination of the scientific approach and how it has led us to know what we know today. Then he examines life's origins, beginning with the birth in the stars of the elements necessary for life (life as we know it, of course!). He follows this with a chapter on "Extreme Life," recent knowledge of which has greatly expanded our ideas about where life might be found, such as under the ice on Europa or under the barren surface of Mars. Chapter 4 is about how the forces of the planet and impacts from outer space have shaped life on earth. Chapter 5 looks at the possibilities for life in our solar system, while Chapter 6 goes to the stars and beyond. Finally in Chapter 7 Impey recalls Fermi's flippant but penetrating question, "Where are they?"and explores the speculations and ideas about extraterrestrial life. He recounts Drake's famous equation in some serious depth and brings us up to date on the latest thinking.

The question arises: why study astrobiology when there is as yet nothing to study, and indeed when there may never be anything to study? This book is in a sense an answer to this question. By looking at life from the point of view of how it might exist elsewhere broadens our understanding of life. By considering how differing and perhaps bizarre environments might affect life--from the surface of a brown dwarf to an interstellar gas cloud to the atmosphere of Jupiter, to the surface of Venus, etc., we gain insight into what life is and what forms it might take. A very real bugaboo for astrobiology is the possibility that we may encounter extraterrestrial life and not recognize it. This book is in part a preparation for that day in the hope that extensive knowledge about how different life can be will help us see life even if it takes on very strange forms. Another problem is how to communicate with alien forms of life. As Impey points out, we haven't a clue how to communicate with an octopus, so how can we expect to talk to E.T.? Just the recognition that these are potential problems is a first step toward solving them.

Impey distinguishes himself not only by the breadth of his knowledge, but through the wit and wisdom of his prose. Here are three examples:

"One extremophile's toxic dump may be another's pleasure palace." (p. 220)

"About 20 percent of [NASA] missions fail completely. This worry leaves most NASA engineers with just enough hair for a bad comb job." (p. 257)

"The debate over the existence of ETs might never be settled by observations, but it certainly can't be settled without them." (pp. 294-295)

This is a handsomely produced book with 29 pages of endnotes, a glossary, a list for further reading sorted by chapter, a list of media resources including web sites, CDs and DVDs, and a useful index. There are many grayscale illustrations and charts throughout the book; however for these old eyes they are a bit on the small side.

I have one small pet peeve. I don't care for the nouveau practice of providing reading lists by chapters. I would prefer a return to the old fashioned bibliography in which all the sources are listed in one place alphabetically by author. As it is here, the reader has to go through each chapter listing looking for a particular author or book. Better yet, have two lists, one by chapter subject matter (as here) and the other a conventional bibliography.
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