Life beyond Earth: The Search for Habitable Worlds in the Universe Hardcover – 12 Sep 2013
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'A thorough tour of the possible abodes of life elsewhere in the cosmos, Life Beyond Earth unifies the study of planets in a way that should be more common but is still rare. Coustenis and Encrenaz provide a clear and engaging exposition of planetary habitability, giving an authoritative picture of the wealth of information that we have on planets and the engaging mysteries that remain unsolved.' Jonathan I. Lunine, Director, Center for Radiophysics and Space Research, Cornell University, and author of Earth: Evolution of a Habitable Planet
'A lot is happening in planetary science just now, with in-depth exploration of our solar system underway, and announcements of the discovery and characterisation of new worlds around other stars happening nearly every week. This new book, by two of the world's top planetary astronomers, describes the state-of-play in accessible but authoritative terms, with an exciting focus on the habitability of remote environments and the prospects for finding life beyond Earth.' Fred Taylor, Emeritus Halley Professor of Physics, University of Oxford
'A delightful introduction to the wonderful world of astrobiology and the ongoing search for extraterrestrial life! Along with their recognised expertise in planetary science and astrophysics, the authors also exhibit a thorough understanding of the nature of life and of the techniques that are being used to try to detect it. This search will keep us busy for the next few generations.' James Kasting, Pennsylvania State University
'There's no scientific question more interesting than whether the life that carpets Earth is some sort of miracle, or merely an unremarkable example of a common, cosmic phenomenon. This book engagingly describes many fascinating missions and discoveries, explaining why today's researchers think there's something alive out there, and how they hope to find it.' Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer, SETI Institute, USA
'… [a] packed primer.' Nature
'It's hard to think of a better primer for anyone with an interest in the prospects for life in the universe.' BBC Sky at Night
'Thorough and entertaining …' New Scientist
'Both eminent researchers in the fields of astrophysics and planetary science (the authors) here train their considerable and passion on the quest for extraterrestrial life.' The Times Higher Education Supplement
'Excellent and eye-opening …' Fortean Times
Two leading astrophysicists provide an engaging account of our quest for habitable environments. Starting from basic concepts, they recount fascinating recent discoveries and provide insight into future space missions. An exciting, informative read for anyone interested in the search for life, and for students in astrobiology, planetary science and astronomy.See all Product Description
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Overall i enjoyed this book but whilst it is billed as being aimed at anyone interested in the subject, I'd suggest that the level of technical detail might be a bit off-putting for the general reader and that you maybe need to be a bit more seriously interested in the subject matter to get the most from this book.
Also, makes a good companion text to From Dust to Life: The Origin and Evolution of Our Solar System with which it overlaps some details on the origin of the solar system.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
For example, a star's habitable zone is usually presented in popular treatments as a matter of a planet's orbital distance relative to its star's energy output. But it's more than that -- what makes a planet potentially habitable has more to do with all of the energy sources available to its surface, subsurface, and even atmospheric environments and the chemistry those energy sources can support. This is what makes our own system's Europa, Titan, and Enceladus candidates for life, while they actually sit well outside a simply calculated habitable zone.
Similarly, Coustenis and Encrenaz go into some detail on other topics, such as how exoplanets are detected, the chemistry of life, potentials for alternative life chemistries, planet compositions, and orbital migration. The authors are scientists, not science writers, and it shows, although I think they write clearly and with a fair understanding of what is going to be understandable to a non-specialist audience.
The bulk of the book is about our solar system. Four of its six chapters take up the fundamentals of life, planet formation, and the potential for life on solar system planets and moons. Even Mercury, Neptune, and trans-Neptunian objects are included in short discussions, along with more extensive discussions of Mars and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. The advantage of focusing on solar system objects is that we know so much more about them than we do about exoplanets. We have sent probes to all of them, we know something of their atmospheres, surfaces, and subsurfaces, and, in some cases, we have followed the evidence to some tantalizing possibilities for life. Concentrating on them turns abstract speculation into grounded, concrete investigations.
The final two chapters take up exoplanets and more speculative topics on space exploration, potentials for human habitats beyond earth, and contact with alien life. These topics are treated much more briefly than you'll find in other books dedicated to exoplanets and possible extraterrestrial civilizations.
The tone of the book is factual, not argumentative. There's no real debate here about the likelihood of life beyond earth, although the debate is mentioned. Naturally, I think, the authors are optimistic about life beyond earth. There is after all a selection bias at work in this field-- scientists are unlikely to devote their careers to a field they don't think is promising.
All in all, I came away with a much better understanding of the central questions. I'd recommend it to anyone with a depth of interest in the field and a desire to wade out into some of the complexities.
A bottom line for this effort should be: Follow the chemistry, which then results in the conclusion that NASA has made, to follow the water. This is an argument which centers on the ultimate question of "what constitutes life."
After dealing with issues of chemistry and compatibility with planetary location within a stellar system, the concept of the "habitable zone" emerges. It becomes a matter of sorting through the requirements of a suitable solvent media (liquid water) versus location and energy availability. The concept of other chemistries is examined, but they really didn't touch on a concern for reaction kinetics in very low temperature systems
The astronomy portions were well executed, and the techniques for detection of exoplanets very complete. As the volume was published, there were over 900 known or strongly suspected exoplanets. Now comes the difficult task of determining the availability of atmosphere, habitable zone location, and the other parameters discussed.
My suggestion for any prospective reader: have a decent Organic Chemistry textbook available for the early chapters. This is also not a book which lends itself to "skimming," so be prepared to spend several days to a week while working through it.
I am not terribly comfortable with giving this title a specific star rating. I originally gave it 4, then changed it to 3, and have now reverted back to 4. I realize this has more to do with me than it does with the book.
I received this as an Amazon Vine program request - it looked and sounded interesting and thought I would be happy to read and review it. However, I find that I was not so happy. Here is why.
I am an interested, but fairly poorly educated, layperson here. I don't have the science background necessary to really appreciate the content here. I cannot tell you if the science here is sound or not. I will assume it is sound - these are acknowledged academics published by a respected academic press. I assume this was all peer-reviewed out the wazoo. Unfortunately, for me, the science is advanced enough, and presented as such, that I simply cannot follow it easily enough to make this more than a slog. I found myself getting lost in mid-topic (sometimes mid-paragraph) and having to reread, or go back and hunt up, information, definitions of terms, etc. Again, this is not really the problem with the book or with the authors - it is a problem with me. By extension, however, I suspect it will also be a problem for many / most casual readers. Simply, this really isn't for us (me).
Hence - it is hard to know how to rate this one. Due to the nature of the Vine program, I cannot really abstain, which would be my natural inclination here. I cannot really give it a mediocre rating because my difficulty and frustrations are not really the fault of the authors - they nowhere claim they are writing for a general audience. Certainly, the page here on Amazon does not present this as an academic work, per se, but it also doesn't present it as popular or general science. And I did learn things, so it accomplished that, at least.
In summary - take this review with a grain of salt. If you have the background to follow the science, by all means, this seems like a solid work. If not, you might want to join me looking elsewhere.
I grew up loving science, reading Discover and Omni magazines, but the highest level science courses I took were the required courses for college liberal arts majors. The content of Life Beyond Earth is certainly accessible to the non-scientist, but it is very technical and dense. Nevertheless, the ideas are fascinating and interesting.
If you were not already convinced that Earth is remarkable to the extent that so many factors came together to foster life, you will be. Its "stability. . ., bulk composition, the existence of an atmosphere and a surface, as well as the proper chemical ingredients," or, put another way, "water, elements, energy and time," create an environment in which biological organisms can develop and live, which, so far, is unique in the known universe. But the search will continue, and there are planets where some or all of these conditions may be met.
My favorite section was the discussion of human habitation of other planets or moons, and in space. It always looks so easy on Star Trek. But think about the rigors and hardships faced by Earth-bound pioneers as they settled on a new continent. The difficulties of establishing a colony on another planet or on a space station would be exponentially higher. As the authors gloomily note, "humankind still lacks the long-term viable environment where it can have a chance to survive the sad fate of our overpopulated planet in any foreseeable future."
If you can wade through the technical and complex scientific writing, you will be rewarded with a sobering but truly insightful counterpoint to your favorite science fiction stories. I hold out hope that we will explore other solar systems, but it will take some enormous breakthroughs to make it possible. And I would be very surprised if, in our infinite universe, there is not some form of life on another planet. It's just a matter of time before we find it--or it finds us!
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!
Dr. Athena Coustenis and Dr. Thérèse Encrenaz, both renowned astrophysicists, answer those questions in Life Beyond Earth: The Search for Habitable Worlds in the Universe.
One of the highest compliments I can pay to a science book like this is that I learned new things, and I have read many "is there life out there" tomes where I didn't. It's important here to state that, no, the authors are not proposing that there's intelligent life (such as on Earth) on some of the other planets or moons of our solar system. But, given the right conditions, there might be, albeit very simple, life forms. It is certainly possible that organic or prebiotic molecules are in existence, especially anywhere there might be liquid water -- which recent unmanned space missions indicate could exist below the surfaces of several of Jupiter's and Saturn's moons.
Life Beyond Earth carefully details how life can arise, where it can arise, and speculate on the likelihood of that happening. Dr. Athena Coustenis and Dr. Thérèse Encrenaz explore the possibilities of prebiotic, or life itself, existing under the (to us) unusual conditions on most of the planets and moons as well as outside the solar system.
This is a thorough and interesting survey of what we know and how we can learn more. Caution: This is written at, I want to say, a college level. If you are expecting the sort of easy, non-challenging read of a Carl Sagan type book, you'll be disappointed. A certain amount of chemistry and physics knowledge -- not graduate level mind you, just that you remember your senior High School courses well -- is recommended to appreciate this fine text.
Science fiction authors should make this a "must read!"
Lastly, Life Beyond Earth is profusely illustrated, along with containing many color plates; I strongly urge you to purchase the physical hardcover rather than the Kindle edition for full enjoyment of it.