Written by a professor from the University of Washington, this is a very good primer in the area of astrobiology (older readers may remember when this was called exobiology, and Catling takes some time to explain the history of the science and its name and focus changes). Catling does nothing less than explain the origins of life (taking time to weigh up competing theories) on Earth, going back to how the world was formed and explaining timescales, in order to frame what current expectations are for life developing on other planets. He then uses this criteria to assess the probabilities of life in the solar system and beyond, and to talk about the theories around extra-terrestrial life (such as the Rare Earth hypothesis and the Fermi paradox). In this sense it is an excellent explanation of how life is believed to have developed on the planet, and presents some useful texts for if you want to explore the field further. What it doesn't do is become too speculative. Catling is quick to dismiss the likelihood of silicon-based lifeforms existing using science to back this up and bases most of his suppositions on existing evidence, he doesn't posit what "weird life" (to use his term) would look like on the moons of Jupiter or beyond, so those looking for ideas about truly alien life won't find it here. Not that that matters, the book is highly readable, explaining scientific concepts succinctly and engagingly.
"Astrobiology - a very short introduction" was a little volume that I chose to read to close those embarrassing gaps in my science education! In so doing, I gained much although I must confess that I now think that I am also a little lacking in the chemistry and biology departments than I anticipated and need to catch up.
It was always thus, of course. For the more you study, the less you realise that you know and one book leads to another.
Written by Professor David Catling from the Department of Earth and Space Sciences at the Astrobiology Program, University of Washington in Seattle, there is no question that the work is authoritative and the facts and hypotheses stated are of the highest quality. It is designed for a lay reader, albeit one with a better science background than I, and I did have to read certain passages twice to appreciate the meaning. I did, however, find myself at home with species classification and other areas where I had a fair grounding. My geology knowledge also stood me well when it came of examining crust formation and general topography and periodic attendance at science lectures assisted with the topic of extraterrestrial life.
The book itself has wide ranging coverage. We have brief information on the creation of the Universe and the creation of the planets and stars (great fun) and the Professor then looks at specifics.
I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the evolution of life and can now appreciate how slow this actually was. There is also a description of extinction at various periods. A happy appreciation was the fact that microbial activity developed in an anaerobic environment - yes, it had to be so.
We also have a chance to look at possibilities on life on other planets in the solar system and this is well covered and carefully evidenced. Naturally, the search for life further afield is considered and how one looks for suitable planets.
The book itself is carefully set out and there are headings at the sides of each page so that an interested reader can flick through rapidly. I particularly liked this feature.
In summary, this is an excellent introduction. I would suggest that the target audience would be a reader with a fair grounding in chemistry and biology plus a basic knowledge of the universe but, don't worry, you can pick things up as you go along (and if you are stuck, there is always Google). I certainly enjoyed my read.
The most remarkable thing about this book is that it has actually been written and published. Just a decade ago a book with a title of "Astrobiology" would have been squarely relegated to the science fiction section of the bookstore. Granted, we still haven't found any signs of alien life, but our understandings of the origin and diversity of life on Earth, conditions in various parts of the Solar System, and the prevalence of potentially habitable worlds in our galaxy have grown almost exponentially over the past ten years or so. That's why our speculations about extra-terrestrial life are now concrete enough that we can make some very reasonable guesses and estimates.
Even though the title of this book is Astrobiology (i.e. the study of life outside of the earth), most of the book dedicated to our understanding of the conditions and processes on Earth itself that had lead to emergence of life. Even though the kind of life that we are most familiar with on Earth might be very atypical of the life in the rest of the universe, the sheer diversity of physical conditions under which earthly life has been capable of thriving gives us hope that we can possibly find life under similar conditions elsewhere. There are, however, certain main conditions that need to obtain for any sort of life that we can conceive of to exist. Most importantly, there needs to be plenty of liquid water, or at least some other liquid substance capable of facilitating organic chemistry. Furthermore, any life that we can conceive of needs to be carbon based, as that's the only element capable of creating stable molecules of almost infinite complexity. The book then moves on to discussion various planets, moons and other objects in the Solar System, and examines which one of them could possibly have (or have had) the kinds of conditions required for life. Finally, the book deals with the prevalence of possible life-supporting planets throughout the Galaxy, and gives its own set of estimates for their possible "livability."
This is a very interesting and well-written book. Anyone with an even cursory interest in anything to do with space and space exploration will find a lot of fascinating information in here. I've actually taught an introductory college Astronomy class a few years ago, but I've still found a lot of new information in here that I was not aware of before. Our understanding and information about the universe is constantly and rapidly expanding, and I would not be surprised if the second or third edition of this book, some ten years from now, has plenty to say about the actual discovery of life on other planets. Until then this short introduction should be adequate to slake our thirst for knowledge about space aliens.
The Very Short Introduction series are written by professors of the subject and are aimed at provoking cross-discipline intrigue in the reader that may incite further investigation and reading - and boy, are they good at achieving exactly that; often they leave more questions than answers.
Astrobiology as a title sounds as if it was about life outside of planet Earth (aliens!) or at the very least, the geological remnants of microbial formations in meteorites or on other planets, as neither of these have been proven, it would have been a rather thin book. However Astrobiology details the environment needed for our development of life, the origins of the planet are briefly touched upon as is the age of the universe and the periods of vast chemical change throughout in fascinating detail.
Having laid out the precursor environment needed, the chemical components that need to be present and the dynamic boundary layers needed to stir the whole thing up driven by geothermal heat, we have a checklist of the best places to look in the universe for signs of life, intelligent or not. It turns out that we are not unique in our abundance of liquid water, there are many habitable zones and even our star is rather unremarkable, to put it bluntly there are millions of other locations in the universe where the conditions are right for life, leading us on to the introduction of the Drake equation.
A fascinating rundown of the probability of life and the chemical requirements necessary for it to flourish. Flits across multiple subjects, chemistry, geology, astrology to name a few, but very well put together.
I am a fan of the "very short introduction" series of books and have quite a few of them. This is my favourite so far. It is clearly written, wide ranging and on a great topic.
I have always been interested in the origin of life on Earth and the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe. This is a scientific area where there have been huge developments in the last decade and the book neatly draws the separate strands together.
It includes theories on how elements have arisen; how planets form; the possible original sources of life on Earth, the development of life (and in particular its interaction with what we now know about how the Sun and the Earth changed over the last 4 billion years); the prospects for life in the rest of the Solar System and the rest of the galaxy; and the study of planets around other stars and how we can test for habitability and even for life.
What also comes across is his enthusiasm for the topic and his conviction that this is going to be one of the most exciting areas of science over the next few years.
A great read - highly recommended.
I am an absolute fan of the Oxford Very Short Introductions, but that being said this title surprised me from the moment I opened it for it is so packed with information that I felt sure I would struggle to complete it at all, imagine then my surprise when I could not put it down and polished it off in one weekend. The subject of Astrobiology is not I would suggest going to interest everybody tackling as it does the related subjects of how life originated on our planet and could there be life on others. For me these questions attractt he nerd part of my brain like bees to honey and so the hard core of facts and ideas that the author packs in are absolutely fascinating. For others I am sure they will find something else - anything else to do other than read the book. If you have ever wondered about the idea of life eleswhere in the Universe I highly reccommend that you read this little gem.
Prof. Catling has written a great little book about a subject few of us will have heard of outside of Marvel comics. Is is full of interest about such things as the the age of the moon and the tree of life. As more is discovered about the Universe, and so quickly, not least its size and the universal presence of water and carbon, the idea that life exists only here on Earth becomes increasingly absurd. Still more so that we are the centre and sole purpose of everything. Oxford University Press has done a fine job on design and production and I certainly intend to acquire a few more of the titles in this series. White River: A Journey Up and Down the River Findhorn In the Old Chief's Country Fantastic Four - Volume 1: New Departure, New Arrivals
on 19 June 2015
I had a basic idea about how scientists have been finding various exoplanets over the last few years but this book added plenty of detail and interest. It also gives a good account of theories for the development of life on Earth and points towards some very interesting developments in the field in the future.
Loved reading this....my brain started to whirr after a while as it described the history of the Universe and the planets and solar system...and how time is measured in bigger amounts than just years...
I like this series as the books explain the subject without too much waffle.
Astrobiology is a new 'science' and David explains its origins and what it's for and who uses it. That was useful as it put the subject into perspective...
...enjoyed it immensely...
on 21 October 2014
I enjoyed this book so much I read it three times in two weeks. It is very well written and the author pulls all the various topics together in an effective and very readable manner. I am now keen to understand more about this fascinating subject. A secondary but very pleasing benefit is that I look at nature in a VERY different way...