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on 3 April 2011
"Rare Earth" is a book defending the Rare Earth hypothesis, the idea that life, or at least complex and intelligent life, is very rare in the universe.

Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee believe that simple life forms might be ubiquitous throughout the universe. By simple life, they mean something along the lines of bacteria or archaeans. However, complex life - such as animals - might be comparatively rare. (They don't discuss plants at any length.) The conditions necessary for the evolution of animals might be so unusual, that our own solar system could be the only one where such creatures have emerged. If so, that would make intelligent life even less likely. Perhaps humans really are alone in the universe.

The authors discuss the unusual make-up of our solar system at some length: the sun isn't an average star, the presence of Jupiter tends to shield Earth from approaching comets, our unique moon has an important geological impact on conditions at Earth, plate tectonics are driven by very exotic mechanism, etc. Thus, complex life has evolved due to a long series of highly unlikely circumstances. If the preconditions for animals and thus humans are the results of pure chance, then perhaps it only happened once. Fermi's paradox has been solved: the reason why no aliens have ever visited our planet, is that the aliens don't exist!

For rather obvious reasons, it's very difficult to prove or disprove the Rare Earth hypothesis at present. It remains a minority position within the scientific community. Personally, I also suspect that Ward and Brownlee are wrong, but I admit that my reasons for thinking so are largely philosophical. And no, I won't kill myself is somehow it turns out that the authors are right. I mean, who wants to be fried by the big UFOs in "Independence Day"?

Still, it's interesting to speculate about why the Rare Earth hypothesis is so...well, rare. It's almost an article of faith in our culture that aliens simply *must* exist. Why? I don't think it's because the existence of other civilizations in other star systems would make us more humble and less Earth-centred. Please come on, our civilization is *not* humble, a few symbolic paeans to Copernicus and Freud notwithstanding.

Paradoxically, I think it's a special kind of scientific thinking that fuels the pseudo-scientific alien-mania. If we can find an advanced race travelling the Galaxy in space ships, that would prove that science, high tech and AI actually works. Also, what better argument for funding the space programs than the chase for aliens? Perhaps atheists also need aliens to give the empty materialist universe some semblance of meaning? If you can find meaning in a non-existent sulphur-based life form at Beta Orionis, you have my sympathy. I can't. I like crows and geese, though.

Incidentally, you might want to know that the book Amazon has paired "Rare Earth" with, "The Privileged Planet", is a creationist work. The creationists, of course, claim that all the facts enumerated by Ward and Brownlee can't be a co-incidence. It must be God who is behind it all! (God doesn't like sulphur-based life forms on Rigel. He's more into beetles!)

"Rare Earth" is relatively easy to read, contains many interesting facts and interpretations, and gives you something to think about on a spring evening. I mean, what if we actually *are* alone...in the entire universe? The thought is staggering. I also find the theory expounded in this work hard to swallow, but it should be read with an open mind.
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on 2 January 2016
I wont re state much of what has already been said here. To read and enjoy this book you should not need to be a qualified scientist as indeed I am not but you will need a healthy appreciation of matters scientific, this book will certainly stimulate thought. It is important to note that the authors do not categorically argue that no advanced life might exist elsewhere just that the odds are stacked against this. Sadly I have come to the view that they are very probably correct in this hypothesis. I have deducted a point; somewhat unfairly, just because the book was written fifteen years ago and recent planetary discoveries which reinforce their position are not debated. I will spend the following months looking for just such analysis using this document as a template, such is the thought provoking value in this book.
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on 3 October 2006
Ward & Brownlee set out very clearly their hypothesis that complex life is unlikely to be common in the universe. One of the beauties of the book is that it deals with the latest ideas in astrobiology. Using these ideas it sets out the thesis that for simple life to arise in the universe may not be rare, since it took a mere 600 million years for "simple life" to arise after the formation of the earth. However since it then took "complex (animal) life" a further 3 400 million years to evolve it would seem far less likely to occur. Using the earth as their only possible example, the factors needed for complex life to arise - & to be maintained - are explored at length. They conclude that "With the best intentions, but limited by natural laws & materials it is unlikely that Earth could ever truly be replicated. Too many processes in its formation involved sheer luck".

The exploration of these processes in some detail I found both fascinating & easy to read. They ranged from galaxies, the formation of the earth, extremophiles, snowball earth, plate tectonics to the roles of the moon & Jupiter. On another level it provided a fresh way of approaching the evolution of complex life on earth. I became so interested & absorbed in this new material that I read the book for a second time this time making notes for my own use. It has also provided me with jumping off points to find out more on the various topics from the internet.

All in all a real good read. I only withhold one star because I hope, when they produce the next edition, the dog's breakfast that is Fig 9.1 is drastically revised.
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VINE VOICEon 9 October 2008
I don't think I can really add much to the excellent review given here by Stephen A. Haines. Despite the attacks on this book (see for example Life Everywhere: The Maverick Science of Astrobiology, written as a direct response), Ward and Brownlee's argument remains convincing.

When you've finished, follow on with the same authors' The Life and Death of Planet Earth: How the New Science of Astrobiology Charts the Ultimate Fate of Our World.
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on 5 May 2017
At last, a book of common sense about Mankinds chances of being alone or part of an exclusive club in the Galaxy. A real addition and foil to the Fermi paradox and Drake equation.
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on 19 March 2017
very good book even though some of the chapter have too many technical terms that hard to understand
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on 8 June 2014
Encapsulates a lot of the thoughts I have had about the rarity of our planet, but didn't have the scientific knowledge to express.
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on 24 February 2017
Excellent and thought provoking book and well written.
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on 28 August 2015
VERy very interesting, a lot of new informations for me.
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on 18 October 2011
Item reviewed: Copernicus Books paperback, 2004.

Do we live in a special place in the Universe, or not? The debate has been joined by Peter Ward & Donald Brownlee, professors respectively of geology and astronomy at the University of Washington in Seattle. They are supported by William Burger in Perfect Planet, Clever Species: How Unique are We?, and by Brownlee's colleague Guillermo Gonzalez, in The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos Is Designed for Discovery. James Kasting, in How to Find a Habitable Planet (Science Essentials), denies that Earths are rare. Ward & Brownlee's arguments have been specifically criticized, and for some refuted, by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart in What Does a Martian Look Like?: The Science of Extraterrestrial Life, and David Darling in Life Everywhere: The Maverick Science of Astrobiology. To give the background, this is an area where militant atheism joins with fundamentalist Christianity; Burger's book is published by a militant atheist publishing house, Gonzalez is an admitted old-earth creationist, and Ward and Brownlee are influenced by Gonzalez.

Ward and Brownlee candidly admit, in the Introduction, to a prior belief that Earth is special. It might be thought that that would make no difference to their arguments, but it does because everywhere they assume that only Earth life on an Earth-type planet can support anything higher than microbes. The Goldilocks Principle is taken to the point of absurdity: on Earth, everything is "just right". Of course, Earth life has evolved to take advantage of Earth conditions. Nevertheless, it might be more convincing if they could find one or two little things less than perfect, but they dare not risk knocking the Earth off the pedestal they have constructed for it.

Naturally their beliefs lead them into logical contortions. Let us take their treatment of the planet Jupiter as an example. Their approach has been to treat almost every contingent fact of the Earth's existence, and life on it, as a necessity; so to them complex life, on an Earth-like planet, needs a nearby Jupiter.

* To them, Jupiter acts as a planetary policeman, who in Chapter 3 sends us the good stuff, i.e. small comets for water and rare metals, while in Chapter 10 keeping out the baddies such as planetesimals. That's very clever. How does it know which is which?

* Jupiter is praised for purging the middle solar system of planetesimals, but unfortunately it caused them in the first place. And the asteroid belt is still there as a source of damaging planetesimals and rocks.

* Jupiter prevented the creation of an Earthlike planet in Mars' orbit. So Jupiter could be viewed as a negative factor - making Earths rarer.

It seems that Jupiter-type planets are likely to be formed beyond the "snow line", where terrestrial planets will not form. Because of gravitational effects, they appear far more destructive than beneficial, but of course W&B don't want to say that.

Another frequent assumption made by the authors is that the limitations of Earth life must also be the limitations of life elsewhere. Here, life has evolved strategies to cope with, e.g., the temperature extremes found on Earth (by hibernation and estivation (i.e. sleeping over the summer), special "antifreeze" in the blood, etc). W&B assume, without logical warrant, that alien life would be unable to cope with greater extremes such as might be caused by (for example) a more eccentric orbit than Earth's, or a higher radiation environment.

On the positive side, there is a lot of science described very clearly, so on this basis I have awarded four stars. However, it is not for beginners - I suspect that readers without the equivalent of at least one A-level in Science will find it hard going.

There is a good index. Obvious mistakes are minimal, although there there is a particularly poor example on page 281 where Pierre-Simon de Laplace is referred to as "de Liplike".

Cohen and Stewart plausibly suggest a much wider range of possibilities for life than is simply assumed in this book. In any case, those who like to think will wish to read this book and assess for themselves the probability, not of planets exactly like Earth in solar systems exactly like ours, but where some kind of complex life might evolve.
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