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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 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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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 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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on 8 July 2004
If you want a clear, succinct outline of all the forces involved in traversing life's tortured course, you have it here. What is the likelihood another world possesses all the factors needed to drive simple molecules along a track leading to a creature capable of thinking about communicating across vast stellar distances? In dealing with this question, Ward and Brownlee synthesized an immense amount of information, presenting it in a finely crafted style. In fact, the extraterrestrial aspects become relegated to short pieces at chapters' ends. Leaving no stone unturned, the authors deal with cosmology, physics, chemistry and, of course, biology, in easily absorbed prose. Given the wealth of information they needed to survey, no accolade can do sufficient justice to their presentation.
Nearly twenty years ago, James Trefil and Robert Rood published "Are We Alone?". From a list of then-known conditions needed to allow life to begin and evolve, the authors offered optimistic and pessimistic scenarios on whether alien civilizations were likely to exist. Ward and Brownlee have improved the resolution of this question, using the latest information. Sadly, but almost certainly correctly, the come down strongly on the pessimistic side.
Paleontology has come far since Are We Alone? was published. Ward and Brownlee's account surveys utilizes the wealth of recent information derived from research studies done during the past few years. With life beginning over 3 thousand million years ago, their task is formidable. Yet they carry us through the stages life without bogging down in pedantic expression. They show how misleading simple pictures of life's progress can be, showing how even "simple" creatures are astonishingly complex.
The studies and researchers they discuss offer a wealth of new information, including a few acute surprises. Evolution is fraught with disaster scenarios. Ward and Brownlee offer a good discussion of these, particularly the great Permian dying. Diversity loss from this extinction was severe. Was it the result of a reduction in available DNA patterns due to the loss of species? This is a new question for which the authors call for further research in its response.
The most innovative chapter in the book deals with the impact of plate tectonics on evolution. More than simply the drifting of continental land masses, the authors describe how severely mobile continents impact ocean currents, air masses and climate generally. Little considered by paleontologists except as a dating and location device, Ward and Brownlee make continental drift a major factor in evolution. Since no other planet in the solar system exhibits tectonic activity, what is the likelihood this phenomenon occurs on planets circling distant stars? No tectonics, no stimulus to higher life forms and interplanetary communication.
In short, this book covers an immense amount of territory in explaining how life starts and likely continues under the proper conditions. They present nicely balanced explanations and critiques of recent research findings. Even outlandish ideas are given a patient hearing. As they remind us, who would have thought life could dwell at the bottom of the ocean's depths? It's well worth investing in this view of life's history. While posing many questions, the authors show how innovative thinking may someday provide answers . Anyone considering entering a scientific field will discover countless areas of investigation. This book should find a place on your shelves for current knowledge and future reference. Perhaps you might gain a place in a revised edition. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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on 18 February 2011
An amazing book that is extremely well structured and thought out. The 2 co-authors cover a very wide ranging multi-disciplinary review of all available understanding on the factors that conspire to make a planet life harbouring or not - and when examined how incredibly lucky we are to even be here!

Accessible and entertaining, yet still giving in depth analysis of the science. This is probably even better than the follow up book, 'Life and Death of Planet Earth'; which describes the evolution of our planet and its likely fate in a distant future. Both very humbling and satisfying.
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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 23 April 2003
In this book, the authors make the case that while microbial life might be quite common throughout the universe, it might just be that complex life is quite uncommon indeed. In making their case, the authors take the reader on a breathtaking trip through the history of our own Earth. They explain many key concepts in astrobiology, and show that many of the key factors in the rise of complex life on Earth are a result of pure chance, and that with minor changes in these factors complex life would not have evolved at all.
I found this book's description and analysis of the evolution of life quite fascinating. Even if you do not agree with the authors' conclusions, this history of evolution is worth the time taken to read the book. I must add, though, that while the title states affirmatively that complex life is uncommon, the authors are careful to explain that their analysis is based on data provided by only one planet and solar system, and that complex life might prove to be more common than they suggest.
Overall this is a great book, and a fascinating read. I recommend it wholeheartedly.
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on 5 February 2012
Having read a few pop books on astrobiology such as "Confessions of an Alien Hunter", "The Goldilocks Enigma" which take a positive approach to life on other planets I was somewhat apprehensive that this book would ruin my newfound enthusiasm for the new science of astrobiology. How wrong was I.

Rare Earth sets out to describe exactly what its title implies, that an Earth like planet is rare but not impossible to exist. It does have a very good and persuasive argument taking into account all the relevant science with it. It certainly did not diminish my enthusiasm on astrobiology but it in fact expanded it even more. If anything, it made me more realistic about the chances of us finding new earths. One of the readers points out that it was rather long winded. I disagree since their arguments required long explanations and in many cases, unavoidably, an academic one.

All in all, an excellent book.
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