Five Billion Years of Solitude

Five Billion Years of Solitude

The Search for Life Among the Stars

Book - 2013
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'Most times when I gazed up at the night sky, I would wonder what those planets might look like. Would they be like Earth? Would they have oceans and mountains, coral reefs and grasslands? Would they have cities and farms, computers and radios, telescopes and starships? Would creatures there live and die as we did? Would they be lonely?'

For 4.6 billion years our living planet has been alone in a vast and silent universe. But soon, Earth's isolation could come to an end. Over the past two decades, astronomers have discovered thousands of planets orbiting other stars. Some of these exoplanets may be mirror images of our own world. And more are being found all the time.

Yet as the pace of discovery quickens, an answer to the universe's greatest riddle still remains just out of reach- Is the great silence and emptiness of the cosmos a sign that we and are our world are somehow singular, special, and profoundly alone, or does it just mean that we're looking for life in all the wrong places? As star-gazing scientists come closer to learning the truth, their insights are proving ever more crucial to understanding life's intricate mysteries and possibilities right here on Earth.

Science journalist Lee Billings explores the past and future of the 'exoplanet boom' through in-depth reporting and interviews with the astronomers and planetary scientists at its forefront. He recounts the stories behind their world-changing discoveries and captures the pivotal moments that drove them forward in their historic search for the first habitable planets beyond our solar system. Billings brings readers close to a wide range of fascinating characters, such as-

Frank Drake , a pioneer who has used the world's greatest radio telescopes to conduct the first searches for extraterrestrial intelligence and to transmit a message to the stars so powerful that it briefly outshone our Sun. Jim Kasting , a mild-mannered former NASA scientist whose research into the Earth's atmosphere and climate reveals the deepest foundations of life on our planet, foretells the end of life on Earth in the distant future, and guides the planet hunters in their search for alien life. Sara Seager , a visionary and iron-willed MIT professor who dreams of escaping the solar system and building the giant space telescopes required to discover and study life-bearing planets around hundreds of the sun's neighboring stars.

Through these and other captivating tales, Billings traces the triumphs, tragedies, and betrayals of the extraordinary men and women seeking life among the stars. In spite of insufficient funding, clashing opinions, and the failings of some of our world's most prominent and powerful scientific organizations, these planet hunters will not rest until they find the meaning of life in the infinite depths of space. Billings emphasizes that the heroic quest for other Earth-like planets is not only a scientific pursuit, but also a reflection of our own culture's timeless hopes and fears.

Advance praise for Five Billion Years of Solitude

'In this elegant book, Billings writes with energy and brilliance about a big question, possibly the biggest of all- Are we all alone in the universe or are there other forms of life out there somewhere? His portraits of the scientists in pursuit of answers to this timeless question are realized through the sharpest lens.' Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone and The Wild Trees

'Lee Billings has done something remarkable. He has not just written a deeply researched account of the search for life beyond our solar system. He's also captured the spirit of the search - the science-fiction-fueled dreams, the joy of discovering planet around other suns, the melancholy realization that our species may not have

Publisher: New York, New York : Current, [2013]
ISBN: 9781617230066
Call Number: 576.839 B4963f
Characteristics: vii, 294 pages ; 24 cm
Alternative Title: 5 billion years of solitude


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Feb 24, 2019

There are some recent books that are on the topic of other “Earths” but this is the better of the two that I have read recently. They deal with the Carl Sagan territory of trying to identify which of the thousands now, and rising, extant planets (exoplanets) are the most like Earth or close enough to support life as we understand it.
The author gives a good explanation of the doppler effect that orbiting planets have on their parent star’s spectrum, and, hence, their presence, but skips over the complexity of unraveling multiple planets making separate vibrations. Some explanation of how a planet’s climate and composition can be surmised nowadays, but hope is that much more powerful planet finders will be developed.
To add readability the author fills in the details of several principal investigators, “humanizing,” as it were, the search for Earth-like exoplanets. Funding and disagreements over which of several methods to use are also discussed, and failures and successes are explained. As in other books, the early history of life on Earth is examined.
I was looking for some basic Newtonian physics and high-school math equations to illustrate how some of the numbers are calculated, if not in the text then at least in the appendix, but they were left for the reader to look at suggested references. The basic method of parallax to measure distances is explained, but could use a simple drawing to make it clearer. The author does a good job of balancing the English vs. metric descriptions of distances.
I think scientists are taking a reasonable course to finding life, even intelligent life, but we may be shocked to learn that these are drastically different from what we expect, i.e., somewhat like life as we know it, just as some of the earliest planetary finds were not at all like our solar system. This book is a good place to learn what the best scientists are doing today.


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