April 9, 2020

Review: Five Billion Years of Solitude by Lee Billings

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Where did we come from as a species, and where is the party headed? What’s the expiration date for life on Earth, and just how common — or rare — are we? Those are the big questions in modern day science. This week’s review tackles the latest thinking concerning all of these weighty subjects and more. Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars by science journalist Lee Billings is a fascinating look at the state of the field. We’re talking astrobiology and the search for extraterrestrial life and intelligence, a truly interdisciplinary endeavor that encompasses all of modern science from physics and astronomy to biology and psychology.

To this end, Billing travels to find some of the leading pioneers in the field. Here we find Frank Drake, the father of modern SETI and the leader of the first modern serious searches for extraterrestrial intelligence with Project Ozma in 1960. Drake is also the creator of another famous fixture of SETI, the Drake Equation, which postulates the possible number of extraterrestrial civilizations currently in existence in the Milky Way galaxy. Drake muses over advancements in the field and where the future of SETI may be headed, as well as how recent findings fit into his famous equation.

Also interviewed is eminent exoplanet hunter Geoffrey Marcy who made several historic discoveries of planets beyond our solar system. The field of exoplanet science has really come of its own in the past decade, and Five Billion Years reflects on what these discoveries say about us and the bizarre menagerie of solar systems out there.

Another key figure interviewed is NASA Planetary scientist and climate modeler James Kasting. Mr. Kasting is an pioneer in his field and has given us some key insights into how early life on Earth escaped the “ice ball” period and just what the climate prospects for exo-earths may be like.

Also featured is MIT professor Sara Seager and her dream to place telescopes in space to hunt for Earth-like planets. Missions such as Terrestrial Planet Finder have been on and off the table for years, and Five Billion Years discusses just what such space-based observatories may be on the verge of discovering in the generation, should we decide to fund them. Will we be capable of discerning oceans, cloud cover and spectroscopic signatures of life in the atmospheres of exoplanets soon?

And that’s just for starters. But perhaps the most sobering take away message from Five Billion Years is the true impermanence of the situation faced by life on Earth. While we have 4 billion years plus before our Sun becomes a Red Giant star, we’ve only got a billion or so before the increase in energy output – to the tune of about 1% every 100 million years – makes life on the surface Earth as we know it impossible. Sure, subsurface bacteria may get away with another billion, but it would be fascinating to me to see the bizarre adaptations that evolution contrives to stave off those final days…

Be sure to read Five Billion Years of Solitude for a fascinating, thought-provoking and original glimpse of where we’ve come from and where the party is headed!

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