Life Everywhere: The Maverick Science of Astrobiology
by David Darling
New York, Basic Books, 2001
[ISBN 0465015638, 206 pages, $26.00]
The parade of new books on astrobiology and SETI continues. Which of these new offerings add substantially to the pre-existing literature base? The first way a new book can contribute is by broadening and deepening the knowledge of people who are already versed in the search for life on other worlds. The second way a book can contribute is as a useful introduction for people who have little or no background in astrobiology. Although it may seem that these two goals are mutually exclusive, David Darling’s remarkable new book, Life Everywhere, should appeal to both seasoned veterans and the general public. The key to this achievement is a very generous helping of fresh, up-to-date material coupled with superb organization, a conversational writing style, and the lavish use of anecdotes and examples that make potentially difficult material understandable and engaging.
Veterans will discover that Life Everywhere takes us way beyond the usual tales of finding Jupiter-sized planets and mashing up Martian meteorites. In a clear, concise, and orderly fashion this book strengthens almost every term in the Drake Equation. For example, Darling describes how, rather than narrowing the search for the origin of life, astrobiologists keep finding new ways that life may have begun. He tells us how to identify promising stars, and warns that the usual discussions of habitable zones may be unnecessarily limited. Life Everywhere unveils emerging technologies that will allow astronomers to identify Earth-like planets in other solar systems, and then monitor chemical processes that we would expect if simple forms of life evolved there. SETI League members are sure to enjoy his provocative analysis of the “Rare Earth” hypothesis, and his chance discovery of how pre-Copernican thinking may influence contemporary astronomy.
Life Everywhere is a great book for initiating friends and relatives into the mysteries of astrobiology. Do you have an aunt who gets a headache trying to think about planets or moons in orbit? Darling will ask her to visualize a dinner plate with a helping of mashed potatoes in the center and a used stick of chewing gum whizzing around the rim! Do you have an adolescent son who can’t get into science? He may be thrilled by Darling’s discussion of the formidable survival skills of life forms such as Conan the Bacterium. Although upbeat and [at least when it comes to other worlds] definitely pro life, Darling is a careful scientist who explores both sides of important issues and carefully separates hypothesis from fact. His discussion of panspermia is a good example of his even-handed treatment of controversial topics. No book accomplishes everything, and while Life Everywhere is definitely multidisciplinary we still await discussions of how the social sciences and humanities might contribute to astrobiology.
Shortly after Life Everywhere was published there appeared a spate of negative reviews on the Internet. To me, these reviews said more about the anonymous authors’ politics than about the qualities of Dr. Darling’s new book. Some of these commentators seemed to favor creation science over evolution, and some preferred new-age thinking to scientific procedures. After 400 years, the Copernican Revolution continues, and the ability of Life Everywhere to outrage pre-Copernican thinkers is much to Dr. Darling’s credit.
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this page last updated 28 December 2002
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