Cogito: John Branch

BOOKS

JB photo-painting by RC 2 Looking for ET

Science writer Lee Billings accomplishes a lot in the pages of Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars (published in the U.S. in billingsOctober 2013 by Current). He describes the entire history of Earth, including the rise and spread of life; the history of thinking about Earth’s place in the universe; and the history of efforts to locate other planets and other intelligences. He also considers the future of life on this planet (hint: prognosis not good) and of the exoplanet search. Basically, the book is about learning whether we’re alone in the universe, and it would be valuable even if it described only the science behind that Billings_Cover-Imagequestion. But Billings also gives profiles, varying in length and detail, of prominent scientists who were or are involved in the search. It’s a human story as much as a scientific one that he tells.

The first person we meet is one of the founders of the field, astrophysicist Frank Drake. He pioneered the search for extraterrestrial intelligence by means of radio telescopes and in 1961 developed an equation to estimate the number of detectable advanced civilizations in our galaxy. Along with surveying Drake’s work, the book shows us what kind of flower Drake grows and reveals its appeal for him. Later, we learn how a simple lunch conversation in 1979 led geoscientist Jim Kasting to a groundbreaking view of how atmospheric gases relate to temperature and habitability. That may sound abstract, but Billings makes it clear, like everything else in the book. Kasting’s far-reaching work explained why the early Earth hadn’t remained frozen, and it’s still guiding the search for Earth-like exoplanets. The most striking portrait by far comes in the book’s final section, which will leave you feeling admiration, sympathy, and maybe even a kind of awe toward astrophysicist Sara Seager.

She deserves her place at the conclusion of the seagerstory because she’s already a leader in the field of exoplanetology and, at age 42, she’s likely to remain influential. As Drake (among others) represents the past in this tale, Seager is the future. She represented a piece of great good luck for Billings in more than one way. In late September, just before this book came out, Seager became one of this year’s recipients of a five-year MacArthur Foundation fellowship, thus confirming his sense of her importance. Seager’s life also has elements of picturesque adventure that add much to this tale—physicists often love physical challenges in the great outdoors. Most important, Seager presented Billings with one of those ironies of the writing life that can sound callous to non-writers: she has been beset by misfortune, of a kind that you wouldn’t wish on anyone but that helps make her a great character.

By the time I finished the book, my advance reading copy was festooned with Post-it flags, and its text had many marginal notations. I had marked, for instance, some examples of stirring prose as well as occasional clunky bits, sometimes in close juxtaposition. I had intended to write a thorough review, but by now that’s been done well elsewhere, for instance in the New York Times Book Review and in the online publication Space Review. Instead, I explored some of the book’s main ideas in a longer discussion for Goodreads. Suffice it to say here that the people you meet and the questions they raise are likely to bubble in your mind for some time after you think you’re finished with them.

Disclosure: I’m acquainted with Lee Billings through a Stanislaw Lem listserv and have exchanged a handful of emails and Twitter messages with him on science subjects.

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