“A definitive guide to astronomy’s hottest field.” —The Economist
Since its formation nearly five billion years ago, our planet has been the sole living world in a vast and silent universe. But over the past two decades, astronomers have discovered thousands of “exoplanets,” including some that could be similar to our own world, and the pace of discovery is accelerating.
In a fascinating account of this unfolding revolution, Lee Billings draws on interviews with the world’s top experts in the search for life beyond earth. He reveals how the search for exoplanets is not only a scientific challenge, but also a reflection of our culture’s timeless hopes, dreams, and fears.
In his efforts to put a human face on the grand hunt for "life among the stars" or at least a planet where life could exist science writer Billings loses sight of the search and gets caught up in historical asides, profiles of scientists, and distracting poetic musings. His approach is novel, but all too often the results resemble just that that is, a novel: Billings relies on interviews with researchers including Frank Drake of the SETI ("search for extraterrestrial intelligence") Institute, MIT's Sara Seager, and the preeminent discoverer of extrasolar planets, UC Berkley's Geoff Marcy conducted in relaxed settings: a home in Santa Cruz, a Pennsylvania farm, a family evening in Concord, Mass. Wherever his interviewees skim the surface, Billings fills readers in on the science behind the story. If he had stuck to this format, the book might havewould've worked. Instead, he muddles the narrative with chapters on, for example, the history of astronomy in the Western world and the early epochs of Earth; these topics have been covered better elsewhere. And in his section on Seager, Billings dwells longer on the tragic death of her husband than on her work. The individual pieces are interesting, but they fail to cohere.