Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life

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9780060959968: Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life

It's been nearly four decades since Carl Sagan first addressed the general public from a scientist's perspective, confronting the possibility of extraterrestrial life. David Grinspoon, a planetary scientist who has helped to shape modern planetary exploration, brings the subject to a new generation of readers with his reflections on the most recent developments in astrobiology, including NASA's search for life on Mars. In Lonely Planets, he investigates the big questions: How widespread are life and intelligence in the cosmos? Is life on Earth an accident or in some sense the "purpose" of this universe? And how can we, working from the Earth-centric definition of "life," even begin to think about the varieties of life-forms on other planets?

Using the topic of extraterrestrial life as a mirror with which to view human beliefs, evolution, history, and aspirations, Grinspoon provides an authoritative scientific narrative of cosmic evolution, along with provocative ruminations on how we fit into the story of the universe. An accessible, lively blend of science, history, philosophy, and personal narrative, Lonely Planets reveals how the search for extraterrestrial life unites our spiritual and scientific quests for connection with the cosmos.

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Review:

In Lonely Planets, astronomer David Grinspoon is buoyantly optimistic about the possibility that we are not alone in the universe. Grinspoon, who serves as principal scientist in the Department of Space Studies at the Southwest Research Institute, lays out a detailed but not boring case for life on other planets, dropping authoritative quotes and goofy footnotes in equal measure. The Grinspoon family hung out with Carl Sagan and other astronomical royalty, giving young David an early appreciation for SETI and the heady astrobiological theorizing of the 1970s. In the 21st century, scientists are still split on the question of extraterrestrial life. Grinspoon believes that a "natural philosophy" approach is the key to furthering our knowledge in this field, since there is precious little evidence with which to apply the scientific method. Instead of looking for the familiar and testable, he writes, we should expect the unexpected.

Expecting to find DNA elsewhere is like expecting a Star Trek universe with humanoid aliens who speak English and insist that we join them for dinner at eight.

Lonely Planets is a substantial book, covering the origins of life on Earth as well as the changes in religious and social thought that have affected astronomers' search for other planets and their theoretical inhabitants. Grinspoon's style is exuberant, even a little cocky, and the result is delightful readability. Lonely Planets lets readers share the dismay of finding out there are probably no Martians and the thrill of wondering if there might be Europans. "I think our galaxy is full of species," writes Grinspoon. "The wise ones are out there waiting for us to join them." --Therese Littleton

About the Author:

David Grinspoon is principal scientist in the Department of Space Studies at the South-west Research Institute, and adjunct professor of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences at the University of Colorado. His previous book, Venus Revealed, was a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist. An adviser for NASA on space exploration strategy, he lectures widely and has appeared on numerous television and radio programs. His writing has appeared in Astronomy, Nature, Science, Scientific American, Natural History, and The Sciences. He maintains the Funky Science Web site at www.funkyscience.net.

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