Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe

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9780387987019: Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe

What determines whether complex life will arise on a planet, or even any life at all? Questions such as these are investigated in this groundbreaking book. In doing so, the authors synthesize information from astronomy, biology, and paleontology, and apply it to what we know about the rise of life on Earth and to what could possibly happen elsewhere in the universe. Everyone who has been thrilled by the recent discoveries of extrasolar planets and the indications of life on Mars and the Jovian moon Europa will be fascinated by Rare Earth, and its implications for those who look to the heavens for companionship.

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Review:

"Do you feel lucky? Well do ya?" asked Dirty Harry. Paleontologist Peter Ward and astronomer Donald Brownlee think all of us should feel lucky. Their rare Earth hypothesis predicts that while simple, microbial life will be very widespread in the universe, complex animal or plant life will be extremely rare. Ward and Brownlee admit that "It is very difficult to do statistics with an N of 1. But in our defense, we have staked out a position rarely articulated but increasingly accepted by many astrobiologists."

Their new science

is the field of biology ratcheted up to encompass not just life on Earth but also life beyond Earth. It forces us to reconsider the life of our planet as but a single example of how life might work, rather than as the only example.

The revolution in astrobiology during the 1990s was twofold. First, scientists grew to appreciate how incredibly robust microbial life can be, found in the superheated water of deep-sea vents, pools of acid, or even within the crust of the Earth itself. The chance of finding such simple life on other bodies in our solar system has never seemed more realistic. But second, scientists have begun to appreciate how many unusual factors have cooperated to make Earth a congenial home for animal life: Jupiter's stable orbit, the presence of the Moon, plate tectonics, just the right amount of water, the right position in the right sort of galaxy. Ward and Brownlee make a convincing if depressing case for their hypothesis, undermining the principle of mediocrity (or, "Earth isn't all that special") that has ruled astronomy since Copernicus. --Mary Ellen Curtin

From the Inside Flap:

Maybe we really are alone.

That's the thought-provoking conclusion of Rare Earth, a book that is certain to have far-reaching impact in the consideration of our place in the cosmos.

While it is widely believed that complex life is common, even widespread, throughout the billions of stars and galaxies of our Universe, astrobiologists Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee argue that advanced life may, in fact, be very rare, perhaps even unique.

Ever since Carl Sagan and Frank Drake announced that extraterrestrial civilizations must number in the millions, the search for life in our galaxy has accelerated. But in this brilliant and carefully argued book, Ward and Brownlee question underlying assumptions of Sagan and Drake's model, and take us on a search for life that reaches from volcanic hot springs on our ocean floors to the frosty face of Europa, Jupiter's icy moon. In the process, we learn that while microbial life may well be more prevalent throughout the Universe than previously believed, the conditions necessary for the evolution and survival of higher life---and here the authors consider everything from DNA to plate tectonics to the role of our Moon---are so complex and precarious that they are unlikely to arise in many other places, if at all.

Insightful, well-written, and at the cutting edge of modern scientific investigation, Rare Earth will fascinate anyone interested in the possibility of life elsewhere in the Universe, and offers a fresh perspective on life at home which, if the authors are right, is even more precious than we may ever have imagined.

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