Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet Is Unique [NOOK Book]

Overview

Are we alone in the universe?

For some of us, it is an article of faith; for others, it's simple arithmetic: with hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy, billions of which are circled by planets capable of supporting life, there simply must be intelligent beings elsewhere in the Milky Way. Throw in the countless other galaxies, and it goes almost without saying that the universe abounds with intelligent species capable of building ...

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Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet Is Unique

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Overview

Are we alone in the universe?

For some of us, it is an article of faith; for others, it's simple arithmetic: with hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy, billions of which are circled by planets capable of supporting life, there simply must be intelligent beings elsewhere in the Milky Way. Throw in the countless other galaxies, and it goes almost without saying that the universe abounds with intelligent species capable of building civilizations, right? Not so fast.

In Alone in the Universe, acclaimed science writer and astrophysicist John Gribbin builds a convincing case for the uniqueness of intelligent life on Earth. Asserting that a "habitable" planet need not be inhabited by intelligent beings, he cites a wealth of recent scientific findings to suggest that the incredible diversity of life on Earth resulted from a chain of events so unlikely as to be unrepeatable in a galaxy the size of the Milky Way.

The most significant of these events was the impact of a Mars-size object with Earth soon after our planet formed. It was this unimaginable impact, Gribbin argues, that changed almost everything about our planet. It gave us a moon, and thus tides; altered the tilt of Earth in its orbit around the sun; and set the scene for continents to drift.

A novel feature of Gribbin's argument is the suggestion that another catastrophic event occurred in our solar system six hundred million years ago. An enormous super-comet collided with Venus, scattering ice balls and dust grains across the inner solar system. A side effect of this activity triggered a freezing of Earth into a "snowball" state.

The most profound transformation then occurred among the microscopic, single-celled organisms that had populated Earth virtually unchanged for three billion years. Suddenly, as Earth thawed, complex multicelled organisms appeared, including the first complex sea animals, and life began moving onto land.

This sudden profusion of life, known as the Cambrian Explosion, marked the effective beginning of rapid evolution on Earth but it took a disaster of cosmic proportions to set it off. Had it not happened, Gribbin argues, there would be no intelligent life here. What are the chances that such an improbable chain of events could occur twice in the same galaxy? Zero, says Gribbin.

Is there an upside to Alone in the Universe? For one thing, Gribbin says, Earth and human beings are special, after all. We are no longer insignificant specks in the cosmos but the unique products of an extraordinary set of circumstances that have as yet occurred nowhere else in our galaxy, and possibly not in any galaxy. As such, we are the only witnesses with an understanding of the origin and nature of the universe, and our home is the only "intelligent" planet. Gribbin ends his discourse with an impassioned plea for action against climate change and to restore the ailing ecological systems of a planet like no other.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
“The Milky Way contains a few hundred billion stars, but almost certainly contains only one intelligent civilization,” says astrophysicist and veteran popular science writer Gribbin (The Theory of Everything). In an infinite universe, on the other hand, anything is possible, but we can only explore such questions closer to home. Gribbin makes a thoroughly lucid and convincing case. Recent astronomical observations have shown that exoplanets—worlds orbiting other stars—are more common than we expected, but Earth-like worlds are rare. And even planets in a “habitable zone” of both a galaxy and an individual star need water and the right organic compounds to engender and sustain carbon-based life. “Life got a grip on Earth with almost indecent haste,” but it took Earth’s metallic core and a near-twin Moon to stabilize Earth’s tilt and steer off dangerous radiation; equally advantageous to Earth, Jupiter’s mass pulls in most of the comets and asteroids that might otherwise smash into us. Gribbin lays out the details one by one, building a concise case that “e are alone, and we had better get used to the idea.” (Dec.)
From the Publisher
* "This book's title exaggerates the author's argument about the rarity of life in the "universe": Gribbin (astronomy, Univ. of Sussex, UK; In Search of the Multiverse) claims only that intelligent life in the Milky Way galaxy (not the entire universe) is almost certainly limited to Earth. Since there are billions of galaxies in the visible universe (and possibly an infinite number beyond the reach of our instruments), his carefully limited claim is sensible. He presents a formidable array of evidence from astronomy, astrophysics, geology, and evolutionary biology to support his basic assertion. Gribbin's definition of intelligent life on Earth includes only Homo sapiens, so he is weighing the likelihood that species on other planets within the local galaxy have intelligence equaling or exceeding that of humans. His case is well presented, but the odds may shift in the next few decades as more data are gathered on the Earthlike planets outside our solar system. VERDICT Gribbin is a veteran author of popular science books; this new volume should be of great interest for all readers curious about the possibility of life beyond our own planet. Strongly recommended."—Jack W. Weigel, formerly with Univ. of Michigan Lib., Ann Arbor (Library Journal, November 15, 2011)

"The Milky Way contains a few hundred billion stars, but almost certainly contains only one intelligent civilization," says astrophysicist and veteran popular science writer Gribbin (The Theory of Everything). In an infinite universe, on the other hand, anything is possible, but we can only explore such questions closer to home. Gribbin makes a thoroughly lucid and convincing case. Recent astronomical observations have shown that exoplanets—worlds orbiting other stars—are more common than we expected, but Earth-like worlds are rare. And even planets in a "habitable zone" of both a galaxy and an individual star need water and the right organic compounds to engender and sustain carbon-based life. "Life got a grip on Earth with almost indecent haste," but it took Earth's metallic core and a near-twin Moon to stabilize Earth's tilt and steer off dangerous radiation; equally advantageous to Earth, Jupiter’s mass pulls in most of the comets and asteroids that might otherwise smash into us. Gribbin lays out the details one by one, building a concise case that "[w]e are alone, and we had better get used to the idea." (Dec.) (Publishers Weekly, October 24, 2011)

Library Journal
This book's title exaggerates the author's argument about the rarity of life in the "universe": Gribbin (astronomy, Univ. of Sussex, UK; In Search of the Multiverse) claims only that intelligent life in the Milky Way galaxy (not the entire universe) is almost certainly limited to Earth. Since there are billions of galaxies in the visible universe (and possibly an infinite number beyond the reach of our instruments), his carefully limited claim is sensible. He presents a formidable array of evidence from astronomy, astrophysics, geology, and evolutionary biology to support his basic assertion. Gribbin's definition of intelligent life on Earth includes only Homo sapiens, so he is weighing the likelihood that species on other planets within the local galaxy have intelligence equaling or exceeding that of humans. His case is well presented, but the odds may shift in the next few decades as more data are gathered on the Earthlike planets outside our solar system. VERDICT Gribbin is a veteran author of popular science books; this new volume should be of great interest for all readers curious about the possibility of life beyond our own planet. Strongly recommended.—Jack W. Weigel, formerly with Univ. of Michigan Lib., Ann Arbor
Kirkus Reviews
The British astrophysicist and prolific science writer presents a skillful, contrarian examination of the possibility of intelligent life beyond Earth. Gribbin (In Search of the Multiverse, 2010, etc.) begins with a lucid discussion of galaxy, star and planet formation. Since life on Earth appeared instantly (in geological terms) after the young planet settled down, it's mathematically probable that life develops quickly on habitable planets, and planets themselves seem almost universal. Sadly, Gribbin concludes that conditions favorable to habitable planets are rare. Liquid water must be present. If the Earth's orbit (amazingly circular, another rarity) were one percent further or five percent nearer to the sun, the inhabitants of Earth would be out of luck. Another blessing is our huge moon, which stabilizes the Earth; it and the huge planet Jupiter sweep the solar system largely clear of debris that would normally bombard our planet. Our sun is extraordinarily well behaved and long lived. Larger stars burn out too quickly to allow time for life, and most smaller ones are too unstable. Finally, earthly life's four-billion-year progression to Homo sapiens included regular disasters (asteroid strikes, abrupt climatic changes, freezeovers), which are guaranteed to continue and which make the survival of advanced civilization (as opposed to simple life) problematic. Within most readers' lifetimes, astronomers will possess technology to detect water, oxygen and tolerable temperatures around extra-solar planets. Predictions of scientific discoveries have a poor success rate, so readers should keep their hopes up as they enjoy this thought-provoking history of the universe and the prerequisites of life.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781118175415
  • Publisher: Turner Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 11/1/2011
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 426,893
  • File size: 701 KB

Meet the Author

JOHN GRIBBIN is one of today's greatest writers of popular science and the author of bestselling books including In Search of the Multiverse (Wiley), In Search of Schrödinger's Cat, and Science: A History. He trained as an astrophysicist at Cambridge University and is now Visiting Fellow in Astronomy at the University of Sussex.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements xi

Preface: The Only Intelligent Planet xiii

Introduction: One in a Trillion 1
Across the Milky Way; Hot jupiters; Planets in profusion; Dusty beginnings; Cosmic chemistry; The life of Gaia; Searching for other Gaias

1. Two Paradoxes and an Equation 26
The cosmic lottery and the Drake equation; The inspection paradox and the Copernican principle; Panspermia and the Fermi paradox; Probing for an answer

2. What's So Special about Our Place in the Milky Way? 55
Making galaxies; Making metals; Mixing metals in the Milky Way; Our place in the Milky Way; The Galactic Habitable Zone; Catastrophic comets

3. What's So Special about the Sun? 80
The narrow zone of life; The Sun is not an average star; Perturbing partners; Blasts from the past; The mystery of solar metallicity; Until the Sun dies; Postponing Doomsday

4. What's So Special about the Solar System? 100
Too hot to handle; The geography of the Solar System; Making planets; Making the Solar System; Making the Earth; The special one

5. What's So Special about the Earth? 126
Like a diamond in the sky; A planetary jigsaw puzzle; Creating continents; A fi eld of force; Venus and Mars; A planetary stabilizer; Plate tectonics and life

6. What's So Special about the Cambrian Explosion? 151
I. Contingency and Convergence
The Cambrian explosion; The Burgess Shale; Contingency; Convergence; The third way

7. What's So Special about the Cambrian Explosion? 167
II. Hothouse Venus/Snowball Earth
After the deep freeze; Tipping the balance; From without or within?; The archetypal impact; Cosmic clouds and comet dust; Diamond dust and a facelift for a goddess

8. What's So Special about Us? 184
Chance, necessity and the decimal system; The molecular clock; The trigger for change; The pacemaker of human evolution; The fate of technological civilization; The fate of the Earth; No second chance

Further Reading 206

Index 211

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 24, 2012

    Recommended Reading

    In 1992 Frank Drake and Dava Sobel published a book titled Is Anyone Out There: The Scientific Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence in which there appeared the now-famous "Drake Equation": N=R¿f_p¿n_e¿f_l¿f_i¿f_c¿L relating the hypothetical number of advanced civilizations (N) to a string of frequencies of various factors that, presumably, combine to limit N. That equation, along with the many scientific popularizes such as Carl Sagan and the media romance with alien life that continues unabated, became a symbol for the widely-held perception that it was only a matter of time before extraterrestrial life would be detected. Various efforts were made to specific the value of N, but most results were considerably greater than 1. Support for that Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence has fluctuated over the past decades during which it was paralleled by a growing sub-discipline of extra-solar-system planetary discovery. The catalog of such planets is nearing the millennial mark. Yet, no extra-terrestrials. Spurred on by planetary hard data rather than the theoretical speculation involved with the factors of the Drake Equation, the prejudice in favor of alien inevitability is beginning to erode. In Alone in the Universe John Gribben presents a powerful set of arguments - based largely on recent exo-planetary discoveries and our improved understanding of Earth System Science - to support the conclusion that human technologically advanced civilization is, in fact, unique and that there is, simply, no-one else out there, period. Gribben accepts the proposition that simple extraterrestrial life itself is very likely inevitable. However, he provides a set of very convincing arguments that there is a near-zero probability of evolution repeating itself from pro-karyotic cell to Steve Job. Alone systematically dismantles the Drake equation all based on fairly uncontroversial cosmology and geoscience. Admittedly, each of Gribben's conjectures, convincing as they are, are as unprovable as are Drake's. And, of course, the first sign of intelligent extra-terrestrial life that is detected will relegate Alone to the trash heap. All of which might lead one to conclude that either position on extraterrestrial life is a waste of effort. However, assigning N a value of 1 (or even >1) in the Drake equation does provide a framework, comparable to Lovelock's Gaia Hypothesis, in which much fruitful science can be made. Gribben does not expound much in this short volume on the implications of his conclusion. If you accept Drake's original hypothesis, then you might 1. support SETI research, or 2. keep very quiet. But can the human race be convinced to act on the implications of Alone? Will humans give up the hope of some deus ex machina bailing us out at the last minute as the Earth stumbles toward environmental oblivion or will humans accept that we are the last and only hope ever for beings aware of where they have been and where they are going? Richard R. Pardi Environmental Science William Paterson University

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 4, 2012

    Very readable and thought provoking

    John Gribbin has a reputation for being a very readable of "light science" books. He's succeeded once again. While Alone in the Universe will not satisfy those looking for hard proof of this difficult question, but it does lay out a compelling case that we may never find another intelligent race of creatures in our galaxy. He methodically works down the different levels of abstraction (and forward in time) and points out the different places where our planet's evolution have taken some less probable turns. I finished reading this book a few weeks ago and I still find myself mulling over the implications of what Gribbin has pointed out. A very thought provoking and interesting book. I'd recommend it to anyone who has pondered the question: Are we alone?

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 8, 2013

    I am an amateur astronomer and have a keen interest in this subj

    I am an amateur astronomer and have a keen interest in this subject.  Are we alone?  If yes, that's very interesting.  If no, that is also very interesting.  Gribbin(and Ward & Brownlee in RARE EARTH) shows that even though the universe has a LOT of planets, having all the conditions necessary to develop "advanced life" in the same location at the same time for sufficient time is VERY rare.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 11, 2012

    Recommended Interesting reading

    John covers the subject with a lot of current information. He is very tho
    rough, with a wide list of viewpoints. The book shows how improbable intelligent life is else where. One thing he missed was about the complexity of DNA and cell mechanics. The Universe is huge and we will see if he is correct in the long run. I enjoyed the book a lot but I'm not convinced.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 5, 2012

    Its An interesting theory

    A good read.

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    Posted January 4, 2012

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    Posted January 6, 2012

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    Posted July 3, 2013

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