Faint Echoes, Distant Stars: The Science and Politics of Finding Life Beyond Earth by Ben Bova, Stefan Rudnicki |, Paperback | Barnes & Noble
Faint Echoes, Distant Stars: The Science and Politics of Finding Life Beyond Earth

Faint Echoes, Distant Stars: The Science and Politics of Finding Life Beyond Earth

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by Ben Bova

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Our neighboring planets may have the answer to this question. Scientists have already identified ice caps on Mars and what appear to be enormous oceans underneath the ice of Jupiter's moons. The atmosphere on Venus appeared harsh and insupportable of life, composed of a toxic atmosphere and oceans of acid — until scientists concluded that Earth's atmosphere


Our neighboring planets may have the answer to this question. Scientists have already identified ice caps on Mars and what appear to be enormous oceans underneath the ice of Jupiter's moons. The atmosphere on Venus appeared harsh and insupportable of life, composed of a toxic atmosphere and oceans of acid — until scientists concluded that Earth's atmosphere was eerily similar billions of years ago.

An extraterrestrial colony, in some form, may already exist, just awaiting discovery.

But the greatest impediment to such an important scientific discovery may not be technological, but political. No scientific endeavor can be launched without a budget, and matters of money are within the arena of politicians. Dr. Ben Bova explores some of the key players and the arguments waged in a debate of both scientific and cultural priorities, showing the emotions, the controversy, and the egos involved in arguably the most important scientific pursuit ever begun.

Editorial Reviews

"The stage is set," Ben Bova writes, "for the biggest discovery in human history, the discovery of extraterrestrial life, the proof that we are not alone in the universe." In The Living Universe, this award-winning science fiction author and Harvard University instructor explains how astrobiology can change the future of mankind.
Publishers Weekly
In 1910 the earth whirled through the tail of Halley's comet. Eight years later, in the final months of WWI, the "Spanish flu" pandemic struck, killing tens of millions worldwide. Could biological organisms in the comet's tail have made their way to Earth, causing this great outbreak of disease, like some early Andromeda strain? After all, many scientists hold to the panspermia thesis, that comets seeded the infant Earth with water-and life. But how could any organism survive the cold, radiation-drenched vacuum of space? Bova, a popular science fiction author and National Space Society president emeritus, demonstrates in this lively survey how resilient life really is. One little organism called D. radiodurans, a regular Conan the bacterium, can survive radiation that would fry any other known life form. Interstellar bodies often contain water in the form of amorphous ice, whose fluid structure is closer to that of glass than regular ice and can allow life to exist, or even come into being, inside it. Bova gives a comprehensive overview of the changing fortunes of astrobiology, so often the victim of political and economic expediencies, and lays out our species' best options for surviving our own actions as well as objects that may come zooming at us from out of the cosmos. The author sometimes lets his enthusiasm carry him into flights of hyperbole and even misstatements. Most scientists don't believe that life on earth needs to worry about the moon losing momentum and one day breaking apart above our heads. And early forms of life did colonize Antarctica, contrary to Bova's claim; the continent wasn't in a deep freeze millions of years ago. This book will excite science buffs while being accessible to general readers hoping to one day meet our extraterrestrial relations. 16 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. (Mar.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Best known for a steady stream of space-based science fiction (Saturn, 2003, etc.), the veteran author demonstrates a firm factual grasp in framing the big questions about extraterrestrial life. Forget about little green men sitting by their radios waiting for a sign from us. Bova builds some serious inquiries for humans to ponder and then, perhaps, prompt governments to fund the search for answers. For example, did life begin on this planet, or did it "arrive" from elsewhere? Recent discoveries enhance both possibilities. On the one hand, long-chain molecules, the basis for the "prebiotic" chemistry of carbon-based life forms, are now known to commonly exist in the vast gaseous clouds of interstellar space. On the other, microbes have been found living deep in the Earth's crust without either air or water, while more ornate creatures thrive in the super-heated, sulfur-rich, oxygen-deprived flows from rifts in the ocean's floor. In that same "extremophile" category, we find a tiny bacterium capable of surviving a dose of nuclear radiation a thousand times greater than that required to kill a human being; it simply "re-knits" its shattered DNA. In other words, as Bova stressses, expanding our notions of what organisms are capable of is key to the quest for other life forms. Discussing the disappointing 1970s Mars probe, he notes, "With 20/20 hindsight, it is clear that none of the Viking experiments could have detected truly alien life forms because no one knew what to look for except Earth-type biology." Perhaps the biggest question of all is whether people can get excited enough about the possibility of extraterrestrial life to pay the high price for its discovery. NASA's Ames Center inCalifornia, for instance, was able to reinvent itself with an "astrobiology" focus in order to escape the budget axe, yet its future is anything but secure. Inspirational treatise faithful to Carl Sagan's maxim that "absence of proof is not proof of absence."

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Read an Excerpt

Faint Echoes, Distant Stars
The Science and Politics of Finding Life Beyond Earth

Chapter One

Are We Alone?

It goes against nature in a large field to
grow only one shaft of wheat, and in an
infinite universe to have only one living

--Metrodorus of Chios Circa 400 B.C.

What is the history of life?

Are we alone in the universe?

What is the future of life?

Is life a normal part of the universe,or is our Earth the only world that harbors living creatures?

Children ask, "Where did I com from?" Stargazers wonder if there is life on any of the fiery specks that dot the night sky. Philosophers ponder the meaning of life and seek to understand our place in the greater universe that surrounds us.

These questions haunt our consciousness today, as they have for countless millennia. Human beings have always wondered about how life began and whether life exists beyond th Earth. The quest for life elsewhere in the universe is far older than written history.


Since the beginning of human existence our ancestors have populated the world with powerful supernatural creatures. The earliest writings we know of deal with gods and goddesses who are obviously much more powerful than mere mortals and who inhabit realms far beyond this mundane world in which you and I live.

Try to see the world as our prehistoric Ice Age ancestors did. Living in small tribes of hunters and gatherers, following the game herds across the land, they faced a world of terrifying dangers. Powerful lions and leopards stalked the night. When they sought shelter in caves, often as not a ferocious cave bear would mangle them with its sharp claws and powerful, crushing teeth.Hunger was a constant threat; wild fires, bewildering attacks of disease, a broken bone, even childbirth was dangerous.

Those early hunting/gathering tribes saw no difference between the animate and inanimate. To them, everything was alive: trees, rocks, clouds, animals -- specially the animals they hunted for food and the predators who hunted them. Each and all had their own individual spirit.

They did not feel alone in a cold and uncaring universe. If anything, there were too many other creatures, real and imagined, sharing the world with them. They must have felt overwhelmed by spirits that were much more powerful than themselves. On the walls of their caves they drew hauntingly beautiful pictures of the animals they lived among, probably in an effort to gain som sort of mystical control over those wild beasts, or at least to ease som of the fear they felt when facing the animals 'fangs and antlers with nothing more than primitive weapons of wood and bone.

And they watched the night sky. Paleontologists have discovered a bone with th phases of the Moon carved into it, dating back 30,000 years.


Farmers depend on the weather. So much so that the earliest farmers believed that the forc s of the weather -- wind, rain, sun -- were gods who needed to be propitiated by prayers, sacrifices, and fertility rites. The idea that there were beings who were more than human, beings much more powerful than themselves, was well-entrenched in them by the time agriculture began to irrevocably change human society some 12,000 years ago.

In ancient Egypt the Sun was worshiped as a god. One of the earliest prayers we know of is attributed to the Pharaoh Akhenaton (circa 1370 B.C.),a prayer to the Sun that gave life to the world, which he called Aton:

Thy dawning is beautiful in the horizon of the sky,
O living Aton, beginning of life.
When thou risest in the eastern horizon,
Thou fillest every land with thy beauty.

Even wild nomadic tribes such as th Achaeans, who invaded and conquered the land we now call Greece, worshiped gods of the sky and the weather. Zeus, the chief god of their pantheon, was originally a storm god. The thunderbolt was his sign and his weapon.

Farming also depends on the seasons, and farming societies began to study the stars in an effort to predict when they should plant their crops. In ancient Egypt, where the Nile's annual flood brought fresh, fertile silt to the parched land, it was vital to know when the Nile would rise. The Egyptians learned that when the bright star Sirius rose just before dawn, the river's flood was only a matter of days away. In cloudy,dank, chilly Britain, Stone Age farmers somehow managed to build gigantic megalithic circles such as Stonehenge, which served as astronomical computers that predicted the seasons, most importantly the spring equinox, the time to plant the summer's crops. Eventually, our ancestors invented agriculture.


It was only natural for people to believe that the heavens had an important influence on their lives. They did! Curious thinkers wondered why this was so and how these influences could be predicted, interpreted, and used for practical everyday affairs.

Thus was born the ancient art of astrology, which attempts to predict the events of an individual's life by considering the positions of the stars and planets. It doesn't really work, but to this day most newspapers and many Internet sites carry a daily horoscope column based on ideas that were hoary with age in Julius Caesar's time.

The ancients also cam to believe that the realm of the stars must be very different from th Earth on which we live. A mental separation between Earth and sky arose, a separation that would have seemed strange to the Ice Age hunting tribes. To the average citizen of ancient Athens or Rome, this world of ours was an imperfect place, filled with pain and unhappiness.

Faint Echoes, Distant Stars
The Science and Politics of Finding Life Beyond Earth
. Copyright © by Ben Bova. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Dr. Ben Bova has not only helped to write about the future, he helped create it. The author of more than one hundred futuristic novels and nonfiction books, he has been involved in science and advanced technology since the very beginnings of the space program. President Emeritus of the National Space Society, Dr. Bova is a frequent commentator on radio and television, and a widely popular lecturer. He has also been an award-winning editor and an executive in the aerospace industry.

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Faint Echoes, Distant Stars: The Science and Politics of Finding Life Beyond Earth 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It an an easy book to read. It covers the subject of life possibilities from several angles. The only disappointment for me was that in the end he didn't cover the latest exoplanet discoveries. I'm sure that is because the field is changing so fast that many new discoveries have been made lately, after the book was published.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Noted author, Dr. Ben Bova evaluates the age old question of whether humanity is alone in this vast universe. Whether he looks back to Copernicus and earlier or to the SETI project, Dr. Bova provides insight into the past and present scientific wars, the religious dogma, and the political benefit/cost analysis skirmishes. The author uses planet earth to make a case that life probably exists on other orbs in the universe and even in our solar system. He argues that life on earth survives hostile planetary environs that for centuries was assumed nothing could live there and bacteria brought to the moon thrives in conditions that would kill humans. Perhaps the Martian icecaps or the Jovian moons will prove to have living organisms................................... FAINT ECHOES, DISTANT STARS: THE SCIENCE AND POLITICS OF FINDING LIFE BEYOND EARTH is at its best when Dr. Bova makes the inductive case that we are not alone. The nonfiction is also quite fun to read when it looks into the past to show those times that science clashed with politics/religion. When the book goes deep into the current skirmish over funding something somewhat esoteric and not easy to see the benefits, it is fascinating but loses some of the propulsion that the history and the science provides. Still this is another strong effort by Dr. Bova, who makes no pretense on which side of the debate he supports......................... Harriet Klausner