Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars

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An intimate history of Earth and the quest for life beyond the solar system

For 4.6 billion years our living planet has been alone in a vast and silent universe. But soon, Earth's isolation could come to an end. Over the past two decades, astronomers have discovered thousands of planets orbiting other stars. Some of these exoplanets may be mirror images of our own world. And more are being found all the time.

Yet as the pace of discovery ...

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Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars

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An intimate history of Earth and the quest for life beyond the solar system

For 4.6 billion years our living planet has been alone in a vast and silent universe. But soon, Earth's isolation could come to an end. Over the past two decades, astronomers have discovered thousands of planets orbiting other stars. Some of these exoplanets may be mirror images of our own world. And more are being found all the time.

Yet as the pace of discovery quickens, an answer to the universe's greatest riddle still remains just out of reach: Is the great silence and emptiness of the cosmos a sign that we and our world are somehow singular, special, and profoundly alone, or does it just mean that we’re looking for life in all the wrong places? As star-gazing scientists come closer to learning the truth, their insights are proving ever more crucial to understanding life’s intricate mysteries and possibilities right here on Earth.

Science journalist Lee Billings explores the past and future of the "exoplanet boom" through in-depth reporting and interviews with the astronomers and planetary scientists at its forefront. He recounts the stories behind their world-changing discoveries and captures the pivotal moments that drove them forward in their historic search for the first habitable planets beyond our solar system. Billings brings readers close to a wide range of fascinating characters, such as:

FRANK DRAKE, a pioneer who has used the world’s greatest radio telescopes to conduct the first searches for extraterrestrial intelligence and to transmit a message to the stars so powerful that it briefly outshone our Sun.

JIM KASTING, a mild-mannered former NASA scientist whose research into the Earth’s atmosphere and climate reveals the deepest foundations of life on our planet, foretells the end of life on Earth in the distant future, and guides the planet hunters in their search for alien life.

SARA SEAGER, a visionary and iron-willed MIT professor who dreams of escaping the solar system and building the giant space telescopes required to discover and study life-bearing planets around hundreds of the Sun’s neighboring stars.

Through these and other captivating tales, Billings traces the triumphs, tragedies, and betrayals of the extraordinary men and women seeking life among the stars. In spite of insufficient funding, clashing opinions, and the failings of some of our world’s most prominent and powerful scientific organizations, these planet hunters will not rest until they find the meaning of life in the infinite depths of space. Billings emphasizes that the heroic quest for other Earth-like planets is not only a scientific pursuit, but also a reflection of our own culture’s timeless hopes and fears.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Dennis Overbye
…[Billings's] graceful new book on the history, meaning and personalities behind the search for life among the stars…is the best book I have read about exoplanets, and one of the few whose language approaches the grandeur of a quest that is practically as old as our genes.
Publishers Weekly
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. Agent: Peter Tallack, Science Factory (U.K.). (Oct. 3)
Library Journal
Billings (contributor, Nature; Popular Mechanics, etc.) interviewed astronomers and geologists to compile this occasionally meandering overview of the still-evolving field of "exoplanetary" research (discovery and characterization of planets orbiting other stars). Early dreams that we would locate and visit intelligent, technologically sophisticated beings elsewhere in space have been tempered as declining governmental funding has restricted our planet hunting. Today's astronomers are still intrigued by the possibility of discovering ever more exoplanets and by primitive nonterrestrial life forms but are far less optimistic about finding intelligent life or sending manned spacecraft outside the solar system. While this book may dampen the dreams of young planet hunters and exobiologists, the scientists featured still offer the hope that a combination of commercially viable unmanned spaceflight, public outreach by astronomers, and effective lobbying for improved research funding could expand our capacities to find new, somehow inhabited worlds beyond our own. VERDICT Complementary to Michael D. Lemonick's more optimistic Mirror Earth: The Search for Our Planet's Twin and less technical than Ray Jayawardhana's Strange New Worlds: The Search for Alien Planets and Life Beyond Our Solar System, this work will appeal to amateur astronomers and geologists as well as to general science buffs.—Nancy Curtis, Univ. of Maine Lib., Orono
Kirkus Reviews
Science writer Billings debuts with this examination of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence and the surprising perspective it provides in thinking about mankind and the deep-time history of Earth. The author bases his work on interviews and discussions with leaders from successive generations of the quest to find extraplanetary life. Frank Drake, who was an organizer of the original 1961 conference that set parameters for the project, concluded that "the universe, on balance, was a rather hospitable place, one that surely must be overflowing with living worlds." Among the participants was Carl Sagan, who would go on to popularize the search through his PBS show Cosmos. In 1989 and 1990, Sagan showed that the technological methods then employed could discriminate the Earth from the moon using the scanning devices on NASA probes. Billings' interlocutors include, among others, Greg Laughlin, who worked on "the wealth of Neptune-mass planets" revealed by NASA's Kepler project, and James Kasting, who developed models that could assist in the extrapolation of information about the composition of exoplanets, planetlike objects orbiting distant stars, from data received. These scientists have extended technology's frontiers and enabled motion at a scale of 1 meter per second on the surface of a star many light years away to be detected and analyzed. Now, exoplanets can be cataloged in the thousands, their compositions analyzed. Billings' accounts of arguments about inferences drawn, and even the existence of objects apparently observed, are fascinating. Kasting and Laughlin both provide insight on the geological and biological history of Earth, as well as current thinking about how life, and intelligence, may have developed. Billings documents how arbitrary changes in political priorities and funding reductions have wreaked havoc with the research. A great outline of the subject, bringing what's often treated as science fiction down to Earth, where it can be understood.
From the Publisher
"[Billings] narrates his own writing with a sense of wonder, making the search for life something that's human, not a mess of scientific calculations." —-AudioFile
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781617230066
  • Publisher: Current Hardcover
  • Publication date: 10/3/2013
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 319,442
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Lee Billings is a science journalist whose work has appeared in NatureNew Scientist, Popular Mechanics, and Scientific American. He lives in New York. This is his first book.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 2 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 18, 2013

    Flashes of brilliance, but overall too mired in fine points whil

    Flashes of brilliance, but overall too mired in fine points while missing out on the big picture.

    Following the rave review 'Five Billion Years' received in the New York Times, I was hoping for a volume that would delve into the existential potential that the booming exoplanet field offers. 

    Instead, a book whose subject held the promise of Jim Holt's moving and brilliant 'Why Does the World Exist' instead falls too often into scientific explanation that can be too complicated for even a well-informed reader to follow with interest or awe.  While the book has flashes of truly inspiring take-aways, those are too far apart. The pages would have been better used with more direct interviews with the scientists leading the exoplanet explorations, and less on satellite acronyms. It is when 'Five Billion Years' touches upon the potential consequences of the field of study that it really shines. It's a book with incredible potential that, in the end, reads a bit too much like one very long article for a scientific journal and less like the real adventure that the exoplanet search must surely be.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 5, 2014

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