Life Beyond Earth

Life Beyond Earth

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by Timothy Ferris

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The search for life beyond Earth takes the human mind and spirit back down long corridors of cosmic history, probing the ancient questions of who we are and where we came from. Life Beyond Earth is the story of this exploration.

A stunning blend of words and photographs crafted by Timothy Ferris, whom The Christian Science Monitor called "the best popular science

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The search for life beyond Earth takes the human mind and spirit back down long corridors of cosmic history, probing the ancient questions of who we are and where we came from. Life Beyond Earth is the story of this exploration.

A stunning blend of words and photographs crafted by Timothy Ferris, whom The Christian Science Monitor called "the best popular science writer in the English language today," Life Beyond Earth combines more than 100 illustrations with Ferris's rich, thought-provoking text and observations from such leading scientists as Freeman Dyson, Richard Gott, and Stephen Jay Gould. Drawn from Ferris's critically acclaimed, two-hour PBS documentary, the book covers broad swaths of time and space, from the South Pacific explorations of Charles Darwin and Captain James Cook to the latest space-probe searches for life and organic matter on Mars, Europa, and Titan.

Ferris fans and newcomers to his work alike will celebrate this, his most ambitious picture book since the classic Galaxies, which was hailed by Isaac Asimov as "a very good candidate for the most beautiful book in the world." As James Gleick, author of Chaos, remarked about Ferris's most recent bestseller, The Whole Shebang, "What luck that the universe has Tim Ferris to report on its condition!"

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Editorial Reviews
For millennia, earthlings have speculated about the possibility of life on other planets, but only within our lifetime has this theorizing achieved real maturity. In a book designed for laypeople, Timothy Ferris explains why many contemporary scientists believe that life is abundant throughout the universe and discusses the means that could be utilized to contact other-worldly beings.

Product Details

Simon & Schuster
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
11.02(w) x 9.18(h) x 0.94(d)

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People have been speculating about life beyond Earth since the dawn of history. What's new is that we have now begun to acquire the tools necessary to replace some of these speculations with fact. Humans have collected rocks on the surface of the Moon, sent instrumented probes to the planets, employed large telescopes on the ground and in orbit to study the stars, and explored the Earth to investigate how life here began and evolved.

So far, the results of the search for extraterrestrial life have been negative. The Moon, long portrayed in hoax and hopeful hypotheses as inhabited, is lifeless. Venus turned out to be fearfully hot and dry, a disappointment for those who had envisioned tropical jungles hidden beneath its perpetual clouds. Space probes dispatched to Mars have found no clear evidence of biological activity, although it may take decades of further study to determine whether there is — or once was — life on Mars.

Meanwhile, other avenues of research have opened new vistas onto the subject of extraterrestrial life and the related issue of how life began. Here on Earth, living organisms have been found thriving in hot vents in the dark depths of the sea, in frigid Antarctic waters, in core samples drilled miles down into the rocks, and floating high in the air. These findings show that life is tougher and more adaptive than had been assumed, and imply that life could exist on planets that had been thought to be too hot or cold. Jupiter's satellite Europa, for example, may have a global ocean and hot vents resembling the fertile fonts found in Earth's seas. Meanwhile, astronomers have adduced evidence of planets orbiting stars near the sun, confirming the long-held hypothesis that our galaxy contains billions of planets, some of which could be expected to have life even if the advent of life is rare. Earth scientists are finding new evidence that life began here quite early on, adding fuel to the argument that biology arises in the normal course of things, at least on planets that resemble Earth. Astrophysical studies of nebulae in the Milky Way galaxy and beyond show that the basic ingredients of life as we know it are not unique to our quarter of the cosmos but are widespread: Water, organic molecules, and sources of energy are found in countless locations, suggesting that the universe may have given birth to life in a literally unimaginable variety of environments.

From such discoveries come new incentives to keep learning about our planet and its place in the wider universe. These efforts are not forbiddingly expensive, as such things go — the United States in peacetime spends far more money each year on military applications in space than on manned and unmanned space exploration. Nonetheless they are criticized by those who have reasoned their way to the conclusion that there is no life, or at least none that is intelligent, out among the stars. Their arguments are not wholly without merit. It is true that we have as yet no solid evidence that extraterrestrial life exists, and that dream-struck enthusiasts might want to keep searching even if we had one day scrutinized a million planets and found that all were sterile. (The universe is so vast that we'd have hardly begun; life might yet be found on the next planet, or the one after that.) But we know so little so far that to stop now would be at best premature. We tried not searching, for more than ten thousand years; it didn't work. If science has taught us anything, certainly it is that one should never underestimate the scope of human ignorance and its influence on our commonplace ways of thinking.

It may be that the search for life beyond Earth is more about exploration than science, but that hardly diminishes its stature. Exploration has been central to our success as a species, and to cease exploring is to risk becoming less than human. Certainly the potential rewards of finding life elsewhere would be substantial. Science, which thrives on comparison and seldom does well when studying something of which it has but a single example, would benefit immeasurably from knowledge of just a single species of extraterrestrial life with which to compare the one form of biology that we know about. And the influences that would be brought to bear on philosophy, theology, history, and art from the discovery of even a humble life form, much less an intelligent one, can scarcely be overestimated.

Science sits at the center of our society, which deserves to be told about its findings and its informed speculations. It was to this end that I agreed to write and narrate the two-hour documentary film after which this book is titled and from which its words and many of its images are taken. Such films are not textbooks, designed to prepare their audiences to pass biology or astronomy examinations, but they can sensitize people to science and involve them in the enterprise of scientific research, if only as informed generalists. Their aim is not so much to provide answers as to help improve the quality of the questions we all ask, whenever we wonder about how life and intelligence began, who we are, and where we came from. We are rank beginners in this quest, and as such can reap the benefits of keeping an active imagination; as the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki put it, "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." To reflect on the wild diversity of life on this one planet, and not least on the rich diversity of individuals within our one species, is to consider how much we have not yet imagined, but can perhaps begin to learn.

— Timothy Ferris
Rocky Hill Observatory

Copyright © 2000 by Timothy Ferris

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