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Mirror Earth: The Search for Our Planet's Twin


In the mid-1990s, astronomers made history when they detected three planets orbiting stars in the Milky Way. The planets were nothing like Earth, however: They were giant gas balls like Jupiter or Saturn. More than five hundred planets have been found since then, yet none of them could support life.

Now, armed with more powerful technology, planet hunters are racing to find a true twin of Earth. Science writer Michael D. Lemonick has unique access to these exoplaneteers, as they...

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In the mid-1990s, astronomers made history when they detected three planets orbiting stars in the Milky Way. The planets were nothing like Earth, however: They were giant gas balls like Jupiter or Saturn. More than five hundred planets have been found since then, yet none of them could support life.

Now, armed with more powerful technology, planet hunters are racing to find a true twin of Earth. Science writer Michael D. Lemonick has unique access to these exoplaneteers, as they call themselves, and Mirror Earth unveils their passionate quest. Geoff Marcy, at the University of California, Berkeley, is the world’s most successful planet hunter, having found two of the first three extra-solar planets. Bill Borucki, at the NASA Ames Research Center, struggled for more than a decade to launch the Kepler mission—the only planet finder, human or machine, to beat Marcy’s record. David Charbonneau, at Harvard, realized that Earths would be much easier to find if he looked at tiny stars called M-dwarfs rather than stars like the Sun—and that he could use backyard telescopes to find them!

Unlike those in other races, the competing scientists actually consult and cooperate with one another. But only one will be the first to find Earth’s twin. Mirror Earth is poised to narrate this historic event as the discovery is made.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Science writer Lemonick (The Georgian Star) offers readers an informal and accessible view into the work of “exoplaneteers”: astronomers dedicated to searching out not just planets orbiting distant worlds, but “Mirror Earths,” Earth-like planets that might harbor life. It’s not an easy task. Distance and stellar brightness relative to the exoplanets make them difficult to see directly. Astronomers must rely on techniques like measuring how much a star’s brightness dims as a planet passes in front of it, or how much the star appears to “wobble” due to the gravitational attraction between it and an orbiting planet. Lemonick introduces planet-hunting pioneers like mild-mannered Bill Borucki, indefatigable Geoff Marcy, former cosmologist Sara Seager, and nurse-turned-astrophysicist Debra Fischer, revealing personalities as well as research frustrations and successes. Exoplanets, it turns out, aren’t really rare at all; they’re just nothing like what we expected to find. Most are more like hot Jupiters than cozy Earths. Discoveries also raise questions about what habitable means; after all, there’s no rule that says life must be Earth-like. Today’s exoplanet discoveries are building the foundation for learning just what kind of life is possible out there. B&w illus. Agent: Cynthia Cannell, Cynthia Cannell Literary Agency. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
"In Mirror Earth, Michael Lemonick describes what may be the single most important quest in science, the search for Earthlike planets around other stars—and thus for alien life itself.  He’s immersed himself in the science and in the personalities, the rivalries and dreams of the players, and accomplished a great piece of nonfiction writing. I love this book and love the quest."—Richard Preston

"As a science writer, I was thrilled by Mirror Earth's account of cutting edge astronomical research and discovery. As a twin, I was moved by this touching and poignant tale of humanity's yearning for cosmic companionship."—Margaret Wertheim, author of Pythagoras' Trousers and Physics on the Fringe

"Leave it to veteran science journalist Michael Lemonick to not only capture the science behind the search for exoplanets, but to eavesdrop on the occasionally quirky lives of the planet hunters themselves."—Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, American Museum of Natural History

Library Journal
Lemonick (contributor, Time magazine; Echo of the Big Bang) offers readers a glimpse into the rarefied world of exoplaneteers, the term for scientists who scour the sky for planets similar to Earth, capable of sustaining life. This is not science fiction: these astronomers infer from their observations of wobbling or blinking stars the presence of planets in orbit about them. Lemonick regales readers with the thrilling finds researchers have uncovered to date, especially within the last 15 years. He discusses the meaning of the term habitable, the constitution of alien atmospheres, and possible technologies that could expand the frontiers of scientific research. A chapter called "Invasion of the Female Exoplaneteers" is particularly noteworthy. VERDICT This is an enjoyable and enlightening read. Recommended for readers with even the slightest interest in astronomy (which is most of us); Lemonick's enthusiasm will absolutely catch hold.—Margaret F. Dominy, Drexel Univ. Lib., Philadelphia
Kirkus Reviews
The discovery of planets beyond our solar system has become almost commonplace. Veteran Time science writer Lemonick (Echo of the Big Bang, 2003, etc.) looks at the scientists who carry out the search. The author begins with a brief look at the time before planets had been found orbiting other stars. Astronomers thought such planets probably existed, but finding them entailed very precise measurements of the wobble caused by a body in orbit around a star or the dimming of light as it passed between the star and the observer. Attempts were made as far back as the 1960s, but it took until 1995 for Swiss astronomers Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz to make the first discovery, a body half the size of Jupiter orbiting the star 51 Pegasi every four days. This "hot Jupiter" confounded existing theories of planet formation, which assumed our solar system was somehow "typical." But when Geoff Marcy and Paul Butler of San Francisco State University found two more planets in observations they had been recording for six years, the game was on. New tools, notably space telescopes, made the task easier; so did the arrival of a generation of astronomers whose imaginations were fired by this grand new enterprise. Lemonick gives profiles of a number of these "exoplaneteers": Canadians Dave Charbonneau and Sara Seager, who learned their trade at Harvard; and Debra Fischer and Natalie Batalha of the University of California. Also central to the story is Bill Borucki, the driving force behind the Kepler space telescope. The chase is now focused on finding planets close to Earth in size. Do any of them have the conditions under which life could have arisen? That remains to be seen, but Lemonick makes it clear that the exoplaneteers are busily working to find ways to detect them. A solid overview of the cutting edge of astronomy and of the new breed of astronomers who are exploring it.
The Barnes & Noble Review
Are you curious about why the NASA space observatory whose mission is to search out other worlds should be named after seventeenth-century astronomer Johannes Kepler? True, he was a seminal genius in the stargazing biz, but so are many others who could have legitimately contributed their moniker. But Kepler had one extra arrow in his quiver. He was arguably history's first hardcore science fiction writer, at least in the eyes of such experts as Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov. His novel Somnium stands pretty much alone as first to speculate realistically about life on other planets. Literature adds that dash of glory and public acclaim to science every time!

Before Kepler, other planets and their putative inhabitants were seen merely as extensions of terra firma, like exotic China or India. "There is little in most pre- twentieth-century accounts to distinguish other worlds from the strange Earthly lands featured in many travelers' tales and romances," notes critic Brian Stableford at the Science Fiction Encyclopedia. But once other worlds were conceptualized as equal in status, yet truly alien and distant, they could then enter the realm of proper scientific research. And so to Kepler goes the credit for launching the field of exoplanetary science.

As Mirror Earth, Michael D. Lemonick's engrossing account of this relatively young field, reveals — in a swift, thrilling narrative, replete with passionate characters, suspense, politics, setbacks, and triumphs — exoplanetary science languished as a kind of pencil and paper speculative game until the right technology and the right visionary inspirations coincided. After that, the riches began to rain down from the heavens. Now we stand poised on the threshold of the ultimate coup: finding a "mirror Earth," or twin to our hospitable home.

Lemonick's schema is to convey to the reader both the Dark Ages and the new Golden Age of exoplanetary research, and he does so with panache and deep understanding. He starts with instant immersion, by reporting on some fairly recent exciting discoveries revolving around the Kepler telescope. Then he backtracks all the way to the Classical era, when ancient Greeks were just beginning to theorize about the "plurality of worlds." After that backstory, we return to the recent twentieth century, when competing and cooperating teams of scientists began to codify the techniques for affirming the existence of other planets outside our solar system, incredible light-years away. With utmost clarity, employing plenty of vivid metaphors, Lemonick details the two major techniques of planet discovery: radial- velocity searches (how a planet perturbs the motion of its star) and transit searches (how a planet can be spotted as it crosses the face of its star). A third method, gravitational lensing, is less potent, but still useful, and gets its focus as well.

The Kepler instrument employs the transit technique, and is the star of this saga. Launched only in 2009, it has since revealed over a thousand candidates for planethood. Its creation was not without arduous battles by hundreds of committed, true-believer scientists, and Lemonick's generous portraits of these men and women — the "exoplaneteers" — are full of empathy, affection, and respect. He conjures up the love they have for the wonders of the cosmos — as well as their normal human quirks and failings — with brushstrokes both minute and broad, as necessary. Note, for example, Chapter 11's sensitive and respectful depiction of a "horrible breakup, like the worst divorce" that happened among several researchers.

One of the big revelations that Lemonick delivers is how surprising the universe remains. Scientific expectations were undermined and reversed throughout this quest, and entire new unsuspected categories of objects emerged. I am particularly fond myself of the notion of a planet featuring "a core of pure diamond, with diamond continents sloping down to seas of tar."

As the book's title suggests, much of the excitement in the field revolves around finding a world with the parameters of Earth, hence a possible refuge for living organisms, and Lemonick traces their bloodhound-like pursuit of the prize in many exciting stages. The pioneers involved in exoplanetary research are not just collecting Big Blue Marbles, but are intent on establishing humanity's role in the universe: freakish singleton, or member of a galactic community.

Author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, and Neutrino Drag, Paul Di Filippo was nominated for a Sturgeon Award, a Hugo Award, and a World Fantasy Award — all in a single year. William Gibson has called his work "spooky, haunting, and hilarious." His reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Science Fiction Weekly, Asimov's Magazine, andThe San Francisco Chronicle.

Reviewer: Paul Di Filippo

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802779007
  • Publisher: Walker & Company
  • Publication date: 10/16/2012
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 1,414,452
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.34 (h) x 1.08 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Lemonick has written more than 50 Time magazine cover stories on science, medicine and the environment, including its1996 story on the discovery of the first planets beyond the solar system. He also has been published in Discover, New Scientist, Newsweek, National Geographic, Wired, and Scientific American. He is the author of four books, most recently Echo of the Big Bang and The Georgian Star: How William and Caroline Herschel Revolutionized Our Understanding of the Cosmos.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Chapter 1 The Man Who Looked for Blinking Stars 9

Chapter 2 The Man Who Looked for Wobbling Stars 29

Chapter 3 Hot Jupiters: Who Ordered Those? 43

Chapter 4 An Ancient Question 62

Chapter 5 The Dwarf-Star Strategy 81

Chapter 6 Imagining Alien Atmospheres 98

Chapter 7 Invasion of the Female Exoplaneteers 113

Chapter 8 Kepler Approved 132

Chapter 9 Waiting for Launch 145

Chapter 10 Kepler Scooped 162

Chapter 11 "A 100 Percent Chance of Life" 178

Chapter 12 The Kepler Era Begins 191

Chapter 13 Beyond Kepler 200

Chapter 14 How Many Earths? 215

Chapter 15 What Does "Habitable" Really Mean? 231

Chapter 16 A World Made of Rock, at Last 245

Chapter 17 Astronomers in Paradise 256

Chapter 18 Sara's Birthday Party 269

Acknowledgments 277

Notes 279

Bibliography 285

Index 287

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