Mirror Earth: The Search for Our Planet's Twin

Mirror Earth: The Search for Our Planet's Twin

by Michael D. Lemonick
     
 

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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

Overview

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.

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780802779007
Publisher:
Walker & Company
Publication date:
10/16/2012
Pages:
304
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.34(h) x 1.08(d)

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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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