The Life of Super-Earths: How the Hunt for Alien Worlds and Artificial Cells Will Revolutionize Life on Our Planet

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In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus fomented a revolution when he debunked the geocentric view of the universe, proving instead that our planet wasn’t central to the universe. Almost five hundred years later, the revolution he set in motion is nearly complete. Just as earth is not the center of things, the life on it, it appears, is not unique to the planet. Or is it?
The Life of Super-Earths is a breathtaking tour of current efforts to answer the age-old question: Are we alone in the universe? Astronomer Dimitar Sasselov, the founding director of Harvard University’s Origins of Life Initiative, takes us on a fast-paced hunt for habitable planets and alien life forms. He shows how the search for “super-Earths”—rocky planets like our own that orbit other stars—may provide the key to answering essential questions about the origins of life here and elsewhere. That is, if we don’t find the answers to those questions here first. As Sasselov and other astronomers have uncovered planets with mixes of elements different from our own, chemists have begun working out the heretofore unseen biochemistries that those planets could support. That knowledge is feeding directly into synthetic biology—the effort to build wholly novel forms of life—making it likely that we will first discover truly “alien” life forms in an earthly lab, rather than on a remote planet thousands of light years away.
  Sasselov tells the gripping story of a moment of unprecedented potential—a convergence of pioneering efforts in astronomy and biology to peer into the unknown. The Life of Super-Earths offers nothing short of a transformation in our understanding of life and its place in the cosmos.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Short, cogent and stimulating”

Andrew H. Knoll, Fisher Professor of Natural History, Harvard University, and author of Life on a Young Planet
“In engaging prose, Dimitar Sasselov explains how remarkable breakthroughs in astronomy are reframing one of humankind’s oldest questions—are we alone in the universe? The Life of Super-Earths provides nutrition for the lively mind.”

Hans Ulrich Obrist, Co-Director of Exhibitions and Programmes, Serpentine Gallery
“Dimitar Sasselov once told me that ‘biology is the future of astronomy,’ a statement which amazed and intrigued me. In this new brilliant book he explains why his expanded notion of astronomy includes biology, and geology and chemistry, in its exciting search for new planets, new worlds, and new life. Sasselov is one of the great public intellectuals of the 21st century. He inspires artists, architects, philosophers and many others. It is urgent to read Sasselov.”

“In this short, sharp look at the [extrasolar planet] subset called ‘super-Earths’ — rocky or oceanic, but more massive than Earth—astronomer Dimitar Sasselov gives us the science and the speculation about life on other worlds.”

New Scientist
“[W]hat is life and how did it come about? Astrophysicist Dimitar Sasselov argues that we are on the brink of being able to answer this question, and his enthusiasm is infectious.... Only by knowing what is possible, says Sasselov in this inspirational book, can we ever understand how life got going on Earth and why it has the characteristics it has.”

“In his new book, Harvard astronomy professor Dimitar Sasselov lays out an optimistic case for extraterrestrial life and explains why super-Earths—rocky planets that are more massive and larger than Earth—may be better equipped to harbor the stuff of life.”

The Daily Galaxy
“[A] brilliant new study.”

“In this slim but absorbing introduction to the epic search for life on extrasolar planets, Sasselov explores how astronomy, geology, and biology are conspiring to give us a radical new vision of a universe in which our living Earth is ‘just another planet.’”

Library Journal
“As the codiscoverer of several extrasolar planets, Sasselov provides an insider’s view on planet hunting.... An interesting read.”

“Sasselov takes readers firsthand through the recent exciting discoveries of large Earth-like planets. Enough super-Earths have been discovered to enable the study of their relationship to the origins of life itself.... The well-constructed logic in this book provides plenty of support for the more interesting view that the universe is in the early phases of the evolution of carbon-rich star systems that will continue to generate life on other planets.... [A] masterfully clear statement about the possibility of life on exoplanets.”

Library Journal
As the codiscoverer of several extrasolar planets, Sasselov (astronomy, Harvard Univ.) provides an insider's view on planet hunting. He argues that Earth barely meets conditions favoring the formation and maintenance of life, being just large enough to hang onto an atmosphere and having just enough tectonic activity to support a chemical cycle that stabilizes the surface temperature and helps maintain liquid water on the planet's surface. It's actually the "super-Earths" of the universe—rocky, higher-mass planets—that are most likely to harbor life of some kind. The author believes that scientists will eventually discover one or more candidates. (In fact, NASA's Kepler Mission recently identified a super-Earth warm enough for liquid water to exist.) VERDICT An interesting read, but Sasselov overuses technical jargon and underemploys supporting illustrations while explaining complex astronomical research techniques. Consequently, the potential audience is limited to readers who already possess a broad background in the physical sciences. Biology buffs be warned: there's little about life itself (whether terrestrial, synthetic, or alien) in this book.—Nancy Curtis, Univ. of Maine Lib., Orono
Kirkus Reviews
Since astronomers discovered the first planet circling another star in 1995, they've found hundreds; predictably, this has energized the debate on whether life exists beyond Earth. Sasselov (Astronomy/Harvard Univ.) reviews the hard evidence in favor (not much) before proceeding to explain discoveries and simulations that suggest we are not alone. No telescope has directly observed an extra-solar planet, but the author delivers a clear explanation of how instruments and, since 2009, a satellite are detecting subtle changes in a star's light or movement that reveal not only the presence of planets (600 so far) but their size, orbits and a hint of their composition. Sasselov maintains that the minority of "super-earths" possess conditions favorable to life: proper temperature, protective atmosphere, volcanism and tectonic movements. These are rocky, watery planets from one to 10 times the mass of Earth, which barely makes the cut. The author reminds readers that life is not fussy. Microbes thrive inside Antarctic ice sheets and in hot rock miles beneath us. Near boiling vents at the sea bottom, far beyond the reach of sunlight, they feed on hydrogen sulfide or other toxic chemicals that spew out and support a dense ecosystem of higher life forms. Life has existed for four billion years, a time comparable to the age of the universe (13 billion), so it may be a normal cosmic process along with planet formation. As short, cogent and stimulating as John Gribbin's Alone in the Universe (2011), but far more optimistic. Readers should check out both.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465021932
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 1/24/2012
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 791,994
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Dimitar Sasselov is a Professor of Astronomy at Harvard University and the Founder and Director of the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative. His research has been covered by the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and others. He lives in Auburndale, Massachusetts.
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 18, 2012

    awesome book a must read

    awesome book a must read very helpful 4 me in my science studies

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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