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The Living Cosmos: Our Search for Life in the Universe

The Living Cosmos: Our Search for Life in the Universe

by Chris Impey
     
 

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Considering the development of life on Earth, the existence of life in extreme environments and the potential for life elsewhere in the Universe, this book gives a fascinating insight into our place in the Universe. Chris Impey leads the reader through the history, from the Copernican revolution to the emergence of the field of astrobiology – the study of

Overview

Considering the development of life on Earth, the existence of life in extreme environments and the potential for life elsewhere in the Universe, this book gives a fascinating insight into our place in the Universe. Chris Impey leads the reader through the history, from the Copernican revolution to the emergence of the field of astrobiology – the study of life in the cosmos. He examines how life on Earth began, exploring its incredible variety and the extreme environments in which it can survive. Finally, Impey turns his attention to our Solar System and the planets beyond, discussing whether there may be life elsewhere in the Universe. Written in non-technical language, this book is ideal for anyone wanting to know more about astrobiology and how it is changing our views of life and the Universe. An accompanying website available at www.cambridge.org/9780521173841 features podcasts, articles and news stories on astrobiology.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
'Lively, clear and up-to-date overview of astronomy, cosmology, biology and evolution, specifically as related to the search for extraterrestrial life … [Impey] does an impressive job explaining an avalanche of information, including such recent major discoveries as the first planets found orbiting distant stars. A skilful account of the universe, the nature of life and where in the universe life might occur.' Kirkus Reviews

'There has been a recent flood of books about astrobiology - the study of life in the universe - but this latest effort by astronomer Chris Impey is one of the best. It provides a solid overview of the diverse research involved … beautifully written.' The New Scientist

'Impey has written a wonderfully readable book about the chances of life existing elsewhere in the universe … But The Living Cosmos is not about just that. It is an overview of everything you need to know about the fundamentals, including how we got here and where we're probably going. More important, the science - a word that often causes eyes to glaze over - is laid out with uncommon clarity and panache.' Sara Lippincott, Los Angeles Times

'Chris Impey, one of the world's most distinguished astronomers, takes an exhaustive and illuminating look at astrobiology … Consistently engrossing and provocative, and frequently absolutely mind-blowing in its implications, The Living Cosmos is filled with scientific details but it remains accessible to readers without a background in astronomy and science. This book is most highly recommended.' Book Loons Reviews

'Impey has clearly done his research thoroughly, and interviewed a great number of the key scientists whilst writing the book … The Living Cosmos is not only comprehensive in its treatment of the great breadth of astrobiology research, but is also beautifully written. Each chapter opens with an engaging account, full of imagery, of the upcoming topic. On the whole, this is a sterling attempt at making astrobiology accessible to a general audience and I enjoyed reading it immensely.' Lewis Dartnell, Astrobiology Society of Great Britain

'Chris Impey provides a broad, accessible context for his thoughtful, engaging and up-to-date take on the quest for extra terrestrial life.' Bruce Jakosky, Nature

'Chris Impey surveys the state of the art in this exciting multidisciplinary field. Impey frames his book around three questions: How many habitable worlds are there? Is biology unique to the Earth? And are there other intelligent civilizations? Complete with a companion website featuring podcasts, video clips, interviews, news stories and original artwork, The Living Cosmos provides an eloquent summary of humankind's quest for life elsewhere.' Scientific American Book Club

'This is a book about a science that is changing our view of the universe and about what life really means and where it might exist. Impey provides us with a road map to the future of astrobiology, a map that is meant to lead us into a deeper understanding of life and man's station in the universe.' National Space Society

'5/5 stars: a constantly fascinating read in non-technical language … a superb account of where we currently stand in our quest to find alien life.' Sky at Night

'A true popular science book, if its pages don't fire your imagination, nothing will.' Astronomy Now

'… a highly entertaining read.' Spaceflight

For most of us "astrobiology" is an unfamiliar word, but its meaning, the study of life in space, has occupied the minds and imaginations of earthlings for centuries. Award-winning University of Arizona professor Chris Impey, a renowned expert in the field, describes current research about life in the universe and explains how ongoing missions to Mars, Venus, Titan, and Europa can advance our knowledge. Clear elucidation of a cutting-edge topic.
Publishers Weekly

Until a few years ago scientists believed that habitable zones around stars were fairly narrow. Today, after the discovery of 250 planets around other stars, they have had to reconsider the basic requirements for life and even how to define life. Impey, a noted astronomer at the University of Arizona and observer with the Hubble telescope, takes readers on a journey from the emergence of life on a still bubbling Earth to possible scenarios for our descendants fleeing a dying sun. Impey pays more attention than many writers to the importance of star types and their location in the galactic neighborhood for producing and sustaining planets. He shows how resilient microbes may be able to survive light-year-long journeys huddled deep within meteors and comets, and that we now know that the moons in our solar system alone offer an amazing range of possibly favorable environments for life, from the ice oceans on Jupiter's moons to the methane geology of Titan. Impey makes good use of his extensive teaching background in this carefully laid-out book. Readers with little formal science background will enjoy this wild ride through the ages and deep space as much as will dedicated SETI buffs. B&w illus. (Dec. 11)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Within the context of modern cosmology, organic evolution, and new outer space exploration technologies, Impey (Steward Observatory, Univ. of Arizona) critically examines those facts and ideas in the relevant sciences that suggest the existence of life forms (and perhaps intelligent beings and advancing civilizations) elsewhere in this dynamic cosmos. Rational speculations in the emerging discipline of astrobiology are an outgrowth of continuing discoveries in astronomy, biochemistry, and genetics. After discussing the chemical origin of DNA and its biological history on Earth, Impey focuses on the probability of finding life on Mars and the moons Titan and Europa. In the last two chapters, he extends his survey to consider the possibility that some other worlds beyond our solar system may also harbor forms of life. In particular, the ongoing scientific discovery of exoplanets increases the probability that other evolving biospheres exist somewhere in this universe. Impey has written a readable, comprehensive, and informative book that includes numerous illustrations, extensive notes, and a glossary. Recommended for all academic and public science collections.
—H. James Birx

School Library Journal

Until a few years ago scientists believed that habitable zones around stars were fairly narrow. Today, after the discovery of 250 planets around other stars, they have had to reconsider the basic requirements for life and even how to define life. Impey, a noted astronomer at the University of Arizona and observer with the Hubble telescope, takes readers on a journey from the emergence of life on a still bubbling Earth to possible scenarios for our descendants fleeing a dying sun. Impey pays more attention than many writers to the importance of star types and their location in the galactic neighborhood for producing and sustaining planets. He shows how resilient microbes may be able to survive light-year-long journeys huddled deep within meteors and comets, and that we now know that the moons in our solar system alone offer an amazing range of possibly favorable environments for life, from the ice oceans on Jupiter's moons to the methane geology of Titan. Impey makes good use of his extensive teaching background in this carefully laid-out book. Readers with little formal science background will enjoy this wild ride through the ages and deep space as much as will dedicated SETI buffs. B&w illus. (Dec. 11)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
Lively, clear and up-to-date overview of astronomy, cosmology, biology and evolution, specifically as related to the search for extraterrestrial life. Since hard evidence for life on other planets is holding steady at zero, Impey (Astronomy/Univ. of Arizona) follows the accepted course by giving readers a history of almost everything even tenuously relevant. He begins with the Big Bang, describing the formation of the universe and the nature of life itself. Then he recounts the history of life on Earth, moving on to explore the possibility of environments that support earthlike creatures elsewhere in the cosmos and paying special attention to extreme environments that might support odd forms of life. Readers will perk up to learn that living organisms on Earth thrive at freezing temperatures typical of Mars, in settings as hot and dry as Venus and at the bottom of the ocean in the absence of light and oxygen. In fact, the debate over whether life exists elsewhere in the universe now generates only modest controversy, since it turns out microorganisms can live almost anywhere. Scientists expend far more energy arguing about the conditions necessary for complex creatures like human beings. Higher life forms may require less extreme temperatures, a rocky, earthlike planet possessing an atmosphere and a sun not much different from ours-or they may not, the author hastens to add. Anyone fascinated by this subject probably has a layperson's familiarity with science, but Impey is taking no chances. Better-informed readers will probably skim his basic introduction to Einstein, Darwin, DNA and the mechanics of evolution. Despite occasionally succumbing to the "science is really fun!" tendency byincluding silly educational anecdotes, he does an impressive job explaining an avalanche of information, including such recent major discoveries as the first planets found orbiting distant stars. A skillful account of the universe, the nature of life and where in the universe life might occur.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780521173841
Publisher:
Cambridge University Press
Publication date:
05/31/2011
Edition description:
Updated edition
Pages:
412
Sales rank:
403,757
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.96(h) x 0.74(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Living Cosmos

Our Search for Life in the Universe
By Chris Impey

Random House

Copyright © 2007 Chris Impey
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9781400065066

Chapter 1.

THE UNFINISHED REVOLUTION

There are infinite worlds both like and unlike this world of ours. . . . [W]e must believe that in all other worlds there are living creatures and plants and other things we see in this world.

-Epicurus (341-270 B.C.E.), letter to Herodotus



The young scholar clutches the book to his chest as he works his way through the crowd. Campo dei Fiori is packed; it's a jubilee year, and Rome teems with pilgrims, beggars, and pickpockets. He edges forward, brushing aside the vendors who tug at his sleeve. Days earlier, a small item in a local broadsheet caught his eye. A Dominican monk from Nola was to be put to death, having exhausted the patience and goodwill of the authorities. The scholar sighs. His heart is heavy at the prospect. It is not yet a century since the death of Leonardo, but enlightenment has dimmed so much that it seems like eons.

With difficulty, the scholar climbs scaffolding behind a merchant stall so he can see over the heads of the mob. Yelling at the far side of the square tells him that Bruno has arrived, having been paraded naked through the streets of Rome. He is bound to the stake with thick rope while a local functionary reads the charges. The scholarcan only catch fragments: "impenitent heretic . . . failure to recant . . . persistent follies."

A soldier drives a nail through Bruno's tongue and into his jaw to stop him from speaking. As a token of mercy, the soldier hangs a bag of gunpowder around his neck to speed the end of his suffering. Bruno shakes his head as the crucifix is offered to him. Shouts fill the air; lit torches are raised and then lowered. The scholar cannot bear to watch; he pushes his way out of the square.

•••

The book in the hand of the young scholar was On the Infinite Universe and Worlds, written by Giordano Bruno in 1584. Bruno was a mystic and a philosopher. He had no formal training in science, and he never made astronomical observations. Yet his vision of the universe was strikingly modern and, for its time, dangerously bold.

Bruno was condemned for heresy-violation of the teachings of the Catholic Church. He wasn't put to death specifically for his astronomical ideas, but they were audacious. Decades before Galileo turned his simple telescope to the stars, Bruno was dreaming of other worlds. He thought it ludicrous that the Earth should be the center of the universe. The stars, he imagined, were huge balls of glowing gas just like the Sun, appearing faint only because they were so far away. He speculated that those stars would also have planets orbiting them. With a multitude of planets flung through space, surely there were some that hosted living creatures.

Bruno could only imagine, but we're on the verge of being able to know. You're about to read a survey of the frontiers of astrobiology: the study of the origin, nature, and evolution of life on Earth and beyond. In the past twenty years, we've pieced together important aspects of the origins of life on Earth and discovered a dizzying array of microbes. We've sent spacecraft to all of the major planets and moons in the Solar System. We've found more than 250 planets orbiting other stars. So far, we know of life on only one planet: Earth. But we live in a time of tumultuous scientific and technological change. If we find that terrestrial biology is not unique-that this is a living cosmos-it will be a discovery as profound as any in human history.

This book is framed by three questions. Each begins by looking inward but then turns outward to ask about our place in the universe. Is the Earth special? Astrobiology turns this into the question, How many habitable worlds are there? Is life special? In astrobiology, this becomes, Is biology unique to the Earth? Are we alone? That last question may be the most profound, and astrobiology frames it this way: Are there any intelligent, communicable civilizations out there? In this chapter, we'll see that these questions were considered by the first scientists over two millennia ago, and we'll see how the science of astrobiology emerged.

THE AUDACITY OF THE GREEKS

The journey that brings us to this point began 2,500 years ago on the coast of Asia Minor. For thousands of years, large and complex civilizations had existed in Egypt and Mesopotamia without developing the means to investigate what lay beyond the edge of the sky. When later scholars decoded the artifacts from these civilizations, they found mostly long lists of land and property: the bureaucratic baggage of everyday living. They left us no theories of the universe. The Greeks were different. As members of a small maritime culture, they lived by trade and their wits. They were open to ideas and to new ways of looking at the natural world.

THINKING DEEPLY ABOUT NATURE

In the age before science, people had no mental constructs for interpreting nature, so they generally accepted the world as they found it. A rock was a rock, a flower was a flower, and a star was a star. Each had its own immutable nature. Humans were clearly special, the preeminent inhabitants of the world. The dawn of science meant that simple acceptance could give way to inquiry. Science accepts the challenge of looking below the surface for deeper meanings. Its goal is to answer the question of why things are the way they are.

Starting in the sixth century B.C.E., a series of philosophers made bold speculations about the natural world. Thales supposed that the source of the universe was water, the substance from which all materials emerged. His student Anaximander extended this idea, but in his version the primal element was an infinite substance called apeiron. Since everything formed from one material and would return to it, constant recycling allowed for the possibility that other worlds might have existed at other times.

Meanwhile, Pythagoras and his followers were experimenting with numbers and inventing the foundations of geometry. Pythagoras saw mathematics as a powerful tool to understand music-harmony resulted from the ratio of lengths of a plucked string or of air columns in an open flute. He extended this idea of mathematical perfection to the heavens. The Sun, Moon, planets, and stars were carried overhead on crystalline spheres, and an enlightened person might even be able to hear their "harmony." Pythagoras knew that the Moon shone by reflected light, and its phases could be explained only if it was a sphere. The arcing motions of the stars overhead, and the fact that new stars appeared as one traveled south, meant that the Earth, too, was a sphere. We can understand why Plato inscribed "Let Only Geometers Enter Here" above the entrance when he founded the world's first university in an olive grove outside Athens.1

FROM ATOMS TO WORLDS

Another Greek idea with profound implications was atomism. Initially proposed by Leucippus, the idea was developed more fully by his student Democritus. Suppose you cut a stone in half with a sharp knife, then in half and in half again. Eventually, it'll be reduced to a grain of sand and then become too small to see or too small to cut. Democritus found it implausible that this process could continue infinitely, so he proposed tiny, indivisible units of matter called atoms. It's a moniker that survives today: everything is made of atoms, and the atoms are in constant motion. All the familiar aspects of matter-color, smell, taste, texture-are secondary properties of collections of atoms; the atoms themselves have none of these attributes.2

Atomism gave new impetus to speculations about life beyond Earth. In the theory, everything on Earth and in the heavens was made of indivisible atoms, and there were an enormous number of them. The Greek idea of elements was rudimentary; there were only four: earth, air, fire, and water. Anaxagoras thought celestial bodies were made of the same elements as the Earth and suggested that the Sun was a flaming rock as large as Greece. This was brave indeed, to suggest that the world was not unique.

Democritus went even further, speculating that the Moon had mountains and valleys and that the Milky Way was an aggregation of stars. He postulated space as infinite and occupied by atoms with pure void in between. This is strikingly close to modern cosmological views. He had no trouble imagining the variety of worlds that an infinite number of atoms might provide: "On some worlds there is no Sun and Moon, others are larger than our world, in some places they are more numerous. . . . There are some worlds devoid of living creatures or plants or even moisture." Democritus was known as the laughing philosopher, content to think about puzzles of matter and space. He said, "I would rather discover a single cause than become king of the Persians."3

This is the birth of the "many worlds" concept, which holds that the Earth isn't special. It sits in opposition to the geocentric view. The Earth is just one world among many-perhaps an infinite number- scattered through space. And if the Earth is littered with diverse forms of life, why should other worlds be barren?

Radical ideas are risky-or, rather, the act of questioning everything is radical because it threatens the social order, as Socrates had found out. Pythagoras and his followers were hounded from the Greek mainland for operating a cult with mathematics as its secret language, and Anaxagoras was banished for impiety in daring to suggest that the Sun was as large as a country. Hypatia the geometer engaged in political intrigue and was torn apart by a mob in Alexandria. It would be recasting history to present Giordano Bruno as an archetype of science in conflict with religion; his writings had no coherent explanatory framework. But he collided with authority over ideas that are uncontroversial today and paid the ultimate price.

THE MAN WHO DISPLACED THE EARTH

Viewed through the mists of time, the Greek philosophers are enigmatic. We know very little about the man who anticipated Copernicus by nearly two millennia. Aristarchus lived on the rugged island of Samos, a wealthy city-state that had been run by the tyrant Polykrates during the time of Pythagoras. Aristarchus wrote many commentaries on mathematics and natural philosophy, but only one survives. He was one of the strange breed of men who thought deeply about the heavens-like the earlier philosopher who fell into a ditch and was mocked by a servant girl because he cared more about the things above his head than he did about the things under his feet.

Aristarchus was the first philosopher we know of to make actual observations. Presuming only that the Moon shone with reflected light from the Sun, he used the curved shadow of the Earth during a lunar eclipse to measure the relative sizes of the Moon and Earth. He then used timing of lunar phases to argue that the Sun was much farther away from us than the Moon. Combining the observations, he showed that the Sun was much larger than Earth (fig. 1).

To Aristarchus, the idea that the larger Sun could orbit the smaller Earth was as nonsensical as a hammer thrower spinning a hammer that exceeded his weight. He proposed a Sun-centered, or heliocentric, cosmology, which was a radical idea at a time when to most people the Earth was the universe. But Aristarchus still had to explain why the stars did not change their relative positions or apparent brightness as the Earth moved in its orbit. He guessed correctly that the stars were so far away that these effects were too small to detect. His universe was one billion miles across, a phenomenal number in an age when most people never ventured far from where they were born.

This glimpse into the true nature of the Solar System was a cul-de- sac; the tradition established by Plato and Aristotle was to define astronomical thought for two more millennia. Aristotle dismissed the notion that the stars moved overhead because the Earth was spinning. If that was true, he argued, we should be moving at nearly one thousand miles per hour-a speed we would certainly feel. He dismissed the heliocentric model. If the Earth was moving around the Sun, Aristotle reasoned, the stars should alter their alignment and apparent brightness over the course of a year, just as we know that nearby objects appear to move against a distant backdrop when we look out of a car window. This phenomenon is called parallax. Aristotle's universe was a cozy million miles across, and its outermost crystalline sphere shut out any thought of distant worlds.

Aristotle also argued against atomism because he believed that each element had its own natural tendencies of motion. Earth and water moved naturally to the center of the universe-the center of the Earth. In our world (in Aristotle's mind it was The World), everything was composed of earth, air, fire, and water. The celestial realm was made of utterly different material, an ethereal substance called quintessence.

Greek thinking ran far ahead of Greek technology. They simply didn't have the tools to test their hypotheses. However, their early instinct that the universe had an underlying unity described by mathematics has proved to be uncannily accurate.4

The brilliant mathematician Archimedes even used the Aristarchan Sun- centered model to estimate the amount of matter in the universe. His work The Sand Reckoner is a remarkable work designed to impress his sponsor, King Gelon II, with his mathematical prowess. In it, he estimates that the universe is several trillion miles across and calculates that it would take a staggering 1064 grains of sand to fill it. If we imagine that these grains are clumped into planets and spread over the much larger volume of the modern universe, we can calculate the number of Earths it would contain: 1033, a billion trillion trillion.

WITNESSING THE BIRTH OF SCIENCE

The scene is Asia Minor. The year is 584 B.C.E. We can imagine the scene as two Greek tribes are hacking away at each other with clubs and swords on a rocky plain near the shore. It's near noon, but the air chills, and the sky darkens. Dazed and confused, the warriors drop their weapons and wander from the battlefield. History veers slightly in its course. A hundred miles away, according to Herodotus, Thales has used knowledge of astronomy to predict this event.5 He knows that solar eclipses are part of the rhythm of the heavens and not omens from vengeful gods. It's a pivotal moment in history-the first recorded time that humans use sheer intellect to make sense of the cosmos.

Consider this for a moment. At the end of the classical Greek era, most people traveled no more than a total of fifty miles in the course of their lifetimes, yet the average educated person knew that the Earth was round and twenty-five thousand miles in circumference. They had no atom smashers or telescopes, yet they suspected that matter was made of invisibly small atoms and that the universe was millions of times larger than the Earth. While most people saw the objects of the night sky as mysterious and supernatural, the Greeks knew they were subject to rational inquiry. Armed only with logic and rudimentary math, they gave birth to science.

Continues...

Excerpted from The Living Cosmos by Chris Impey Copyright © 2007 by Chris Impey. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Chris Impey is a University Distinguished Professor and Deputy Head of the Department of Astronomy at the University of Arizona. He wrote the well-received astrobiology book The Living Cosmos (Random House, 2007), the popular science book How It Ends (Norton, 2010) and Talking about Life (Cambridge University Press, 2010), a collection of interviews with astronomers, geologists, biologists and writers.

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