Wednesday’s Book Review: “Talking About Life: Conversations on Astrobiology”

9780521514927_p0_v1_s260x420Talking About Life: Conversations on Astrobiology. Edited by Chris Impey. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010. V + 408 pages. Photographs, preface, glossary, reading list, index. ISBN: 978-0-521-51492-7. $29.99 Hardcover with dust jacket.

Astrobiology, sometimes still referred to as exobiology, is a slippery term. For much of the general public, if they have any understanding of it at all, it means the search for “little green men” or some other exotic idea emanating from a science fiction culture all around us. It is, for them, the seeking of “the other” in the broadest sense of the term. For most scientists, it is much more, involving not only searching for signs of life in all of its permutations—much of it at the microscopic level—but also for the conditions where life might emerge and for the serious consideration of what life beyond might be like. Indeed, if we found it beyond this planet would we even recognize it as life?

This is the fundamental question of space science, at least as far as I am concerned: “Are we alone in the universe?” Although it remains true that when most people think of NASA they think immediately of the Apollo Moon landings, I would contend that the search for life somewhere else in the universe and the results that may yet come could be even more important. Talking About Life: Conversations on Astrobiology, edited by University of Arizona astronomer Chris Impey, is a fascinating collection of interviews with scientists, historians and other social scientists, writers, and public intellectuals on this seminal topic. The list of interviewees reads like a who’s who of those involved in this endeavor. One cannot come away from this book without being both illuminated about the current state of astrobiology, the possibilities for future discoveries, and the communication and reception of knowledge about it.

I especially enjoyed the interviews with people closest to my realm, social scientists and public communicators. Accordingly the interviews with Steve Dick, former NASA Chief Historian and the author of several books on the history of the search for life beyond Earth; Timothy Ferris, a science writer of great stature; Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium and a public voice for science of all types; and Ray Kurzweil, inventor and scientific-technological thinker, were the most interesting. Other interviews, such as those of SETI leaders Jill Tartar and Seth Shostak; scientific legends Sir Martin Rees, Chris McKay, and Paul Davies; NASA officials such as Laurie Leshin; and former astronaut Pinky Nelson make this a valuable snapshot of the current state and possible futures of astrobiology.

This collective statement of astrobiology at this time offers a strong narrative of how astrobiology, which had stumbled along previously, emerged as a major effort in the 1990s. Although the twentieth century may have been the century of physics, it is clear that for the interviewees in this volume science in the twenty-first century will be in no small measure about biology. And in that environment, astrobiology represents ground zero for what NASA and the scientific community could do in this arena.

This has become the case in part because of a lot of ferment elsewhere with direct applicability to NASA’s search for life beyond Earth during the 1990s. Research on extremophile life on Earth, at the bottom of the oceans around sea vents, within rocks, etc., all fueled reconsiderations of what this might mean for life elsewhere in the solar system. As Cornell University scientist Bill Nye commented about “extremophilic” life: “It’s compelling evidence for astrobiologists that the environmental limits for living things are set pretty far apart.” The Mars meteorite of 1996 and the hoopla it stirred up also suggested that this was an avenue of great significance to Americans.

As discussed at the time, and reemphasized by Chris McKay here, when the 4.2-pound, ¬potato-sized rock (identified as ALH84001) was formed as an igneous rock about 4.5 billion years ago, Mars was much warmer and probably contained oceans hospitable to life. Then, about 15 million years ago, a large asteroid hit the red planet and jettisoned the rock into space, where it remained until it crashed into Antarctica around 11,000 BCE. Scientists presented three compelling, but not conclusive, pieces of evidence suggesting that ¬fossil-¬like remains of Martian microorganisms, which date back 3.6 billion years, were present in ALH84001. The findings electrified the scientific world but excited the public just as fully, and added support for an aggressive set of missions to Mars to help discover the truth of these theories. While the theory has not been accepted by most of the scientific community, it helped to enthuse many at NASA and reorient much of space science toward answering this question about life beyond.

Equally important, the discovery of extra-solar planets beginning in the 1990s also energized the astrobiology initiatives. Several individuals interviewed in Talking About Life have been working directly in this broad-based effort to find these planets beyond our solar system. Although we have yet to find an Earth-like planet, all interviewed here believe it is only a question of time before we do so. What that might mean for humanity is a subject of considerable speculation. All of those interviewed believe we are on the cusp of major discoveries in astrobiology.

In any book of this type there are questions that must be asked about which individual interviews were included and why, and which were excluded. Although a distinguished set of interviewees are presented, there are several that were inexplicably omitted. The exclusion of James Lovelock, the creator of the Gaia hypothesis, is puzzling. His place as a leader in of the emergence of astrobiology is unquestioned. Almost as unusual is the omission of Daniel S. Goldin, the NASA Administrator between 1992 and 2001 and the creator of several NASA programs that yielded major results in the field. Likewise, the omission of an interview with Baruch Blumberg is perplexing. A Nobel Laureate, Blumberg became the first director of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute upon its founding in 1999. His recent death means that the opportunity to add his voice to those captured here is gone forever.

I could go on about omissions, but suffice it to say that there is more to be done in documenting the history of the quest to find if we are alone in the universe. As it is, Talking About Life is a very useful starting point in collecting the stories of astrobiology. It is an important contribution and fully worth both its price and the space on your bookshelf for such works.

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