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Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet Is Unique 1st Edition

31 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1118147979
ISBN-10: 1118147979
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Editorial Reviews


* ""This book's title exaggerates the author's argument about the rarity of life in the ""universe"": Gribbin (astronomy, Univ. of Sussex, UK; In Search of the Multiverse) claims only that intelligent life in the Milky Way galaxy (not the entire universe) is almost certainly limited to Earth. Since there are billions of galaxies in the visible universe (and possibly an infinite number beyond the reach of our instruments), his carefully limited claim is sensible. He presents a formidable array of evidence from astronomy, astrophysics, geology, and evolutionary biology to support his basic assertion. Gribbin's definition of intelligent life on Earth includes only Homo sapiens, so he is weighing the likelihood that species on other planets within the local galaxy have intelligence equaling or exceeding that of humans. His case is well presented, but the odds may shift in the next few decades as more data are gathered on the Earthlike planets outside our solar system. VERDICT Gribbin is a veteran author of popular science books; this new volume should be of great interest for all readers curious about the possibility of life beyond our own planet. Strongly recommended.""—Jack W. Weigel, formerly with Univ. of Michigan Lib., Ann Arbor (Library Journal, November 15, 2011)

""The Milky Way contains a few hundred billion stars, but almost certainly contains only one intelligent civilization,"" says astrophysicist and veteran popular science writer Gribbin (The Theory of Everything). In an infinite universe, on the other hand, anything is possible, but we can only explore such questions closer to home. Gribbin makes a thoroughly lucid and convincing case. Recent astronomical observations have shown that exoplanets—worlds orbiting other stars—are more common than we expected, but Earth-like worlds are rare. And even planets in a ""habitable zone"" of both a galaxy and an individual star need water and the right organic compounds to engender and sustain carbon-based life. ""Life got a grip on Earth with almost indecent haste,"" but it took Earth's metallic core and a near-twin Moon to stabilize Earth's tilt and steer off dangerous radiation; equally advantageous to Earth, Jupiter’s mass pulls in most of the comets and asteroids that might otherwise smash into us. Gribbin lays out the details one by one, building a concise case that ""[w]e are alone, and we had better get used to the idea."" (Dec.) (Publishers Weekly, October 24, 2011)

From the Inside Flap

Are we alone in the universe?

For some of us, it is an article of faith; for others, it's simple arithmetic: with hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy, billions of which are circled by planets capable of supporting life, there simply must be intelligent beings elsewhere in the Milky Way. Throw in the countless other galaxies, and it goes almost without saying that the universe abounds with intelligent species capable of building civilizations, right? Not so fast.

In Alone in the Universe, acclaimed science writer and astrophysicist John Gribbin builds a convincing case for the uniqueness of intelligent life on Earth. Asserting that a "habitable" planet need not be inhabited by intelligent beings, he cites a wealth of recent scientific findings to suggest that the incredible diversity of life on Earth resulted from a chain of events so unlikely as to be unrepeatable in a galaxy the size of the Milky Way.

The most significant of these events was the impact of a Mars-size object with Earth soon after our planet formed. It was this unimaginable impact, Gribbin argues, that changed almost everything about our planet. It gave us a moon, and thus tides; altered the tilt of Earth in its orbit around the sun; and set the scene for continents to drift.

A novel feature of Gribbin's argument is the suggestion that another catastrophic event occurred in our solar system six hundred million years ago. An enormous super-comet collided with Venus, scattering ice balls and dust grains across the inner solar system. A side effect of this activity triggered a freezing of Earth into a "snowball" state.

The most profound transformation then occurred among the microscopic, single-celled organisms that had populated Earth virtually unchanged for three billion years. Suddenly, as Earth thawed, complex multicelled organisms appeared, including the first complex sea animals, and life began moving onto land.

This sudden profusion of life, known as the Cambrian Explosion, marked the effective beginning of rapid evolution on Earth—but it took a disaster of cosmic proportions to set it off. Had it not happened, Gribbin argues, there would be no intelligent life here. What are the chances that such an improbable chain of events could occur twice in the same galaxy? Zero, says Gribbin.

Is there an upside to Alone in the Universe? For one thing, Gribbin says, Earth and human beings are special, after all. We are no longer insignificant specks in the cosmos but the unique products of an extraordinary set of circumstances that have as yet occurred nowhere else in our galaxy, and possibly not in any galaxy. As such, we are the only witnesses with an understanding of the origin and nature of the universe, and our home is the only "intelligent" planet. Gribbin ends his discourse with an impassioned plea for action against climate change and to restore the ailing ecological systems of a planet like no other.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley; 1 edition (December 1, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1118147979
  • ISBN-13: 978-1118147979
  • Product Dimensions: 6.7 x 1 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #283,995 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on July 28, 2012
Format: Hardcover
This is a book about the likelihood of life existing on other planets. Currently, there are a lot of recent books on this topic, many of which are referenced in this book. There seems to be two approaches that are popular when looking at this topic. Some authors have explored the different possibilities for places and conditions where life might exist. Others look at the history of life on Earth and estimate how likely it is that a similar situation could arise elsewhere. This book follows the second of these approaches. The author reviews a lot of the well-known highlights of the history of the universe, galaxy, solar system, planet and life. Along the way there are some interesting and curious details that some readers may not be aware of. Here and there, there is also some more speculative material such as a link between the idea of a large comet or asteroid breaking up in the inner solar system and an outburst of evolutionary activity on Earth. None of the more speculative ideas are outlandish or based on anything for which there isn't at least some reasonable evidence.

One of the most popular ideas surrounding the practice of trying to estimate the chances for extraterrestrial life is the concept of the Drake equation. This is the famous equation with a number of different terms for things like the number of planets in the galaxy or the likely length of time for an advanced civilization to arise and so forth. This particular author doesn't seem to like the Drake equation much because of the low likelihood of getting very specific estimates for most of the terms. Instead of focusing on the Drake equation per se, he builds up his own estimate of how unlikely life elsewhere must be.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By MAD on April 29, 2012
Format: Hardcover
This book is well worth reading. I am surprised at some of the negative reviews. The book is short and to the point, giving reason after reason why intelligent life here on Earth is unique. This will upset a lot of SETI people, who are sure there are millions of advanced civilizations out there just waiting for us to find the magical frequency they broadcast on. This book makes you stop, think, and question the popular wisdom of other worldly civilizations. The popular notion is the comic book blonde who says, "Gee wiz, like, there are just so many stars, like, out there, you know, like grains of sand on a beach, there just has to be lots and lots and lots of Star War like empires out there, like, you know!" If you want a reasoned argument of why our Earth, our civilization, and even our comic book blonde are special, read this book.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Clive (Max) Maxfield on January 11, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Although I think that we as a race are precious and have a lot to offer, before reading "Alone in the Universe" I took the view that if anything did happen to wipe us out, at least there would be other intelligent species out there to carry on the good fight. Now I have read "Alone in the Universe" I'm not so sure. It may well be that we are "It", which makes it all the more important that we take better care of ourselves and the Earth.

The bottom line is that I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It taught me lots of things and made me look at things from a completely different angle; it's given me a whole lot of things to think about (and to worry about; and I would heartily recommend it.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By H. Potter on June 27, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This is a very interesting, very clearly written book about the likelihood of intelligent life in the universe. Gribbin concludes that intelligence is so unlikely that we are probably it. There is lots of interesting stuff about the Galactic Habitable Zone and other fascinating topics. Of course, like most cosmology, it's all speculation. It's going to be very difficult to verify what happened billions of years ago vast distances from Earth. But it's great intellectual fun.
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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Sean S. Adams on January 29, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book deals with the big question of, "Is there anyone else out there?" It gave a nice summary of many cosmological issues. Sometimes it was just plain "Astrophysics for Dummies." I read it in my spare time during a weekend and couldn't put it down. It reads pretty quickly. I feel the average reader will get a lot from it and quickly understand a lot of complex concepts easily. New planetary discoveries are in the news all the time; I plan to keep this book around and see how accurate it is twenty years from now. He is convincing, and nicely reviews Enrico Fermi's question of "If they are out there, they should have been here already." Am glad I bought a hardcopy.

However, while highly readable, and the author explains concepts well, the book comes across as something hastily produced with strange organization. I almost wonder if he dictated his thoughts and never sent it to an editor. While it sometimes appears I was reading just a step beyond lecture notes I heartily recommend this book. His thought processes are really strong despite secretarial sloppiness.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By R. Golen on April 21, 2012
Format: Hardcover
This book is a fascinating overview of the likelihood that we will ever encounter intelligent life from somewhere else in the galaxy (forget about all the other galaxies, they are way to far away to even consider). Gribbin says no on account of how extraordinary it is that intelligent life developed on earth. I agree with Gribbin that we are very unlikely to run into or contact in any way intelligence from outside our solar system. But I humbly throw up my hand and admit that I expect we will never know if there is life out there or not.

Admitting that I did not expect Gribbin to prove his theory, I learned much about our solar system through his arguments. I found the history of the solar system fascinating. Did you know that dry land is affected by moon/sun gravitation cycles like the oceans? I had no idea.
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