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Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars [Kindle Edition]

Lee Billings
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)

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Book Description

An intimate history of Earth and the quest for life beyond the solar system

For 4.6 billion years our living planet has been alone in a vast and silent universe. But soon, Earth's isolation could come to an end. Over the past two decades, astronomers have discovered thousands of planets orbiting other stars. Some of these exoplanets may be mirror images of our own world. And more are being found all the time.

Yet as the pace of discovery quickens, an answer to the universe's greatest riddle still remains just out of reach: Is the great silence and emptiness of the cosmos a sign that we and our world are somehow singular, special, and profoundly alone, or does it just mean that we’re looking for life in all the wrong places? As star-gazing scientists come closer to learning the truth, their insights are proving ever more crucial to understanding life’s intricate mysteries and possibilities right here on Earth.

Science journalist Lee Billings explores the past and future of the "exoplanet boom" through in-depth reporting and interviews with the astronomers and

planetary scientists at its forefront. He recounts the stories behind their world-changing discoveries and captures the pivotal moments that drove them forward in their historic search for the first habitable planets beyond our solar system. Billings brings readers close to a wide range of fascinating characters, such as:

FRANK DRAKE, a pioneer who has used the world’s greatest radio telescopes to conduct the first searches for extraterrestrial intelligence and to transmit a message to the stars so powerful that it briefly outshone our Sun.

JIM KASTING, a mild-mannered former NASA scientist whose research into the Earth’s atmosphere and climate reveals the deepest foundations of life on our planet, foretells the end of life on Earth in the distant future, and guides the planet hunters in their search for alien life.

SARA SEAGER, a visionary and iron-willed MIT professor who dreams of escaping the solar system and building the giant space telescopes required to discover and study life-bearing planets around hundreds of the Sun’s neighboring stars.

Through these and other captivating tales, Billings traces the triumphs, tragedies, and betrayals of the extraordinary men and women seeking life among the stars. In spite of insufficient funding, clashing opinions, and the failings of some of our world’s most prominent and powerful scientific organizations, these planet hunters will not rest until they find the meaning of life in the infinite depths of space. Billings emphasizes that the heroic quest for other Earth-like planets is not only a scientific pursuit, but also a reflection of our own culture’s timeless hopes and fears.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In his efforts to put a human face on the grand hunt for "life among the stars"—or at least a planet where life could exist—science writer Billings loses sight of the search and gets caught up in historical asides, profiles of scientists, and distracting poetic musings. His approach is novel, but all too often the results resemble just that—that is, a novel: Billings relies on interviews with researchers—including Frank Drake of the SETI ("search for extraterrestrial intelligence") Institute, MIT's Sara Seager, and the preeminent discoverer of extrasolar planets, UC Berkley's Geoff Marcy—conducted in relaxed settings: a home in Santa Cruz, a Pennsylvania farm, a family evening in Concord, Mass. Wherever his interviewees skim the surface, Billings fills readers in on the science behind the story. If he had stuck to this format, the book might havewould've worked. Instead, he muddles the narrative with chapters on, for example, the history of astronomy in the Western world and the early epochs of Earth; these topics have been covered better elsewhere. And in his section on Seager, Billings dwells longer on the tragic death of her husband than on her work. The individual pieces are interesting, but they fail to cohere. Agent: Peter Tallack, Science Factory (U.K.). (Oct. 3)

From Booklist

When scientists first began an ambitious search for extraterrestrial radio signals in the early 1960s, the space race was in full swing and government funding for NASA’s pet projects was enthusiastically openhanded. Today, the formerly heralded project known as SETI garners a fraction of its once sizable budget, and instead, astronomers are spending more time peering outside our solar system to pinpoint distant worlds dubbed exoplanets. Lately, barely a month passes without the media announcing a new discovery. Exoplanet detection is space science’s hottest field, one which science writer Billings surveys here with exceptional clarity while peering over the shoulders of the planet hunters’ leading pioneers. Along with an absorbing history of celestial-body sightings from the Greeks to Galileo, Billings profiles colorful contemporary researchers, such as astrophysicist Greg Laughlin, who assesses planets’ values based on their available resources (Earth’s weigh in at $5 quadrillion), and astronomer Matt Mountain, who has been lobbying Washington for a ­billion-dollar space telescope. A fascinating and informative read for both casual and serious astronomy buffs. --Carl Hays

Product Details

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
45 of 47 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb Investigation of Exoplanetary Science October 9, 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
About a third of the way into his new book Five Billion Years of Solitude (Current, 2013), Lee Billings describes a time capsule that was sealed in July of 1963 near the Cabrillo Freeway in San Diego, though it has since been moved. Within it was a book that looked a century ahead, with contributions from politicians, astronauts, military figures and others about the world of the future. Copies of the book, titled 2063 A.D. are available, and within them one can find the musings of Nobel-laureate Harold Urey, who worried about our use of energy and noted that largely because of the need for electricity, US fossil fuel consumption had increased eightfold between 1900 and 1955.

Was the trend sustainable over the long haul? Urey doubted it, and he was hardly alone, for the need for energy seems to impose sharp limits on what a society can do. Billings notes the work of Tom Murphy (UC San Diego), who works with a long-term 2.3 percent increase in energy usage per year, yielding a factor-of-ten increase every century. Things happen quickly over time -- by 2112 the world is consuming 120 terawatts, a number that rises to 1200 by 2212. Cover every bit of land with photovoltaic solar arrays and assume 20 percent efficiency and you can supply the world of 2287, which will need something on the order of 7,000 terawatts.

You can see where this is going, and Billings is expert at connecting the march of numbers with real events and the people who can explain them. First, here is what happens once we've got all that land covered with solar-power arrays:

"From there, increasing the efficiency of the photovoltaics to a miraculous 100 percent and covering the oceans as well as the continents would allow the 2.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A work of great value October 24, 2013
This book opens with the visit of the author to Frank Drake the great pioneer of the search for Extraterrestial Life. In this chapter Lee Billings tells the story of SETI's getting underway and outlines the roles of the various distinguished scientists present in a key first meeting among whom were Drake, Philip Morrison, Harold Urey,Joshua Lederberg and a young and most optimistic Carl Sagan. For this riveting chapter alone the book is worthwhile. In it Billings also explains why SETI has in a sense gone out of fashion and why scientific enthusiasm in astrophysics focuses in good part on the search for Exoplanets. Very simply fifty years of SETI have yielded nothing in the way of concrete results, while in the past twenty years or so there have been revealed close to one- thousand exoplanets including most recently those earth- like in size.
Still even in this area as Billings will go on to relate Progress is not where it could be. One major theme of the book is that Humanity and most especially its leading nations are not properly invested in the kind of tools and equipment that could more deeply investigate the Exoplanents. The tools are not available now to know which planets are good candidates for sustaining life. We cannot now read their biosignatures, cannot know whether they have liquid water, suitable atmospheres, methane.oxygen etc.
Billings too talks about the search for exoplanents in a series of conversations with leading researchers. These conversations are valuable both in exploring the complicated nature of the search for Life in other worlds, and presenting portraits of the individual scientists.
One of the surprising and most appealing elements in the book is Billings meditations on the whole question of human Aloneness and the search for life.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Will we squander the unbounded future of humankind? October 14, 2013
Format:Kindle Edition
That's the implicit question that permeates the book. Thankfully, Lee Billings shows up with relatable characters, engrossing narrative, artful prose, and careful explanations to help us formulate an answer.

Billings begins his journey with the father of exoplanetology: None other than Sir Francis Drake. We visit Drake's greenhouse and, inside, we come to appreciate the fragility and rarity of our planet -- a rare orchid -- as well as others that may exist as tiny specks hidden amid the void of space. From there we steer through the rise of exoplanetology and frustrating bureaucracies that impede the search for habitable extraterrestrial planets. We also learn what makes Earth so special (even its estimated value in dollars!) and how, exactly, we detect extrasolar planets. Billings also clearly explains what future technologies are required to detect life on distant worlds -- perhaps the most important pursuit ever undertaken by the human race.

As a science and technology writer, I consider myself well-versed on the subject matter in the book. But Billings kept me glued, page after page, by distilling and clearly describing so much that I was previously unaware of. It almost felt like I knew nothing prior to reading his book. He made everything click.

If you're interested a candid, detailed, and fascinating portrayal of how scientists go about finding exoplanets -- and what is at stake in continuing the search -- I wholeheartedly recommend reading Five Billion Years of Solitude.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Started well, but got lost in the middle and the end
The book started well. There are certainly some interesting chapters; with good topics about possible extraterrestrial life and exoplanet hunting. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Brian
5.0 out of 5 stars So much fun to read!
Loved this book. Could not put it down. This book is so much more than just an exploration of the current science of exoplanets (though it is an excellent study of that). Read more
Published 1 month ago by Justin Heninger
5.0 out of 5 stars Up from Gravity
Emotionally-complex, up-to-the-minute account, told mainly through biographical snapshots, of that great & esoteric adventure that is the search for planets of other stars. Read more
Published 2 months ago by michael helsem
4.0 out of 5 stars Good gift for Spaceman Spiff
Great gift for a space lover or budding astronaut. Good price and quick shipping. I have not read, as I gave it as a gift.
Published 2 months ago by Cory P
5.0 out of 5 stars Lee Billings does a fantastic job of showing where today's leading...
We live in a very exciting time for fans of astronomy and physics. Lee Billings does a fantastic job of showing where today's leading astronomers are in the search for planets... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Sean Sakamoto
4.0 out of 5 stars Biographies and Summaries
I expected something more out of the box. The book contains mini bios of a number of persons involved, mostly with SETI and NASA, in searching for exoplanets and pursuing projects... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Carl King
1.0 out of 5 stars a four-star 80-page essay plus padding
There is some good stuff in here about how exoplanets are found. But there is also a lot of off-topic information. Are you skeptical about global warming? Read more
Published 4 months ago by Philip Greenspun
4.0 out of 5 stars Thought provoking and a worthy read . . .
We reviewed “Five Billion Years of Solitude” by Lee Billings at our monthly Book Club meeting in early March. Read more
Published 4 months ago by john loeffler
2.0 out of 5 stars 5 billion years of solitude. review
Because it is a boring book. The author clearly didn't have enough subject matter, and chose to fill the remaining pages with biography's to fulfill his word quota
Published 5 months ago by damian john buckett
3.0 out of 5 stars More of a History Book
I found this book somewhat interesting, but like so many books I read, I found the topic was not exactly what I was expecting. Read more
Published 5 months ago by John Schmelzle
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More About the Author

Lee Billings is a journalist and author based in New York City who writes about the intersections of science, technology, and culture for Nature, Nautilus, New Scientist, the New York Times, Popular Mechanics, Scientific American, and many other publications.

His first book, Five Billion Years of Solitude, chronicles the scientific quest to discover other Earth-like planets elsewhere in the universe.

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