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

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Length: 305 pages Word Wise: Enabled

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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

  • File Size: 2074 KB
  • Print Length: 305 pages
  • Publisher: Current; Reprint edition (October 3, 2013)
  • Publication Date: October 3, 2013
  • Sold by: Penguin Group (USA) LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00C5R76XK
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #130,670 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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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.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

50 of 53 people found the following review helpful By Paul A. Gilster on 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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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Shalom Freedman HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on October 24, 2013
Format: Hardcover
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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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By David C. Mosher on 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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