The first planet around a sunlike star was finally detected in 1995, after decades of false alarms. It was inevitable that within a couple of years a flood of books on extrasolar planets would gush forth. Michael Lemonick is the senior science writer at Time magazine, and his account is the most readable and vivid yet. He has a fluid, anecdotal style, with a good ear for the sort of simile that really speaks to the average reader, as when he describes hooking up a radio telescope being like "setting up a new computer yourself. Sometimes it just plain doesn't work, and you can't for the life of you figure out why."
Lemonick structures Other Worlds around Geoff Marcy and Paul Butler, whose Extrasolar Planet Search Project at the University of California, San Francisco, is the most successful program so far, with six planet discoveries to its credit by the end of 1998. Lemonick's other touchstone is the Drake Equation, which he hyperbolically calls "the second most important equation of the century." If we could fit in values for the seven terms in this equation, we could say something sensible about the number of civilizations in the galaxy. So far, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has not come up with any actual data, but, as one researcher says, it's "the world's biggest carrot," and worth enduring a considerable number of sticks. --Mary Ellen Curtin
From Publishers Weekly
When the discoveries of the first-confirmed extra-solar planets and evidence for ancient life in a meteorite from Mars were announced within six months of each other in 1996, a spate of titles on the subject of life in the universe became inevitable. Fortunately, this "work of journalism rather than... scholarship," as described by Lemonick (The Light at the Edge of the Universe), senior science writer at Time, favors careful reporting over sensationalism, conveying extraordinarily well both the excitement and the challenge of the famous Drake Equation, which makes a concise mathematical prediction of the number of intelligent, communicating civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy. Lemonick explores the Drake Equation term by term, describing in clear and engrossing detail both the human and scientific stories of the technological wizards, like San Francisco State scientists Geoff Marcy and Paul Butler, whose work has taken us to the edge of discovery of other Earth-like worlds, using spectroscopy, the projected NGST (Next Generation Space Telescope) and other innovative technologies and methodologies. Although cautious readers may argue with Lemonick's prediction that we may have proof within a decade or two of life on other planets, few would dispute the power of his energetic work to carry readers to the frontier of scientific knowledge, technological creativity and human curiosity.
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