Are we alone, literally freaks of nature, just one planet of living, breathing things amidst a seemingly infinite, lifeless desert? This is one of the big questions posed by human nature, one that we have traditionally looked to religion to answer, but that is now coming within the grasp of science. Despite--or perhaps because--of this, we find increasing opposition to allocating resources to space exploration. Biochemist Robert Shapiro is an unabashed supporter of this research, and his book Planetary Dreams: The Quest to Discover Life Beyond Earth is both a compelling response to the stay-at-homes and a pleasantly readable overview of what we know and don't know about the origin of life here and elsewhere.
Contrasting those who believe in special creation or a cosmic fluke that produced life only once with adherents to a life principle that favors its development wherever conditions suffice, Shapiro suggests that the best way to resolve the issue is simple: let's go looking. He feels that the importance of this question to most people has been underrated by those who (nobly) want to meet our basic needs here on earth before we take off for new worlds, and that we can accommodate everyone by shifting burdens of research funding and reinspiring the public with a new emphasis on this work as a search for meaning. Whether or not his ideas will move us forward, the lively, thoughtful Planetary Dreams is one of the best starting points for learning about the search for the origins of life here and, maybe, out there. --Rob Lightner
From Publishers Weekly
Controversy rages in scientific circles over where next we should search for life in our solar system. Some argue that Mars is still the likeliest place to harbor life, despite the maddeningly inconclusive results to date, while others advocate probing the moons of Jupiter. Shapiro (Life Beyond Earth, etc.) uses his background in biochemistry to ponder the possibility that life exists on other worlds and to posit the best places to find it. He presents a convincing case that bizarre creatures may be found in the ammonia clouds swirling around Jupiter or high in the noxious sulfuric acid clouds that choke Venus. Going further than most authors in the field, Shapiro examines the possibility of life forms not dependent on oxygen and water. Unfortunately, his book isn't as well organized or as rigorous as some other recent books on the subject, such as John Lewis's Worlds Without End (1998). Shapiro dawdles through three introductory chapters before getting down to the substance of his book, and many of his digressions into fantasy scenarios and discussions of creation science add little to his argument. At times, though, Shapiro's teaching skills shine through; his use of imaginary scale models to explain distances, for example, conveys superbly the almost unimaginable vastness of space. 8-page color insert. Agent, Katinka Matson.
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