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Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe

168 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0387952895
ISBN-10: 0387952896
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Editorial Reviews Review

"Do you feel lucky? Well do ya?" asked Dirty Harry. Paleontologist Peter Ward and astronomer Donald Brownlee think all of us should feel lucky. Their rare Earth hypothesis predicts that while simple, microbial life will be very widespread in the universe, complex animal or plant life will be extremely rare. Ward and Brownlee admit that "It is very difficult to do statistics with an N of 1. But in our defense, we have staked out a position rarely articulated but increasingly accepted by many astrobiologists."

Their new science

is the field of biology ratcheted up to encompass not just life on Earth but also life beyond Earth. It forces us to reconsider the life of our planet as but a single example of how life might work, rather than as the only example.

The revolution in astrobiology during the 1990s was twofold. First, scientists grew to appreciate how incredibly robust microbial life can be, found in the superheated water of deep-sea vents, pools of acid, or even within the crust of the Earth itself. The chance of finding such simple life on other bodies in our solar system has never seemed more realistic. But second, scientists have begun to appreciate how many unusual factors have cooperated to make Earth a congenial home for animal life: Jupiter's stable orbit, the presence of the Moon, plate tectonics, just the right amount of water, the right position in the right sort of galaxy. Ward and Brownlee make a convincing if depressing case for their hypothesis, undermining the principle of mediocrity (or, "Earth isn't all that special") that has ruled astronomy since Copernicus. --Mary Ellen Curtin --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Renowned paleontologist Ward (Univ. of Washington), who has authored numerous books and articles, and Brownlee, a noted astronomer who has also researched extraterrestrial materials, combine their interests, research, and collaborative thoughts to present a startling new hypothesis: bacterial life forms may be in many galaxies, but complex life forms, like those that have evolved on Earth, are rare in the universe. Ward and Brownlee attribute Earth's evolutionary achievements to the following critical factors: our optimal distance from the sun, the positive effects of the moon's gravity on our climate, plate tectonics and continental drift, the right types of metals and elements, ample liquid water, maintainance of the correct amount of internal heat to keep surface temperatures within a habitable range, and a gaseous planet the size of Jupiter to shield Earth from catastrophic meteoric bombardment. Arguing that complex life is a rare event in the universe, this compelling book magnifies the significanceAand tragedyAof species extinction. Highly recommended for all public and academic libraries.AGloria Maxwell, Penn Valley Community Coll. Lib., Kansas City
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 338 pages
  • Publisher: Copernicus (December 10, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0387952896
  • ISBN-13: 978-0387952895
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.8 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (168 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #50,999 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

297 of 313 people found the following review helpful By Duwayne Anderson on April 5, 2000
Format: Hardcover
There is a long tradition among humans that we are not aloneinthe universe - that there are other worlds with other intelligentbeings such as ourselves. This tradition is found in many religions and embodied in some scientific thought. The late Carl Sagan, for example, surmised the existence of one million civilizations capable of interstellar communications in the Milky Way galaxy. Ward and Brownlee take exception to these estimates. According to the authors, microbial life is common in the universe "but even the simplest animal life is exceedingly rare." Instead of millions of such civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy there might be just a few. There might be just one.
One of the things I liked most about this book its very nice summary of the history of earth. Chapter 1 has some interesting information about recent discoveries regarding the environments in which extremophiles live. It might seem incredible to us, but extremophiles actually thrive in very high temperatures, pressures, and pH levels that we would find terribly fatal. The wide range of environments in which the simplest life forms can live gives rise to the greater probability of finding them throughout the universe. Extremophiles not only thrive in such environments, they can also tolerate brief forays into space aboard debris ejected from meteor impacts, and they can escape harsh surface conditions by living deep under ground.
The second chapter introduces us to the concept of habitable zones. For extremophiles the habitable zones are quite large, so planets harboring such life can be found in a wider range of orbits around a wider range of stars. More complex life, however, requires far smaller ranges in environmental conditions, leading to a much-reduced habitable zone.
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123 of 129 people found the following review helpful By M. A Michaud on January 21, 2002
Format: Hardcover
This is one of the most wide-ranging and readable of all science books aimed at a non-specialist audience. The authors raise Big Questions in astronomy, planetary evolution, geology, climatology, ecology, and biological evolution, reminding us of how interdisciplinary the extraterrestrial life debate really is. The vast array of subjects they address could make this book an ideal discussion text for a course designed to introduce non-scientists to scientific issues and methods. The book, at least in its hardback edition, has an uncrowded format that makes it easy to read.
Ward and Brownlee accumulate a lengthy series of arguments in support of their position that, while simple life may be relatively common, complex life is rare. At first glance, these arguments seem persuasive. However, a closer reading reveals that the authors sometimes tilt the debate in their favor by choosing the argument that best supports their case even when the evidence is very limited or ambiguous, e.g. their statement that plate tectonics "may be vanishingly rare in the Universe as a whole." How can they know this when our sample is limited to our own solar system? Sometimes, the authors make unsupported blanket generalizations, e.g. "On every planet, sooner or later, a planetary catastrophe can be expected that either seriously threatens the existence of animal life or wipes it out altogether." Stating that "it just seems to have been by chance that our Jupiter formed as it did" is hardly scientific. Oddly, after stating that SETI is a futile effort if their hypothesis is correct, the authors go on to say that "There probably are other civilizations in the galaxy that have radio telescopes." In the end, the fundamental limitation to such arguments is that they are based on the only biosphere we know -- our own.
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80 of 88 people found the following review helpful By Bucherwurm on April 28, 2000
Format: Hardcover
These two authors have written a highly informative book to support their thesis that we might well be the only multi-celled organisms in the universe. It should be stressed that Ward and Brownlee feel strongly that there are probably simple, bacteria like creatures on other planets, but nothing more complex. This is a most interesting book even if you do not agree with their hypotheses. It provides an entertaining and accessible summary of the biological, cosmological, and geological science involved in the development of our home planet. W&B feel that the necessary conditions for complex life are so numerous that few, if any, planets elsewhere could meet the requirements.
Read this book and see: 1. Why the moon and Jupiter are essential for our existence. 2. Why a system of plate tectonics is vital for the development of life forms. 3. The effects that mass extinctions have had on evolution. 4. Why life may have originated in the deep ocean near hydrothermal vents. 5. Why earth is very lucky to be located on the far edge of our galaxy.
For the scientific oriented layman this book is a true gem.
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38 of 41 people found the following review helpful By Paul Castonguay on March 5, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This is the best book that I have seen on the subject of extraterrestrial life and the possibility of its occurrence beyond our solar system in a long time. In order to make the most accurate prediction possible the book makes use of the strongest evidence we have to date, our knowledge of our own solar system. Using very wide breadth, the authors rationalize the following simple theme, "The occurrence of simple microbial life is pervasive in the universe, but the occurrence of more complex, multi-cellular life is not.
From this book I now realize that the number of natural phenomena affecting the possible occurrence and evolution of complex life in one of our neighboring stars is far greater than I ever imagined. I thank the authors for enlightening me on this subject. Perhaps in future I won't be as disappointed as I was during the first Viking landing. I really did think they would find vegetation on Mars, and I'm still upset about it.
The authors of "Rare Earth" present their subject very well, although perhaps not in a style that would excite the average public, as did Carl Sagan and Issac Isamov in their science books. Indeed, I recommend that the authors of this text consider rewriting it in a more popular form, with plenty of illustrations. Hey, people love pictures, myself included.
The controversy between the people at SETI and the authors is unfortunate. I believe both sides have a lot to gain from each other's work. In my opinion it was a mistake for the authors to have included, near the very end of the book, references to SETI. The antagonism created was predictable. I myself am a participant in the seteathome project, having completed 225 work units so far.
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