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First Contact: Scientific Breakthroughs in the Hunt for Life Beyond Earth Hardcover – April 5, 2011
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From Publishers Weekly
In this century, predicts Kaufman, scientists will find evidence of life somewhere in the universe. It's an arresting idea, and Kaufman delivers an entertaining look at the science supporting it. Astrobiologists, who study the possible forms that extraterrestrial life may take, are "part Carl Sagan, part Indiana Jones, part Watson and Crick, part CSI," Kaufman notes. Their interdisciplinary work requires interlocking knowledge of physics, astrophysics, biology, chemistry, and planetary geology. Microbes we've found living in extreme habitats once believed to be inhospitable to life—glaciers, geysers, deep mines and caves, and volcanoes— prove that we must expand our ideas about what makes something "alive." So the only reason we haven't found life on other planets or moons before, Kaufman says, is that we haven't known what to look for. Carbon-based life is possible elsewhere, either seeded by meteorites made of organic carbon or created by vibrant lightning-fed chemistry, but extraterrestrial life is more likely to be very different from us. Taking readers from the South Pole to the northernmost tip of Norway, from the world's deepest mines to Mars, Kaufman explores the science that may change the human perspective more than anything that came before. 8 pages of color photos. (Apr.)
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“An up-to-the-minute look at the frontiers of the search for life outside Earth… Kaufman provides an invaluable summary of the current state of research into extraterrestrial life. An excellent preview of what may be the next big scientific breakthrough.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“Marc Kaufman traveled to the ends of the Earth to report this fascinating, awe-inspiring, and accessible book. Are we alone in the universe? Almost certainly not. Kaufman leaves the reader with a lucid sense of what we know and where the next wave of discovery will take place.”
—Steve Coll, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of Ghost Wars
“In First Contact, journalist Marc Kaufman reveals how the extremes of life on Earth illuminate our search for life in the universe. Along the way, Kaufman invokes crisp, clear, and engaging narrative that, at times, leaves you to think you were conducting the research yourself.”
—Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist, American Museum of Natural History and author of The Pluto Files
“The search for life beyond Earth has now become the big scientific quest of our age. Kaufman skillfully weaves personal narrative and technical exposition to guide the reader through the challenges, both scientific and philosophical, that confront astrobiological researchers. An immensely readable book, infused with the thrill of the chase.”
—Paul Davies, author of The Eerie Silence and The Goldilocks Enigma
“Writing with cinematic clarity, Marc Kaufman provides a masterful, gripping tour along the frontiers of the search for extraterrestrial life and shows how this quest is inextricably linked with the struggle to understand life on Earth. As he transports readers from the parboiled netherworld of a South African platinum mine to Earth’s coldest, driest extremes, from an Alaskan volcano crackling with energy to microscopic Martian landscapes and ultimately to the ends of the cosmos, Kaufman brings into vivid focus the triumphs and frustrations of scientists as fascinating as the bizarre life forms they study.”
—Kathy Sawyer, author of The Rock from Mars
“Marc Kaufman brings to life the broad and increasingly successful effort by scientists to find signs of life beyond Earth. It's an exciting read about a scientific venture that will no doubt surprise and intrigue many people—especially when he takes us to incredibly exotic locations. Space, it seems, is the next frontier not only for exploration, but quite likely for learning about life as well.”
—Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors
“Marc Kaufman, a world-class reporter whose writing is clear and clean, is just the right author for First Contact. I found this book as thrilling as it is illuminating, as he takes us around the Earth and off into space in search of the beginnings of life here and probably elsewhere.”
—David Maraniss, author of They Marched into Sunlight and When Pride Still Mattered
"Fascinating . . . While genuine alien life, in any form, has yet to reveal itself, Kaufman’s tantalizing tour of the research that could achieve this breakthrough makes engrossing reading."
“With a child’s curiosity and a reporter’s skill, Kaufman delivers a concise, thorough, and utterly fascinating summary of the search for life elsewhere in the universe—and what it means for life on Earth. If you’ve ever wondered about life beyond Earth, let Marc Kaufman introduce you to the men and women who are searching for it. His explanations will make the night sky seem more vivid and the very life around you seem more improbable and precious.”
—Susan West, former executive editor of Smithsonian
“The range of this new field of astrobiology is exhilarating, and even though scientists are still learning how to sort out the hard science from the understandably infectious enthusiasm, getting to ride along with Kaufman is an expansive joy.” --The Washington Post
Top customer reviews
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And in "First Contact," Marc Kaufman offers a rich and satisfying discussion of the ambiguity of the Viking lander's results when it ran a suite of tests to look for life in Martian soil. And he makes a fascinating case for the argument that it actually did find life.
Kaufman writes about Gil Levin, the scientist who designed an experiment that scooped up Martian soil, squirted nutrients into it that had been labeled with radioactive carbon-14, and waited to see if gases were emitted that carried that radioactive label.
If labeled gases were emitted, it would suggest that some microbe had eaten the nutrient and emitted a waste product. And in fact, that was exactly what was detected: a surge of radioactive carbon dioxide. As a control, the soil was then baked to high temperatures in an effort to kill off anything that might be living, and then the nutrients were added again. This time, no carbon dioxide appeared. It looked very much like a confirmation. Something in the soil had been alive, now it wasn't.
However, other tests carried on Viking, such as one for organic molecules, were negative. Faced with these conflicting results, a consensus formed that Levin's results had to be from some chemical rather than biological process. But ever since, Levin has been arguing that these other tests were flawed. He's shown that the organic-molecules test couldn't detect the low concentrations that are now known to be capable of supporting life. I'd thought the Viking results were closed, but Kaufman shows that they are very much open. There is a real possibility that Viking found what it was sent to find.
Kaufman also writes about extremophiles, the apparent fossils of bacteria on the Murchison and ALH84001 meterorites, shadow biospheres, and exoplanets. "First Contact" is a fascinating book that goes more deeply into the nitty-gritty science of astrobiology than any other book I've read. This is a fast-emerging field and "First Contact" is an essential introduction to what's going on in labs today.
It reminds me of newspaper articles about complex subjects that begin with an anecdote, like an article on the national unemployment rate that begins with a paragraph on some random guy in the heartland looking for work. If you like those personal anecdotes you'll probably like the style of this book. If you think those anecdotes are spongy filler and are impatient to get to the substance of an article then his newspaper style of writing might wear on you.
It's not a bad book, if you didn't know anything about astrobiology it would be a decent introduction to the subject, but I've read much better science books by other authors who also weren't scientists. I'd suggest waiting for the paperback.
Most recent customer reviews
"Before the end of this century, and perhaps much sooner than that, scientists will determine that life exists elsewhere in the universe.Read more